Stephen Hughes laughs often and easily during conversation, out of sheer enjoyment from talking about what he's doing. A vocalist, arranger and multi-instrumentalist, Hughes founded The Blown Gasket Orchestra with seven of his closest musical pals. Some of them go way back—for example, Hughes and guitarist/vocalist Jon Andrews first met during grade eight in Port Hawkesbury.
"It's easy to ask your friends to help you out," he says with a chuckle.
That's one of the rules governing today's large pop/jazz ensembles: friendship forms the core of the band. The avant-garde rock band, playing a CKDU fundraiser show on October 25 at Gus' Pub, started recording an album last Sunday at the studios of the new NSCC waterfront campus in Dartmouth, where Andrews is studying recording. In turn, he can use the sessions as part of a school project, explains Hughes.
He composes most of the band's songs on piano. "Writing on piano, the arrangements get a little more hefty," rather than on acoustic guitar, Hughes says. Once he takes the tunes to the band they are built up and elaborated into towering songs. Then, three saxophones lead the charge.
During the song, "Bobby Nice," Hughes says, their sound amazed him. "The first time we played that live I couldn't believe how good it sounded with the horns."
Thanks to his father, Hughes discovered jazz by the likes of Dave Brubeck. He's also a fan of Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, though he nervously laughs while evoking those names. The Blown Gasket Orchestra also recently opened for Joel Plaskett in Hughes's hometown of Port Hawkesbury, where they sold a three-song EP.
The various members of The Blown Gasket Orchestra come with their own experience and credentials. Some played in The Middle Class Pushovers. Andrews, singer Pam McInnis and drummer Claude Samson all work solo, too. Still amazed at his luck,
he says, "This is my first time starting a band." He's worked with many other musicians in the last 10-plus years, including the side projects of his fellow Blown Gaskets.
"If I don't mind taking orders," he says, stifling a laugh, "I don't mind giving orders."
Back in 1997, Hughes played bass in a heavy rock outfit he co-founded called Soup. They won a YTV achievement award that year and received the honour onstage from the Backstreet Boys. "We hated getting it from them," he says with a guffaw. "We were sort of a Rage Against the Machine-type band."
It's a long way from Rage to blowing a gasket, but Hughes still has those "hefty" arrangements (and if you catch any of their tunes, such as "David the Painter," you'll see what he means). As well there are longer, "more progressive" songs in the repertoire, mixed in with the short, snappy two-minuters. For Stephen Hughes there are many ways to define heavy in sound. Playing a CKDU benefit show makes sense for Hughes, who says, "I like listening to music I've never heard." He gets his fix of the unheard from CKDU, which he fondly recalls listening to with the band. He goes even more traditional old-school by listening to Seaside FM, broadcasting from Eastern Passage. "I don't know if I should admit that," Hughes jokes.
The Blown Gasket Orchestra performs along with Oh Dinah, A Helpful Diagram and Oman Ra, in support of Hear Today Gone Tomorrow, hosted by Zach Fairbrother, Wednesdays at 2pm on CKDU 88.1 FM.
This year's funding drive, says CKDU program director Melissa Buote, has a goal of $35,000, not the previously set target of $50,000. Is this a case of lowered expectations? Not at all, Buote explains. "The students from King's College voted in a referendum to give CKDU a student levy," says Buote by email. "This financial boon—and awesome show of support—meant that we could relax our funding drive a little bit and lower the goal." Just two-and-a-half hours into the fundraising this past Monday, Buote reported that the station already made $1,000. All around, optimism is as high and loud as a horn blast.
The Blown Gasket Orchestra w/Oh Dinah, A Helpful Diagram, Oman Ra at Gus’ Pub, 2605 Agricola, 10pm, $5, fundingdrive.ckdu.ca.