I had an opportunity to catch up with Mav Karlo’s Menno Versteeg on Tuesday evening. Menno was fresh off of the PEI ferry, en route to Charlottetown where he will kick off his “I drove here and slept in my car and also I only peed on the side of the road and quarantined for two weeks, oh and the shows are all socially distanced” tour (a title only rivaled by the new Borat film for length). Upon arriving at the Atlantic Bubble, Versteeg encountered an inquisitive border guard who had several questions about his purpose here in the Maritimes, and one of which was rather interesting as the guard asked if Menno was here for essential work. Considering Menno is part owner of Royal Mountain Records, it becomes a far deeper question than I imagine was intended.
With the vast number of musicians, venue operators, and promoters all currently out of work due to the ongoing pandemic, considering the role that they play in the ongoing mental health of so many, they should absolutely be considered essential. There is very little that compares to being shoulder to shoulder with like-minded strangers in a darkened room with a band or musician on stage, and this is another reason why it’s fantastic to see Mav Karlo trek east by car. Even if he is initially greeted with a 14-day quarantine period, it shows that the region and the artist have forged a kinship over the years. It wasn’t an endeavor that he entered on a whim; in talking to pals such as “Matty Mays” and Hey Rosetta’s Tim Baker, both explained that once the quarantine wraps up, it’ll be a blast.
The initial Mav Karlo EP was recorded during Christmas of 2019 in Reno, NV, at a dingy hotel, and as explained by Menno, “it was definitely a quick way to piss off your family”. Fortunately, that time away was not only life-changing but also life-affirming, as there wasn’t anyone to depend on, except himself. The product of that excursion was the initial EP under the Mav Karlo moniker, entitled The Reno Tapes, a project that would unknowingly lay the groundwork for one of the best albums of 2020 in Strangers Like Us.
Versteeg also explained that Strangers Like Us was less a project of intent and more one of circumstance, that “it’s to do something”. This wasn’t an album that was crafted for commercial purposes, as most of the songs clocked in over 5 minutes and it was never the intent to chop them down into digestible pieces. People may ponder why Versteeg opted for a band name or moniker, and the answer was twofold: he was upfront with the assessment of his own name (“I find my name is a weird name for a project”) and he went on to explain that he enjoys the idea of a band name, especially since there are so many contributors. So he may be a solo performer, but it’s hardly a solo effort.
Tickets have been moving, and there is excitement afoot with the potential to see the new direction Versteeg has embarked upon. Wednesday night in Charlottetown is the tour kickoff, and it will mark the first night that Mav Karlo takes to a stage by himself. Menno explained he’s “more nervous than ever before, I’ve never been on stage without my best friends”. Which makes sense as he was the front-man for Hollerado for 12 years, and then joined forces with Chris Murphy (Sloan, TUNS), Sam Roberts, and Dave Monks (Tokyo Police Club) to form Anyway Gang, a project that grew organically through years of touring and befriending this stellar group of musicians. It started out as something of a lark, that found its footing and was carried through to fruition.
While the “I drove here and slept in my car and also I only peed on the side of the road and quarantined for two weeks, oh and the shows are all socially distanced” tour is largely a solo effort, Menno has a great group of East Coast acts supporting the Maritime run, such as Owen Meany’s Batting Stance in Halifax, Don Levandier (of The Motorleague) in Moncton, Graeme Kennedy in Fredericton, and the tandem of Brandon Howard Roy and Justyn Thyme kicking things off in Charlottetown. Over in Newfoundland, Menno is opening up Adam Baldwin’s three nights on the Rock. It’s a fantastic line-up, that will hopefully spark and inspire other acts to come quarantine and put on an Atlantic bubble tour. As Menno put it, they were “locked down, sitting at home anyways” and it’s “doing something rather than nothing”.
I know, personally speaking, I’m excited to slap a mask on my mug, pull up a chair, and take in some fantastic live music, and folks such as Mav Karlo are more than ready to get out from behind their live-stream set-ups and feel that energy emanating from an engaged and excited audience again. The sentiment that resonated with me was when Versteeg went on to explain that Mav Karlo “…is a different thing, but still trying to take the same attitude and play the songs the best I can”. I for one will be there on Thursday night in Halifax, waiting to hear gems such as “Record High” (a tune originally intended for the last Hollerado record, and written with the band), as well as “Elevator” and the shimmering gem that is “Detonator”.