The first time Benj Rowland and Josh Fewings heard it was driving along Highway 2 between High River and Calgary, Alberta. Or maybe it was somewhere on the Trans-Canada Highway between Lewisporte and Woody Point, Newfoundland. Or maybe it just Highway 7, heading home to Peterborough after a gig in Tweed. At some point, all those hours on the road start to blend together.
It came over the CB radio the pair had in their car—an antiquated technology at this point, but one oddly fitting for this pair of journeymen musicians. “It’s pretty niche,” Josh admits, “but it’s helped us.” CB is mostly the domain of long-haul truckers, used to communicate important information about the road, like closures, traffic accidents, and errant police speed traps; and to help cut through the loneliness of long hours on the asphalt.
Most of the time, CB’s limited range means you only hear from drivers in the immediate area, but sometimes, something else will float across the band: a distant voice, using strange codes, speaking of far-off roads. When atmospheric conditions are just right, the signal can bounce over hundreds or thousands of miles. This is called ‘shooting skip.’
“It just sounds really eerie,” says Josh. “It’s these voices from somewhere else. It seems fictional, but it’s actual voices somewhere.”
“I thought it was kind of vague,” says Benj, “but also had some kind of meaning to me that I don’t think I can articulate right now.”
It’s not hard to see why Mayhemingways took to the idea of skip, and borrowed it for the title of Skip Land, their latest collection of songs about wanderers, lost souls, and working men. “In some ways our job is akin to being a trucker,” says Josh. “Our freight is the music.”
Since coming together in 2013, the pair have crossed the country countless times. They’ve played over 600 shows, from Victoria to St John’s, up into Yellowknife and across the ocean into Europe. Maybe more than any other Peterborough band, Mayhemingways are tireless warriors of the road, working hard to turn their chosen craft into a career.
Benj and Josh are, at first glance, a notably unlikely pair. Josh is large and gregarious, with a big beard, a big laugh, and a big heart. He shakes my hand vigorously when I arrive for the interview, and he’s always ready with a playful joke or anecdote. Benj, on the other hand, is lanky and wispy-haired, dressed in multiple layers of worn-in denim. His speech is quiet and mumbly, and he often gets a distant look in his eye, as if content to observe and let Josh take the reins for a while.
But the pair play and work seamlessly together, their relationship forged in countless hours on the road and on the stage, and bonded through a mutual love of music.
Josh is a born performer. His father, Dan Fewings, was a beloved teacher at local high school PCVS and remains a fixture of the local music scene, while his mother worked at Hutchison House and the Market Hall, meaning Josh was steeped in Peterborough music and culture from a young age. “I grew up downtown,” he says.
His father hosted the Acoustic Potluck, a weekly Tuesday night jam session at the Red Dog—“he knows the number: 234 straight Tuesdays or something”—and Josh would regularly attend. “It was a chance to let people in and jam from different parts of the scene.”
Music was ever-present in Josh’s home. He would pour over his parents’ record collection, and “I grew up going to Bluestreak and Moondance, buying too much music with my allowance.”
Josh’s grandparents bought him a drum set when he was eight, and, after discovering the joys of rock’n’roll in his early tweens, Josh really took to it. He was in a high school band, Ritalin Milkshake, who would pack all-ages nights at the Gordon Best and even played Toronto a couple of times. From an early age, “I loved the whole entertainer thing,” he says.
Benj grew up in Fraserville. He too had an early musical connection: his mom helped organize shows at the Give a Hoot Cafe in Millbrook. “I was seeing a lot of acts coming through there from when I was young,” he says. “Washboard Hank was around a lot when I was a kid.”
Benj picked up the guitar when he was 13, following a love of grunge music, but it was Washboard Hank who proved to be a foundational influence. “He was always doing jams and picking parties. And you’re encouraged to just pick something up and join in, even if you know nothing. Just being able to play chords to a song was an amazing feeling. Understanding that you don’t have to be good, just try your best. That was the idea: music for everyone.”
Inspired by Hank, Benj was soon diving into the tradition, listening to roots and folk music and learning the banjo.
He moved to Peterborough at age 18—“I just needed to get out of the house”—and started busking regularly alongside Fiddlin’ Jay Edmunds. They started off playing outside the liquor store (“It was the primo spot, but it was too much of a battle”), and soon grabbed a regular spot at the Peterborough Farmers’ Market. Whenever he’s in town, Benj still plays the Market to this day, over a dozen years later.
“Sometimes I write there,” he says. “I like the act of sitting down. It’s kind of like meditation, because you’re doing something for a long period of time, and it puts you in a weird peaceful mind state.”
Though he’s worked a series of jobs in town, “my early music stuff was all travel and busking. When I was in my early 20s that’s what I did, instead of going to college. Even before it was a job, I just did it, because what else are you going to do?”
Benj soon met fellow local musician Chris Culgin, and, along with Hank bandmate Diamond Dave Russell, formed a band, the County Boys. “Diamond Dave had been touring with Hank,” says Benj, “so he knew how to book shows out of town, and how to make tours happen.”
“Just don’t try to keep up with Diamond Dave on the beer!” jokes Josh.
“That was part of those early days,” says Benj, “being way more reckless and stuff.”
The County Boys were a rollicking country band, steeped in bluegrass tradition but with a fast-driving two-step beat and a decidedly punk attitude. The band eventually broke up, but Benj and Chris kept playing together, with Chris doing double-duty on guitar as well as bass and hi-hat.
Around that time, Josh returned to town, after heading to Thunder Bay to pursue a degree in English and History at Lakehead, with the idea of becoming a teacher. He quickly jumped right back into the music scene, and joined Chris and Benj in the newly formed the Avenues.
“I had never really toured before that,” says Josh. “These places just seemed so new, going out East for the first time, seeing the ocean for the first time. It was pretty mind-blowing. You’re the soundtrack for people’s good times. It feels pretty good doing that.”
The Avenues eventually disbanded, but, as Benj says, “me and Josh knew we worked well together, so we just kinda kept going. It’s kinda easy to keep going.”
Mayhemingways came up during a period of roots revival in Peterborough. As the Spades were winding down, Tommy Street was starting Seventh Fire Records and James McKenty was recording seemingly every act in town: Melissa Payne, Express and Company, Chris Altmann, Kayla Howran, and Mayhemingways on their self-titled 2014 debut.
That EP set the tone for the band’s music to come, a warm and heartfelt mix of traditional numbers and originals, steeped in the traditions of bluegrass, Cajun, and Celtic music, but never content to settle on a single style. (The band has since taken “fuzz folk” as a general moniker for their style.)
“I go through different stages,” says Benj, a consummate dabbler. “Right now I’m listening to a lot of fiddle tunes and 70s Irish stuff. I’ve been playing the bouzouki recently, so I’m sort of connecting with that. But I don’t know where it’s going, I’m just messing around.”
Benj’s songwriting shows a constant fascination with working musicians and other working men, perhaps best encapsulated on that first EP on “CDs I Didn’t Sell,” which remains one of my personal favourite statements about the struggles of the modern musician: “When you’re going through my things and you get to the shed / Find a stack of boxes that I left since now I’m dead / But please don’t let all this garbage go to waste…. When I’m dead and I’m burning down in hell / You can make my coffin out of CDs I didn’t sell.”
Mayhemingways have since followed that up with two more records—2016’s Hunter Street Blues, and the new Skip Land—both recorded with Steve Loree (Tin and the Toad, Junior Gone Wild, Greyhound Tragedy) in Nanton, Alberta, but albums have always seemed almost secondary to the real work of touring.
“We both want to do it as a career,” says Josh, “and at the level we’re at, we have to travel. You gotta play shows elsewhere. You get circuits where you know you can do pretty well. We’re lucky enough to be at that point, where there’s people waiting to see us. That’s pretty cool.”
Indeed, aside from the occasional side gig, both Josh and Benj are now able to devote their lives to music pretty much full time. “I always set up my life with very small expectations, to live within the means of a musician,” says Benj.
“No big-screen TVs in Benj’s world,” says Josh.
The road life can be tiring, and Benj at one point refers with a dry laugh to the “the grim ploddingness of it… but in a positive way,” but this grim plodding seems to be paying off. Between sets at an after-party for the 2013 Peterborough Folk Festival, Mayhemingways were approached by that year’s special guest artist, Joel Plaskett. “He said he dug our set,” says Josh. “He was really kind about it.”
This led to an ongoing correspondence, and a meeting in Plaskett’s hometown of Halifax when the band came through. “We went for fish and chips, he showed us his studio and came out to a show, and he dug it again.” Then, one day, “he phoned me and left a message on my cellphone. ‘Hey Josh, it’s Joel. I’m just kind of curious about something. Can you give me a call when you have a sec?’ I was sitting in the Only, and I called him right back.”
At the time, Plaskett was working on a new album, Solidarity, a collaboration with his father Bill that would take him away from indie rock and back into his folk roots, and he needed a backing band to suit the new sound. “After hearing the record, I could hear a fit,” says Josh, “so we went for it. It’s not every day that Joel Plaskett calls you.”
Mayhemingways backed the Plasketts and served as opening act on each of the tour’s 20 stops, taking them across the country and to major venues like Toronto’s Massey Hall. The tour gave the band a glimpse of something bigger: a life with drivers, hotels, and reasonable working hours; but more than anything, it was proof that the band was doing something right. “His fans are really musically aware,” says Josh, “but they also took to us really quickly. That doesn’t always happen with opening acts.”
In reflecting on a career in music, Josh says, “At first, I thought of it as a weird thing to do, because it’s so hard to see the end—or even thinking there should be an end. But you build it in stages.”
“You’re building a moment,” adds Benj. “Music is a fleeting thing. It’s endlessly fascinating.”
See Mayhemingways live at the Mount Community Centre on March 10 as they release their new album Skip Land (more info).
Photos by Karol Orzechowksi.