Q&A: Rock Duo Crown Lands Talk Indigenous Issues, Anti-Semitism and Tree-Planting

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As a duo, Crown Lands would've been just as impressive wailing away that they need love, or some variation of, but ever since Cody Bowles and Kevin Comeau formed their psychedelic prog-rock band, paying deep respect to Led Zeppelin, Rush and Queen, they have had another agenda: get people to pay attention to what they are actually saying.

For one, their name. Crown land means territory belonging to the monarch, or, more accurately, stolen from First Peoples. Singer and drummer Bowles is half Mi'kmaq, an Indigenous tribe from Nova Scotia, so it’s a subject close to his heart. Comeau, who plays guitar, bass and keys, is Jewish. 

The two met six years ago in their home base of Oshawa, Ontario, 60 km east of downtown Toronto, and became instant friends over their shared love of Rush. They jammed, wrote, booked shows, and released two EPs, 2016’s Mantra and 2017’s Rise Over Run. The latter contained “Mountain” about colonization.

The band went on to open up on some perfectly picked tours, for Jack White, Coheed and Cambria, Primus, and Rival Sons, from whom they met producer Dave Cobb (Rival Sons, Chris Stapleton, Lady Gaga) and headed down to Nashville to record their eponymously-titled 7-song debut for Universal Music Canada, including the lead single, "Leadfoot."

They had already released a video for the teaser track, “Spit It Out,” in February, but a month later the pandemic brought the live music industry to a screeching halt. Crown Lands don't resume touring until February, 2021, overseas, if all goes well, but instead of disappearing into the Netflix rabbithole, the two have still been working. In June, they released an acoustic EP, Wayward Flyers Vol. 1, and some accompanying live videos including a cover of Neil Young’s “Birds,” and in anticipation of the self-titled album’s mid-August release, they put out the poignant “End of the Road,” narrated by Tanya Tagaq, about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (an staggering 1181 between 1980 and 2012, according to the National Inquiry’s report, released in 2019).

For Crown Lands’ latest video, “Sun Dance,” they teamed up with sustainability farmers Wearth (as seen on Dragon’s Den). For every 50 streams generated, across any platform, one tree will be planted, up to a maximum of 500 trees.  It’s just another example of the band using their platform to make a difference.

In their bio, Comeau said, “People are going to listen to you, so you may as well say something that matters. I don’t play rock and roll to talk about rock and roll, I play to talk about things that matter to me.”

Samaritanmag set up a conference call with Comeau and Bowles to do just that, let them talk about what matters to them.

You’ve stated that Crown Lands is on a mission to represent marginalized communities through your music and lyrics. You’ve done that with your band name, and songs about stolen land and the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. How do you perceive that’s working in terms of your message reaching your fans?

Bowles: It’s been pretty awesome so far. When we were playing all over the States last year, we would incorporate "Mountain" and "End of the Road," which are two of our songs that focused on Indigenous issues. Whenever we played those, it made a lasting impression on the audiences. Everyone would get quiet, things would take a more serious turn. and people were actually listening.

Since we haven't been playing shows, we released "End of the Road," and we've had so much positive feedback from it.  We've actually had a few people reach out to us and share their stories of how their friends went missing. One of the murdered Indigenous women on the highway, which was profound to think that our message is actually getting across to people, and people are reaching out and responding positively us.

I read some of the comments under the video for that, which were beautiful to see. A lot of Indigenous women thanking you.   Really, all woman — and men — should be thankful that you are continuing to keep this in the public's consciousness because after the report from the inquiry came out, we haven't heard much about it. I don't want to ask you anything perhaps you're not qualified to answer, but do you know what the recommendations were in the report?

Comeau: Yes. I can't necessarily go into the recommendations, but The National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls [MMIWG], was published in June, 2019, and it declared Canada's actions against Indigenous people as a genocide under international law. And nothing was done about it. It wasn't really featured in the news. It's a public document you can go and read.

The fact that nothing has been done and nothing's been addressed is telling us how Canada deals with things. It’s like a lot of like federal politics; it's just lip service. ‘Yes, we feel bad,’ and then nothing gets done. That's why we're trying to raise awareness because on one hand, yes, it's amazing that we have  touched some people and they have been directly affected by these issues, but it's another thing to make people aware of what's actually going on as well because a lot of people aren't really educated about it because it's not being featured in mainstream media; you have to go to social media to read about anything that's still happening.

What should be done?  There's over a thousand missing and murdered women and girls. Those cases should be re-opened and investigated.

[Both say yes and begin to talk]

Bowles: Yes, I absolutely agree that there must be justice for these women and their cases should be reopened. They should give an effort to resolve this, and investigate the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] for that matter too.

Comeau: Yes. Accountability for the RCMP is something that's sorely left over. The fact that a lot of the inquiries into The Highway of Tears [the 725 km strecth of highway where the women went missing or were killed], all of the RCMP investigations were tripled deleted. They deleted the files; they deleted all the emails, and just the point that the RCMP had gone in and altered their Wikipedia pages. This isn't a conspiracy; it's all out there. The fact that it's just business as usual. No, one's like, ‘This should be looked at.’ That’s the biggest shame is the fact that the people that should be looking into this, fixing it, are directly contributing to it and no one is trying to make them accountable.

Kevin, you're not Indigenous. When the two of you first met, were you aware of Indigenous issues and what's important or did that evolve through your friendship? Even selecting the band name.

Comeau: Cody and I got along because I'm Jewish and Code’s Indigenous. We started trying to make light of the intergenerational suffering both of us have gone through.  Cody had family that went through the residential school system; I had family that went through the Holocaust. It’s this weird thing of growing up in very WASP-y [White Anglo-Saxon Protestants] areas and being very conscious of the fact that you and your siblings are probably the only people who share your culture in a town of a hundred thousand people. It’s that isolated feeling and you start to put shame onto where you've come from and who your family is. and you try and hide that and blend into the whitewash society.

I think both of us have come into a lot more of our own and getting back to our roots, our family's cultures, as like we've grown as people. "Mountain" was when we we finally came into our own as a band that’s going to talk about these issues because even though we called ourselves Crown Lands from the get-go, we were reading about the definition of crown land. We really wanted to make a stand from the get-go and try and make a difference and make people recognize that crown land is indeed stolen land and it has to be reclaimed. The Land Back movement, which has come to prominence, is something we believe in.

[Let’s out a big sigh] It took a long time. It wasn't just an overnight decision to talk about these issues. "End Of The Road," the music was written before the lyrics were, and then all of a sudden Code and I started reading a lot about The Highway of Tears. We were listening to the Thunder Bay podcast. It kinda started our own reading into the Highway of Tears last year and now here we are. Each episode of the podcast deals with different issues related to Indigenous people in Thunder Bay, but the takeaway is that it is statistically the most dangerous place in the world for Indigenous youth. We were realizing that Canada's this international beacon of hope for so many people, but it's a fallacy, right, because Canada has a lot of work to do to reconcile with Indigenous people.

Like the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s about Kevin and myself listening to what Black people want from White people so we have a better understanding of the issues and their experiences. Crown Lands is a perfect example of this — two people, one Indigenous and one not, and Kevin listening. Cody, is it about us taking the time to listen to you?

Bowles: Well, as long as everybody uses their privilege to listen and educate themselves and amplify Indigenous and Black voices, then I think everyone will understand each other better and where they're coming from and understand the systemic racism that belies the very substance of society right now.

You need us to help make the change because over the centuries and all these decades White people, or White people in power, have pushed back and don’t allow it. It's important that we listen and understand what needs to be done.

Bowles: Yeah, exactly. People need to come together and understand this isn't like an attack on them. They just need people to listen. Also, amplify what they're saying because a lot of these people aren't being taken seriously or listened to. That's a big issue.

When you're writing the lyrics, Kevin, for the Indigenous topics, how do you contribute to those perspectives?

Comeau: It’s weird how we write music. It's not typical of how most people show up with fully complete songs. Code and I, we really have to be in the room together to make a Crown Lands song [Bowles says "yes" in agreement]. The music comes out and then we start cutting scratch vocals and Code will be coming up with melodies and speaking gibberish and I'll have a moment where I’m like, ‘Code, it sounds like you're singing these words.’ And then all of a sudden the wheels start turning [Bowles starts talking at same time (inaudible), then the two laugh as Comeau finishes up], and we go through these words and we go back and forth and make a cohesive message and statement together.  We have a very similar creative process, like we're finishing each other's lines constantly. And this phone call is no different [both of them laugh].

Bowles: Yeah. it literally is that symbiotic thing.  For the most part, when we're writing a song, we usually have the thesis beforehand, where the music will be like odd sounds, like the colour blue. ‘What’s the colour blue about?’ [Comeau says "yeah, yeah" in background]. Then you all of a sudden start finding, ‘No, instead it's actually going to be about…’ like with "Howlin’ Back,"  occult imagery or "River," it’s about God imagery. You just have to have one or two words and you’re like, ‘Yes, this is going to be the idea.’ We're trying not to go and write simple songs about day-to-day life. We try and go for more elusive vague imagery for the most part, until it's political talk.

Comeau: Yeah, like "Mountain" and "End of the Road" have a thesis to them, whereas most other things are a bit more vague because that's the music we like. We never want to listen to a song and be like, ‘Yeah, baby, rock and roll. Let’s party.’ [They both laugh].

Do you talk onstage about what the songs mean?

Bowles: Yeah, absolutely. Before we play them, I give a couple of lines stating to the room or arena or the festival what the song is about. That’s the moment I was saying earlier where everything got silent and everybody started going, ‘Oh, okay, this is serious.’ [Comeau echoes with a mm-hmm] and that's when the tone changes, when I give brief lines and then they're listening for it. So they're primed and ready for the message that the song has.

The last massive sociopolitical movement was the 60s, including the impact of the music. The hippie era made a difference. Make love not war. There’s always going to be artists that write political songs, even if we have to dig them up ourselves because they’re not big hits. Do you think because of what's happening in the world right now, whether it's Trump or Black Lives Matter or indigenous issues, that we might see an influx of artists, like yourselves, that write more political or socially-minded songs that actually get heard by the masses, become hits?

Comeau: Yeah. I think that a lot of people are frustrated with the current world situation, and so the creators are going to do what they do best and reflect that frustration and people are going to identify with it. I feel like we could be on the cusp of a great political movement in music. So I feel like we're a part of this wave that is on the rise.

Bowles: There's definitely a revolution happening, spiritual or otherwise. Our job as artists is to be the soundtrack to that and inspire people. But on the flip side of it, some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard has no meaning. If you go and listen to a Yes song, it's 20 minutes of nonsense, yet that has been life=changing and life-affirming [Comeau says "Totally"]. Obviously, we have our own meaning, right, but art never dies; it gets reinterpreted for leons. So I'm excited to see maybe some of our songs that have less of a meaning get co-opted by other people in a different movement.

Comeau: Hopefully, they're positive movements. [They both laugh].  Luckily, we started very political from the get-go as a band. There hasn't been any weird knee-jerk reaction, this strange stay-in-your-lane mentality a lot of fans have towards rock bands. We've never had that. It seems like people who come to a Crown Lands show, or have supported us, really believe in the message just as much as the music, sometimes message more than the music, which is great. But, again, the message gets filtered through other people's experience too and that's just as valid.  We know what our songs mean to us, but they mean totally different things to other people too.

Bowles: Something that I've always loved about music.

Kevin, you mentioned earlier that you had family that was in the Holocaust and you just mentioned staying in your lane. You've got "Mountain" and "End of the Road" and your actual band name about a big Indigenous issue, but we had over 2000 reported incidents of antisemitism in Canada in 2019 (according to B'nai Brith Canada).  I have relatives in England who are genuinely worried about the increase of antisemitism there and in Europe. Your band is just the two of you. Would you ever write songs about that or talk about that?

Comeau:  I went to the Holocaust Museum in Israel and I saw something that said, ‘They tried to wipe us out, but we're still here.’ And that line stuck with me. And we were writing ‘Mountain,’ I was reflecting on that, then it eventually was reinterpreted. So I think that line’s very powerful. To be honest, I don't tell a lot of people I'm Jewish for those reasons and the fact that antisemitism is super unreported and underrepresented. It's a weird thing.  I am conscious about it every day. Other than this interview, pretty much only my inner trusted circle know I'm Jewish.  I mean, I guess my nose gives it away [laughs]. Code and I both like pass for like fairly White people so I don't think we face like a lot of overt racism. I think there is a huge privilege angle, especially for me because, I've benefited from white privilege in my life, but not from white supremacy because the Jews are directly excluded from that. It's definitely an interesting experience.

It’s interesting that you're uncomfortable about revealing that or talking about it.

Comeau: Yeah. It's weird. I don't know. I've experienced enough antisemitism in my life that I’ve decided to compartmentalize it a bit.

Indigenous Peoples share that experience of racism.

Bowles: Yeah. I've experienced racism in my whole life.

So I guess the answer is no, except for that one line in "Mountain," you won’t be writing about antisemitism.

Bowles: I'm down whenever Kevin wants to.

Comeau: Again, it's this weird thing. Just to be completely real. I don't think the world wants to hear something like that. I know it's weird to say, but that's my feeling on it. I don't really feel the need to really want to put myself there. Maybe one day, but not now.

For your new single and video, "Sun Dance," you have partnered with Wearth. Out of all the environmental organizations or tree planting initiatives, why them?

Comeau:  We liked the fact that Wearth is Canadian-based and family-owned. They're in Alberta. They've been farming for years and they've been focused on carbon farming, and we’re trying to be carbon neutral so we really appreciate that. And we like the fact that they are a bit small of an organization, just like we are, so it made sense. 

On their website, their goal is a million trees. Do you have a goal?

Comeau: Fifty  streams equals one tree planted, to a maximum of 500 trees. It would be lovely to do a million trees through this initiative, but considerng we aren't touring, and rock streaming gets driven by touring, it's a lot lower when you're not on the road. We hope that we can just make a bit of a difference.

It’s great promotion for Crown Lands too, if 50 streams equals one tree planted. Is there criteria? Does the person have to listen to the entire song? Someone can't just click, click, click click.

Comeau: No unfortunately not. The best way to go is just listen to it because I think it's good material [laughs].

How are you getting word out to your fans?  The copy under the YouTube video doesn’t mention it.

Comeau: We're just focusing on social media, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and through our YouTube community tab. This is something we've wanted to do for a long time and make our music reflect what we want to do, whether through lyrics or through action. We've always strongly felt connected to the woods and nature and this is our way of making sure our fans are as well.

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