The day after I get off the phone with Boy Golden’s Liam Duncan, he gets in touch via Instagram to send some detailed videos of himself tuning his prized Wurlitzer 200A. He does this because I was fascinated and confused by the process, which he was trying to explain to me. You see, Wurlitzers are acoustic—their sound is made when a hammer strikes a metal reed inside the instrument—and so, they have to be tuned. But you tune them by either carefully filing down those reeds, or carefully adding solder to them. If you don’t do it with care, things are going to end up sounding wonky. “It’s a bit of a pain,” Duncan admits.
Upon casual listens to the new Boy Golden record, The Church of Better Daze—at which Duncan serves as the character Boy Golden, a refreshingly groovy, inviting minister—one might be forgiven for thinking that the vibe of the whole endeavour might lend itself more to loose, off-the-cuff, chillness. And it is that. But the attention to detail that Duncan exercises to tune his Wurlitzer is, on closer inspection, vital to Boy Golden’s easygoing hippie honky tonk sound. All over The Church of Better Daze, from the sly, sizzling musicianship to the down-home narratives and breezy slang of Duncan’s lyrics, it’s obvious that things have not just fallen into place. Sometimes you’ve got to do the work to sound so natural, and Duncan has paid his dues.
His journey on keys started as a kid in Brandon, where his teacher Ann Germani helped him learn what he wanted—country classics, jazz, whatever—instead of what tradition might dictate. Most importantly, it sustained his interest and kept things fun. He says he maybe shouldn’t have been teaching anyone music, but that when he did, he took the same approach. “’Oh, you like John Legend? That’s not hard to play. Let’s figure it out,’” he says. He eventually started playing in bands in his early teens—Until Red and, later, The Middle Coast—and did hundreds and hundreds of shows, touring Canada, the States, and Japan all by his early 20s.
You can hear the skills he honed on the road in the good-timing tunes on The Church of Better Daze, with a well-tuned Wurlitzer 200A shining through prominently. That electric piano, with its sepia-toned sound, can’t help but transport listeners when it chimes in. Which is what Boy Golden is aiming to do—take you somewhere.
“When I listen to music, I picture scenes from movies,” Duncan says. “So that’s always what I’m looking to do on the record. I’m trying to set up something a little bit cinematic, or hoping to take you back to some carefree days of your youth, or back to a hazy ’60s festival.”
So, tell me about your Wurlitzer.
I bought this instrument, which was in okay shape… I just last week replaced all of the insides because it hasn’t worked in like, six months. So I replaced the entire amplifier circuit, all new wires, everything. And now it sounds a lot better. But someone did some extremely shoddy work on the reeds. And so a lot of them are kind of weird, too. I’m constantly fixing it. I bought it for $2,500 which, now, is a crazy good deal. But even at the time, I was kind of shocked at how much money that was.
The Wurlitzer was initially a student piano. That’s what they were made to do. They were in the days before we had Nords and Casios and stuff. They needed something that was smaller than a grand piano for students to practice on in universities and elsewhere. So they made these electric pianos, and then people loved the sound. People like Ray Charles were using the earlier versions like the 140. And then eventually Wurlitzer made the Wurlitzer 200. I have the 200A, which is the last Wurlitzer ever made, and arguably the best one, the most consistent and reliable. I was looking for one for ages, because I really loved the band The Bros. Landreth, here in Winnipeg, and their keyboard player used the Wurlitzer a lot. I learned every single part on that album when I was learning how to play music. But I knew I always wanted one. And then my buddy Dylan bought this one. He wasn’t really using it. I was using it more than he was, so he sold it to me for $2,500. And it actually got dropped off. It was from some band in Montreal, and they were on tour. They were trying to sell it the whole time. That’s how we ended up with it. I’ve had it ever since, I’ve toured it all through the States with The Bros. Landreth, and Canada. And now I like it so much that whenever I go places, I end up just renting Wurlitzers from backline companies, which costs me a little more money, but I just love them. They’re such good instruments.
That way you can keep yours safe, too.
Well, I am not one to protect my instruments from the road. They are meant to be played and I’m going to take them out. And I have a nice case for it and I can take good care of it. I’m going to tour the damn thing. But the issue is that with the case, it’s like 95 pounds, so shipping it by air is not an option. Then I have to rent it.
So how has it contributed to the evolution of your sound?
Probably one of the main ways it’s contributed is that as a keyboard player, I’ve just leaned into the kind of music that I like. For a long time, I would experiment with synths—I have a bunch of synths and all that. But the fact is, what I like to play is honky tonk music or Americana music, whatever the hell that means. You know, older, classic styles of music. So the instruments that I play are the piano, the Wurlitzer, the organ, and sometimes the clavichord. It’s sort of helped me define what I do and these days, if people ask me to do a gig as a side musician or something, and it’s going to require a lot of synths, I’m like, ‘I don’t even own any. So I’m gonna have to turn this down.’ You know what I mean? I practice exclusively on it. I don’t practice on my Nord because I hate it.
The Nord is the classic electric stage piano, but the Wurlitzer is an acoustic instrument. It’s more similar to a guitar because it has little reeds in it that get struck by a hammer, and it has a pickup in it. That’s what creates the sound. So it feels totally different to play—you’re playing a real thing that sounds very warm and very realistic. And I have not come across a digital copy of a Wurlitzer that is the same to me. There are some really good ones, but nothing is quite the same, especially live.
How does the Wurlitzer fit into your songwriting process?
Well, my songwriting process has obviously changed and evolves over time. But if we’re going to talk about the record that is coming out this year, my process was mainly—I have a drum machine called a Rhythm Ace. It’s what JJ Cale used. And I’m a huge JJ Cale fan. I just set up a drum machine with a loop I like, and then I make some harmony that I like or a riff I like on guitar. But for a few tunes, like “KD and Lunch Meat,” that started with just that line on the Wurlitzer, and I just had that loop going. Then I recorded the entire song, no vocals, just making up the chord changes as I went along. That’s how it basically fits into the songwriting: when I’m writing songs, and I’m often recording and writing at the same time, so I’m setting a vibe, in that respect, and the Wurlitzer can help. When I was writing this record, I had access to the studio space three or four times a week. And every time I went in, I would try and write and record a whole song. Didn’t always work out but that was my goal. I would just start with a loop, and then go from there. And then that’s how a lot of these sounds came up.
What makes the Wurlitzer integral to the Boy Golden sound?
The Wurlitzer is probably the main keyboard you’re going to hear on any Boy Golden record. But more than anything, it’s integral to the Boy Golden show. When I do the show, I’m playing guitar, electric guitar, and Wurlitzer, and it’s just really fun for me. I sit down at the Wurlitzer and I feel like a rock star. It’s very important to the live show, and it looks fucking sick.
I feel like that electric piano sound can instantly transport you because it’s such a staple of music from the ’60s and ’70s. Do you ever feel kind of like a time traveller when you play it?
Yeah, for sure. I have a big connection to that music because I grew up on that. And I just love seeing it on stage. I’m so tired of seeing a bunch of fake-looking keyboards on stage, including some in my own setup. Like, ‘All my favourite artists from back in the day, they wouldn’t have been messing around with this.’ Or maybe they would have, but they had to bring out their Hammonds, they had to bring out their Wurlitzers. That’s what I’m doing. Now, I haul my big-ass Wurlitzer around. I’m dedicated to putting that real live sound on stage. Because it would be too easy for me to just roll up to every gig with my 20-pound keyboard or whatever. It’s so much cooler to roll up with the Wurlitzer and instantly bring a heavy vibe to the stage, whether I’m playing with other people or just myself. I don’t want anyone to have any questions about whether we’re playing or not. You know what I mean? Yeah, we are really playing.