Touching down

The Tom Fun Orchestra prepares to land in Fredericton.

Like so many great bands before it, The Tom Fun Orchestra is an accident. The behemoth of sound from Cape Breton, with nine members at its core, began at the 2005 East Coast Music Awards in Sydney. Ian MacDougall, Tom Fun’s songwriter, vocalist and one of its guitarists, had returned home from a stint in Edinburgh with a pack of songs in his back pocket and a no-case lined up.

“There’s a bunch of people in the band who’d played my songs before, mostly for kicks, so I had an idea that some of them would be willing to play with me,” he says, sitting in the CBC Radio building a few minutes before a Mainstreet interview. “I sent a last-minute email asking for volunteers to play. I showed up on February 13th and the show was on the 15th---a couple of us practised the night of the show, others just showed up and sort of played and it was kind of terrible.” He and bandmates Albert Lionais, Zach MacLean and Morgan Currie share a laugh over the memory. “But people liked it, I guess, and I was pleased with it, my first three songs,” says MacDougall. “And so it evolved from there.”

Tom Fun’s reputation as a killer live band began building that night, reaching its apex during last year’s ECMAs here in town, with a string of showcase appearances that had attendees dancing well into the morning, laminates flying as stages strove to contain the band and a ramshackle combination of musical prowess and kitchen-party verve. MacDougall, the Orchestra’s mad genius, is quiet and reserved in person, but comes roaring to life on record and onstage, singing in a grizzled Waits-ian growl, sounding 30 years older than he is.

The group’s energy and popularity reached some big-time ears in Warren Bruleigh, a Cape Breton native who’s “been living in New York making records for the last 20 years or so as an engineer and he’s good friends with Gordon Gano from the Violent Femmes. Warren came to Cape Breton one summer and heard us, passed it onto Gordon and decided it was something they wanted to work with.”

And so The Tom Fun Orchestra, whose members are culled from literally dozens of bands, including Slowcoaster, Rock Ranger, Yellow and I Was a Spy, found itself in a studio in the tony town of Stamford, Connecticut, for two weeks last spring, putting together the 12 tracks of You Will Land with a Thud. (If you caught the band at the Seahorse at the end of January, you could’ve picked it up and you’ll likely be able to snag it this weekend at the ECMAs in Fredericton, but its official release date is February 26.) 

“It was the highest-end Connecticut,” says MacDougall, laughing. “The wrestling headquarters, the WWE headquarters, were just around the corner---and Xerox headquarters. But you’d never know because it was this beautiful old country home tucked away in this fancy, swanky, high-end neighbourhood. There’s just mansions everywhere and then there’s this studio---Pantera have recorded there, a whole variety of people have been in and out of that place.”

Tom Fun has built its buzz on the strength of its performances. If you only know them by reputation, you might not realize what an interesting, clever storyteller MacDougall is, spinning tales that take place at funerals, in bars, out on the road and in the woods, punctuated with terrific, sometimes surprisingly heartbreaking turns of phrase. On opener “When You Were Mine” he asks, “And did the fish near Newfoundland sleep half an hour earlier?” “And there were lots of old women but no old men/so the boys worked harder to pay the rent,” he sings on “Tar Pond Tango.” 

The upbeat arrangements and pure energy emanating from the band can overshadow this wordplay, but MacDougall doesn’t worry about it. “I like them as a prize that people can find,” he says as if he’s been thinking about it, “A reward for buying our record and opening up the liner notes.”

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