Alton Gowen, John Fleming and Darrin Herting are sure of at least two things: it’s all right to have fun, and making music is one of the best ways to do that – for yourselves and others.
The three musicians have joined forces, moving off Gowen’s porch and onto the stage, as the Seal Skull Hammer.
“It’s a jug band, archaic porch music. You can’t call it country, can’t really call it folk – hillbilly jug maybe,” says Gowen with a laugh, trying to describe the band’s genre. “But we’re still on a hunt for a jug.”
Gowen plays banjo, an Ozark or jaw harp and kazoo. Fleming contributes guitar and harmonica – and Herting?
Well, he plays mandolin, banjo, guitar and “a lot of weird stuff.”
His current instrument of choice is a gut-bucket, a wash tub with a rusty bottom, weed whipper cable and a broken broom stick, an instrument he describes more kindly as a one-string bass.
“If you can control the pitch, anything can be an instrument,” Herting says, launching the enthusiastic trio into a discussion of where they’ve been musically, where they’re going and why.
“I’m the son of a preacher man, so I heard a lot of gospel,” says Fleming, who took piano lessons as a child and says he respects classical music. “But I didn’t have enough boogie. I always wanted to play all the black things, not the white things, if you know what I mean.”
Alton flicks his phone and the sound of the group’s raw rendition of the 1820 Turkey in the Straw emanates from a 2011 telephone.
“It’s been 16 years since I played anything,” he says, describing his path from earning Grade 6 piano to playing in concert bands, jazz bands and learning to play woodwind instruments. “It’s amazing when you start with one (instrument) and begin others. It’s easier and it helps you to understand music instead of the instrument.”
Herting, who has performed professionally and taught music for the past 20 years, concurs.
“I was probably three when I started playing guitar and played countless wind instruments through school,” he says, noting each new instrument added to his knowledge of music itself. “Once you understand how music works, all you’re left to learn is the mechanics of the instrument, which in our case allows us to play instruments that aren’t even instruments.”
It’s back to the basics for these boys who are fed up with the sounds of much of today’s “over-produced” music.
“I think there is going to be a revolt, people aren’t going to want to hear electronic music all the time,” says Herting, noting Seal Skull Hammer aims to be easy to relate to so people don’t have to strain to understand their music. “We’re not into doing music unless it means something to us,” he adds.
While each member of Seal Skull Hammer has their own personal taste in music, the common belief is that a lot of modern music doesn’t produce a sense of happiness, community, joy or contentment.
“Music was used to bring community together,” says Herting looking back. “You can have raves with everyone listening but the mood is not necessarily positive.”
And passing on positive vibes is top of the list to these three men.
“We’re still gonna sing sad songs but in a happy way,” quips Fleming. “Even though the content is sad, we hope you are happy by the end of it. Put away your toil and ease the mortal coil.”
The group that does a few covers and writes their own music too, sprung from once-a-week summer jams on Gowen’s front porch.
“Some nights it would just happen; people would show up and I’d need to grab a guitar,” Gowen says, noting his neighbours never complained and a few even cheered. “Then Darrin called us to do a coffee house. He figured it was high time other people were having as much fun as us.”
And their first Sunnybrae coffee house seemed to prove Herting right as Gowen describes the response as over-the-top.
“Let’s just say they wanted us to keep going.”
So, that’s exactly what they are doing. Available for private parties, Seal Skull Hammer will perform Saturday, Dec. 17 at Sturgis North Pub, where they will join the popular Boom Booms and City of Sparks. (See page 25 for band details).
Tickets are $10 at the door and the last evening The Boom Booms appeared, the place filled up quickly.
“It’s first-come, first served,” says Gowen. “So get there early.”
To learn more about Seal Skull Hammer, check them out on Facebook.