Last Ditch on the Left :: Eyes & ears on the road ahead


by Sheldon Birnie

Consider, for just a moment, Winnipeg’s music scene as something of a forest. You have gnarled old veterans and spry young saplings growing side-by-side, competing for light and resources, yet also dependent on each other for survival in the ecosystem web. With Last Ditch on the Left, a duo made up of Brent Warren and Kerri Stephens, you have a bit of both. Each are veterans in their own right. But the project is something new for each of them. A truly collaborative work, Last Ditch on the Left builds off of their previous musical lives while bringing something fresh and new into the world. Like when you see a budding young pine tree growing from the stump of an old oak or out of the a felled length of birch. With the release of their debut, self-titled record coming up this weekend, Brent and Kerri took the time recently to chat with Stylus about Last Ditch on the Left, and what it takes to make raw, honest music without regard to commercial success.

Stylus: What’s the story behind this project? How did you two first start playing music together?
Brent Warren: We started, going right back, Kerri and I probably knew each other for five years before I first played with her. I was like a sideman when her regular guy couldn’t make it. Over time, I just started playing more with Matt Epp, who is a good friend of ours. Kerri saw us play a show somewhere around 2009 and approached me, saying we should play again. But she was kind of done with her solo stuff, and wanted to do something more collaborative. There were gigs to be had, but we started doing her songs, trying to change them a bit and make them collaborative as we were writing songs. It got to a point where we had to back off of that. It was too easy to just do that. We were trying to force her old songs into the set list. We took some time off to write and figure out how we were going to do it. And it took many years. As single parents with day jobs, leaving her music behind, it took a few false starts to get it going. But we would still try here and there, and if it wasn’t working we’d just back off. About a year ago it looked like we weren’t going to be able to make the record, we didn’t have funding, etc. But we sat down with Matt Epp on the riverside, and he thought maybe we were just making excuses as to why it wasn’t working. He offered some ways of actually getting around those things, like taking the train to get to Toronto to work with the producer we wanted [David Baxter], staying with Matt and his wife a five minute walk from the studio. If you’re applying for a huge grant, the numbers are different if you’re going to do it stripped down in a couple of days with minimal overdubs. We wanted to make the record we wanted anyway, so that cut down on costs just from the production standpoint. And there you go, we just had this record.

Stylus: Where do you see Last Ditch on the Left within Winnipeg’s music scene?
BW: We talk about that a lot. We do feel what we’re doing is a lot different, especially if you look nationally. Folk music has taken off, and we like some of it. We get behind a lot of it, we have a lot of friends doing it. But it would seem like folk music has become a different branch of pop music. It’s very refined and polished. A lot of it seems to be manufactured for sale. There is still al ot of good stuff, lot of good songwriters, vocalists and musicians, but we feel that what we do is not really like anything else. Not that it’s better or groundbreaking. But it’s a little more in line with the values of what we love. We sit around and listen to mostly older music. We love a lot of genres, certainly not just folk music. But I supposed our instrumentation, because of our situations, keeping it as a duo and acoustic for the most part, I guess it comes off sounds like roots or folk. Which is cool. One of our favourite bands is The Band. You can hear those first two records, you can hear where they make mistakes, or Levon misses something by just a moment.
Kerri Stephens: There’s just so much character in that, it’s honest. It’s not manufactured.
BW: You can see how it might rub people the wrong way, it’s not necessarily always in tune.
KS: We didn’t want o make songs radio friendly just to make them radio friend. If people latch onto the songs that’s great. But we’re not going out of our way to do it. I’ve been making music a long time, in the past that’s been important to me. You know, “Is there a song that will take off, whatever.” But now, we’re working together doing what we want to do. If people like it that’s awesome, if they don’t, I understand. [laughs] I hope people like it. We’re happy with it. David Baxter was able to help us portray ourselves. But for some people, my mom for example, need everything to be tuned really well, and there’s a lot of people like that.
BW: We’ve been pretty surprised. Most of our musicians friends are very honest with us. And we’ve been surprised with who really likes it, and who doesn’t. Some people I thought would really get behind it, it’s not their cup of tea. But I’m sure I like less than one per cent of what I hear. But more so some of the people who are really excited about, I’m really surprised.

Stylus: What was the process of writing and recording the album like?
KS: That was difficult to figure out at first. I’d been one of those people who’d write a song when inspired to do it. So to let someone into that process… Even when we first started working together, it affected me a lot. Like writing something from the heart, and someone tearing it down. Now, if I have a song seed, I just save it. I don’t go further until we can sit down together, so we can collaborate. I’ve come to realize the things that scared me about tearing a song down before only makes a song better. So it’s worth being patient. We have alot of trust writing together, so it’s been a really great.
BW: We didn’t know what to expect at all , we didn’t know how much time he was going to give us. Is he going to give us four hours? Will we get one song, or maybe an EP. I was on tour with Matt Epp, and he was like, “No, go in there and just lay them all down, all your songs.” When we got there, we still didn’t know how much time we had. So we rattled of nine in the first day, and three in the second day. They weren’t even long days. Maybe six or seven hours. Then, minimal overdubs. Baxter did some mandolin and piano and hand-pumped harmonium, and I did a couple electric guitar overdubs. But even that was pretty short. The room was still vibrating with the songs. A couple shorter days mixing before we left, and a couple days after we got home, he’d send us his mixing ideas. He was very specific of not touching the songs too much.
KS: We even found that when he first started sending us his songs, I guess a lot of people like a bit more echoing, reverb. But for us, we kept being like, “drier, drier, very very raw.” He was glad, in the end, that we did that. But we just wanted it how it was. We left with so many first takes. A lot of the album is first takes, because of the spirit. We didn’t want to overthink it, because you lose some of the character. We kept finding, it was funn,y, the firs ttake was kinda good. Should we do a second take just because? We tried to just lay it down. We just played it live off the floor.|
BW: It was interesting. Baxter was good at telling us over and over again that we had our shit down. He took our productino ideas in stride, there was no ego. It was easy for us to want to do something again, overdub something. But he kept us in check, he’d say, “No.” He’d never made a record like this either. He’s used to making records where the vocals are up front, but we were adamant about the instrumentation behind up there as well.
KS: For us, that wasn’t what we wanted. Because it was so raw, just the two of us with guitars.

Stylus: What were your goals going into that process? Do you feel like you achieved them?
BW: Once we got there an talked to him for a bit, and got an idea of how much time he was giving us and what his expectations were, it became clear to us that we were just going to do just a period piece for us. We’re a stripped down duo, which makes sense for us, which is also why we self-titled the record. This is how we sound, this is how we do it, this is going to be stripped down.
KS: We wanted whatever we sound live, we wanted it to sound like on the record. I get that a lot, you love a band and you get the record but then you take it home and it’s not the same experience. Even the content of the song, they’re really about some of the struggles we went through personally and in our relationship, with our community, our past. The fact that I used to do more Christian music and trying to break free of that, because that’s not who I am anymore. There’s a lot of songs that are more personal. It really is just the story of our lives over the last couple years.

Stylus: As far as performing goes, what does the New Year hold for Last Ditch on the Left?
BW: After last winter, I said that’s the last time I do any touring in the winter. Canadian highways scare the crap out of me. It’s not worth it anymore. But at the same time, winters a good time to write songs and work on our repertoire. In the past, we’ve done electric shows, Kerri’s been playing the drums a lot more. There’s different ways to present ourselves, even as a duo. Once the spring comes, we’ll focus more on short mini-tours, micro-tours where we take off for the weekend and do three or four shows. Summer will hpefully be festivals. We try to do our longer tours just before the spring an fall terms. We’ve got a Germany tour lined up for March, and April till June will be micro-tours, betweeen the Mountains and NW Ontario. For the fall, I don’t know. Maybe a homeroutes tour or
KS: We’ve got to put some thought into that. But yeah, we have hopes. Are hopes are that we can set out. Who knows? Germany might go great and we’ll head back in the fall. It’s hard to know at this point. We’ll see.

Don’t miss Last Ditch on the Left’s CD release party down at the West End Cultural Centre Saturday November 29. And, while you’re at it, why don’t you check out the Walk a Mile in Their Shoes blog, which details the ins and outs of being an independent musician working outside of the mainstream.