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United by Rock 'n Roll: NAMA-Nominated Ollivanders Put the Music First

A southern Ontario rock group that formed in the midst of the Douglas Creek land claims conflict has earned a NAMMY nomination.
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Popular southern Ontario band The Ollivanders came together at a time when the Douglas Creek land claims conflict was at its full height; focusing on making harmony and peace at a time when others were trying to generate hatreds and divisions between the two communities and peoples. Their dedication to making good music despite regional politics has paid off; "Amazed and Amused," a hard-driving tune off their album Two Suns, has been nominated for a 2014 Native American Music Award.

The band's members hail from both Six Nations and Caledonia, and began playing together as students at McKinnon Park High School in Caledonia. Marty Isaacs (lead guitar, vocals) and Ryan Johnson (bass guitar, back-up vocals) are from Ohsweken, and Ryan Mickeloff (drums, percussion) is a Caledonian. Two Suns was recorded at Jukasa Studios in Ohsweken on Six Nations of the Grand River territory, and also features contributions from 2012 Juno Award winner for Aboriginal Album of the Year, Murray Porter (keyboards) and Emily Rose (vocals).

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“I was completely surprised, but I also think it's exciting that our music has been recognized,” said Ryan Mickeloff about the nomination. “It's a bit intimidating when I look at whom we're up against; George Leach is a Juno award winner. Next to him I feel like we're like an appetizer to the main course. But all in all, I'm excited and hoping for the best. I believe that our goal with the album was to create something that was a mix and reflection of all our diverse influences.” The Native American Music Awards take place on November 14 at the Seneca Allegany Events Center in Salamanca, New York.

Ryan Johnson is also excited about the nomination. “Being nominated for NAMA’s best rock recording is deeply gratifying and a great honour to be placed in a category with such other amazing talent and respected musicians,” he said. “It’s always nice to be recognized for your dedication and hard work. It may seem like it’s easy to plunk a few notes but it’s about plunking the right ones.

Johnson said Two Suns is a great leap in writing and performance from the band’s first album under The Breaking Wind brand. Not only is the style and tone different, he said, but it reflects how far they’ve come by incorporating their past experiences through life, individually, and as a band.

“A lot of these songs come from the creative mind of our guitarist and lead singer, Marty Isaacs,” said Johnson, “but one of the things I find fascinating is how we added our own individual parts to his songs. My bass lines are distinctly mine; ‘Little’ Ryan’s drums are his own. And we all have different influences, so what we end up getting after a long writing session is something hard to place in one genre. I am truly a fan of the songs on this album and can’t wait for more people to hear them, especially ‘Amazed and Amused.’”

Johnson also said the band was honored to have Murray Porter contributing to the album. “Murray Porter added amazing keyboard work and recorded one of my favorite keyboard solos ever in ‘Not Around,’” said Johnson. “He truly turned that song up to eleven. Watching him work was also a delight. The keys were simply an extension of Murray. One of my favorite moments was when Murray played a dramatically beautiful song on a grand piano we found in a recording room in Jukasa Studios.”

Johnson also had high praise for the band’s supporters. “I’d also like to thank my family and friends for their endless support through the three or four years it took to complete Two Suns,” he said. “They were with us every step of the way. It was a long haul, but the end product is something we’re all supremely proud of. I truly mean it when I say this album was not possible without them. I really can’t thank them enough.”

One such supporter and admirer is Johnson family friend, bassist, back-up vocalist, and sometime lead guitarist of the Steve Miller Band for over 32 years, Kenny Lee Lewis. Reached on the way to his remote get-away cabin north of California, the articulate and friendly musician with a John Candy chuckle was thrilled at the success The Ollivanders are having. Born in Pasadena, California with Cherokee/Mohawk heritage, Lewis is especially impressed with the fact the group consists of musicians from both Caledonia and Six Nations who met in high school. The band has been together ever since, with a friendship so deep that the land claim tensions which divided both communities in the recent past never got in the way of their music.

“I'm very supportive of The Ollivanders and am pleased with their success and happy that artists from different heritages can be such good friends while creating great music,” said Lewis. “This is in keeping with the spirit of all the historical treaties between both cultures,” he added.

Lewis himself has been on a quest the past few years exploring his Six Nations roots from his mother and probable relation to legendary Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, a spiritual journey which has brought him to Pennsylvania, New York State, Ohsweken, and Brantford to scour genealogy and settlement records at municipal offices and museums. Lewis knows about having a musical dream at an early age and sticking with it—he began playing on a ukulele as a child, graduated to guitar, and went on to form a garage band with his friends. In Lewis' case, the “garage” was an underground 1960s “cold war” bomb shelter at the house next door.

The album's producer, critically acclaimed musician and Dunnville, Ontario community organizer Rob Lamothe, who is also from California originally and found musical success with his band Riverdogs, had plenty to say about his experience with the band.

“The Ollivanders are amazing young men, really smart and funny,” Lamothe said. “There is a complicated story behind every one of their songs. I love that. I wish everyone listening to the CD could sit in a rehearsal room with these guys and hear about where the lyrics came from. Wild, funny, poignant stories behind every song.”

Lamothe continued: “Musically, the band has always been super-focused, since early in their teen years. These guys are kind of obsessed with the smallest historical details like what guitar was played on a particular Beatles track? In what studio did Zeppelin or The Who record a certain song? They've incorporated that approach into their own music. Which guitar amp sounds best on the verse of this song? Which amp should we use on the chorus? Stuff like that. These guys are aware of the history of the artists who have influenced them, and they are very particular about using sounds to convey an emotion or a story.”

Lamothe said it was awesome to make a CD with the guys. “They were kids when I first met them, so I've known them since they were writing songs and jamming in their parents’ basements,” he said. “We did a lot of the recording at Jukasa Studio on Six Nations and we finished up the CD at Iguana Studio in Toronto. Every session was a little adventure.”

Speaking about Lamothe's importance on the project Mickeloff said the band is extremely grateful for all that Rob did to help them produce the album. “He didn't just put us off as ‘just a job,’” said Mickeloff. “He really took the time and effort to make us sound our best. He spent countless days with Marty on perfecting the vocals. And in the editing process, he helped pick out small details that we would have overlooked. His strong attentiveness to detail was an incredible help and he was a beneficial asset to making this album.”

Johnson also praised Lamothe's work. “We couldn’t have asked for a better producer than Rob Lamothe,” he said. “He’s such an easygoing guy and extremely easy to work with, not to mention one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met. Not only did he understand what we were going for, but also how to get us there. Rob was fundamental in completing this album and taking it one step further. Rob was there for the entire process, helping us when we were laying down the early tracks of each song. He gave us advice and inspiration and ultimately, helped us produce our best recorded work. Rob goes so far back as to showing up at one of our early practices to hear the songs when they were still just scaffolding. Without Rob Two Suns would not have been the album it is today.”

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