Coming off three intense months of filming for Survivorman, Les Stroud returned briefly to his home near Toronto, Canada, but rest and relaxation were not on the agenda. He immediately set to work shifting gears to the final mastering of his new album. “It’s go, go, go. I think, out of four months, I’ve seen my own bed maybe four nights,” he says, apologizing for his raspy voice. It’s completely understandable. After all, it’s not everyone that goes from opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd one week to tracking Bigfoot the next.
Stroud began his career as a musician after attending the Music Industry Arts program at Fanshawe College in Ontario, Canada. He worked for the Toronto music video channel MuchMusic, producing videos for Rush and Corey Hart. He was also songwriter and lead guitarist for the band New Regime.
In the early ’90s, he abruptly walked away from the music industry to become a wilderness guide. He even left civilization and spent a year living in the wilderness, producing a documentary about the experience. Inspired by the television show Survivor, Stroud pitched a more authentic version, Survivorman, to Discovery Channel Canada. In this now longstanding series he is dropped alone into remote locations with just camera equipment, a harmonica, one multi-tool, and a few “everyday items.” Stroud does all his own filming.
Today, he has managed to combine all three of his life’s passions: music, film, and nature. He’s recorded two Survivorman soundtracks and four albums: Les Stroud (2009); Les Stroud and the Pikes, Long Walk Home (2009); and Les Stroud and the Campfire Kings, Wonderful Things (2012) and Barn Sessions III: Off the Grid (2015). Many of Stroud’s original songs are inspired by his adventures as Survivorman.
We caught up with Les Stroud to find out more about his musical side.
Les Stroud: I was a pretty classic kid of the ’70s. Classic rock was a big part of my upbringing—all of the usual suspects. But at the same time, I was very eclectic. I would jump from John Prine to Bob Dylan and Bruce Cockburn, from acoustic to electric, and everything in between, from Neil Young to Zeppelin. I would listen to everything: classical music, blues, and country, it didn’t really matter. My mother always had show albums in the house, so I grew up knowing all the songs to shows like Brigadoon, which is really messed up. I may have been the usual kid of the 70s, but I loved stage performance, no matter what. So people like Michael Jackson to me were geniuses because they were such incredible performers. I never limited myself to being just a rocker.
MM: It seemed like you were just beginning to build a music career when you walked away and into the wilderness, so to speak. Had you become jaded by the music industry, or was it just your love of the outdoors calling you, or a combination of factors?
LS: You are right on the money. My first love is an even split down the middle, which is kind of how I live my life: between adventure and music. I had spent 10 years focused on music. The disenchantment came in the form of the shitty music of the ’80s. I hated Depeche Mode and Spandau Ballet and especially the Thompson Twins, all of that synthy, lack of performance, no guts music. I literally didn’t listen to music for a solid eight to 10 years. For a man who was passionate about music, I was so disenchanted by it all. I spent those years paddling a canoe and I was in heaven. I think I played my guitar once a year at a campfire. I lost all my chops. It was a slow rebirth when I got back into it.
MM: What instruments do you play?
LS: I write primarily with piano and guitar, and I play piano, guitar, and harmonica. The only thing I have any virtuosity in at all is my harmonica. I can rock out on the guitar, but I’m not a shredder. And, of course, I’m a lead singer.
MM: What is your biggest strength as
LS: I became aware of this: we all do our 10,000 hours on something, right? For me it was songwriting. I can sit down today and write you 15 verses, and choruses and bridges, but don’t ask me to play a scale. I haven’t got a clue. I’ve been writing since I was 14. And I know that my strength is words, so that’s what I love.
MM: What kinds of things inspire your songwriting?
LS: What I write about and focus on is my experience with nature and celebrating nature. On the new Barn Sessions one of the songs is called “Going Down Slow” and the lyrics are: “Rain blows across the lake and it sounds like the forest crying; and a tree falls and it sounds like the forest dying.” It’s those types of things; it’s my connectedness to nature that I sing about and write about, and that I want people to hear and connect with. So it’s a bit of a lament, but not all of them are; some of them are celebrations.
MM: Do you write all of the music for your television shows?
LS: I used to; I don’t have time anymore. But I always write the theme songs. I have wonderful musicians that do all of the background stuff now.
MM: Do you always bring a harmonica on your nature trips? What kind?
LS: Almost always. I use a Hohner Special 20. I asked Roly Platt who plays the Special 20. He’s brilliant. He said, “Listen man, we all have different mouths and different lips and it’s whatever feels good.” I love the Hohner Special 20, for me that’s what fits and works with my tongue and my mouth and the way I play.
MM: Were you surprised when people began to identify you as a harmonica player?
LS: Here I am with a full rebirth of music, which goes back a few years now. All the way through Survivorman I’ve maintained it and built it. Now there are kids out there playing harmonica because they watched Survivorman. How cool is that? It’s just surreal and wonderful. It’s humbling and a source of pride at the same time.
MM: Have you ever had to use your harmonica as a tool? How has it helped you “survive”?
LS: In the Cook Islands episode, I took my harmonica apart and made spearheads out of the pieces of metal. That was the ultimate sacrifice! Also, when I was first training with harp, I jogged with a harp strapped to my mouth and I would blow riffs while I was jogging. That gave me an idea: while I am out in the bush I would have one strapped around my neck to play and scare away the bears.
MM: Les Stroud and the Campfire Kings: Wonderful Things and your latest album, The Barn Sessions 3: Off the Grid were recorded live in your “off the grid” cabin. Why do you choose to record that way?
LS: Every two years I put a whole bunch of musicians together in my cabin. The first album was a culmination of Barn Sessions 1 and 2, called Wonderful Things. My latest album is Barn Sessions III and it was recorded there as well. We did a full documentary [about creating the album]. It was one of those places where you can go in a bad mood and leave smiling. All the musicians felt that as well. What a great place to record an album! [There are] no overdubs and we record all together in the same room. We’ve got four chances at it and then we move on to the next song.
Musicians don’t get to hang out in one room and record anymore. I force that; it’s old school. The musicians love it. They jokingly call it “Les Stroud’s band camp.” We all just hang out and play. Sadly, I lost the cabin, but it did give me about four films and two albums. Now I’m going to do it [record] in different places throughout the world.
MM: If you were sent to survive on a desert island and were allowed to bring just three albums what would they be?
LS: Steve Goodman, Jessie’s Jig & Other Favorites; Pink Floyd Animals, and Elton John, Goodbye Yellowbrick Road. I think I’m so cliché, but I can’t really help it. That said, the new stuff—Dave Matthews, Ray LaMontagne, Adele—is very powerful and they are great writers.
MM: Tell me about your latest music projects, and what are your music plans for the rest of 2015?
LS: As soon as I’m finished filming this next batch of Survivorman shows, music will finally be my life and I have a lot planned—tours, a stage production, and I’ve got two new albums coming out. I will keep doing Survivorman, but music will take the forefront.
The most ambitious project is the Mother Earth project—it involves the recording of an album and the launching of a stage production. I’m producing the album with Mike Clink. Slash already cut a solo for me on the lead track, which will be called “One Giant Farm.” It is dedicated to celebrating nature and hopefully reconnecting people to the wilderness, to nature. For me it’s the perfect niche; this is art rock.
[For example], my song “Life on Earth” is a call to arms against the destruction of the planet. I’m old enough to have the maturity to know how to articulate it, but young enough and angry enough to say enough is enough. It gives me a niche to occupy musically that no one else has. And, it goes hand-in-hand with my bush cred on Survivorman. Young people can look and go, “Yeah, this guy’s lived out there and traveled the wilderness around the world. He knows what he is talking about.”
In the mean time, Survivorman has never been stronger or better. I’m doing 14 new episodes, six of which are Survivorman Bigfoot. Then, starting in October 2015 I’ll be touring, everything from small 100-seat coffee house scenarios with my acoustic guitar to 1,000-seat theaters and larger shows. If you came to one of my shows, it’s large screens with big wilderness images. The cool thing is that, between songs, I tell Survivorman stories and take questions.
MM: Do you feel you have the best job in the world?
LS: I don’t have a job; I do what I want to do in life: I follow my passions.
Photo credit: Laura Bombier