It may sound like a cliché from some desperate tourism brochure, but Winnipeg's Exchange District is where the heart of this prairie capital beats the strongest especially as far as the city's vaunted and prolific arts community is concerned. Chock full of turn-of-the-century warehouses and ruggedly handsome limestone edifices, the area is a functional testament to preservation through neglect, as decades of civic developers have passed over these cobbled streets and alleyways in order to focus their attentions on Winnipeg's gradually sprawling suburbs. As such, rental space in the Exchange District has remained cheap enough to afford even the most famished local artists a place to hang their inspiration. Celebrated visual artist Marcel Dzama's Royal Art Lodge is sequestered here, along with the headquarters of Propagandhi's politically-charged record label G7 Welcoming Committee and Weakerthans front-man John K. Samson's fledgling publishing house, Arbeiter Ring. Add to that a litany of other creative institutions galleries, studios, upstart theatre companies, clubs and arts administrative offices and the cultural bounty of this enclave becomes downright tangible. Historically, the Exchange District derived its name from the voluminous commercial trade that once transpired here. These days, however, its moniker applies more appropriately to the rampant exchange of ideas that takes place here.
This is where Duotang got its auspicious start back in the early 90s, in a not-quite-dilapidated warehouse space three stories above McDermot Avenue. It's also where the mod-lodic, power-pop duo of drummer Sean Allum and bass player/vocalist Rod Slaughter ostensibly called it quits just over a year ago, only to reform, refreshed and rejuvenated, for the recording of their third full-length CD, The Bright Side, issued last month by Mint Records.
To understand the recent history of the band's rehearsal space, and its artistic comings and goings, is to appreciate the circumstances surrounding the birth, near death and ultimate resurrection of Duotang.
I've followed the band's progress closely since day one first as a young Winnipeg entertainment writer, and later, for a brief spell anyway, as the duo's novice manager. (That gig was amicably curtailed when I landed a position at one of Winnipeg's daily newspapers, thus obliging me to withdraw my management services in order to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.)
It was at the warehouse that I first sat down with Rod and Sean to conduct an interview for Duotang's inaugural press piece a cover story in Winnipeg's weekly street paper, Uptown. Appropriately, the three of us now find ourselves doing the Q&A routine in the same quarters nearly six years later to the day.
"We were doing this for years and never really thought twice about it," is how Rod explained the unit's casual genesis to me back in June of 95. "It's been in the back of our minds for a while."
At that time, Rod and Sean's respective bands, Zen Bungalow and Bovine, were sharing the same rehearsal space, along with criminally unsung Peg art-rock unit Grand Theft Canoe. After their band-mates had packed up their guitars and headed home, Sean and Rod would routinely stay behind to work on material of their own, with the latter employing a style of bass chording at once rhythmic and melodic, inspired by Joy Division's Peter Hook. Within months, what had long been a less-than-serious side project became a priority for the pair, and both Zen Bungalow and Bovine disbanded unceremoniously. Soon after, an opening slot performance by Duotang caught the attention of Smugglers vocalist Grant Lawrence, who put the wheels in motion for a signing with Vancouver indie label Mint.
"All of a sudden we were touring all over the place, mostly with Cub, and there was this one crazy four- or five-month period where we were basically on the road the whole time," recalls Allum now. "Then we did a really extensive tour on our own, went to Vancouver to record the record [Duotang's 96 debut CD, Smash The Ships And Raise The Beams], toured some more with Cub, came back, toured with the Smugglers and it just kept going from there. We had toured so much and then it was time to make another record [the unit's 98 sophomore release, The Cons & The Pros]. I still loved the band, and I'm sure Rod did too, but by then it had just become so much like work."
In Duotang's absence, things had changed back at the rehearsal space. Corners formerly occupied by the gear of Zen Bungalow and Bovine now boasted the Moogs and antiquated keyboards of Stereolabish newcomers Transonic, along with a battery of conventional instruments belonging to funk-rock outfit Seven. Grand Theft Canoe still maintained a sporadic tenancy, though only for the ultimately unsuccessful purposes of auditioning new drummers to fill the void of departed beat keeper Alex Kirkpatrick. Meanwhile, guitar-playing brother Angus Kirkpatrick kept up appearances on his own, frequently whiling away the hours in solo mode, or instigating impromptu jams with other eager drop-in artists. Upon returning from a European tour with label-mates Huevos Rancheros, Sean and Rod soon found themselves working with the GTC axeman in the low-pressure context of a 60s cover band dubbed Angus & The Pacemakers.
"Angus & The Pacemakers was basically us trying to have fun again," explains Sean. "We were a little burned out on Duotang, but neither of us wanted to stop playing out or anything, so it just made sense. It was a blast, and for what it was, I think we were pretty good, too."
Sean and Rod came away with a renewed sense of energy and a new addition to the Duotang fold as Kirkpatrick was drafted to play second bass. The move was in stark contrast to the band's early resolve to go it as a twosome or not at all, but the pair was convinced the arrangement would help keep things fresh while easing the workload of a forthcoming return engagement to Europe. According to Rod, though, it didn't take long for three's company to become three's a crowd.
"We were out on the road with Angus, and we pretty much had to play the songs that he knew," says Rod. "We were basically playing the same set every night."
By tour's end it had become clear the Triotang arrangement didn't have much of a future. After arriving back in Winnipeg, Rod and Sean reconvened to assess their situation. Both were aware Duotang's outlook had changed while in Europe, and not for the better. "It was like We gotta take a break until we write a new album and not bother touring'" recalls Rod. "Once the break started, it was harder to get back into it and it started looking like maybe Duotang wasn't going to do another record."
The prospect of a Duotang break-up loomed even more profoundly after Rod accepted an invitation to join Novillero a new Winnipeg act featuring three members of recently defunct warehouse mates Transonic (keyboard player Roberta Dempster, guitarist Sean Stevens and guitarist/keyboard player Scott Hildebrandt), along with multi-instrumentalist Rusty Matyas of Seven and Walter Paisley drummer Dave Berthiaume. Several local media outlets wasted little time in dubbing the new, easy-listening pop outfit a home-grown super-group, further relegating Duotang to the distant memory bin. Sean admits the fervent buzz surrounding Novillero served as a bee in his bonnet, as he grudgingly accepted his new role (or lack thereof) as the odd man out.
"Everyone says we're like a married couple, and he basically went out and started screwing every person in town," says Sean, shifting his chair away from his band-mate and letting out an incredulous chuckle. "I never really had a serious problem with it, though. I mean, I've been to almost all their shows. The biggest problem I had was people assuming I had a problem with it. If I was to say one slightly negative comment about a particular performance or something, people thought I was the jealous sour grapes guy. Sure, at the start I had a little bit of a problem with it, but now I agree with Rod that it was the best thing for Duotang. I used to call bullshit on him when he would say that, but I think he was right."
With little to speak of on his musical horizon, Sean elected to go back to school, enrolling in the Creative Communications program at Winnipeg's Red River College. Eventually, he and Rod did manage to eke out a handful of local Duotang performances, as well as a one-off road trip to Saskatoon, if only to allay fans fears of an outright break-up. By the fall of last year, though, the pair was no closer to its elusive goal of writing material for a third Duotang CD. That is, until Mint boss Bill Baker called with an early Yuletide invitation, setting in motion what Sean likes to call "the miracle on McDermot Avenue."
"Mint asked us to do a song for the Mint Christmas EP in October, so we came up with something called Old Man Davie's Christmas Kingdom,'" he explains. "We basically wrote it in one night and recorded it in one night and when we listened back to it we were like, Holy shit!' We were pretty proud of it and it was pretty easy to do considering the circumstances. I think we really surprised ourselves in a way. All of a sudden we were having fun again. We were all happy and proud of what we had done and it just sort of sailed on from there. We knew then that it was happening again and we wanted to keep practising and keep it going."
Days later, Rod showed up for rehearsal eager to exorcise a new riff. Within three hours he and Sean had worked it into "The Bright Side" an aggressive, hook-laden song that would ultimately serve as the title track of band's new disc. While fans will recognise some familiar Tangisms over the course of the CD's 14 tracks, the album represents a number of Duotang firsts. Unlike its two predecessors, the bulk of the new material was put to tape without having been stage-tested, suggesting a new-found sense of confidence on the part of its creators. The disc is also the first to be produced by long-time Duotang soundman and engineer Cam Loeppky, who worked on the project between bouts as the Weakerthans' live sound engineer. Perhaps most significantly, though, is The Bright Side's distinction as the first Duotang release to be recorded primarily within the friendly and familiar confines of the Exchange District rehearsal space where the pair got its start.
"We did the initial bass and drum tracks at Private Ear [an Exchange District studio just a couple of blocks from the warehouse], but the rest was all done in our warehouse, which was really good," enthuses Rod. "That made it really relaxed, a lot of fun."
"I think it's the perfect way for us to record," Sean says. "The first album was done in Vancouver and we only had two or three weeks to work with, and the second one was done in Toronto where we only had a couple of weeks, which is pretty stressful, especially when you're doing it in the middle of a tour. This time we had time to experiment. And of course Cam knows us so well, so it was pretty low stress for the most part."
Sean tells me the most worrying aspect was knowing that by the time The Bright Side came out, three full years would have passed since the duo's last release. "We knew it had to be a decent album if we wanted people to pick up on it again," he says.
What fans and critics are certain to pick up on is The Bright Side's distinction as the heaviest recording Duotang has put forth yet a fact both artists attribute to Novillero's comparatively light approach to pop craft.
"We started out as this two-piece band that wanted to be the Beatles and do all these crazy things," explains Sean. "Then Rod was with Novillero and they had all these instruments to do them. All of a sudden, we turn into Mötley Crüe or something."
"Coming out of Novillero, it just made sense to record something like this, something a little more urgent," adds Rod, snapping his fingers for effect.
Western Canadian audiences will get an opportunity to sample Duotang's new musical wares this month when the band hits the road for a series of dates opening for the English Beat's Dave Wakeling. A headlining tour of Central and Eastern Canada is in the works for later this summer, along with another European bout, tentatively scheduled for early 2002.
"I think in a lot of ways we're basically having to start again," says Rod, clearly aware there's plenty of work to be done in order to get momentum back on Duotang's side. "I'm not as worried about how the hiatus might affect us over in Europe, though. When we were over there with Huevos, it was about three years after the time before they were there, but it may as well have been, like, a week ago. People completely remembered them."
"The Smugglers were just over there," adds Sean, "and Grant was telling us that a lot of people were asking about us, so that's pretty encouraging."
Rounding out the pair's live line-up for the roadwork ahead will be Novillero trumpet player Rusty Matyas. In response to their previous membership diversification efforts, though, Rod and Sean intend to keep the talented multi-instrumentalist on a short, sideman leash.
"It won't be as prevalent as when Angus was playing with us," insists Rod, adding Matyas will only take to the stage for a selected number of songs on any given night, lending a hand on trumpet, keyboards and perhaps even some rare guitar parts.
"I think Rusty understands that if I don't want him playing on something live, if I want to do eight or nine songs with just Rod and myself, then he's cool with that," adds Sean. "Rusty knows that when he's playing with us, he's a big part of the band for those three songs. He doesn't mind sitting out for those eight songs, which is a lot to ask of someone, but he's comfortable with that."
Duotang's return to action means that Rod's other concern, Novillero, will be subject to an extended break of its own a curious development given the band just released its debut CD, The Brindleford Follies, a scant four months ago.
"It'll definitely be on hiatus for awhile," confirms the tuneful two-timer, adding he never really intended Novillero to be a particularly busy touring act. "It's a fun thing to do besides Duotang, but Duotang is the primary for me and Novillero is the secondary."
"Pretty much everybody else [in Novillero] has something else going on, too, so it's really not that serious," he continues, citing Matyas and Berthiaume's involvement in post-Pets psych-pop unit, the Waking Eyes, as an example. "I see it as being more of a writing project back at the warehouse over the winter."
With that, Rod rises to his feet, as much to stretch as to indicate he doesn't care to talk about Novillero anymore. His gesture takes me back to that first interview at the warehouse again, back when Duotang was perceived by some local scenesters (and quite rightfully so) as a threat to the well-being of Rod and Sean's other bands. I'm reminded of one of Rod's quotes from that first story some defensively uttered words that would still ring true if he were to repeat them on this day.
"What I like about Duotang is the sense of common goals that we have," Rod said at the time. "We both love the same stuff, we both love what we're doing and we both have a lot of fun doing it. Some people may think it's kind of a side band for us or something, but it's not we're really quite serious about it."