The beloved Victoria-based Canadian roots band continues to evolve and thrive.
CHRIS FRYE AND I meet at the Discovery Coffee shop Downtown. As I walk in the door, I recognize his tall, lanky frame immediately, even though he’s way in the back by the sugar-and-cream station. We take our beverages into the quieter, next-door space, sit down at a big, dusty wooden table, and I ask him about The Bills—how they formed, how they keep it alive, and where they see themselves heading as they enter their third decade.
Although The Bills are technically a “Victoria-based band,” only two of them still live here in town, and there are precious few local gigs these days. (In 1998 you might have seen them at Pagliacci’s.) In September, the three current members of the band’s 1997 founding roster will join with three who got away to perform a 20th anniversary concert. The jovial, energetic Frye plays guitar and sings lead, as he did from the start, and his fellow enduring Bills veterans are Marc Atkinson on mandolin and guitar, and Scott White on upright bass. The current roster is rounded out by Victoria fiddler Richard Moody and Vancouver multi-instrumentalist Adrian Dolan.
The Bills: (l-r) Scott White, Marc Atkinson, Richard Moody, Chris Frye, Adrian Dolan
Atkinson and White formed the Juno-nominated group in 1997. “They decided they wanted to do something acoustic,” Frye says. “I was actually a guitar student of Marc’s, and there was a bass student of Scott’s—Oliver Swain—who Victorians will know…and another guy named Paul Dowd, who was a guitar student of Marc’s as well.” Atkinson,White and Dowd abandoned their familiars in order to diversify the instrumentation of the group. “Marc started out playing this tiny little keyboard accordion that he had. Scott picked up the fiddle—even though he was a bass player and hadn’t played much, if any, fiddle. I was playing guitar and singing, and Ollie was playing bass. Paul picked up the banjo.”
Since most of them were learning as they went, “It was a place to workshop, and to grow our musical palette,” says Frye. “We all just dove into this thing to learn together. ‘Let’s pick up the greatest acoustic music from anywhere; anything you hear, bring it to the band, and we’ll start learning it.’” Local music lovers flocked to hear what was then called “The Bill Hilly Band.” (After a few years, they shortened it to “The Bills,” which, Frye says with a laugh, “we had been calling ourselves internally anyway…we call each other ‘Bill’ still, to this day. If you say ‘Bill,’ you know at least one of the other four members of the band will respond.”)
Early on in their successful first year, White landed a job in Germany, playing bass for a Cirque du Soleil production. This inspired the band to undertake a nine-week busking tour of Europe (and inspired Atkinson to shed his extra accordion pounds by taking up the much-lighter mandolin). “We played on streets from Strasbourg to Copenhagen to Prague…Venice, Berlin…we really gelled as a band,” Frye recounts happily. “We learned so much music together. We were just there to play. We’d wake up in the morning, we’d learn some new music, then we’d go down and try it out somewhere.”
Big-city busking was the purifying fire that helped them distil their first big hits. “That instant feedback you get in a busking environment is really valuable,” Frye explains. The band quickly purged any numbers that were duds, and refined the ones that gathered crowds and tips. As they got hired to do paid gigs indoors, they brought along the riveting presence and repertoire they’d developed through trial and error on the unforgiving street-corners of Europe.
Returning to Victoria, bolstered by their overseas success and determined to grow, the band took on fiddler and “great experienced showman” Calvin Cairns to fill the slot left open by White, who remained in Germany. “We realized we got this thing that’s happening—it’s acoustic music, high-energy, playing global anything we hear…it might be African or Brazilian or the British Isles, eastern Canada…we put it all together in this melange that was just really exciting.”
Their first album, The Bill Hilly Band, came in 2000, Frye says, and included a few of their own compositions (today, it’s all original material, penned predominantly by Frye, Atkinson and Adrian Dolan) plus some “super original arrangements,” and included the band’s signature improvisational style. Having picked up three new young string players, the Bills were now a sextet, the white-hot incarnation that hit the road and toured the Canadian festivals, putting The Bills squarely on the national musical map.
The Bills, Frye says, think of themselves as a rock band as much as a folk band. “In our hearts and in our minds and in our ears, and what inspires us” ranges from Led Zeppelin to The Beatles to Django Reinhardt. The latest record, Trail of Tales, has a more “pop and rock” sound, he says. “There’s even secretly some drums on this record,” he adds with a diabolical grin, “and we never had drums before…don’t want to tell anybody we did that, but there it is, on the record.”
While roots will always flavour what The Bills create, “One of our goals as a band is to keep working on something that people might someday identify as a ‘West Coast sound,’” Frye says. “‘Early 20th century roots music from the West Coast of Canada’ is our objective.” A fingerstyle guitar instrumental on the latest album is called “Pebble Beach,” named for a secret spot on Hornby Island, which is Atkinson’s current home. This sense of place is important to Frye. When it comes to penning lyrics, “I have always been very interested in where we come from. Stories from here…imagery that’s very ‘Southern Vancouver Island’ or ‘British Columbian.’”
Nominated for another Western Canadian Music Award (“Best Roots Record” this year; they won “Entertainer of the Year” in 2006), The Bills are independent, self-produced, and book their own gigs. “It’s pretty interesting to run a band in the 21st century,” remarks Frye, “there is so much access to everything so easily, electronically. There are a lot of really good bands out there; the competition is tougher than it’s ever been.” This drives them, he says, but not to tour constantly; it’s now quality over quantity, and they savour their opportunities to convene. “We won’t have seen each other for a month or two, we land in Heathrow and say ‘hi everybody!’ at the airport, and off we go to do the tour, and then we jet off again. It’s kind of a fun way to live. It’s like we’re some secret underground espionage folk squad.”
The Bills—20th Anniversary Celebration at Alix Goolden Hall, Friday, September 22, 7:30pm. Tickets: $30.50 with some discounts available. 250-386-5311 or ticketfly.com/event/1529046
Victoria writer and musician Mollie Kaye sings with The Millies, a secret underground espionage vocal trio.
Edited by Mollie Kaye