Story and photos by Sara Kuefler
When asked about writing songs, Peter Cormier, frontman for Calgary rockabilly sensations Peter & the Wolves, says, “The most important thing is coming up with a hook.” Well, hook, line, and sinker folks . . . I can easily see why people fall for this band. These boys have style, depth, and, by all accounts, an infectious energy onstage. Get ready to tap your toes Calgary; “Howlin’ and Prowlin,’” the third release from Peter & the Wolves is available now, with 12 spirited 50’s inspired, but fully original, tracks to get you moving.
Peter & the Wolves worked on this album with Tom Ingram, the long-time primary organizer of the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend, “the largest and most respected Rockabilly festival in the world,” which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. “Howlin’ and Prowlin’” is the first release on Ingram’s brand-new record label, VLV Records.
Following is a Q & A session with the band. But first, I’d like to set the scene: I met lead singer, guitarist and pianist Peter Cormier, upright bass player Jason “Pedro” Lowe, and drummer Cody Voyer, at Angel’s Drive-In, a 50’s style institution in the community of Bowness. Cormier was sporting his signature pompadour hairstyle, a white button up, brown slacks, suspenders, and a bolo tie, with Lowe and Voyer cool in black suits, ties, and white shirts. The consensus being that a quieter spot would be more suitable for an interview we proceeded to Bowness Park in Cormier’s 1953 Pontiac Pathfinder – which he pointed out is Canadian made. The inspiration for the song “It Takes Time,” this vehicle may have almost as much character as Cormier himself. The ride was a sensory experience. You can tell history is very important to Cormier based on the way he loves “the ratty old interior” along with all the quirks of his chariot. I think relationships form between owners of vintage cars and the vehicles themselves, as that magic touch is often something that is needed when they don’t run as smoothly as they once did. However, Cormier doesn’t seem to mind the extra attention required one bit.
History lessons continued as we walked over to the picnic tables by the water and Peter described what an attraction Bowness Park was in the 50’s with rides and what have you, the train track being one of the only pieces remaining unchanged from that time. It is a place that holds a connection as Cormier lived in Bowness growing up. We settled in with the background sounds of Canada geese honking and children playing while Cormier pointed out a structure in the lagoon where they used to have an orthophonic device to project music, which had to be cranked by hand, back in the day.
Getting down to the business of asking questions, I started out with:
It has been a couple years since your second album, “Papa’s Goin’ Out of Town” came out. Has “Howlin’ and Prowlin’” been in the works for a while? Have you been writing songs all along, or do you like to write in more of a concentrated block?
Peter: For the past two albums, it was sort of songs I had accumulated over a longer time, like a few years, but when it came time to do this one I only had about six new songs. We thought we were going to release a 45 first and then a full-length album. So, we sent Tom the six tracks to choose two, and he was like, do you have six more? We’ll just release the CD first. So suddenly I was like, I’ve never been in a situation like that where I didn’t have enough songs. It depleted all the songs I wrote. I found writing under pressure kind of helped. So, this album is all really, really new stuff. I wrote half of it in November-December, and now that it is out I’ve got a couple new ones in the works too…gotta keep it flowing.
Is there one person who does the majority of the writing or is it more of a collaborative effort?
Peter: Just me. I’ve been writing since I picked up a guitar when I was 16/17. So, the more you do it, the more ideas come, like anything I guess. I’ve written a lot of songs. I certainly haven’t used all of them, because that is how it works; you’ve got to find the good stuff.
Do you have any favourite songs on the new album at this point, and why?
Peter: I think my favourite might be Hot Foot Woman. I wrote it thinking about my first time seeing Viva Las Vegas last year and being amazed by the dancers on the dance floors just rockin’ all the time, day after day. Like the song says, “hot foot woman bop again and again, you’re the best friend to a rockin’ man”. I just wanna make everyone dance.
With this being the third album for Peter and the Wolves, what would you say fans of the first two albums can expect from Howlin’ and Prowlin’ in comparison to your past releases?
Peter: Well this album is exciting because the past two have been independent releases whereas this is the first time it is on a label – VLV Records – and it was amazing to work with Tommy. I think this is definitely a big step above the last one. [It was] mastered by Tommy’s friend Shorty Poole, he also did the album artwork. [At performances in support of] this album, fans could expect some songs that they have been hearing us play live for quite some time and maybe some newer stuff they haven’t heard depending on when they saw us last. [In regard to the album itself], it’s got a really cool vintage quality to the sound. When I first heard the final mix, it was like it sort of sounded like listening to some of my favourite recordings, like Buddy Holly or Gene Vincent. There will be a 45 coming later. It will be two songs from this album, I’m not sure which ones exactly yet, but that will be exciting that people will be able to buy [our music on] vinyl for the first time.
It is nice that vinyl is making a comeback.
Peter: People really do love physical music. I think it makes me happy to see that people do want physical music and that people are starting to buy more records. The trouble, in Canada especially, is getting them printed. That’s why I am super happy to be having these made by an American label.
I make listening to records like a (pause)…you can just make it more of an experience. Then it is easier to pay attention to the whole album back to back I find. If you are playing music on your phone, it is because it is background noise and there is just something about records. You can just let it go and you can sit in front of it like they used to sit in front of the radio for some reason. (Chuckles) It is just nice to have the physical thing.
Jason: It makes you appreciate it that much more. You have your vintage record collection and your vintage record player, and it is just beautiful.
When you recorded the album was it done in parts and pieced together, or recorded with all of you playing together like you would play live?
Peter: The old-fashioned way is just to do it playing all together, just like you would live, with as few takes as possible. So, we did it like that, we just all played together, then sent the raw tracks to the studio in California. The first album we made, we made the mistake of doing it just like track by track, we didn’t know better, but I did know better, I just didn’t have the means to do it as all together. Anyway, it really makes a difference when you are hearing the live…togetherness (chuckles).
You probably feed off each other when you are all together.
Jason: Especially with his energy (referring to Peter).
Cody: Depending on the show, and his (again, referring to Peter) energy, it all comes down to how many drumsticks I break. If he’s feeling it, I start to hit a little harder, and then he turns it up a bit and you start feeding off each other.
Where do you find your clothing?
Peter: Thrift stores or people with hand-me-down stuff, I dunno I just sort of accumulate it. I don’t actually have that many old clothes. Just clothes, pieces that are timeless. I just love suits. I always love a band with suits because that’s old fashioned. You don’t need vintage suits, it’s cool if you do but that’s the idea of the suit, it’s timeless.
Jason: You kind of want to distinguish yourself from the crowd. Even if it is like matching jumpsuits – something!
Peter: It is an old-fashioned ideal for sure. Most bands these days just wear normal clothes.
Do you get recognized a lot when you are out and about? With your style you are probably fairly noticeable.
Cody: It’s funny, [Peter]’s fairly recognizable, with the face and the hair. At least for me when I take off the suit it’s like I just disappear into the crowd. When we get off the stage people are like “oh my God that was fantastic” and then I lose the suit jacket and it is like…(gestures – poof)…and no one notices, I kind of like it – like Superman. Put the glasses on and there you go.
Peter: In Calgary, nowhere else yet. Unless it is like outside the venue, obviously. I think more people know me as that guy with the hair that looks like John Travolta, than who I actually am.
Jason: Haha, I didn’t say it.
Peter: For the record, I am 100 per cent aware that I look like John Travolta. (This is said without an ounce of conceit. It is obviously a point Cormier has been ribbed about).
Jason: Yeah, he gets recognized all the time when we are out.
Who are your major influences? Do you listen to a variety of musical genres?
Peter: Well, I listen to a great variety, but it is mostly old. I like jazz, blues, country, rock and roll and a little bit of Latin. Mostly what I listen to is before my time, like well before my time. But there is lots of great stuff going on too now of course. I am not gonna close myself off to anything going on, but mostly I like to listen to and draw inspiration from old music. I love old country on the one end and big band, jump band stuff, swing, and lots of brass, and I like to listen to low down roots and blues type music.
Do you have any particular artists that you would recommend looking up?
Peter: Fats Domino is one of my favourites. He really popularized that kind of rhythm and blues piano. He was a great influential songwriter. I guess as a list my biggest inspirations are: Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Moon Mullican, who was a big inspiration for Jerry Lee Lewis, ah, Little Richard, Chuck Berry . . . I could go on with many, but those are the big ones.
For folks not familiar with the Calgary rockabilly scene, is there a strong rockabilly presence in the city?
Peter: There is a supportive community of a few rockabilly style bands like us. You’ll often see the same kind of people out to see each other’s bands. I don’t like to think of it as a “scene,” but there is a community for people who are like me, who appreciate the really old school stuff.
Jason: You have all sorts of people, like people who are like that (referencing people with a rockabilly style), and then there are people who only do that when they come to shows and then when you see them from day to day they are dressed in regular t-shirts and ball caps, and then there are people who show up who don’t dress like us at all, like punk rockers, regular people in their daily 9 to 5 showing up to shows and just enjoying the music.
Peter: I don’t want people to get the idea it is some sort of club, like a costume, some sort of dress up contest. It’s just the kind of music we want to play, and we want everyone to dance.
Jason: I find a lot of people I talk to about it, like “Why don’t you come to my show?” They are like, “Well, I don’t dress that way.” So, they are, like, intimidated.
Peter: That is why I sort of don’t like referring to it [as a scene], sort of makes it seem exclusive. I just want to play feel good music, to make everyone…feel good.
It seems lately that I have heard a lot of people talk about relevance in music, especially with the rock revival that seems to be picking up momentum. Do you feel that rockabilly music has relevance today or is it more about escapism? Is relevance even the point, or important to you?
Peter: It was a short-lived time in music, you know, decades ago now, but it really took the world by storm, and it made people feel a certain way and it still makes them feel that way. I guess it is not relevant in what is going on in music today because it has already happened. You might argue that it has already been done, but I guess I don’t like to do too many covers. I want to use the power of that basic rhythm and that 12-bar blues rock and roll, but then also make it my own and change it up in ways. But I take all my inspirations and influences essentially from discovering these gems from the past. Yeah, like country and blues artists from the 40’s and 50’s. It’s not relevant to what’s going on in popular music, but it is what I want to do, and I see that it still works – it makes people want to dance, and that is what I want to get out of it.
Cody: I remember our last show in Saskatoon, we had a couple guys that were like hard rock, like Celtic punk I think they said they were, and they had never heard any type of music close to what we were playing, and they just decided to come check us out. And they ended up buying t-shirts and now they are die hard rockabilly fans.
Peter: Yeah, I love changing people’s minds and getting to see that. People just have stereotypes in their minds about rockabilly.
Jason: For the most part a lot of people just don’t know about it. There is so much good music out there…come see our band – you’ll love it!
You recently played in Winnipeg and Saskatoon I believe, and you have more tour dates planned in Alberta and BC in support of the new album. Do you have any pre-show rituals that get you ready to perform?
Jason: I smoke a ton of cigarettes before.
Peter: And all the time and every day (referring to Jason). I am usually busy, distracted with lots of stuff. I just sorta, I dunno, I just turn it on.
Cody: I have a pre-show ritual, that I have been discovering. I usually drink a beer, and then I go outside for a pre-show smoke, and then I usually go to the bathroom before I get onstage, and then there is that weird moment where I always catch myself in the mirror and I just like (gestures – gives himself a nod in the mirror), and then I like to be on the kit before either of these guys are onstage. It is just something that I’ve figured out, and then there is like 45 seconds to a minute of just sitting there and looking around, and as soon as it kicks in it’s all good. I didn’t think I had one, but after the last three shows in a row I just started to pick out things that I was doing.
I imagine you are looking forward to the release party since it is a celebration of the achievement of recording and putting the album out into the world. Does it feel different to play to your home crowd versus other cities? Do you have a lot of supportive fans here?
Peter: Calgary is definitely where our best shows are. We’ve built up the most fan base here. [Away] it is always exciting in another way, we just meet whole new people in whole new places we’ve never been before.
Jason: Especially seeing the looks on people’s faces seeing you for the first time. What is really astonishing is when they don’t look like they are having a good time and then they come up to you at the end of the show and say, “We had such a great time watching you.”
Peter: Yeah, like Calgary has usually been the most excitement at live shows until we played that Viva Las Vegas show – that has been the most exciting. But there are also tons of great festivals and events all around Canada. You don’t need to know us to have a good time [at one of our shows].
Tell me about the instruments you play – do you have any particular favourites?
Peter: I used to play an Epiphone Casino, that was like my main guitar for years. Recently someone broke into my house and stole all my electric guitars. Lately, I’ve got a couple guitars lent to me by generous friends and I’ve been playing a Brian Setzer Hot Rod Gretsch. It is like the essential rockabilly sound. I love to play a real piano when I can, but these days it is hard to find one anymore. It is cool to think about having vintage instruments, but the reality is it is really hard, and also risky. Something great about instruments though is that they don’t actually change as the years go by, not like cars or houses, or anything else. They’ve been making Getsch’s that look exactly like that for decades. Most guitars, most drums, the upright bass – they don’t change in style, which is cool. They keep making them the old way. More or less.
Peter: [In regard to getting attached to instruments] I always tried to avoid letting that happen because I always knew someone was going to steal my [stuff] one day, which they did, so good thing I never named it or anything.
Jason: I named my bass and Cody named his drums, so if they ever go missing….
Peter: I try to consciously not get too attached to possessions.
Cody: For mine, it is too late. I have a strong emotional bond with my drum set. Before I got into this band, I had just purchased a new drum set, it is absolutely beautiful, but it doesn’t really fit the look. So, as soon as I got with these guys I had to find a new kit. But I wanted something old, and I couldn’t find it anywhere until I found this old 60’s pearl jazz kit in Edmonton. So, I drove up that day to go pick it up and it had this old rustic, they call it barnwood, finish. Someone had redone it, which I had totally planned on taking off. But after a week of playing it I fell in love with it, and now it is named “Woodhouse” and it is my baby.
Peter: I’ve never seen a wrap like that before. It kinda looks like someone just made it out of an old barn.
What did you name your bass, Jason?
Jason: “Viola Bluebell.” That was actually a question I asked everyone on Facebook. I had a picture of it posted and it was like…”bluebell…[etc]”. I figured there were a few in there that sounded right together.
Peter: …naming it, now someone’s going to steal it.
Jason: And then someone’s gonna die (laughs).
At this point, Cormier pointed out that we were beginning to lose the light, which I had been too captivated to notice. The guys graciously posed for a number of photos, then it was time to pile back into Cormier’s Pontiac to head back to Angel’s in order to pick up everyone else’s vehicles. A gentleman, Cormier opened my car door once we arrived. I mentioned that I had read that bands had played on the Angel’s Drive-In roof at one point. In fact, one such band has been The Bownesians, Cormier’s father’s band. He reminisced about how fantastic it was to see bands up there in conjunction with the Bowness Stampede Parade in his childhood days.
After disbanding for the evening, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of an afterglow. It is an interesting phenomenon to find people so deeply rooted in history, and yet living breathing, and very much alive. I am looking forward to seeing Cormier, Lowe, and Voyer pump up the crowd at the album release show on May 25 at the Nite Owl, and I recommend you be there too – we can all dance together!
For further details, visit Howlin’ Pete Cormier and his Wolves on Facebook.