Creative boundaries are most often expanded by one simple question: “What if?”
Such is the case with the Canadian rock band Walk off the Earth, which became a YouTube sensation in 2012 with a cover of the Gotye song “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
It featured five members of the band all playing one guitar, showing a musical dexterity and a sly sense of humor that has helped the band gain wide popularity. And it all started because two of the band members used to play on a single guitar on stage, just goofing around.
“Gianni (Luminati) and I have always done that on stage. It just started with him sort of playing drums on my guitar,” said band member Ryan Marshall. “Then once we got more involved with YouTube we just thought, what if we put more people on one guitar? How far can we take it?”
The video got 35 million views in less than two weeks, and more than 127 million views in four months. Since then the band has gone on to TV appearances, a recording deal with Columbia, and tours where Walk off the Earth headlines 1,000- to 2,000-seat venues.
Tuesday the band bring its show to the State Theatre in Portland. The State’s capacity is 1,870.
People who go to the show in Portland can expect a mix of covers and original songs, and some strange goings-on with instruments.
Not only do band members sometimes play on each other’s instruments, or trade instruments, but they also use instruments you might not see every day. For instance, they sometimes use a theremin, an electronic instrument invented in the 1920s, which is controlled by the performer moving his or her hands near, but not on, the instrument. A ukulele shows up in their music a lot too.
“None of us are masters of any one instrument, that’s why we switch it up and play different things,” said Marshall, “Using different instruments and having fun making sounds with different things is a big part of what we do. Sometimes we’ve used Pringles (potato chip) cans for percussion.”
They also trade off with vocals. Luminati, Marshall and Sarah Blackwood all sing lead at various times.
The band has a laid-back, party-on-the-beach attitude in their music and a sound that’s dominated by sing-along melodies, complex harmonies and layered backup vocals behind crisp lead vocals. Originals are often feel-good, upbeat songs about enjoying the summer (“Summer Vibe”) or playing music for change on the streets of Toronto (“Corner of Queen.”)
If you search for Walk off the Earth on YouTube, you find a dozen more songs by the group – covers and originals. Marshall says the band makes no distinction. Some bands who become known for a cover might then try to shed their past by doing only originals.
But Walk off the Earth continues to do covers as well as originals, and Marshall says all the members are truly interested in is making music that sounds good when they play it.
“We’re just big fans of good songs. I know some bands would be upset being known for a cover, but we’re not. Bands have been covering other bands for a long time,” said Marshall. “In the ’60s it was cool to cover someone else, then it became less cool at some point.”
The band’s YouTube videos play a big part in their creative process, in finding ways to make songs fun, for them and for the audience. For the video for “Somebody That I Used to Know,” they knew they were going to try five players on one guitar, but the rest of the video evolved more organically.
One of the funniest parts of the video is watching keyboardist Mike Taylor staring blankly and sternly at the fret end of the guitar. For much of the song he looks as if he’ll just stare, then at various moments he picks one or two notes, and goes back to staring.
“He didn’t do that stare for the first 10 or 12 takes,” said Marshall. “But then during one take, I don’t know if he was bored or pissed off or what, but he did it. Sarah (Blackwood) saw it and said ‘Do that every time.’ ”
The band members got together around 2006, when they were all living in Burlington, Ontario, Canada, near Toronto. They had all been playing music for a while, in different bands. The band has some built-in chemistry, since Luminati and Blackwood are a couple and had a baby together last year.
Marshall says he grew up in a family where music was abundant. His father was in a barbershop quartet and his uncle played guitar. His main instrument as a youngster was euphonium, a baritone-voiced brass instrument that’s sort of like a tuba.
“I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 20,” Marshall said.
So will euphonium show up in the band’s songs? Or the band’s YouTube videos?
Well, anything is possible. As a band that has sort of exploded because of YouTube, Walk off the Earth fully embraces the spontaneity and do-it-yourself ethic of YouTube in all they do.
So keep that in mind if you go see their show, Marshall says.
“The mix-ups and different instruments are things we don’t really plan on. We just want to make our show flow and make it the best it can be,” said Marshall. “We want to bring that YouTube video world to the stage and make that experience come alive.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: