Home Feature The Chat Room: The Gravel-Aires

The Chat Room: The Gravel-Aires

Photo by Anita Van Weerden

It’s easy to describe The Gravel-Aires’ sound as old school—the full roots rock spectrum with a touch of power pop flair. But with songs derived from the extensive experience shared by the creative team of Mark Branscombe and Michael Mahoney, The Gravel-Aires is a band that boldly defies any assumptions that go along with that description. That’s clearly evident on the Vancouver-based group’s new album, Westerly, their third full-length since 2020, and is proof of their sonic evolution from a stripped-down duo into a full-fledged, five-piece rock and roll band.

Guiding that process once again in the studio was Westerly’s co-producer Jesse Waldman—no slouch of a roots music artist in his own right—whose sense of space and texture brought the songs to life. All of the classic elements are present on the album’s first focus track, “If The Devil Don’t Want Her,” with its Stones-indebted groove, slithery slide guitar and lyrics like, “She’ll stick on you like a bad tattoo.”

In some ways, Westerly is the product of nearly a half-century of Mark and Mike’s work within the Vancouver music scene, together and separately. Mark spent most of that time as a member of blues-rockers Mud Bay, while also launching The Ormidales in 2008 and recording a solo album, Grandview, in 2012. Mike got his start playing punk rock while attending high school in Ottawa, before making a 180-degree turn toward country and bluegrass once he settled on the west coast. He also played in a reggae band, which had just broken up in 2016 when he received a call from Mark to try their hand performing as a duo.

After releasing the first Gravel-Aires album, National Avenue, in 2020, the pair quickly followed it up with Headlights In The Rearview Mirror in early 2021, by which point the pandemic brought things to a halt. Thankfully, Mark and Mikel have managed to keep their shared passion for making music together burning, with the end result being The Gravel-Aires’ Westerly, an invigorating roots rock collection that proves sometimes the right songs just come along at the right time.

We caught up with Mark and Mike ahead of The Gravel-Aires’ album release show on Feb. 24 at The Princeton Pub in Vancouver. Westerly is available now on digital platforms and from Bandcamp.


The Gravel-Aires have been evolving from a duo to a full-fledged rock band over the past few years. How would you describe that growth?

Mike: It has been an adventure. Sometimes I miss the intimacy and textures you get with small acoustic ensembles but is interesting to play with a bigger musical palette and try songs with a bigger sound. The best part of the adventure is knowing that something completely different might be just around the corner and there are so many styles and sounds to explore.

Mark: As a duo, the rhythm, and to a degree the feel, was in the blend Mike and I could transmit through our instruments. The interesting thing for me was adding our drummer Stuart Bedard into the mix to do a few live shows. Having been a rhythm guitar player, my role changed. Adding a drummer presented a shift that allowed for more focus on dynamics within the songs. We played without a bass player for about three years and so the lower part of the sonic spectrum was an area that I learned to fill as well. When Bob MacIntosh joined us on bass, I was back in familiar territory working out the rhythms and specific twists and turns as part of a traditional band. It has been great fun getting to know each other musically. The excitement is high as we work towards our first performance as a full ensemble.

The new album Westerly has a lot of different styles on it. What was the writing and recording process like?

Mike: The writing process was each of us writing a song and then honing it by playing it in living rooms and backyards until we had solid arrangements that worked for us as a duo. The recording process took a while and involved a lot of rearranging to fully exploit the possibilities of a traditional rhythm section and the sounds that are available when you plug in. This required a few changes in the way I do things. I was constantly accused of “pushing” the drummer with the mandolin, which was a fair comment. It eventually sank in that I did not need to focus on the beat. I could use the mandolin as a pure melody instrument, which is only one of the ways the process opened up melodic possibilities for me.

Mark: Writing is an ongoing thing for me. “If The Devil Don’t Want Her” was written during my days with Mud Bay and “Afterlife” was written about the same time, around 2021. We had a number of the songs on Westerly written when we started Headlights in the Rear View Mirror in 2020, but it was not feasible to gather a full ensemble for additional recording sessions. The pandemic closed down many studios so we saved our full band songs for when things loosened up. Our recording sessions for Westerly started with Scott Young at Alchemy Sound in New Westminster. We took two days to track 13 songs as a three-piece, mostly to capture drum parts, and then moved the sessions to Vancouver where Mike and I live. We worked with Jesse Waldman at Woodland Sound Studio on weekends and evenings; as we played our rhythm guitar, mandolin and lead parts we began to hear references to the music that was in our DNA and if an idea popped that benefitted the song, we tried it. You will hear the mandolin on “Station,” a 12-string electric and a mandolin on “Walls,” Simon Kendall’s B3 organ on “You Lost Me,” Tom Hammel’s pedal steel work on “It’s Slipping” and “A Woman when She’s Cryin’,” Erik Nielson on bass for “Afterlife” and some backing vocals that Natasha Pheko sang for us on “Afterlife” and “Station.” These were conscious choices that we made to take the songs into the various regions of where our music comes from. Westerly is all roots music but with some sonic side trips and a few happy accidents along the way.

As the band’s two founding members, what makes your creative partnership work?

Mike: Respect. We each have different talents and perspectives and you cannot bring that together to make a greater musical whole without listening to the other guy and making occasional compromises.

Mark: Thick skin, honesty and a shared focus on fun. Mike and I were fortunate to have arrived at an intersection of our musical backgrounds and the life and times we have lived through. We have commonalities and differences in the music we love.
As we cook the stew, it’s interesting to see what ingredients each of us show up with in terms of music, information or personal experience.

You’ve both also played in other Vancouver bands. How has the scene changed over the years?

Mike: Vancouver is a little isolated geographically, so we are used to making our own fun out here. I hear many complaints about venues closing, and a number of places have closed, but I can’t help noticing that there is still a lot of people making music around here and finding new places to play it.

Mark: I arrived in Vancouver in 1979 and gravitated between the post-punk rock and rhythm and blues venues that flourished in warehouse spaces and nightclubs around town. There was also the Top 40 clubs with cover bands to choose from. There was money around then to promote venues and more of them did that. Now, if venues are running entertainment, it has become part of the artist’s job to promote and draw a crowd. These days there are thankfully some smaller venues, brewpubs and restaurants that are an outlet for singer-songwriters and a few bars and larger capacity performance spaces where a bigger band can rock out; not enough though really. On any given night there’s more musicians playing in rehearsal spaces than are up on a stage in the city. Musically, it might be harder to detect a distinct Vancouver flavor than it was back in the day.

What can people expect at a Gravel-Aires show, and what are some of your plans for this year?

Mike: People can expect original music played with love and enthusiasm that touches on a wide variety of roots genres. We are going to continue to play as full band and as a duo and are looking to try out a few festivals.

Mark: The evenings thus far seem to be like a road trip through a few geographical regions. The radio is on and you hear something on a local station that maybe resonated with you — new to your ear and unique to the town you just drove through. This year we will look for fun opportunities to play a few shows with the big group and a few as a duet and get our music heard far and wide digitally. I’m interested in getting my feet wet with shooting some video and will be working on the next batch of songs.


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