Some of the music lived on in Kids in the Hall reruns (they scored the entire series), but the three albums fell out of print—which is a particular shame, as they are three albums that, more than so many other artifacts of the early ’90s, stand the test of time incredibly well.
There is nothing dated about Shadowy Men, and every time I put one of those records on I feel the same rush I did the first time I heard them on late-night CBC radio as a teenager. Every member of the trio is essential. Every song achieves maximum melodic effect in a minimal amount of time.
Diamond passed away from cancer at age 42 in 2001—the first musician death to hit home with me (outside of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, of course, which was shocking for completely different reasons, and though I liked Nirvana, I wasn’t as emotionally connected to them). I wrote this obituary for Exclaim at the time.
Pyle and Connelly have enlisted the Sadies’ Dallas Good (who played in Phono-Comb) to fill Diamond’s shoes for two shows this summer, and I can’t imagine a more apt choice. They’ve already played the Sled Island festival in Calgary; this Saturday’s Lee’s Palace show represents the second half of the reunion tour. All three albums are being reissued this summer by Mammoth Cave; Savvy Show Stoppers is out now.
There is no other gig this summer that I’m looking forward to more than this one. I was fortunate to talk to ubermensch Don Pyle about the reunion for Maclean’s here; read that first before you read the deleted scenes below. If you want a layman’s primer, read the story I wrote for Maclean’s print edition here. And if you want even more gabbing between Pyle and myself, read this 2010 discussion we had.
For the Maclean’s piece I also talked to Kid in the Hall Bruce McCulloch; I only used two quick quotes, so here’s the rest of our discussion, with further tidbits from Pyle below.
May 15, 2012
Phone conversation from L.A.
Did you know Brian and Reid in Calgary?
Oh yeah, I’m the guy to talk to. Those guys were a couple of years older than me, but I went to high school with them. We were friends, and I remember when they met Don through a letter connection. I was with them during their move to Toronto. I moved to Toronto in ’84, and they were our predecessors. I had always wanted to move to Toronto because of the cool music scene. They had bused out there around ’83.
They were living in Don’s mom’s basement, weren’t they?
They started there, and then they lived at 16 Glen Rd. [east of Sherbourne station], which was a big dilapidated rooming house where they lived in various rooms, and I also lived there and other people moved through there.
What was Brian and Reid’s first band, Buick McKane, like? Were there Shadowy elements there?
It was more melodic rock. More covers. I don’t know if they did Blue Oyster Cult or Last of the Teenage Idols. It was cover rock, but good rock.
How early did Shadowy Men work with the Kids in the Hall?
Pretty early on. When we started doing Rivoli shows, obviously they were my best friends, but the rest of the troupe knew that their music felt like “us.” They would play the odd time before us, most notably when we did a show at the Factory Lab. They played live with us and opened the show. And when I would do one-man shows, Brian would come and play six instruments. We were always dragging those guys around.
Do you think working with the Kids changed them? What did they learn from working with you?
I think they learned a lot. They used to score our little movies, of which there were probably 100. They would do everything from rock that was too greasy for them normally, but they would have fun doing it, to weird ukulele music. There’s something about that pallet that opened them up.
What set them apart from so many bands remotely like them was their economy and their melodic development. Even in a two-minute song, there were slight variations.
There was not much wasted. There was no minute where Brian is just playing and everyone watches him, or whatever.
They were very independent throughout their career. Did that make them harder or easier to work with?
Both. Infamously, when we were doing the TV show, they said they were going to keep the masters of all their music, and told Broadway Video they couldn’t have it. Broadway Video’s lawyers said, “Well, we can’t do that, that never happens!” Shadowy Men just said, “Sorry, you’re not going to own our shit.” They stuck to their guns, and the big boys caved. Reid especially was fiercely influential on me—and the rest of the troupe—about the punk sensibility and how that relates to how you do commerce: not letting someone annex your culture. They loved their association with us, but we became a cult show for which they were the band who played the theme song—which is both comfortable and uncomfortable. All through their career, I think maybe they did one commercial later on, but they were fierce about not letting people take their stuff and make it cool by selling Bud Light or something.
They were a very accessible band—there’s nothing off-putting, it’s very engaging music—and yet they remained an underground band the whole time. They saw themselves more on a level with pioneering Toronto feminist art/punk band Fifth Column than a Tragically Hip level.
They made the decision to not have vocals. Once you do that, your market is only ever going to be “this.” There could be a place in the world where they would be as big as the Ventures were in their day—of course, they should have been—but I think that’s partially the nature of not having lyrics. Also, they would do shows or they wouldn’t do shows; they weren’t in the same van that Grapes of Wrath took across the country back and forth. They were—and are—all intensely interested in their own lives and their own crazy projects. Part of that balance is what made them great and also kept them smaller than they could have been.
So music that is linked to comedy has a bad rap and a short shelf life, and yet they retained their underground cool the whole time. They didn’t get lumped in with the Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Fruvous, Look People, all sorts of other things in Toronto at the time. Is that because they were an instrumental band?
They were ferociously cool. Really cool people just keep doing their thing. I just saw Mavis Staples: she was 75 and she was fucking cool. They never followed any trend. Nothing ever changed about them. Their music changed and their lives evolved, but I don’t think they ever followed any trend—even their own. I don’t think they ever said, “This is acceptable, so let’s do this.”
What are some of your favourite memories of working with them?
Just how great they were. I’ve worked with other musicians who need a lot of time to prepare, and want to work on something for four hours. I remember once doing something with Brian on stage and just turning to him and saying, “Guitar solo.” And he looked at me out of the corner of his eye and just laid down one of the coolest rock guitar solos ever. After the show he said, “You know, you don’t have to ever do that again.” They also played at all the Kids in the Hall tapings live. The first session we did, they had built a huge clamshell to go behind them. I went up to Reid and said, “Hey, what’s up with the clamshell?” He said, “We have to give a show, too.” They made their thing really like a show. That kind of quirky sense of theatre that I think the Flaming Lips took crazy far, Shadowy Men always had that. Their earliest shows would have some part of a Sam Shepherd play—I mean, really? What was that?
Why do you think they broke up when they did?
They’re a bit like Kids in the Hall, when you analyze them. I know a lot of bands where there are one or two fierce alphas; I think there are three fierce alphas in Shadowy Men. Also, they really didn’t want to repeat themselves. It’s the same conversation I have now with Kids in the Hall, which is, “We could do it. But why?” Those three guys are artists, and they can’t help it: it has to feel fresh and special.
May 17, 2012
Via email from Iceland
How long exactly has everything been out of print?
After a few years of trying to get paid by [former distributor] Cargo for over 10,000 albums we weren’t paid for, we had to cut our losses and stop trying to be nice to them in order to get paid. Cargo was not doing anything with the records anyway, so who knows how long the records have been unavailable: at least five years, closer to 10, probably.
Why are the reissues only happening now? And why on the tiny Calgary indie Mammoth Cave?
It was partly motivated by the actual mould growing on the tape reel box of our first single! We knew we had to start properly archiving the tapes digitally or we would lose them for good. Also, seeing them being sold on eBay for collectors prices—we knew it was time. I made some tentative approaches to a few labels but very quickly lost patience with where the music biz is right now. As soon as we stopped looking, Mammoth Cave came along and asked. So much of how we always did things was about what felt right and who we respected, admired and felt a connection with.
Could you ever have seen the Shadowy Men doing something similar to what the Sadies did later—work with a number of collaborators while retaining your own identity—or was the Shadowy Men very much about the three of you? I feel like the projects you did with the B-52s’ Fred Schneider and Jad Fair [the latter was with Pyle and Diamond’s post-Shadowy Men project Phono Comb) seemed like steps in that direction.
We were always very insular; in some ways that was great, in others it kept things too closed. Those two collaborations came about because of other people asking us to do them, not from us pursuing them. I love both those recordings and am so glad we got to do them. We initiated other collaborations like working with [Toronto punk singer] Johnny MacLeod, [writer/comedian] Sheila Gostick and [Prairie Oyster singer] Russell DeCarle. We had fantasies about working with a few other people, Buffy Ste. Marie particularly, but that never happened. And now the Sadies are going to do it! Damn kids.
One of my favourite Shadowy memories was the 10-minute medley of every cliché rock ending that you once played at the Ontario Place Forum. Patti Schmidt of CBC’s Brave New Waves told me about a show where waitresses on roller skates circled a venue while holding flash cards with song titles. What are some of your favourite show memories?
Playing with Jesus and Mary Chain for their first North American touring and entering the stage by scaling the P.A., Alpine style. Or opening for Ramones for three shows. We all loved them and seeing and interacting with them backstage was a fan thrill for sure. Having “the Singing Frog” open for us at the Cameron House in Toronto was a real coup: it was a shoebox on a stool under a spotlight with string leading to the back of the bar so we could jiggle it. Spending two days to build a rocket and outfits for our entry to play two songs the first year we played Marcus O’Hara’s Martian Awareness Ball [a St. Patrick’s Day tradition in Toronto] was pretty memorable. Catherine and Mary Margaret O’Hara loved us, too. Shows booked by Beat Happening were always in the weirdest places and situations: living rooms, community halls, a factory in Portland where no one knew why we were there and we set up in an atrium and played without a P.A.
You were one of three Canadian bands to play the International Pop Underground in Olympia, Washington, in 1991, which has since been mythologized as a golden, innocent moment in American underground music in the summer before Nirvana broke. (The Smugglers and Mecca Normal were the others.) How do you see that moment in time now?
Other than how completely and thoroughly Olympia was an extension of K Records, and to a great degree Calvin Johnson [K Records founder, singer in Beat Happening and organizer of the festival]. The community aspect of IPU was hugely memorable and inspiring.
We arrived with almost no equipment and were all uptight about needing proper gear. From the first moment, Calvin asked [Bikini Kill drummer and riot grrrl pioneer] Tobi Vail for drums, and I recall seeing her walking toward where we were going to be playing, while the Melvins played, with a bass drum over her head. The kit was broken, and for the whole set there were all these hands around me belonging to people who later became our friends, holding the kit together while I played!
We related to so many other musicians either musically or aesthetically at the IPU that it really felt like the most perfect community ever. That the whole town was involved in things like the Pet Parade and the cake contest was so ridiculously quaint and like some kind of teen fantasy community. It felt like a whole town modelling how community-mindedness—and dancing—could liberate everyone from the established grossness of the rock music business. Everyone volunteered for something so there was Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye taking tickets at the door for a show by Thee Headcoats. Fugazi themselves played the last set of the fest and seemed to concentrate all the energy of the week in a set that still gives me goosebumps to think about. After each night’s shows, Nation of Ulysses spun incredible obscure soul records at a dance party until dawn.
It was the perfect situation in so many ways and was one of the significant events that connected Shadowy Men more to a community on the West Coast than we felt anywhere else—even in Toronto probably. As great as our little scene in Toronto was, it was easy to idealize what we experienced out west because it didn’t involve money or your place on the bill or any of the strategic things about being in a local scene.