After more than a decade traversing Canadian highways, Protest the Hero was certain they had seen it all.
On their current jaunt west — which will lead them to Whistler on Nov. 7 — not only did they narrowly miss hitting an angry bear, but they also had to take the long way around a washed out highway in Ontario. "Being good ol' Canadian boys we're not surprised by anything," says Tim Millar, guitarist for the Toronto progressive metal band, over the phone from Calgary. "Not that we've ever seen a road being washed out."
The band was on their way to Thunder Bay when they hit a roadblock: the Great Lakes were flooded from two weeks of rain and the swell had taken out part of the highway. Re-routing through Wawa and Timmins set them back significantly and L.A. heavy metal act Black Label Society, for whom they are opening, had to play the Thunder Bay show without them. "By the time we got to Thunder Bay it made sense to keep driving or we'd miss the show. So after all was said and done, we made it to Winnipeg after being in the van for 30 hours," Millar says.
Such is the life of a touring musician. But it's not all hard luck. The group, which formed in Whitby, Ont. around 2000 when they were teenagers, still spots new faces in the crowd on each trip they make. Granted, they tend to wander into small communities often overlooked by other acts. Fort St. John, B.C. and Grande Praire, AB are two recent examples.
"We've really always appreciated how vast the country is," Millar says. "There are endless possibilities for tours...It's nice that there's a lot of potential for niche music scenes."
Millar and guitarist/pianist bandmate Luke Hoskin have also cracked another niche market — and found a way to kill time between shows. The pair created a side business transcribing music from both Protest the Hero and other bands into sheet music with guitar tabs. One recent customer was Can-punk heroes Propagandhi. "I feel like writing down music gives it a longer lasting appeal. That's what was interesting to me," Millar said. "I think a lot of music won't be remembered if it's not written down. We have a lot of down time (on the road) so what better thing to do than sit down in a corner and work away."
Millar, known for his sharp guitar skills, has also been teaching short clinics at Long and McQuade music stores as the band continues west. "We have a little more time to be doing things like that because we're supporting (the headliners). We throw things on stage and sit around until 8 or 9 p.m., so I was looking to stay busy and connect with people who might not be going to the show. It was definitely something that took me out of my comfort zone," he says.
Before long, though, the group will be back in their home city working away on their fourth full length album, the follow-up to 2011's Scurrilous, named after a painting by bassist Arif Mirabdolbaghi's grandfather.
The record built on the group's foundation pairing wild, frenetic metal riffs with Rody Walker's vocals, which range from melodic croon to gritty growl. Aggressive, energetic and (relatively) accessible, their songs have earned them fans from across the globe.
"We've been (writing) for four days a week, four hours a day. Some days are better than others, but we're making the most of it," Millar says, adding they plan to have the new record finished by the end of summer next year.
So, what's the secret to their longevity? Time away from each other, largely. "It's pretty crazy," Millar says. "We have covered a lot of ground together and we've been fortunate enough to have the same people in the band. It's a weird relationship: we're not family, but we spend more time with each other than our families... We have our own groups of friends off the road. There's not really any drama and we all get along. We've always emphasized taking things lightly and having a sense of humour."
That is, unless someone messes with their fans. At a recent show, the band came across two autograph-seekers they recognized from a previous interaction. They discovered that the pair had taken their glossy photos with signatures and posted them on eBay for what they felt was an outrageously inflated price. It all lead to a bit of social media spat afterward, but the band stands behind their response, Millar says.
"It's ridiculous, the fact that anyone would pay that amount," he says. "They're taking advantage of our fans. We do autograph things and sell them or give them away, but I like to think we put a reasonable value on it. It's the same thing with scalpers. They're capitalizing on people who like music and they're taking advantage of them. We've always been a band that won't stand for people trying to take advantage of us."