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'It's Fun To Still Be Surprised': The Changing Face Of Three Man Cannon

Tuesday, 06 March 2018 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Russell Edling

A bands’ band are a well respected part of the furniture in their scene. They have released several records of consistent quality, if not a consistent sound, and those records could be considered influential, even if that’s a relative term. They are probably opening for your favourite band in town tonight because they’re your favourite band’s favourite band. Three Man Cannon are a bands’ band.

They have been kicking around the Scranton-Philadelphia punk scene for a decade, while a couple of members used to split their time with Tigers Jaw, a widely admired and ostensibly bigger group. They were mainstays at, and recorded in, Ava House, the south Philadelphia scene hub that shared its name with a song on the Menzingers’ breakthrough LP, ‘On The Impossible Past’.

These days they play hooky, clever indie-rock songs, but their back catalogue is stuffed with left turns. Like Canadian power-pop lifers Sloan, another bands’ band, they have multiple songwriters with discernible styles, and now they’re about to release a classic rock-literate, self-titled new record that makes excellent use of that dynamic.

In its pages you’ll find references to Thunder Road karaoke sessions and a lead single that’s indebted to musicians’ musician Warren Zevon. Three Man Cannon are a bands’ band. “That’s a long-running joke,” bassist Spenser Colmbs says. “Out there people talk about us like, ‘Well, you’re a successful, established band.’ We’re like, ‘Uh, I guess’.”

Their ragged folk-punk debut, ‘The Sound. The Fury’, emerged in 2010. Almost immediately, though, things started to change. While their line up - Colmbs is joined by guitarists Matt Schimelfenig and Dennis Mishko, and drummer Pat Brier - has remained solid, their music has consistently shifted.

Since they put out the knotty, often dreamlike ‘Pretty Many People’ and its follow up EP, 2015’s ‘Will I Know You Then’, their starting point in basement punk shows has retreated into the distance. Their new record will only drive that point home once people get their hands on its blend of west coast-style jams and atmospheric textures. It’s their most considered, cohesive work to date and follows a period of greater focus on the band after several years where they would drift in and out of periods of activity.

“There’s definitely a point, after we put out the first few things, and even up to ‘Pretty Many People’, where we were a band but we basically would take years or many, many months off inbetween and not do much,” Colmbs says. “All of us went to college for a while. That slowed things down.

“But then around the time ‘Will I Know You Then’ started, we decided that we wanted to create. I don’t want to say [it was] more serious, because it’s been serious the whole time, but there was a point of growing up where it felt more like we were doing this on a more mature, realistic level.”

One issue is that the four of them are rarely in the same place at the same time. With Colmbs, Schimelfenig and Brier based in Philadelphia and Mishko a couple of hours up the road in Scranton, the band set aside 10 days and headed into the woods to figure out the record. Schimelfenig, who works at Miner Street Studios in Philly and has produced, mixed or engineered records by the Menzingers, Waxahatchee, Cayetana and Captain, We’re Sinking, has assembled a studio at a farmhouse in the Poconos, which offered a mature, realistic change of pace.

Each Three Man Cannon album has been recorded by the band, but until a few years ago that meant making them in bedrooms, living rooms and, even in the case of ‘Pretty Many People’, the basement of a house in Philadelphia's Fishtown district. But Schimelfenig’s job, greater studio options, and being around people who do this stuff for a living, rubbed off on them. Their Poconos move felt like a solid choice.

“We had demos, everybody had put songs together that we’d shared with each other, but we hadn’t really fully fleshed them out,” Colmbs says. “We took that time to go up, seclude ourselves, get a bunch of food and cigarettes and stuff and get the sounds down. It worked out really well.”

Colmbs describes their process as “a lot of free flowing communication”. This time they were chewing over a slate of songs that, while not a total departure, pushed certain elements to the fore in a way they haven’t before.

There is a lazy, hazy confidence to the slacker-rock of the opener, Sun Poison, and a rolling gait to Building Broken Steps’ piano line. Hopeful Again has harmonies to die for, while Brier’s songs are increasingly stories in miniature. How A Mouse Could, Colmbs’ metaphor-heavy look at the pressures of cohabiting, has evolved from a loose riff on Nada Surf’s Popular to a complex, jagged indie gem here.

“It’s fun to still be surprised,” he says. “We’ve been playing together for 11-12 years at this point. Sometimes, somebody will still bring out a song and we’ll be like, ‘Holy shit, man, where did that come from?' I’ve known you for so long...and this is a surprise. No-one is ever turned away for a song idea. Everything gets worked on. We’re not afraid to scrap something if it’s not working out. There’s not a lot of hurt feelings. If it’s something somebody likes, then there’s usually something there. There’s a lot of trust.”

Whenever a band puts out a new record, even if it’s one that you want to revisit time and time again, it raises questions about the future. What’s next? What does this choice mean? Is this track a template for something new? Three Man Cannon offer a good-natured shrug to that line of questioning. Your guess is probably as good as theirs. It’s a safe bet, though, that this self-titled album is going to make a bunch of people happy. And, joking aside, not all of them will have a show to play tonight.

“We’ve just been making music we wanted to make,” Colmbs says. “There’s playing the game, because it is an industry, and I think for a while none of us were into the idea of the legwork to push everything forward. Sometimes we are a bit of a defeatist band. But we still keep making music. It’s not enough to stop us. As time rolls on we’ve got to keep making it. No matter how much we step on our own feet, we’ll continue to make music. It’s just really cool that there are people out there who’ll listen to it.”

‘Three Man Cannon’ is out on March 16 through Lame-O.

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