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Bison BC: The Good, the Bad, and the Shaggy

Bison BC by Femke van Delft
3 December 2010

Bison BC are the shaggiest thing to come out of East Vancouver’s music scene since Black Mountain, with whom they have shared billing on more than one occasion – though they rock considerably harder, combining elements of metal, punk, and a certain Pacific Northwest grunginess that puts me in mind of seeing Tad in Vancouver in the 1990’s. As Canadian in their imagery as Amon Amarth are Swedish – and rooted in particular in the values of East Vancouver – Bison are gifted enough at what they do that they were signed by Metal Blade for their second album, 2007’s Quiet Earth. They’ve now released their follow up, Dark Ages. Big Takeover spoke to the two Bison frontmen, James Farwell and Dan And, shortly before they started their spring 2010 tour – while Vancouver was neck-deep in the Olympics; while portions of this interview have appeared elsewhere in different forms and languages, this is the first time the whole thing has appeared anywhere in English.

The BC in Bison BC’s name is, like the geographic tack-on to the Subhumans Canada, a legal formality to prevent confusion or quarrel with other Bisons that may exist (BC stands for British Columbia, the province they come from, though it also suggests prehistory). I started off by asking about the other half of their name.

Bison BC by Femke van Delft

Why Bison?

James: We weren’t necessarily going for an animal name. We’d tossed around these Godawful made up words – ‘what looks good in a good metal font,’ shit like that. And I grew up in Manitoba, and in Manitoba, the bison is our animal – it’s on our flag. Go to Winnipeg and its bison this, bison that, bison everywhere. So it’s been a really strong image in my life forever, and there’s a lot of nice imagery associated with the animal – it’s stoic, proud, huge, burly. It’s fairly peaceful, but it could kill you easily. And it’s come back. It was almost hunted to extinction.

And there’s a whole mythos that you’ve built up around it…

James: We have this sort of very loose theme based on an apocalyptic vision, a sort of end-of-the-world scenario. The idea was of aliens coming to the earth and destroying it so it could be rebuilt into this beautiful place that it should be, if we weren’t too infantile and selfish and irrational and angry and whatnot to take care of the planet. Not that I’m any better than anyone else. I try to separate my recyclables and all that – but I’m not out doing anything more than that.

Dan: I kinda just thought it was a joke at first – ‘okay, yeah, then for this record, okay, this is the bison homeworld, and then the next one…’ And then when it actually came about, I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, sweet, awesome!’ But I love the concept. I always loved the kinda He-Man ‘ancient future’ kinda thing, where it’s like, a society that had this amount of technology, and then had this total nuclear apocalypse and are rendered basically back to cavemen – but with lasers.

It’s also loaded politically. There’s the slaughter of the bison by Europeans as they came to the New World – which connects to the decimation of Native culture. And there’s an environmentalist edge to the image.

Bison BC by Femke van Delft

Dan: I’ve heard that before, that people hear not only a political thing, but also an environmental one, because we are talking about abusing the planet, and having this race of bison warriors saying, “these guys are wasting their fucking planet, we might as well wipe them out.” This idea of our being our own undoers – the collapse of our environment and society because of our own stupidity. So I think that whole environmental quality is like, in us, because look at where we live – it’s such a beautiful place, right?

Are you on the side of the bison?

Dan: We don’t know. Who knows. I think I understand where they’re coming from, but obviously we’re just as guilty as anybody else, so I think we’re probably going to be taken down with everyone else. But who knows, maybe they’ll have pity on us. It could go any way. It depends how drunk we are – it’s gonna dictate where the story goes.

James: This is a very loose theme. But I think if anything the last album (Quiet Earth) the theme was just straight up death. All sorts of different types of death – spiritual death, actual physical death, death of the soul, death of the earth, death of culture. In “Primal Emptiness Of Outer Space,” the premise of the song is fleeing death. Basically what is happening is – there’s a war, and some people flee after everything’s been destroyed, so there’s nothing left for anybody. So they flee, looking for a new home, and they eventually find it – which is earth. But I think we’re going to be away from these sorts of things. There IS a ‘Wendigo III’ on the new album, which is as close as we get to any fantastical stuff – the wendigo, why we like it, is that it’s Native folklore that speaks really true to the human condition. (The wendigo, or windigo, is an insatiably hungry evil spirit from Algonquin culture that takes possession of its victims and drives them to cannibalism; Dan’s song “Wendigo I” on Quiet Earth is sung from the point of view of a starving settler in a frozen wasteland who has turned on his comrades and eaten them).

Dan: The idea of possession – it’s usually just a metaphor for having inner conflict, having something going on in your life that you don’t know how to deal with. You find yourself just getting into trouble and being in an emotional dark space…

You have Algonquin blood… maybe you could explain a bit about that.

Dan: My brother and I didn’t grow up with our Dad, so all the learning that we had to do about Native culture was on our own, since nobody else in my family was Native. The town where we grew up in, in Comox (on Vancouver Island), had a large Native population, but it was Haida. Algonquin tribes were not like the Haida. Haida tribes were just kind of settled on the West Coast, and had their art and all that stuff, whereas the Algonquins weren’t like that – they were out east, and they travelled all over up and down the Ottawa River, basically following food – so there wasn’t a lot of art and (material) culture. But storytelling was one thing that they did do.

So when you first heard about the wendigo, there was a connection to your heritage.

Dan: Absolutely. Plus – when I first heard about the wendigo, on TV or something like that, it was just a horrifying story that scared the shit out of me!

Is it scary to go to the dark places required to sing “Wendigo?”

Dan: I don’t find it scary, I find it more relieving. I’m sure that everybody at some point in their lives has found themselves in a really dark place, and they don’t know how to express how that feels to people, so honestly, it helps me with that, to be able to be able to sing about that, and to be like, ‘Sometimes I feel like this is happening inside of me, and I don’t know how to deal with it.’

Tell me about the new “Wendigo” song.

Dan: “Wendigo III” picks up lyrically right where “Wendigo II” left off. The music starts with a quiet interlude before the panic sets in again. The idea basically is that the protagonist (our possessed traveler) is attempting to return home while still struggling with the demon living within.

It sounds cool, but I have to admit, I’m going to miss the space bison.

James: I just didn’t have it in me, man. I was too steeped in my own shit. It’s more of an emotional album, I think. There’s songs – not love songs, but songs about love. There’s songs about mental illness and addiction and dealing with inner demons. And there’s songs about thinking about ending one’s life. There’s some really gross stuff on the album, but in a good way, I think. One song, which is called “Melody: This Is For You,” is about loving music so much that it maybe makes you a little bit crazy, and it kind of makes you angry… I really love sad music, like, singer/songwriter troubled stuff – I’m talking maybe like Townes van Zandt or Richard Buckner, things like this. Me being in the musical world that I am, I can’t write a song like that, which is fine – but what I can do is write a song about how those songs make you feel. The beginning of the song, there’s this really elaborate intro to it, and it’s kind of the different emotional levels one might feel with loving a piece of music, because music is so really important to everybody, whether you’re some douchebag driving around listening to some terrible Lady Gaga blasting on your stereo, or you collect records and you spend your days alphabetizing them. Music is very important to people, and when you really think about the love of music, it’s almost crushing. I mean, I listen to songwriters and I think – “I’ll never write a song like Neil Young writes a song,” and it fucking crushes me. Does that make sense?

Yeah, absolutely. Maybe we could segue from that into talking about some of your musical influences. Your music is metal, but a lot of your lyrics put me in mind of punk, politically. Any particular punk influences?

James: I mean – Black Flag. You know, really crudely political, drawing young people to the real base things that were going on – ie., power struggle, living on the fringes of society, fuckin’ cops, the government, mental illness – things like this that later possibly evolve into a more heady political ideal. And then there’s the Descendents, who taught me everything I know about girls. And there’s Bad Brains, as well, and Bad Religion.

Dan: The punk that I grew up on was, like, Black Flag, Born Against, Rorschach, and I listened to a lot of crusty political punk. And I loved old Metallica, Sepultura, Slayer – that kind of stuff. But there was a lot of crossover too, bands that were kind of punk and kind of metal, like COC. Even Rorschach was pretty metal for that time. Christ On A Crutch

The Melvins?

Dan: Oh, yeah, I love the Melvins. The Melvins were such a bizarre band to come out of the Seattle scene, or whatever the hell you want to call it, in that they were so experimental and heavy and sludgy and all over the place.

I think I can hear their influence in your music. There’s a jagged, halting quality to your songs, that often shifts unpredictably in new directions.

Dan: I mean, I’ve heard people make that kind of comparison before, and that’s, like, the most flattering thing in the world to hear, because yeah, the Melvins have such a bizarre songwriting quality… ‘cos I would love to be able to write a seven minute song like Soundgarden kind of head-bobbin’ ‘yeah, cool, groovy metal’ – but I can’t really do that. I just don’t know how to write like that, I get bored really fast, and I think James is the same way. We’re kind of, like, really picky people, and when we’re playing something – unless it has a hypnotic quality on us, we’re like – ‘okay, this part’s way too long, let’s take it in a totally different thing… we will have some long repetitive parts, too. It depends on how it grabs us.

There’s also a song of Dan’s on the new album called “Fear Cave” – James was saying it was about a “shameover” – like, a hangover but with shame?

Dan: It wasn’t a shameover, it was an endless string of brutal shameovers. It’s about the desire I had been feeling to make certain decisions with my life that I knew weren’t going to end well for me, but which I did anyway. A lot of people get caught in that trap, of self-punishment for the sake of justifying questionable choices, and in a cycle of self-medicating. It’s about choosing the darkness over the light; the bad over the good; the Black Lodge over the White Lodge…and trying to get out the other side.

So it kind of ties in with “The Curse” on Earthbound (Bison’s first album).

Dan: “The Curse” was basically a drug joke. It’s about a town being held hostage by a white wizard looking over them – a metaphor for drugs. The spot that I was living in in Victoria at the time, there were a lot of self-destructive things going on… Everything that I write is basically metaphors for things that have gone on in my life, or are going on in my life. James is more kind of to-the-point, and he tends to write more about struggles in society. I think a lot of my songs are a lot more personal, which adds a nice contrast.

Bison BC by Femke van Delft

James, you work with Vancouver’s addicts, right?

James: I work at a homeless shelter in the downtown eastside, at an agency that deals with mental health consumers, for sure. I’m what they call a community support worker, so basically people will come to the shelter and we try to help them with whatever they need – whether it’s clean needles or a shelter bed for a week to up to three or four months. Depending, y’know. It’s an unfortunate situation, and an unfortunate way to make money.

It seems to be a field that attracts a lot of musicians. (Bison bassist Masa Anzai works in the same field, as do members of the Subhumans Canada, Black Mountain, The Trespassers, and several other Vancouver bands).

James: Yeah. And I didn’t go to school for it, and I don’t know much about anything, except for playing rock’n’roll music, but you treat people with respect and you give people a bit of dignity back – “normal people” don’t know much about that kind of stuff.

Has doing that job done more to politicize you?

James: I’ve never been a hugely political person, however, the older I get, the more irrational I get. The more rageful I get. I think it has. I think living in this city – if you’re not part of that upper crust, you can’t not become politicized. I think if you work in the downtown eastside for long enough, I think it’s impossible for you not to think that our government wants to kill poor people, doesn’t care about them. I think you’d be blind not to think that.

Your song “Wartime” is a pretty fuckin’ political song, with the line about killing the pigs…

James: I mean, yeah, that’s one of those real blanket statements. But I don’t like injustice, and cops – fuck, they got guns. I don’t like people with guns. I don’t like 22 year old cops walking around with guns – I think it’s stupid. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t think that’s political, it’s like logical, or something. It doesn’t make any sense to me. The power of the few people controls everything. I guess that’s political, but it’s also just not fucking fair. It doesn’t work. Because look at Vancouver – it’s not working.

You were saying “Two Day Booze,” on the new album, was inspired by life in Vancouver?

James: It’s inspired by a friend – he used to make liquor out of everything, and this one time, the base ingredient was expired fruit cups, and it turned into liquor in two days. So: “Two Day Booze” – the idea of things happening so quickly it seems like a good idea at the time, but it’s maybe really not…? It works faster and it gets you there, but in the end, maybe, you should have taken your time and crafted something a little bit better?

Let me ask about the cover art for the new album (by Mike Payette, who did the previous two Bison covers).

James: It’s inspired by a temple painting by Thai Buddhist monks. It’s the idea of – at some point in the Buddha’s travels, he was surrounded by these serpents, and at first glance, it’s a coil of serpents, and it’s menacing; but the serpents are actually protecting him from things that lead you astray… which are happiness and pleasure. It’s this idea of being protected, basically, from ourselves. I’m not a very religious person, but I like the idea.

Your new album title, Dark Ages –

James: There’s no medieval reference at all – it’s more literal.

Do you think we’re heading into a dark age?

James: Yeah, I think we’re at the beginning of a dark age, for sure. I mean – I’m in the midst of watching my city and authority and government practice how to bring about martial law in a quick way. The Olympics is an exercise in showing how, when need be, they can shut this fuckin’ city down. It’s amazing.

You guys have been pretty outspoken in your criticism of the event.

James (referring to a well-known anti-Olympic slogan): “No Olympics on stolen Native land.” The end.

Dan: Fuck the Olympics. Just fuck the whole thing. I can’t wait for it to be over. Closing things down, putting up condos, spending all this money fixing up Granville Street – like, who gives a fuck? What about everything else that’s going on in town? What about all the homeless people? What about the drug problems? Who gives a fuck about Granville Street? It’s so wasteful – fixing up Whistler Village and making all this housing for the athletes – well, that’s great. They’re going to be here two months. What about the people that live here? It’s just so mind-boggling that it’s even happening. I don’t understand what’s wrong with people. ‘Oh, the Olympics, it’s gonna be great for the economy here!’ Give me a fucking break.

James: People have varying opinions on it, and the people that I roll with generally don’t like the Olympics. And whether they have strong opinions or not, they agree – it’s not for us, it’s for rich people. It’s for McDonalds’…Like – I’m a little bit of a hippie. I believe there’s a little bit of push and pull in the universe. Everything has gotta fuckin’ equal out – and that’s exactly what is not happening in this city right now. You have people dying in the streets. You have people living in garbage shooting drugs because they can’t get any help. Like – rent – do you rent? You gotta be joking me – this city is made for rich people. But goddamn, for some reason I love Vancouver so much, you know? I’m not a native Vancouverite, but I moved here from Winnipeg in 1990, and I’ve lived here ever since, and I’ve experienced, you know, this change that’s happening as it tries to become a “world class city” – and I love Vancouver, and I defend Vancouver, and I probably will always live in Vancouver. Because it’s so challenging to live here and do what you want to do!

Bison BC images by Femke van Delft

Bison BC by Femke van Delft