Shawn Hall and his bandmate Matthew Rogers never set out to become a two-piece blues and roots band. At first, there was no plan to be much of a band at all, let alone one called the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer.
The quick-study nature of the two musicians helped immeasurably. At the time of their first meeting, Hall — a Toronto native then living in Vancouver — was fresh out of recording school and writing a radio jingle for a Vancouver restaurant. Rogers was hired to play guitar.
“It was one of the first things I did right out of recording school, if not the first thing,” Hall, 38, said. “It got played on the radio for a couple of weeks. I thought I was going to have a career in music doing jingles. But that was the first and last jingle.”
Rogers and Hall continued working together on a couple of projects with other musicians, beginning in 2005, that ranged in style from electronic and soul to singer-songwriter fare. Some had success, but none felt like a perfect fit. It wasn’t until the two-piece idea came into being that Hall and Rogers officially clicked.
“The other projects were getting close,” Hall said from his home in Nanaimo. “Things touched upon the surface of roots music, but nothing suggested the level of intensity that joining the two of us together would create.”
Hall and Rogers are now operating at a pace neither could have seen coming. In the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer, Hall plays harmonica and sings and Rogers plays guitar and drums. Though immediate comparisons to groups such as the White Stripes and the Black Keys are valid, HAM (for short) favours the traditional.
Hall grew up playing the cello, but after being exposed to the harmonica at age 12, thanks to a gift from his grandmother, his musical tastes took him in another direction. “That was the turning point,” he said.
He continued playing the cello for many more years, but the harmonica eventually exposed him to “the greasy dive bars” that populated the Spadina Avenue section of Toronto. “I’d go down and watch all these harmonica players, all these blues guys,” he said. “That was the ticket.”
It was fun playing bars, Hall said, but eventually he had to get out. To do so, he would need to quit his television news job at Citytv, an attractive position in a competitive media market. His attachment to the city was strong — though he was born in England, he had lived in Toronto for 25 years at that point — but he saw but one viable option.
“The only way I could escape that and get back into the arts was to leave and start over again as a musician.”
He moved to B.C. a dozen years ago and has never looked back. This month, Hall was nominated by the Toronto Blues Society’s Maple Blues Award for harmonica player of the year. HAM also earned a nod for entertainer of the year. The winners will be announced Jan. 20 at the Maple Blues Awards Gala at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. It feels good to crack the Toronto scene from the other side of the country, Hall admitted.
To place your Maple Blues vote for Hall, go to mapleblues.ca. Voting is open until Dec. 7.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in England and raised in Toronto. I was in England as a toddler and was brought over to Canada in 1977.
What is your favourite thing about Nanaimo?
I really, really enjoy that it’s not the cool, showdog town. It’s a working-class gem, but it seems like there is a handful of people living here that know about the coolness of this place. I dig that.
And as a professional?
Being able to perform in Toronto at the Koerner Hall last winter, for the Maple Blues Awards, was a big, big accomplishment.
First album you remember having?
The first album I bought was the soundtrack for the John Travolta movie Staying Alive. Not the cool one, Saturday Night Fever, but the one that was not cool.
What is your greatest accomplishment as a person?
Getting kids to daycare on time is a wicked accomplishment.
Albert King’s The Blues Don’t Change. That’s one of his best soul-crossover records.
First concert you attended?
The Bobcats. That was the first concert where I went up on stage and got an autograph.
Favourite concert you attended?
One of the pinch-me-I-can’t-believe-I’m alive moments was watching Stevie Wonder in Vancouver four years ago, and it wasn’t for the intimacy of Rogers Arena.
If you had one motto, or rule to abide by, what would it be?
We come as a pair.
Nanaimo’s Shawn Hall and his band play Thursday at Lucky Bar. They also perform Friday in Cumberland and Saturday in Errington.