The Band With a Big Heart

Story by Karen Tinsley
Photography by David Bastedo

Hailing from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, The Trews (Colin and John-Angus MacDonald on vocals and guitar respectively, bassist Jack Syperek, drummer Chris Gormley and keyboardist Jeff Heisholt) now call Hamilton, Ontario home. 

Beginning their career as One I’d Trouser (a line from a song in the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life), the band shortened their moniker to Trouser, which evolved to The Trews. A Scottish word for trousers, “trews” is also a play on the word “true”.  John-Angus MacDonald explains, “The name sounded simple and catchy, plus we wanted to be true to ourselves and our music.”

In 2002, the band won a St. Catharines rock radio contest and landed a recording contract soon afterwards. 

Their first full-length CD House of Ill Fame was released in 2003. The single “Not Ready to Go” hit number one on Canadian rock radio and was the most played song of 2004. The band was nominated as New Group of the Year at the 2004 Juno Awards and “Not Ready to Go” was nominated as 2005 Single of the Year. The album was certified platinum in Canada. 

Their next LP Den of Thieves featured the single “Yearning” (the band’s second to reach #1). They were invited to share the stage with the Rolling Stones at Toronto’s Phoenix and opened for Robert Plant on his cross-Canada tour.

“Hold Me in Your Arms”, from their third album No Time for Later, premiered during the 2007 Grey Cup pre-game show and was immediately released on iTunes; the video reached #1 on MuchMusic and spent 22 weeks in Canada’s Top Ten. The band was nominated for two 2009 Junos: Album of the Year and Group of the Year.

The 2014 certified Gold single “Highway Of Heroes” refers to the stretch of Highway 401 where hundreds gather on bridges and overpasses to salute fallen soldiers as they are transported from CFB Trenton to the Toronto Coroner’s office. 

John-Angus shares, “we wrote the song as a tribute to Captain Nichola Goddard and all who serve. I went to high school with Nichola in my hometown of Antigonish. She hired us to play at the school assembly; our parents are friends to this day.”

The Trews are (l-r): drummer Chris Gormley, bassist Jack Syperek, guitarists/vocalists John-Angus MacDonald and Colin MacDonald, and keyboardist Jeff Heisholt.

In 2006, Captain Goddard was the first Canadian female soldier killed in Afghanistan. She was posthumously awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.

The band has supported the Captain Nichola Goddard Foundation, which provides national funding to address the unique challenges of military life for servicewomen, Veteran women and their families. 

Highway of Heroes was made available on iTunes in Canada only, with all proceeds going to the Canadian Hero Fund, a charity providing academic scholarships to families of soldiers killed in combat. 

“When people literally hand us dogtags from family members when we’re playing “Highway of Heroes” I can’t tell you how much that means to us and moves us”, John-Angus says. 

Another song, “God Speed Rebel”, was released in the midst of the pandemic in 2020. One of the first bands to record video using Zoom technology, all proceeds from this song (including YouTube views, Spotify and Apple Music streams) go to the Unison Benevolent Fund, a charity assisting the Canadian music community with counselling, financial support and other resources. 

The Trews have also supported WARCHILD as well as animal shelters, soup kitchens and food banks in their adopted hometown of Hamilton. 

More records, road trips and recognition

The band’s fourth studio album Hope & Ruin was co-produced by John-Angus MacDonald and the Tragically Hip’s Gord Sinclair, recorded at the Hip’s own Bathouse Studio. The album received heavy airplay in Australia, resulting in touring that continent four times. The band also toured the UK and USA. In 2012, they supported Bruce Springsteen in Moncton, New Brunswick.

A few months later, the band issued the 7-song EP Thank You and I’m Sorry, featuring Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes. The single “The Power of Positive Drinking” received extensive airplay across Canada, reaching #1 on CBC radio. 

The 5th full-length studio album, eponymously titled The Trews, was the band’s highest charting debut, reaching #1 on the Rock, Alternative and Independent Album charts and #3 overall in Canada. 

To support their album Time Capsule, 20 songs (including 16 of their greatest hits and four new recordings), a 2016 Canadian tour was launched; in 2017, the band joined Weezer on tour.

Next up, “The New US” was released as a single from a forthcoming 2018 album. The song stirred up some controversy with its political lyrics; the second single, “Vintage Love” became the band’s 18th to chart Top Ten in Canada. The album, entitled ‘Civilianaires’ was released to great critical and commercial success. ‘Civilianaires’ was nominated Rock Album of the Year at the 2019 Juno awards—their sixth nomination to date.

The latest album Wanderer came out in 2021. 

Their collaboration with Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes culminated in three blazing tracks on this record, emerging with the band’s fiercest and most accomplished collection of songs. 

The Trews have performed here numerous times at county festivals and music halls over the years; they played The Colosseum at Caesars Windsor in 2022 with the Black Crowes. 

On March 1, 2024, they return to The Colosseum with special guest Wide Mouth Mason.

John-Angus says, “our songs can feature fiddle, violin, bagpipes and accordion; I think these instruments and our melodies reflect a sense of communal playing and the ‘kitchen party’ culture that pays homage to the East Coast spirit.”

The Trews like to be at a venue one hour before a show. 

“We peek out from behind the curtain to get a sense of the vibe. Colin does a thorough half-hour vocal warmup in his own space and we normally hang out and have a drink before we go on stage.”

Is there one song that was particularly challenging to write?

“The next one!” John-Angus laughs. “That’s kind of an old songwriter’s joke, but it’s not that far from the truth. It’s always a challenge coming up with new songs; getting them all to the finish line initially seems impossible! The important thing for aspiring songwriters is to know it doesn’t come easy; everyone has dry spells and gets writer’s block.”

The Trews will be playing their Platinum-selling House of Ill Fame album in its entirety, as well as more hits from their celebrated discography. Joining them will be Wide Mouth Mason, a blues, rock and roots trio renowned for their memorable, agile live performances. 

John-Angus says, “we’ve put out this elaborate 20th anniversary box set reissue, available now: a 24-page book, double vinyl CD with live music from the tour. We’re going to play this album all the way through; once this tour wraps up, we likely won’t be playing any of these deep cuts again.”

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