The Firm Handshake
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The Firm Handshake

Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Band Blues Funk


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"Mukwah Jamboree"

This is the third year that the Jamboree will grace the shores of the Red Deer River. Sources say that last year was a blast, but that this year will be the best. - Beatroute Magazine June 2008

"Sharp Dressed Band Greets you with a Smile and a Firm Handshake"

While many people consider the blues to be a dying art form these days, there are encouraging indications that a revival may be just around the corner. The raw emotion and superior musicianship the genre demands of its practitioners is drawing an increasing number of up-and-comers — musicians who were previously earmarked for rock ’n’ roll are being seduced by the blues. This is certainly the case for Steve Rozitis, the lead singer and guitarist behind Calgary blues-funk outfit The Firm Handshake. Formed in 2003, the five-piece has undergone several significant lineup changes, with Rozitis and longtime friend and bassist John Groenen remaining constant cornerstones throughout. Determined to make his living through music one way or another, Rozitis runs the self-explanatory Steve’s Guitar Repair, and by fortuitous geographic coincidence his place of business just happened to be located across the street from a blues joint.

“I was working across from The Red Onion and I saw a sign out front that said ‘Blues Jam,’” recalls Rozitis. “Basically, you’d show up with your guitar, and the host Johnny V would throw you up onstage with a drummer and a bassist. They’d call the keys and the switches in like 30 seconds, and you were off. I was elated when I managed to muscle through five songs. Then Johnny V came up to me and said, ‘I give guitar lessons, you know.’

“I was totally deflated but, unlike a lot of the young guys who went through there, I didn’t get scared off by him,” he continues. “I never got those guitar lessons, but I sure took advantage of having a Juno-winning guitarist around to learn from.”

Humbled by the best and armed with an uncanny sense of timing, Rozitis and his band are now poised to release their debut EP, recorded with the help of students at the local Beach Studios. Rozitis is quick to attribute the self-made band’s surprising success to taking a strictly “Communist” approach when it comes to finances.

“Nobody in this band gets paid,” he says. “Except Jae, our [interim] drummer, who is both amazing and ageless. Everything else we earn performing together is put into a communal band account which we then use to buy things like dry walling supplies to build our own jam space and studio, and to purchase new recording gear. We recently invested in matching blue two-button suits — they’ve already paid for themselves by getting us new gigs, including an upcoming wedding.”

While the communal approach may not be the most profitable one, the band is more than satisfied. According to Rozitis, money’s not really the point, anyway.

“We’ve worked very hard to embody everything the name The Firm Handshake implies; tight, reliable and built on friendship. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve already made it as a band.” - FFwd weekly

"The Firm Handshake"

The Firm Handshake
long-running locals continue honing their craft
By Sebastian Buzzalino

The Firm Handshake do not really believe in the traditional band formula. That is, instead of getting some like-minded guys together, jamming in a recording space for a couple of weeks, recording an album, and then touring to support it, they decided to skip right to the last step. And, according to them, that makes all of the difference.

“We’ve never had a press package, a website, or an album, and we’ve still managed to play an insane amount of shows. If you count everything, me and Steve [Rozitis, guitarist] have been on stage together over three hundred times,” says vocalist John Groenen proudly.

Perhaps unlike other bands their age, instead of staying on the tried and tested club circuit in Calgary, playing the regular gamut of venues, The Firm Handshake will basically play anything they are offered. It does not matter if it is a Stampede breakfast at 7:30 am, a show in B.C. to the entirely wrong crowd, or an improvisational jam with Juno award winning guitarists, The Firm Handshakes will be there.

“It forces us to be versatile,” explains Rozitis.

Being together for five years, yet holding back the temptation to release an album as soon as possible, has given the band a lot of time to learn their instruments and feel comfortable within their parts, says Groenen. Thus, all songs that are indeed included in their forthcoming EP have stood the test of time and have been played live for countless shows, in front of countless people. According to Groenen, this helps them maintain a certain level of professionalism, both on the record and on stage.

“Playing these songs to a live audience gauges their reaction. You get a feel for the song,” explains Rozitis.

One of the hardest things for any live band, then, is being able to play with the same spontaneity and freedom of live shows in the recording studio. It becomes a procession of endless sessions well into the night, poring over the different parts, trying to figure out what exactly gives a recording a raw, live sound to it. The Firm Handshake, to do their part, decided to record live off the floor.

“Basically, we’re all in different rooms and can’t see each other,” explains Groenen. “It’s just simultaneous live tracks.” And it is exactly here, then, that the band’s vast live experience would make the difference over perhaps a younger band. “Even under intense scrutiny, these tracks hold up,” he continues. “All the parts mesh well and hang together perfectly.”

The studio, however, did offer them some luxuries that were not always available live, such as the use of pedals and effects. But rather than going to an extreme and overusing a certain effect, they just utilized the effects to add “a whole new dimension” to their songs, says Groenen.

With the release of their EP coming soon, it would be easy for the band to get comfortable and support the record. Instead, because they will be announcing their sophomore EP at their debut EP’s release party, The Firm Handshake have already set their sights on the live stage again, where they can continue to hone their craft.

Who: The Firm Handshake
Where: The Palomino
When: August 29th - Long running locals continue honing their craft


The Firm Handshake EP, 2008



The Firm Handshake are an anomaly, they stick out – though not like the customary sore thumb, with all of its negative connotative baggage. They are more like the emergence of opposable thumbs onto the clawing paws of ancestral primates - they are mutants; they represent an evolutionary step forward. Yet in something of a paradoxical turn, their novelty is inexorably rooted in the past: what makes them seem fresh is their knowledge of traditions, a hard-earned knowledge garnered over the course of their 200-plus live performances and via their immersion, nay, apprenticeship in Calgary's communal-cum-competitive blues scene. During this time, the Handshake has become fluent in the idioms of the blues, rock and funk, and have gained the confidence to experiment with any other genre. Fortunately, the band has been able to subsume all of the styles and forms that they've encountered during the course of their five years together into an original sound. They are bricoleurs, recombining existing elements in creative ways to produce something new and exciting. This approach imbues their original songs with an uncanny familiarity even upon first listen, an effect that is redoubled in concert by the visual of such young men playing such storied music.
Having already established themselves as a superior live act, The Firm Handshake have just unleashed their first studio offering, an independently released six-song self-titled EP. The band, however, is not just sitting back and watching the accolades pile-up, they are already busy at work writing new songs for forthcoming albums. The band's original material highlights another way in which they stand out: their dual commitment to both musical ability and song-crafting. More and more, it seems as though their contemporaries are electing to focus on one of these elements while sacrificing the other, leading to a scene where skills and songs stand in diametric opposition. The Handshake thus represent the Hegelian synthesis of a rock and roll dialectic, proving that there is no either/or dynamic forcing anyone to pick sides between prog-metal wanks and faux-introspective poet charlatans. So, while singer John Groenen is blessed with the kind of voice that could evocatively sing the table of contents from an algebra text book, he nevertheless chooses to meticulously pore over his lyrics, making sure that they are a prosodic pleasure while remaining semantically stimulating; while twin lead-guitarists Stephen Rozitis and Kurtis Downs share a mental library containing enough licks to get to the centre of a whole truckload of tootsie-pops, they opt instead to play tastefully - sometimes economically, other times remorselessly, but always complementarily; while drummer Jon Kutney has the ability to dissect time more minutely than the proverbial million-dollar watch, he elects instead to let his thunderous backbeat drive the songs, accenting them with smart and tight fills only when his ear tells him that it is appropriate embellishment; while bassist Jae Cho (a seasoned pro whose recent addition to the Handshake line-up is the equivalent of revealing the ringer in your bullpen when your team already has a five-run lead) is capable of slapping his instrument (and the audience along with it) into submission, he does so only when it is befitting, proving himself equally comfortable riding chunky grooves or weaving lines smoother than those that flow from the mouths of silkworms.
Each individual's contribution coalesces into the band's overall sound characterized by a broad appeal that inevitably causes spontaneous rump-shaking for some, and cerebral poetic and chordal analyses for others. Live or on record, this music represents the thinking-man's groove; a real anomaly.
-Craig Stensrud