“I don’t think we really listen to a lot of new music, that’s probably the biggest factor.” That’s the reason guitarist Burke Barlow of The Deep Dark Woods gives when asked how he and the band manage to sound so old-timey. “It depends on which of us you're talking to, but the stuff we listen to ranges from early Mississippi delta blues to early English folk music to Dylan and The Band and old bluegrass and everything like that. So I think that’s basically why we end up sounding like something from the past.”
Trafficking in a satisfying blend of twangy country and rootsy folk, the Saskatoon-based quintet indeed evokes the sounds of yesteryear. Through a prism of simple but satisfying harmony, the lyrical focus on universally relatable themes — departure, penury, yearning and taking it all in stride — is all the more resonant. Sitting atop wide-open arrangements that give ample space to banjo, lap steel and swoon-inducing organ, it all adds up to a romantic ideal of country music renaissance men. The only thing that clashes with this idealized image is the fact that Barlow and his bandmates are relative newcomers in a field where age is paramount — how on earth did such whippersnappers come to such an appreciation of “real music?”
“I don’t really know what it was,” Barlow says, admitting that most of the band’s previous musical projects were largely devoted to aping mid-’90s alternative rock. In other words, it’s perfectly normal. “I was actually talking to Joel Plaskett once about why he called it quits with Thrush Hermit and put out that folk record [In Need of Medical Attention]. And he said he just hit a certain age where it started to appeal to him. I think the same thing happened to a few of us, because our favourite bands were, you know, Radiohead and the Smashing Pumpkins and then all of a sudden we hit an age and it was like ‘Oh, Gram Parsons? Who is this guy?’”
The band’s decision to embrace a sincere appreciation of vintage songcraft has had its benefits. One of the most important consequences is that The Deep Dark Woods is one of very few up-and-coming indie buzz bands that enjoy a huge fan base among people its parents’ age. When asked what he thinks of the fact that this humble writer, for example, was introduced to the band by his dear mother, a card-carrying super-fan, Barlow seemed more than content with the situation.
“That age group buys a lot more CDs still, so that’s always a good thing,” he says with a laugh. “And they’ll tend to pay a lot more to see you. When you play in a bar, lots of people want to burn your CD and then sneak in the back door, but when you play to moms in a theatre, they all pay 20 bucks and buy your CD.”
Of course, if critical acclaim is any indication, The Deep Dark Woods shouldn’t be too worried about moving albums. Since the release of Winter Hours, it’s third LP, in February, the band has racked up one elusive distinction after another, starting with glowing praise from online tastemakers Pitchfork Media, sidling gracefully through a sit-in with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC Radio One’s Q, and culminating two weekends ago in Brandon, when the band received the Western Canadian Music Award for best roots duo/group recording of the year. Now that it’s through the struggling-for-recognition phase, is it possible that fans should be worried about The Deep Dark Woods’ ability to construct a heart-wrenching hit like All the Money I Had is Gone?
“It’s business as usual for the band,” assures Barlow. “It just means we have a little more cash when we get home from tour. A little more wham. It hasn’t really affected songwriting or anything like that. Mind you, most of the songs we’re playing now were written six months ago, so who knows?”