Orono’s Brad “Bradleyboy” MacArthur makes music with grit. His new album Salt Gun – described as “country blues with a heavy foot on the gas” – is a collection of 11 songs that attests to his “raw and gritty” aesthetic. And it is aptly named, for whether he’s playing live as a one-man band, or recording in his home studio, his resolve to keep it real is almost as tangible as the sting from salt-gun shot.
Salt Gun gets its name from those old, less-than-lethal shotguns that used rock salt for ammunition. The title harkens back to a memory from MacArthur’s childhood, growing up in the Warden and Kingston Road area of Scarborough, near the bluffs. On their way to the clay pits, he and his friends had to cross the property of a lone homeowner who would try to scare them off. They would hear the “pop, pop” of the salt gun going off, as the property owner fired warning shots at them. They knew the shot wouldn’t do much harm but, according to MacArthur, “when it hits you, it’s going to sting.”
MacArthur’s raw sound comes from a combination of real-life stories and home-made instruments served up in a swampy country and blues style. His vocals recall the whiskey-spiked growl of Tom Waits; his electric guitar, the primitive but plaintive rhythms of R.L. Burnside. Salt Gun is MacArthur’s 14th independent solo recording (he also has two indie recordings with the Kent Boys), and his first on the Awesome Productions label. The Toronto music label, distributed by EMI, recently signed MacArthur to a 4-album/7-year contract.
The deal was “totally unsolicited,” says MacArthur, but very welcome. A frequent performer on the Toronto club circuit, he was playing a gig at the Dakota Tavern when he was approached by a representative from Awesome. MacArthur says he was surprised that a label known mostly for dance music was interested in him until he learned that Awesome was turning its attention to Canadian content.
“One of the first questions they asked was if I was Canadian,” he recalls. “Then I visited their offices. And I asked, ‘Where does a 50-year-old one-man band blues-trash mix fit into this?’ They said, ‘You fit because you’re real.’”
MacArthur’s initial doubts were soon alleviated by the label’s commitment to his vision. “They make sure everyone involved in the project believes in the project. They all come out to the shows. When they decided to sign me, I said, ‘That’s great.’ They do all the networking and distribution. They have a broader scope than I could reach on my own. This way I just focus on the music and the performance. And they gave me complete creative control.”
MacArthur used that control to record Salt Gun live off the floor at his 16-track home recording studio, known as the Red Room, in Orono. He chose Abel Renton, co-owner of Hands On Music and Get Bent Records in Bowmanville, as his producer. The recording captures MacArthur’s live sound, with all of the same instruments – an electric guitar, with a hi-hat cymbal and suitcase-bass drum kit – that figure in his one-man band performances.
“This one’s more electric,” he concedes. “My other albums were more acoustic country.”
The suitcase kick drum “kind of goes with the whole home-made instrument idea,” he says, explaining how the suitcase is attached to a kick drum pedal, and has a kick microphone. “The secret is finding a good hollow cavity. I found it at an antique store in Orono. It’s made of wood. It gives just the right ‘thump.’”
“I’ve got mostly retro equipment,” he says. “The one new thing I introduced on this record was the cigar-box guitar. It was made by a local guy in Bowmanville.” The square, three-stringed cigar box, with a pick-up mounted inside for electric amplification, run through a home-made fuzz pedal, is truly a sight to be seen as well as heard.
It’s all part of his pursuit of an authentic sound that can’t be found with the drum machines and digital loop pedals on which most one-man bands rely.
“I’m a singer-songwriter foremost,” he says. “I’ve played in a number of four- and five-piece bands; I found it restrictive. As a one-man band, I can write a song and play it the same night. I don’t have to wait for the band to learn it. I like the creative freedom of it. I can go anywhere I want with it. I like the fact that I’m doing it then and there, and it sounds like a band, it carries. It’s entertaining.”
“I always like going to the root of music. Like in that Chess Records movie, when Muddy Waters first came to Chicago playing acoustic country blues, he was already playing through small amps, getting a little more grit into it. Sometimes the purists take the soul out of it. I want to believe what I’m hearing – put the grit in it.
“A lot of the songs are stories of things that I’ve done in my life,” says MacArthur. “The music has to express that. You have to live a little for people to really believe it. It’s not rich boy blues. Like R.L. Burnside and Hound Dog Taylor, they’re gritty and raw. They are who they are; no one got a hold of them and made them pretty. They were total characters. They lived it.”
MacArthur did a fair bit of living himself before he finally started concentrating on his music. While he’s been playing guitar and writing songs for 36 years, he only began to record his songs ten years ago, when he first moved to Orono and opened his recording studio. Before that, he spent 25 years as an iron worker, working on high-rise building while raising a family.
“I was around 40-years old when I stopped doing iron work. I put a good part of my life into providing for my family, and never gave music a good kick in the pants,” he says. Now, besides his live performances and work in the studio, he also does carpentry work with reclaimed wood, and restores old buildings. He lives with his wife Jude Allison, an artist and designer, in a renovated board and batten house, with the youngest of their seven children, and their dog George, who they rescued from a shelter.
Salt Gun was released on June 7th in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. Starting in the fall and continuing next year, MacArthur will tour in support of the record throughout the U.S and Europe. The song “Bird Watcher” will be made into a video and used as part of the soundtrack he is doing for Punk Rock Big Year, a documentary on birding punk-rock style, by Paul Riss, a Toronto art director. Riss designed the album art for Salt Gun, using a wood-burn image created by tattoo artist Pete Commanda.
MacArthur performs a number of local CD release shows this week, including: Thursday, June 9th at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto; Friday, June 10th at the Historic Red Dog in Peterborough; and Saturday, June 11th at Murphy’s Pub in Oshawa. Tarantuela from Peterborough opens the shows. As he has in past years, MacArthur will also be performing at the Bent Family Summer Solstice Celebration on Saturday, June 18th at R-Farm, 3388 Concession #3 in Newcastle.
To hear three sample tracks from Salt Gun, go to: http://www.myspace.com/bradleyboymacarthur