One-on-One with the Washboard Union

Aaron Grain (left) and Chris Duncombe (right) of The Washboard Union//Photo: Michael Thomas
Aaron Grain (left) and Chris Duncombe (right) of The Washboard Union//Photo: Michael Thomas

by Michael Thomas

For some bands, even dealing with playing one Canadian Music Week showcase can be daunting. The Washboard Union played four.

When I met up with Chris Duncombe and Aaron Grain of the Vancouver-based band in March during CMW madness, the two guys seemed the epitome of calm. Probably some of that calm came from the fact that despite only releasing their debut album last year, the Washboard Union has built up quite a buzz.

Grain and Duncombe call their band a band of brothers, all of whom were attracted to the same type of music growing up. The guys were all attracted to musicians like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams.

“Storytelling became a big part of what we do in our music,” Grain said.

“I think that’s the thing we were most attracted to—the storytelling songs,” Duncombe added. “That stuff is timeless, it doesn’t go away. That’s what probably drew us to it.”

With the band boasting four songwriters (though the majority are written by Duncombe and Grain) there’s a lot of great voices to be heard in their music. Their self-titled debut album features on the same disc the irreverent song “Hillbilly Bullshit” and also a country lament in “Billy the Kid.”

The fact that they’re a large band with four songwriters surprisingly doesn’t make things more complicated, though. “The sound is the sum of its parts,” Duncombe said. “Typical country acts have a lead singer or a lead singer and a co-singer, and the band just follows along. This is built of a bunch of pieces that were built together that way and we really focus on that.” He also added that every band member sees the build-up method as the most important means of creating their songs.

However one might define their songwriting process, it’s certainly building up a lot of buzz. When I asked them what they think is the reason for it, Grain’s immediate first answer was “We have a great publicist.” But he later added that there aren’t too many bands doing three-/four-part harmonies (and boy do I love harmonies) and that their energy is one best experienced at a live show.

“When you see a live show, you feel the live show,” Grain said. “If you can walk away from that live show with goosebumps, you witnessed it with everybody else in the room, you can talk about that. That’s an experience.”

Being part of a rising band still comes with its surprises, of course. Grain and Duncombe recounted a show they played at Rifflandia last year.

“We walked on stage and the club was maybe a quarter full, if that,” Grain started. “And we got into our first song, and halfway through the first song the club became jam-packed. And there’s these people right around the front door. Then this buzz came in the room; there was a lineup down the stairs, out the door, down the block and around the block to get into the show. So not only was it packed within five minutes, there’s a lineup. We never had that before.”

“It scared the shit out of us when we got on stage!” Duncombe said.

“The fact that we were a destination felt great,” Grain finished.

The two guys certainly made clear their love of festivals, both in terms of all of the ones they played last year and the numerous others they’ll be playing this summer. They’re also now in the process of recording a second album.

“It’s gonna be a busy summer and busy fall for us,” Duncombe said.

By the end of the interview I got the feeling that Duncombe and Grain really enjoy being busy. And that’s always a good work ethic for a band to have.

The Washboard Union will be on tour at various summer festivals this summer, dates below:
June 21st – Calgary, AB – Sled Island
June 22nd – Gravelbourg, SK – Summer Solstice Festival
June 29th – Port Renfrew, BC – Tall Tree Music Festival
July 5th – Kelowna, BC – Keloha Music Festival
July 10th – Vancouver, BC – VENUE
July 25th – Victoria, BC – Victoria Live & Unsigned Showcase

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