Border Patrol masterfully builds a lasting sonic bridge between Detroit and Windsor.
As musical architects, the American-Canadian “folk-everything” duo of Dave Toennies (guitar, vocals) and Cody Howard (banjo, vocals) creates a timeless infrastructure supported by candid lyrics, robust string instrumentation and impassioned vocals on The Worst Excuses.
Released last week, Border Patrol’s second, soul-stirring album spans eight raw tracks layered with shared stories of self-doubt and second guesses wrapped in daily struggles and victories of incremental growth, minor adjustments and hopeful moments. Each Worst Excuses track poignantly and irreverently addresses a spectrum of inner hurdles and identifies novel ways to overcome them.
“It started from my personal experience, and that’s the only way that I’ve managed to make real progress growing in recent years. I’m easily overwhelmed sometimes at the prospect of self-improvement and all the things that have to come with it,” said Toennies, who lives in Hamtramck.
“Because I tend to get real busy and involved in things and overwhelm myself, I try to focus on just the one little thing in front of me that I have to do, get that one done and then move on to the next. Once I started trying to scale that up and applying it to a much more broad growth thing, it’s been the only thing that’s really worked for me.”
Uncovering ‘The Worst Excuses’
With Toennies and Howard at the storytelling helm, Border Patrol invites listeners into a raw, recognizable head trip that crosses international waters and lands directly in the midst of relatable chaos. Their internal journey begins with “A Little Bit Better (Still Bad)” as a tight-knit fusion of folky acoustic guitar, banjo and drums quickly launches into an ongoing tale of feeling stuck personally and professionally.
Despite the track’s initial, dark mood, Toennies eloquently finds a small silver lining, “But there was nothing that could hurt me in that moment/And there was nothing for me in the life I knew/In that moment something unexpected happened/Out of nothing, something grew.” Occasionally, an optimistic, hopeful thought briefly wins over an anxious, weary mind on the toughest of days.
“I hope it’s a positive thing, and there are just a lot of running jokes that we perpetuate, too. It can be sort of depressing music, but I think that it’s depressing in the way that it’s trying to be frank and talk about things that we have a hard time talking about sometimes,” Toennies said.
“We’ve always tried to take these serious topics, and rather than having it sound super serious, maybe make it a little fun, bouncy and upbeat. I hope that it’s relatable and positive in spite of all the things that are wrong.”
While some Worst Excuses tracks depict individual struggles, the poignant “Michigan’s Hand” highlights the Great Lakes state’s collective societal, economic and political challenges. Intense, echoing piano, pounding drums, rhythmic bass and hypnotic banjo sonically chronicle the industrial rise, fall and return of Michigan.
With Colin Meloy-esque vocals, Toennies eloquently sings, “It gets under your skin like a broken splinter/It’s the chill in your bone come the depth of winter/It’s hard livin’ you hardly can stand/Such is the nature of Michigan’s hand.” Originally from southern Illinois, Toennies wanted to pay tribute to his adopted home state and its nearly 10 million residents.
“I look at it differently than maybe someone who’s lived their whole life here. I don’t know if that makes me more or less objective, but when I’m trying to talk to my friends or people who have been here a long time, you notice similar trends in the stories they’re telling about their family and having been here for so long,” he said.
“There’s this dread that always seems present anytime people are talking about it, but there’s also this persistence aspect where Michigan more than probably about just anywhere else in the world has every reason to give up, but it never does. These people wake up every day, and they just get the job done in spite of overwhelming odds. I’m always so blown away and fascinated by it, and I wanted to write a song about the place and the people who are around me.”
Border Patrol also revisits inner struggles on “Wasted You,” a vivid three-minute tale of internal and external influences that numb a wounded soul. Toennies and Howard lead an Avett Brothers-inspired melodic fusion of vibrant mandolin, uplifting acoustic guitar, vintage keys, driving bass and steady drums and weave in Decemberist-like lyrics, “I blame it on the chemicals/Surrender to the tentacles/I swear I’ll quit tomorrow but for now there’s time to kill.”
The Worst Excuses moves seamlessly through an evolving character arc as protagonists improve, decline and grow. Each track mimics a similar trajectory fans experience throughout their lives alongside Toennies and Howard. For Toennies, some Worst Excuses tracks hit closer to home than others at different points in time.
“It’s always so hard to choose because I do like all the songs for different reasons, and depending on how I’m feeling that day, one of my favorites from an arrangement standpoint and how the finished product came out is ‘Wasted You’ and also ‘Therapy.’ Honestly, I can look at any of them and be proud of them for different reasons,” he said.
Building Border Patrol’s Musical Infrastructure
Border Patrol laid the folk-rock groundwork for The Worst Excuses, a follow-up to 2016’s Toxic Thought Machine, with an assortment of talented collaborators, including Nick Angelini (keys), Adam Thomson (drums), Larry Thompson (bass) and Willa Rae Adamo (vocals).
Larry Thompson also doubled as the album’s producer and oversaw recording sessions in Windsor and Tecumseh, Ontario. Along with Toennies and Howard, he expanded the band’s initial songwriting and recording approach beyond an acoustic guitar.
“This was one like, ‘Well, let’s write with a full band in mind, and let’s write with other parts.’ Once Larry came in and heard the songs, he was able to finesse it in a way that we didn’t have anyone to finesse it before,” Toennies said. “It was great to have somebody with a very good musical ear who was able to intuitively know what we were trying to do and help us to actually make it happen.”
These days, Toennies and Howard function as Border Patrol’s core members and partner with a rotating collective of Detroit and Windsor musicians. Since forming in late 2014, the duo have met most of their collaborators (and each other) at local open mic nights hosted by Ghost Light, New Dodge Lounge and other Hamtramck, Detroit and Windsor venues. They also learned how to navigate the challenging waters of performing and touring in each other’s home country.
“Cody used to host this open mic downtown, and it happened to be one of the first times I had come to Windsor. He would come visit me when I was living in downtown Detroit right next to the bus station, so he’d take the tunnel bus over and just cross the street.” Toennies said. “We kept playing together, and we got mistaken for a band once while playing a little two-piece set, and someone booked us, so we figured we had to actually become a band.”
Before becoming a band, Toennies discovered a passion for music while listening to Say Anything, Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance, Brand New and other emo pop-punk greats. He also learned piano and trumpet as a kid, but later swapped it for guitar at age 14 and discovered a newfound love of folk rock by The Avett Brothers and The Decemberists.
After high school, he moved to Detroit, attended Lawrence Technological University and aspired to work in the auto industry. He continued pursuing music on the side and frequented open mic nights on evenings and weekends to meet like-minded collaborators. Toennies’ open mic night stints eventually led to hosting his own open mic night every Tuesday at Ghost Light.
“It’s really a songwriter-oriented one. Every single week, I try to model it off the things that I learned from going to Audra Kubat’s open mic. It’s a listening room environment, the stage is nice, the sound is good, and everybody goes there to try out new songs and get feedback. It’s a solid list of really talented local people,” he said.
With traditional live music events currently on hold due to the COVID-19 crisis, Toennies and Howard have postponed their Hamtramck and Windsor release shows for The Worst Excuses. American-Canadian border crossing closures and Michigan shelter-in-place orders also temporarily prevent the duo from collaborating in person.
“I think I’m gonna have a big chunk of time open up in my schedule, and I’m planning to hunker down in the apartment and get some stuff done,” Toennies said. “If this is how it’s gonna be, then you might as well find a way to make the most of it.”