Do you like to swing with a partner at the dance after a community potluck? Are you someone who appreciates a good “I have no regrets” ballad? Do you wish the radio still sounded like it did when Marcy Playground and Third Eye Blind ruled the airwaves? If so, you might be a candidate for falling in love with Black Creek Reign’s track “Now I’m Free.” These Torontonians play music that has an appreciation of the blues while keepin’ it 100 as a straight pop-rock band. BTW that’s guitarist Darren Armoogam (also on lead vox), drummer Shane “Sixbuttons” Schlesinger, and bassist Lex Stultz. They’ve released a single independent EP titled “Excommunicado,” and profess influences for funk and reggae. Mostly this reminds me of the inoffensive and middle-of-the-road tuneage from my regular AM station in the 90s, before they turned into a Disney-fied FM station.
This is music that doesn’t fit distinctively into any niche category and therefore can be consumed by anyone, as long as it hits you at the right time. There’s something to be said for music that can be potentially embraced by the masses. The guitar solo ends before you realize you’ve been gifted one. There’s a basic verse-chorus structure and even a tiny bridge! The best part of the song is the final line, where the singer digs in pretty deep and you feel like he’s letting it all out. But even then, it’s not over the top or anything.
Listen to "Now I'm Free" here, and learn more about Black Creek Reign in our interview below!
In your humble opinion, what’s the key to sticking together as a band?
Darren - I think it boils down to having everyone in the band being on the same page about the overall vision. Where are we going, and what do we want to accomplish? If you can’t agree on that as a band, you aren’t likely to go every far. We’ve been lucky to have everyone demonstrate how passionate they are about the project, and it’s translated into the little success we’ve found. We all want to take Black Creek Reign as far as possible, and all 3 members are on board for the long haul!
Lex - Yeah, we’ve been very lucky that we get along as friends first and bandmates second. Naturally, between writing and rehearsing we have to spend a lot of time together, being able to be relaxed around each other goes a long way, especially at the end of a long night or writing session. We can always step back and we know that we’re there to support each other no matter how dumb our ideas get.
Shane - I have to agree with what Lex says about being friends first. A successful band isn’t always about finding the best musicians - it’s about finding that personal chemistry, which we’re fortunate enough to have. The fact that I’m working with guys that I would hang out with anyway is a huge part of why I wanted to stay on as the drummer after we recorded Excommunicado. It also helps when the guys are already solid musicians and songwriters, but I believe that the camaraderie needs to be there for a band to thrive.
Who drives the songwriting. And who is your secret weapon that takes the songs to the next level?
Darren - The songs on this EP were written by Lex and myself mostly, Lex is a rhythmic and lyrical mastermind, and I think I’ve been growing as a harmony/melody constructor. Shane joined all of this after the EP was already written, but his ideas on pushing a catchy beat or steady percussive foundation can’t be understated. In terms of secret weapons, it’s actually Lex & Shane. They’ve done a GREAT job of taking the mish mash of ideas I’ll come to rehearsal with, and steering it in the right direction. Like cutting down on pointless chord extensions and pinpointing hooks that drive songs. Goodness it makes life easier having great bandmates.
Lex - It sounds cliche, but it’s truly a team effort. Darren and I were the lead on this album, but Shane has put his own drumlines in and really made those parts his own. We like to write together for the most part, and what we’ll do is prepare a bunch of ideas that we think are good individually and show them to the other guys. We know we’re going to get a completely honest opinion from each other, so if an idea is terrible, and there can be lots of terrible ideas, we know it’s going to be called out right away and dealt with.
I think the secret weapon lies in our different strengths. Darren is great at harmony, I’m good at writing the lyrics, and Shane is good with shaping the dynamics of the song, either through arrangement or rhythm. We just got really lucky that our skills are in different areas, and no one’s ego is too big to defer to a guy who has another idea or perspective on the problem.
Shane - I don’t think we have a secret weapon to be honest - at least not a specific person. Each band member brings a unique skill set to the project and when we put it all together, it just works perfectly. Between Darren’s solid vocals and guitar chops, Lex’s great sense of rhythm and riff-writing, and my ability to just lay down the groove and focus on feel instead of flare, we’ve created what we believe will be a signature sound. If anything, I’d say that our secret weapon is our ability to walk into a rehearsal room, pick up our instruments, and feed off each others’ ideas effortlessly until we have a song. We’ve written new songs so quickly as a result of that chemistry and it’s sometimes almost hard to believe how easy it is with these guys.
What do you like about playing music that can connect with people?
Darren - It’s a high that can’t be put into words. There aren’t too many feelings better than having a song truly resonate with an audience. Digging deep into feelings that sometimes can’t be put into words is a cathartic experience, and we’re happy to make memorable music for an appreciative audience, it’s a literal dream job and we’re hoping to make it full time.
Lex - If I (or we) as a songwriter, is feeling something that I need to share, it’s a very vulnerable place to be. It’s hard to put yourself out there like that, but the amazing part is, sharing that feeling you find that a lot of other people are feeling it too. If we can connect in a visceral way to people and have them share those feelings with us, it’s a very powerful thing, and we really strive to form that connection with people, where they can feel that song speaks right to them personally.
Shane - When you put your heart and soul into writing a song and then later you see other people dancing or singing along to it at a show, it’s a huge compliment. When you write songs, you’re essentially putting a piece of yourself out there and it can make us songwriters feel very vulnerable, so when a person connects with that, it feels like you truly share something special with them.
How do you feel about where the music scene is at these days?
Darren - Incredibly excited. You don’t have to wait around to have a big label sign you if you’re a band who wants to go out and perform. Literally anyone can do it these days with the power of social media and marketing, so it’s a great time to be a musician if this is really want you want to do. That being said, it’s definitely hard to kick up a fuss, but sticking to your guns and making sure that the music comes first is always the key to any type of musical success.
Lex - Ditto. It seems intimidating at first, because there are a lot of talented people out there trying to do the same thing, but at the same time they’re equally driven to succeed and, especially in Toronto, where we play, we’ve fostered a group of other musicians who are always willing to play shows and get their voices out there for people to hear.
Shane - I have mixed feelings about the current music scene. It’s a very different era now that everything is so driven by social media and streaming services. It’s so easy to keep people in the loop about what your band is up to and it’s definitely easier to access the music compared to 20 years ago. At the same time, I feel like less people these days are willing to go out and actually see an indie band play on a Wednesday night at some random small venue when they could just watch someone’s live stream on Facebook. In Toronto, we’ve seen several venues close down and be replaced with coffee shops and condos, which is pretty sad. I remember playing places like The Reverb and Third Floor Reilly’s for some of my first shows out of high school. I feel like the Toronto scene is constantly fighting to stay alive, but fortunately, we have some great people (and musicians) in our scene that are fighting hard to promote live music. We also have an awesome growing music scene up in York Region, which is beginning to become a hot spot for independent musicians to play gigs. Hopefully, we see some of that spill back into the Toronto scene in the near future.
>Any crazy stories about recording this song or your album Excommunicado?
Darren - I take a lot of time to think of names for albums, songs, and all that. I think it’s SO important to make sure every detail is something you’re happy with. I was watching John Wick, an action movie, and that’s where I got the album name from. At the end of the 2nd movie, John is pretty much exiled from his underworld connections, and Ian McShane looks dead into the camera and says “John Wick….Excommunicado”. A light bulb went off in my head and I loved how the word sounded. I had been trying for ages to come up with a title that didn’t sound like it was trying too hard to be edgy, but was still unique...and THAT was it. Excommunicado for me is cutting all ties with my past, and moving forward as a brand new man and musician. A direction for the band, new possibilities, and new members, we’ve successfully placed our past in exile, and couldn’t be more excited for the future.
Lex - The idea of excommunication obviously carries religious connotations, and the denial of sacraments in the church. I’m not religious, and I wasn’t fully on board when Darren brought the name to me. But I took some time to process it, and thought about the idea behind it more metaphorically than literally, and that idea of being rejected by the majority, or whatever is recognized as the institutional norm is one I could absolutely get behind. Pursuing a career in the arts is definitely outside the what would be considered a normal career, and personally I’ve always felt a bit like an outsider around other people, so it’s an idea I think is meaningful to me, and hopefully will be to anyone else who doesn’t feel like they quite belong in the majority.
As far as crazy stories, I think it’s crazy we did 90% of the EP in basically 2 takes live off the floor!
Shane - Yeah, we basically recorded the whole foundation of the EP in 5 hours. I joined the band three weeks prior, learned the songs, rehearsed a few times, and went straight into the studio with Darren and Lex. I think all 5 drum tracks were done in about 90 minutes. Lex nailed virtually every bass track in one take. Then, just when I think I’ve seen it all, Darren walks into the booth with his guitar and starts tracking vocals and rhythm guitar simultaneously! That was probably the craziest part to me - how quickly everything came together and how much we accomplished in those first 5 hours.
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