Story by Karen Paton-Evans
Photography by Andrea Hunter
Hoping to attract a little attention for their Burlington-based band, a blonde woman flanked by four dark-haired men crowded together and all began playing one guitar. Walk Off The Earth’s unorthodox approach to performing Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know was then shared on YouTube. It scored over 180 million views.
That was in 2012. The public, intrigued, wanted more. The imaginative band obliged with their interpretations of additional cover songs as well as their own original material, including Red Hands, Fire In My Soul and Rule The World. Awards and accolades have followed them across the globe.
Band members Gianni “Luminati” Nicassio, Ryan Marshall, Joel Cassady and Sarah Blackwood all play multiple instruments, including guitar, harmonica, ukulele and percussion, enhancing their boundless sound and riveting stage presence. They are mourning bandmate Mike “Beard Guy” Taylor, who died of natural causes in December 2018. Honouring Mike’s spirit, Walk Off The Earth just released their latest album, Here We Go!, this October.
They have included Windsor on their current tour. Local fans can hear their favourite songs and new material when Walk Off The Earth lands at The Colosseum at Caesars Windsor at 8 p.m. on Thurs., Nov. 7.
While on the road, Joel spoke with Windsor Life about WOTE, losing Mike and feeling blessed to do what they love best – making music.
WL: Every WOTE member sings and plays a multitude of instruments on stage and on your albums. Do your multifaceted talents spring from a desire to be self-reliant, or to have better control of your sound - or do you simply love the collaborative, creative process and want to be as hands-on as possible?
JC: “I think a huge part of what we’ve been able to accomplish has been borne out of not overthinking stuff. Using a bunch of instruments and the sort of stuff that people connect with has just come naturally to us. It’s just the way we do it…we just pick up whatever is laying around the house and create an arrangement.
If there’s an instrument that we haven’t played before that we need to use for a video, well, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase Jack of all trades, master of none? We are very much in line with that. We’re not trying to be virtuosos on any instrument; we’ve just gotten pretty good at picking something up and going for it.
I think there’s a lot to be said for just going for something and being as positive as possible - feeling that drive and determination carry you through to an end result - even if you’re not the expert. You might get a few comments saying hey, your cello technique is a little off, but you know what? There are people who resonate with that, who say [about themselves] I’m not musically trained, maybe I could do this, too. We’ve had a lot of fun with that and we’ve managed to touch a lot of people that way, as well.”
WL: Using instruments unexpectedly, like all of five of you playing one guitar, has become a signature of Walk Off The Earth. What surprises are you bringing to the stage during your current tour?
JC: “One thing we’ve had a lot of fun with recently is we actually had a chance to design our own custom instrument with a company called Blueberry Guitar out of Montreal. They do all their guitar production in Bali, Indonesia because the materials there are fantastic for custom guitar making. They basically set us up and said send us a rough schematic, a rough drawing of something that you guys would like to see and use and perform on. We did. We drafted up this thing that we like to call the guiharpalele. It’s part guitar, part base harp so that covers the low-end register, and part ukulele with a bunch of percussion elements attached to it, including a kalimba - an African thumb piano.
The video that we did with that instrument was a cover of the Maroon 5 song, Girls Like You, and we managed to win the streaming award, the YouTube Grammy of sorts, last year for best cover song. We’ve had a great time bringing that to life on the road….and it’s been a really fun way to keep the multiple person on one guitar thing fresh over the years and keep challenging ourselves the process.
We lost our dear friend, our bandmate, our brother, Mike Taylor, at the tail end of last year. We’ve carried on in the way that we know he’d want us to with four people on one guitar. But who knows? It’s beyond the core band, it’s always been kind of a rotating cast of guests and members and maybe we’ll eventually get six, seven, eight, nine, 10 on the same guitar!”
WL: Walk Off The Earth is recognized as one very hardworking band. Although you recently suffered a great loss with Mike’s sudden death, you’ve kept on making music and touring. Is this hard, sad time teaching you something about yourselves, individually and as a group?
JC: “It’s been a huge shock….we had all these tour dates on the calendar and all these plans and all this stuff that of course Mike was such an integral part of. We really had to think can we do this without him? Is it right to do this without him? What would he want? What would our fans want? What do we want? We were speaking and working closely with his family this whole time to make sure everything we did is right by them. It wasn’t an easy decision to ultimately carry forward….we hope it’s what Mike would wish for us, to carry on and continue to spread the word, our music and everything that we’ve managed to accomplish over these years. Of course, the videos and recordings that he’s on will live forever and continue to inspire people of all ages for generations to come. That really gives us a sense of comfort.
We lost my mom a week after we lost Mike. We knew my mom was sick with cancer and had little time there, but a loss is still a loss. I’d never lost someone so close, let alone two people in the span of a week.
It really makes you slow down and press the pause button and think about the way that you’re spending your time, who you’re spending your time with this and the sort of legacy that you are leaving.
We all feel so fortunate to have had a chance to live our dream in this way and be doing this fulltime for the better part of a decade at this point. Yet, even in a circumstance like that, you really have to slow down just question are the things that I worry about on a day to day basis, the things that I stress over, are those really worth stressing over in the long term? Are those things that people like my mother or Mike would be upset to hear that are really stressing me out?
It’s something that really just shot to the forefront again for myself and the rest of my bandmates and our whole team. I think the one, if you can call it this, silver lining of going through such loss, such heartbreak, is you feel that low and say to yourself I don’t think I’m ever going to get this low again…I need to pick myself up from here and carry forward and find that strength because I know that’s what the person I lost would want me to do.
For some reason, we got the chance to [make music] so we’re going to hold onto it for dear life and keep going forward, making as much content as we can because tomorrow is not promised.”
WL: Mike’s Song is a wonderful video tribute to your friend and bandmate that is raising money and awareness for MusiCounts. What kind of response is it receiving from visitors to the website?
JC: “The response has been incredible. Mike he was so charitable, so selfless and he was heavily involved in the charity called MusiCounts that exists in Canada to primarily get funding and instruments into the hands of kids who are from areas that don’t have funding or the strongest music program to foster their talent at a young age. That’s a huge thing Mike stood for and we’ve had a chance to carry that forward again.
There’s also going to be the first annual City of Burlington music bursary this year for a younger person who wants to go to postsecondary for music and doesn’t have the means. A student is going to get a chance to go in Mike’s honour. When it comes to Mike’s Song and the video, we are artists and music makers first and foremost.
When we lost a close brother, it felt so natural to get in a room and just write it out. That song came together so quickly….there’s a very special catharsis, getting a chance to write a tribute song for someone who you love so dearly and you were so close with who has been taken from you.
It’s a rare and special opportunity to get a chance to come together with likeminded people and really create something that is going to last forever, it’s going to touch other people in certain ways. There are tears every night when we play Mike’s Song.”
WL: In the video, you spotlight several kids who want their own instruments. It’s heartwarming to see all of you interact with these young musicians, playing guitars, keyboards and other instruments that you gift them.
JC: “One of the great privileges is getting a chance to inspire people in the same way that your favorites have inspired you. But it’s on another level when it’s someone who wouldn’t have the means to get a hold of an instrument otherwise. There was a kid who didn’t have a piano so he wrote out with a Sharpie on piece of paper a piano keyboard so he could practice fingering so if he ever did get a chance to get a keyboard, he would already have a bit of a head start.”
WL: What was your own introduction to music? What did it mean to you at the time?
JC: “I actually got into piano first when I was about eight or nine years old. My mom was always super musical growing up; she was a lead trumpet soloist in the drum corps in Brantford. My parents thought they would try me with music and I loved it. I jumped headfirst into piano.
When I got into my teen years, I thought, piano is not cool anymore - I want to be a rocker. So I got into guitar….I wound up on drums by accident when I finally made it to Frontenac Secondary School in Burlington. When it was time to pick instruments in music class, my teacher made everyone who had already played an instrument raise their hands…those people weren’t allowed to play those instruments. She ended up just sticking me with the drum kit. Little did I know how much that would change my future.
After WOTE took off, around 2013, I ran into my teacher in Shoppers Drug Mart in the Toronto area. I was like, ‘Miss Flanagan, you’re never going to believe what happened and it’s all thanks to you!’ She was like, ‘Who are you?’ It was a funny moment.”
WL: As indie artists from Burlington, you understand how tough it can be to break into the music industry and then stay on top. When you play The Colosseum at Caesars Windsor on Nov. 7, the opening act will be a local singer/songwriter, Christee Palace. Recognizing that creativity begets creativity, what does hearing and seeing newer artists do for you?
JC: “We love checking out new artists because we were there once. It definitely keeps us grounded and it gives us a chance to remember the beauty of getting going and doing those openings shows, really slugging it out and paying your dues and just wanting so badly to be noticed.
Any chance we get to see an opener and chat with them after, share some stories - we love to do that. A big part of the reason why we are as far along as we are is because of the people who were nice to us along the way.
No success is overnight and that is so true of our band. Yes, we had a viral video that helped with so many things, but we all spent years in our respective local scenes just grinding it out and doing the worst possible gigs to prep ourselves for what we’ve been able to do here.”
WL: You’ve described your band’s name as “a state of mind” where “you let the pulsing rhythm, the soaring melodies and the lush harmonies take you away to a place where nothing can affect you.” When you’re on stage, are you also walking off the earth? Do you ever feel a moment when the audience has joined you on that wonderful journey?
JC: “Absolutely. There’s no greater experience than getting on stage, feeling the audience’s energy and giving it back to them.
We’re under no illusions that we were largely introduced to the world on the global stage as a cover act. I can’t tell you how much it’s meant to us to get a chance to cross over and really see the impact of our original works, to see people who are coming whether it’s for our originals or the covers.
It’s very much a two-prong attack for us at this point. We are always going to keep the cover thing going because we love it and it’s what got us here. But to get a chance to have as much success as we’ve had with our originals - especially at home in Canada - is just the best feeling.”
WL: Do you have a message for your fans who are excited to see you in Windsor?
JC: “It’s a rare experience for us these days to get to play the home province. We are so fortunate to go all over Europe, Australia and Asia….but nothing will ever feel better than playing for the hometown crowd. We can’t wait to celebrate with the fans at home. We have some brand new music and we have a brand new album that we’re so excited about. It’s going to be a celebration of all those things and more with the home fans!”
Tickets for the Walk Off The Earth concert opening with Christee Palace at The Colosseum are on sale now at caesarswindsor.com.