There's something intrinsically loveable about the Scottish. Free of any modern political prominence, the culture is largely focused on symbolic pride. Be it kilts, strongman competitions, bagpipes or beer, Scottish heritage is some serious business. Hybrid musical act "Enter the Haggis" is likewise lovably businesslike, transforming traditional Scottish bagpipe music into a fuck-all, punk-pop celebration of the moment.
Considering the name (and truly it should be considered -- "haggis" being a Scottish specialty composed of a calf or lamb's organs boiled in its own stomach with a tasty combination of onions and oatmeal), Enter the Haggis make for delightful, palatable fare, blending traditional Scottish songs with punched-up, respectfully derivative originals. It's on some levels a preposterous notion, since most of the band's members are under the age of 25 and Canadian, with manic-panic hair. But at the same time, it is charmingly original.
Founder Craig Downie, the group's oldest member, bagpipe player and founder, assembled the Toronto outfit five years ago with the notion of keeping his roots relevant, much the same as recent revivalists have done for bluegrass. On the phone from Toronto, guitarist and vocalist Trevor Lewington is optimistic about Enter the Haggis' Scottish revisionism.
"It was actually very new to most of us in the band, and that's probably why we put a really different spin on most of it," he says. "Because we don't come from that kind of background."
That background is to be celebrated in the 26th annual "Central Florida Scottish Festival and Highland Games," where music prevails, but competition kicks ass. Such traditional fare as the tossing of the caber (a telephone-pole-like object), the sheaf-toss (a 16-pound burlap bag of hay) and the hammer-throw are expected, as are the large-form men in skirts who populate them, all adding up to an aggressive affair that is surely not to be missed.
And if Enter the Haggis seems like a novelty act, it should be noted they're perhaps no more novel than tossing giant bags of hay in Florida. Still, the band does take itself quite seriously, with an inevitable eye on commercial crossover evolving.
"There is very much a conscious effort, especially right now, to write something that might be a little more marketable for radio," says Lewington. "I mean, bagpipes have always had a hard time getting radio play."
The mention of Scottish '80s band Big Country and their 1985 smash, "In a Big Country," brings a stifled laugh.
"I heard those were synthesizers," says Lewington. "Maybe if we played it on the keyboard."
Enter the Haggis released its third CD, a live recording simply titled Enter the Haggis Live!, this past August. The collection perhaps best represents the band's strengths, more so than a contrived studio recording might. Their audiences, after all, can be fairly tough crowds, seeing as most of the band's gigs are Scottish festivals.
"We are pretty much a performance band," says Lewington. "We don't have a lot of time to practice, so it's interesting to see the progression of a song. At the end of the tour it will be totally different. A lot of the tunes just came about from playing on stage and from jams."
Most of the band's set consists of pastiches of such traditional fare as "Sleepy Maggie," "Jenny's Chickens," "The Hills of Glenorchy" and "The Rakes of Kildare" renamed with headers like "Maggie's Pancake Mix" and "Half-Fast Jam." If the oldies aren't familiar on their own, the sort of all-inclusive party treatment they receive should be.
"I think it's very important to keep the music fresh," says Lewington, who has recently begun writing some of the band's songs. "I mean the traditional music's been around for centuries, but it's really fun to put a fresh twist on it."
But isn't it limiting to work within such a conscious framework?
"It's totally varied. As far as more structured songs go, we try to make the best song possible," he says. "If there's a place for a bagpipe or a fiddle line in it, then we'll put it there. But I don't think it's the No. 1 priority."
Indeed it seems the No. 1 priority is the big sell, which, we should be reminded, is the nature of the music industry. Although sometimes it's not so pleasant to hear it spelled out by the person actually selling it.
"It's a great niche for us," says Lewington. "We deal with bagpipes, we all wear kilts, and we appeal to such a broad demographic. There are little kids dancing and older people as well. It's important to keep the young people coming out to these festivals, and to keep the interest in Scottish heritage alive."
"People are so enthusiastic about it," he says. "They love the bagpipes."
And the kilts. What's under the kilts?
"The question that's been asked more recently is, 'What's on the kilts?'" he deflects. "We've got a kilt sponsorship with Hector Russell, an international kilt company, and they've made some pretty modern kilts for us. I've got a black one with a spider web on the front."
"But you've avoided the question," I add.
"That's what we do," he replies, sheepishly. "But our piper Craig says 'Depends.'"
As for the rotten pudding that infuses the band name, Lewington can safely say he has no opinion. "I'm actually a vegetarian, so I have yet to find a vegetarian haggis," he says. "I think I'll try and market it!"
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