“Julian Taylor, this is your life.”
Those weren’t the exact words used by Taylor’s mother one recent Christmas when she gifted him a trunk full of all kinds of personal memorabilia. But she may as well have. Wading through that treasure chest in his attic led to a period of self-reflection that resulted in the Julian Taylor Band’s most personal record to date, Avalanche.
As a result, this is the first time the musician wrote lyrics before the music. “I really want to make sure the lyrics tell a narrative, whether that is a story or an emotional journey.” Taylor had plenty to draw from. The 40-year-old guitarist, of mixed Mohawk and African-Canadian heritage, has had a rich life both off and on stage, having seen every side of the music business: being the hot young thing with a record deal and a big radio hit (with Staggered Crossing, in 2001), grinding it out on the cover band circuit, running his own indie label, and now having a creative rebirth in which all those years of experience are paying rich dividends—artistically, at least. Because the Julian Taylor Band (JTB) is undoubtedly the best Toronto band you’ve never heard.
“Authenticity is important to us,” says Taylor. “It’s almost lucky that we haven’t broken big, in a way. We’re successful enough that we can earn a living—sometimes. We’re not pigeonholed anywhere. To be able to write things you really want to, rather than having to worry about any sort of commercial success, is great. Our only motivation is to go into the studio, be authentic, write the best song I can possibly write, and translate that onto tape.”
Taylor doesn’t fit in a box. He never has—and more power to him. It puts him in a similar situation as some of his musical heroes, old and new, like Los Lobos or Michael Kiwanuka. It’s tempting to call his music R&B, except that means something very different in 2018 than it did in the days of Al Green, Bill Withers, and Van Morrison. JTB look and sound like a rock group, but they’re nothing at all like Staggered Crossing, or any other modern rock radio band: there is no macho posturing or distortion pedals to be found—just a hot horn section. There was one week where Taylor found himself on two different Toronto stages paying tribute to Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Marley. Taylor has mused that what he does is very much “the Toronto sound”—not that of Drake’s OVO crew in the 2010s, but one that dates back to the vibrant Yorkville scene that gave birth to the rock/R&B/soul/country hybrid of The Band, where David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat and Tears cut his teeth, where Steppenwolf started out as Sparrow, where Bruce Cockburn later sung with reggae star Leroy Sibbles.
JTB is not an oldies act—Taylor prefers the cheeky term “premium vintage,” which could apply to other late bloomers like Nathaniel Rateliff. JTB has found an enthusiastic and youthful audience as a frequent opening act for arena pop stars Marianas Trench, but fit just as easily on a bill with Leon Bridges or Blue Rodeo. “Just put us in front of an audience, and we’ll make it will work,” says Taylor. “We’ll work hard to make it translate.” That’s why they’re festival favourites from coast to coast, from the Skookum Festival in Vancouver to the Ottawa Blues Festival to Festival d’Été in Quebec City.
It’s a versatility born in the band’s beginnings, playing covers in ski chalets and Great Lakes beach towns across Ontario, on a circuit that once prepped all future rock stars for success, but that only the most dedicated now dare to endure. It’s a true test of any musician’s commitment to craft. Taylor, who was by then already a major label veteran building his career back up from the bottom, passed that test at the top of the class. (Taylor estimates more than 70 Toronto musicians have subbed in the JTB at some point or another; drummer Jeremy Elliott says that they’ve joked about having a BBQ for former members, at which “if you rolled a grenade through the front door, you’d take out every rhythm section in Toronto.”)
That chameleonic element was evident on the JTB’s first two albums, 2014’s Tech Noir and 2016’s Desert Star, in which Taylor jumped effortlessly between modern pop and rock styles, as well as some nods to folk-rock, in addition to plenty of material that played to the strengths of his live band. Desert Star, a 22-song opus, was deliberately eclectic. Avalanche, on the other hand, aims for consistency: while Taylor’s pop skills are still in full force, there’s a consistent focus on groove. Which is not a surprise: “Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, and Kingston, Jamaica. That’s what I love to listen to,” says Taylor. It was recorded live to tape in a studio, in the space of two weeks. “I really hear the trust between the players,” says Elliott, who has played with Taylor since they were teenagers. “Not that we didn’t trust each other before, but it’s such a high-wire act to make an album with limited resources, to have your career rest on two weeks in the studio.”
Avalanche is the sound of a band who is fully capable of cranking up to 11 and dazzling you with pyrotechnics, but who chooses instead to put that energy into slinky grooves (“Time,” “Take What You Need,” “Never Let the Lights Go Dim”), smooth country rock (“Back Again,” “Sweeter”), and soulful blues (“Avalanche,” “Learn to Love,” “Gone”). Lyrically and musically, it’s an album that Taylor could only make at this stage in his life. His time as an underrated talent is surely over. GO BACK...