(This article was written for Montreal Rampage)
Halifax’s Alert the Medic is the kind of band you hear for the first time, and you wonder why you haven’t heard them before. But once you dig a little bit more, you realize you HAVE heard them before. They’ve been featured on numerous sports broadcasts from the NHL, MLB and CFL, have been featured on an episode of “Rookie Blue”, have performed of the “Marilyn Dennis Show”, have had numerous award nominations and have been climbing the Canadian radio charts. I had a chance to talk to guitarist/vocalist Ryan MacDonald about the band and their latest album “The Phantom Moves”.
The band was formed in 2006 in Stellarton, Nova Scotia when a group of friends got together to play music. MacDonald recalls that “the band started in my parents’ basement when we were 13 or 14, me and Matt, our bass player, jamming together. Dale came along when we were maybe 18; he was from a different school but same area. And we basically learned to play music together.” The band would play school gyms and garden parties; anywhere they could do a show. That’s how we learned to play live shows and our instruments”.
From the start, the band was more interested in playing their own material than covering other people’s work. “Starting out, I didn’t know how to read music and I didn’t know how to play other people’s songs so I would just fiddle around until I found something that sounded good, so I was sort of doing original compositions from the get go. And our town had a lot of musicians, and everyone is really creative, so one person would write something and another would try to one up them. It’s a healthy competition in this small community, a sort of camaraderie.”
The grunge scene represents a huge influence on the music of Alert the Medic, but living in a small community brought along some challenges that are probably hard to fathom for a teenager of today. “Growing up in a small town, the only way you could have access to music was Much Music or our parents’ records, or if your friend saved his money and bought an obscure album somewhere.” Access to music wasn’t easy, so they listened to what they found. “I listened to The Eagles, the Who and Supertramp. Also The Beatles and the Stones. I’d also leave a VHS running to record MuchMusic while I was at school, back when they actually played a lot of music, and I’d come back home and fast forward through it to get to the good stuff. It wasn’t just what we were being fed by corporations; we listened to whatever we could get our hands on. Now I can get anything right on my phone. It’s nice to have access to all that music but it almost gets to be too much. Music is oversaturated these days. But it was good; the hunt to find music was always fun.”
Their latest album, “The Phantom Moves” came out in May after a successful PledgeMusic campaign. “The crowd funding thing worried us a bit because we didn’t want to appear as a charity case, but the PledgeMusic platform was different and allowed us to really share the experience with our fans. I wish I had that chance when I was growing up. I would have been stoked to get a signed drumstick from, let’s say Silverchair, when they released an album! It was a collective experience and I think people had a lot of fun with it.”
Making the album allowed the band to work with a musician who had a huge impact on their music. “We recorded it in Toronto with Mike Turner, who was the lead guitarist in Our Lady Peace, which is another band we were influenced by when we were younger. The “Naveed” album was a huge influence for us. It was really surreal to get to record an album with him! We got to pick his brains and see what his tricks were; it was really neat. He’s super creative, and the way he works is kind of controlled chaos, but he really brings something out of you.”
Writing the album was a band effort, even when MacDonald would come up with the initial idea. “Sometimes we write songs all together; in the moment something happens and you go ‘Hey, here’s the beginning of a song’ and we all work on it. But I’m always playing around on guitar or piano, so I’ll come up with a riff or a line that I like, and I’ll bring it to the guys and it’ll really take shape with everyone’s input.”
When it comes to lyrics, the singer admits he is more concerned about “how it sounds” than “what it means”. “To me lyrics are like abstract poetry. Sometimes they don’t make as much sense as people read into them, which is fine. And sometimes it’s the simple lyrics that may hold much more meaning than the listener can find. I’ve also been told I use the imagery of the ocean quite a bit, which I imagine comes from where we’re from! But I always try to paint a picture for the listener. If you can hear a lyric and then automatically have a great mental imagery that puts you in the spot. I often see colours and tones when listening to music, so I try to find a colour and stay with that. But you know, love, life, friends, travelling, architecture, where we’re from… I mean those are all little things that come into play. And sometimes I’ll just write a fictional story that’s fun!”
Considering the amount of travel involved in touring Canada, the band tries to avoid long tours during the winter so they’ll be playing the Maritimes in the coming months, but will tour the country early next year. Their album “The Phantom Moves” is out right now, and features 13 tracks of finely crafted melodic rock. The first track “(Waiting in the Wings)” serves as an intro to the album that properly kicks in with “Cut, Copy, Paste” and its uptempo, catchy chorus. “Hanna and the Ocean” brings in the sea motif Macdonald spoke of, and is a grittier rocker that recalls The Trews. The two singles “Echo and Fade” and “All Better Now” are two highlights, but the album is also surprisingly even in quality; it doesn’t really have filler tracks.
All over the album, the band often comes close to wearing their influences on their sleeves: you get a fleeting sense of deja vu (deja heard?) but it never lasts for too long. The hooks don’t really stay with you (I’d be hard pressed to hum any of the choruses even after multiple listens) but their polished brand of melodic rock is definitely worth a listen. They’ll have a place in my playlists.