Inquiring Minds: Great Big Sea's Bob Hallett On The Violent Ocean, Sea Chanteys, Celtic Traditions And Newfoundland's Punk Scene

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Newfoundland, now officially known as the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, was the first bit of North American soil encountered by European explorers. Ever since, the rest of the continent has left the rocky island in the far North Atlantic, and its hardy natives who mostly eke out a living from the ocean (fishing, whaling, oil, etc.), pretty much alone. Since it was largely settled by people from the British Isles and Northern Europe, and the island is so isolated, traditional Celtic music took root hard and fast and, even as modernity encroached, has never gone away. Today it lives on in Newfoundland's most successful musical export, Great Big Sea, who combine Celtic tradition and sea chanteys with driving, spiritual rock - think a slightly more earnest version of the Waterboys and you're almost there. Great Big Sea, which formed in the early '90s, may not be well-known this far south, but the band has sold more than a million albums in Canada and has been nominated for several Juno awards, that country's equivalent to a Grammy. Aiming to broaden their horizons (and ours), Great Big Sea plays House of Blues Sunday evening, and Rocks Off spoke with accordion player, fiddler and mandolinist Bob Hallett from far-off St. John's earlier this week. RO: I think you may be the first person from Newfoundland I've ever actually talked to. Bob Hallett: That would not surprise me. There aren't a lot of us. And those of us who exist, not many of us go into entertainment. Of if they are, not the sort you pay for. RO: I was reading up on Newfoundland and it seems pretty remote. Is there a part of the U.S. it's similar to at all? BH: Geographically and climactically, probably no, but in terms of isolation and being a place where characters come from, for lack of a better world, perhaps Alaska. I mean, Newfoundland is probably more attractive to Canadians than Alaska. It's the sort of place people want to go because it's so remote and doesn't really feel like anywhere else. RO: What do you think it is about the sea that inspires so many musicians to write songs about it? BH: For us, growing up here in Newfoundland, the sea is not benign the way it is in Florida or somewhere like that in the Southern U.S. where you'd swim in it or sail in a boat or search for seashells on the shore. The sea here is very cold and almost violent in terms of being stormy, with waves and cliffs and crashing rocks and that sort of thing. The ocean is where people work. In fishing villages and small towns along the coast like what I grew up in, the houses don't even face the water. They face inland, because the sea is something fearsome. So for us, it's kind of a love/hate relationship. We'd never write a song like "Margaritaville," you know. The ocean for us is a bit terrifying. RO: A lot of the band's music is based on sea chanteys. What are a few of the better-known ones, or what are a few of your favorites? BH: Some we perform almost every night. One is a song called "Excursion Around the Bay," which is a singalong song about an excursion, like a day trip that goes awry (chuckles). Another one that we do frequently is a song called "Donkey Riding," which is what they call a captain's chantey. In other words, some sea chanteys were sung just for entertainment, but captain's chanteys are a way of coordinating sailors and their work. So even though the job that the song was invented to coordinate is gone, the song remains, which never ceases to interest me. Chanteys have this sort of amazing singalong quality, and one of the reasons they draw people in is they were designed to be sung by a large group of people, and they had very sort of repetitive and engaging melodies because they were a way of coordinating work as much as anything else. When you need 100 men to pull something in a very specific way at a very specific time, a song is a better way of doing it than saying "All right, when I count to four, everybody do this, and when I count another four everybody do that." The jobs those songs required are long gone, but people enjoyed the music so much that the songs remained.

RO: How did they become entertainment?

BH: I think that in Newfoundland anyway, until quite recently, the last 25 years, entertainment from the rest of the world, or at least the sort of electronic entertainment that passes for entertainment these days, didn't exist. Even when I was a kid, we had one channel on the TV, which depended on the weather. So as a result, people still entertained themselves, and they had to grasp whatever was available to them. Newfoundland where I grew up was very isolated and very, very poor, so people didn't have plays and great paintings and great works of opera and these other kinds of Western art forms to entertain themselves. What they did have was music and poetry and stories, so they held very closely to ones they liked and they developed those art forms in a surprisingly elaborate way for what was a very simple people living a very rough lifestyle.

RO: What are some of the local myths or stories Great Big Sea tell in your music?

BH: The mythology of Newfoundland is all about courage and laughter in the face of heard times. A lot of the songs we sing, like the one that gave us our name, "Great Big Sea," is a very humorous song. If you listen to the lyrics on one level, it's very amusing - the sea washes in and various things happen at the house. It's a bit of a domestic comedy. Then when you look underneath it, you realize what they're actually talking about is quite a serious event, where a tidal wave swept into the community and washed all the houses away. That's not funny at all, you know? There's another song we sing called "Lukey's Boat," which again describes in humorous terms a man who is very poor and has this terrible boat, his wife's dead and all this. The melody and the lyrics are very light and very happy, but then you realize again that the subject matter is quite grim. The central story of Newfoundland is always laughter in the face of hardship, or laughter in the face of hard times. That's sort of the main story that we tell to audiences over and over again.

RO: How strong an influence is Celtic culture up there?

BH: In Newfoundland, until quite recently [Celtic music] was popular music. To a degree unknown elsewhere in North America, it still is. Traditional music was something that people played in their homes. It was also something that was played on the radio and music that people bought in stores and that children learned in the home. People still learn to perform and play here at a very young age, and as a result of that, traditional music has never become something that's been learned as a hobby or something you have to go to a church basement to learn on Sunday morning with a funny costume. The No. 2 radio station here plays nothing else but traditional music. It's ubiquitous in society and the popular culture here in a way that it isn't anywhere else. I grew up in a world where pop music and traditional music were not completely different things. We just took that for granted as children, but you realize now that that was a very unusual situation, at least in the broader North American culture, where traditional music and folk music is pushed to the far fringes of social life.

RO: How did Great Big Sea catch on with the rest of Canada?

BH: Two factors. One, there was a brief burst of media interest in - I hate to use the word Celtic; that's not the word we would use - but that kind of thing, due to Riverdance and whatnot. That kind of gave us a toe in the door. The other factor is that we had this huge repertoire of interesting folk and traditional music that was literally unheard outside of our own backyards. So whereas people who would grow up in Austin or whatever might not necessarily be able to draw on this huge folk tradition that was unknown yet fascinating, we were able to do that. That was the two big factors, plus a fairly brutal work ethic. We wanted it really bad, too, so we drove around the continent in a station wagon for ten years. Lots of people say they want to do that, but, you know, after a year or two they change their minds.

RO: How long does it actually take to drive across Canada?

BH: To drive from here to Vancouver would take me a good two weeks. That would be a series of 12-hour days.

RO: Has the band toured much in the States? How often do you get down this way?

BH: I would say it's about three-quarters of our time these days. We haven't spent much time in Texas for complex reasons, but we have toured widely in most of America for the better part of a decade. Despite operating completely under the media radar, at least in terms of things like


, we've been able to amass a massive audience in the United States to the point where we're headlining big festivals on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

RO: What kind of festivals?

BH: The big outdoor sheds, like Wolftrap in Washington, Millennium [Park] in Chicago, lots of Celtic and Irish festivals all over the continent. Again, it's a case of really hard work and amassing an audience through word of mouth and personal contact. It takes a long time, but it also creates a level of loyalty and interest in the band.

RO: But you haven't been to Texas much.

BH: No. The main reason is it's just so far from where we live. Most of our tours, due to the Byzantine tax regime under which we operate, require us to drive from border cities, so most of our tours start in Buffalo or St. Croix, Maine, places that are relatively accessible from where we live. Texas becomes an unbelievable haul from there (laughs). What's unusual about this tour is we're actually starting in Dallas, which is pretty much unheard of for us.

RO: Tell me a little about your previous band, the Newfoundland Republican Army.

BH: I personally came out of the hardcore punk scene in St. John's. St. John's is very European in outlook and accent, as you can hear, so punk rock took hold here and thrived when it was still a bit of a joke elsewhere in North America. We took the whole do-it-yourself political agenda very seriously, and when I started moving more into traditional music, it was sort of natural to take some of that - how do I put it? - aggro along with me (laughs). It looked good on paper, but honestly, Newfoundland Republican Army was a bit of an unwieldy operation.

RO: Is there any of that spirit, if not quite the sound, in Great Big Sea?

BH: The spirit is there. I wouldn't say we're particularly political. Canadian politics would be an entire interview. The way politics operates in Canada is very, very different from the way it operates in America, particularly in Newfoundland. But certainly the idea of do it yourself and take control of your situation has been Great Big Sea's mantra from day one. Plus that kind of approach to performing, where you're trying to get people engaged and involved. We're not one of these folk bands that just sits there and plays a concert like the Chieftains. Our concerts are something where people definitely have to deal with us and participate in, and that makes a big difference. That definitely comes out of our punk ideals.

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