ARTS & CULTURE | For Whom the Drum Tolls: Brent Morton inspires a generation

Brent Morton, the man behind Drum and Bell Tower, is at home on percussion as well as guitar. Photo: Sage Birchwater

By Sage Birchwater —

Nobody fills a room quite like Brent Morton. Few musicians touch the heart of culture and the urgency of our times as deeply and vividly as he does.

Since arriving in Williams Lake from his hometown of Saskatoon in 2007, Morton has fashioned a vast musical legacy. His powerful voice and rolling anthemic sound clears the bleachers and gets everyone up dancing. His lyrics dissect issues that are difficult to grasp.

Inspired by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, and Sigur Ros, Morton’s message is simple yet deeply introspective. Political and prophetic.

He dares to question the big issues of politics and the environment. His words cut a swath through the jungle of confusion and despondency that often surround these weighty matters. He shines a light so others can make it through.

Until recently, Morton was strictly a solo act, creating his Drum and Bell Tower sound with a computer, drum set, guitar, and vocals.

With the release of his most recent album, Out of the Time, he toured it as a trio with Brandon Hoffman (bass, mandolin) and drummer Travis Challord.
Morton says he started performing music fairly late in life. “I wasn’t in a band until I was 21,” he says.

He spent two years cutting his teeth on the Saskatoon music scene playing in bands that in no way reflected what he was interested in.

“Then I locked in with a couple of guys and we put out three records of pretty aggressive, gnarly psychedelic rock,” he says.

Playing with other musicians had its challenges, and Morton found himself in a volatile situation.

“After that I said nuts to other people; I’ll just record music on my own because I can do it.”

Morton put out a number of self-produced albums, occasionally getting a couple of friends to come in and guest on them.

That’s where he was at when he came to Williams Lake eight years ago.

“At that point I was heavily invested in electronic sequencing beats, which makes a heck of a lot of sense for a solo artist,” says Morton.

He didn’t know anybody at first, so he just stayed in his basement and worked on an album for six or seven months. The end result was a fairly polished, psychedelic electronic fusion album, The Black Need (2008).

“I didn’t really tour that album very aggressively,” he says. “I played it a little bit and it went over really well.”

Morton says he got tired of hauling around all his electronic fusion gear and drumset to play 15-minute tweener sets at music festivals.

“It was just a lot of work,” he says.

He had an epiphany watching Wax Mannequin and other acoustic one-man acts on stage at Arts Wells in 2009.

“You know what, that’s what I’m going to do,” he told himself. “I’m just going to write songs.”

Brent was inspired. He experienced a massive outpouring of songwriting material and his 2009 album Scratch Out Your Name was born. He recorded it that winter in a decommissioned church in Wells.

“I wrote everything in a week or something like that, and discovered I was having way more fun doing that than I was with the other stuff,” he says. “So I packed away the electronics forever.”

Morton did a second Wells album, recording Burn Beneath the Water in 2011 in a different old church. The following year he recorded To Black Moon.

“I spent a little bit more time on a drum kit and played bass on these last two albums, and it transitioned to a fuller sound,” says Morton.

Meanwhile, he continued to attract a serious following at festivals like ArtsWells, Horsefly, Forest Grove, and beyond, rocking long into the night on the main stage.

For his latest album, Out of the Time, recorded at Jason and Pharis Romero’s Horsefly studio in 2014 and released in March 2015, Morton abandoned his strictly solo act and brought in other musicians.

He invited Sam Tudor and Ciel Patenaude to come in for a song, and was accompanied by the banjo playing of Jason Romero on another piece.

“The album’s got lots of stuff on it,” he says. “Multiple guitar parts and multiple voices.”

He says recording the album in Jason and Pharis’s little cabin was amazing.

“I gave myself a very short schedule—seven days. It’s a ton of pressure, really intense, recording two songs every day, but I’m quite happy with the results.”

Asked where he gets the inspiration for his music, Morton says some of it is a mystery even to him.

“Melodically, I can’t even talk about where it comes from because I don’t know,” he says. “To me the melody is the primary thing. That’s what happens first.”

He says he often has to work hard on the lyrics to have something worth saying.

“The inspiration basically comes from knowing about the state of the world and having a response to it.”

When he’s stuck for lyrics he reads the news.

“Alternative news, independent sources and authors, that’s kind of where I get informed. My fire in the belly comes from that.”

For his day-job, Morton works as an educator in Williams Lake, teaching a high school alternative program. He fits in his music around that. Or is it the other way around?

Asked if his music is inspired or informed by his work as an educator, he says, yes.

“On my new album I’ve got two songs inspired by interactions with my students,” he says. ‘Song for Teenage Girl’ and ‘Song for Teenage Boy.’ I work with a lot of at-risk youth, so you get very different stories from them than you get from regular mainstream kids… so it can be pretty intense.”

Brent Morton’s musical style is inspirational, haunting, and transformational. Listening is believing. He boldly steps into environmental issues like the Mount Polley Mine spill, or offers profound perspectives on the complexity of world politics.

For the first time ever, Morton has included the words for all 13 songs on the Out of the Time album cover. This is a welcome addition to his musicology. He really does have something to say! Reading the words helps you see that.

Morton’s words of advice: “Forget all you know; trust what you feel.”

You can listen to Morton’s music on his website: www.drumandbelltower.org or online on CBC music, http://music.cbc.ca/#!/artists/drum-bell-tower.

 

Sage Birchwater moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1973. He spends his time freelancing, authoring books, and with Caterina, hanging out with their dog and cat, gardening, and being part of the rich cultural life that is the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast.

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