Published Jun 01, 2000What was the zeitgeist like when you started playing in 1985?
There were a lot of bands who had been playing around a lot, either under the same name or as different combinations, and at that point in mid- to late '80s there was a lot of interesting music coming out of Canada, and there was no real industry here; it was very hard to make a living playing music. People did it because they had to do it; it was a real labour of love. To think that anyone was going to be signed to a major label was just insane back then; it just didn't happen, outside of Loverboy world. There was a lot of real interesting music going on, because people are playing it because they want to. And it had been five, six, seven, eight years since the punk explosion, which brought a lot of people in the music scene at a very young age. A lot of those people had matured, gained more musicianship and absorbed a lot more influences. A lot of that music from those players were beginning to blossom. Most of the people that we know, that's when they started in the late '70s, and it wasn't until the late '80s that they started to get noticed.
People from that environment weren't intimidated to put out records themselves or be daunted by musicianship.
Totally. They'd been doing it by themselves for years, and they didn't need a major label or anyone else. They knew how to run a studio, how to tour and how to promote their own records. There were enough independent distributors around, enough independent record stores, that you could make your way across Canada by contacting enough of those people. Even campus radio at that point, although it wasn't very powerful, it was more cohesive than it is now. There was a weird patchwork of independent scenes going on across the country. It was kind of fun. The attitude was "Let's go do it," there was never even a thought of trying to find someone else to help you beyond those in the community.
When you put out Whites Off Earth Now, did you consider sending it to a major label?
Oh no, not even with The Trinity Session. Trinity was our follow-up to Whites, and we were going to release it with a goal of selling 5,000 albums, which would mean we'd have enough money to do the next one. The only reason it got sent to a major label was because we hooked up with Graham Henderson, who was starting out as an entertainment lawyer, and he used to come see us at Toronto's Rivoli club a lot and liked us, although he never introduced himself, and he thought the record should be sent around. We met with him, and he said, "Give me 20 tapes and we'll see what happens." We thought, "Sure buddy, whatever. Here's 20 tapes, good luck!" It was his initiative that did that, and then we started getting calls back. But there was never any intention of contacting a major label. You didn't even dream about it; you were in a whole other world.
You were all working at that time.
Definitely. Everybody had jobs that they could either leave for months at a time or quit them easily. I was a courier, Margo was a secretary, Al and Pete were waiters. I don't even remember what our objective was other than to make music and put out records. There were no long term goals. For myself and Alan, we thought it was something we'd always be doing, and it was a dream to be able to make a living off it one day. But how that was going to happen was beyond us. We had no idea, we just continued to do it because we enjoyed it.
Where did you meet bassist Alan Anton?
We grew up together in Montreal. He's been a friend of mine since I was five years old. I tell people that I've known Alan longer than I've known my brother Pete, before he was born. We became music fans together, sharing a record collection. We were the two music heads in the school, who bought every new obscure record that came out, and went to all the concerts down at the Forum together. That was in the heyday of CHOM-FM radio in Montreal in the '70s, just a fantastic radio station that exposed a lot of interesting music. A lot of good bands would come through, because they would have followings in Montreal but nowhere else. It was a real good music town at that time, so we took advantage of it. Our tastes in music were the same. Our first band was called Hunger Project, which was in Toronto in 1979.
Your whole family moved to Toronto, didn't they?
Yes, in 1977. I went to Western University for three years, and I didn't see him much then, and then I moved to Toronto, where he had moved also. We hooked up again. About a year before, he'd start coming down to London and go to the Cido Lounge, which was the big punk bar at the time. I'd go down to Toronto to The Edge; that's when a lot of bands were exploding, a lot of bands coming over from England; it was a good time for new music. Our musical tastes reconnected, and we began to dream about forming a band. We moved in together when I got back to Toronto, and started to jam around and formed this band Hunger Project with me and Alan and a singer, Lisa Wisker and a drummer, Jeffrey Elton on drums. He was the lead singer and bassist of a band called Popular Spies, which was a fairly big underground band in Toronto at the time, and he quit that band to become our drummer! We had a rotating chair on drums, we couldn't keep a drummer. We'd do our shows where 20 people would show up, and it was pretty weird music. He used to come all the time. He was in a very power-pop band, the lead singer, and a bit of a heartthrob. He came to our loft one day and said, "Listen, I know you're looking for a drummer, and I've never played drums, but if you give me a month I'll rent a kit and come back." So he did that and got the job! That was the band for a while. We went to New York for a year, in 1979.
Why did you move?
The scene here had kind of dried up for a bit. The Edge closed down, the Horseshoe reverted back to a country bar, and things weren't as active. Plus the lure of getting out of the city. We'd always take road trips down to New York to see a band or something, and it was just the place, like the Demics song. We were 19, and thought, "Let's just go." We rented a place in the East Village on Avenue B, and all four of us lived there. We had a street-level apartment, and we cut through the floor and had a rehearsal space in the basement. As you can only do in New York. We hung out, got illegal immigrant jobs to support ourselves. It was fun, an exciting time being in New York and playing in a band. We'd do a monthly gig at CBGB's on a Wednesday night.
Was there any following at all?
No, not at all. It was wood-shedding. Every day we'd be in our space playing as a band and learning how to play our instruments. It was sort of Joy Division-ish, Siouxie and the Banshees, basically rhythm and noise. Our singer had an antagonistic stage presence; it was an interesting band. There was no bass, just two guitars, drum and vocal. It was very mid-range and aggressive. When I listen to some of it now, there's definitely some atmospherics that is the Joy Division part of it.
How long were you there?
For a year, and then we decided to go to London because the New York scene got really bad as well. And our influences all came from London, like Joy Division, the Banshees, early Cure stuff. And Lisa, our singer, was English, and her mother had a place in Notting Hill that she rented out. It was cheap rent and a place to go to, so we just went. Plus, being Canadian, my grandmother was born in England, so the minute I landed there I was able to sign onto the dole! I was like, "You gotta be kidding!" But we very quickly broke up as soon as we got there. It was a bit of an illusion; we thought we were coming to Mecca, and it was just like any other city where you had to know who to talk to and what clubs to get into. We weren't really part of the scene, and we got fed up with the pop scene. Especially in London, it's very elitist: you have to know the right people and wear the right clothes, especially at that time, like 1980 or 1981. So the structure of that band broke up, and Alan and I and Jeff decided to get into very, very weird music which became Germinal. We stopped looking at pop music altogether. I got a job at a record store, which had these amazing people who worked there with tons of different tastes. I was turned on to some very weird music, improvisational jazz like Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. I brought these records home, Alan and Jeff would listen to them, and we started playing very abstract stuff. Not that we had the chops to pull it off, but it was very excessive form of punk music: make whatever noise you want and just play. We'd get together twice a week and play for two hours, and it was weird, very weird stuff. We did that for three years.
Were there any gigs?
No, we never even played live! We had people come in and play with us, like a couple of sax players or another guitar player. It was a weird little scene we created on our own. There was a scene there headed by Evan Parker, a sax player, and Derek Bailey the guitarist, and we'd go see them in places like a basement of a church with ten other people there watching. We'd go to these gigs all the time, but never got the guts to force our way into their scene; it was pretty established, and they were all amazing players. We'd see them, and then go back to our space and just, uh, pretend I guess. But it was very cathartic, and gave us an appreciation for the lack of limits that music has. Eventually we got tired of it. We split up for six months. Jeff decided to stay in London, I moved back to New York for a bit, and Alan didn't know what he was going to do so he drifted around for a bit. I ended up back in Toronto, and Alan walked in one day and said, "Hey, let's start another band!" That became the Cowboy Junkies.
That was '85. Was Pete on drums right away?
Alan and I had rented a house in downtown Toronto, and Pete was living with us. We'd converted the garage in the back into a rehearsal space, and Pete walked in one day almost the same way Jeff did, with a drum kit, and said, "I'll learn!" We thought, well, it worked out last time! He sat in, and he would try to play along. He took lessons, and practised a lot. He was improving, and then he stopped and there was a weird sense that he had gone as far as he was going to go. Our thing with him was, "You can play with us as long as you want, but you have to dedicate yourself to it, otherwise we're not interested." And he lacked dedication, so we fired him! (laughs)
How was that?
Very heavy, very intense. That's when we were doing a lot of gigs with Change of Heart, and we knew Ian Blurton was a wannabe drummer. He was pretty good, actually, so we asked him if he wanted to play with us. He played with us for a while, several months, we did quite a few gigs with him. It was a different thing, because Ian's a real whacker, whereas Pete is a very soft drummer, so it certainly changed our sound for a bit. At that same time, Pete decided to pick up the drums again, he hired someone to teach him, and after five or six months, Ian had tendonitis in his wrists and wasn't sure if he could keep it up or not. Meanwhile, Pete was working away, so we invited him back in the band.
That was probably a considerably more pleasant conversation.
Definitely. To Pete's credit, he took it and decided he'd show us.
So that was Cowboy Junkies then, Margo was already there...
Yes, and my brother John too. It started with me and Alan, then Pete showed up one day, and John showed up one day... he had played guitar for a long time, and he'd sit in on our practices, developing sounds and feeling each other out. Then we decided we needed a voice, we need a vocal in here to see how it works. Again, Margo was around. We knew she could sing because she'd done school plays and stuff, but she'd never pursued it. But we all remembered back when she was six that she had one of those voices that when she walked on in the Oliver play she'd blow the theatre away. So we invited her in, and she came. Then Ian came in, Pete came back, and my brother John left six or seven months into it. He had a kid, and decided to move to Montreal. That left the four of us. We hadn't made a decision whether to get another guitar player or not, and we played a few gigs as a four-piece and really liked the sound.
This was the traditional material you were playing.
Yes, the WOEN stuff. It opened everything up, and we liked the space being created by not having the extra musician there. We began to hone it a bit and realised it was the sound we were looking for. At that time Margo was finding her voice, singing a bit quieter, and the whole hushed aspect of the band began to develop at that point.
What was the jump from the free jazz/noise of Germinal to the new sound?
It was blues music. While in London, we were listening to this free jazz stuff, and near the end of our stay in London another record store friend introduced me to the blues. I'd heard it before, but I'd never been introduced to it by a real enthusiast, which he was. I became friends with this guy and began listening to his records a lot, and began to appreciate a structured song. During all these years I didn't listen to rock or pop music at all. This was the way back into it: there was structure but still a lot of improvisation. Most of the expression, the studio, the instrumentation, through the musicianship and style of singing rather than the lyric. It helped me understand how you can structure things a bit more while still having that expression. It was the culmination of those two elements. If you listen to Whites, there's a bit of it there in the blues interpretations, there's my freestyle guitar with me just wanking away. And even the melodies are basically improvised at the time we were doing them. Pete laid down a pretty steady rhythm and groove, but the two of us slid above that.
Who were you covering at that time that didn't make the Whites album?
A lot of real traditional stuff, stuff we'd find on old records and compilations. We had a couple of Jimmy Reed songs that we totally changed around, a lot more Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker...
Was Springsteen the only current artist?
Even back then we were doing "Sweet Jane." We actually recorded a version of "Sweet Jane" for Whites, but we didn't like how it turned out and didn't put it on there. At one point we tried to cover a Birthday Party song that we couldn't really capture. We used to do "Bad Boy," that's on the live record, a few other classic songs that we tried to screw around with. A lot of Robert Johnson, which is on the record, but we did even more of him because his lyrics were so cool. Every one was interchangeable, basically, because we weren't really covering the song, we were just taking the lyrics and creating our own music and then putting the two together. The shows were very loose. We'd do these bar shows where we had to do three sets, and we'd only have enough material for one and a half, so the second set would be 40 minutes of one song.
Where were those?
We toured a lot down in the States, did a lot of low-rent club gigs. All around Southern Ontario. Whatever we could get, we would do. We crossed Canada a couple of times, too.
Even before Whites came out?
Yeah, before Whites came out. And when it did come out, we did a ton of touring. Between Whites and Trinity we toured non-stop. Alan and I realised from our Hunger Project days, which did a lot of touring as well, that that's the way to really form a band and get your sound together.
Were audiences in tune with what you were doing?
Not really. At this level there were hardly any people there. There were always two or three people who were really into it, who really freaked out and kept us going.
'85 was before roots music re-entered the scene.
Definitely. I don't even know if we recognised it as roots music at the time. I don't know what we thought it was. It was kind of weird. By the time we brought the more traditional roots sound into it, it was before a lot of other people did, before it was a scene.
You'd be on bills with seemingly incongruous acts.
In Canada, we'd do a lot of gigs with Deja Voodoo from Montreal, and that was a decent bill, because they'd bring a lot of people. And a band from London called Sheep Look Up, we did a lot of shows with them. Bands who had a weird mixture of sounds. People were there for something different anyway. Go Four 3 out of Vancouver, who was more of a pop band. There was definitely a scene across Canada, and in the States as well, of people looking for something different.
Touring the States was important for you from the beginning.
From the very, very beginning, especially after the record came out, we realised the States was the place to go. We'd crossed Canada a few times, and your first gig in Sudbury and the next one is in Thunder Bay, so you'd better leave now! Every gig would take you 12 hours to get there! We thought, well, we can do this a few times a year, but then what do we do? When right across the border, there were millions and millions of people just down the seaboard. And it was exciting because all the music we were listening to and taking from was from down there, if not all of it, and there's a romance to going down there. From a purely business point of view, we had that mindset that it's the easiest thing to do. Just go South, if you can get across the border. The Hunger Project, when we moved to New York, aside from our one gig monthly in New York, we'd try to get out as much as much as we could. Just before we left for London, we did a pretty big tour through the States, all down South and as far as Texas. As we'd go along we'd call ahead and get contacts in different communities. We'd get contacts in local scenes however you do that, by getting numbers from musicians you run across or meet on bills. I don't know if it's like that now, but it was very helpful back then on that level. And your contacts would grow, you'd continue to make them the more you went there.
Did you travel much outside the punk or alternative scene?
No, it was all what was called the hardcore scene then. We weren't hardcore, but they didn't really care, it was just a term. Every town had one. You know what we used to do? If we didn't have a contact for a specific town or didn't know the club there and we knew it was a good music city, we'd call information and ask for the number for The Horseshoe. Every town had a Horseshoe, whether it was a club or just a bar or whatever. So we'd call up and say, "Hi, we were told that you guys book live music there." "Oh no, we don't have music." "Oh, well can you tell me who does?" And they'd give us a list of clubs, and we'd keep phoning places until we got a gig. It worked all the time! But of course a lot of gigs would fall through: you'd get there and the club had closed the night before, or they'd forgotten you're coming, or whatever. But we didn't really care that much.
How did you hook up with Peter Moore to make the first recording?
We saw him in Toronto a lot. We still had a lot of contacts from the Hunger Project days. Even Ian * he had seen Hunger Project and liked that band. He helped us out a lot, because Change of Heart was doing pretty well at that point. Peter was doing a lot of live recording, and we had talked to him briefly at a show. Then Greg Keelor had a dinner party and invited me and Alan and a few of his other friends, and Peter Moore was there and we got to talking pretty in-depth that night. He was talking about the kind of recordings he wanted to do, his philosophy of recording. At that point we were ready to make our first record, and we had been looking at studios and realising that we didn't want to do that; we didn't have enough money to do it right, and if we went into a shitty studio without the right amount of money, we'd just end up with something we didn't like and lose our sound. We'd reached the conclusion that what we liked was what we heard in our rehearsal space; that was what we wanted to capture. We also had enough experience in eight-track studios to know that you don't get that once you use them. Peter knew what we were looking for, so he came over to our space a week later and recorded to see if it would work. And it did; we liked it, so he came back the next week and went from there.
I can imagine a lot of studios then had a certain snobbery about approach.
Oh yeah. And the big ones we couldn't even approach because we didn't have the money. And the little ones were terrible. Even now in Toronto, there's very few medium-priced studios with half-decent equipment. Back then there was none.
Speaking of Blue Rodeo, Jim Cuddy took the pictures on the first record.
That's a whole other story. Those guys, we'd known them forever. Greg [Keelor] had grown up in the same suburb of Montreal that Alan and I did, and was a good friend of my older brother John. He's my brother's age. I knew Greg as a kid; he likes to tell a story about the time I speared him in the stomach with my hockey stick 'coz he was buggin' me. Alan and I went to see the Demics play one night, and the Hi-Fi's were opening for them; this was in '78 or '79. I recognised Greg, so we re-introduced ourselves. At that time, we were just getting Hunger Project off the ground and needed rehearsal space, and they had a space on Spadina, the top floor of the Albert White building behind the Spadina Hotel, the Cabana Room. They shared it with the Bopcats. We'd go in there at two in the morning and borrow all their equipment; that's how we formed Hunger Project, was through their generosity and letting us use their space. Then when we moved to New York, a month after we moved, Greg and Jim moved. They'd come over and use our space, and we've just had a friendship with them forever. Those pictures on the front of Whites-Jim was working as a PA with a film company at the time, so he had unlimited supply of Polaroids. We had a big party at my parents' place when they were away, so we invited Greg and Jim and a bunch of people over for a big pool party. He kept snapping Polaroids all night and ended up with those beautiful portraits of us!
What were the Hi-Fi's like?
They were a real power pop band, very Beatle-influenced. Or the Jam in a way. They were a really good band, really exciting. Very high energy.
Did you see their dissatisfaction with New York? I know Greg was very disenchanted.
Jim loved it. I think Greg really liked it at first. It's a tough city to live in if you don't have any money; it's fun, but it's touch. I think they had a tough time, because while we were there they never really formed a band. They did a lot of writing, and just did a lot of living, basically. They absorbed the city and I know they wrote a lot of songs. After we left for London, they remained there and formed Fly to France and Red Yellow Blue. I don't think that was a lot of fun for them; I don't think there was much structure or stability to it. They got a bit turned off by the city, because they were there longer than we were. Much in the same way we were eventually turned off London, they got turned off by New York and we all ended up back in Toronto at the same time. They formed Blue Rodeo right before we formed Cowboy Junkies.
They were exploring roots sounds as well.
Definitely. There was a scene at that time in Toronto. Blue Rodeo and Handsome Ned and a few others who were starting to explore that. We came into that scene, but we didn't have a country side at that point, it was more of a blues thing. They were leading the way, which was nice, and they were established right off the bat. I remember going to their first show at the Rivoli in Toronto and it was jam-packed, and it just took off from there. And they signed relatively quickly to Warner, which was a huge deal. It was like, "My God, you signed a record contract?" They opened up a lot of people's eyes, I think.
The Hi-Fi's were always pursuing a deal, weren't they?
I think they probably were. They had a weird deal with some big roots guy, some guy who had a show on a radio station. I forget. I don't know what he was all about. They had more of a vision towards major record companies. Alan and I were more from the punk side of things. They were never really into that, even though the Hi-Fi's got picked up by that scene. They were more into the Beatles point of view, whereas we were coming from Siouxie and the Banshees and Joy Division, and they'd say, "What the fuck are you listening to?" But they were around at the right time and they fit in, because there were a few bands doing that power-pop stuff. I think they had a more traditional viewpoint of the industry, and we were coming from an independent punk side.
What do you recall of Handsome Ned? Did you see him perform around that time?
Oh, tons. Again, a really high energy entertainer. He'd hit the stage and go, full-board guitar, full-board vocal, just belting it out. He had a big following and knew everybody, and had a regular spot at the Cameron. And he introduced a lot of people to a lot of different bands, by either having them open for him or getting them a show at the Cameron. He was very good for the scene.
There's the notion that he was one of the first people to bring roots music to Toronto's Queen Street scene.
I think so. I'm sure we could all sit around and argue about whether it was this guy or that guy, but I certainly can't think of anyone before him. He was certainly the first guy with a cowboy hat down there!
Was the Horseshoe bar still country at that point?
No, by the time we got back they're gone back to rock.
Who was noticing you at that time? I know "Night Lines" was a big supporter.
CBC radio was huge. "Night Lines" was enormous for us. On our first tour across Canada with Cowboy Junkies we met [host] Ross Porter. We had a three-night stand in Winnipeg, and by the third night there was one person in the audience, and that was Ralph (Benmurgui). It was a good person to have!
Was this pre- or post-Whites?
Post. We were touring the album at that point. On our way back across Canada, heading back East, they put on a Halloween show, live from the Bluenote in Winnipeg, live across Canada, which as amazing for us. "Brave New Waves" was good for us. CKLN was great for us. When Trinity came out, Toronto campus station CKLN - which was a good music station at that time and very supportive of the scene - they really pushed that record a ton. That might not seem like much now, but at the time for the music scene in Toronto that was pretty good. Those were our supporters, really. Certainly the CBC.
Those two shows opened up a lot of channels that weren't there before.
Definitely. They were really listened to. And very exploratory, they gave a lot of people a lot of chances. But that was about it.
Did the title of the record raise eyebrows? Or was it so underground that no one really noticed?
It was so underground. But the intention was to raise eyebrows! Even the name of the band was supposed to raise eyebrows at the time. But it was an underground thing, it wasn't like it was registering on anyone's radar.
The purpose of the title?
On many levels! The phrase comes from a group that Alan and I came across while living in London, from San Francisco, and their slogan was "Whites off earth now." It was obviously a joke, but they figured if they could get all the white people off the face of the earth, then all the earth's problems would be solved. We thought, "Well, that's one way to approach it!" I always liked the phrase. Then when we did the record, it was a bunch of white suburban kids covering the great black bluesmen again, once again ripping off these greats. Plus these beautiful, ugly pictures of these white kids on the cover, I thought that's gotta be the title of it.
It did quite well for an independent, didn't it?
It did. I think we sold 3,000 at the time, and we've sold a lot more since then, but between the release of that and Trinity it was 3,000, which was a lot for us. We got some really good reviews. We got a fantastic one from Musician magazine in the States, and the blurbs all over the place were very strong. It was very encouraging.
There was a lot of gambling involved in the whole session. Was there a plan B if it didn't work out?
No, because there was hardly any money invested in it. Everybody was working on spec, so there wasn't a plan B. If it didn't work, we'd figure out something else. The only big investment was time, on our part. We did a ton of rehearsing and we sat down with Peter Moore and made extensive notes for every song, the arrangements and such. But we had no idea how it would turn out. It was a total gamble. Even the room - we weren't able to experiment in there. Although Peter had been in there with other types of bands; he did some stuff with Moe Koffman, and he had done some orchestral recording in there as well. So he knew the room from that point of view. But he had never had electric bass or a drum kit in there. Or vocals. It was definitely an experiment. But in that era, that's what you did. You got an idea and went for it, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
I've always been curious about the myth of the cost of the whole thing.
It's true. On the day of, that's what our cost was: $250. I think the church was $125, then we had some tape costs, we bought some DATs, and we got some pizza. Everybody was on spec, so everyone eventually made decent money off it; Peter made a fortune off it, and rightfully so. Since then, it's cost much more than that. But our out-of-pocket expenses at the time totalled 250 bucks.
I imagine it was frustrating but very necessary to spend a lot of time configuring the room.
That was part of it. Rearranging to get the sound and getting everyone sitting in the right spots was quite exhausting. That was frustrating, and that took half the time. But we had to do it. And in the first couple of hours, we thought, "Fuck, this isn't going to work. It sounds like a huge wash." But Peter tightened up the sound, and when everyone arrived - by the time we got the seven-piece band together there - it was pretty well there, because their instruments just had to fit in with ours, and then the musical arrangements happened very quickly. That was the easy part - sitting around throwing out ideas for 15-20 minutes and then playing the song.
How long was the Latent [Recordings] version out before it got picked up by BMG?
About six months. We recorded in November, and re-released the next November by BMG, so we probably put it out in January.
Initial press reaction was very strong, as was CKLN.
The press reaction was amazing. We had a huge, full-page thing in the Gazette in Montreal. Some really amazing stuff, we were very shocked by it. It generated a buzz. And as an independent band, it was huge. We could get any gig anywhere we wanted. We went to Montreal every third weekend and selling out clubs, and we were playing in Toronto pretty much every weekend. It was really good for the band to be playing all the time to - for us at the time - some pretty big audiences.
Some tracks were left off the initial pressing, and one track appeared on It Came From Canada Vol. 4.
The vinyl one we left tracks off because of the nature of vinyl. Peter was very insistent that we not have more than the 23 minutes A side, or whatever it was, because it starts to ruin the sound. So we gave the one track to Og for their compilation, "Blue Moon," and that's song has become one of our biggest songs. I can't remember our reasoning. We wanted a nice blend of originals and covers. I have no idea why we left that one off.
A couple of songs got picked up for the Roadkill movie.
My brother John was working at a Canadian movie magazine, and he had run into Bruce McDonald and they became friends, and Bruce became a fan of the band. He approached us and we gave him a couple of songs. I love the way it came out; I love the scene with "200 Miles" where they're dancing in the headlights.
Did you have any trepidation when the majors came calling?
It was tough. That was a terrible time, actually. We had a really fun time as an independent band, and Trinity was independent, and all of the sudden there was full bars and it was a really high time for us. Then the majors came around, and there was a shift because there were suddenly a lot of major decisions to be made. The way we did it and the way we approached all of that stuff ever since then is to put up fences - get the four of us together, talk about it and decide what we wanted to do. Now you think, well, of course you're going to sign a deal. But there was a real good chance we weren't going to sign back then. We talked about it a lot. About the idea of keeping it to the music side of things. A lot of people coming to us wanted to change the name of the band, and some of them wanted us to re-record the album. It was like, "What are you people here for?" It was just because there was a bit of a frenzy going on, and people felt they had to get in on it. They didn't understand what the hell they were listening to. But they knew other people wanted to sign us, and therefore they did. That mentality.
Were they all Canadian labels?
No, they were all American. The Canadians passed on it, basically. There was a classic story - I won't say who it was - but one of the Canadian A&R guys called up and said, "What is this, a demo?" It was all the American labels who were interested. There was a lot of courting by them, and a lot of people flying up for gigs and us having to meet them after. That was our first taste of that kind of thing. We finally met this guy Jim Powers who was with BMG in New York. He had just started in the business, he was quite young and hadn't been affected by the industry yet. He was still a music fan. We liked him, because he was a music lover and seemed to appreciate what was going on. Then we met the president of RCA U.S., who was Bob Guziak at the time. He's a record company president in the '70s mould: a big daddy, friend of the artist, your protector kind of guy - which I don't think exists anymore. He had just come to RCA, and he was telling us how he wanted to rebuild the label - which was in the toilet at that point - and how he wanted acts like us, young bands, blah blah blah. The whole spiel. We liked him and Jim, so we ended up signing with them. But there was definitely a point where we thought, "We can't work with any of these people that we're meeting. We can't stand talking to them, never mind working with them." But the lucky thing about us was that we created Trinity Session by ourselves without anyone around us, and it was released as it was on a major label, the way we made it, and it did very well. Therefore we had a lot of pull and power, because we could say, "Look, you guys had nothing to do with this record; we made it ourselves and look how well it did. So back off!" That was really lucky. We didn't have to make our first record for these people; it had already been made. That was very helpful.
There was that interesting "Misguided Angel" incident in B.C.
That was so tiny, but it was blown up. It was some tiny community outside of Kamloops, who deemed it to be a Satanic song, and the press picked it up because they love that kind of stuff. And we played with it, too, because it was kind of funny.
What was your first big Toronto show? Massey Hall?
Probably. I don't remember. Trinity was weird. We had been on the road since we released it independently, playing non-stop. Then once it came out on a major label, we remained on the road and got to travel a lot. That whole period, for about two years straight, I can't remember the specifics of it. We realised that every few months the record was getting a bit bigger. We didn't really pay attention to what was going on with the record or at radio. That was all kind of meaningless to us, and we focused on what we knew, which was playing gigs, and figuring out how to play to these audiences that were growing. I couldn't tell you what our first big gig was because it was always rapidly growing. It was hard, because at that point Trinity was the buzz album, so you had lots of people showing up at shows who had no idea who we were. Whereas when we were an independent band, people would show up because they're music fans or because they knew who you were and were coming to see you. You wouldn't have a big audience, but they were certainly there to see us. Now, they were there because "we were the band." The audiences were really loud and noisy as far as the audience was concerned, and kind of unfocused. It was a weird experience, and a big learning experience for us.
What was the deal with independent Latent Recordings at that time? Was that part of your BMG deal?
It wasn't right away. It was after we got off the road, two years later, that I decided to pursue that again. Then we went to BMG Canada and proposed starting up Latent again, so with funding and distribution from them we put out two Corndogs records, two John Bottomley records, and two Pat Temple records. That was about four years or so, and from my point of view it was too much work, and they were never really into it. It was sort of a pat on the head for me, like, "OK, go off and play record company president." It was frustrating because one day I'd be in there fighting for Latent stuff, and the next day I'd come back and fight for Cowboy Junkies stuff, and I just thought "Fuck, there's too much fighting going on here." I needed some space. It became frustrating for the bands as well. Their first record would be fun because there would be money to make the record and they weren't really expecting anything, and then the second record there was money there and they were hoping it would sell a bit more. And I didn't have any control over that, it was totally BMG, and they weren't doing anything to promote them. It was nice to put some records out, but the shortcomings of it became evident after a couple of years.
By the time you made Caution Horses were you insulated from the pressure or where you aware of it?
It's hard to imagine, but we were pretty insulated because we never really paid much attention to it. We didn't really have an A&R guy per se, because there was a confusing deal through New York and Canada. We had built up a bunch of new songs on the road, and we just went in and recorded. "Here's the next record, folks." There wasn't much pressure that I recall. There certainly wasn't from the record company, but there was from ourselves.
It was the first dominated by originals for you, which was a big step.
I had started writing a lot more and started to enjoy it. Trinity was about half and half, and there were only two covers on this one. I didn't feel any pressure, I just felt this was the next step in our evolution. The covers for us were not really covers, we never really looked at them that way. They were always just part of our repertoire. I didn't really see it as: "This album has two songs by other people and eight of mine." It was: "This is our next record, and we happen to have written most of the songs."
There was a distinct absence of blues on that record.
I think what had happened was with Trinity the country roots were beginning to come in, and when I started to write I was definitely writing in a country style. I was listening to a lot of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams.
Were you worried about the change in the sound?
No, it was just where we were going and we never really thought about it one way or the other.
The Sharon sessions. Why were those aborted?
It was a combination of many things. We weren't positive about the quality of the recordings. We grew to really like them, and we thought it would be our next record and that's how we were approaching it. But we went out on the road again and the arrangements changed a bit and we had also written some more songs that we wanted to add. By the time we got back, it was six or seven months later and it felt weird. We all felt that we should go back and do some more recording, because the other sessions were six months ago. Time was weird back then, because everything seemed so intense; six months seemed like a huge period of time. You got into your own little world. And we had the money to do it, so we figured we'd experiment a bit more and go back into the studio.
Caution Horses had the Mary Margaret O'Hara cover. Were you big fans of her solo record?
Yeah, huge. That record to me, I list it as one of my great recordings of all time. That was in the period when she was playing a lot, and I'd go see her whenever I could. We knew we had an audience, and we were hoping people would dig up her stuff through that.
By the time of Black-Eyed Man, the Trinity band was splintering?
After the Caution Horses tour, the band was fantastic. It was an amazing band on the road. But I was always clear with everybody that the band is the four of us, and then we do whatever we want around us. We'll pay you well while you're here, but this isn't forever. We came off the road and we definitely needed a long break. I told everybody, "As of now, we're not on the road, and I don't know where we're going to go from here." I hadn't even written most of the songs for Black-Eyed Man yet. Then when we came to make Black-Eyed Man, we ended up using a ton of musicians. Again, to break out of... not a rut, but out of what we had been for two years with this seven-piece band, and we wanted to experiment with more players, more textures. We did that with the record, and when it came time to tour we figured we wouldn't put the same band back together, but that we'd move on.
Ken Myhr was just finishing with Jane Siberry.
Jane was going on a bit of a hiatus at that point, and we had invited Ken to play on Black-Eyed Man. I'd always loved his playing. I'd also seen him playing in his own band around town. We asked him to come on the road with us. Also at that time was a young piano player Spencer Evans, who was very young, but he had a real spirit to his playing.
It seemed to be a more sunny album.
From my point of view, the writing was from... I had just met my wife-to-be, and those songs were about that whole period, the courtship with my wife. She lived in Virginia so I was down in the South a lot. It was a very exciting time for the band, all of the sudden we got off tour, woke up one day, and we were this band who could play anywhere in the world. Last time we looked, we were playing in downtown Toronto and that was our scene. All of that is reflected in the album. And the record was a lot of fun, with a lot of different musicians.
When did you start playing outside of North America?
No. Caution Horses and Trinity we played though Europe several times, and in Japan as well. We were everywhere.
What were overseas impressions of Canadian music?
In Europe, there wasn't a lot of knowledge of Canadian music. But they'd always ask: "Give us some names of some Canadian bands; what's the scene like in Canada." There was a lot of interest, but not a lot of knowledge.
Pale Sun, Crescent Moon seemed a bit rushed.
We came off the road with Ken, and I knew I wanted to continue working with Ken. I really enjoyed playing live with him, just his guitar playing was really exciting. I wrote that record really fast, rehearse it as a five-piece band with Ken, and then record it like that. That's what we did, and then got back out there. I really love that record, it's just funny. When we were putting the web site together and gathering stories, none of us could remember recording it! It happened so fast. So did Trinity, but there was all this build-up to it and planning it.
At that point the Canadian interest seemed to be dwindling and the American audiences picked up.
Part of that is our fault. We really concentrated heavily on the states. Caution Horses we did a lot of touring up here as well, but on Black-Eyed Man we toured a lot in the States and not as much up here. Part of the problem was a financial one. We had a road crew with us for a few years and we paid them a lot of money, and we had some musicians with us for a long time and their salaries were getting up there, and they were all being paid in American dollars. It became hard to afford, and therefore easier to play in the States. Whenever we'd do a show in Canada, it would be, "Ok, let's do this quickly and then get back down into the States." We didn't concentrate on playing up here and that affected our audience. If they don't see you every year, you're not as relevant to their music listening. Now we're slowing building our audience back up in Canada, because we're pretty secure in the States now, so we have the time to invest a bit of money into getting back up here. It was stupid of us to let it go; it was a misjudgement on our part.
But for the long term...
Exactly. To have a solid audience in the States is a very good thing. But we would have helped ourselves if we'd paid a bit more attention to Canada.
Were you ever reconsidering the role of the band around that time? Or was it always "soldier on."
This goes back to when we were deciding whether or not to sign with BMG, when we put up walls around us. We got very good at that as we got deeper into the major label side of things. The music and the band were one thing, and that was the most important thing. Then there was the industry and the major label side of things, and they don't connect. There's a relationship between the two, but they don't affect the band side of things. BMG had run its course. After Pale Sun we thought there was a real lack of interest at the company. RCA in the states had totally collapsed. Bob Guziak had left, our A&R guy had left. We had a lot of records left on that deal, and we thought it would just kill us. So we approached them and said, "You guys don't seem to want to work with us, and we're not too keen on working with you, so let's figure out a way to end this." To their credit, they let us do that, and we were quite shocked. We had to pay a little bit, but they let us get out, which is unusual. That was a really good move at that point. Then we went to Geffen, which was a good thing for a year but quickly became one of the worst. We went from the frying pan into the fire with them. Certainly at the time leaving BMG was the right thing.
Lay it Down sounded like a rebirth.
It's hard to say. You try and keep those two sides separate, but obviously you're one person. This idea of being with a new label and certainly the enthusiasm of the label at that time, infuses you a bit. You think, "This record will be listened to by a whole new set of ears." And of course, it's not, but you feel that for some reason. We were working with Jim Power again, our original A&R guy who had left BMG and was now at Geffen. That was kind of nice. He was someone I understood and I'd keep in touch over the years after he left BMG, and we'd become music pals more than anything, trading CDs of people we'd found and listened to. Then we found John Keane, who was a great find, and we went down to Athens to make the record. We'd never left the confines of Athens to make a record, so it was kind of exciting. We decided to concentrate on the four of us for that record; we kept the overdubs to a minimum.
Alan was driving the band again, and you were playing with more space.
Exactly. Our touchstone was Whites Off Earth Now, it doesn't sound like that record, but you can hear elements of that earlier sound: just three instruments and the voice. That was the idea.
You soon felt ignored by Geffen.
What happened with Geffen was, they did a great job, fantastic job on Lay It Down. Although, funnily enough, from what former insiders at the label have told us now, that record was bungled. They sold a lot - half a million - but they could have sold a lot more. They bungled the transition between the first and second single, and they readily admit that. That was pretty frustrating, to have recaptured the commercial side of things in the American market and our label has screwed up again. Then, with the Miles record, they were going through their big merger and transitions, and that was a big nightmare. You couldn't get anyone to answer a telephone. Everyone from the Lay It Down era had been fired or left, and there were very few people remaining. The good learning experience from that was that we again put up our walls and said, "Look, this record's fucked." Even before it came out we knew it wasn't going to sell anything, because we couldn't even get a call returned from the label. But we just continued to do what we do, and the Miles tour was a really good tour. Once we got the official release from Geffen, we've been reconfiguring now and this is a really refreshing period. We don't have to ask anyone's permission to do anything anymore; we just do it. We learned a lot over the past year. Our mindset now is licensing deals and stuff like that. We don't want to get into a big international contract again, because we've explored the pitfalls of those and we don't need one right now. We're going to maintain the Latent side of things and license to different territories. In the States, which is such a big market for us, we're definitely going to license to someone with major label distribution and who can put some money into promotion, but the general idea is to keep it as close to home as we can.
That situation is much more amenable to an increasing amount of artists.
The whole industry has shifted. There are more artists of our stature - people who aren't superstars, but who can sell a few records - and there's no room for them on those rosters anymore. For whatever reason, the major labels don't think they can make money by selling 300,000 to 500,000 records. Maybe they can't, I don't know. It's a very weird time right now. There's a whole new level forming, which is exciting in a way.
You never had an urge to move down there.
No. Never. We learned that very early on. People always say, "Are you going to move to New York or L.A. now?" And we'd say, "Why?" There's no need for that. In this day and age you can be anywhere in the world.
Whereas when you started, that was what you had to do.
When you were strictly a road band, when your only way of getting any recognition was in a club, you'd have to be in a city. But these days it doesn't make a difference. But you still have to tour. You still have to show up every now and then. That's a constant. It's also the best way to get promotion, is to show up in a city and physically be in people's faces. The pleasure of it is in playing live. Playing live now is more fun than it ever was; it's more relaxed and we're a better band.