Published Dec 07, 2009Way back in 1992, a group of teenagers in Hamilton big on grunge, indie rock and Canada's burgeoning East coast music scene formed a band and named it after one of their dogs. When it came time to release music, they decided to start their own label, bizarrely called Sonic Unyon. What began with a cassette titled Pslop, was a solid nine years of pouring guitar noise and melodic curveballs initiated by an irrefutable love for bands like Sonic Youth, Eric's Trip, My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. And the rest, as they say, was history.
Tristan Psionic may not be remembered the way hiatus-favouring, label-founding bands like Superchunk or Fugazi will forever be, but in Canada, and especially Ontario, they're fundamental players in our country's now illustrious independent music scene. With endless ambition, they released not just their own music but also that of their friends and eventually their favourites, introducing us to key Canadian acts like SIANspheric (formerly Gleet), Smoother (formerly Sponge), Shallow North Dakota (formerly just Shallow), Gorp and Mayer McCA, Kittens, A Northern Chorus, Tangiers and Tricky Woo. As well, Sonic Unyon has given us releases by Hayden, Treble Charger, Crooked Fingers, the Jesus Lizard, Teenage Head, Eric's Trip, Jens Lekman, Wintersleep, Simply Saucer, Thrush Hermit, Andre Ethier and Wooden Stars, to name a few. And that's all without diving into the massive distribution roster that includes labels like Polyvinyl, Southern Lord, Constellation and Jade Tree, to name a few.
But I digress, Tristan Psionic, the band that started it all, are back. And while it might be for just one gig, at the Sonic Unyon Christmas Bash on December 19th, Sandy McIntosh (guitars/vocals), Mark Milne (guitars/vocals), Tim Potocic (drums) and Peter Kirkpatrick (one-time bassist) are going to bring an elated rush of nostalgia to a roomful of Hamiltonians. Exclaim! caught up with McIntosh and Milne via Facebook to find out how this reunion came up, where it could go and everything else they've been up to over the last eight years.
Whose idea was it to reunite for the Christmas party? How did it come up?
Sandy McIntosh: Mark and Tim thought it would be fun to try last year... I wasn't ready, I was busy writing architectural license exams last year around this time. An email came a few weeks ago and I thought why not, I've been itching to play guitar and this was a good chance to get the rust out. I do now wish the show was next Christmas as there is never enough time to play guitar/jam when there are full time parental duties, an old house that needs fixing before winter hits and a full-time architecture career in the way.
Mark Milne: I think I have to give credit to Peter Kirkpatrick for his persistence in trying to get us back together to play a show. Peter played bass on our second record but had a young family starting around that time and sadly could not tour with us so shortly after the recording April joined. Unfortunately Peter only played only a handful of shows with us but was a big part of the band over the years, something a lot of people probably don't know. I've known Peter since I was 15 when I was lucky enough to play in a band called Blank Expression with him for a little bit. He's been a great friend ever since and one of my favourite bass players so it was great to have him play with us in TP and it will be great to play with him again 25 years after I first performed on a stage with him. Pete was also in the late great Heimlich Manoeuvre, who opened for Nirvana at Lee's ― he actually was there.
Is the plan just to do the one show? How about more shows or an album? Do you see TP having a future?
McIntosh: Tristan Psionic is the future from the past, of course. I haven't discussed any plans with the other lads.
Milne: Plan? I don't think there is a plan beyond doing this show and having a good time.
It's been a while. Can you refresh us on how/why Tristan Psionic ended?
McIntosh: TP ended with a sold-out show at the Opera House with Eric's Trip I think in August 2001. I needed to stop everything I was doing and concentrate on the next chapter ― architecture school. I couldn't afford the time or energy to pursue anything music related.
Milne: We never officially ended, it's more like we stopped. Up to that point the three of us saw each other every day at work, went on tour together, went to countless shows together ― we pretty much ate, breathed and slept our band, our label and by that point our distribution company. Something had to give ― combine that with Tim starting a family around that time, and Sandy going back to school and leaving Sonic Unyon ― it seemed obvious that our band was the going to get the hatchet from our schedules.
When was the last time you played together?
Milne: The last time we played together was when Eric's Trip asked us to open the Toronto show of their reunion tour. Coincidentally it was also Sandy's last day at work at Sonic Unyon before heading to U of T. None of us said it was our last show but it seemed obvious without ever stating that it was the end. It was our last show with our friends, Eric's Trip, the first band we ever toured with, the evening of Sandy's last day at Sonic Unyon. Everything had kind of come full circle in my mind ― from first meeting Sandy and deciding the same day to start a band, starting the label, to that last show which felt like a reunion of some sort. It doesn't really get any better than that in terms of timing.
How have the rehearsals gone so far? Are you rusty?
McIntosh: The first rehearsal went much better than expected. Rusty is a good start to describe it. I actually spent a couple weeks trying to remember how I specifically tuned my guitar to play a number of our songs. It's very odd trying to open up some corners of your brain that were closed over eight years ago... and none of that stuff was ever written down. I'd created the tuning and written the songs and played them thousands of times; I never thought I would ever forget any of it. It took a bit to coax some of the locks open in the back of my brain, but after that the fingers did the walking.
Milne: So far so good ― I think the biggest challenge is remembering how each guitar was tuned for each song ― once we figure that things seem to fall into place.
You guys have all moved on: Mark & Tim with the label and Sandy with architecture. Have you guys done much musically since you put TP to rest?
McIntosh: I attempted to get some musical effort together over summer break in 2002, where Mike Maxymuik (drums), Robb Higgins (bass/vocals) and myself (guitar/vocals) had eight rehearsals and three shows and called it Year of the Jaguar. We played in London, Hamilton and blew up the PA at a Pop Montreal gig before I had to get back to my studies. Nearing the end of my Master of Architecture thesis term in 2005, I got playing the guitar a lot and talking to Rob Higgins about writing some tunes with him for a project he was trying to put together where he would involve good friends only ― he was going to call it Dearly Beloved. I played a couple of shows and recorded about a half an album of material with Rob before I stepped aside as I discovered I was going to be a father for the first time and decided it was best I not try to tour and get on with this architecture career and fatherhood chapter.
Milne: The label and our band were so closely linked for so such a long time, it feels more to me like Tim and I have both carried on and moved on but just without actually being in a band any longer. Although things are a lot different now, they are also much the same in some ways for the two of us. When I look back it seemed like we were trying to squeeze in time to be in a band while we ran our label and distribution company and the band was getting squeezed out for some time. Ian Blurton shook his head at me once when I said I hadn't been playing and Ian Mackaye told me "What's the point of all this if you don't play anymore?" Both of them are right but at the same time other things come into play that you might want to try out and make time for where you didn't have time before... for starters an actual vacation. Up until the time I was in my early 30s vacation meant touring. I also spent a good deal of time gutting the house I bought around the time we stopped playing ― that took years and most of my spare time I learned more than could have imagined in the process. Running Sonic Unyon has always been more than a full-time job and still is but it looks like there might be some time at this point to start squeezing in some of my past hobbies ― playing music and riding scooters/bikes.
I've always aligned you guys with Superchunk because of what they've done with Merge. They just published their book, Our Noise. Think you might do the same with Sonic Unyon? I know there are some good stories out there...
McIntosh: I love designing books. Maybe you could start the writing Cam?
Milne: First ― thanks, that's a great compliment as they, along with Dischord, were the two labels I really looked up to more than anything when we started our label. There are some absolutely fantastic stories. I know that Tim has extensive notes from tours over the years and Sandy has a lot of video from what I recall, there are also lots of photos. Maybe one day a DVD or something along those lines. I have to say that when I saw BYO's 25th anniversary book/DVD/2XLP set Let Them Know that I hoped that one day we could do something as impressive. I would also love to have Cam Lindsay write that book ― you've been there since very close to the beginning. Good suggestion, Sandy.
Will you guys have any cool merch at the show? Like the three-quarter sleeve tees?
McIntosh: I was kicking some T-shirt and other ideas around the other night.
Milne: Only if my wife Jane and her sister Leigh, aka "the merch girls," agree to sell it like they did at all the early SU shows. They were always so organized with our many sizes and shirt variations.
Finally, I've always wondered: what the hell happened with the footage you shot for the "Donut Rock City" video? That donut fight we all had was such a blast…
McIntosh: It just so happened the only guy we knew with a video camera posing to be a maker of "rock videos and films" at that point in time had an increasingly strange "series of behavioural incidents," coupled with a series of strange relationships and incidents of disappearance that ultimately led to the disappearance of all video footage and the disappearance of our "friend" with the camera who shot the previously mentioned and unbelievable donut fight during a live Tristan Psionic performance at a doughnut shop next to the Barton Street jail in Hamilton. Maybe that footage will turn up one day on YouTube. The internet, as we know it, hardly existed, nor did cell phones with cameras or texting abilities ― at least on a mass consumer scale in 1994. Otherwise Tristan Psionic might have been all over the globe had we had such tools at our disposal when we had the energy.
Milne: Vanished along with the dude that shot it and the $ we paid him. What a shame ― all the kids that came out to that, the donut fight in the parking lot of Holy Donuts on Barton Street ― the Barton Jail in the background. It was quite a scene and would have been a great video. I had raspberry jam all over my guitar. That was an absolutely great night.