Hailing from the Canadian “Steel City” of Hamilton, Ontario, Steel City Rovers create a sound true to their blue collar, Celtic roots. Add to that a hint of bluegrass and some raise-the-rafters energy, and you’ve got something to be reckoned with.
It’s a sound their fans call “CeltBilly,” a term embraced by the band.
We recently caught up with the Rovers’ multi-instrumentalist Mark Fletcher to learn more about that signature sound, their influences, and what they hope to achieve in the future.
See Steel City Rovers in Tuft Theatre at Swallow Hill Music on Saturday, November 4 at 8 p.m. Get tickets here.
The band’s members are from from Hamilton, Ontario and environs. The city is known as Canada’s “Steel City.” You’ve described it as “a bit of a rough blue collar working man town,” with “strong Celtic roots.” You get a strong sense of those traditions in your sound. Did you grow up with the Celtic music at home, or did you find it later in life as you started exploring music?
All of us grew up with Celtic/Folk Roots music in our homes, it all came in different ways. The McKenna brothers were steeped in a family that sang, all the siblings and parents learned all the traditional Irish standards and were encouraged to belt them out at any kind of gathering. Our fiddler Dave Neigh’s father was a world renowned piper, and Dave would travel extensively with his father to all the Highland Games and Celtic Colleges where his Dad taught and adjudicated, thus Dave was exposed to some of Canada’s best fiddlers as he grew up. Dave Gould our percussionist was raised in Canada’s Ottawa Valley. This is a region that has always been at the forefront of fiddle playing, and step dancing in Canada. Myself, there were generations of pipers and fiddle players in my family French,Scots and Irish styles. It was a natural thing for me to just continue playing this music.
The song “Guinness For Two” from your Grand Misadventures EP puts a great spin on the traditional drinking song. How did that song come together? Did the band take it as a challenge to freshen up a tried and true formula?
The song was written by Ryan, our singer, who composes the lyrics for almost all our song offerings. He wrote it after a mutual friend to all of us passed away by taking his own life. It was a shock because the lad in question always seemed so vibrant and full of life. He was one of those people who could always lift your spirit when you walked into the bar he tended. Sadly he was hiding his own demons from all of us. So in true Irish fashion we reflect on the good memories and raise a to toast in his memory and the memory to all those who pass before us.
The band describes itself as being “CeltBilly.” That is an interesting way of pointing out how interwoven Celtic musical traditions are with those that developed in North America. Were those Celtic and North American influences in the band’s make-up from the beginning, or did that develop over time?
Yeah the Celtibilly thing evolved pretty quick. When we first came together and began roughing out material Joel and I seemed to really click whenever I’d throw down some Bluegrassy line on the Mandola. It seemed so natural for us, Dave Neigh would follow quickly and had a natural affinity for playing with those riffs, so rather than resist for the sake of trying to remain centered in the Celtic zone, we embraced it. It wasn’t long before Ryan was dreaming up lyrics to fit those lines, and the next thing we knew songs like “Magic Cabin,” “Brand the Night Restful,” and “Seven Beer Itch” were part of our shows! Incidentally the Celtibilly descriptor came from some of our fans. We didn’t think that one up.
What are some contemporary Celtic bands that you find inspiring? On a related note, is there a non-Celtic band your audience would be surprised to learn has been an influence?
Wow, this is a big one. I could list dozens and dozens of bands that we have caught our attention over the years, Celtic and non Celtic! We love music in general and we love the diversity within our own genre. We’v listened to the great show tunes from all those 50s-60s movie musicals to the great Southern Blues artists from the 20s. Obviously we’ve listened in detail to all the great acts from Europe and the British Isles as well. I guess what I’m saying is we’ve given serious attention as a band to certain acts and each of us individually has had our faves. Just too many to list here, but I think we’ve managed to absorb all that influence and then spin it into our own sound.
Are you working on new material to release soon? Will the audience in Tuft Theatre hear some of that on November 4?
We are always working on new material. I personally challenge the band members to rethink, write and explore all the time. The biggest killer of bands over time is they get complacent and start to just dial in their shows. We have adopted as part of our business plan to never let that happen. So yes all those attending our show at the Tuft will be treated to some new material.
As far as recording, we probably have enough material now to fill two complete CDs. I’m not going to candy coat this though, the reality is we just don’t have the money to head into a good sound studio. It’s very frustrating and we are working hard and touring constantly slowly trying to build up a reserve to get in and record. I don’t want to appear to be whining about it, it’s just a fact of life in the music biz now. We’ll get into a studio soon… and when we do there’s going to be some great stuff recorded. I hope our fans will stay patient.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
What would I like to add. Well all I can say is this is a really hard working group. All the members’ families and significant others are right behind the project. Our fans and followers have been amazing and really created some wonderful opportunities for us over the years. We are all pretty much full time musicians and hoping that if we keep grinding along that Steel City Rovers will pretty much become our full time job. We are grateful that we have been given the opportunity to perform in Colorado and are looking forward to building a regular frequency of visiting and touring the U.S. West.
This Q&A was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Content Marketing & Publicity Manager Barry Osborne.