In their 20 years of playing music together, the Bills have celebrated joys and successes, taken breaks, and weathered challenges. Like a family that’s grown stronger with time, they’re tighter than ever, musically and otherwise.
“What happens is that you sort of breathe like a single musician with 10 arms and 10 hands,” says guitarist and vocalist Chris Frye. “You get so used to working together and you have a history of musical ideas and inside musical jokes. You’ve shared the ups and downs that really create a bond in a relationship.”
Hailing from Canada’s West Coast, the Bills are global ambassadors for Canadian folk and roots music—a thriving scene that boasts large festivals in several cities across the country. Perhaps somewhat underappreciated in the States, the Canadian music scene birthed numerous folk-rock icons, including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang and the Band.
The Bills—comprised of Frye, Marc Atkinson on mandolin, guitar and vocals, Richard Moody on violin, viola and vocals, Adrian Dolan on fiddle, piano, accordion and vocals, and Scott White on upright bass and vocals—enrich Canada’s folk landscape with their diverse musical backgrounds in orchestras, jazz ensembles, rock bands, and early roots music.
“We feel like we follow as much in that folk and rock tradition as anything,” says Frye, “But there’s also a much more traditional style that we have strong roots in as well. We try to bring it all together and put it all through a West Coast Canadian lens, and it comes out being the Bills.”
Playing what they describe as a “kitchen-jam exploration of traditional and modern styles,” the Bills embrace the simple joy of acoustic instruments. It’s a casual setting, and they’ll bring in whoever happens to be around to join the jam.
“The thing about this roots music thing is that it’s very inclusive, and it’s meant to be played at an acoustic level. We can make it happen right here, right now, around any table,” says Frye, “You put acoustic instruments in a shared human space, with no speakers, no monitors, no electronics, and you can just rock people and bring up so much energy and emotion.”
Taking this open approach to making music, the Bills have collaboratively composed five albums going back to their 2000 debut, The Bill Hilly Band. The band’s latest, Trail of Tales, was recorded in a farmhouse on Mayne Island, off the coast of British Columbia, where the band stayed for over two weeks. Dolan produced the record and gave it a warm, classic sound by using vintage microphones and old-school isolation techniques, including putting the band members on different floors of the farmhouse. The experience was, as Frye puts it, “like a big old Bills campout.”
“We were all together, all the time, for 17 or 18 days. It was great,” says Frye. “You couldn’t escape each other, but you didn’t really want to.”
The result is a record rooted in rich harmonies, stellar musicianship, sunny days and the natural world—if you listen carefully, you can hear birds singing. The unofficial theme of Trail of Tales is the planet and humanity’s relationship with it. It’s full of songs about the complexity of the issues society faces, the beauty of the earth, simple pleasures, and cautionary tales. From the funky “Jungle Doctor” to the feel-good “Happy Be,” it showcases a mature band putting their music where their consciousness is.
“It’s pretty hard to avoid those issues in this day and age,” Frye says. “As a group of human beings, we lean in that direction of concern for the earth—our ecosystems and our planet. We feel really excited to have tunes that really rock, but also speak to things that are important to us and our fans and our families.”
For their upcoming performance at Kuumbwa, which falls on Canada Day, the band has “a few tricks up [their] sleeves” and they promise to bring the tight, rich sound they’ve perfected over the last two decades.
“We hold ourselves to a really high standard, musically,” says Frye. “If we keep that quality control high, then we feel like good things will keep coming to the Bills and we’ll continue to be good representatives of the part of the world we come from.”
INFO: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 1. Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $25/$40. 427-2227.