images courtesy of Brave the Sea
When one thinks of “Celtic Rock,” a lot of different places may come to mind. Newark Ohio may not be one of them. But, with a recent show in Edinburgh, Scotland in the rear-view mirror and a brand-new album on the horizon, Newark’s own Celtic sons, Brave the Sea, are doing everything they can to change that.
I recently got to have a conversation with the band’s two vocalists, Vito Gambill and Matt Toskin, to talk everything from their trip across the pond and the second season of The Witcher to plans for 2022 and the history of the band.
So y’all just got back from a show in Scotland, was that the first time you guys have played overseas, either as Brave the Sea or as individuals?
Matt: Yeah, both actually.
That’s awesome, So what led to that, how did that come about.
Matt: It was probably nine months ago at this point, maybe a little bit more, there was a tour that was announced that was going to be taking place overseas like in Ireland, Scotland, UK kind of thing with some bands that we really enjoy. Actually one of the bands was one we somewhat know some of the members, so it was cool. And we’re like, oh man, what if we just like bought tickets and go over there? It’s at the end of the year, we’ve got months and months to plan out in advance. And maybe we could even, depending on who else goes, book a couple of shows. And so that’s how it came about and the funny part is, we didn’t even end up going to the show that we ended up buying tickets for which is, you know, kind of a story in itself that.
But either way we had already booked tickets to the flight and all of this and we’re like yeah, you know what, we’re just going to make this trip about ourselves now, that’s totally fine. Less pressure to like try and make it to that show too and like get in and all of that so it actually worked out really well because we were just able to kind of like focus on our performance and hanging out with the other bands that we were playing with. Making new friends and stuff like that and not having to worry about getting into a show and then like testing negative after the show to get back home.
So, being a Celtic band, which I want to talk about a little bit later, do you have a following over there in Scotland? Was that a factor that made you say “We could probably pull this off?”
Matt: It’s actually kind of funny ’cause we definitely have a bigger following overseas than we do in America. I would say that we’ve probably got about the same amount of following over in like the UK that we do in America right now, but in, you know the context of, aside from last week, we had never been there before as a band. It’s kind of like “Oh well, you know if we did start playing there more, we’d probably have an even easier time and a bigger following.” Where it looks like we would kill it is like mainland Europe. I mean Germany, Italy, I think like Sweden we just get tens of thousands of listeners per week from those countries.
We actually met someone at the show we played who used to play in a touring Celtic band and even he was saying, “You’ll get people in America and the UK and Scotland and all of that, but once you get over to mainland Europe, you’re the rock stars”. Because that’s what they listen to, that’s what they party to; we might have like EDM or whatever is kind of our party music, but Celtic rock, punk rock, that kind of stuff is what you go to a house party and that’s what they’re playing. So you just go over there and you’ll always have a crowd so we’re already kind of planning thinking “Alright, so let’s get over there.” So, we’re starting to move those pieces for maybe 2023 or something like that, to get over to mainland Europe and hopefully hit up like Scotland and Ireland again too ’cause that was just such a blast.
Yeah, that’s awesome. Going over there, how was that reception? Because I saw the one video you guys posted on your Twitter it looked like a hell of a time. How did that compare playing a show in Newark, Ohio?
Matt: Vito, I think you should take this one and talk about the experience in Ireland and Scotland, but I think the Ireland one was pretty cool.
Vito: In a lot of ways, it was kind of like starting over again. Like the experiences we had over there, the fun we had with the Ireland experience and the Scotland experience was kind of reminiscent of the first couple of shows that I did with the band, at least where it was like nobody really knows what’s going on and we’re all just kind of people hanging out, as opposed to like this band that they came to see. Which is really cool to like kind of have a reset. I guess there were some expectations, but you know, we get over to this BNB in Scotland, which turns out to be like 120-acre estate and the guy there is a really big fan of just being with live music, listening to music, but not like a musician himself, so he just gets to experience all the best parts of it.
So, we were just chit-chatting with him and then we go to dinner and suddenly he’s got 15 people at his house, family members and friends, and we end up doing a little house show at his drawing room with a mandolin, melodica and our friend Cliff is just playing drums on the mandolin case and it was such a different vibe. But we got way better results than I think I’ve ever seen at a regular show, which was very, very fun.
And then the Scotland one was a little bit more reminiscent of like a show traditionally. But still, like were just there and the people who were at the show were obviously friends of the bands who were there already or just people in Scotland with expectations. It was one of the more fun shows I’ve ever done. And just because there were no expectations, there were no like “We have to do this, we have to do that.” It was just get up there, do whatever you can and make it as fun as possible. There was travel stress, but the shows themselves were stress-free and it was a whole lot of fun to just have that freedom again.
That sounds incredible, and watching the videos you posted on your socials, it looked like a hell of a time. So, you’re billed as a Celtic band, but a lot of the music that you do is very pirate themes. I did a little bit of research as far as Celtic pirates and things of that nature, but how do you straddle that line between being like, not just singing songs, about drinking rum and pirate stuff, but also doing things like your last EP that you guys put out, where the three songs were all “traditional” Irish songs or Celtic songs. How have tried to stay true to both of those sides of your band’s identity?
Matt: It’s so weird and man, I honestly think about this a lot more than I probably should. I think starting with the name change.
Vito: A good spot.
Matt: Yeah, so when we first started the band I mean we were essentially just a cover band and my idea behind it was like let’s be the Alestorm of punk rock, right? Because you know, like you had like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys, obviously they’re not making pirate music, but I remember the first time that I heard Dropkick Murphys. I’m like, “Oh I feel like I’m on a pirate ship!” And you know they’ve got a couple songs like Flogging Molly has “Queen Anne’s Revenge” and even “Seven Deadly Sins” and in that they call themselves the Seven Drunken Pirates, and I though, “Oh yeah, there is that overlap and it would be cool if we really focused on that.”
I don’t know if I’d say that I was right about it being cool, but it definitely stuck and it’s great and I think that as we evolved as a band, that first album (A Pirate’s Life) was a lot of the songs that were written when we first started. So it was really pirate heavy and as we wrote more music, it wasn’t necessarily abandoning the pirate thing, ’cause that’s just part of our identity, but how there’s more to it. You can only sing about so much pirate stuff before you start just singing the same thing over and over again.
So what happens when you hit that point? We wanted the right, I don’t wanna say “real music” but you know, other topics as well. Whether it’s just a drinking song or a song like Jig of Death, which is about someone that you don’t like a lot. So it is hard to balance that, because you still want to be true to the roots.
Me and Vito recently went to a show in Indianapolis and saw Æther Realm and Unleash The Archers. We had played with Unleash The Archers three years ago in Columbus and we got to open for them. I was in the crowd and I was talking to somebody like, “oh, have you ever seen Unleash The Archers before?” and someone overheard the conversation was just like “Yeah I saw Unleash The Archers about three years ago in Columbus and this really cool Pirate Band opened for then” and I’m just like “Dude, you’re not going to believe this!” But it was cool, and that’s how he remembered us- that we were this cool pirate band. We didn’t dress like pirates, maybe two of the songs were actual pirate songs of ours, but that’s the part that’s stuck.
So it’s part of our identity and we embrace it and even the new album that we’re working on has a couple of tunes that are pirate-y, but for me at least when I try and write those songs now I try and make it a little bit more abstract. I think our song “The Kraken” is a perfect example: the song could be taken quite literally as somebody on a ship fighting a Kraken. But it’s also a song that could just be agnostic to the pirate thing, and somebody dealing with whatever trouble that they’re faced with. At no point in the song is it specifically saying “I’m a pirate on a ship” or “the Kraken’s eating me!” But it can be interpreted both ways. And I think on the next album we’ve got a couple of songs like that as well, where it’s like you listen to it and you’re like, yeah, I’m on a pirate ship and I’m doing this and that and whatnot, but at the same time, if you really listen to it, it’s like “I’m having a really tough day, but I can get through it,” so that’s really where the balance comes in.
I think that naturally it’s ingrained in us now that when we write, we almost just accidentally write pirating music, so that’s not the hard part. The hard parts are lyrically trying to morph the songs to not be super campy, but still be true to who we are.
So speaking on that last bit, you said you have a new album coming up. The last EP you guys did (The Murders Three) was three cover songs and you said you started out as a cover band. How do you guys tread that line of doing these cover songs, doing these traditional Celtic or sailing songs while also doing the original music, how have y’all been kind of balancing that?
Matt: I think that in the last year we’ve had a lot more flexibility. We’ve really realized that YouTube is the thing and that we’ve got the technology here to record ourselves. So at least my perspective was “Oh wait, we don’t have to make official releases on Spotify anymore. We can still do that in the future. But if we want to cover Andrew W.K.’s Party Hard, then let’s spend a couple weekends recording that, do a quick video and put it up on YouTube.” So that epiphany came six years too late, but it really has helped us like “Oh my God, we can actually do covers again!” ‘Cause we did covers a lot at the beginning of the band and then we dipped and decided let’s just focus on originals. Now we’re back to this point where it’s like “let’s try and do a cover a month and put it out on YouTube” and it doesn’t have to be the best thing ever, but it could still be fun.
So it’s one of those things that has come full circle and something more recently that we’ve been trying to do again, and not with like just with traditional songs but anything. We could be listening to a song that just came out and think “Oh, this is really cool, let’s try and do a cover.”
Vito: I think when you look at it from, I guess almost a business perspective, it was the accessibility. Like Matt talked about, we can do all this in house and we can just take a video with a GoPro and put out a fun piece of entertainment that isn’t 100% power by any means, but it’s still just like, yeah, a goofy way to spend 3 minutes. But also, in necessity on that point as well, we needed to fill the gaps. We needed to have something out there. And if we would have spent that time writing new music and putting out like a new song a month, we would have either spoiled an album or had a bunch of singles that would have been on an album later and would have gone nowhere.
With “The Murders Three” EP specifically, those are all public domain songs and a lot of traditional Irish covers or a lot of those sea shanties that we do and we talk about are all super close to our hearts. We love that stuff unironically; we listen to that on our own, but also it’s easier to come from a business standpoint and it just gives us a a fun way to play the songs that we love and share that with people, putting a quick twist on it, like “Oh, here’s a whaling song, but now we’re drunk pirates or now we’re drunk Irishman” or whatever it’s going to be. It’s just a lot of fun to do songs like that. And we did the Pokémon theme song because we’re a bunch of adult nerds.
I know you can’t because its legally a weird area, but God, I wish you could put that on Spotify, it’s so good.
Matt: I mean with the YouTube stuff it’s always an option that in the future we’ll put it on Spotify. And with the cover stuff it it’s a little bit more difficult just because you gotta get the licensing for covers and what-not, but I don’t know. Never say never!
So the new album, Am I allowed to ask any information on that or we do have at least window of when we might expect something?
Vito: None for you!
Matt: I could say it’s a secret, but yeah, we honestly don’t have a lot of information on it currently. We’re almost done recording it, we’ve almost got artworks almost done, but we’re going to be a lot more strategic with the release of this one than we were in the past. The last two albums, and even with the EP, we kind of set a deadline for ourselves like “OK, Saint Patty’s day this year, we’re gonna have this album out” and I think that almost hindered us, and especially when we took the step back and realized if we didn’t set this deadline and just kept ourselves self-motivated and got this thing done, it might have actually sounded better. Taking that extra time and giving us an extra month to kind of listen to the mixes and the masters for one more round of additional feedback and stuff like that.
It always feels we’ve rushed ourselves at the end, so with this one it’s just kind of like, “You know what? Let’s get our ducks in a row. There’s literally no reason that we need to rush getting this thing out.” I mean, we want to get the new music out, but also I think that we’ve got something really cool with this new album. It sounds so cool and there’s so many new ideas that we’ve put onto it. We want to make sure that it’s as good as possible. So we really don’t have a window for it, probably 2022 at some point, but we’re just going to make sure that we’ve got it perfect before putting it out, which is always the danger.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have new music coming out in the meantime. I don’t know if you’re a fan of The Witcher series, but we have an original song based off The Witcher coming out.
You guys did a cover of “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” right?
Matt: Yep, so kind of a continuation off that very much in the same style where it’s a lot more traditional sounding, using traditional instruments. Not very rock but you know we loved The Witcher, and “Toss a Coin” was super fun and we wrote this song and it was like, alright, cool, we’re going to do this! So we got that coming out and then some time in early 2022 we do have a 3 track EP coming out. It’s going to have our first two YouTube covers, “Rainbow in the Dark” and “Wild Rover,” and then we’ve also got an original song that is going to be on it as well. So that should be coming out in early 2022. (Released 1/28/22)
Going back to when you said you kind of had this epiphany about releasing these covers, is that something that you feel has taken a little bit of the pressure off of you for this album cycle? Because like you said, if you just suddenly get an idea you can do it.
Matt: Yeah, absolutely.
Vito: Yeah, it has helped quite a bit and Matt, you mentioned self-motivation or staying motivated earlier as well and that really does help because you know, we’re writing new music, we’re going to record new music, we’re waiting on mixes and feedback and mastering and all that. And in between being in the studio, there’s really not a whole lot else going on, apart from just practices or admin stuff. So business wise, it has helped kind of keep us more relevant. It gives us more of a scope on how all this works and why all this works and how we can manipulate it.
Actually, a lot of us work in marketing – actually four out of five have the same company as a job, we all work together and we all work in marketing. So when it came to the band, we had the basics down, but we were completely lost nine times outta 10. So, we’ve been working with another guy named to Matt Bacon who’s been helping us out with this, that and the other and mainly just the conversations with him were like “Oh, that makes way more sense, why don’t we just do that?” And he’s always pushing us to do something goofy or something fun, or pushing us in the right direction.
It takes a lot of the pressure off ’cause we still get to do fun stuff while all the album stuff is happening, as opposed to every couple of days, where’s the mixes, do we need to do anything else? ‘Cause we can push that out, feel safer about the release date, feel safer about that content and still knock out the Pokémon theme and still knock out WK just to have fun with. That’s been refreshing because it’s been very “go go go” for the past three, four years. Now we can kind of do all these things and take a step back and have fun still.
Matt: I think with COVID also helped because the number of shows that we’ve played in the past like 2 years now has dramatically decreased. So it’s been giving us something to do and keep the wheels turning, and I think that we’ve been more busy since adopting kind of this mentality of “Alright, we need to get a YouTube video a month and work on a new album.” It’s been great because you can feel that progress. Where in the past the progress was getting on stage and seeing how many people were in the crowd. And now it’s looking at the analytics of YouTube or Spotify and stuff and it’s crazy. It’s not the same feeling, but you can still feel that progress and you can feel your hard work paying off.
So, speaking of shows, do y’all have any plans to play some stuff here upcoming?
Matt: We do! We started booking for 2022 for Saint Patty’s Day week and we already have a couple of places tentatively confirmed and we’re working on about 8 or 9 days in a row across Midwest and East Coast. So once we get all of that locked in, we’re going a tour announcement for Patty’s Week in 2022, so be on the look out for that.
Ed. This interview was initially done in December 2021 – since this interview, Brave the Sea has released their original song based on The Witcher series, “White Wolf,” as well as their three song EP “Curses In the Dark.”