"It seems like people are afraid to… say something these days,” muses Cody Bowles. “It’s interesting. Rage Against The Machine had a lot to say, System Of A Down had a lot to say, but there’s a lot of bands these days who like to play it safe.”
Shy and softly spoken over the phone from their small home town just outside Oshawa, Canada, Bowles has a sweetness that obscures multiple steely sides. The prog fan who grew up listening to their father play drums to the whole of Rush’s 2112. The dextrous singer/drummer who studied Afro-Cuban and West-Ghanaian beats. A member of Canada’s vast indigenous community, with roots in Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq tribe. The LGBTQ+ representative who identifies as Two-Spirit (an umbrella term, specific to indigenous people, that covers all gender and sexual diversities outside binary genders).
Bowles and Kevin Comeau, a punk-loving Jewish bassist who fell hard for Rush as a teenager and never looked back, formed Crown Lands in 2016, playing noisy blues rock, and rapidly became rock’s rising stars to watch.
Now, in the shadow of horrific revelations regarding Canada’s residential school system (more than 130 institutions where indigenous children were isolated from their native cultures, rife with abuse and death, the last still in place until 1996) they’ve taken on current themes and expansive proggy sounds that have long been close to them. All of which comes together on their EP White Buffalo.
“I don’t think our music is challenging, because it’s still pretty accessible, but I think we’re starting to push the limits,” Comeau tells us. “It’s exciting, I think, that people are coming along for the ride with us.”
With songs that speak to Canada’s much-mistreated indigenous population, Bowles and Comeau are counter-culturalists for our times, with one eye on the legacies of Rush, Yes and Genesis, and another firmly on the present, raising awareness of injustices that have too often gone unseen by the wider world.
“Cody and I actually bonded joking about the fact that we’re here despite everyone else’s best efforts,” Comeau says, grinning. “The fact that my family made it through the Holocaust, and the fact that Cody’s family has made it through residential schools, it’s a miracle that we are here together, making music together. So we joke that we have shared intergenerational trauma, so that’s how we bonded. Obviously that’s not [really] how we bonded, but it’s a fun thing to joke about.”
He laughs, then pauses. “Is it a fun thing to joke about? I don’t know.”
Speaking from the green, pastoral surrounds of the new home he’s just moved into, guitarist/bassist/keyboard player Comeau is a likeable guy with a brisk streak. He talks a lot. With Chewbacca-rivalling locks and a beard that’s somewhat untamed (compared to his sleek, hair whipping stage presence) he has a leaderly, shamanic quality as he outlines the Crown Lands mission in clear, rapid-fire monologues. He seems to know exactly what he wants to say, and appears keen to get it all out.
Still, after an unplanned year and a half at home – and an unexpected wealth of time to craft new songs – you can hardly blame him. Having spent the last few years on tour, Comeau was in a position to really hone his chops, while Bowles took singing lessons to elevate their Geddy Lee-meets-Robert Plant pipes. It pushed them several steps ahead. All the while harrowing stories of unmarked mass graves, unearthed at residential school sites, peppered their news feeds. The seeds for White Buffalo were sown.
“This year we’ve been able to focus on writing some really good music,” Comeau enthuses, “and we’re a lot further along musically and technically than we were last year, and we’re a lot closer to where we wanna be. That feels really good. I think we want to be a really special band to kids, or any fans of music that want really technical music that is kind of a lost art form right now. We draw a lot from Genesis and Yes and Rush, and we were kind of afraid to embrace that on our first record.”
Indeed the duo first caught the world’s attention with energetic blues rock (compiled on 2020’s self-titled debut). Now, though, any fears of branching out seem obsolete. Ties with their prog heroes have grown. White Buffalo was recorded with Rush producer David Bottrill. Following Rush drummer Neil Peart’s death they also worked with another Rush collaborator, Nick Rasculinecz, with Bowles playing Peart’s old kit on the single Context: Fearless Pt. 1.
It’s all built up to this point. Following last year’s singles Mountain and End Of The Road – the latter a spine-tingling ode to the many indigenous women, girls, and two-spirits who’ve gone missing or been murdered on the Highway Of Tears, a 450-mile stretch of road between Prince George and Prince Rupert in British Columbia – White Buffalo’s title track represents the completion of a trilogy, drawing parallels between indigenous peoples and the hunted buffalo of their homeland. Along with the three other tracks on the EP, it’s more refined than their early work but rocks more urgently. Punk spirit in a luxury prog package.
“It feels like people are finally starting to listen to indigenous people and take them seriously,” Bowles says. “All this stuff that’s in the news, it was known to everybody in our communities but nobody listened. It wasn’t until somebody dug up this site that people were like: ‘Oh, shit, I think they’re right. Let’s go back and listen to see if there’s anything else they’re right about…’”
This is not the Canada most of us know, contrasting sharply with popular stereotypes.
“Every time a serial killer gets arrested the neighbours are like: ‘Oh, he seemed like a really nice guy to me, he always held the door open for me!’” Comeau says, chuckling wryly. “And that’s Canada. Canadians are polite, but we’re not nice. There’s this weird, cold thing about Canadian politeness. It’s been weaponised, and that’s how so much of this shit has happened.”
“There are more indigenous kids in foster care than any other kids in Canada,” Bowles continues. “There’s a system here that is fundamentally broken, and it’s not until people see the whole truth that we’ll understand what’s going on. There’s a lot of insidious things that happened in the past, but even still to the present.”
The scale of Crown Lands’ sound matches that of the themes; from commanding instrumental Inner Light, through huge, nodding-to-Gilmour guitars in The Witching Hour and 13-minute epic The Oracle. But it’s the complex, catchy title track that steals the show, bringing to mind the immediacy and deceptive intricacy of Genesis’ hit Turn It On Again.
“I’m really proud of that song,” Comeau says. “It’s sometimes easier to write a ten-minute epic song than a three-minute hit. I don’t mean to say it’s going to be a hit, but we hope it’s going to be. It’s got a big, long, stupid three-part harmony, so it still is over the top, but it’s more accessible.”
“Music tells a story,” Bowles says, “and we want to be able to tell a series of stories that get progressively more expansive.”
“Hopefully it gets played really loudly at rallies where statues get taken down, too,” Comeau adds. “That’d be sick.”
Growing up in Willowdale, Toronto, Bowles was obsessed with the books of JRR Tolkien and writer of the Dune series Frank Herbert, as well as the sprawling narratives of Rush epics like 2112, The Fountain Of Lamneth and Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres. Outside of Crown Lands, Bowles has a science-fantasy novel in the works, with its own language. “I’m just a big nerd,” they reason, with a laugh.
The family spent a lot of time at a cottage just outside the Alderville First Nation reserve in Ontario, where the young Bowles (half Mi’kmaw) connected with their indigenous roots and culture – for which they had been bullied in school.
“I have some wonderful memories of getting taken out to the wild rice fields in the rivers and on the lake in a canoe with one of the Elders, learning what it means to be indigenous,” says Bowles. “It’s kind of an existential thing. It’s a feeling; a deep knowing and understanding that you are one with all of existence. Your connection with nature is inextricably linked to everything else.”
Meanwhile in Whitby, Ontario, Comeau wasn’t athletic but did well in classes. He and his sister were the only Jews in their school. “I think a lot of kids turn to music because they get ‘othered’ in school,” he reasons. “It was definitely one of those things you don’t tell people unless you knew you could trust them. Cody kind of passes for white as well, so learned early on to not necessarily tell people about their indigenous heritage until it was safe to do so. And this is Canada. This is a beautiful country, but still a lot of people don’t feel comfortable being different.”
At home he listened to narrative masters like John Prine, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. “That, combined with Zeppelin and Queen, formulated a lot of my early sensibilities.’’ As a Clash-loving teen he wore his hair in blue spikes, before diving deep into Rush.
It was their shared love for Canada’s prog godfathers, and for storytelling, that drew him and Bowles together at a band audition in 2015. They haven’t stopped since. Singles and EPs (or “capsules”, as they call them) have tapped into a younger market, offering the album experience in smaller packages.
Recently they finished an instrumental meditation record, combining Comeau’s love of Brian Eno and British ambient music with giant wood flutes sent to Bowles by an indigenous company. It’s a lot for anyone, never mind a duo.
And yet the key to their success is very simple. Two best friends. Long conversations about life that weave into songs. Agreeing. Disagreeing. Being.
“It’s dawned on us over the last year and a half how important that really is,” Bowles says, “to be friends with your bandmate and actually meet them wherever they’re at every day, and just talk and be human with each other. So many people forget that. They treat the band like a machine.”