“Reggae music from a cold dark place, southern rock from the true north.” To most, this may seem a paradoxical statement. To local music fans, these are only a few of the ways to describe the veritable melting pot of genres that is the music of Edmonton-based band Stone Iris. Born out of basement jam sessions in the childhood home of brothers Elliot Niven (lead vocals/guitar) and Garret Niven (lead guitar/vocals), the addition of bassist Ryan Ast and drummer Jeff Burwash sowed the seeds of a blues-rock union that eventually blossomed into a very prolific, eclectic, and driven band. Throwing percussionist Juice E. Jensen into the mix, Stone Iris released their debut album (titled Esperanza) in 2008, since releasing four more records and embarking on tours of Canada and the US.
Set to release their first full-length album since 2008 (titled Kicking the Can) in March, another full-length this summer, and tour North America while they’re at it, Stone Iris intend to make 2013 their biggest year yet. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I was fortunate to sit down with Elliot, Garret and Jeff to discuss who Stone Iris is, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. What I came out with was a snapshot of an independent Alberta band, working their hardest at doing what they love most, and having the time of their lives.
Upon walking into their comfortable west-side home, I was immediately showered in wet kisses by Staley, one of the very affectionate dogs that shacks there. Anyone familiar with Stone Iris won’t be surprised that they named one of their dogs after the lead singer of Alice in Chains. Garret’s eerie yet sultry singing style and melodic guitar work compliments Elliot’s soaring vocal range and passionate delivery in a way reminiscent of the Jerry Cantrell/Layne Staley combo. Part of what makes Stone Iris’s sound so intriguing is that you can’t classify it as being one specific type of music. Between tracks on any given release, they might shift styles dramatically. From the blissful reggae vibes of Supple Young Couple, to the slow-burning rage of I Am in Autumn, to Long Nights, a refreshing southern rock track, Stone Iris has made versatility their game.
One way in which Stone Iris has previously branded their music with respect to its core components is by referring to it as “Runkadelic” -a combination of rock, funk, and psychedelic. This, along with a very strong reggae influence, is a very good description of their sound. “We’re always exploring and sharing different kinds of music, which is is a big part of what drives us” says Garret. “We’re also all huge music fans” adds Jeff. “There’s something good from every genre, you can find good music anywhere you look. We just kind of write the way we listen.” Taking a big-umbrella approach to music, Stone Iris challenges itself and continues to grow by thinking outside the box, and trying new things.
The members of Stone Iris have worked hard at making names for themselves, but their refusal to mold themselves into something easily typecast by the popular music community has been a source of difficulty for them. Having such a unique sound and style in the age of assembly line music is not without its challenges. “It’s not a big deal, but there hasn’t been any radio love for us in Edmonton” says Elliot. “The biggest challenge for us is that because we’re hard to define, we’ve had to blaze our own trail. There’s been a lot of struggles going into that over the years, but now our approach is like ‘who gives a fuck, we’re doing it our way.’” Despite this, Stone Iris has been successful at building their own unique ‘brand’, and have consciously churned their witches’ brew of styles into something recognizable as uniquely theirs. “We love what we do and we play all sorts of stuff” says Elliot, “but the biggest thing in the past few years is that we want to make money doing this and we want it to be a brand. We still keep it all over the place, but have it a little more defined now.” “Within our writing, we do a little reggae, do a little blues and folk” adds Jeff, “but we always have it sounding like Stone Iris, so it’s not confusing to the listener.”
Instead of charting their course through the traditional means of releasing full-length albums (or LPs as they’re called), Stone Iris has spent the past three years releasing Extended Play albums (EPs) of between three and five tracks. “There’s a couple reasons we decided to do EPs, definitely not for a lack of material” says Jeff. According to Elliot, the band’s budget was the main factor in this decision. “We could have put all our funding into making a full length, but we would have ended up with no copies of it and no budget to go on tour. When you first start going on tour, it costs a lot of money.” Releasing the professionally recorded Silhouettes in 2010, Stone Iris followed up with the home recorded Boo Box and Serene Machine, recording Illuminations at Sound Extractor Studios in 2012.
On top of being seasoned in the studio, Stone Iris has learned some of their most valuable lessons on the road. “On our very first tour we learned something that we still practice” says Jeff, “we will never again tour across Canada in the wintertime.” Stone Iris was quick to learn that taking a run-down Trailblazer across Canada in the middle of February is inefficient, unpleasant, and by no means easy. “We toured across Canada in a trailblazer that didn’t have any heating in it” explained Garret. “Even the first haul from Medicine Hat to Yorkton, it was -35 degrees for basically the whole drive and the sunroof was stuck open. After doing that and doing a spring tour, we realized it makes more sense to be recording in the winter in a warm studio, and touring when it’s nice out.”
Touring the US for the first time ever in 2012, Stone Iris had their eyes opened up to a whole new world. Making their way from Canada to the musician’s promised land of California, Stone Iris spent their last tour writing new songs, playing new stages, and busking in the streets between tour dates. “We don’t always have shows in every single city we go through, so what we started doing was hooking up power from the van, and busking with amps and everything right out on the street” says Elliot. Playing to crowds of people going about their everyday lives and not knowing (or caring) who they were, Stone Iris spent their free time refining their game on the streets, and building a whole new network of fans. “At first it’s kind of a leap, and it’s illegal most of the time” says Elliot. “You’re not where you’re supposed to be playing, you’re out in the middle of the city. You just have to grow some balls and start playing, that’s the biggest thing we learned. We started doing it, and it worked out great! We made fans, money, and people really appreciate it.”
While refining their chops on tour, Stone Iris had their eyes opened up to the vibrant and very accessible recording opportunities present in the US. “We were in Louisville (Kentucky)” says Jeff, “and the guy who did our sound that night runs a recording studio in town called ‘DeadBird Studios’, which is really a cool place because it used to be an automotive garage. We crashed there for a few days, it turned out to be a great studio, and the price he was offering for us to record there was a bit of an eye opener compared to how much studios in Canada charge.” “If you’re a big band in Canada and you want to make it, you’re going to end up spending a lot of money to record an album” explains Garret. “I don’t get that feeling in the States, (in Kentucky) they were offering to charge a lot less to record a full-length album. A lot of the quality of the material he’s putting out is very on-par with anything coming out of Vancouver.”
Having been confined to recording EPs for the past few years, Stone Iris now feels that they have the means to give their fans not just a taste, but a full dose of their creative efforts in the form of two full-length albums. Years of honing their own recording and producing skills has led them to decide to take matters into their own hands. Their first LP of 2013, Kicking the Can, was recorded in their basement studio, and then sent down to DeadBird Studios in Louisville to be mastered. According to Elliot, Stone Iris had a blast returning to their blues-rock roots for their latest LP. “I’m going through a phase where I’m listening to a lot of Delta Blues type stuff and it’s really shining through in my writing right now. The album is going to be mastered onto tape too, so it’ll be more colourful.” To the band members, Kicking the Can is more than just an album name, it’s symbolic of their entire approach to making music. “The thing with music is that we’ve surrendered ourselves to the fact that if we want to do this, we have to commit. There’s no set plan in music, so we just keep putting one foot in front of the other, figuring it out and learning from our mistakes. Everything we’ve been the most proud of is the stuff we’ve kind of gone and done ourselves.” Handling their own tours, songwriting, recording, producing, disk printing, and artwork, Kicking the Can entails a whole hell of a lot for a band like Stone Iris.
After releasing “Kicking the Can” in March, Stone Iris is going to tour their way back to DeadBird Studios, where they are going to record their second (still untitled) LP of the year. After taking two weeks off to record, they’ll tour their way back to Edmonton by June, by when their next LP should be fully mastered. While the songs for their Kentucky LP haven’t been completed yet, Stone Iris is experienced enough to know that they’ll have a completed and coherent set of tunes ready when the time comes. Having been influenced by the general atmosphere of the southern United States, Stone Iris is anticipating their still-untitled LP to have a “real down-home, gritty, southern blues type of sound.” After the release, they head back to the States for another tour. Although they’ll be on the road, Stone Iris plans to stay connected through Facebook, Twitter and Soundcloud, also planning on releasing a handful of music videos along the way. “We’re going to be doing a music video for a song on Kicking the Can called Real Appeal says Jeff. “Basically, we’re going to take shots of us busking in all the different cities, and also use some tour and road footage.” After our chat, I was fortunate enough to catch a small preview of what Stone Iris has in store on Kicking the Can. They played me a melodic reggae track titled I Wanna, and a smoldering instrumental tune titled Kentucky Gentleman that would be right at home in a Sergio Leone film. Needless to say, Stone Iris is clearly going to be dropping some quality music this year.
From Calgary to California, Stone Iris has built a name for itself, boldly stating that they are what they are, but that they are a different beast with each song they write. Ask any of their fans what makes Stone Iris a great band, and you’ll get a plethora of answers. To me, there’s one thing above all that makes them a truly fantastic group. Stone Iris is part of a dying breed of musician that truly believes music is not a commodity, but that it is art, it is the sharing of emotion. Stone Iris does not want to sell you a product, they want to share with you a higher experience, something much greater than the sum of its parts. The music of Stone Iris has life, something you can’t say about a great deal of popular music these days. For those who choose to listen, Stone Iris plans on kicking the can until it breaks, or until they need a bigger can.