The exact moment where instinct triumphs — that is one thing that never loses its impact over time. And that is something both singer-guitarist Jon Middleton and drummer Roy Vizer readily agree upon.
Neither can recall exactly when or where they started playing music together, but they distinctly remember it was very soon after meeting. The two friends aren’t sure they ever talked about being a band, either. In a way, that decision took care of itself.
The symmetry was there from the start: Middleton’s gently wavering voice, powerful in spots but never enough to overshadow his expressive guitar playing; Vizer’s inventive, expressive percussion, delivered in a way that meshed perfectly with its elements.
Over a decade and four critically-acclaimed roots albums later, the duo of Jon and Roy continues to roll. To date, they have played hundreds of shows in clubs, theatres and festivals — both at home in Canada, through the U.S. and overseas in the UK — and have seen their music placed in everything from MTV, HBO and NBC programs to spots for Scotiabank, Volkswagen, Telus and more.
Jon and Roy are no less prolific outside of the studio. They have built a reputation on the strength of their live show, thanks to the synchronicity of their skills. Best of all, they have been able to accept career opportunities that stay with the boundaries they have set for themselves as artists. “We’re privileged to be able to do what we feel like doing, and not have to change it in any way to satisfy other people,” Vizer said. “That feels really good.”
Middleton, who writes the band’s lyrics, is constantly putting pen to paper. Even at this stage in their friendship, Vizer, who has had a front-row seat to Middleton’s process since 2002, remains amazed by his bandmate’s constant stream of creativity. “Songs generally come out of Jonny in batches,” Vizer said. “They are constantly flowing.”
By My Side, the band’s forthcoming fifth album only adds to Jon and Roy’s well-documented reputation. Fans and critics have praised 2005’s Sittin’ Back, 2008’s Another Noon, 2010’s Homes, and 2012’s Let it Go, the latter of which earned Jon and Roy a Western Canadian Music Award for best roots recording.
These achievements have put these consummate recording artists in good stead (and on tours with) The Cat Empire, Xavier Rudd, Buck 65, Current Swell, Finley Quaye, and Trevor Hall. To date, Jon and Roy’s back catalogue has topped the 20,000 mark in sales.
A popular festival draw, the band has headlined Canada Day in its hometown of Victoria, BC to 45,000, and joined Stuart McLean's CBC show The Vinyl Café (including a broadcast to 1.4 million people) for a series of theatre dates. Look for Jon and Roy to get back on the tour circuit this summer, with confirmed dates at the Regina Folk Festival, Tall Tree Music Festival, Keloha Music & Arts Festival, Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival, Whistler Concert Series, and Guelph’s Hillside Festival.
It’s all in support of a collection of songs that are purposely not the norm by today’s standards. “I try to stay away from generic drum beats,” Vizer said. “It doesn’t come naturally to play things I’ve heard on a million other records. I try to always think of parts that are slightly unique in some way.”
The recording came about by way of regular jams at Vizer’s house. That’s how Jon and Roy have always worked, although some new layers were introduced during the sessions for By My Side. Middleton brought a banjo and his newly-acquired 1950s Gibson acoustic into the fold, while Vizer used his new, custom Gretsch kit. The end result, which features contributions from bassist Louis Sadava and backing vocals from Carmanah’s Laura Mitic, charts a new path for the group.
“I listen to so many different styles of music, and I get inspired by so many different things, I end up writing different songs for each album,” Middleton said. “These songs are linked by a theme. This album is more cohesive.”
Middleton wanted to make a lyrical statement with By My Side, to be more concise in his songwriting approach. He also took the opportunity to stretch his voice out on occasion, forgoing nuance when it was called for on new songs Where’d My Light Go, Every Night and By My Side. “I’m comfortable singing in hushed tones,” he said. “But there were a few instances where I wanted to force it out a little bit more.”
However, the core tenets of Jon and Roy are evident, which makes the recording come across as something of a bookend to their 2012 album, Let it Go, home to one of the band’s best-known songs, Vibrant Scene. Now with five albums of stirring anti-folk on their resume, the band is willing to walk away from the studio for a few months.
Or not. Middleton says he is once again writing new material. “We’re in a good spot,” he said. “We still have this burning desire, I guess.”