Five years ago, the Glorious Sons made the decision to not sound like a band from the 1970s. From their beloved home town of Kingston on the north shore of Lake Ontario, they’d watched as countless young bands got their retro, Deep Purple groove on, and so resolved to give their own music a 21st century heartbeat.
“For me the rock genre needs to talk about now,” singer Brett Emmons tells Classic Rock, “and exploit some of the stuff they didn’t have in the seventies. Modern tech can really break a song wide open, you can let your imagination run wild and be free.”
The Canadian quintet’s superb third album, A War On Everything is full of catchy tunes with a classic rock punch and a present-day sheen, among them One More Summer (a toxic love affair set to a crunchy bass/organ riff) and the sleekly produced Kingdom In My Heart.
Fans of Rival Sons and The Black Keys will latch on to Wild Eyes’ modern verse, but on the chorus Emmons channels Mick Jagger circa Sticky Fingers, yelling a timeless: ‘The colour on your lips is the same as the blood on my hands/These wild eyes are yours’.
The Glorious Sons have supported the Rolling Stones twice since forming in 2001, just two gigs among hundreds across North America and beyond. Classic Rock watched the band in action at London’s Scala late last year, supporting Ohio blues rockers Welshly Arms.
On record the Sons are slick and anthemic, while live there’s a danger to them, their performances teetering on the brink, the energy threatening to push it over the edge, but they claw it back, thrillingly. Emmons, for one, has struggled with the whole touring thing.
“You tend to overdo it when you’re excited and young and don’t know how to tour,” he says. “I took a break from drinking last year. I wasn’t an alcoholic, but I certainly had a drinking problem. It’s easy to get swept up and find yourself a prisoner to a lifestyle. We do still party, but we’ve matured – have a drink before the show, but not ten drinks. I’ve been there, and it doesn’t make for a good show.”
When chatting, Emmons, 27, is open, softly spoken and can wax eloquently on the literature of David Foster Wallace and the music of one of his heroes, Layne Staley. Live, he channels Staley, Axl Rose, even Kurt Cobain, singing, screaming, hurling himself around the stage and into the front row.
The predominantly young audience chants along to the choruses of their best-known songs such as Everything Is Alright (a No.1 hit on the US Modern Rock chart) and S.O.S. (Sawed Off Shotgun) as if at a stadium show. Both songs are on Young Beauties And Fools, The Glorious Sons’ 2017 album, which won Best Rock Album at 2018’s Juno Awards (Canada’s Grammys).
“Honestly, award shows never really appealed to me,” says Emmons. “It’s nice to get a tip of the hat from our fellow countrymen and the people in the music industry, but it’s gone the way of the Grammys – they don’t even put the rock award on during the televised night any more! But I’m grateful, it does you a lot of good and people do find your music through it.”
Back in 2001, Emmons was into the first year of his English Literature degree at the University Of Halifax. He says he was there mainly to appease his parents. He really wanted to be a musician, and felt unsettled. When he began experiencing panic attacks, he quit and returned home to Kingston to join the Glorious Sons, formed by his elder brother, guitarist Jay. And that’s another way the Emmons boys buck rock‘n’roll tradition – they’ve been best friends all their lives.
“Jay wants to bring a cohesive piece of art forward,” Brett says, “so he plays for the song. I tend to be the creative leader, and when it comes to business I don’t touch the damn thing, I leave that to Jay. People talk about us having catchy music and depressing lyrics. And that’s natural – he comes up with these singable melodies, and I write the lyrics. It’s a good dynamic.”
While their 2014 debut The Union attracted plenty of guys to their shows, after Young Beauties And Fools Emmons noticed a lot more female fans catching on to the band.
“I’d gone through more life experiences, the songs were more introspective and sensitive, and it drew a female audience in,” he says. “The Union was a little more meat-and-potatoes, and maybe women can smell the bullshit more than guys.”
At their best, his lyrics reflect the music’s blend of new and old tropes, throwing back to the storytelling, blue-collar poetry and local colour of a Bruce Springsteen record, but broaching 21st-century concerns. The biographical Panic Attack hit No.1 in the US Mainstream Rock Chart. Kick Them Wicked Things is about the hopelessness Emmons sees in his peers who go to college, come out saddled with debt and also drastically reduced prospects of employment.
“That’s my love letter to Canadiana,” says its writer. “I know plenty of people working in a bar after college, trying to pay off their debt for a degree that’s worth nothing. It’s a tough place to be, and people wonder why rates of depression and anxiety are so high, and why mental health is so bad.”
It’s interesting to think that Emmons – a compelling and complicated Son – was something of a jock as a kid, playing baseball and boxing (a skill that hasn’t left him; Everything Is Alright’s line ‘I punched a man on his wedding night’ refers to an actual event). He also spent too many red-eyed hours alone playing videogames obsessively. And if he initially got into music to impress the girls, he has discovered something more profound altogether.
“I have an addictive personality – you get that idea for a song, and you can spend twelve hours working on it and it feels like forty-five minutes. You walk around talking to yourself, chain-smoking cigarettes, and after a series of many miracles you’ve got something you created in your brain from thin air. Nobody can ever take it away from you.”
The Glorious Sons – bringing rock’n’roll back to now.