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Dragging the bagpipes into 21st century

McCuaig’s eclectic rock rooted in Celtic traditions

It’s not a surprise when John McCuaig says that 95 per cent of his namesake band’s material is original. After all, a band that incorporates amplified bagpipes, has a lead singer who sports a kilt, and borrows from every popular genre is rather unique.

To adequately define McCuaig (the band, not the man) would mean creating a fusion term with enough hyphens to make the blood run cold of even the most fearless editor.

"We span across everything, from Celtic to blues," says McCuaig.

These genres, and several others with perhaps the exception of classical and klezmer, take their place to create the equivalent of an audile tartan that is the unique property of McCuaig.

In the five years that the Edmonton-based band has been together they have produced four independent CDs. As well as taking care of their own production, the band has been doing its own distribution, bookings and touring management. McCuaig is clearly a do-it-yourself operation and their founder seems to prefer it that way.

"We’re not in search of a label, if something comes up we’ll look at it,’ says McCuaig.

One thing a major label might protest is the band’s enthusiasm for mushrooms. The covers of these discs CDs, from 1999s self-titled debut to this spring’s Feel Like Getting Live all sport mushroom motifs. In the past, McCuaig has wryly suggested that their affection for fungus is not about promoting drug use but is rather a branding concept.

"Every time you see a mushroom I’m hoping it’s going to remind you of McCuaig, like the golden arches and McDonalds," he told a reporter with the Edmonton Sun . But on the phone before their Whistler date, McCuaig maintains that the mushroom is a symbol of freethinking and reminding people to keep open minds.

"When people first hear the bagpipes they either love them or hate them. We’re looking for people who hate them," he says. "Because they’re going to have them think differently about pipes once they hear what we do with them."

At his father’s urging the Nelson native was just seven years old when he tackled the unwieldy instrument, becoming the youngest member of the Kootenay Celtic Piper Band. This unearthed the enviable talent of being able to pick up and learn any instrument thrown at him.

"By the time I was in Grade 4 or 5 I was playing in a country band, a Mini Pops kind of thing, touring other schools and playing guitar and keyboards and singing," he explains.

Listening to the sample MP3s on McCuaig’s website, it’s hard to imagine that his roots are in country. But as a young teen he was underage bass player making the rounds of local legion with his mother and brother in a traditional country and western.

In terms of diversty, the three other band members’ backgrounds rival McCuaig’s incorporating their experiences with blues, rock, soul, hard-rock and ska into their current project.

"Audiences will be surprised by our energy level. We understand what the road’s about and what it takes to get people’s attention. Be prepared to get up and dance," says the affable musician. "If the pipes don’t get you, our energy will."

McCuaig plays Buffalo Bill’s Monday, October 25.