Six Years On, Ottawa’s Busking Bluesfest Brothers Are Back!
Photographs submitted by dubé.
The classic guitar solo of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” wails into the summer night from the street outside of RBC Bluesfest. The headliner has left the stage but there, in the road, the music continues with a sound so spot on you would think Metallica was staging a surprise corner gig for those exiting the festival. As you advance you see a crowd formed around the band. It’s only getting bigger. The faces wear the expression of pure astonishment mixed with elation. Peeking through the bodies, it’s not so shocking to discover that this wasn’t Metallica. What was shocking, however, was discovering that this sound came from a trio of brothers ages 9, 11 and 13.
Drummer Quinn, bassist Jan and guitarist Liam Dubé would become known as The Buskers of Bluesfest and maybe that’s where it would have peaked, a crowd of astounded onlookers watching three kids rock out to Nirvana and Zeppelin, but festival patrons wouldn’t be the only ones their playing would attract. Festival headliners and Montreal indie rockers Arcade Fire heard the brothers as they made their way back to their tour bus after their show and promptly joined the trio on the street to sing along.
The crowd was amazed even if the kids had no idea who they were, thinking the Grammy winners were a couple of drunken people trying to bust up their performance. The impromptu jam session with Arcade Fire would net the young buskers some media attention as well as larger crowds for the reminder of the festival. The rest, as they say, is history.
That was six years ago and the lives of the kids that called themselves The Dube Brothers haven’t been the same since.
Now rebranded as dubé, the brothers have since toured around the world, opening up for acts like the Beach Boys and are on the way to releasing their first EP of original tunes later this year. Still, it hasn’t gone to their heads. School remains a priority as does fundraising. Inspired to give back to those less fortunate after the tragic passing of their mother –a woman the boy’s cite as a major influence on who they are today– the band raised over $85,000 for victims of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and they continue to pay it forward. They even still busk from time to time with gigs as recent as a Sparks Street show on Canada Day.
Their new single, “You”, was released earlier this month:
Liam, Quinn and Jan return to the festival that helped kickstart their careers on Saturday, July 16th. This time they won’t be outside the Bluesfest gates but playing a 3 p.m. show on the Monster Energy Stage.
Talking with Ottawa Life, the brothers reveal what they have been up between the night six years ago busking with Arcade Fire and their coming festival show. We also talk about the effects of a lot of rapid change for them at such a young age, maturing alongside their music, playing with the Beach Boys and their future self-titled EP.
Ottawa Life: Can you tell me a bit about growing up in Ottawa before your music started to take off?
Quinn: Growing up in Ottawa was just like any other childhood. We were all hardcore hockey fans and Liam took hockey pretty seriously with the support of my parents. Jan played goalie and I never got higher than Timbits. We slowly started messing around with instruments since our dad used to be in a band. But I’d say it was like any other kid’s life.
From what I have read, your parents have both been strong influences on your lives and motivation, especially you mom. Can you tell me a bit about how they helped you all while growing up?
Jan: There is no easy way to explain it as it is such a delicate concept in the sense that we don’t want it to be misinterpreted. We call our mother the best/worst thing that happened to us; worst being the fact that we had to lose her at such an early time and best in the sense that we have grown from the experience in such an incredible way, we understand things that a lot of people haven’t yet gotten the opportunity to understand and we use that understanding as much as possible to positively affect others. Our method of choice is music. Now someone who isn’t credited as often as she should be is our stepmother Christine, who took on one of the biggest challenges in the world: three boys and a rock band. She keeps the day to day life going and, of course, our father who we can’t thank enough for his continuous support.
It’s pretty unusual for all siblings to be interested in music. What do you feel was the draw? Did all of you want to play different instruments from the outset?
Liam: Our dad played in punk bands in the ‘90’s so growing up we had access to tons of gear that other kids normally wouldn’t have access to. We would mess around with a guitar for a little bit and then put it down. Slowly we messed around for longer periods of time until we finally started playing instruments. At first, I wanted to play drums, but then we all noticed Quinn was a natural drummer so I kinda’ went and stole the guitar from Jan. He kinda’ got stuck with bass.
Jan: I think if we had the chance to change who plays which instrument, we wouldn’t change anything. Quinn and I have always gelled well together while Liam is kind of the chaotic energy of the band.
What were some of the ways you motivated each other to practice?
There has been and always will be a brotherly competitiveness. We push each other to play better music. Quinn would show up to band practice and say “I just learnt Tom Sawyer” and Jan and I would look at each other and be like “I guess we are leaning YYZ now”.
What were your influences musically?
Quinn: Growing up, our dad exposed us to everything from Jazz to Metal. We are not fans of any particular genre but rather fans of music. We were influenced by Kings of Leon, the Neighbourhood, Beck, Led Zeppelin etc.
Jan: We kinda’ look for odd ways to play the instrument or put odd effects together to make a new sound. We just jam out an idea in the basement, and that’s how we find sounds. We play a part over and over again and explore sounds. A lot of the time it doesn’t get very far, but if you do it enough eventually you will write something really cool.
Being all brothers, is there ever any sibling rivalry that comes up while playing?
Quinn: Not so much anymore. We used to have really big rivalries and fight a lot more, but now we are old and wise and don’t fight nearly as much. But just like any group of siblings once in a while it happens.
I recall reading an interview with you not long after the passing of your mother where you said you wanted to make lemonade out of lemons. Her passing became fuel for inspiration and helping others. Can you elaborate a little on that?
Liam: The passing of our mom really pushed us to raise more for charity. The earthquake in Haiti in 2010 really hit us because we could relate to all the orphans. They had lost two parents and we had only lost one. That’s a big reason why we raised money for Haiti. We never thought we could raise tons and tons of money for Haiti. We started off small with a goal of $1000, then $5000, then $10,000 and we just kept meeting our goals so we kept pushing for a bigger goal for a bigger change.
So, who had the idea to start busking outside of Bluesfest each day and what went into getting all your equipment out there? What about the song choices?
Quinn: Busking outside Bluesfest kind of just shaped itself. We started busking on Sparks and in the market and when Bluesfest came around we all said we’re doing this’ because we always looked for the best places to busk. My dad had a big part. We would pack all the gear into the truck –it was about a whole trunk full of gear– and he would drive it to the busking site and organize pretty much everything. He was the sound man for all those shows. We were all having fun because our family had become a team. We were up late packing gear, unpacking, driving. It was a lot of work but definitely a great experience! We learned all the classics like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana etc. and organized a whole set of covers to perform. We played the songs we loved listening to.
You started to rack up quite a following of people each night. I remember getting chills hearing your “Enter Sandman” when the crowd just started singing along. It was really kind of magical, I’d say. Can you tell me what it was like from your perspective to see that build each night? Was it surprising to you?
Quinn: Honestly, none of us were tall enough at the time to see how many people we were actually playing to. After four or five rows its became just a wall of people. We knew it was not going to be a small crowd because we had a stage set up on the sidewalk but it’s definitely something amazing to see and experience! I think we were all surprised by how many people would stop as we have always seen lots of busker who were really good but didn’t have nearly as big of a crowd.
Take me through the evening Arcade Fire joined you from your side of things. Were you familiar with who they were and why everybody was freaking out?
Liam: At the time, we just thought it was a couple of fans wanting to have a good time. We kinda’ found out afterwards when our dad told us that it was Arcade Fire. We realized why so many people randomly showed up. I guess they saw us playing across the street when they were getting off the stage after their set and they ran across the street to sing “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles with us. That is a moment I’ll never forget!
What happened after the band left? Did you hear from them? I also recall you guys getting quite a bit of media coverage.
Jan: We got in touch with Arcade Fire and started raising money with them. For every dollar we raised, they matched it. It turned out that Arcade Fire had also been raising money for Haiti, and we jumped on board! We are now ambassadors for their affiliate charity KANPE.
Do you feel that incident really launched you in another direction?
Quinn: It definitely helped us raise more money and put a lot more credibility into us. It got us good media coverage to get our message out, that we were raising money for Haiti. We were then contacted by a producer and started recording our first album. So I guess it did launch us in a new direction.
The next year you were asked to actually be on the stage at the festival. What was that like?
Quinn: Playing Bluesfest that year was a great experience since it was one of the first shows on a bigger stage and in a festival. It was a blast since it was a bigger show in our hometown. It will be great to see the comparison between that show and this year’s show.
What was going with you all between those two moments? Fundraising?
Liam: Yes we were busy raising money for Haiti between the summers. We eventually went to Haiti in 2012 to see where the money had gone.
Fundraising has always been important to you. What sparks that drive and initiative?
Jan: We started fundraising for our mom when she had breast cancer. We would cover her favourite tunes and post them on Youtube for her to see. We started raising money for cancer research and we started raising money after we heard about the earthquake. We know not everyone has the opportunity to live in such a great country like Canada so like to find ways to give back.
How did you all adjust to your lives changing so rapidly?
Jan: After our mom passed, we had to readjust and adapt to it. It was very different. When we took music seriously, that was another time to adjust since it was completely new lifestyle. To this day, we easily adapt to the changing circumstances life imposes onto us. Life is very dynamic and I think it’s important to be able to adapt like that.
You became more known for your covers at the outset but are now doing your own material. Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing your own music?
Jan: When we were younger, we were really inspired by classic rock. When we did the song writing ourselves we often did it with our producers and other artists. Co-writing with other musicians helped us develop ways to write our own music. We’ve done a lot of experimenting, finding different sounds and finding new ways to write. We either jam out an idea and record it on a phone, practice it and then write over it, or if one of us gets an idea we can get on the computer and record a guitar part or a vocal part and start layering over it with different parts and that way we can really find different sounds. Just like life, our writing and recording process is very dynamic and always changing.
You’ve been called Canada’s Youngest Rock Band. Do you like that title?
Liam: I doubt we are still the youngest. That was a couple of years back. We’re getting old now. I think that was a phase of our career but I don’t think that’s how we want to be remembered. We want people to remember us for the songs we write and the connections we make with our fans, not for our age.
Liam: We have played many cities from Moncton to Winnipeg, New York City, Nashville and even in Europe. One of our favourites has to be opening for the Beach Boys, however we love the small intimate shows as it is a much more personal experience.
What was opening for the Beach Boys like?
Quinn: Crazy! Absolute blast! It was great to meet and talk with legends. They even brought us back for their encore which was pretty cool. They were really cool people, we talked for nearly two hours after the show and it was definitely one of the most memorable moments in our lives I’d say. It was really nice of them to share so much wisdom of years of touring, writing and recording. We definitely learnt a lot from them.
How do you balance school with music?
Jan: Quinn and I are still in high school and Liam’s in university now. School has always been priority number one so if we have homework or projects to do we do them before music. I’d say we’re pretty good students, we maintain pretty good grades. As long as we keep good grades, we can play music. That’s our rule! It is more our social lives that have seen a hit. We don’t get to do certain things because we have gigs or recording time but it’s all worth it to us as playing music is our favourite thing to do.
There really is this vibe from you guys that you are not in it for the fame or money but you really just like playing together. Would you agree?
Liam: Absolutely! At the end of the day, for us, it’s all about the music and connecting with people. We just love playing together. I get goosebumps when we play together. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.
You have a new EP. What went into making that one and how did you settle upon the songs?
Liam: A lot of work and time went into making the EP. It was a three-year process to write the songs, record them and pick the right songs that represent our sound the best. We recorded in Germany and out at our studio in Clayton, Ontario. We wrote some songs with other writers and some are purely ours. It took so long because we wanted to make sure it didn’t sound like every other rock band but still sounded like us. I think we achieved that.
You’ve been asked to return again to Bluesfest. What would you say the festival has done for the band?
Jan: Bluesfest is great! They were really supportive of our busking efforts back in the day and continue to support all kinds of local talent. We are excited to be a part of it again this year!
What are some future plans?
Quinn: We’re trying to get gigs at the moment, but we are hoping to be able tour the college and universities circuits.
Liam: I really look forward to working in this band for a while. I think we can all agree that this is what we want to do for a living so hopefully we’ll be able to play music and perform for a long time!
Jan: It would be great to make a living out of this so that we could quit our day jobs (laughs). We’re definitely going to be writing and recording new music and try to get a second EP released for the New Year.
Ottawa Life’s Festival City Series will provide a unique look at some of your favourite summer events.We’ll go beyond the music with artist interviews, volunteer profiles, concert reviews and spotlights on the tastes, sights and sounds of the festival season. Your city! Your festivals! Your summer! Like a good sunscreen, Ottawa Life has you covered.