Ping pong might be what prevents Shawn Hall from harpooning Matt Rogers, or keeps Rogers from dismembering his musical partner with an axe.
The duo known as The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer discovered the stress-relieving game in London, England during a recent tour.
“We went to a night club and there were 75 ping pong tables and a bar,” Hall recounts. “We started playing ping pong and we found that was probably the most therapeutic thing we’ve had together in a while, so maybe ping pong is going to be it.”
The harmonica player jokingly describes his 13-year relationship with guitarist Rogers as “just like any other marriage, minus the romance. It requires a good deal of counselling and therapy to keep that train on the track.”
The two first collaborated on a radio jingle Rogers wrote for a Jamaican pizza restaurant owner, although they were working sight unseen.
“He’s always a busy guy and he sent his guitar parts back via internet. So we started on something before we actually met each other. And this many years later, we still file share.”
When they finally did meet, they founded a band called Cop Shop, and also began collaborating with the guitarist’s brother, singer/songwriter Ben Rogers, with whom they still write much of their material. It was after a Canada-wide tour in 2005 that they decided to form their duo.
“That was probably the beginning of the marriage. Before that, we just courted,” Hall says.
The name they picked combines a line from the Janis Joplin hit, “Me and Bobby McGee” with the colloquial term for a guitar. Hall admits it causes confusion for some show bookers, who assume they play death metal rather than blues.
“It takes a bit of explaining, and I’m sure it’s going to keep us from ever playing any real, solid kids’ community event or old folks home.”
Despite their brand’s violent-sounding imagery, their stock in trade is what Hall calls guttural, emotional, intimate music.
“A lot of it’s either lusting for something, or crying because something didn’t work out. Not to dumb it down, but the blues really address base needs in humanity. That’s why they resonate so well with so many people and so many cultures.”
So far, the two have produced four albums together, including an unreleased collection of covers called The Blues Can Kill, which Hall says no one will ever hear. A fifth album, with the working title of Post-Apocalypstick, is due out next February.
The day after giving this interview, Hall was scheduled to take a float plane to Vancouver from his home in Nanaimo, “to make a third attempt at singing a song that I’ve not gotten right the first two times.”
With his songwriting and performing partner living on the mainland, Hall says they do a lot of file sharing, but it’s important to work face-to-face when they can.
“For the type of music we do, we need a lot of engagement, we need to be in the same place when we’re creating a big chunk of the elements,” he says. “Once the seed is planted in the writing, then things can be individualized and people can go down their own roads, adding different spices and flavours to the record. But the seed has got to be genuine, otherwise it’s not going to last and that song is going to burn out.”
For the upcoming album, Hall and Rogers each came up with about 40 song ideas, which had to be winnowed down to 10 or 11 tracks.
“Some of the songs, I would take three of my songs and marry them together into one song, and they (the Rogers brothers) would help me choose those and do all of that blood transfusion and stapling of the skin to get them into brand-new Frankenstein form.”
Hall admits he experienced a serious bout of writer’s block while working on the new material.
“The creative muse doesn’t like operating on the schedule of parenting and doesn’t like being told when it can and when it can’t. You mix that with exhaustion and it just disappears.”
Both musicians have young children, which adds extra stress to being on the road for extended periods.
“That beautiful ’60s dream of seeing these rock bands with their partners and their kids in their backpacks, that’s not a reality now. At least not for us, yet,” he says.
“The truth is, the amount of energy that’s at these festivals is not for kids. It will just blow their fragile souls apart. They’re not all simple experiences and navigating them is for adults.”
When The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer play at the Atlin Arts and Music Festival, which runs July 8-10, Hall’s goal is to achieve an adult level of intimacy with the audience.
“If they can walk away feeling engaged, sexually aroused and ecstatic, then holy smokes, we might as well retire after that. But that’s the desired effect.”
Details about the annual Atlin event can be found at www.AtlinFestival.ca.