Some stories grow in the telling, not because there’s any fish involved, but simply because the events begin to sprawl out over time. What starts as a chance meeting and a straightforward introduction can unravel over a year, especially when the facts were never all that certain in the first place. Such is the case of Murder Murder, the east coast band from Ontario.
This all started back in June – not even June of this year, but the summer before that, when the band, their van, their trailer, and all their gear, pull up along side the stage, and uncoincidently myself along with it, just before their set at Folly Fest. They had very recently made themselves famous, or at least very well known within certain circles which I couldn’t seem to escape as they relentlessly toured the Maritime provinces.
We hadn’t actually met before, but even at the height of summer the they were still readily identifiable, mostly thanks to what is clearly one of most impressive candid photos ever taken of a band. The photograph features them dressed in their Sunday best, or whatever passes for it as far as mountain men are concerned. It had made the rounds, and was posted outside nearly every tavern from here to Sydney.
As I stood there watching them unload their trailer of whisky and what were surely saddlebags full of black powder, one of the band members spotted me lounging against the stage wall. He was clearly sizing me up, and I was determinedly pretending to flip through my notes from the weekend. It had been a long and largely incoherent one. We were well into the festival and I was battling to stay upright after falling asleep on the beach the day before, leaving me sun stroked and a bit addled.
He looked me over with what was presumably a murderous glint in his eyes. “Are you Jeff?” he asked in a way that sounded friendly enough, but he looked tense, and I could see his hand reaching for something within one of the saddlebags. I most certainly was not Jeff, and I wasn’t looking for trouble either.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that, but I knew how to handle the situation. “No, I’m not Jeff,” I told him. He relaxed his hand and withdrew it from the bag with what I could have sworn was an audible click. I hadn’t blinked, but he was looking past me now as one of the sound geeks was waving the band towards the stage.
He didn’t look back as he shouldered the saddlebag and lurched for the stage, but in a moment of gut driven instinct I thrust out a hand holding my business card as some manner of insurance. Just in case he came back looking for me he now had reason to keep me alive: even the most murderous of musicians can’t resist a bit of good press.
“We’ll talk. After the show.” There was nothing in his voice that suggested I had any choice in the matter.
I quickly consider making a run for it, slipping away while they’re still on stage, but now he had my card – my address. I had only meant to buy myself a window of escape, or perhaps ingratiate myself a little bit. I wondered if I could find whoever this Jeff person was, and offer him up as some sort of sacrifice in my place. No doubt if they were already looking for him he was the sort of person to get to mixed up in just these kinds of situations.
I still had the rest of the festival to cover, but weighing three days of interviews and a weekend pass against my physical wellbeing didn’t quite tip the scale. ‘Maybe they just want to talk after all,’ I told myself as I searched my immediate area for any other possibilities. Was that dried blood on the bumper of their van?! I began considering far less pleasant possibilities as I fixated on this bit of rust coloured chrome.
Then it was over. The music and the murmur of the dispersing crowd had already trailed off as they made for other parts of the festival and I sat there in the dark and the silence. I wasn’t alone.
“Well… Alex. Let’s talk then,” came that voice from out of the dark. He had my card in his hand, and the way he said my name sounded so much more sinister than Jeff’s. Jeff sounded like a close friend at this point. I wished I was Jeff.
At some point in my life I had been told it was more noble to die standing on one’s feet, and so I stood up. I wished I hadn’t. The stars immediately began swimming towards my knees and the contents of my stomach felt like they were about to leave without me. It occurred to me that if I were to die just then I’d be right back on the ground where I started and it would have been for nothing. But in that moment I was upright, and supposedly there’s something to be said for that. So I said, “Alright, let’s talk. Where are you from?”
My head was a little more certain of where my feet were, and the forms around me were beginning to distinguish themselves from the moat of black between us. There were six of them. Six. And not a horn player among them. This wasn’t a band, it was a mob.
“Sudbury. Ontario.” said one of the forms and I inwardly sighed in relief. That was going to be the end of it – the point where I got to step off.
“Sorry fellas,” I said, easing a foot through a gap in the wall they had formed around me. “We only cover Maritime musicians. I’m afraid I can’t help you.” I had the better part of a leg worked free now and was trying to wedge my shoulders through an inky point in that threatening mass. My mind was already onto more pleasant thoughts, and imagining a new life for myself far, far away from there when a hand clamped down on my shoulder. The hand belonged to a big, dark looking, bearded fellow. His grip on my should also made it pretty clear that it now belonged to him too.
“We want to be honorary Maritimers,” he said. I couldn’t tell if this was the band’s ring-leader or not. I’d later learn this was Jon Danyliw, but they all meant business. “Start the petition. Just say how many times we have to come out. What do we need to do? Say it’s twenty tours and it works out? It’s fine, we’ll get there soon enough.”
He said this in complete sincerity, which is an unnerving characteristic to find in someone that you’re fairly certain intends to cause you bodily harm. But ‘soon enough’? What could that mean? The way it ominously lumbered out of his mouth, it might have been dialogue pulled directly from a Scorsese film.
“Think about it,” he said. “We know how to find you.”
I did. I thought about it from that moment when they packed up their trailer and drove off. I lost sleep over it. It invaded the small moments of my life where, prior to that encounter, I would have taken time for quiet reflection. I lived with a perpetual sense of dread that at any moment this band – a band who chose to strictly perform ballads that romanticized murder – might just show up at my house looking to make it their permanent place of residence.
But time heals all wounds, or at the very least makes one a little forgetful. Four months went by without my doorway being darkened by any bloodthirsty banjo players, and little by little, life moved on. I grew lax, and stopped living my life constantly looking over my shoulder. I started sleeping with both of my eyes closed after the third month. They were off in Ontario, which might as well have been another planet, and I was as safe as 1400 km could make me.
Then I received a message. They were coming. I couldn’t tell if the forewarned notice was meant as a courtesy or as a tactic intentionally meant to send me into a panic. The band had a show scheduled the following evening at the pub in town, and wouldn’t I just happen to be free if they were to pop around for a bit of a chat?
I had never in my life been so relieved by a scheduling conflict. That would certainly be the end of that, I thought.
“Saturday? Couldn’t possibly. Long standing commitment. Annual thing. No way around it. Big event. Very public. Crowds. Loads of people. You wouldn’t like it at all.” It was entirely true. Our annual cider making party was coming up. It had been in the works for weeks. The food was organized, the apples had been delivered, and the event posted.
The event had been posted. I thought of it too late. “Don’t worry about us, we love cider! Exactly the sort of thing we’re into.”
“Of course, that apple pomace makes for great pig feed. Probably comes in handy in your line of work,” I offered, trying to keep the mood light but mostly to hide my panic. No reaction. I figured it had to either be part of their regular workaday routine or they’re using an entirely different method.
“Never mind. We’ll be there. Tomorrow afternoon.”
Again I found myself torn between obligation and my own personal safety. The cider making had long ago fallen into a routine though, my job has been simplified down to showing up early, cleaning the grinder and press, greeting the guests, and then laying into the cider. On this occasion I started with the cider first, and by the time the band showed up in their van I was already into the whisky.
There were only three of them, at least three of them that I could see. Danyliw was back, so were Sam Cassio and Geoff McCausland. They strolled through the gate like they owned the place. I asked them where the rest of the band were.
“Not here. Couldn’t make it,” said McCausland. “That alright with you?” Wouldn’t have mattered if it weren’t. I scanned the far edges of the field, trying to catch figures hidden in the tree-line or maybe the glint of a gun barrel. There were better places for an ambush. Maybe they had other plans for me, or else they simply weren’t in the mood for it just then. It did occur then that they might genuinely be interested in being interviewed, or at least half interested judging by their numbers. I wished I hadn’t drank so much whisky.
The trio spotted the crowd mingling around the cider press and pushed past me. Apparently they found a natural attraction in the noise and the mean action of the apple grinder. It could chew up a basket of apples in a matter of seconds, and there’s no doubt it could do the same to a human hand. They muscled in on the machine, pushing aside the crowd that had gathered around it, and soon enough they got to hooting and hollering as they tossed apples in by the bushel. The grinder’s teeth accepted all of them in its seemingly infinite appetite, and they hollered all the more for it. It was as if they’d found one of their own.
“Look, what you got to drink around here?” they began asking. I considered the implications of offering them any booze, but decided it might just be best to keep them peaceable. I grabbed some whisky and cider, and tried to shuffle some of the children into the relative safety of the barn at the same time. There wasn’t much telling which way this would go. The trio each downed a glass of both, and I took the occasion to help myself to another whisky as well. I wished I hadn’t. One of the boys dashed off to retrieve something from the van, and returned with a whole sling of bottles.
Apparently they’d worked up a mighty thirst crushing apples, and now were determined to drink. Heads poked out from the barn, as the three of them made for the farmhouse with me in tow. I was at least happy to get them away from the crowds, but slightly concerned to be herded off into isolation.
We landed at the kitchen table, followed by the thud of bottles, and the smaller clinking of several glasses. The farmhouse was otherwise empty, and silent but for the crackle of the wood stove.
“Drink,” they told me.
“What’s this?” I asked as they filled the glass in front of me with a clear, and most certainly alcoholic liquid.
“Moonshine.” Of course it was.
“We made it ourselves. If you don’t like this one, we’ve got pumpkin flavoured too.” Of course they did.
And so with glass tilted in salute, I relinquished what little remained of my humanity. The rest of what occurred that day was a blur, and would have been entirely forgotten if not for the disjointed and slurred conversation captured intermittently by my phone. The following is a loose transcription of what can only vaguely be made out from it, several of the quotes are too intelligible to properly attribute, but they were a good deal more talkative once into their cups.
The first thing said on the recording, and relatively early on in the afternoon is from fiddle-player Geoff McCausland, the one band member native to the east coast. Here he is breaking the ice with a tale of the band’s antics in Montreal:
“My grandfather passed away a few years ago in Montreal. After some ups and downs, finally it all ended. He has this crazy friend who was supposedly going to go take his remains and scatter them somewhere important to him. A couple of weeks ago I get a phone call. Apparently my grandfather’s remains are still there two years later. I guess there was an oversight. We thought he scattered – he thought we scattered. So we went and picked him up. I tried to throw some of him into the park in Papineau in Montreal. He lived in Montreal, he loved Montreal. Unfortunately I accidently threw bone fragments on some woman’s car.”
The trio then offer some insight into the nature of bloodgrass music, their chosen genre which blends bluegrass with the traditional themes of murder ballads. It has a fairly simple premise to it: someone is going to die, usually violently, and at the hands of a lover. The boys seem to have no lack of enthusiasm for their source of inspiration.
“A lot of the old murder ballads, and the ones that we’re trying to write too, they’re really just love songs, if you think about it. I think it’s the epitome of a love story if it ends in homicide. That I loved you so much I had to kill you. I was trying to think of how to take the murder ballad out its traditional context. The usual tales you hear: the slighted lover. I thought how are we going to do that, and I saw a tangled mess of bodies, and thought, ‘That’s a good idea!’”
“We thought it’d be funny to fill the whole three hour slot with only murder ballads […] I’ve always been attracted to the seedier stories, and the darker… they clearly don’t get much more darker than murder ballads. […] Being attracted to stories of the grotesque aspect of human nature, that being a thing to explore in art, that makes perfect sense. As passionate and perverted as romanticism can be in the human experience. When you hear a story like that told well, it leaves you with some catharsis. It’s the nature of tragedy.”
“There are some things I know about these men, some of which I wish I didn’t know. Sides of them I’ve seen. Parts of their bodies I’ve seen. There are things collectively we know that no one else can know either…”
One thing that was clear throughout the interview was that their desire to be recognized as an east coast band is genuine. They’ve logged the hours, touring here more often than most natural born Maritimers. They’ve also got an endearing trailer full of moonshine stocked well enough to last them through New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and some parts of Newfoundland.
“In the last eighteen months, this is our fifth tour here,” says McCausland. “We’ve done fifty or sixty dates in the last year and a half. Honestly, we’ve just toured the east coast so far. We’re going west for the first time in November. We just really like it here. We feel at home.”
“We’ve chipped away at it, and this was a conscious effort. After the first year of coming out here we hadn’t played one show in Toronto. On purpose,” says Cassio.
The rest of the recording is a hodgepodge of gibberish, muffled words, and the occasional bit of gunfire. Presumably they set out sometime after dark for their performance that evening, leaving me for dead.
The next day was hell, but the weeks that followed were a relief. I was shocked to have survived the whole ordeal. Left with little more than some emotional scaring and hours of recorded material less decipherable than the Voynich manuscript, I naively believed the whole thing to be safely behind me. Murder Murder had harmlessly wrapped up their stint on the east coast. The band even made an announcement that they’d be headed west. Their claim as an east coast band was forfeit! That was the end of that.
Then photos of the tour arrived. Almost a thousand kilometers outside of Winnipeg, between Brandon, Manitoba and Regina, Saskatchewan the band hit a freak snowstorm, or more accurately, it hit them. Their van, their trailer, and all of their gear were swept off the road with disastrous results. The trailer was torn apart, the van left on its side with its windows smashed in, and instruments littered the icy tundra. I frantically scanned the photos of the wreckage for survivors. Six. All six. Apparently besides the van itself and the tip of Kris’s guitar-finger, the only serious casualty was a ten litre bag of homemade wine.
Fate had stepped in and determined to keep the band from travelling westward. The band made it back to Winnipeg after a harrowing couple days of ill-timed rideshares, buses, taxis and trains. The condition of the van was absolutely terminal, but the band were all still kicking. News quickly spread that they were back home in Sudbury, cancelling the remainder of their western tour, and fundraising to get back on the road.
That was almost a year ago. In October they announced another east coast tour, and I’ve dreaded this day ever since.
26.10.16 Ottawa ON, Live! on Elgin
27.10.16 Montreal QC, Chez Mademoiselle
28.10.16 Montreal QC, Grumpy’s Bar
29.10.16 Saint John NB, Private Party
30.10.16 Moncton NB, Plan B
31.10.16 Moncton NB, Plan B
02.11.16 Saint John NB, Taco Pica
03.11.16 Halifax NS, The Seahorse
04.11.16 Antigonish NS, The Split Crow
05.11.16 Sydney NS, Governor’s Pub
07.11.16 Corner Brook NL, Swirsky’s
08.11.16 Norris Point NL, Julia Ann Walsh Centre
10.11.16 St.John’s NL, The Ship
11.11.16 Placentia NL, Star of the Sea
12.11.16 Conception Bay South, Shenanigans
13.11.16 St.John’s, Private Concert