“Rare is the band able to land genuinely surprising curveballs against a sonic backdrop firmly rooted in the accessible and familiar. But that’s Tribe Royal for you. The quartet can be described variously as alt-rock, folk and Americana shot through with a retro 60s vibe and yet… still something more. ”
They’re fearless, too, willing to scorch a sweetly harmonic throwback pop song with a monster guitar solo. Or graffiti a plaintive ballad with elegiac words about a marginalized war vet – while adding another scorching guitar solo.
All that and more features on the band’s dazzling 2016 sophomore long-player Colours of the Sun, which builds on the combined (but wholly distinct) singing/songwriting and guitar playing of Terry O'Brien and Chris Kerwin.
Alongside bandmates bassist/vocalist Bram Al-Najjar and drummer Mike Giamberardino, the fast-rising Tribe Royal handily proves that exhilarating diversity does still exist in contemporary rock. You just need to know where to look.
“Our diversity is a key challenge for us,” O'Brien chuckles, confirming that Tribe Royal’s debut Samadhi - recorded just six months after they’d formed in early 2014 - was even more eclectic (steel drums, anyone?).
He continues: “I love playing 60s-style pop songs that are done in under two minutes but I also love longer, jammier deep-feel stuff. With us, it really is a balance trying to get everything in there without compromise.”
Even a cursory spin through Colours of the Sun reveals startling breadth and range with Kerwin and O’Brien trading lead vocals and drafting Al-Najjar for killer three-part harmonies. Witness O’Brien’s beforementioned ‘Don’t You Change,’ a swooning, knock-kneed love song that begins as an almost-homage to the Everly Brothers before morphing into a Chili Peppers-style corker.
Then there’s Kerwin's mournful ‘Loraine’ which could pass for a searing lover’s lament were it not inspired by a powerful real-life brush with a damaged ex-soldier panhandling at ByWard Market in Tribe Royal’s Ottawa hometown. “Funny enough,” Kerwin says, “we nailed that song in one take in all its rawness.”
Both those songs stand in sharp contrast to the more conventional but no less compelling rootsy jangle of ‘Wasting Time’ (sung by Kerwin) and the unabashedly chorus-forward ‘What You Do To Me’ (O’Brien).
While O’Brien and Kerwin maintain songwriting is Tribe Royal’s foundation, the duo employ radically different approaches: O’Brien is the Voice Memos junkie perennially searching for hook and melody while Kerwin, alone with his guitar, chases the perfect poetic lyric.
“But working with Terry has helped me to focus more on what I need to say to get the message across,” Kerwin says. And while O’Brien and Kerwin typically bring song outlines to the group, Al-Najjar and Giamberardino are integral to crafting the finished product.
Not surprisingly, the mainstream has noticed. Tribe Royal has enjoyed radio support nationwide with marquee spins on CBC plus online radio support “in something like 25 countries,” Kerwin says.
A spot at this summer’s starry Ottawa Bluesfest will further highlight Tribe Royal’s commanding live show, which gained polish under acclaimed performance coach Tom Jackson. “Working with Tom improved us dramatically,” Kerwin says. "It's completely changed the way we look at, and prepare for our shows."
“We want to be the band people go on road trips with,” O’Brien says. “We’ve actually had people write to us to say they listened to us all summer and we became the soundtrack to a trip. That’s cool.” “And we love what we do. We’re a family,” Kerwin adds. “I’ve known Terry since I was a little kid. We grew up in the same neighbourhood with the same group of friends. I played soccer with Bram when I was 14. We’d do anything for each other and I feel like our music broadcasts that camaraderie to our audience. They leave our shows feeling better than when they came.”