There really is no sound quite like the bagpipes for whipping up an array of emotions. And few people know this as well as Johnny McCuaig, who performs at Fratters Speakeasy on Jan. 16th.
He’s been playing bagpipes for many years, and as front man of the band McCuaig, he spent about a decade starting in 1998 serving up all kinds of electrifying tunes, with everything from funk, blues, rock to hints of reggae, ska and of course traditional bagpipe melodies.
The sounds were utterly unique, and after the band’s last CD, Vita, the guys had reached a point of needing a much-deserved break.
“After the Vita album came out, we toured and toured,” he recalls. “And we just got burned out; we were playing about 250 nights per year. All of us just knew we needed to take some time off, recharge and remember why we were playing.”
As time passed, he gradually came to the point where he knew it was time to explore his musical passion again.
“I decided to take a different approach. I thought, I’m going to do this on my own now – write everything and just get it happening.”
He’s venturing out as The Johnny McCuaig Band. And in just a couple of weeks, he’s also set to begin to record a new CD which will mark a new era of collaboration as the tracks take shape. “I’ve got a lot of momentum behind it which is fantastic,” says McCuaig, who hails from Nelson, B.C. “It’s a brand new chapter and a fresh beginning.
“I’m super excited about it, and just can’t wait to get it all out there.”
Today, he’s based in Regina and that’s where the recording will take place as well.
“I’ve enlisted the help of some Regina boys,” he said, adding that Juno Award-winner Jason Plumb will be handling production of the project. Plumb also fronted Canadian band The Waltons.
“He’s really taken me under his wing, and has shown me a lot in the studio and about songwriting – he’s a huge asset. And what a great guy to help me out this way. He’s really helping me with my songwriting and with progressing to the next level.”
Others contributing to the project include singer Casey Stone and Shaun Verreault of Wide Mouth Mason, who will be playing guitar on a track.
“I’m enlisting a lot of different musicians to come in and either sing or play on the tracks.”
It was during his elementary school days McCuaig’s own musical journey was launched.
By the time he was in Grade 6, with the amazing influences of some wonderful teachers, he was touring elementary schools with classmates putting on afternoon pop shows. He also discovered the lure of the bagpipes and has pretty much never looked back.
“My father wanted me, my sister and brother to all learn. It was something that was in my family,” he recalls. “We really took off with the pipes – when I was seven years old, I was marching down the street with my bagpipes – myself and my brother. We were going to competitions, and were the up-and-coming pipers in our area,” he adds with a laugh.
He also took lessons and eventually became one of the youngest members to join the Nelson Kootenay Kiltie Pipe Band.
In his early 20s, he placed an ad in Nelson’s music store looking for part time players to gig with. Rocker Carson Cole dropped by. McCuaig played bass with Cole for four years touring western and northern Canada in every town and city.
One night while playing up in Yellowknife, McCuaig and Cole decided to finish off by playing bagpipes and the crowd went nuts. This gave him and Cole a new idea — rock with bagpipes.
“It was a packed house that night – and everyone just stopped and looked. The whole crowd was mesmerized by this kid playing bagpipes in a rock band. Carson came up to me later that night and said, ‘We’ve got to do something with this’.”
Eventually, McCuaig ventured off with his own band, writing lots of music and found that folks loved what the band had to offer. The sheer uniqueness of the sounds continues to stir up audiences and wield an emotional power all its own.
“It was a band that played funk and rock, but that also played the bagpipes. There’s something about the bagpipes that really transforms people. You either love it or you hate it. There’s no real in between.
“But what we found is that even people who have their minds made up and say they don’t like bagpipes, if they listen to what I do, they’ll often say, ‘That’s cool – that’s different. It’s not what I thought it was going to be’.
The sound of bagpipes certainly seem capable of tapping into an array of emotions – from exhilaration to melancholy. Whatever the case, there’s typically almost an intimate reaction that people have when they hear those strains.
“It makes you feel something powerful.”