FYIG Chats With Ray Schmidt of Music Trio The Wardens

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Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

We’re The Wardens – a trio of musicians from Banff, Alberta. As the name suggests we are also real wardens. Not prison wardens, but national park wardens. Our music reflects the land we’ve spent our lives protecting. We are Scott Ward on fingerstyle guitar, Bradley Bischoff on guitar and Ray Schmidt on upright bass and mandolin. We are all singer-songwriters yet perform with tight three-part harmonies to go along with our instrumentation. A big part of our live shows involve telling stories – we give you the inside scoop on what it’s like to be a park ranger in the Canadian Rockies, from wrangling grizzly bears to rescuing stranded hikers and spending lonely nights on the packtrail. Our show has been called “the quintessential mountain-culture concert experience.” by BC’s Kootenay Mountain Culture magazine.
 
You’re all national park wardens. How did you come together to form this music trio?
 
We all worked together in the early 2000s in Banff National Park, we’d end up playing evening around the campfire together at various gatherings. In 2009 there was a big centennial celebration for the national park warden service. They asked each of us to perform, so we thought “let’s see what happens when we work something up together.” I think the lightbulb went on and we realized we’re much stronger together than playing as individuals, that we have something special to share with people – our songs and our stories resonate with people. I mean who doesn’t at one point or another dream of just taking off into the wilderness and living in a cabin for a while? Ok, I guess there are probably a lot of people who don’t ‘dream’ of that, but in Canada, it’s sort of understood that that’s always an option. A real option, even today.
 
How would you describe your musical style?
 
We call it mountain music and it’s best described in this genre-crazy world as Folk-Western. Some might call it Americana, but since our music is very Canadian (and Canadiana is a bit of a cheesy term) we shy away from that box, even though a lot of musicians are starting to call themselves ‘Americana’. Ultimately, this is music that we’ve lived and it’s very much influenced by the land and our experience on it.
 
How have you evolved since your last album, “Sleeping Buffalo”?
 
 
We really got into song arrangements and tightening our three-part harmonies on ‘Sleeping Buffalo’ and so we’ve really begun to bring that to our music right away as opposed to an afterthought. In the early days, we were really concerned about getting the instruments right and then threw the vocals on almost as an afterthought. Now we spend a lot of time working the harmonies, finding places where we can add dynamics into our songs and really have all those elements enhance the story we’re telling. Since ‘Sleeping Buffalo’ we started performing with Scott Duncan, who’s just an incredible fiddler from Calgary and plays with guys like John Wort Hannam, Scott Duncan has really helped us bring our mountain sound together. We’ve tried a number of other instruments over the years, but we realize now that the missing instrument (and musician) was Scott Duncan’s fiddling. 
 
What was it like working with Leeroy Stagger (who we also interviewed) on that album?
 
We’ve worked with Leeroy from the beginning. We recorded our 6-song EP with him in his basement when he was just getting rolling as a producer and recording engineer. So we’ve evolved with him as he’s built this larger studio in his backyard. We’ve become really close over the years and are huge fans of his. 
 
What can audiences expect from your next album expected in 2020?
 
I think our songwriting continues to improve all the time. We hold ourselves to a higher standard. I mean it’s hard to beat the naivety in some of the first songs you ever write – Scott’s Ya Ha Tinda Bound will always be one of the greatest songs in The Wardens’ catalog – it was pretty much the first song he penned. So now, we’ve got those great songs, we have to find different ways of being relevant and fresh and achieving something lasting like that song. It’s harder to do, but we have all grown as songwriters and as musicians, so we each contribute more to each other’s process and having that team approach makes our work stronger. Even though in age we’re not exactly young, we’re hungry and we can certainly still mix it up with people in the ‘Emerging Artist’ category.
 
You’re embarking on a Western Canadian tour. What’s the audience experience like at your live shows?
 
We are a live touring band at heart. Our music is one-third of our live show. It’s the stories that precede the music that truly brings things together. As national park wardens, we’re used to sitting around a campfire into the wee hours telling stories. Our culture comes from cowboys, who were the first park wardens. They passed on that oral tradition, that very personal approach. At a live show, people are right there with us, becoming part of the story. And the other third of the show is our image projections. When we play in a venue that can handle it we travel with a screen and projector and each song is painted with some incredible images that we’ve taken or have gathered that help tell the story of that song. It’s a tasteful backdrop rather than an intrusion. Our live show is totally immersive, we’re taking you along on a ride. This is real stuff, we are real people and this show is very much real and I think that’s what people come away with. And in a sense, these stories belong to each and every one of us, because our land – the land we help protect, is on behalf of all of us.
 
What advice would you have for aspiring musicians?
 
We came to performing later than many people do. We’ve played music all our lives, yes, but performing was new to us 10 years ago. What we’ve realized is that there is no such thing as “you can only get good while you’re young”. Persistence, patience, practice and a hunger for music can get you a long way. While we may not be the best at playing the music industry ‘game’ it’s still possible to have incredible audiences as long as you have a story to tell and learn to tell it well. 
 
What are your lives like outside of music?
 
Two of us are retired – Bradley and Scott. So if they aren’t working on the band, they’re out in the mountains exploring, just like they did when they were working. I still work as a wildlife ranger in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks in BC so I’m busy in the summer trying to keep grizzly bears and people in peaceful coexistence. It’s exciting work and I’m lucky to get to work closely with wildlife of all kinds. It’s not all glamour, I still have to pick up dead animals who’ve been hit on the highway, but when you’re way back in the woods and you see a grizzly mom with her three newborn cubs doing their thing (at a comfortable distance!), it’s something that gives you hope for the world.
 
Let the readers know where to find you online.
 
We are all over it! thewardensmusic.com and @thewardensmusic on Facebook and Instagram. You can also stream our music in the usual spots.