With eight consecutive top-10 rock radio hits under their belt, The Glorious Sons are one of Canada’s biggest rock bands. They’ve toured stadiums, headlined festivals, and even shared the stage with The Rolling Stones. In the middle of a much needed break, we chatted with front-man Brett Emmons to dig into some of his favourite deep cuts that dig deep.
What was your goal when putting together this playlist?
I wanted to make a list of songs — simple songs, I guess — that at least cause a large reaction within me emotionally. Whether that means they are two chords or someone just says exactly what they mean, but I’ve always loved a song that punches you in the gut. I think that there are songwriters that know how to cut the fat better than others, and they cause an emotional reaction that other songwriters can’t. There are songwriters that are extremely impressive, that I listen to and I think, “Well how the hell did he come up with that?” But I don’t think it ever measures up to say a John Lennon line like, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”. It’s just so simple, there’s no fat on it, and it just kind of makes you want to vomit from your heart. For lack of a better term.
“It just kind of makes you want to vomit from your heart.”
You’ve toured with some of these bands on this list, right?
A lot of these bands, like Teenage Kicks, J Roddy Walston, we toured with them too. And for the life of me I never knew why they didn’t get more of a fan reaction than they’ve gotten and haven’t had more success than they’ve had. We toured with them through the states and it was one of the funnest times I’ve ever had. And they’re kind of like a jammy band. Live at least, I don’t think you’d ever hear it on record. But they’re just incredible musicians, and their music lives and breathes differently every night.
You talk about the simple songs that just kind of punch you in the gut. Is that something that you try to emulate in your own writing?
Yeah. I think after we wrote The Union, I knew I hit on that with a few songs but I didn’t really have a voice. It took me 2 years of just constantly writing and just picking things out of lines in order to kind of make them sit heavier. I find when writing, say I’m writing a fiction story, it’s about expanding on things. But with songs, I’ve always felt it’s about taking a big idea and kind of bringing it into this small area. And at least for a popular rock and roll band, it’s got to be digestible. It should definitely make you think, but I want people to be able to relate with it as well.
What was your journey like to get where you are now?
It took me a long time. Tons of writing trips and meeting people that inspired me just to say exactly what I mean. I remember I went to Nashville trying to write country songs — I was trying to make money on the side. I met this guy named Dave Berg. I had a song that just got put on his last album called I’m On Your Side. And every time I’d write a line, he’d say, “Is that what you really mean?” And it just kinda screwed with me. He was just this unique, quiet, 40 year old guy who lived in this big house on a hill by himself. And he would go out, smoke a cigarette and look off the deck and come back in with just the most poignant, simple line. And it just inspired me to just tear everything away and learn to talk to people more.
So Dave Van Ronk, my friend Luke showed me him about a month ago. I didn’t realize this, but he was actually kind of a mentor for Bob Dylan. And of course he never got as much popular praise as Dylan did. But they called him The Mayor Grudge Village. So he showed me that Green Green Rocky Road song, and it was just that grain you hear on the acoustic guitar. I’m a sucker for song writers in general, but it’s just so simple. It’s a guitar and a man’s voice. And you can tell he’s not exactly a naturally trained singer, but you can hear the hurt in his voice, you can hear the wood on the strings, and it’s just a beautiful song.
“You can hear the hurt in his voice, you can hear the wood on the strings, and it’s just a beautiful song.”
Peter from Teenage Kicks is now our guitar tech, but we took him out on our first Canadian tour. And they were pretty big in Toronto, they had a relatively good following. They had some hardships and ended up breaking up and they’re not doing it anymore, but I think Brooklyn Bridge is one of the fucking best Canadian rock songs made in the last 20 years. I’m a sucker for a song that starts quiet and just smashes you at some point in the face. His writing on it is amazing, but his vocal performance, again. Throughout this whole list, you’ll probably see vocal performances where the imperfections of people’s voices shine through and you can kind of hear them bleed a little bit. Brooklyn Bridge for me is one of those.
“I’m a sucker for a song that starts quiet and just smashes you at some point in the face.”
Heavy Bells I chose again for that vocal thing. But in a totally different, more fun way. I think it’s definitely more pronounced on this song. The whole chorus is him just shrieking, and I love that. I don’t know if people understand how hard that is to do. And how hard on your voice that is. It just sounds like yelling but there’s real thought put into it, and to do that every night. I watched him do that every night for an entire tour and it was perfect. And better live. And man, I just love the break. It’s just a man screaming like a banshee. Just beautiful for some reason to me.
Is that a trained method or is he damaging his vocal cords?
I would think that if you ask any vocal coach in the entire world, they’d tell you that he’s damaging vocal cords. I’ve had vocal troubles in my life and if you talk to people that are using their voice in a rock band travelling around, they’ll tell you they’ve all had polyps, they’ve all had things go wrong with their voice boxes. It’s going to happen. You’re manipulating these two little things in your voice together to create sound. I think some of the best stuff has come out of improper manipulation of them. Take Twist and Shout. And that’s what rock music is, right?
About 4 or 5 years ago I first started listening to Townes Van Zandt, and I really enjoyed that. But I was sitting around a kitchen table with one of my buddies and he just wouldn’t shut up about Blaze Foley and how he was just the best of them all. And it kind of made me dislike him at first, just because my whole thought is like, if Townes is the known one from that era — and I knew how talented Van Zan is, like an incredible songwriter — I just kinda of compared the two in my brain. But then I started listening to Blaze Foley. I learned his story and his story is absolutely crazy. He lived in a tree house for 2 years with his girlfriend, got shot in the liver protecting a friend from his son, and he was actually killed which is quite sad. They called him The Duct Tape Messiah because he duct taped everything he owned, it’s pretty funny. I heard stories about him pawning like his only guitar just to get money to get hammered, and somehow he’d always get it back.
He was also just an incredible songwriter and his voice. I think is one of the most natural voices you hear. One of those singers that sings the way they talk. And that’s another side of the voice that I really like. Guys like Don Henley and Jackson Brown. You can hear their speaking voice in their singing voice. They just have that natural tone, like it was never really work for them; they were just coming out and singing. There are tons of imperfections and little knots in it here and there, but that’s what makes it beautiful. And Blaze Foley just has that. He’s this big, hulking man, and he’s got that deep, southern country voice. He’s one of those guys that just punches you in the gut with his lyrics. He just says exactly what he means. There’s something about when somebody just sings the way they talk, it always, just sounds so honest to me. And that’s what I think probably what makes a songwriter great or not, is how honest they are.
“There are tons of imperfections and little knots in it here and there, but that’s what makes it beautiful.”
Yeah, at one point he just says in his song, “I saw daylight in your eyes.” And I was just floored. Just stuff like that every now and again comes around and you just wanna cry. You can relate it to any memory you’ve ever had to falling in love with somebody, meeting somebody, or getting in a situation where you finally felt like you have the answer. And I truly love, love that song.
You mentioned country a couple times. How do you find that country lives within your world of being a musician?
I grew up in a town of 600 people, 20 minutes outside of Kingston. I went to school in a town where there was only one road. We were in the country. I can’t say that I really relate heavily with wildlife and stuff like that, but I think just growing up and being in that place; fishing, seeing deer, looking for different kinds of rocks. It’s just so easy for me to relate to those types of stories because that’s where I grew up, I guess. I was once asked in an interview about how most of our music was relating to small town things, kind of every man kind of things. I don’t think it’s ever been a choice for me, it’s just who I am.
So is the relatability you find with country just where the lyrical content is derived from, or do you find yourself ever inspired by the music itself?
I think there’s just a lot of grain to the music. Especially the most country songs where you can hear the strings rattling on the wood, it just sounds so natural. Another thing is I think that a lot of country music is rooted in loneliness, and feeling small. I don’t know if that’s why I like it, but that’s kind of the way that I write and the way I feel about human beings. I think that we tend to magnify very small things, but a lot of the time, at the heart of every great story, is just a small person doing small things, and it’s very simple. And I think it doesn’t have to be this grandiose idea, I think that the mundane part of life is usually where the most beautiful stories come from.
“I think that the mundane part of life is usually where the most beautiful stories come from.”
I was introduced to this band by the guys I live with now, The Dirty Nil. They were just going on and on and on about them. They’re huge fan boys, so I thought I’d take a listen. Every night me and Kyle have a few drinks of whiskey and he’ll take me through a musical journey on YouTube. He showed me this song. It’s just 2 chords draped in reverb, and a man kind of singing like he talks. And it’s got that Lou Reed-esque kind of feel to it. It doesn’t really have to go anywhere, it just does exactly what it sets out to do. And I think it’s a beautiful song. It’s probably one of the songs that I’m least familiar with on this playlist because it’s a new one for me. He’s got this pop way with his melodies which is really interesting. I find with a lot of the indie rock music, it seems like people tend to get in their own way. And I’m not pointing any fingers or anything, but sometimes if something sounds good then it just sounds good. And it’s okay if a bunch of people like your music. And with this guy, I can just hear somebody doing exactly what they feel and putting it out there. It’s just very honest and it’s easy on the ear.
Do you find writing songs with less chords to be easier or more of a challenge?
It just depends on who’s writing the music. For myself, I’m not a great musician by any means. I do love to write music, but I’m not a great guitarist or a great piano player or anything like that. I’m getting better at guitar. But I use them as writing tools. One of my favourite things to hear or do is just play those two chords and leave that space empty so you can make the song move in whatever way you want and it’s always coming back to that anchor. There’s always this sense of familiarity, this sense of home, so you can take it literally anywhere. I guess maybe my own limitations drive me to liking music like that too.
I remember when I first heard this song, it was with my first girlfriend. We were driving around in this little blue car, and she’d always just show me tons of music; she was always on the up and up. She knew what was going on and I didn’t, to say the least. When you’re in a small town like Odessa, I think it’s harder to find new music than it might be for a kid growing up in a big city. The bands just don’t come to your city as much in the first place, and you know, just less people. Deer Tick I remember came on and I just hadn’t heard anything in the 21st century that sounded so ragged and rock and roll. I love that voice. It sounds like he smoked a thousand cigarettes and drank 12 bottles of whiskey. And by the stories I’ve heard, that’s exactly what he does. It’s just that manipulation of the voice in an improper way, it makes it sound like the devil singing the song. And it’s still one of my favourite songs. I always come back around to it and listen to it every year or so, because I just love that vocal performance so much.
This one just hit me at the right time. I was going through kind of a bad relationship and he just talks about how he wishes he could give somebody a perfect miracle. I think a lot of people have visions of how they think their relationships should be with people. They dream these things up in their head. And when it doesn’t meet the expectations that they made in their brain, they tend to get defeated and stop trying, hide, or just self destruct. I just love the thought of music, and at least I’ve tried in my music in the past while, to tell the truth about visions and dreams. People want their lives to be like stories, but that’s not always the way it’s going to work. I think this song is a beautiful representation of what we can and can’t do. It’s dressed in this whimsical sort of way that maybe hides that, but I think at the heart of the song it’s a simple explanation of what a man can and can’t do.
We took these guys on tour and I was just absolutely blown away by them. I don’t really know how old they are, I think they’re like 19 or 20, and they’re just incredible musicians. Oviously I’m not a manager and I don’t know how to sell music that well, but I think that if they keep the trajectory that they’re on, they’re going to probably be one of the biggest rock bands in the states. And I hope they do because they’re incredible musicians, and there’s just a danger to their music that I think is missing from a lot of rock and roll these days.
“They’re going to probably be one of the biggest rock bands in the states.”
How’d you come across these guys?
They pretty much just got thrown on our tour. We didn’t take them out for any real reason other than they were available to open for us, and they had a little bit of a buzz around them. I didn’t really know what to expect, but you can tell that this is the only thing they’ve done for 20 years. And I love that. I think they fancy themselves artists, and I think that’s good too. I mean, I like musicians a lot of the times that couldn’t be doing anything else, like that’s the way I’ve always considered myself. I’d be so fucked if I had to get a job, I was so bad at everything. Like I worked for my brother, and my brother could have easily fired me.
What do they have going on that’s so special?
I just think they’re one of the best rock and roll bands in the country, and I like I said that danger. At least for myself when I’m listening to new rock, I don’t really wanna hear that ’80s throwback shit anymore, I don’t want it to be so poppy anymore. I want to feel that scared, tight feeling like something could run off the tracks a little bit. And I think that they definitely did accomplish that. It’s just really refreshing to hear in 2020. And they’re crazy too on stage. Like, convulsing crazy. A couple of the guys in our band are like 33 years old now. And to have these 19 year old kids acting like they’re speaking tongues on stage and shaking, it’s just invigorating to see. It excites me about rock and roll music to see kids doing it like that.
What does that do for you before you go on stage?
I kind of just think like, “Fuck, these guys are pretty good.” If you just watch a little bit of it, you just know, “I gotta step it up.” I think that for us, we’re on tour so much, when we get home we just want to relax. Going out and taking a band like that, after two weeks home, after taking a totally different band, it can just be a complete wake up call to what your job is. And what it takes to put on a good performance. And to me, it’s not so much a competition, but you still don’t want to get blown out of the water. But there’s still a competitiveness to it. You don’t want them to come in and take all your fans. I remember going on tour when I was opening for bands, and feeling like, “Holy fuck, there’s no way this band is ever going to be able to follow us.” And that’s a good feeling. I think people should have that feeling. But I’m not ready to be the old guy yet.
So what’s going on now for The Glorious Sons?
I’m just kind of in writing mode to be honest. We went and did an album in January and came out with 9 pretty good songs, but I felt like they were a little dismembered from one another. So I’m kind of at the point where I’m back at the drawing board. To just get an idea as to where I want the band to go. I want it to get a little heavier again, and I think I’m going to start playing the electric guitar so we have 3 guitars on stage. So you know, we’re just writing and chilling. I think that we wouldn’t have allowed ourselves to take a break like this. Just because there’s a lot of momentum happening in the camp. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but for us, it’s really important that we got this time to push pause and the decision was taken out of our hands because we were just flying. There was no rest. Even when we got home in January, we went right into the studio in between tours and then back out again. And that’s how we wrote A War On Everything. So the time kind of bled together and got away from us a little bit.
Anything you want to plug?
Not really, just want you all to listen to these songs and try not to go insane.