A Conversation With ..Sultans of String's Chris McKhool
The leader of the Toronto-based and Juno-nominated world music group discusses their upcoming Zoom concert, the impact of the lockdown, new album Refuge, his use of camera technology, and much more.
By Bill King
I always love chatting with musician and bandleader Chris McKhool who is much like his counterpart world-musician Jesse Cook. Both have adapted and learned the complex intricacies of sound architecture and video technique. Two self-reliant artists with a load of wisdom and years booking themselves on world tours. McKool and company have a Zoom concert coming up Sat. Oct. 24, 7 - 8 pm EDT. Here’s what he has to say about the event and then we talk!
“Hello friends, we are super excited to share with you an invitation to our second ever Sultans of String Interactive Zoom concert. This is our Yalla Yalla CD edition, where we will play all the songs from our second Juno-nominated album, created in 2009, including a lot of our favourites, Yalla Yalla, Sable Island, Stomping at the Rex, and Pinball Wizard. We will be joined on our song Al Vuelo with spectacular flamenco dancer Tamar Ilana.
This is over Zoom, which is awesome because we will be able to see and hear you, and you can see and hear us, and you can all see each other as well! It is a real show! So pour yourself a quarantine, and get ready to clap and dance along with our music! Or sit back and relax… Whatever you like! Tune in 15 minutes early to get settled and chat with our friends. And make sure you have speakers plugged in if you have them! We have kept the ticket price very low as we know that a lot of our friends are out of work. If that is still a barrier for you then just shoot me an email and I will provide you with a comp, no questions asked, while tix remain.
The show will last about an hour, including a talkback portion, so bring your burning questions, as we will be opening up the floor for anyone who has always wanted to ask me (violin), or Kevin Laliberté (guitar), or Drew Birston (bass) about their inspiration, or music, or whatever strikes your fancy.”
Chris McKhool: Do you know about Music Monday? A nationwide celebration of music put on by Coalition Canada. We just played. So many people went online to log in they crashed the Music Monday website. Then they crashed Facebook, so it went to YouTube.
Bill King: We are still trying to figure this out, but, in a way, you are playing to a larger audience online.
C.M: It’s not just hundreds in your own city but people all over the globe can watch. I do try to think about some of the positive aspects of all of this and try and take heart in that while I watch everything around me crumble.
B.K: How has the lockdown affected you?
C.M: To be honest, it’s really tough being separated from my bandmates. I love making music with those guys - Kevin, Drew, Chandy and Eddie. It’s been a real adjustment. We are still trying to figure out how to connect with our fans and keep the band going. We’ve been putting a lot of energy into YouTube – working on all of our videos. I’ve also pivoted a bit. I play music for young audiences. I’ve been making music with my wife who’s an educator. My nine-year-old daughter and us have been connecting with other families on Facebook Live in a new segment we’re calling McKhool & the Gang. We sing some songs and tell some stories. Even corny knock, knock jokes.
The thing about an artist’s life – it’s pretty hard to keep an artist down. You might take away the medium they know but they will find another way to do things.
B.K: The Independent Music Awards?
C.M: That was the real thrill. With any of these awards, the real benefit is to maybe connect with some new fans, those who haven’t heard us before who’ll possibly check us out. I’m proud of the work I’ve done with John Bailey as co-producer. We did the bed tracks at Jukasa Studios in Hamilton on Six Nations Reserve land in an Indigenous-owned studio. We had Duke Redbird, a really wonderful Ojibway storyteller/teacher/shaman. We had Twin Flames there too. We created some real magic together. We brought in other guests from across Canada and some globally.
B.K: Power of the Land?
C.M: The real reason I wanted to collaborate with Duke is that his poem is so powerful and poignant, and his voice is incredible. We could have Duke reading the phonebook and our listeners would be mesmerized.
B.K: Refuge. It came out just as the curtain was about to drop.
C.M: We are doing a kind of reboot. We released the album when the world went into a complete meltdown. This fall we’ve been releasing singles and sharing stories of these incredible musicians I’ve had the opportunity to work with. We started doing live streaming concerts from our studio space.
B.K: The stories behind Refuge.
C.M: We collaborated with over thirty musicians and each one has an incredible story to tell. The single we have out now, The Grand Bazaar, was filmed in Istanbul, Turkey. We got to work with Bela Fleck who tells the story of his parents fleeing persecution in Europe, and Robi Botos who your listeners would be familiar with has a compelling story. He came to Canada and didn’t have two nickels to rub together but found a lawyer who really rooted for him and helped him ground himself in Canada. He was given a keyboard and introduced to all of the musicians at the Rex Jazz Bar. It was quite a battle for him to stay. And he won a Juno Award last year.
B.K: You are one ambitious man. How are you balancing the positive with the negative?
C.M: I’m getting to spend lots of time with my wife and daughter and it's the longest I’ve been home. I’m always working on music and thinking about the next album. I also figured out a way to buy these ten-year-old cameras off Kijiji for a couple of hundred bucks each that nobody wants anymore and turn them into super high-quality studio video cameras, and rig them all up with a Bluetooth foot pedal and we can perform, and I can be switching cameras for each person’s solo and we don’t even need an operator. There’s a technical solution for almost everything.
I’m using this program called Ecamm Live and with it, you can plug in up to fifty cameras using USB cables into a MAC Book. It only works for a MAC. The computer recognizes them and feeds. You can buy five of these cameras even do 4K. You use an Airturn Pedal BT-6 – six pedals for about only $150 and Bluetooth’s to the computer. You use your foot to switch from camera to camera. Ecamm Live is pretty cheap – like $20 a month. You can use the Airturn pedal on your iPad and scroll back and forth using your music. I have a variety of filters where I can attach and change the depth of field. I’m using the Canon’s t2I’s I think.
B.K: Do you think people understand what it takes to spend so much time with an instrument. Practice and learning?
C.M: People our ages care. We will never win over the under the twenties who have never bought an album in their life and never will. My greatest fear is it will take us a couple of years to get back to near normal – whatever that may be, that taste for live music. I know it’s always going to be there, but the infrastructure is falling away. To be honest, we have an older audience and it’s going to take them longer to feel comfortable going out into the public and seeing a live concert. I think Jazz Bistro over the summer were permitted fifty people and they were only getting twenty a night and had to shut down. That’s their audience.
B.K: It will be a new world when we return to live music. New venues, old ones in the past.
C.M: People are interested and very much into “live,” in fact when we open up question period people readily engage. They want to know about the artist and the process. The interest will always be there.