They often look like they have just stepped out of a sepia-toned photograph. Sharply dressed in trademark suits, with vests and ties accentuating crisp white shirts and with at least one man in a jaunty hat, the members of Elliott Brood could easily have been transported from an earlier time. Musically as well, they are a band with one foot planted firmly in the past. The other foot, though, is striding boldly into the future.
Elliott Brood makes music that feels steeped in history, albeit sweepingly painted with a raucous indie brush. Their songs often reference the dark underbelly of the past with a sound defined by plunky banjos, flogging guitars, bass pedal, lap steel and wildly thrashing drums. Until recently, until they tore through one too many suitcases at inopportune times, a Samsonite suitcase was a signature stand-in for a drum kit in the Elliott Brood stage setup.
This three-piece alt-country band, whose music has famously been described as “death country”, came into existence when Mark Sasso and Casey Laforet, who grew up together in Windsor, followed their dreams down the 401 to Toronto to start a band. Initially they played with two other musicians, but when those musicians left the band after only a couple of shows, Laforet and Sasso continued as a duo. Eventually they met up with music producer Stephen Pitkin (who would later become the band's fedora-wearing suitcase-thumping drummer), who helped record and produce their first album. It was a modest six song EP, but it helped to define a new genre of Canadian alt-country.
Embracing Elliott Brood's trademark vintage aesthetic, the 2004 debut EP, Tin Type, came packaged in a small brown paper bag, with an accompanying handmade photo book reminiscent of the style of the old west. The look suited the sound – rustic and a bit rusty, punctuated with found sounds that might have been captured in an abandoned farmyard. Although the EP primarily embraced a dusty old west aesthetic, it was “Oh Alberta”, an exuberant and light-hearted address to the Canadian provinces, which captured the attention of audiences, garnering heavy rotation on campus radio.
In 2005, Elliott Brood released Ambassador, their first full-length album. The title paid tribute to the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit to their hometown of Windsor, as did the single The Bridge. Thematically, Ambassador was a flirtation with the military history of which all three band members are enthusiasts. Sonically, it expanded upon the blend of melancholic dustbowl sounds and barn-burning stomp and holler that were introduced in Tin Type. The songs on Ambassador had a richly cinematic feel that earned the band a 2006 Galaxy Rising Star award and the album a Juno nomination for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year.
At the same time, Elliott Brood's reputation as a high-octane party band was spreading. From festivals to bar rooms, punk halls to premier venues (where they opened for bands like Wilco, The Sadies and Blue Rodeo), audiences came to expect the exuberant and interactive band that their friends had been gushing about. t was not an unusual sight to see Casey Laforet bound off the stage at a folk festival to dance joyfully among the crowd. It was not unexpected for the band to engage the audience – ask questions, hold out the mic for singalongs, pass out baking sheets and wooden spoons for the audience to pound on, or invite everybody up on stage. And through it all, with big grins on their faces, Mark Sasso would sing himself hoarse, Stephen Pitkin would relentlessly pound the Samsonite, and Casey Laforet would thrash manically about, seated on a chair, mercilessly attacking his guitar or banjo.
The exuberance took its toll. In July 2009 the band cancelled some of the dates for the tour of their new album Mountain Meadows, when Casey suffered a collapsed lung.
Released in the summer of 2008, Mountain Meadows was met with wide critical acclaim. A dark and richly layered album, it revisits the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows massacre, a dark stain on Utah history in which a Mormon militia attacked and slaughtered all but the youngest children in a wagon train of families travelling from Arkansas to California.
Mountain Meadows was shortlisted for a 2009 Polaris Prize and nominated for a Juno Award for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year, as well as a Juno for Design and Artwork. The boisterous single, Write It All Down For You, with its war-cry drum beat and accompanying holler, has become a signature encore number for the band, guaranteeing a show that ends with everybody singing lustily along.
2011's Days Into Years was inspired by a side-trip to WWI military cemeteries that the band stumbled upon when travelling through the French and Belgian countryside during their first European tour five years earlier. Though still rollicking, Days Into Years was more reflective than Elliott Brood's earlier albums. With the addition of piano and rich harmonies, it had a feeling of maturity and a touch of sadness, no doubt a reflection of the underlying theme of aging, abandonment and a longing for home.
In ten years, Elliott Brood has moved beyond simply being the band that coined the term “death country”. The more contemplative aspects to their newest release are well suited to a trio who, although still road warriors that burn the barn at each show, have also morphed into being family men. (In fact, the Laforet baby was Toronto's first baby of 2013, making his appearance into the world at the dot of midnight.) Extensive international touring has ensured that the alt-country band, now based out of Hamilton, is as much beloved overseas as it is here at home. Exposure from playing gigs at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics means that Elliott Brood is on its way to becoming a bona fide Canadian institution.