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New CD from category-defying group earns ECMA nomination

by Marianne Dowling

Mars Hill members, from left: Chloe Clark, Chris Coupland and Dean Dunsford (and good dogs). Absent band members: David Weale and Devin Cesario

Mars Hill could care less about winning a popularity contest. Like the high school kid wearing the Morrissey t-shirt—who has the secret admiration of his peers, but no chance to win Prom King—the band would rather be original than be liked.

One listen to the heartbreaking poetry spoken over wailing trumpets, soft drum beats and a swooning organ on the new album Oxcart, and it’s clear the songs are more likely to be covered by Barney the Dinosaur than played on Top 40 radio.

Again, it’s not like this bothers anyone in Mars Hill. Until their recent ECMA nomination, they didn’t even know what to call their music, so the ECMA judges labeled it for them.

“We are officially Alternative,” says pianist Chris Coupland in a mocking, matter-of-fact tone.

Coupland, along with Chloe Cork (trumpet/vocals), David Weale (drums/sax), Dean Dunsford (bass) and Devin Casario (vocals), will play the showcase in Sydney, Nova Scotia on the heals of their CD Launch at Baba’s February 4. The band’s competition in the alternative category includes The Heavy Blinkers, Julie Doiron, Vetch and PEI folk singer Nathan Wiley, but for the members of Mars Hill, the nomination is all they care about.

“Being nominated is more important than winning,” says Coupland. “The judging process they use to determine which albums will be eligible to win the award was actually done through a panel of judges who have to judge the album by merit alone.”

Coupland says once the nominees are chosen, the judging becomes nothing more than a popularity contest, with voters voting for familiar band names.

Cork, Dunsford and Coupland are sitting together in their rehearsal space—a large, cluttered, dimly lit room on the main floor of Dunsford’s house. Weale isn’t able to make the interview and neither is Casario, who is in Halifax. “This is actually the only way you could hear any of what we have to say,” jokes Coupland of the chatty poet.

An old-looking couch sits against one wall and a mish-mash of bongo drums, guitar cases, microphones, a Farfisa organ, and a drum kit fill up the majority of the room.

It looks like a creative space with unframed paintings hanging from every wall. The band jams, and arranges music here, pulling from a variety of influences ranging from classical, 70s rock, and jazz.

“We all write the music, we all contribute, you know. We all bring our own talents and everything into it,” says Cork.

The only part of the songs not done as a collaborative effort is the poetry, which is all Casario’s work. Casario subject matter is heavy: death, God, longing, loss, and loneliness to name just a few. His words act as almost as an emotional anchor to the often dreamy, lullaby-esque chords.

“There’s personal agony in some of the words,” says Coupland. Coupland goes one step further in describing his band mate’s style. “He’s more Leonard Cohen than Jim Morrison.”

But the emotionally charged poetry has found a diverse fan base in Charlottetown.

“Middle-aged, young to super old. It’s one of those CDs that would appeal to any age group,” says Cork.

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