Photo by Sebastian Buzzalino at Unfolding Creative Photography.

The “vibe” conspires to make The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer’s ‘Live at the King Eddy’ rip

There’s no tried-and-true, on-the-money-every-time recipe for crafting a great live record. But there are some things you can do to set yourself up for success. Things should sync up. Settings, gear, and tunes have to come together to complement each other and build one temporary monster in which that most important thing—vibe, of course—comes alive. And you have to get it all on tape. 

Just such an ideal holistic situation transpired over the three days that brought us The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer’s recently released Live at the King Eddy.

While the band had long-considered the idea of doing a live album to capture the raucousness of their show, the process didn’t begin in earnest until a friend planted a seed in the minds of Shawn Hall (the Harpoonist/harmonica player) and Matthew Rogers (the Axe Murderer/guitarist) years ago at Nashville’s AMERICANAFEST. The friend mentioned to them that the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio had landed permanently in Calgary—“The famous Rolling Stones recording truck that had been used on countless live recordings and studio albums like Led Zeppelin IV and Bob Marley’s Live! and all that stuff,” Rogers specifies over the phone from Vancouver.

“We were in total disbelief,” Rogers says. “We were basically like, ‘Well, we have to find a way to use that truck to record an album at some point in time.’”

Fast forward five or six years, and the National Music Centre is housing the mobile studio adjacent to the also (in)famous King Eddy

“We just thought, what more perfect scenario to record a live album than to use the most famous live recording truck ever and a revered blues venue that has the right vibe?” Rogers says. “We wouldn’t have wanted to do a live record in a theatre, even though we love playing theatres. We wanted the raucous energy of a club.”

The record testifies to the fact that they got what they were looking for. Recorded over three barn-burning nights in February 2019, Live at the King Eddy truly rips, with the blues duo aided by the additions of Vancouver-based soul singer Dawn Pemberton, keyboardist Geoff Hilhorst, and Winnipeg-based musician Andrina Turenne. Seems like a fitting torch pass, across time and space, for The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer to render their lowdown blues through the Stones’ old studio. 

“It’s almost like you can imagine the Rolling Stones smoking in it,” Rogers laughs. “I feel like, you know, the cigarette stains are sort of still on the wall and there’s the smell of old gear. I like that they haven’t gone out of their way to make it super clean. I think it’s more truthful as is.”

Photo by Sebastian Buzzalino at Unfolding Creative Photography.

What was it like recording with the mobile studio? What were the challenges of working with a 50-year-old studio in a truck?

I think maybe on the first night one of the channels busted and stopped working mid-set. Stuff like that. And I think, just like they had to do back in the day, you roll with it. Back in the day, they knew how to fix things, you know? If something broke, you fix it. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re hooped.’ So, you know, luckily we had Jason there, who was able to make things work, and we had backup plans and all that type of stuff. But I mean, other than that, it didn’t really add an element of challenge. I think it added an element of excitement. The whole idea was just very exciting to us.

The production reminds me a lot of old live blues records—warm, gritty, wild. Does that just come along with using that old equipment?

Not just that equipment, but in the post-recording process we also mixed it at the NMC on a big old Trident board and using a bunch of super old-school gear. And recorded through tape. We just wanted to capture as much of that sort of… like a ’70s bar recording of a blues band, just capture that as much as we could while still being honest about it. The gear’s just so phenomenal, you know? The Led Zeppelin IV drums were recorded on it, and that’s like, the best drum sound in the universe. So I think that it definitely added to that sort of old-school vibe.

Was there anything you recognized on the album, when you were listening back, that took you aback? In the sense of, “Oh, this is here because it was a live show, and it’s a one-time thing?”

Yeah. On a song called “Do Whatcha” there’s a solo by Geoff Hilhorst, a wonderful keyboard player. We get to play with Jeff here and there, but not very often. It’s sort of a really special moment for us to get him in, the colourful character that he brought to the whole thing. But you know, when I think about him playing, I think about that solo specifically, and just how much of a nice addition and refreshing moment it is for our ears. Where he took his solos, it’s just so psychedelic. It’s like he’s from outer space.

What was the atmosphere during the residency like? How did the King Eddy feel during the shows to you? And I guess also, how did it feel to play there? You know, for the first time?

We knew a whole bunch of the people there already. And it just felt like such a natural fit from the get-go. We felt it was sort of meant to be. We literally hung out there for three or four days straight. We ate there. We hung out there afterwards, and we went for lunch there. It was truly like a residency because we were there all the time. And our hotel was right across the street. So we would just walk over from the hotel and be there for like, 12 hours. It was wonderful. That’s what we wanted. We wanted to immerse ourselves in that place with those people.

Photo by Sebastian Buzzalino at Unfolding Creative Photography.

Residencies like that really don’t seem to happen too much anymore. 

Yeah, I mean, there’s a few blues bars standing where you can go do a residency, like The Commercial in Edmonton. A few places like that. But yeah, it was a unique thing.

It’s strange to think that the record was done about a year before the pandemic began, and then released about the time that live music is returning to venues. How did working on and revisiting the record in the interim—in the time when live concerts were essentially not happening—affect your feelings toward it?

I mean, it certainly made me appreciate it that much more. I think probably everyone felt this way—it’s something you haven’t had for years. And watching the videos was like revisiting some weird past, where you’re like, ‘Did this even actually exist? Was this even reality at one point?’ Because it just seems so foreign. You know, everyone’s doing live streams and stuff like that at the time, but just to see a bunch of people in the room… It’s similar to, especially around the first year of the pandemic, when you were watching a movie and people are in a room without masks on and too close to each other, and you have this weird reaction. Like, ‘What are you guys doing?’ Looking back on these videos made during that time was certainly a little bit like that: ‘Was this real? Is this ever going to be real again?’ And, yeah, hopefully it is.

What makes a great live record?

Vibe. Just feeling like you’re there and feeling that communication with the audience on record is something that’s very difficult to capture. I don’t think there’s any true ‘steps 1-2-3’ for how to get there when you’re making a live record. But I can tell you that using the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio definitely helps.