Kenton Loewen and Gordon Grdina are musician’s musicians. They can get up on stage and jam on everything from drums to ouds to pianos to guitars and then throw in some violin bows to make it interesting. Both Kenton and Gordon are currently in over three bands each and are touring two of them at once. In between their performances as part of Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, they are rocking the f*$% out as their duo Peregrine Falls. These two can play anything from jazz (in which they were both trained), to traditional Arabic folk music, to blues, free-form improvisation and rock, but what they’re currently vibing on in Peregrine Falls is what they’ve coined “free punk” – more on that later.
Coming off of a sold-out show at Massey Hall with Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, Kenton and Gordon are about to blow the crowd of music buffs away at the Horseshoe Tavern as Peregrine Falls. Soon the room of music lovers will be bonding over collective dropped jaws, wide eyes and raised eyebrows over their astonishing performance. Onstage they are a musical force of skilled improvisation, mind-blowing technique and a fury of energy. Before they brought the crowd into their world of musical badassery, they chatted with Stories Behind The Songs over drinks at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern.
K: We met on a gig in Vancouver that Francois Houle – a world renowned clarinet player in the free jazz and experimental new music scene – had asked us to play.
G: Yeah, Francois and I had a trio together and I had heard of Kenton’s name a bunch because we had been playing in the scene all around each other but had never gotten a chance to play together.
K: It was one of those gigs that, about a quarter of the way through, Gordon and I realized that this thing was happening. It was literally at the end of that gig that Gord said, “Do you want to join my new quartet?” and I said, “YES.”
G: And basically every band that we’ve been in since then has been pretty much together.
K: The balance of many projects isn’t so crazy when they’re all different aspects of who you are and where you’re coming from. One can’t play them all at the same second so there is some push and pull in writing, rehearsing and coordinating.
G: I enjoy the constant motion and unpredictability of having many creative projects going at the same time. I have to make sure that each artistic endeavor is a complete statement and that I’m not yearning to be doing something else while I’m in the midst of it. Making sure you’re 100% present for each project, and that it on it’s own is completely fulfilling, is what makes it possible to do many projects.
What was the inspiration behind the sound of your EP “Two Fish“?
G: We had a concept that we wanted to rock out more and play more punk. We had ended up doing a series of gigs for the Gordon Grdina Trio that Tommy Babin, our bass player, couldn’t make so we ended up doing a couple of gigs as a duo but with that same repertoire. Then we started performing as a duo at a regular gig that we had had for eight years in Vancouver but because it’s a bar and it’s loud, we didn’t do any of the quieter stuff. We started pushing it more and this thing started to morph out of that until we had a whole other repertoire. Then we got down and serious and were like, “Alright, let’s finally rock it.”
G: Some of it we did, some of it was other songs of mine that we would write around. Then this became a very specific project that came out of little snippets of ideas that we started to do live and we were like, “Oh, this really works.” We realized that we don’t always have to come at improvisation from a point of view of jazz, we can come from a point of what we’re about, like more of the rock things that we’re doing and still have that same freedom.
G: I wouldn’t really call it fusion just because that word has a horrible connotation… (laughs)
K: Yet it is a culmination of things. We’ve kinda coined it as “free punk”. It’s like experimental punk music. Like, if we’re able to play it, and it feels good, we’ll probably try it. And that’s essentially what’s going on.
Does “free punk” refer to the musical style of the genre or more so to the attitude of ‘no rules, no limitations’?
G: It’s about the actual aesthetic sound of the band as well as the open, inclusive, no limitations attitude.
K: Free punk is a concept based in the freedom to play heavy, written, improvised, music. It’s music by the people for the people.
What’s the story behind the name change from PinkBrown to Peregrine Falls?
K: Peregrine Falls came out of the fact that there was another band called PinkBrown, if you can believe it, so we became Peregrine Falls. It was a combination of a kids book that Gordon’s daughter was reading about Peregrine falcons – which are the fastest animal in the world – and I was fascinated with them. Of course there’s a band called Peregrine Falcon, because there’s a band called f*$%ing everything. I started watching all of these videos of Peregrine falcons and how they attack. They go into this dive bomb and right before they do that, there’s this moment of unsure nature where the bird just sort of falls. So we decided in that falling motion there was a beauty in its description called Peregrine Falls.
K: Yeah, it’s the free open space before you land somewhere.
K: I’ve worked with Dan for seven years. The first record we did together was called Nice, Nice, Very Nice  and we were working with a handful of different musicians including bassist John Walsh. The guitarist had left the band and Dan said, “We need a guitar player, what’s going on?” I told him that I’d been playing with Gordon Grdina and Dan was like, “Are you kidding me? That guy’s the scariest weirdo ever! He’s going to play the most insane stuff! This is never going to work!” It was actually a kind of funny conversation and I said, “Let’s have one rehearsal and see how it goes.” The three of us got together and worked out a bunch of tunes and it was really great. The first record we did altogether was Oh Fortune . The live setting right now is a lot of members from the experimental jazz scene in Vancouver that all have several, several different projects. Tyson Naylor also plays in my band The Crackling as has JP Carter and Jesse Zubot. I think, probably, to say that we brought the band to what it is now is a safe statement, but also, that’s a statement to Dan’s openness relative to surrounding himself with people he believes in that can do this stuff.
How did the songs on the album Club Meds form together? Did Dan come up with all of the lyrical writing?
G: Not all of the lyrical writing. I wrote a song that’s on the record that was a complete song and he liked it and we were playing it all the time and he came up with a counter melody that he sings on. It’s called “A Doll’s House / Pavlovia”. His part is “Pavlovia” and my part is “A Doll’s House”.
K: “Kitsch” was a thing that Johnny and I kept jamming during soundcheck in Europe and it kinda came through that. The thing is, Dan, for this last record, was less in a position to have a whole bunch of things ready because he had just had a kid, his life changed, he got married, there were a lot of things going on for him. This was sort of him bringing the craziest, weirdest skeletons of ideas and all of us arranged and contorted and distorted them.
What was the energy like during the day of your Live at Massey Hall Concert Series show? What was it like knowing that it was the first show of their second season and that it was going to be filmed? Did it feel like any other show?
G: In a way it did – there was a little more energy. Anytime you’re in a big show there’s more of that. You try not to think too much about the cameras or anything like that, which was great because they weren’t all in your face. I think we were pretty good at keeping that at a distance and being able to do the things that we regularly do.
K: We’ve all been touring and working in the industry for the better part of 20 years so if you don’t already have the confidence for what it is that you are regardless of the fact that that’s going on… We’re also playing to a sold-out Massey Hall so circumstantially, there’s a wonderful energy about it and yet, it’s also like, it’s a gig, do your job, make it awesome. Buckle down, focus, take care of it. If it was Massey Hall out of the blue, never playing like thousands of gigs, that would be different. As much as it is totally an honour and totalling inspiring and terrifying to play a gig of that nature, it’s also very simple and straightforward – Let’s do this! We have another gig to play. A gig is a gig and Gord and I are working very hard specifically relative to Peregrine Falls on our days off from this Blacksmith tour. We’ve already played a Montreal gig and an Ottawa gig and our only other day off on the rest of this tour is in Banff and we may actually go into the studio because we’ve been offered by the Banff Centre to go record. We also may just go to sleep.
Kenton, what are some influences from your jazz training that cross over in your drumming when you play other genres?
K: Basically the thing that scares me the most about the big word that is called “jazz” in a musical sense for me, are things that are polyrhythmic. That to me is the most interesting thing about what’s going on there because if there are four different particular rhythms happening while all this music is moving, I’m focused on several different ways of hearing or approaching time – how it can be taken and worked with and manipulated. That to me has been a massive, massive defining thing about what I took from my studies as a jazz drummer. I’m sort of wired that way. Multitasking is something that is an option for me so the idea of putting several things musically together in a sense relative to time or lack thereof is something that I relate to in terms of how I approach a song or a piece or an idea – be it in time, bet it out, be it totally free, whatever it’s doing, it’s something that I just feel comfortable with. My first lesson as a drummer was in university. I taught myself how to play rock drums as a kid. Being at school, I broke my hands in a really different way. There are a lot of drummers who play really intense, fast music and hurt themselves because technically, they don’t know how to take care of the physical aspect of what they’re doing. It was nice learning how to, in a very calm way, put less energy forward and still create vast amounts of volume and vast amounts of intensity with very little touch.
K: If you mean banging on containers with sticks whittled out of pieces of wood, then yes, but the first instrument I studied was piano when I was 5 and I did that for 6-7 years. When I was 12-13 I really got into guitar and I studied that for 4 years and I’ve been playing guitar ever since. Then when I was 16 I moved in with my father and that was a defining moment in there being a beauty in my dad when he said, “Hey, all these years ago, you wanted to play the drums, didn’t you?” and I was like, “Omg, are you actually asking me that?” and we built a soundproof room in the basement of my father’s house and I rented a drum kit literally that weekend after we were done and I haven’t stopped playing. That’s 22 years now.
Do you attribute your career as a drummer to your father for encouraging you to act on your passion?
K: I certainly don’t attribute my innate desire to work to anything my father’s ever done. He facilitated a certain circumstance in an odd moment of enlightened openness. Maybe the only one. I was playing already, it just made it possible to rent a set and play at his place. He must have been drinking at the time.
Did either of you experience backlash from your families for choosing a career in music?
K: I think there’s a natural fear when your children make unstable life choices but I always played music. My mother had me in piano when I was 5 years old so in a way, they started it.
G: Well, improvisation. It was always about finding different ways to improvise. I started playing rock and then I got into blues and then the next step is jazz and I started studying a lot of that and, you know, it’s everything. I’m still always studying. I was introduced to Arabic music when I was 13 by one of my guitar teachers at the time and I was blown away by the oud and the sound of that instrument. I got into a bunch of Arabic music and oud players but I was really focused on guitar and jazz. Once I got out of university, I grabbed an oud off ebay and started studying with a musician who lives in Vancouver. I had a bunch of friends who were playing Persian music and Indian music so we started groups together and I found new ways to improvise that were different and from different histories other than just jazz music. And they inform each other.
G: Yeah but there comes a time when you need to focus on each thing. I spent a lot of years just trying to sound Arabic and really studying Persian music and then there comes a point when you have to let go of that and let everything come out. I actually went through a period when I started meditating a lot because it was actually hard to concentrate on what I was doing because your headspace goes all over the place with the different concepts of what’s going on – you’re thinking jazz music, you’re thinking Arabic music and you can’t really focus on where you are – so after a lot of meditation it helped me be able to really be there and focus on what was happening. Once that happens you can let all of those influences in and just let them out and they become part of you and then you become yourself. By getting into all of the things that turn you on, the things that really hit you on the inside, that’s how you figure out who you are because all of those things are in you.
G: I find the excitement of not knowing what is coming next and the open ended nature of improvisation the best. I also love the feeling of losing one’s self in sound and other humans.
How long did your mentorship last with Gary Peacock?
G: I studied with him, on and off, for about 5 years. I got out of university and I knew I didn’t want to do a Masters degree because I didn’t like institutions and how they thought about music and it’s always better one on one with someone. Basically that’s all you get from anybody ever, how they think about music and how it works for them and I had a lot of things in common with Gary Peacock. I studied with him whenever I could over a 5 year period and that was life-changing.
G: He also has a biology degree so he’s able to look at all the aspects of music that no one talks about. He was good at talking about those things because he was able to look at music as an organic organism, which is what it is because music is really only for humans. It’s built to react to human ears – it’s different for other animals. So, from that aspect he was able to really look at music and understand how tonality and other musical elements actually work. Then we made a record together with Paul Motian which was huge for me [Think Like the Waves]. Basically everything since then… like, everything is awesome but, you know those heroes that people have? Those were the heroes. I only ever wanted to know what it’s like to make music on that level so having that happen was great because those were the people who star-struck me. You know, when you’re like, “Oh my god, if I ever see Madonna in person I’ll shit my pants!” I don’t care if I meet Madonna, I already met Gary Peacock and Paul Motian. But the thing is now, after that, we’re making music. Which is always more important than anything.
G: Miles Davis – but I’ve got a million. Alive, Jack White.
Gordon Grdina and Kenton Loewen will be returning to Toronto to perform with Dan Mangan + Blacksmith in June for the “Field Trip Music & Arts Festival“. Keep an eye out on the Peregrine Falls Facebook page for upcoming performances by the “free punk” duo that will be sure to blow your mind.