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Ever the gentlemen

With mild manners and rustic rhythms, local band revives a bygone era

If you ever take a bicycle ride north of Jean-Mance Park or study in Leacock 110, you may come across the chalk-scrawled words “Oxen Talk” and wonder what absurd person thinks that cud-chewing quadrupeds can speak. To avoid such future confusion I will elucidate: Oxen Talk refers to a trio of local musicians, two of whom are McGill students, who have been warming the hearts and nourishing the wit of audiences since they formed this past fall.

Their acoustic music features bucket drums and a variety of string and brass instruments, the piano, the glockenspiel, and pots and pans, and could be catalogued within the broad genre of folk music. However, Oxen Talk’s music has its roots in a variety of musical styles. One of the band members Luke Neima explains, “We are trying to mix our personal influences to create something new out of them. Bob [Lamont] is more into Django Reinhardt and a gypsy-jazz feel. Adrian [Levine] is kind of like Towns Van Zandt and old French singers, like Tino Rossi and Jean Sablon. I’m going for my childhood heroes, like Fred Penner, and the Shangri-Las.”

The result is charming. Singing about parasols and dustbowls, these gentlemen inflame a longing for a time and a place their peers could have never known. Old-time shoo-waps and sentimental harmonies are scattered in tender tales of depression-era heartbreak, and their lyrics weave a dusty, sepia-toned setting that at times ventures into the imaginative. The maturity of their songwriting skills is evident in their ability to command the traditions of an established genre while writing songs that reflect their distinct collective personality.

Performing live they often don three-piece suits and sometimes one might sport a bowtie. Levine’s voice booms from his towering 6’5’’ frame, but Lamont and Neima both prevent his vocals from stealing the show. On stage, the charisma of the three together is quaint and captivating. “I like performing more than anything in the world. I say that very sincerely. I don’t understand why,” confesses Lamont. “I get on my costume most mornings, go out into the world, and try to act like myself, and a lot of the time, I see myself disappearing through doorways; I always escape myself, but on stage, I sort of inhabit myself.” Watching them live, Lamont and the other members’ comfort performing is palpable, and one can’t help but feel at ease.

Oxen Talk is in the midst of recording their first album, which they plan to release in mid-July. They are collaborating with Sebastian Cowan who heads Arbutus, a local independent label that works with other McGill students Andy White and Claire Boucher. “We’re really excited to work with Seb,” gushes Neima. “His method of recording is a very distinct sublimation of different styles. He uses digital mediums, but also takes a cue from Motown records that positioned the mic against a brick wall, creating a unique sound.” Noting Cowan’s finite attention to detail, Neima underscores his importance to the group, “The producer is the fourth member of the band.”

The boys are heading on a tour of the Maritimes, Ontario, and the Eastern U.S. in July. “We are designing the tour around Bob’s adopted little brother Pablo; we want to spend some time with him, and my grandmother in London,” notes Neima, adding that the support of family and friends is essential to the tour’s success. Looking ahead with the tour and an album on the horizon, Lamont explains, “Our attitude toward the future is Yogi Berra-esque. If we see a fork in the road, we take it.”