Pugs and Crows Vancouver’s best-kept secret

It all began in an Eastern European bar.

The third album from the Vancouver-based instrumental quintet Pugs and Crows predominantly features legendary BC guitarist Tony Wilson. However, the band might never have collaborated with him had it not been for a bonding session on tour between Wilson and Cole Schmidt, Pugs and Crows’ guitarist and main songwriter.

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“I toured around Eastern Europe and Russia with a band called Dark Blue World with [Wilson],” says Schmidt. “We spent five weeks in these crazy little bars over there, in the back of the van telling each other anything we could think of,” he laughs.

Schmidt later went on to study composition with Wilson at his home on Hornby Island, and solidified a friendship both professional and personal.

Flash forward a few years and you’ve got yourself Everyone Knows Everyone 1, the band’s follow up to 2012’s Fantastic Pictures, which won a Juno for best instrumental album in 2013. Recorded at Gastown’s legendary Warehouse Studio in one day with Eric Mosher and Chris Gestrin, it is the first installment of a double album, the second of which will be released in mid-December of this year. The band – which includes bassist Russell Scholberg, violinist Meredith Bates, pianist Cat Toren, drummer Ben Brown and Schmidt on guitar – invited Wilson to collaborate after years of admiration.

“He has a unique, original quality of really getting through to people with his music,” says Schmidt in admiration. “We’re fortunate that we get to know him, and get to make this music.”  

Everyone is a beautifully melancholy album, filled with cinematic compositions that wouldn’t sound out of place on True Detective, or on a Dirty Three record. Each player is granted their time in the spotlight, dancing solos around each other in a calculated, delicate way and showcasing both innovation and restraint. “[Schmidt] puts a lot of thought into that,” says bassist Russell Scholberg. “It’s a careful balance between giving freedom to the players, and letting things unfold naturally.”  

While there are occasional moments of joy and lightness, the majority of the record errs on the side of darkness, an influence of circumstance.

“The first batch was written when I went over to Hornby Island and stayed with [Wilson]. It’s quite mellow, and there’s a lot of space. It reminds me of the island vibes: small, remote, quiet winters, dark…” says Schmidt. “The population of Hornby goes between 900 to 9,000 between the winters and the summers. [The album] reflects that.”

Hornby, much like Vancouver’s own music scene, is a place where everyone grows to know everyone. As far as the darkness, “I don’t know why we can’t seem to help that. Even when people say ‘maybe we should try to write something a little lighter’, it just doesn't come out that way!”

Pugs and Crows have come a long way since their beginnings in 2009. Completely self-managed and independent, they have managed to build a reputation of being one of Vancouver’s best-kept secrets. Schmidt used to book a popular improv-jazz night at El Barrio, now closed, where he originally met Wilson and many other players in the community. He is now booking Sick Boss Mondays at The Lido, and Wednesday nights at The Emerald, each featuring a rotating cast of Vancouver’s finest jazz and improvisational players. Renowned Vancouver musicians Peggy Lee, Paul Rigby, JP Carter and more have all graced his stages. Drummer Ben Brown runs Music and Movement Mondays, a music and dance lab in a non-performance setting, and that’s just naming a few of the ongoing projects curated by members of Pugs and Crows. They are no strangers to the TD Vancouver International Jazz Fest either. Having performed for several years in a row, this year’s performance will coincide with their album release show this Friday at Ironworks Studio (“The best place, where all the freaks play”, according to Schmidt).

“The jazz fest has really, every year, given us something to look towards. The first gig we played with them was the Granville Island Market stage, with all the little seagulls flying around and kids face painting.” Says Schmidt. “The next year was in Gastown on a bigger stage, then the following year we played at The Vogue opening for Bill Frisell with Tony [Wilson] in the band. They almost instigated that. They’re ahuge, huge part of our thing”.

Pugs and Crows with Tony Wilson will play Jazz Fest at the Ironworks Studio on Friday, June 19, 8:30pm. Their album, Everyone Knows Everyone 1, is out now.

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