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If you were to picture an officially sanctioned band with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), you wouldn’t be faulted for imagining a classical ensemble, with wind and string sections, all led by a conductor. Or perhaps you imagine a marching band with a thumping drum line and fancy outfits; again, that would be perfectly understandable. In fact, you couldn’t be faulted for picturing any sort of ensemble besides a rock band.
But that is exactly who the Spitfire Kings are, a six piece rock ensemble who draw inspiration from “a huge repertoire of classic rock, blues and R&B.” Based out of 17 Wing Winnipeg, they’re an official RCAF rock band who just released their debut album, Dead Reckoning, and have rocked out in significant venues and events across Canada.
The band was formed in 2014 “for the sole purpose of entertaining Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) troops with scintillating classic rock” according to the album’s liner notes. It was devised by Sgt Mike Hall, a seasoned musician who knows his way around a guitar, after the RCAF decided they needed a more contemporary act to accompany the far more traditional brass and wind ensembles.
“I got a call in 2011 from my friend in the Carpet Frogs, they’re a local band from Toronto and they’re also Burton Cummings band, they were going over to Afghanistan to play for the troops and they asked me to join them,” said Hall, who played guitar for the Killer Dwarfs in the eighties. “We went over to Afghanistan to play for the troops and while I was there I thought, ‘jeez I could probably make my own military band and do these sorts of gigs’, so that became a goal at that point.
“Overall the RCAF has been supportive of our musical endeavours. It in no way diminishes the traditional things that a military musician does, we still parade and play dinners and gala events and all that stuff, it’s just something extra, something I’ve had a lot of experience doing in my civilian life, and I thought wouldn’t it be great if we could bring that element into the RCAF as well. So far it has worked out pretty cool.”
Hall originally joined the military in 2009, when the CAF Music Branch put out a call for musicians to add a contemporary element to their traditional ensembles.
“I heard about it and I was looking for a new adventure. I was, I think, 47 when I joined,” he explained to Skies in an interview. “So I went off to basic training… next think you know I’m crawling through the woods in Quebec with a machine gun, which is pretty cool.”
From there he spent the next few years performing with Jetstream, the RCAF’s contemporary showband, playing dance music for galas and other classy affairs, before taking his trip with the Carpet Frogs and pitching the idea of an all-out rock band to his superiors. The idea was well taken to and Spitfire Kings was created from members of the RCAF band. WO David Grenon, the Spitfire Kings lead vocalist, had his interest piqued by the proposal.
“I joined the band 10 years ago, I was already in the reserves for 10 years before that, working with the Cadet program as a CIC officer, but not as a singer,” said Grenon. “In 2008 the supervisor of music opened a position for vocalist full time in the Canadian Armed Forces, so I jumped at the occasion and I prepared a tape that I sent to Ottawa and then got called for a live interview and audition and got the job.
“We [have] many different ensembles here with this band but Spitfire Kings is definitely the one that is the most unique of the CAF bands. We have six full time regular Force bands within the CAF, so they all have the capabilities of marching, playing concerts, playing parades and to play contemporary music to a certain extent, but it’s only in this band where we put that much emphasis into the contemporary aspect. So whenever we go out and perform with Spitfire Kings its always turning people’s heads and thinking, ‘holy we had no idea that the CAF had this type of ensemble and played that type of music.'”
Hall and Grenon were joined by WO Larry Bjornson — Spitfire Kings’ bass player, Sgt Cindy Scott – vocalist, Sgt Richard Monzon – saxophonist and vocalist, and Sgt Jim Johnston on drums to form the six-piece band. Since then, the group has played successful shows at the CFL’s Grey Cup, the 2016 NHL Heritage Classic in Winnipeg, various NHL games, The Canada Games and Canada Day festivals.
But none of these venues have made an impact on the band like the ones in which they play exclusively for the troops.
“To go over there and play with our troops, that was a very unique experience… any little taste of home is a good taste if you get deployed. It’s important work they’re doing over there, all kinds of family people that need to leave everything behind to get over there, and there’s all kinds of famous Canadian musicians and rock stars that go see these guys and help out with that but I just wanted to be a part of that, I thought if Blue Rodeo can go visit them, then why can’t I,” said Hall of playing for the troops in Kuwait and at CFS Alert in Nunavut. “The shows went really well. They’re some of my fondest memories of the whole thing, everything about this since I joined was how can I help the Canadian Armed Forces.”
“It’s great to go out there and represent our CAF to the public,” explained Grenon. “Our main purpose is to support CAF operations, so whenever we get to play for our troops I feel like that is when we’re really striving and we’re really doing the work we were built for.”
The warm reception snowballed, from there the RCAF recognized the band’s potential and an album seemed like the logical next step.
“My commanding officer here, Capt Matthew Clark…about a week after he was here in 2016, he saw us rock a crowd of 30,000 people [at the Heritage Classic] and he went ‘oh I get it now,'” recalled Hall.
While the feedback has been nothing but positive for the Spitfire Kings, they’re sure to stay on top of all other duties and responsibilities that comes with being in the military, like travelling and performing with the other different ensembles. It’s these sort of things that prolonged Dead Reckoning’s recording process for over a year.
“It’s not like the old days where we just locked up two months and go make a record,” Hall told Skies. “You can’t really do that in the military, you have so many other responsibilities and tasks that you have to do.
“We went into the studio for ten days in April …and then the band had to deploy to the U.K. for public duties, where they did the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace for most of the summer, which was more of a traditional, ceremonial gig. Everybody came back and we finished up some vocals and some overdubs in the fall, and then of course by then, Remembrance Day ceremonies were upon us and Christmas time so we had lots of other responsibilities. So I got back at it for the mixes in February, took one day per song to mix, so it took a full year.”
The time it took was worth it. The final product is a roaring album that combines a mix of original tracks and hard-hitting covers. Hall wrote four of the nine songs appearing on the record, while the covers include Run to the Hills by Iron Maiden, The Ocean by Led Zeppelin, Crazy Train by Ozzy Osbourne and No Time by Winnipeg natives Bachman-Cummings.
Although the album is a promotional item, available for free upon request from the RCAF, the polished and professional outcome gives it a grander feeling. The original artwork, along with the pristine packaging, makes it clear this was a true passion project for those involved, one that members of the band believe has paid off in spades.
“It was a very positive experience and it’s always a professional development for us as musicians to be extremely critiqued. You are your own worse critic and when it comes to a recording project like this it’s sometimes hard to deal with your own emotions, to deal with your own expectations…because you have limitations but this is still a professional album so you want to give the best that you can give, right?” said Grenon.
The band celebrated the release with a show at the Pyramid Cabaret in Winnipeg, where the reception was once again undeniably positive.
“It just shocks people when they see military musicians playing rock…we just did our record release party last Tuesday, and I could see in the faces of the people that they enjoyed it…like ‘wow I can’t believe you guys can do this, we didn’t know,'” recalled Hall. “We all grew up on rock and roll and even though most of my band mates have at least a degree in music, if not a masters in music…they didn’t grow up under a rock.”
The band, and the album itself, is a step forward for the RCAF, a break from the traditional to explore the contemporary. Whatever’s in store for the Spitfire Kings moving forward, it’s safe to say they will be further touring uncharted waters.