A MURDER OF CROWS – Darkstone Crows
An unashamedly metal outfit from Mississauga, Toronto, Darkstone Crows are an enthusiastic and exuberant young band with high hopes but feet firmly on the ground. Having only recently achieved a settled line-up of Elle [Chanel] Martins (vocals), Jiv Marshall (rhythm guitar), Adam Alexander (lead guitar/vocals), Russ Shipman (bass/vocals) and Matthew Skypas (drums), the five-piece soon wasted little time booking slots at The Recording House Studios in Scarborough (that’s Canada, not the sleepy UK holiday resort) to record their self-titled debut EP, a heavy yet intensely catchy collection of material which showcases the best of the band in one four-track hit.
But while the band may have hit the ground like a whirlwind, as with every overnight sensation there’s a whole lotta back story, and for Darkstone Crows it all started when Chanel encountered Jiv at Merriam’s School of Music. “I've been singing since I could speak, but only started taking lessons when I was ten years old,” she begins, “when I began performing at talent shows and concerts at school, as well as recitals and annual vocal competitions at Merriam's School of Music. I then got into the vocal programme in high school and started listening to metal and rock as my dad and my good friend showed me bands like Tool and System Of A Down. The music kicked ass and the subject matter centred around things that actually mattered to me. So when I turned fifteen I knew I wanted to be in a band, and at that point I joined the Band Chops programme at Merriam and met Jiv.”
Jiv takes up the story. “I was fifteen when I first saw the film adaptation of Joan Jett's experience in The Runaways. As I learned more and more about her I became inspired to emulate her attitude and ethics. I fell in love with classic rock and metal instantly, but explored its many sub-genres as well. Shortly thereafter, I decided that my love for music needed to be expressed, so I set my sights on creating a band. Living in the suburbs of Toronto I struggled to find bandmates, not knowing where to look. However, my mother was insistent that I join a music school where I could get set up with a band by a producer. Long story short, I met Chanel in that programme, and we worked well together, so we left the programme to start a band with more dedicated members.” As with any band there were plenty of false starts, until Jiv came across Russ Shipman. “Things changed when he joined the band,” she says, simply. “Chanel and I felt that we had another member that was as dedicated as we were. The three of us stuck together when two of our past members quit at the same time, with Russ bringing in Adam and Matt quickly to fill the vacated positions.”
“I’d never been in what I would call a serious band,” adds Russ, “but I started playing music young, really loved it through middle school and high school, but didn’t get involved with the bass guitar until I was sixteen or so. My band at the time had just parted ways with our bassist and I just picked up this Thunderbird bass we had lying around and got the feel for it quickly enough. I really liked it, but I was still trying to be a lead singer as well, so my capabilities remained rudimentary until after we broke up in late January 2014: I was frustrated and heartbroken that this band I believed in so much was dead, so I channelled that frustration into the bass. Somewhere in this mess Chanel messaged me. I was stoked to be trying out for an actual metal band, but when I showed up it was less hopeful than I’d assumed. The drummer was leaving, it was clear that everyone had ideas about what direction should be taken, but communication wasn’t very strong at that point. I brought a friend of mine in on drums, but he was too busy to commit long term. At one point I was playing drums AND bass at practice. I seem to recall asking Adam to join twice, and the first time he refused because he wanted to be in a deathcore band. After a while, he came around and gave it a shot.”
“Before I joined Darkstone Crows I was on hiatus for a couple of years,” Adam recalls. “I was in a band called Suicide Note From A Therapist in my high school days, and it was really heart-breaking for me when we went our separate ways; they were like a family to me. So I took a break and went to college and achieved a diploma in Music Industry Arts. After that I tried to put together anything I could. I had nearly given up hope when Russ approached me with an offer for the lead guitar position in Darkstone Crows, which I initially turned down. A couple of months later I came to my senses and I asked Russ if the offer still stood. Lucky for me, it did. The rest is history; I found my new home and my new family. I’m having the time of my life with these guys and loving every second of it.”
“This was at the same time we got rid of the drummer,” continues Russ. “We persevered, and despite the numerous setbacks we continued writing. At the time we had a big show coming up opening for Puddle of Mudd, so we were scrambling for a drummer. I recall that I was on drums for practices because I was the only one who could play them. I had broken all of my sticks, so I went out to the local store to get more. That’s where I bumped into Matt, who was working there. I was just making small talk – he was pitching his guitar-playing abilities – and he happened to ask me how long I’d been playing drums, to which I replied that I was, in fact, a bass player. His eyes kind of lit up and he told me he was a drummer too.”
“It’s true,” agrees Matt. “As long as I can remember, I had always wanted a drum kit, but my parents never wanted one, so instead I received an electric guitar for my eighth birthday. When I got my first job I went and bought a Pearl drum kit and played it from time to time. Four years later I was sitting at work, itching to be in a new band (since mine had recently broken up) and I was trying to chat up my guitar playing abilities to anyone who looked like they'd be band material. Russ walked in one day and I was pitching my guitar skills, but he wasn’t interested. He said he was looking for a drummer and I was desperate, so I switched to drummer mode and tried to sell my drumming abilities. I bombed the audition but they had faith in me that I could practise and practise and be ready for my first live show with them, opening for Puddle of Mudd (not a show I wanted to fuck up). Needless to say, the show went well, and I was officially part of the band! It was at that show I realised that I LOVE to play drums.”
All of which brings us to the ‘Darkstone Crows’ EP. “Pretty much right after that show,” says Russ, “we decided that we’d found the line-up we were looking for. We had a photoshoot in Toronto and started to publicise a bit more, trying to get our name out there. Since Matt was pretty solid on the drum parts of our set already – he’d come to the band pretty prepared – we began pre-production for our EP. Now, I’m not only a stickler for playing things right, I’m also harsher and more blunt than most people. But that meant that when we went to record our EP, we were out for blood. Throughout the recording process we continued to play shows, opening for Red Dragon Cartel, Lynch Mob and Slaughter, among other local gigs. As great as those shows were though, they were eclipsed by our EP release party. Difficult to describe the feeling of seeing 300+ people show up to show your band love after less than half a year of being together. It made all the ups and downs of my whole life up to that point worth the struggle, believe me.”
An early incarnation of the band had recorded a single ‘Queen Of Pain’ (a song which Russ notes as a “personal fave… usually reserved for an encore…”) but for the EP “the songs we chose were selected because they were the tightest, angst-ridden, and fieriest compositions we could stand behind,” the bassist observes. “Every inch, every second, of those four tracks was polished and scrutinised until we were sure we had nothing to add. Most of the songs we recorded were already written well before we chose to record them, with the exception of ‘Fathoms’, which Adam had composed before and brought forward during pre-production.” Opener ‘Hell to Pay’, Russ recalls “changed frequently with the line-up shuffles. It centres on the twin issues of racial profiling, and police brutality and the abuse of power within the system of law enforcement. We threw out an extended middle section that we’d had originally in favour of the guitar and bass solos that are on the EP, preferring to adhere to a punk ethic of getting to the damn point! Jiv wrote beautifully descriptive lyrics for this piece, dripping with rage at perceived injustices, and she and Adam really shine on this track, playing tightly on the technical verse parts.”
“‘Sidewinder’ is Russ’s through and through,” Jiv chips in. “Furious and straight to the point, riveted with a punk rock undercurrent that spits in the face of the warmongers of the western world and strife in the Middle East. Titled after the ‘Sidewinder’ missile, as well as the poisonous desert snake of the same name, this song sweats and bleeds like any soldier. We really wanted to get people going when we played it, so the verse parts are accented by a driving bass under the guitars. Chanel and I worked the chorus riff to be more melodic in contrast, and Russ put together some provocative lyrics to accompany it all. Matt and Adam came through with beautifully accented fills and solos in this piece. And ‘Deadhead’ is my ode to the street life of a derelict adolescent. “It’s gritty and grimy, soaked in whiskey and its own urine. The introduction is explosive, the split guitars coming together suddenly into a wall of sound as the whole band kicks in. It tells the story of life on the street, day-to-day, just trying to get by when everyone’s forgotten you and thinks you’re a joke. Adam’s solo on this track is stellar, just screaming overtop of the band.”
“And last but not least, ‘Fathoms’ is the crowd favourite, and it’s pretty easy to understand why,” laughs Russ. “It’s the catchiest offering of the four tracks, and there is a ton of pop influence and hooks that we tried to convey in it. Lyrically, it’s about being onstage, playing shows, seeing people losing their minds to your music and the part that you wouldn’t understand unless you play in a band yourself. All the adrenaline, the anxiety and nervousness, all the sweat and spit, and the faceless crowd that screams the words back to you louder than you can turn up your PA’s volume.”
Recording the EP was, recalls Matt, “an experience to say the least. Hearing your music recorded for the first time really is something special, but it was a load of sweaty work. Being a graphic designer, most of the design work fell to me with the band’s input, and we put out an EP that’s as professional and interesting as I’ve ever seen. We put the CDs into production along with shirts, and we planned our EP release party very quickly. I remember the night before was a tough sleep, I was nervous beyond belief, which is unusual for me. We made sure we got the best bands who’ve been part of our growth as a band to play with us that night, and the night was a hit. There was a ton of people there and they were all there for us: it was the greatest feeling. All the adrenaline and excitement, the energy of all the band members was extremely high and we fed off each other's excitement and energy. Even after, we had a crowd of people who wanted pictures and autographs. It was an experience I wouldn't trade for the world,” he admits.
As for what’s next, “it’s all very up in the air,” says Jiv. “We know we’re going to keep doing what we do, and there’s no denying that our foot is in the door. People are responding to us, we’re making connections and friends in the industry and in the scene. We’re looking to broaden our horizons and get further out into the world. We have time to craft ourselves, streamline our act. We want to record a full-length within the next year or so, and we have solid plans to release a couple of singles before the New Year. And we’ve been told time and time again that the UK and Europe would eat us up.”
Believe me, that’s a given. Check out: www.reverbnation.com/darkstonecrows
© John Tucker August 2015