HomeContemporary A Cappella League (CAL) Profile: Countermeasure [Toronto, Canada]

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Hailing from Toronto, Canada, Countermeasure is a 14-member CAL group that puts our ears to the test with their sophisticated harmonies and evolved arrangements.  Their jazz informed harmonies take conventional music outside of the box.  Under the artistic direction of Aaron Jensen, this massive a cappella group has managed to create a brand and focus that has led them to numerous opportunities that many of them never thought was possible.

Thanks to Skype, I was able to sit down with JM Erlendson and talk about Countermeasure, today’s a cappella universe, and what’s next. (We may or may not have steered off topic a few times to nerd-out about The Sing-Off and some of our favorite professional groups out there.)  Countermeasure is quite the diverse collection of singers, as you’d expect from such a large group.  They formed from a pool of Toronto area university graduates that had so much fun in college a cappella that they wanted to keep going.  One member was going for a solo career as a singer/songwriter, but when that became too stressful, she became a steamstress. There’s also a smarty-pants in the group that’s working towards a Ph.D. in Math. Their career paths may have moved away from music, but now those incredible voices now get to shine in Countermeasure.

Being a Canadian group often means getting hardly any exposure to the US. There is hardly any Canadian representation in ICCAs, CASA, and beyond. Canada seems so far away, it’s as if they live in different universe even though they are right next door.  JM spoke about the business side of Countermeasure, and “how can we best do what we want to do”.  They are a for-fun CAL group, but they have been fortunate enough to make enough money to do some pretty cool things, such as buy their own sound equipment and travel to the US. That’s right, 14 wireless microphones, in-ear monitors (IEMs), a board, road cases, and they hired a part time sound engineer to run it all.  The only downside to being Canadian is transporting this awesome gear across the border for shows. Apparently the fee for temporary import of goods comes with a hefty price tag in the neighborhood of $700, and that only grants you 4 trips to the US.

Countermeasure has made good use of those microphones so far. They perform in a variety of places from festivals in Canada and the US , to private corporate gigs, to flashmobs with 100k views on YouTube, and they even list major league baseball and a Porsche dealership on their resume. They are also regulars at a jazz club in Toronto.  Canada’s government provides significant funding to support the arts, which is of course a huge help for festivals, and ultimately for Countermeasure themselves.

Countermeasure did a self-presented CD release show not too long ago.  An album from a 14 member group sounds pretty daunting, but they managed to get it out there!  It took a year and a half to record, and over 800 hours were dedicated to it.  Individually recording that many people takes a long time!

These guys are serious about their music.  Aaron does the majority of the arranging and composing for the group, but there are several composers amongst them.  They even have a couple of songs they can’t do if anyone’s missing- 14 part arrangements!  Their original song, “14 Characters”, is practically their theme song.  It’s a logistical challenge when most of the music you’re performing is at least 10 parts, sometimes with multiple vocal percussion parts.  But that’s what Countermeasure lives for.  They love the complicated, beautiful nature of music.  When they perform “Spanish Joint” live, they utilize three beatboxers- one is a conga, one takes care of snare and kick drum, and one is the auxiliary percussion.  Since one of those three guys is usually singing bass, they have a girl singing with a double octave pedal.

Along with a CD and plenty of live performances, Countermeasure has had the opportunity to shoot a music video as well.  It was filmed in August of 2013, in 2, 14-hour days back to back, with 20 crew members, producers, grips, ADs, and just a ton of people working.  JM recalls it being a fun experience- there is nothing like it.  He talked about it being weird having production managers telling you where to go and when to eat. Being a part of a full production with craft services, lighting all over the place; it’s tough to move around, but everything there is there to support your acting and music. JM’s favorite scene to shoot was Aaron eating breakfast.  Thanks to having a complete shot list, Aaron knew ahead of time to not eat anything before this scene was shot.  Take after take, he would cut an egg in half, eat it, and then proceed to eat the other half.  No cheating and spitting anything out, either.  Did I mention the prep work included cooking roughly 30 eggs?  Aaron wound up eating probably 12-14 eggs by the time they wrapped.  As you can imagine, he was really happy when that was over.  In another scene, Aaron was covered with shaving cream and had his face shaved by JM off camera.  Even with no blade, Aaron’s skin was getting scratched and looking more and more red each take, poor guy.  Stories from set are great, aren’t they?  Behind the scenes footage may be released some day.  A lot of fun things happened on that set.

Countermeasure refers to themselves as a “counter family”.  In a recent membership survey, one of the questions was, “How many other friends do you have?”  In the drop down choices for answers, the only option was “0”.  They also have an extended family including a performance coach (a former member of the Nylons!), managers, agents, and advisors.  They are all there to push Countermeasure to the max.  They also have a new creative consultant that helped with their custom uniforms.  All of the guys have tailored suits with color accents in the form of a tie, bowtie, or pocket square, and the ladies all have coordinated cyan skirts.  JM exclaimed, “I have no idea what I’m doing,” and is appreciative of the professional help in that department.  There are definitely perks to being part of the counter family.  Last year, members got free vocal lessons.  All they had to do was bring in the receipt, and it was covered by Countermeasure. They would even cover other performance related lessons, like dance classes.

So what’s next for Countermeasure?  This year, they are planning a summer northeast tour with VoCALnation right smack in the middle of it.  They hope to improve on the tour of 2012 which took place right after the big storm.  A distinct recollection of hurricane winds, no power, no AC, and a very hot hotel room with the doors blown off still play back in their memory like it was yesterday.  This year will be different!  It will at least make a big difference having their own sound- they can just set up and go.  The best part?  Countermeasure is looking to coordinate with a group or two in each city!  The plan so far is to start in Toronto with a couple of groups, and work their way to places like Boston, New York City, Rochester, Philadelphia, D.C., and use the ticket sales to help cover everyone’s expenses. If you’re in a local group, or know of one, they would love to hear from you! The plans are already starting to form, and it’s going to be a really great tour.

This artistic group of people is always striving for something you didn’t expect. They enjoy the challenge, material that’s interesting, intricate, maybe playing in weird harmonic spaces, and just crazy-cool chords that aren’t necessarily what the original had.  It’s another spin on a cappella- not just replicating songs, but taking what the artist did and evolve it using voices.

Every CAL group is different.  JM summed it up, “Do what you need.  Do things to meet your ambition.”  Countermeasure can’t be full time professional with 14 members (We don’t know how Straight No Chaser does it!), but Countermeasure is out there to be the best singers they can be.

“There is no requirement for this musical art form. Do what you know well and people will enjoy it with you.”

web: http://www.countermeasuremusic.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CountermeasureAcappella
Twitter: https://twitter.com/DefyGenre
YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/CountermeasureMusic
Instagram: http://instagram.com/CountermeasureMusic

About the writer:
Kristine Slipson is a graduate of the University of California, Davis and spent her years there as a soprano in The Lounge Lizards. After moving back to her hometown in Orange County, she continued to seek out a cappella. She joined the LA based CAL group Voxel Rox, but later moved on to start her own group and hone her directing and vocal percussion skills. Scenic Root is now one year old! Kristine continues to be active in the a cappella community by attending numerous live shows and festivals.