Picture this: A scorpion crawls out from underneath a clutter of rock into the scorching sunlight of the deserted Badlands after a weekend bender fueled by LSD and nitrous oxide. It makes its way over to the local recording studio to record a new single it’s been brooding over – and the hypothetical result may, in my estimation, sound something close to the sound of Edmonton five-piece Dead Friends.
Characterized by BIG sound coming from all angles, seemingly restrained or contained in some way by the tight and tinny acoustics of a literal garage, Dead Friends creates a uniquely nightmarish-strain of garage rock a la Thee Oh Sees or Sonic Youth, but with its own psychedelic-cowboy-western flair to it.
In their newly released single “Wells”, Dead Friends proves themselves as front-runners in this category – haunting melodies float over and blend with visceral, aggressive drum grooves in a singularly-stylish manner. Overtop the instrumentation, the eerie vocals deliver a message of impending existential dread – “But even one day that well will dry”. It’s a fitting message for all of us living in this current era in history – nothing is ever exactly as it seems, and nothing lasts forever.
We caught up with Dead Friends to talk inception, inspiration, songwriting processes, hockey, and much more.
Your music seems to be heavily inspired by Western and Cowboy culture. What sparked the collective interest in that particular scene? Is there any specific origin, or is it just a shared appreciation?
Carter Mackie: Prairie livin’ and oil driven.
Jesse Ladd: When I was growing up, it seemed my parents only listened to country music. My dad had a few Waylon Jennings CDs in his truck. For years I hated country as most of the music I was hearing was that radio country-pop bs. Pretty much until I was 19 I didn’t like country because they’d put a guy with a twangy voice over an 808. Then I started getting into what I did like. I did always like Waylon Jennings, so I started there. I was really into the whole “outlaw” deal.
Brian Musilek: I’ve been learning the country and blues style for a while now, it ain’t much but it’s an honest style.
Ellen Reade: I fell in love with country music during our first set of tours in 2017-2018. There was something so fitting about driving around the Canadian prairies in my minivan listening to old western, blues, and country. Touring Canada is so different from touring the U.S. from what I’ve heard. We often have 5-13 hour drives between shows, so we had plenty of time to listen to Waylon Jennings and stare at all the flat snowy nothing of farms and horses and cows. Did something to our brains, I think. I also worked for the Albert country radio station, CFCW, for close to three years! That definitely helped me fall in love with it even farther.
Callum Harvey: I wouldn’t get too hung up on the “cowboy” aesthetics. I personally would say that the western influences stem specifically towards the vibe and feel in sixties spaghetti westerns. For me, the inspiration for that sound and style popped up when we were touring through southern Alberta and BC. In a way, it is more of a younger-in-cheek sort of reference to our prairie upbringings and an appreciation for mid-sixties spaghetti western films.
How did Dead Friends get together?
Brian Musilek: Through a giant mash of bands and gigs through our adolescence.
Carter Mackie: Ellen, Jesse and I started the band originally as a three piece about 4 years ago. Shit’s gotten more wack since.
Jesse Ladd: In our teen years Brian, Carter and I started a band called The Hot Inhales, along with our other friend Luke. Ellen also had a band at the time, and we would book our bands together. Also at this time I was going to high school with Callum, he was a few years ahead of me. When the bands all parted, Ellen, Carter and I started a new three piece. A few months later the sound was feeling a bit hollow so we added Callum to play some keys. Later he was playing more guitar and switching back and forth, but just this year we added Brian to another keyboard because he shreds. I didn’t think he would actually want to join because of how good of a musician he was.
Ellen Reade: We all go WAY BACK to early high school (I’ve actually known Brian since junior high). But, I’ll take you through the four stages of Dead Friends. First, in September 2016 me and some guy we don’t talk to anymore started a terrible two piece where I played drums and he sang. We called it Dead Friends. It sucked. I quit. Then, in November 2016 Jesse and Carter asked to start a band with me. I was in a band that was doing really well at the time and I think they just wanted to play cool shows (and knew I had more connections than them). April 2017 I ask if we can add Callum on keys. Jesse asks “is he going to be like, a burden?” He was, but only for that year. This past December 2019 we were playing a Christmas gig, and last minute decided to have Brian jump on stage and play keys during one of our tracks. Callum taught him the part in 5 minutes backstage. The energy was so great we just decided we wanted him forever. And here we are!
How’d you land on the band name then?
Jesse Ladd: Ellen had it written down before, suggested it. And we said “cool.”
Callum Harvey: Ellen thought of it after some friends and I ditched her at a Mac Demarco concert.
Ellen Reade: For years I said that I was mad at Callum for ditching me at a Mac Demarco concert in November 2015 and I thought “my friends are dead to me”. BUT, I found a journal entry from September or October 2015 that had “The Dead Friends” written down in a list of band name ideas. Guess it was just in my brain.
What does your songwriting process typically entail?
Carter Mackie: Callum and Jesse typically write the lyrics. Ellen hits a drum, I smack a bass, Brian smashes the keys. It’s a very calming process.
Jesse Ladd: For me lyrics and music are completely separate at first. I’ll write short lines I want to use in a song with no concrete place for it in mind. Then I’ll try adding it to progressions I have until I have something, make a little demo then show the band. Most of our songs are based off demos either Callum or I bring but Carter’s written a few and Ellen has some on the way.
Callum Harvey: The song writing process is most often broken between Jesse and I. Usually one of us will either send a rough demo of the song and it’s basic arrangement, or we’ll just show the band the song on a guitar. Sometimes a song can come fully formed, with all of the arrangement, or other times it is more collectively expanded and refined by input from the band.
Ellen Reade: Drum go smash smash.
Was there any significance to releasing your single “Molly” on Valentine’s Day?
Callum Harvey: Spreading the love, obviously…
Carter Mackie: So you’d fall in love with us.
Jesse Ladd: A little romance I suppose.
What’s the inspiration behind the song?
Jesse Ladd: Feeling like you have no idea who you are. Happens to me a lot haha.
Ellen Reade: Jesse says something different every time I ask. Sometimes it’s about wanting something until you get it. Sometimes it’s about losing the spark in the relationship. Sometimes it’s about his ex. Sometimes it’s about his dog. I think it’s a weird projection from the deepest parts of his psyche saying “I don’t know what I’m saying or doing right now”.
Callum Harvey: Not really having a clear idea of who you are, and about the process of falling out of love then realizing it was a waste of time.
Carter Mackie: Jesse’s dog? Lost love? Idk, as I’ve said before to others I’m just the bassist man.
What artists have you been digging so far this year?
Callum Harvey: Schubert, Molchat Doma, Leonard Cohen, The Thrashmen, Ennio Morricone, DaBaby, and ancient melodies.
Ellen Reade: Whatever Callum’s been playing.
Carter Mackie: Joe Exotic
Brian Musilek: Whatever Carter’s been playing.
What have been the pinnacles and milestones of the band thus far?
Carter Mackie: We had an entire Canada/US tour ready to go, BUT GUESS HOW THAT ENDED.
Brian Musilek: Almost completing the process and being accepted to tour the USA before COVID ruined everything.
Jesse Ladd: Staying together this long for one, it seems so many of the bands we’ve played with have broken up. Even the ones that seemed so stable back in the day. We have played some shows I’ve never thought we’d play, especially looking back to where we began.
Ellen Reade: We all started out playing messy gigs in the same sweaty closet of a cafe. The fact we’ve played shows to 1000 people, toured Canada numerous times, opened for bands we used to listen to on Bandcamp as teenagers, played some super cool festivals, and were in a place where we were GOING TO tour the U.S. makes me feel really proud.
Callum Harvey: A full length Canadian tour, multiple mini-tours, some big local shows at a number of notable Edmonton venues, and of course the upcoming full length album. I’m particularly proud how our creative potential has continued to flourish and the sound/approach has never become set in a specific mold.
What is one thing you all want to accomplish within the next five years?
Brian Musilek: Make more than 2k a year as a band playing shows.
Jesse Ladd: I want to be able to do music full time, and when we’re not touring, I want to have a house in the woods where I wind pickups.
Ellen Reade: Oh god. Nobody should ask me that. Tour the U.S. Hit over 100,000 plays on a song. Get signed to one of my dream labels. Finish my degree. Get accepted to a masters program. Direct and/or produce one or two indie films (that do more than just end up on YouTube). Study abroad in Denmark. Lead some cool academic research and write a book? I dunno. An immediate goal for Dead Friends is get more people listening to our music online. We’ve got as far as we have almost ENTIRELY through our live shows and word of mouth. A proper digital following will go a long way.
Callum Harvey: Better music, and bigger opportunities to connect with audiences.
Carter Mackie: Stare into an abyss of empty hopes and dreams and pray one day I’ll drown in it.
What does your dream show look like? Accompanying acts, venue, city, Mercury in retrograde, etc.
Carter Mackie: Back of a barn, with a cow. Maybe a horse. Couple a pigs wouldn’t hurt so bad. I can’t wait to have my own farm.
Brian Musilek: For me, any fair sized venue that doesn’t feel like a living room.
Ellen Reade: I ordered this purple shirt that says ‘Groupie’ on it and I always daydream about wearing it to an 1000+ person gig opening for a super dude rock ass garage rock band. Answering more seriously, I’d love to play one of those gigantic outdoor festivals like Desert Daze, opening for one of the many bands that inspired me.
Callum Harvey: A moonlit gig in an ruined amphitheater with Tame Impala headlining, either that or opening up for spinal tap at the puppet show.
What’s the music scene like in Edmonton?
Carter Mackie: Edmonton’s like a farm, a dirty farm. Music good tho. Ever heard of steel wheels?
Brian Musilek: It’s a giant mashup of punks who will probably leave the scene in a few years and blues dads who will play the same bar for eternity, with a sprinkle of jazz musicians who are seen maybe 6 times a year.
Jesse Ladd: Depends where you look. We definitely have our elitists, but what scene doesn’t. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to an empty show in Edmonton though, every show seems to pull at least a bit even with little to no advertising.
Are you guys big Oiler fans?
Brian Musilek: Yeah, it’s a bonding factor.
Carter Mackie: MATTHEW TKACHUK IS A LIL BITCH
Jesse Ladd: Yes. Fuck the flames. Calgary ain’t bad though, just the team.
Callum Harvey: Enough to use it as an excuse for getting drunk with friends. Wayne Gretzky is legend.
Ellen Reade: I grew up going to Oilers games with my family so like, sure. But I’m not a big fan of sports. If we hang out we ALL hang out together, unless there’s a game. I’d normally be bothered by a ‘boys night’ without me… but if it’s hockey? Fuck it. Boys night. No girls allowed. Please don’t invite me.
If you were trying to state a case for Edmonton being one of the best cities of Canada, what might you say?
Brian Musilek: I’d say it’s easy to get personal with Edmonton because it’s just small enough that we can all get to know our land marks and local legends, and just large enough for us to bond over it. Not to mention some of the craziest party animals you’ve ever met.
Jesse Ladd: If ya don’t like Edmonton it’s cause you’ve never been here or you’re trying to impress someone. Edmonton is on the rise. Growing fast. Beautiful river valley. All the homies are here, except for the ones that aren’t.
Callum Harvey: There’s lots of good weed and no one has anything better to do than to go to shows.
Ellen Reade: I wouldn’t make that argument. I moved to Toronto for a reason.