“We weren’t necessarily going for an animal name,” Bison BC co-guitarist/ co-vocalist James Farwell tells me when I ask about the name Bison. “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.”
The bison on Bison BC’s past album covers (Earthbound and Quiet Earth, respectively) aren’t just any bison, mind you. They’re time-travelling space bison warriors, come to enslave mankind - a unique, SF-inflected, politically and environmentally resonant mythology cooked up by James at the band’s inception. “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,” he says.
It’s a pretty cool idea, but the next Bison disc, Dark Ages - due out this spring on Metal Blade - will abandon this mythos for something more human. I whine when I discover this: no space bison? “I just didn’t have it in me, man,” James consoles. “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 not really any fantastical content. There IS a ‘Wendigo III,’ 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 is an Algonquin evil spirit that possesses a man and drives him to cannibalism - the subject of two songs on Quiet Earth and of much of my talk during my previous interview with the other shaggy frontman of the band, Dan And, who is part Algonquin on his father’s side. “We didn’t grow up with our Dad,” Dan tells me, explaining his heritage, “so all the learning that my brother and I 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, 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 Algonquin 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.” When Dan first heard of the wendigo on TV, to his recollection, it resonated off his awareness of his own background. “Plus it was just a horrifying story that scared the shit out of me!”
“'Wendigo III' picks up lyrically right where 'Wendigo II' left off,” Dan says. “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. Pretty sure this is gonna be the last one but who knows. Maybe a prequel? ‘Wendigo IV: Wendigo in Space?’ ‘Wendigo Vs. White Wizard?’” (Speaking as a Bison fan, I’m rooting for a ‘Bison Vs. Wendigo’ showdown, but it may be a hard sell).
Another of Dan’s songs, “Fear Cave,” is about what James describes as a “shameover” in the wake of substance abuse. I ask Dan to elaborate. “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.”
Sounds like it ties in with “The Curse” - aka “The Curse Of The White Wizard,” a song of Dan’s off Earthbound, which “was basically a drug joke,” he explains, “about a town being held hostage by a white wizard looking over them - a metaphor for drugs,” based on Dan’s self-destructive days in Victoria. “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.”
James’ songs on the new album will include “Melody: This Is For You,” which, he tells me, “is about loving music so much that it maybe makes you a little bit crazy, and it kind of makes you angry. The real reference that I have is, I really love sad music, like, troubled singer/songwriter 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.”
Other songs of James’ on the new album include “Stressed Elephant,” which uses the image of this sensitive, unique animal being stressed out as a metaphor for modern life; and “a song about Vancouver that I wrote called ‘Two Day Booze,’” named for homemade liquor a buddy used to make. “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?” It sounds perfect as a metaphor for the remarkable civic shortsightedness that is a defining feature of life in this city.
Cover art for Dark Ages will again be by Mike Payette, inspired by “a temple painting by Thai Buddhist monks,” Farwell continues. “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,” James laughs. “It’s this idea of being protected, basically, from ourselves. I’m not a very religious person, but I like the idea.”
There is no one theme on the upcoming album, but James - who warns me that it’s a rather depressing disc - does think a dark age is coming. “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,” James says. “The Olympics is an exercise in showing how, when need be, they can shut this fuckin’ city down. It’s amazing...”
Given James and Dan’s feelings about the Olympics - Dan opined last time I spoke to him that his idea of an Olympic sport was a junkie with a crossbow hunting tourists - it’s interesting to see them planning a show for February 19th at The Rickshaw. “It wasn’t intentional,” James tells me. “That was when our touring begins, at the end of February, and we like to do a Vancouver show before we leave. I’m very interested to see how it turns out. If we can live our normal lives and have an awesome punk show down in the Red Zone there, truthfully, I’ll be very surprised. I’m not expecting anything terrible to happen, but I just hope everyone can get to the show. Everyone has to have their papers in order!”
Being grim about the Olympics doesn’t mean that the band is losing its fondness for Vancouver, however. “Like - I’m a little bit of a hippie,” James says. “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. And 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’ - but I love Vancouver, and I defend Vancouver, and I probably will always live in Vancouver.” He chuckles. “...Because it’s so challenging to live here and do what you want to do!”
Posted: Feb 19, 2010