For The Gods: An Interview With Earth Ball

As they prepare to release their second album and embark on their debut UK tour, Canadian improvisational ensemble Earth Ball tell Julian Marszalek about advertising on an old mattress, their unconventional base in a “dirty, weird coal mining town,” and the cooperative joy of instant composition

Photos by Kristjanne Vosper

“I hope not!” laughs Earth Ball bassist and vocalist Isabel Ford when asked if her band might one day write day a song that comprises of an introduction, a verse, a bridge that leads to chorus that in turn gives way to a middle eight that ushers in a guitar solo with a coda that repeats to fade. And who can blame her? Earth Ball don’t do songs in the conventional sense; this is a band that specialises in instant compositions, both on record and on stage.

In keeping with their improvisational nature, the Canadian ensemble – the aforementioned Ford, multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Van Wyck (aka JV_Dub), drummer John Brennan, guitarist Kellen Maclaughlin and saxophonist Liam Murphy – formed on the fly. In Nanaimo on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, at the tail end of 2019, Brennan and Van Wyck’s other musical vehicle, Eschatons, were about to bail a gig after one of their members became indisposed at short notice. “Jeremy and I still wanted to play,” recalls Brennan. “So we asked Isabel if she wanted to join us in some kind of improv set. It kind of just went off, so we just decided to start the project. Then we needed a name for the project, so the show could be advertised.”

“I can’t remember where the name came from,” shrugs Ford. “But it came and then we spray painted it on this dirty mattress outside of our house, and it looked really good. And that was that!”

As evidenced by their approach to promoting their live shows, unconventionality is very much Earth Ball’s watchword. It seems fitting that the majority of the band’s members have found themselves apart from Canada’s traditional musical hubs. Their adopted hometown of Nanaimo is a port city that’s way more affordable than Vancouver on the other side of the Strait of Georgia that divides the island from the mainland. “It’s beautiful all the time,” says Ford. “It’s always going up and down with energy and scenes, but it is pretty awesome right now. And it’s a dirty, weird coal mining town full of tunnels that are collapsing and empty buildings everywhere. And there are bikers and Hell’s Angels and leather jackets and pyjama pants and Crocs.”

“Unbeknownst to us, there was this whole population of freaks here,” adds Van Wyck. “It’s a real fun place to play; people are engaged right away and dance. It’s not chin-scratchy like Vancouver can be sometimes. When we were wanting to relocate because of that cliché of Vancouver becoming too expensive, this place came up on our radar. And then, once we spent some time here with friends, it was like, ‘Oh! There’s a really healthy ratio of weirdos to normal folk’. For a small place, there’s quite a lively artistic scene.”

It’s precisely that kind of attitude that has kept Earth Ball going. Formed just before the global pandemic brought the world to a shuddering halt, demand for live music and a sense of community ensured that the band could pick up where they left off as soon as social gatherings became permissible. Across a number of EPs released on cassette and digitally – see Fruiting Bodies (2021) and Have One (2023) – and their debut album, Go To Earth, which was also released last year, Earth Ball’s sound has evolved into an exciting and seductive blend of psychedelia, post rock and savage skronkage that tramples all before it, played at an impolite volume while paying scant regard for convention. Their new album, It’s Yours, ups the ante by some considerable degree as it expands on their previous ideas to create music that flies by the seat of its pants. This is what excitement sounds like. But make no mistake, Earth Ball aren’t meandering; they’re driven by a clear vision and a sense of purpose.

“There’s a deep-seated fear of ending up in a fucked up place and trying to get out of it,” says Ford explaining the band’s modus operandi. “Yeah,” agrees Van Wyck. “I strive to be well aware of not always falling into the same kind of patterns. That way, there are so many other possibilities.”

However, playing something just once because of the band’s improvisational nature does carry one major disadvantage, laughs Maclaughlin. “If we record something really cool, that’s only going to happen once.” Crucially, Earth Ball have never considered the possibility of re-exploring their music once it’s been captured for posterity. “We’ve never had that conversation, really,” says Brennan. “Some of our tunes are pretty cool. Maybe it could be cool to go back to them, but I don’t know if it would ever happen.”

Moreover, part of the reason for not looking back on their already recorded improvisations was the addition of saxophonist Liam Murphy. “It was definitely a temptation to cherry pick from the few cassettes we’ve already put out, or [select] things that we already felt really good about,” admits Van Wyck. “But when Liam joined as a member, we wanted material that he was definitely on as he’s going to be on the tour with us.”

Pondering their evolution from that first impromptu gig to their present incarnation, Earth Ball say that the chemistry within the band has changed for the better. “Personally I feel a bit more sober,” considers Ford. “Some of those early recordings were quite like, ‘Let’s just get crazy and make music,’ which was great. But I feel a bit more grounded in the Earth Ball realm now.” Van Wyck agrees. “It’s been a learning curve. I’m constantly being pushed to learn new tricks; you jump out of the nest and you fly or you don’t.”

“We just have such a good dialogue and vernacular that we’ve built together,” offers Brennan. “And that feels so reciprocal, so safe, and so understanding. From my perspective, I feel that we’re all listening to each other; you’ll hear something that somebody else does, then maybe one person will gravitate towards that one idea and then everybody slowly jumps in the bucket and keeps moving forward. I feel that we just trust each other so much that even if we want to really fucking trash the jam and destroy it and throw it down the stairs, then everybody’s game and we’re going down the stairs together; it doesn’t matter. And we’re there together always. It’s a very special space and I’m grateful for it. It’s pretty amazing.” Adds Ford: “There’s no conflict in the band. We remind ourselves of our goal and we move together.

Earth Ball are keen not to keep this magic to themselves. Audience interaction is of vital importance, not just their vibing off the music, but their directing it back to the band to maintain a kind of creative perpetual motion. That’s one of the reasons their new album is called It’s Yours.

“Improv music is kind of for the gods a lot of the time,” says Van Wyck. “I mean, we’re recording it and sharing it, but when we perform somewhere, it’s a dialogue between us and the room, which is something I also love about improvising. Like, if you end up in a venue where the energy is just low and it’s more of a gallery, we can tinkle bells and be quiet and have lots of space. But if we play an after party with a rave vibe, we can blast out and be more rock.”

All this talk of gods draws attention to the album’s cover. Taken from a picture from The New Games Book (1976), it depicts a crowd of people who have banded together to push a huge ball up a steep hill. At first glance, the image evokes the myth of Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, punished by the gods for his tyranny and forced to eternally roll a huge boulder up a hill that would then roll back down just before it reached the top. But look closer and what’s actually being depicted is cooperation. It’s certainly apt in the case of Earth Ball, as the aim of the original creators of the book, The New Games Movement, was to create games based on co-operation rather than competition. “It’s a beautiful image,” says Ford as she relates the album cover to Earth Ball’s work ethic. “But it’s also scary. Everyone’s holding things down for each other or holding each other up. It’s hard.”

As the band nod their heads in agreement, Brennan adds: “When you think about what we’re doing, it is like trying to keep this ball in the air.”

Nevertheless, Earth Ball are in a state of excitement. It’s Yours is ready to go and the band’s live dates in the UK are looming. And though you’re unlikely to hear the words, “And here’s one from the new album”, you can rest assured that what you will hear will live up to the album’s title. As Brennan puts it as our conversation draws to a close: “We’re just keeping it free and easy.”

Earth Ball’s new album It’s Yours is released on 17 May via Upset The Rhythm. They tour the UK this May with Chris Corsano. For more information and tickets click here

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