The Hamilton 'alt-Canadiana' group frontman talks Texas, punk music, and producing an EP with his brother's brewery Clifford Brewing Company.
Texas indie-rock group Bryce Clifford & Brother Superior have returned to Canada, and are rebranding as a Hamilton-centric project focused on melodic sounds and strong songwriting. I spoke to frontman Bryce Clifford about the band's origins, the Texas music industry, and his roots in The Steel City.
Clifford and his brother, the founder of Hamilton's Clifford Brewery, explored creating music from an early age.
"Piano lessons were mandatory when I was a kid," said Clifford. "Naturally, I tried to get out of it every week- but a part of me did enjoy them, and I was the kind of kid who memorized the sheet music and pretended to read it. I still don't know how, but I picked up a lot of theory. One time my older brother Brad discovered some instruments that were tucked far back in a cellar closet, collecting dust for years- there was a banjo, a trombone, and a drum kit. It was cool- we didn't know our father had been interested in all these things before we came around. So my brother started to learn drums on that classic Coronet kit, and I talked my way into guitar lessons instead of piano so we could jam."
The brothers were drawn to most genres of music, but were heavily influenced by classic punk bands.
"At first it was rap music, but when my brother and I started jamming we gravitated towards stuff like The Ramones," said Clifford. "It felt like we could do that- a few chords, and fast reckless drums, of course The Ramones songs are only deceptively easy. Brad had a big curiosity for bands and labels in our early teens, buying lots of CDs, and led us into defunct underground bands like Uncle Tupelo, The Replacements, Mudhoney, Sugar, The Pixies- but I also had a Frank Sinatra phase in high school. Elvis Costello became my biggest influence, I'd say."
The Cliffords starting gigging in their pre-teens.
"Our first gig was a talent show at a campground at around age 13, doing some instrumental songs we made up," said Clifford. "I still have a photo of that, and it looks awesome with the janky 'Talent Show' banner behind us. That led to us forming a power-trio called Pedestrian Status, with a revolving door of bass players. It started out as melodic-punk stuff, and I'm glad we stayed a three-piece because that forced me to figure out ways to play guitar that included the chords and melodies simultaneously. We played some really cool underage shows, and lots of cafeterias around Ontario during lunch breaks. We kept that band going until college in Toronto, playing all the Toronto spots and the early days of Wavelength."
It took a bit for the musician to find his footing.
"I guess I played everything fast into my mid-20's, and as one improves you realize that sometimes there's more music in 'the space', and what you leave out is as important as what's put in," said Clifford. "I wish someone had pointed that out earlier but I had to learn on my own- which produced years of bad recordings. I also moved to Austin, Texas where a lot of southern elements got under my skin. Zydeco, swampy jazz, rockabilly, and two-steppin' country. Of course, there's an awesome indie-rock scene there, but I spent a lot of time in south-Austin where the old-school traditions continue."
Clifford discovered his style while working with the guitarist from Blue Rodeo.
"I met Kim Deschamps, the pedal steel-player for Blue Rodeo and Cowboy Junkies," said Clifford. "Soon after arriving I talked him into playing with me and on studio recordings. I'd already been leaning into an alt-Americana sound then, and the pedal-steel really pushed the sound in that direction. Nowadays, I think I've landed on a pretty eclectic thing- my upcoming record Rebounder has defiant rockers, some joyful rock-outs, post-punk moments, piano ballads, and a country song I recorded with Elliott Brood. Many friends contributed- lending sax, pedal-steel, ukulele, violin, etc. So I feel like I have a really vast pallet from which to work from now, and I dig it. People tell me my style comes through whatever genre I might play."
The members of Bryce Clifford & Brother Superior met in Texas.
"I've had many different people in my band during my time there, and the Austin music scene is very incestuous- in a good way, mostly," said Clifford. "It was very common for players to be in multiple bands at one time. SXSW festival is a real mess when bands have five gigs a day and are figuring out who's gonna play in what band, fighting over bass players like they're girlfriends, drummers like they're boyfriends! The core of Brother Superior ended up being Thomas on baritone sax, Daniel on drums, and Geena on bass. I recorded most of my material with them in recent years and we toured up to Canada several times. Recently I've put together a band of super-talented locals in Hamilton, so they're the northern chapter of Brother Superior."
Clifford describes his band's sound as 'alt-Canadiana'.
"I like things to be melodic, backed by the heft of an indie-pub-rock band," said Clifford. "The Texas group was a power-trio with a baritone saxophone, and Thomas chose grizzled notes, like the band Morphine- but I think of myself as a songwriter foremost, and the song matters most to me, whether it's in the context of piano, acoustic, or performed with a massive sound. I'm making tunes that can be played in any of those formats."
Not much was discussed about how Brother Superior would sound, the band just stuck together.
"I picked up a Tuesday night residency that lasted two and-a-half years, and my Brother Superior bandmates just kept showing up every week, digging what was happening and enjoying each other's company," said Clifford. "Nothing forced, or really even discussed. There's no "Hey, are you into this?'" It's just a band if the players keep showing up to every gig."
Clifford funded his first release from the insurance he received after his car was damaged from a hail storm.
"I made a record there in 2010 from car insurance money I got for hail damage, there can be epic hail storms in Texas," said Clifford. "I left the car how it was and bought a few days of studio time instead, calling the record Hail Tapes. That was awesome- virtually a live record, on 24-track tape. I brought in a keg of Heineken for the session. It was a very long day, but we made a record that I'm still proud of."
The band's latest release was dropped in November- Brewha: East Hamilton EP is available to buy at the Clifford Brewing taproom on 398 Nash Road.
"We just had a Casbah release party weeks ago!" said Clifford. "It has four new songs, and is made in collaboration with my brother's local craft brewery, Clifford Brewing- he still drums, too. The songs on this EP are from my forthcoming full length record Rebounder- that record is all done, but I've been putting it out slowly in singles and music videos, because it's been a strange, slow year. Eventually I'm stoked to press the whole 12 songs to vinyl, mid 2021."
Clifford has learned to ditch his old bad habits with Brewha.
"Well, I was pretty lousy at promoting in the past, so this year's been good for burning off a lot of bad habits," said Clifford. "The new singles have got some good attention and press, and there's definitely growth, which is giving me more drive - so that's a cool byproduct. I hope the past releases will get more listens now as people go backward through my catalogue."
The musician has a few projects in the works.
"I just filmed an hour set at the Mule Spinner, in the Cotton Factory, and that will be up on the socials soon," said Clifford. "It felt like a livestream, or something approximating a show. It was essentially my first 'gig' with the new Hamilton band I've put together - Robin Pirson on drums, CJ Altmann on pedal steel, and Andrew Marshall on bass. We had little time to rehearse, so there's a cool shakiness and immediacy to the taping, as the band has barely learned the songs yet. I'm also working on the next music video and single release- next will be the country-ish one with Casey and Steve of Elliott Brood, recorded here in Hamilton."
COVID-19 put a damper on Brother Superior's plans, but Clifford is trying to use the free time to his advantage.
"It feels like my car got jack-knifed," said Clifford. "Brother Superior flew up here for a handful of sets at Indie Week, Toronto, this time last year. That was great- we got put on good slots, and it felt like there was momentum, so a lot of cool plans were quashed. On the other hand, I just happened to be in a good spot production-wise because I was at the mastering phase of the new record. Therefore, completing it didn't require physically being in a studio. I just shot the tracks digitally to Jim Wilson in Colorado. So I've spent most of the pandemic putting things out that I'd made before it started. Plus, there's been an extra amount of time for writing and demo-ing new ideas, which is the most fun- but I'm really ready to get back to playing now. I'm rehearsing as often as I can with the Hamilton guys so that we're stage ready when things open."
You can purchase Bryce Clifford's Brewha EP at the Bandcamp link below.
(Postponed due to COVID-19.)