Q&A with Mike MacDonald & Tyler Pantlin of Shakey Trill, an original, gutsy and raw blues/folk duo based in Ontario

"I miss the rawness of the old blues recordings. As time has went on I feel like things have become overproduced and in turn may have lost sight of the true meaning of what this style of music should be. Music is always evolving and the best thing for the future of the blues in my opinion is to try and get back to the roots. That being said there are many talented acts and blues musicians out there today, you just have to dig a little deeper to find them. The future looks good."

Shakey Trill: Ontario Storytellers

Shakey Trill is an original, gutsy and raw blues/folk duo from Saugeen Shores, Ontario, Canada. Shakey was a nickname given to guitarist/vocalist Mike MacDonald because of his jittery hands. Trill, by definition, is the sound of two notes being played rapidly back and forth. Tyler Pantlin fittingly exemplifies this with his harmonica technique. The duo’s classic blues sounds have garnered them attention all across Southern Ontario and landed them in Memphis, TN on the stage of the legendary Orpheum Theater as finalists at the International Blues Challenge in 2019. “Tyler and I met through common friends and like minded musicians, we quickly realized that we had similar interests in blues roots music”, recalls MacDonald.                                       (Photo: Shakey Trill)

“We decided to put together a blues duo after a few years of collaborating in various bands. It has always been a dream to visit Memphis and other areas of Mississippi, It became apparent that we could travel there while competing in the IBC in Memphis. With this goal in mind, we needed original music and a challenge began to write and perform music of this genre.” Fast forward to 2021, after pandemic delays and uncertainty, Shakey Trill is set to release its debut, self-titled recording on August 13th. Produced by award winner Alec Fraser, the album features10 outstanding originals that showcase both MacDonald and Pantlin’s exceptional musicianship and connection to blues and roots music songwriting, the album also features an incredible version of Muddy Water’s “Can't Be Satisfied” and another stellar cover, “Dark Road” written by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. This debut album from one of Ontario’s best-kept secrets will remain a favourite among blues fans of all ages for many years to come.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Folk Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Mike: I started listening to blues when I was young, it was something I gravitated towards. It was never a popular option, but it just pulled me in, I don’t think I understood why at that age. As I continued to listen to blues and folk, I realized that there was something more to this music that I was unable to access with some others. I believe there is an honesty about about it. It serves as a guide through hardship and it’s a great way to be expressive with any emotion.

Tyler: I discovered blues and folk music as a young teenager. I was drawn to this music because of its rawness, emotion, honesty and story telling qualities.  Finding this music pushed me to learn to play harmonica which changed my life and view of the world for the better. Listening to and playing blues/folk music makes me happy and is a very therapeutic experience. I have traveled to many places and met countless amounts of great people through music. This is a journey I will continue to be on for the rest of my days and for that reason I’m forever grateful for discovering this music.

How do you describe duo's sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

Mike: The duo’s sound, might be considered raw, maybe lively, with a blues and folk influence. The songbook or album that we just recorded is overall a reflection of hardship and moving past it, with some jollies along the way of course.

What touched you from the acoustic sound and resophonic guitar? What do you love most from Muddy Water's song "Can't Be Satisfied"?

Mike: The acoustic has a lot of dynamic to it. I think it’s been often skipped in the blues genre these days. it’s just nice to get back to a concept without distorted guitars all the time, with a folk-blues harmonica, it’s a lot of fun. The resophonic is a sound that I can relate to from the old records…it just has such a character to it. Certainly, a joy to play. Tyler has a lot of respect for Muddy Waters, I’m a big fan myself. We decided to play the tune in the studio for fun, Alec Fraser joined us on the Circus bass. It’s way to tip the hat to the musicians that inspired us.                             (Photo: Shakey Trill)

"I think the blues might be a little misunderstood as many people don’t get beyond the surface of a man crying about being down and out. Lol. While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I hope for more people to see the value in it as I have. It’s the stories, expression and the truth that are on display."

What touched you from the acoustic sound and harmonica? What do you love most from Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee's song "Dark Road"?

Tyler: For me, I love the simplicity of acoustic music. There are no bells and whistles, completely naked and unfiltered. I believe you really get to hear the true artist when someone plays acoustically. The harmonica to me is a such a beautiful instrument, when I play, every breath and note played is filled with emotion and passion. I feel like I can truly express myself and convey the way I’m feeling through harmonica. The sound of a harmonica being played acoustically is one of the most soothing sounds in the world to me. “Dark Road” is a very straight to the point blues tune, my baby left me kind of thing. It is a very well written song and I love how simple but heartfelt the lyrics are.  Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee are idols of mine and they have so many songs to choose from but this one really spoke to me for some reason. I really enjoyed recording this song and having a tune where Mike and I sing together on the album.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Mike: We’ve had some good times playing tunes, many funny ones along the way and hope for more in the future.

Tyler: All my memories have blended together and are all kind of a blur now. The best and most fun times of my life have been through playing music. One memory that stands out was when Mike and I played in the finals at the International Blues Challenge on the Orpheum Theatre Stage in Memphis Tennessee. That experience nearly brought me to tears and I still think about it everyday.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Mike: What I miss the most about blues from the past are all the performers and song writers of that style. Some of these guys like Mississippi John hurt, Blind Blake and Sonny Terry Brownie McGhee. How cool would that have been to have witnessed that music. Thankfully we have the recorded stuff to listen to. Moving forward, I hope to hear the music expand but I think that getting back to the roots is how to do it.

Tyler: I miss the rawness of the old blues recordings. As time has went on I feel like things have become overproduced and in turn may have lost sight of the true meaning of what this style of music should be. Music is always evolving and the best thing for the future of the blues in my opinion is to try and get back to the roots. That being said there are many talented acts and blues musicians out there today, you just have to dig a little deeper to find them. The future looks good.

"The duo’s sound, might be considered raw, maybe lively, with a blues and folk influence. The songbook or album that we just recorded is overall a reflection of hardship and moving past it, with some jollies along the way of course." (Photo: Shakey Trill - Mike MacDonald & Tyler Pantlin)

What is the impact of Blues on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want to affect people?

Mike: I think the blues might be a little misunderstood as many people don’t get beyond the surface of a man crying about being down and out. Lol. While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I hope for more people to see the value in it as I have. It’s the stories, expression and the truth that are on display.

Tyler: The blues means something different to everyone and I believe that everyone experiences it in one way or another throughout life. I think blues music has always been a great way of delivering messages of hardships, truth, happiness, sadness and hope. The impact of the blues changed the world forever in my opinion, it gave a voice to the voiceless. It shed light on the horrible situations people were going through at the time and also brought people together. I can only hope to bring attention to the blues and turn more people onto this great form of music.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Mike: Take me to that Sonny Terry and Brownie BBC concert in 74’, or any Freddie king performance and I’d be set! There’s too many to choose from haha. I’m sure I could sit here all day and revise my response to this question.

Tyler: If I could jump in a time machine I would like to go back to September 1963, not sure of the exact date. I would spend the day at Ter Mar recording studios in Chicago. Just to be a fly on the wall for the recording sessions of Muddy Waters acoustic “folk singer” album. To be able to witness the magic between Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon and Muddy in the studio during those sessions would be a dream.

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(Photo: Shakey Trill)

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