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Classic rock. It’s not just for the guys who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s anymore. Thanks to the massive, global success of Greta Van Fleet, not only are the labels out looking for the next big thing, the kids are too as evidenced by Greta Van Fleet’s sold-out 2022 tour. One of the bands that has benefited from all of this is Crown Lands, a Canadian duo featuring Kevin Comeau (guitars/bass/keyboards) and Cody Bowles (vocals/drums), who served as one of the opening acts on the fall dates of Greta Van Fleet’s tour.
While the duo’s early sound was blues driven, as they’ve evolved, more and more prog rock influences have started to surface. And, if Greta Van Fleet is this generation’s Led Zeppelin, then Crown Lands is this generation’s Rush, something that Comeau will readily admit.
Crown Lands’ newly released third album, Fearless, has the audacity to open with “Starlifter: Fearless Part II,” an epic 18-minute, multi-part exploration through time and space and it’s perhaps the most glorious opening track of any album you’ll hear in 2023. Given the band’s influences, it would have been the most glorious opening track of any album released in 1974 as well.
In this conversation, Comeau talks about his musical journey, the records that inspired him to forge his own path, how he met Bowles, the influence of Rush and Greta Van Fleet, and hanging out with other musicians.
Who was responsible for introducing you to the first music you listened to?
KEVIN: Cody’s dad was a drummer so Cody started playing drums when they were like 1-years-old, just banging on pots and pans. They quickly got Cody one of those little drum kit so Cody’s been at it truly their entire life. My parents were really into classic rock. My dad was more into the singer-songwriter folk world, he’s an amazing folk guitar player so I got into music by way of Bob Dylan, John Prine, and Paul Simon. My mom was a big Eagles fan. On road trips, it would be Queen and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
When I was about 11, that’s when I started going out on my own and finding music and the first band that really captured my interest was Green Day because of Mike Dirnt’s bass playing. Bass was my first instrument and the first time I really registered what a bass was was the bass break in “Holiday” by Green Day on their American Idiot record. My dad bought me a bass and taught me how to play “All Along the Watchtower” the first night because it’s just three chords. I was sold. That was it. Everything else in my life melted away and music completely took over.
Then I started getting into The Clash and The Misfits. As a bass player, you keep asking, “Who’s the best bass player?” So I got into The Who because of John Entwistle, discovered Rush because of Geddy Lee. Everything kind of took a huge turn when I was about 14 when I discovered Rush. Then it was like, “Who influenced Geddy?” and I got into Yes because of Chris Squire. Then I fell into King Crimson and Genesis and Pink Floyd, just went down the prog rock rabbit hole. That symphonic, storytelling classic prog rock is what really compelled me the most. That’s what I found the most inspiring.
It’s very similar to Cody. Cody’s favorite band is Rush. My favorite band is Rush. When we met, about 8 years ago, Rush came up very quick and we bonded over them. And we’ve just been acting like two idiots ever since.
It’s funny that when you say you got into Rush when you were 14 because that was around the age I got into Rush, but I’m 20+ years older than you. It’s amazing that Rush has transcended time. There’s no time limit on that band. It’s sort of a rite of passage for teenage boys to get into Rush.
KEVIN: It’s true! As a musician, there’s always a kneejerk reaction against virtuosity. People are like, “Oh, music is not like athletics.” But, for a lot of us, it kind of is. I think that Rush just demonstrates that they are three of the greatest musicians of all time. They are just technically proficient but the way they write and arrange music, it’s just so unique. It’s still fresh to this day, whereas records that may not have resonated the same way when you were 14, if you were into the heavier proto-metal stuff like 2112 or Hemispheres, now you might like the more mellow songwriting of Presto and Roll the Bones. That’s the great thing about Rush, they were around for 40 years and they gave us 20 studio albums and there’s not one bad album there. It’s all varied, but it’s all them. It’s all just true, honest music. I think that’s something I aspire to do as a creator, never stop evolving but also honor what excites me as a musician. Rush is that for me. They are just so special.
In the U.S., Rush broke in Cleveland. The radio station WMMS was an early supporter and played them before any other station. I have to imagine the rust belt states are a good market for Crown Lands.
KEVIN: For sure. It’s so prohibitively expensive to tour the States as a Canadian band now thanks to the work permits. It goes through the Department of Homeland Security to come through as a musician. It’s about $12,000 every time you want to cross that border. It’s tricky, you have to really plan out your touring very well if you want to do it right. For that kind of reason alone, we haven’t really gone down to the States very often.
We did tour the States last year with Greta Van Fleet though. That was great. I think we’ve seen a huge shift in our audience because of that. I have to commend them for opening so many doors for that young generation of kids who are 14 or 15 that are discovering music just the way we did. There’s all this new and exciting music they can find, bands that are ushering in what’s being called the New Wave of Classic Rock. The kind of music that captured my imagination when I was a kid was the music basically from ’72 to ’82. It’s exciting to see it being accepted by this younger generation. Prog and classic rock wasn’t really cool to a lot of my peers and my friends whereas now I’m seeing all these kids that are ravenous for it. I think there are a lot of kids getting into us and then their older brothers or their uncles will be like, “You like that? Check out In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson or check out Close to the Edge by Yes.” I think that’s really exciting that we’re going to be a door-opening band for a lot of people discovering this really rich world of clever rock music or, hopefully, they’ll just stop with us. “Yep, this is it.” Hopefully we’ll be for someone what Rush did for us and hopefully we’ll inspire somebody else to keep carrying the torch of writing stupid, 11-minute guitar riffs.
I saw Greta Van Fleet last year and I was impressed by how they’ve built this community of younger fans who dress up for shows, who look at this as more than just another concert.
KEVIN: It’s not just the music, it’s the community that surrounds the music. I think that’s what really separates them and really makes them a special band. It’s nice that we’ve been able to see into that world and be a small part of it. I’ve seen a huge uptick in our fanbase, a lot of these kids that have the money to spend on new t-shirts and records, because a lot of people in my generation were probably feeling the inflation more and more and more, luckily these young people who don’t have the same type of expenses, music is the number one thing in their lives. Just like when I was that age in high school, the only think I bought were records. Nowadays, I don’t spend as much money on records, unfortunately. Life changes. It’s really nice to see these young people that are into this kind of music. Most people in our audiences are in our generation or in your generation or even Baby Boomers approaching their 70s. People come up and are like, “I remember seeing Yes at the Maple Leaf Gardens in ’71.” It’s nice that we’ve been able to carry that torch but it’s more exciting that we’ve been able to tap into the next generation of people that are making music as well.
I’m guessing that album art work is very important to you for your own music.
KEVIN: Yeah, big time. I remember seeing the cover of In the Court of the Crimson King in my dad’s record collection and it was so intimidating and then he put the record on and it’s like, “Holy shit, this is a whole other world.” I’d say “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” but how else are you going to judge it? You pick up the book, you look at the cover, you flip it over, you read it. Do the song titles sound really interesting? Yes. Do you look at a 40-minute album and you flip it over and you see there’s only 3 songs on the album? You know it’s going to be good. Albums are so important, at least to the ritual of the way I consume music.
The album format is still sacred so our team, when releasing music in this day and age, we’re kind of encouraged not to worry about tracklisting to balance an album side but that’s the first thing I think about. How do we tell a story per album side, not just for the album overall? How are you going to be able to create a beginning and an end two or three times? A lot of times you’ll have your A side and your B side and very often these days you have a C side and D side. We’re not beholden to that 40 minutes worth of music so a lot of times, these days, records are double albums. I find the issue with that is a lot of times you have albums with 12-minute album sides rather than 18 or 20-minute album sides. I kind of like trying to tell a 20-minute story. That’s just coming from my love of a certain era of music that was written with vinyl in mind.
So, the first and last song on each side are really important because you never know which side someone will play first.
KEVIN: 100%. Absolutely. You have two chances or sometimes three or four chances to create a really special opening moment and a really special closing moment. That power is sort of lost these days. I think about it all the time when we’re making records. What song is going to open the record? Ironically, White Buffalo, the last record we made, the first pressing is misprinted. The A side is marked as the B side and the B side is marked as the A side. It’s kind of funny because the ending of the record ends the exact same way that the opening of the record starts. We actually ended up writing and recording the record by creating the perfect loop just because we’re really big Pink Floyd fans and that’s what they did with The Wall and that’s what Yes did with Close to the Edge. We wanted to make it a perfect loop anyways so the fact of the matter is that even though it was not ideal in the storytelling sense, it doesn’t really matter because anyone who is listening to that record and flips it over, it’s going to perfectly do the loop thing. Life happens. Records get misprinted. It makes you wonder how many times that’s actually happened.
Tell me about the start of Crown Lands, the time and money you put rehearsing and practicing. Were you working day jobs to fund the band? How did you get to where you are today?
KEVIN: I was working two full-time jobs and I funded everything for the band for the first couple of years because Cody was going to school. I had studied classical music at a university in Canada but then I left school and hitchhiked to California and joined a reggae band when I was 19. I did that for 6 months and I learned just as much playing with those guys as I did from school. Then, when I came back home for the holidays to see my family, I met Cody just by a fluke. A good friend of mine was auditioning to play guitar in a band that Cody was playing drums in at the time. I crashed the audition. At that point, I was only a bass player and a keyboard player but Cody and I hit it off so well that we stayed in touch. I was playing in this other band for a long time and I had written a bunch of riffs that ended up finding their way onto our first EP. I came back home and convinced Cody to jam these riffs with me and we ended up writing this whole album together in one sitting and it felt really special.
I was working as a janitor at an armory, I was a civilian contracted by the Canadian military for four years. I ended up helping Cody get a job at the airport around the corner from that place doing the same thing. We were just goofing off, talking about music all day and our world domination plans while scrubbing toilets. We ended up volunteering at an old folks home which ended up turning into a steady job too where we’d just go play music for these older ladies every week. I was teaching music lessons. I was working at a number of bars as a sound guy. I was hosting an open mike. I was grinding it out so hard for four or five years, burning the candle at both ends. Every waking hour that wasn’t work, I was working on the band just emailing people, cold calling people, trying to book tours. We really wanted to do it old school because we had seen how some of our peers were really winning with going viral on the internet but we just wanted to be good live.
We just jumped in my dad’s Hyundai Elantra, we’d just drive up and down the 401 which is the main interstate in Ontario. You drove 4 or 5 hours in one direction and you’d hit 3 or 4 college towns and then you drive 4 or 5 hours the other direction and hit all the other college towns. You can basically spend a month doing that, going back and forth over the weekends and that’s all we were doing. We were playing in dive bars in front of 5 or 10 people, just grinding it out and getting better and better and trying to refine our live show and impress people and sell some merch. We did that for years and years until we ended up getting our agent, Ralph James. That was our first big break. We had sent him our “Mountain Music” video that we had done independently and he called us and said, “I’m your agent now.” Ralph’s Nickelback’s agent, Billy Talent’s agent. He’s helped a lot of really large Canadian rock acts get their foot in the door.
Ralph’s a solid guy. He introduced us to our manager. Our manager was living in LA at the time. That was right when Greta Van Fleet had blown up with “Highway Tune” and everyone was hungry to recreate that success. It’s no mystery that whenever a band has some mainstream success, ten other bands get signed and maybe 2 or 3 other ones will break through. We owe a lot of our success to Greta Van Fleet breaking through first. That’s how we got signed to Universal because they had seen number one after number one after number one with Greta. They were like, “Cool. There’s this other band with young people with long hair. Wow.” It was this great moment in music where this organic, classic leaning rock and roll has a place at the table yet again.
During all that time, before we had even signed to any of these things, luckily through word of mouth of us being a good live band, we got a lot of great tours. On our last headline tour before we had broken through, we went and played Halifax on the east coast of Canada in front of 5 people at a dive bar. Two months later, we came back opening for Jack White and played in front of 10,000 people. We ended up touring with Rival Sons, Coheed and Cambria, Primus and then we did The Hu in the States.
Through our friendship with Rival Sons, we ended up working with Dave Cobb in Nashville, the same guy who did all their records. We went to Nashville and made our self-titled record. We were all teed up to go and do an international tour supporting our debut album and then Covid hit. It was quite disheartening, it felt like a lot of wind had been pulled out of sail. It was a mixed blessing because then we connected with the owners of Chalet Studio up in Uxbridge and they let Cody and I rent out this room and write our White Buffalo and Fearless records.
We were able to hunker down and work on our writing chops better than just our live playing chops. If we had gone on the road supporting that first record, we probably would have been burnt out and our label would have been like, “Give us the second record.” It’s the classic story where you have your whole life to write your first record and you have a month to write your next one. Because of Covid, we had a lot more time to write our second and third records. Because of that, I think White Buffalo and Fearless are just so much better than our self-titled record. I don’t think we hit that sophomore slump that so many bands do. In a roundabout way, I’m happy the way things have worked out. Obviously, financially, it sucks but life is so much more than just money. I feel like we’ve made a body of work in the last few years that I’m really proud of that I think is going to outlive us. That’s really what it’s all about, creating music that has staying power. But, I also don’t think we’ve written our best music yet. I’m really excited to see what the next record looks like.
So, tell me, how the hell do you do what you do? You’re one man and you’re playing guitar, bass and keyboards all at the same time.
KEVIN: Cody and I pride ourselves as good multi-taskers. It’s just practice. My love of classical music and when I was studying classical at university, it was about getting good at voice leading and counterpoint and arranging really simple lines that work really well together to sound bigger than they actually are. I think that’s a huge part of it where just knowing what I’m doing as an arranger helps. I can play two or three things that are really simple but I do them all at the same time and can create something that sounds really lush and really beautiful. That’s where I try to push myself. How do I create something that has that regal, royal sound. I think we’ve really hit that on Fearless, on “Starlifter” especially. I’m really proud of that piece of music. I think a lot of time in the studio, I’ll let a little bit of studio magic happen where I’ll play bass the whole time, I’ll play guitar the whole time but then when it comes times to rearrange it for the live environment, I have to pick who the hero is and that’s where I end up playing all my guitar double necks. It’s just lots and lots of practice and leg workouts. When we play a show for an hour, an hour and a half, I’m flamingoing it. I’m balancing on one leg the entire time because I’m playing the taurus pedals. We’ve definitely discussed having more guys on stage one day but the budget isn’t there.
Do you write the songs knowing that you’ll be playing them live some day or are there some songs that you know are too complex to pull off in front of a crowd?
KEVIN: We definitely write songs so that we can play them live but, that being said, the last song on our new record, “Citadel,” that was our studio piece. It was like, “That song we’ll never play live.” And, of course, now we play it live. It’s more of a piano-driven song and then there’s a lot of guitar in the choruses and there’s no way I’m going to be able to play guitar and keyboards at the same time but we ended up figuring out a way. I’m tapping the guitar with my left hand and playing keyboards with my right hand and then doing the tarus pedal. It’s like patting your head and rubbing your tummy. It keeps you honest as a guitar player. You’re not thinking about what you’re playing. It really forces you, when you’re playing guitar and keyboard at the same time, to know what you’re doing. I like that.
Growing up on ’80s hair metal, the thing that I’ve learned 40 years later is that most of the singers from that era can’t maintain those high vocals this many years later. Is that something you think about? If Crown Lands is playing live in 20 or 30 years, will Cody be able to hit the notes he’s hitting today?
KEVIN: I have that conversation every time with Cody in the studio and every time it’s a big fight. I’ve had that conversation over and over and over again and it never leads anywhere. Cody is a health nut. He warms up and takes their warm up practice very seriously so I have faith that if anyone is going to keep it going, it’s going to be Cody.
You’ve played on some amazing bills. Do you get to spend time with the artists you’re touring with, maybe get some pointers from them?
KEVIN: The first half of the tour, you’re going to the job, you’re working, you see each other in the hallway. You give each other the nod. After you get used to each other, then it becomes more friendly. With the Jack White tour, we got to hang out with him in the green room a few times and shoot the shit. He was like, “You guys are really into the prog, my older brother listened to Yes.” It’s always somebody’s older brother. It was really nice talking to him.
One of the most special moments was touring with Primus. We got to go onto Les Claypool’s bus after and we were trading bass licks back and forth. I was like, “One of my favorite songs ever is ‘Buzzards of Green Hill’ off of the Flying Frog Brigade record, Purple Onion.” He showed me how to play it so I started playing it. He looks at me and says, “You’re a bass player, aren’t you?” I’m like, “I am.” He was like, “Why are you playing guitar then?” I thought it was so funny. He’s one of the greatest bass players ever and there’s still that, “Why are you playing guitar?” That was a really cool moment. We bonded over our mutual admiration of Geddy.
After that tour, Les did that Claypool-Lennon Delirium show in Toronto and Geddy came out and played “Tomorrow Never Knows” with them. Then we got to go backstage and meet Geddy. That was a really, really cool time. It was really cool to meet Sean Lennon. It’s all good stuff.
We met Alex Lifeson. We did this charity gig at Christmas and we played a couple of Zeppelin tunes with him. We did “Battle of Evermore” and “Stairway to Heaven” together. Alex is so nice. I kind of cornered him and started grilling him. “So, tell me about all the chorus pedals you’ve used.” Alex being Alex was like, “Let’s go.” He went really deep talking about what effects that were used over the course of Rush records. We talked about family and how you balance being married and being on the road. Another reason I love Rush is the way they handled their friendship but also their family life.
Do you have any side projects or anything you’re working on that strays away from the sound of Crown Lands?
KEVIN: I know Cody has this soul and funk kind of thing that one day might surface. I do a lot of ambient, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis type of synth music that has not quite found it’s way into Crown Lands yet. And I’ve got a lot of acoustic, finger style, *John Fahey*-type stuff, the American primitive folk kind of open-tuned guitar stuff that I’m working on a record for right now. I don’t know when that will come out or even if it will. We have lots of plans.