Meet Canteen Knockout

Toronto country-roots band Canteen Knockout don’t mind being referred to as a country-roots band. But instead of being influenced by the glossy “new country” music of today, the group has more in common with an artist like Steve Earle, who played a key part in bringing the country genre back from the dead in the mid 80’s.

In fact, no less than two of the tracks on Canteen Knockout’s latest CD “Broken Down Town” (released independently in March of this year) sound as though they could have previously found a home on Earle’s landmark “Copperhead Road” album. Tack on a haunting version of the Gordon Lightfoot classic “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” and you’ve got a album that is a true winner from start to finish.

Canteen Knockout will be playing a show on Friday July 9 at Plan B on St. George Street in Moncton.

Formed in 2004 in Toronto, Canteen Knockout vocalist and guitarist Andre Skinner has worn many musical hats in his career to date, none of which bear much in the way of resemblance to the country-roots genre he is currently pursuing. He attended Toronto’s Humber College as a student in their jazz program and subsequently played with a number of groups.

“I was actually always in heavy metal bands,” Skinner says with a chuckle. “When I was in my 20’s, it was more alternative rock stuff I was playing, but I eventually came back to the heavy metal world as a drummer.”

His pursuit of country and roots music came about after Skinner had the opportunity to spend a week soaking in the thriving music scene of Nashville, Tennessee.

“I was amazed at how communal the city is when it comes to the music scene but quickly saw that there was a clear cut line between new country and the more traditional fare,” he says. “I ended up appreciating what the traditional side of country music had to offer and got drawn into that.”

Skinner admits that his first EP was very much an experimental affair paying homage to everything from alternative rock to Americana music. While Skinner favoured listening to modern Americana bands like Wilco and Ryan Adams, traditional country artists such as Lefty Frizzell, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Sr. started to find favour with the impressionable musician and helped make country music a true passion for him by the time he hit his late 20’s.

“In Nashville, everyone helps everyone out when it comes to making their records and perhaps more importantly, everyone respects one another. There is no attitude when you talk to people and that plays a big part of why I like it down there.

“At one open stage night I attended, Tim McGraw was hanging out and playing music with a bunch of ‘nobodies’. That is how Nashville is.”

Skinner goes on to say that while he is not McGraw’s biggest fan, he was humbled by the superstar’s devotion in taking the time to speak to everyone who approached him. According to Skinner, this type of headspace is common in Nashville as opposed to the city he calls home.

“Toronto is definitely a much tougher grind. There tends to be cliques within the music scene that stick close together. Breaking into those niches can be pretentious and I’m not crazy about that.”

Skinner admits that Toronto crowds can be a fickle bunch and tend to quickly forget about you if you are not a regular fixture playing throughout the city’s bars. He recalls that after promotion wrapped up on Canteen Knockout’s 2006 record, the musician withdrew from the music scene for approximately six months.

When he finally made his return to playing live, Skinner felt as though in some ways, the group was starting their career at square one again within the Toronto scene. Even though people were still familiar with the Canteen Knockout name, he felt as though the group had to get back to the grind to build their name back up.

Despite Nashville holding some obvious clout over Toronto in his books, Skinner is happy to continue making the commute to Music City while keeping Toronto as where he hangs his hat on a full-time basis.

“I could move to Nashville tomorrow honestly, but for the time being, I am more interested in being a regular visitor to the city while building my contacts and network. That is the more realistic side of things for the time being.”

Realism does play a big part in a musician’s life and the members of the Canteen Knockout are no exception:

“If I had the choice, I would constantly be writing like mad but I am somewhat limited in time. I have to balance the band with work and paying the mortgage. Life stuff,” he muses.

Skinner admits that said “life stuff” played a big part in the approximate four year gap between records but in his eyes, it isn’t such a bad thing.

“Having a gap between records is ideal because it gives you time to soak in the songs you are writing and time to see if they are good enough to make the cut at the end of the day.

“I actually have my own studio and could turn out new music in a very short period of time if I wanted to. But I actually like spending the time that goes into crafting the songs and the production of a record. I would much rather spend the time ensuring we have things right than to rush product to market.

“That being said, I am hoping to turn the next record out a little faster. Four years in between records is a little too long.”

Article published in July 9, 2010 edition of the Times & Transcript