At the core of this sound are burly bagpiping brothers Rob and Sandy Campbell, former strongman competitors whose stature and strength are as mesmerizing as their playing skills. On the album, the pair bends, twists and manipulates the traditional instrument beyond its standard range. Just note the spaghetti-western Celtic rumbling of the rallying rocker "Underdog," the plaintive pipes on the ballad "Lost" and subtle creepiness of "Coma." Then there's the full-out Celtic pump of "Wasting Time," the anthemic "Winners," punk attitude of Captain Tractor's "Drink & Fight" and the instrumental "Masons Apron" -- all fuel for one helluva rockin' ceilidh. "We wanted it to be tough," says Rob. "Right from the beginning, no love songs. We wanted to come out with rockin' high intensity music that would work up a crowd."
Onstage, injected by an enthusiasm which comes from creating a genuinely alternative style of rock music, the kilt-wearing Campbells, animated singer Zoy Nicoles, guitarist Lonny Knapp, drummer Ryan McCaffrey and bassist Tommy Skilton all become focal points, raising the energy level of a room and inviting the crowd to mosh, kick up its heels or stand captivated. Its fanbase is a motley crew that includes punks, metalheads, college kids and Celtic folk warriors. "Playing with Mudmen is intense and very exciting and unpredictable," says Zoy, whose own stage presence is huge, albeit without the physical stature of the Campbells. "It's also very scary at times when you see guys that big, and you see how strong they are, playing the bagpipes. I can't tell you how impossible those things are to play. "I've tried playing them for three years now and I still can't make a sound period. How Sandy and Rob run around onstage so intensely, they do it like it's not a big deal. So the show holds a new feeling for me with those kinds of characters beside me."
The Campbell brothers tried to get this pipe-rock project off the ground years ago but were met with resistance. Growing up in Alvinston, near Sarnia, Ont., where the population is a mere 800, Rob and Sandy weren't exposed to rock music because their mother was "very Scottish" and steered her sons toward either fiddle or bagpipes. The pair chose the hefty wind instrument and entered the "pipe band scene" ("it's huge," claims Sandy). Every weekend in the summertime, they performed at the Highland Games and traveled to Scotland five times to compete in the world pipe band championships. As two of the top pipers in Canada, they even provided the music for the Canada's Walk of Fame ceremonies, introducing such luminaries as Neil Young and Donald Sutherland. It was during their stint closing out the popular Celtic production of Needfire at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre that the pair hired session players and rocked out instrumentally. "We shocked everyone," recounts Sandy.
In 1996, dead set on pursuing this marriage of rock 'n' pipes, the Campbells planned to release an instrumental album, but when Zoy was brought in to sing on a couple of tracks, his melodic yet hard delivery were just what the project called for. While the bagpipes give the songs an unusual character, Zoy provides that toughness the brothers originally envisioned. Originally a member of straight-ahead rock bands, Zoy was taken back when asked to front a band flanked by bagpipers, an instrument he appreciated but never realized its capability. "The first thing out of my mouth was 'Bagpipes!?' But the minute I heard the music, it was like a friggin' light," says Zoy. "I love it when something makes me do an about-face." Two of those early songs, "Lost," and "5 O'clock," plus the instrumental "Masons Apron," appear on Mudmen's debut, which was produced Ruben Huizenga (Glueleg, Edwin). The rest of the band, which also came from rock backgrounds, fell into place after hearing the material, co-written by Huizenga and David Martin (Edwin). Noting its originality, the six-piece started collaborating on new material like "In My Head," "Coma" and "Wasting Time" that helped shape the final direction of Mudmen. "Rob and I came from a small, close-minded town," says Sandy. "We were told for years that we couldn't do a rock project and that made us want to do it even more. I think Ashley MacIsaac did more for the fiddle than anyone. And we wanted to make the bagpipes cool. There's no going back, once you've crossed that line. We wanted to prove ourselves." With Mudmen, they already have.
Check out the artist's website:
1. In My Head
3. 5 O'clock
7. Wasting Time
9. Drink & Fight
10. Masons Apron