It was a cold, dark night in October. The rain came raging down as the strong winds rattled the open stage. People huddled in umbrellas, slightly jigging in attempts to enjoy the sounds blaring from the monitors while keeping warm. No, this isn’t a scene from the latest erotic romance novel. This was the site of the first annual London Ontario Live Arts festival six years ago, when Cuff the Duke was just stepping into the forefront of the Canadian indie music scene.
“Oh yeah!” lead vocalist Wayne Petti recalls. “Oh my god, I feel old. It didn’t feel that long ago but it was, wasn’t it? It was raining and cold if I remember.”
Originally from Oshawa, Cuff the Duke has come a long way from its “indie darling” roots over the past ten years. Petti remembers how he and bass player Paul Lowman were writing songs in his parents’ basement and recording their first album Life Stories for Minimum Wage on those ADAT tapes that were once big in the 90s. Now they’re working with big producers like Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo, creating solid albums and truly establishing themselves as one of Canada’s biggest alt-country bands.
Where Cuff the Duke has really progressed, Petti mentions, is in their performance. “Well, it’s interesting. I was thinking about that recently, just the sort of evolution, especially with our live shows.” Petti says that in the beginning the band would always try to stand on the speakers and “do crazy shit.” Now they’ve toned it down just a tad. “Our focus of the live show became still energetic, but it became more about trying to perform well and challenge ourselves as musicians in a live setting and not just in a studio,” he adds.
Petti is no stranger to the studio. Six full-length albums later, every record has been different from its predecessor and Petti wouldn’t want it any other way. Cuff the Duke’s latest release, Union, is a dreamy collection of polished harmonies and super romantic lyrics, far removed from the broke as hell, old Western aesthetic songs of their past albums (although Petti reassures me that they still play the hasty Cuff the Duke classic “Take My Money and Run” almost every night). Considered the second part of a two-part album, the first being Morning Comes, Union is more electric-based as rather than layered acoustics. And with songs like “Stay” and “Side By Side,” which features yet another Canadian indie songbird Basia Bulat, you could tell it’s been almost exactly one year since the songwriter got married.
“It’s funny, you know, as a musician, most working Canadian musicians would tell you that I could write a ‘Take My Money and Run,’ like a song about being broke, on almost every record,” Petti laughs. “But at the time it felt perfect to do it… With Union I felt like it was time to be that personal and that sincere. I never had been before.”
Producing a record with a musician from a revered Canadian band like Blue Rodeo is a dream in itself. But producing in a farm through analog, remote from the digital noise and traffic, with a beautiful collection of old gear and tape is like studio nirvana. You have reached Enlightenment. While opening for Blue Rodeo in 2008, Petti and co. met Keelor and he invited them out to his place to record. “He just sort of said come hang out and record and see how you like it ’cus I think he became smitten with the band,” he laughs. At the time, Keelor’s farm studio was pure analog; you had to record with tape using old mics. One thing led to another and everything they recorded over those couple of days ended up on Cuff the Duke’s fourth LP Way Down Here in 2009. They decided to finish the record with Keelor.
“Personally I just really like working with him a lot,” Petti says about Keelor. “He gets where we’re coming from, he gets where I’m coming from. He’s a good producer because he understands being a songwriter and having a vision but he also understands the role of a producer.” In many respects, Keelor was and still is like a mentor to this Wilco-in-the-making band.
When asked whether Petti preferred recording analog or digital, he couldn’t decide. “I love them both. They both have advantages. I love the vibe of analog. It really helps you get the song down to its core. But digital, you have endless possibilities. Not only can you record as much as you want but you could also edit it and do all kinds of things… But that was kind of the beauty of making Way Down Here. We had eight tracks. It was literally like recording a band in 1966,” Petti adds.
It’s like choosing between Instagram versus DSLR; both methods produce stunning photos but provoke different images and moods depending on its final product. That very analogy can translate into sound, if you want to simplify analog versus digital recording. “It’s a nice way of creating a totally different vibe on the album, just by changing how it is that you recorded, how you record the songs or what not.”
But it doesn’t end there. After playing a slew of shows last month in Europe for the first time, Cuff the Duke is going back in June but not before they head to the East Coast for a few more show dates. Expect another covers EP coming out later this month as well as more experiments with sound and effects on guitars and vocals. “I would love the next record to be much more like psych-folk, a lot more psychedelic… The last couple records have been pretty straight up and I think it’d be nice to get a little more raw and a little weirder, get a little more creative in the studio.”