Colin MacDonald of The Trews

by Trevor Morelli

America has welcomed Canadian hip-hop (Drake) and R&B (The Weeknd), but has been a little slow on the uptake when it comes to rock. A shame, since there is some strikingly original rock music being made in the Great White North, led by acts like Wintersleep, Big Wreck and our favorite trouser-monikered band, The Trews.

The group is fronted by Colin MacDonald, who formed the band circa 1998 with his brother, John-Angus (guitar); their cousin, Sean Dalton (drums - since replaced by Gavin Maguire) and friend, Jack Syperek (bass). Founded in Nova Scotia but now based in Toronto, they made a huge impact in 2003 with their single "Not Ready to Go" from their debut album House of Ill Fame. Four albums later, they have established a fervent fan base and enough material to warrant a compilation album, Time Capsule, with a selection of new songs and hits. We spoke with Colin about the project and the stories behind some of their biggest songs.
Trevor Morelli (Songfacts): You guys are promoting Time Capsule, which is like a collection of some of your best-known and best-loved songs. You guys have been around for almost 20 years, so how do you start constructing a set list of what you want to play?

Colin MacDonald: Well, so far John-Angus's been writing the sets. We do 20 songs a night: 12 well-known radio hits and then eight different ones. We released The Vault with the greatest hits record, so The Vault has all B-sides and rarities on it.

So, there's stuff like old covers of Cheap Trick songs on there and outtakes from the No Time For Later and Hope & Ruin records. So, we've been trying to throw in at least two rarities, a couple of brand new songs and some of the new songs we wrote that are on Time Capsule as well.

Songfacts: Speaking of the new songs, which ones of the new four are your favorite?

Colin: I really like "Chinese Kites." I think that's really kind of cool and a bit different for us - it's got kind of a psychedelic vibe. "Beautiful and Tragic" has been really fun to play live, and "Lotta Work for Little Love" is some good riff-age. It's fun.

Songfacts: So, what led you to that decision to write some new stuff for Time Capsule rather than save it for another album?

Colin: This might be bad promotion but we weren't overly thrilled about doing a Greatest Hits. We don't really feel like we're there yet. We feel like we've got a lot more records in us and we still want to make more music and perfect our craft and get better live and in the studio.

It was just a contractual thing, you know. Time can fly and next thing you know it was 2015 and we're being told by the label, "It's time to do your greatest hits record." And we're like, "Oh, Jesus." If we're going to do that we at least want to have new songs on it.

So, we were already in the middle of writing another record and we still are. We were demoing songs for a new album and we just picked ones that were the closest to being finished and it was "Beautiful and Tragic," "Chinese Kites" and "Lotta Work for Little Love." These days with Spotify and Apple Music and stuff, like people can get all these songs anywhere anyway, so we wanted to make it a little bit more interesting for the fans and for us.

Songfacts: Give it a little more punch. It must feel good though when so many fans already know all of your stuff and sing along and fist pump. Are there certain songs that get bigger reactions than others?

Colin: Yeah, there's always the favorites like "Hold Me In Your Arms," "Tired of Waiting," "Not Ready to Go," "Highway of Heroes," "Paranoid Freak," "Can't Stop Laughing," "Ishmael & Maggie." Those are some of the fan favorites, but the new ones are working out well too. "Beautiful & Tragic" is a single and people really seem to like that one a lot. I mean, I'm basing it all on my show last night in Thunder Bay, so based on a sample of Thunder Bay Trews' fans, all the songs are working quite well at this point.

Songfacts: Let's dive into a few of those songs a little bit. Going back, "Not Ready To Go," that was kind of your big breakout single. How do you feel about that now, looking back at it 13-14 years later?

Colin: It changed everything. It changed the course of our lives, it changed the band, it changed our ability to have a career. We were struggling a lot before that time.

Songfacts: So, at that point you were already in Toronto, correct?

Colin: Well, no. We were living in Niagara Falls and we were playing in Toronto a lot. It just changed everything. We got signed to Sony Music and we started hitting the road as an opening act for Big Sugar, Theory of a Deadman, Three Days Grace. It was like 2003, and the song just took off early in 2004. It went to #1, and the next thing you know we're a national act and we're selling out shows and we're on MuchMusic all the time and on the radio all the time.

I told my friend earlier, we literally went from doing everything wrong to doing everything right because we had the success. Up until then we were listening to every jackass's opinion about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. You know, some drunk at a bar would be telling us how to do it the right way. And the next thing you know we're selling out places and we don't have to listen to those people anymore, which is my idea of success.

Songfacts: Another one of your big songs is "So She's Leaving." What is that about and do songs like that still hold true today? Do you still remember the mind frame you were in when you wrote that?

Colin: That song was just a complete stream-of-conscious rant. As much as this might sound like a total cliché, it was about just being totally burnt out on an insane tour schedule and being in a really tumultuous relationship back home at the same time. I just wrote it in like five minutes over this killer riff that the guys had going on in the jam room.

It was mostly influenced by southern rock, but also I was listening to a lot of Elvis Costello Blood & Chocolate at the time, and that record blew my mind. He's really into the savage breakup songs.

Songfacts: In general, do you guys write as a collective, or is it more collaborative?

Colin: It always works the best when someone brings in something to start on and then we all go at it. So, somebody will bring in a riff or a melody or a lyric and then we'll dive in to it and change it all around and flip it on its head. Sometimes it can be frustrating because you're at home working on this idea and you think it's really good, you bring it to the guys and they're like, "Yeah, let's just change it completely." But then usually it turns into something way better, so that's the best part about it.

Songfacts: "Fleeting Trust" is a pretty cool song - it has that kind of flicking guitar switch riff in it. Who came up with that one?

Colin: That was John-Angus. Actually, I think Sean had the idea of us going, "bow-dow-dow-dow," just the rhythmic thing, but when we went into the studio John-Angus decided to do it with a toggle switch on the Gibson Les Paul.

Songfacts: It really has a lot more emphasis that way.

Colin: Yeah, it gave it a signature sound.

Songfacts: Speaking of Sean, just for a minute, he was your drummer that left in July 2015. How did the band dynamic change with that and was it hard to re-adjust once he chose to go?

Colin: Yeah, he left in 2014. He left in the middle of a tour, which was really difficult, but we flew Gavin in and he joined the band. It definitely took some re-adjusting. It's like you go from playing with a guy who's been in the band since 2001 and then we have a new guy all of a sudden. We definitely had to hit the reset button, but fortunately Gavin is a killer player and I feel like he brought our show up to a new level.

Sean was a big part of the creative output of the band but I feel Gavin as a live drummer is... yeah, I really love him. I don't want to take anything from Sean. Sean's a real talented guy, but I really love the dynamic with Gavin. It's really powerful, it's reckless, it's rock and roll.

Songfacts: One of your newer songs, "Hope & Ruin," is one that's really connected with people over the last few years. What is that song about?

Colin: The song was a combination of two things. John-Angus had written this really slow piece of music that almost sounded like a Nick Drake kind of song – we're big fans of Nick Drake. I was writing another song and I was looking for a lyric, and there was a Rolling Stone magazine in the corner of the jam space that said "Hope & Ruin" on the cover, and I just took that verbatim. Like, "Okay, I'm just going to start singing 'hope and ruin' over this other piece of music."

It didn't really go anywhere, but the next day John-Angus brought in that Nick Drake kind of thing and I started singing the "Hope & Ruin" lyrics over that, and it was really good. Then Sean suggested we make it a really upbeat song with the slow-moving melody, and that's how it came together. Those are my favorite types of songs, the really slow, melodic songs that also kind of rock. You know, they have a good beat behind them.

Songfacts: And are there any others that really stand out for you as being your favorites?

Colin: I really like "Ishmael & Maggie." I love the song "Oblivion" off of our EP. That song always kicks off for me. I love "Paranoid Freak." I think that's a funny/scary song.

Songfacts: Is that about a real experience?

Colin: It was in 2007, down in America where we were touring, and they had all those "If You See Something Say Something" posters. We were in the middle of writing our record, and I had the title "Paranoid Freak" for a while. It's about that culture of fear and paranoia that was really prevalent in the mid-'00s - everybody was terrified.

You know what, it's still a relevant song because there's still that going on. I was listening to a lot of Randy Newman at the time so I like being ironic in a song. "Paranoid Freak" is a very ironic song, which doesn't always work in terms of mainstream success, but for some reason that one snuck by at rock radio.

It's not really something to be proud of, being a "Paranoid Freak" and talking about how you're freaked out about everybody, but I'm just kind of playing a character of this overly caffeinated, watchdog, conspiracy theorist kind of person.

Songfacts: On your last album you collaborated with Serena Ryder. The song's called "In The Morning." How did that collaboration come about?

Colin: She's always been a fan of the band and we just asked her. We came through Gavin Brown, actually, when we were making the record to see if she'd be interested in singing this. She loved the song and she came in and did it in a couple of takes. It's all really organic with us when we collaborate - it's just other people we really love and admire and respect.

And they're usually all friends. Like we collaborate with Gordie Johnson who's been a friend of the band since 2001. It's like we hang out, listen to records and then we write songs. With Serena, she's my fiancé, so we work together.

We don't go to make a Trews' record and hire writers to come work with us. It's all just people who we know really well and end up writing a song with or something, like Simon Wilcox, who's one of my very favorite friends - he lives in LA. If the song's any good we'll record it and put it on a record because we have so much respect and admiration for these people that we work with. It's like they're part of the Trews' extended family, as far as I'm concerned, and they've got amazing careers on their own anyway. It's never anything contrived, and that's why I never feel bad about working with people like that.

Songfacts: You said you're demoing new material right now. How are the ideas coming together compared to other Trews' records?

Colin: It's kind of mellow-ish. It's very song-y. We don't really write with Gavin - we haven't gotten to that point yet with him, so we just bring songs in and work on them when they're really fleshed out. I think there's some really good songs sitting there, a lot of good material, but we're just taking our time with it - we don't want to rush anything.

Some of it's a bit more pop-leaning. We sit down and we work on the lyrics, the melodies, the chord progressions a bit more as opposed to someone jamming on a riff and jamming until something happens.

Songfacts: Gavin Brown is known for his ability to punch out records.

Colin: Yeah, I'm talking about a different guy, Gavin is our drummer. But Gavin Brown did produce our last record and Gavin Brown did bring Serena in. But when we worked with Gavin, yes, he does punch things out. We brought in those songs that ended up as the new tunes on Time Capsule, and he definitely makes them punchy and impactual, for sure.

Songfacts: How do you see next year shaping out? Do you think you'll have a new record?

Colin: I want to, but we've been working so hard for so long. We've been on the treadmill of making records and touring and making records and touring. It would be nice to just take our time, make the right record and make the right bunch of songs, and when it's ready, it'll be ready. That could happen really quickly or it might take some time, so we'll just have to see.

Songfacts: As for Time Capsule, what's the overall feeling?

Colin: I'm proud of it. I like the new stuff the best but I've always been like that ever since I started doing it. The only thing that keeps me motivated to keep doing this job is just the next thing, the next bunch of songs and writing the new thing. If you're just out rehashing the same old shit it's so boring and it's not fun, so as long as there's something new happening, there's some little spark of the next thing, that's what keeps me wanting to do it.

February 15, 2017. Get more at
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