Bringing the rock orchestra to The Rock

Justin Brake
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Cape Breton's next musical prodigy might not come in a standard shape or form. It might not sound like one would expect. And it might not even be all that prodigious.

Newfoundland's island cousin, renowned for its rich music culture, has spawned a group that's legitimizing spectacle's place in music, and that bigger is better.

Tom Fun Orchestra believes bigger is better. The groups sound has been described as cluster rock. Submitted photo

Cape Breton's next musical prodigy might not come in a standard shape or form. It might not sound like one would expect. And it might not even be all that prodigious.

Newfoundland's island cousin, renowned for its rich music culture, has spawned a group that's legitimizing spectacle's place in music, and that bigger is better.

Recent Music Nova Scotia Music and East Coast Music Association award winner Tom Fun Orchestra (TFO) has been perpetuating the splash it created last year when it released its debut album "You Will Land With A Thud" to an apparently big-band-hungry East Coast music community.

"I was completely oblivious to it," admits TFO founder Ian MacDougall, referring to the recent Canadian big-band fad involving mainstream rock sensations Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire and the sprouting of funk, reggae and dancehall co-operatives at both ends of the country, like Funky Dory and the Idlers in Newfoundland or Five Alarm Funk in British Columbia.

"I just knew it was something I wanted to do," he explains. "I had a lot of these songs and they worked OK on their own, but it was just as much about the spectacle and experimenting with different instruments. I would have taken hurdy gurdy and a tuba," he jokes. "I really had no idea. I didn't have my ear to the ground at the time. It just happened at a good time."

The public and industry response to the group's enterprising sound that's been described as "cluster rock" - comprised of guitar, violin, accordion, banjo, drums, bass, and trumpet - has been as ambitious as the music itself.

When Mac-Dougall invited several friends to join him onstage at a 2005 ECMA no-case gig, it was more of a spontaneous "spectacle" than anything, he says.

"We realized that we were enjoying it, so we figured we would try practising, so it just all kind of happened by accident."

Before long, music producer and fellow Cape Bretoner Warren Bruleigh took notice and shared his excitement for the band with friend Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes.

"I came home one day and there was a message on my answering machine from Gordon Gano," says Mac-Dougall. "It was just entirely surreal. I listened to (the Violent Femmes) when I was in high school and growing up, so it was very bizarre.

"I didn't quite know what to think of it but I spoke with Gordon and he was eager to work (with us)."

In keeping with the band's high energy and raw musical offering, they travelled to Connecticut to work with Bruleigh and Gano in a studio that could help them sustain their sound.

"A big part of our reputation is our live energy and it's pretty hard to capture that if you're not doing it off the floor," he says, explaining the band's inability to secure a sufficient studio in Halifax.

Two tours of the UK, a coast-to-coast Canadian road trip, and several jaunts across the eastern part of the country later, MacDougall says the Tom Fun Orchestra's highs have been nothing short of exhilarating while the lows haven't really been that low.

"We played a medium-sized festival stage (in the UK) and the show started out with a small crowd gathering," he explains. "By the end of our set there were hundreds of people crowded around the tent having a good time. It's pretty rewarding when that sort of thing happens."

Conversely, at a gig in Dublin, Ireland, "we played to one girl who was actually from Cape Breton, and the sound guy," he laughs. "Surprisingly, that wasn't our worst show and we managed to have fun with it."

The worst it gets on stage with eight people is having "to watch out for guitar headstocks," MacDougall jokes.

"It's easy to find energy with that many people on stage," he adds. "It's also easy as a frontman. If I forget chords or words I've got other people to rely on. I play solo from time to time and I enjoy it, but it's just a lot more free and easygoing with eight people."

The Tom Fun Orchestra will return to Corner Brook, where the group won the CBC Galaxie Rising Star Recording of the Year award at the ECMAs in March, for a show at the Black Thorn Stick Cafe with Sherman Downey and The Ambiguous Case on June 18.

They're also playing their debut St. John's gig June 19 at The Ship with The Monday Nights and The Subtitles.

For more information visit the band's website: www.tomfun.ca.

Organizations: Tom Fun Orchestra, Music Nova Scotia Music and East Coast Music Association, Violent Femmes The Ship

Geographic location: Cape Breton, Newfoundland, British Columbia UK Connecticut Halifax Dublin Ireland Corner Brook St. John's

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