Webster’s Dictionary defines “Union Duke” as a raucous collision of alt-rock and twang, bringing crowds to their feet with songs from the heart. Soaring harmonies, driving rhythm, and infectious enthusiasm have seen Ethan Smith, Jim McDonald, Matt Warry-Smith, Will Staunton, and Rob McLaren from youth to young manhood. With three albums, countless festival stages, and hundreds of thousands of kilometers in the rearview, the band is excited to be touring new music, filming videos, and winning new fans everywhere they go. In the two years since their last record Golden Days, Union Duke has been steadily traveling and unravelling across the country, and they’re ready to share the lessons they’ve learned with a slate of new music.
I got the chance to talk with Matt about how the band culminated into what it is now, their new single “Atlas of Love”, what 2020 holds for the band and much more. Keep reading to see what he had to say!
For those who might not have ever heard of y’all, can you give us a brief history of the band and how it culminated into what it is now?
The three original members: myself (Matt), Ethan, and Jim went to high school together and have played in various bands over the course of our years-long friendship – we put out a call through our friends and members of our musical community for people interested in making a rowdy folk-rock band and picked up Will and Rob and we’ve all been deeply in love since.
Where did the name Union Duke come from?
It’s an old dive bar that burned down years ago – probably because of the poltergeist that haunted the bathroom.
I’m always genuinely curious about what artists want to convey to listeners with their music. So if you had to describe the music you make without using genre names, how would you describe it?
Without genre!? Ok, ok – here’s a list of words: Fun, friendship, party, whiskey, stories, love, cars, guitar solo, warmth, humour, togetherness, energy, banjo, kisses.
Kind of going off of that, who are some of your musical influences as a group?
Well there are five of us so there’s a lot of different stuff we pull from, but a few of our group favourites: Wilco, Dr Dog, Blue Rodeo, Trampled By Turtles, Lucinda Williams, Grateful Dead – many, many, many others.
I absolutely love your new single, “Atlas of Love” What inspired this song?
It’s a song about love’s imperfection and trying to understand it when you don’t even understand yourself. Sometimes love can be a little one sided so it’s basically saying “you’re carrying this incredible burden and it’s me.” Really uplifting stuff.
What was the songwriting process like for this song specifically?
A few years ago we were on tour in BC and had some time off so we holed up in a rented cottage in the Rockies for a few days and tried to pump out as many songs as we could. Jim wrote the bulk of this song and I wrote the bridge then we all arranged it together and Jeff Hazin (who produced our last 3 singles) brought it home in the studio.
Something I’ve always been curious with songwriting is how topics come to mind. Did you guys know what you wanted to write about going into the song session that birthed “Atlas of Love” or did it just come about organically once you were in the session?
It took a little work. We couldn’t figure out which direction the song was going in initially. We toyed with “I’m the Atlas of Love, and you’re the weight on my back”, but ultimately, the song works better when its the singer who’s the burden. It’s less accusatory and I feel like it’s something most people have felt at some point in their life. I think just about everyone has struggled with trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into a relationship.
Was there any major changes made to “Atlas of Love” once you guys got into the recording studio, whether it be in the lyrics or something sonically?
Well there’s always fine tuning that happens in the studio. Dialing in the exact right tones for every instrument and then toying with the melodies until they fit in the right spot. We don’t play with a drummer live and most of our recordings only have a kick drum and other percussion like tambourine or shaker, so adding a drum kit was also something that happened in the studio. I don’t know – every song ends up going under the microscope when you start recording so the details are always played with but I don’t think there were any MAJOR changes.
What does 2020 hold for you guys in terms of new music? Any plans to release an EP or a full-length album?
We’re releasing the last of 4 songs that we recorded last year in January then we’re headed to the UK for some shows. We’re undecided on whether we’ll do a full record but we’ll definitely be writing and recording some new stuff!
You guys are still relatively new to the music game. What are some music industry-related goals or benchmarks that you’re aiming to reach in the next couple of years?[laughs] Are we? Doesn’t feel that way. I hope to one day get a novelty sized cheque and also to touch the hearts and minds of millions I guess.
Lastly, we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd so what is something that you’re currently nerding out about?
I’ll only speak for myself to avoid my band mates accusing me of making them sound like nerds. Currently, I’m stoked on The Mandalorian/the new Star Wars comes out this week. Also a few band members (including me) are big D&D fans so that’s pretty much as nerdy as it gets.