Friday, December 01, 2006

Dave Bidini: post-Rheostatics

The one band that's meant the most to me in my adult life has been the Rheostatics, mostly because their discography between 1990 and 1995 (Melville, Whale Music, Introducing Happiness) inspired me to play in a band, to become a better writer, to document this country's living musical history, yadda yadda. I've seen them dozens of times, often several nights in a row during their annual Green Sprouts Music Week in Toronto, a week-(or more)-long residency at a Toronto club (starting at Ultrasound, the last several have been at the Horseshoe).

For a history of the band that I wrote five years ago, go here.

I'm an unabashed fan, so much so that I'll admit here that the single biggest thrill I've ever had as a performer was not only opening two of their Green Sprouts shows with my band at the time, but sitting in on keyboards with them both nights for a couple of songs. Some people dream of jamming with the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Gardens or something equally pie-in-the-sky. For me, playing with the Rheos at the Horseshoe was as big as it will ever get: and I don't mean that in a typically lowered Canadian expectations fashion. As I said before, they mean more to me than any other band; I know their albums more intimately than any other; I've had to replace several of their CDs due to excessive wear and tear (or envious roommates).

That said, as Lester Bangs pointed out, heroes exist in part to let you down, and this love affair has been on-again/off-again from the beginning. I've been just as critical as I have been gushing effusively (okay, maybe more of the latter), but I always come back for more with open ears. And they've surprised me and pulled me back in on several occasions when I thought it was over.

This time, however, it likely is over. Earlier this year, founding bassist Tim Vesely announced his departure after a whopping 27 years. The band already had a show booked at Toronto's venerable venue Massey Hall for March 2007, which they are turning into a farewell gig... of sorts.

Dave Bidini is the other founding member of the Rheostatics. These days he's also an accomplished author with roughly five books under his belt (depending how you count them), including his new book of short stories, The Five Hole Stories (more on that later). This interview is a two-parter; Monday's post will focus on his writing.

This conversation was conducted for the Kitchener-Waterloo Record in advance of a solo show/reading he had in Guelph. Bidini is the last Rheostatic to do solo musical pursuits.

Further links for the uninitiated:
streaming samples from 1992 classic Whale Music
streaming samples from 1998 album Double Live from
video for "Shaved Head," from Whale Music
video for "Stolen Car," from 1997's Night Lines Session
bizarre commercial for indie store featuring Rheos singer Martin Tielli

Dave Bidini

October 19, 2006

locale: Café Faema, Dupont/Christie, Toronto

With previous books, you did book tours in bookstores. Why do you want to take it to clubs? Do you feel more comfortable there?

The clubs will pay you, which is kind of good. In Calgary I’ll be in a bookstore. Wherever makes sense. I’ll read a bit from Five Hole, play a song, read from other stuff, play some more. Some Rheos stuff, some new stuff.

Before the events of the last year, was it on your agenda to perform solo more frequently? Was a solo album ever a concern?

Probably if we had kept going and doing our thing, I never would have. It seemed when I was reading, I did a book tour out west for The Best Game You Can Name and I brought my guitar and played a bit. It’s something that just happened and made sense. But musically it’s a challenge, which is good.

Is it liberating? Do you find yourself doing things you might not have done with the Rheos, or were the Rheos always the type of band where you felt you could do anything?

It’s true. That’s why the concept of solo is not unique, because all the guys in the band would do something where the rest of us would clear the stage. It’s terrifying and liberating. When it’s great, it’s the best, and when it’s not, it’s the absolute worst. There’s no middle ground whatsoever. You’re naked, and you’re either waving it around or you’re hiding it.

When Martin and Tim did solo records, how did you feel about those? Did you understand why they had to do those other than just escaping democracy for a bit?

I think they did it for different reasons. I didn’t think there needed to be more competitiveness, necessarily. I thought that if I did that, it would make it even more quietly competitive. And beyond writing the books and having the band, taking on another project would have muddled things logistically, even worse. It would have been harder for the band to exist. Ultimately, it didn’t matter one way or another! (laughs)

I’m curious about your writing recently. Your songs on [the most recent Rheos album] 2067, and the song on your website with Dave Merritt, there’s a lot of meta-writing, “rock about rock.” That element has always been there in your work, but it seems to dominate lately. Why is that?
Those songs just come way too easy. I recorded a bunch of stuff with [one-time Rheo drummer] Don [Kerr] and the Scribbled Out Man guys, and we have four more days coming up in November. I think that song is the only one about music.

Was Tim's departure something you expected? Did you see it coming?

You envision a break-up in your brain whenever you have a bad night. Any musician would be lying if they told you they didn’t. When you have a bad night, you think to yourself, ‘Well, this is what it’s like. It’s so bad that there’s no other option.’ But the next night you’ll have a great gig. And that was the thing about the Rheos. We’d have a terrible night, but we’d always have a great show the night after.

When it all came to pass, the thing that I regret the most is that there was a lot of writing on the wall that I didn’t really recognize. Maybe I was too busy to see it. Maybe I wasn’t so emotionally involved or connected to Tim as I should have been. For the last record, he recorded all his vocals at home. And part of the process of recording is being with friends, and making them laugh, and trying to out-do each other. But he went home and did it all himself, which further compartmentalized the band in retrospect. I think 2067 is great; it works well. But in that sense it was a surprise, in that I should have seen it coming.

It happened in a hotel room in Edmonton, in the morning. I was rooming with him, and he was looking out the window and I remember seeing an odd look on his face and thinking, ‘Wow, he’s really into this sunrise.’ It was a beautiful day. Then he said what he said. I spent the first couple of minutes trying to talk him out of it. Then I realised that when you’ve played with a guy for 27 years, it’s not like I’m going to say, ‘You’re bailing on us.’ When [drummer Dave] Clark [1981-1994] left, the only thing I could say to him was that we had all this exciting stuff lined up. With Tim, we had the Chinese tour, the record was going to come out in England. Now that I’m on the other side of it I realised that all those things were still possible. I realised that after 27 years of basically being good at being a professional musician, I didn’t necessarily need the band to realise all those musical ideas and dreams.

It would be great if he was still around to do it, but he also has to follow his own path. Having played together for 27 years, you can look at it two ways: 27 years is enough and you never want to play with each other again; at the same time, it was 27 pretty good years, so does that really mean there will never be another time? Saying never in rock’n’roll is tough enough anyway. The Massey Hall thing was too great an opportunity to pass up. If we had said no to Massey Hall and broke up in the parking lot of some shitty bar, it would have felt pretty dumb. Planning your own funeral and sending off the ships is a good opportunity.

Have you ever witnessed another band’s self-conscious last show?

Probably. I just can’t think right now. Not sure. I remember with 2067 when it came out, I felt really good about it and I think the fans really liked it and there were some new fans, but I felt we might catch more of a buzz from it. But because of the nature of Canadian music, it’s so busy and so crowded and alive and vibrant—it’s a little harder. You find that with a lot of bands that are our age, you have to get a little lucky. It doesn’t matter how good or bad your record is, you have to somehow catch that frequency to be noticed. It’s frustrating for a lot of bands and musicians our age. In that sense, it feels like the right time to bow out. I’ve seen a lot of this scene that has been fostered and planted and there’s fruit on the trees, so it’s good to slide back and say…

The kids are alright?


The last five years have been so incredible and in many ways eclipsing the period of time I wrote about, but at the same time do you see evidence of a typically Canadian cultural amnesia that comes with that?

I would have said that had I not just gone out with my dad on the weekend, and we stopped at a gas bar just west of Kingston. I looked out the window and my dad was pumping gas and talking to a bunch of guys with hoodies who were clearly a band. They were young, maybe 21 years old. So I got out of the car and said, ‘Hey, you guys in a band?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I’m in a band too.’ And they were so flipped out and so excited.

I think we do have this sort of precious status where I think young musicians are aware of what we did and what our contribution was. And we never did corporate gigs, we never sold our songs to beer companies, we always remained steadfast to our ideologies. That’s a currency that I’m really proud of. I can’t help but compare ourselves to our peers. For us, it was always about discovery. Bands are aware of that and appreciate that. The amnesia might exist, but it’s not like we were widely acknowledged and then forgotten. We were always kind of forgotten, which is okay. It’s not a bad position to be in.

I can think of so many career highs for the Rheostatics, and at so many different levels: the overall career arc, the independence, the major label period, the stadium tour, art projects, etc. Again, this might be a typically self-deprecating Canadian question, but are there any regrets about those years?

Probably just the ‘Claire’ video. That’d be the only one!

I actually meant not things you did, but things you would have liked the band to do.

No, I don’t think so. No, because it’s all about art and music. There would be no regrets there. There are details, but they create no marks on the greater beast. Martin said the other day, ‘We were always this jalopy.’ People talk about whether the band has broken up or not, and will this be the last show. But it’s not like this was ever a conventional band. Something unconventional can come out of it and be just as real and valid, because it’s always been this clunky thing that just kept going for some reason.

It’s not like it was a full-time band for most of the last ten years.

Exactly. With this One Yellow Rabbit thing, we can call it Rheos or not, we can put out a record and do festival stuff—in that sense, it’s good in a way.

Any decisions as to what it will be called?

Don’t know, no. We’re going to do this thing and then see what happens.

Do you have any concrete plans for the Massey Hall show? I was thinking the other day how daunting it is to play a venue that has a curfew, a finite amount of time that you have to do. Considering how many wonderful and sprawling things I’ve seen at Green Sprouts shows, often going well past last call, I’m trying to imagine how you will focus any or all of that into a three-hour show.

I know. It could end up being a very mediocre, large-scale deal. That’s the hard thing about a last show. You want it to be mint. But who knows? Maybe it would be more typically us if it was just lumpy, half-memorable, half-forgettable thing. We will be bringing some guests in.

Last I heard, the floor was sold out.

I think we’ve sold about 1200 tickets. We’re looking at a sell-out, fingers crossed, but it looks pretty good. Which is great. The feedback I’ve got from people is, ‘Hey, you’re playing Massey Hall, that’s great! No Fall Nationals this year?’ ‘Uh, no, actually, it’s our last show.’ ‘Last show?’ I think there’s a large percentage of people who are going because it’s our last show, but there are also a lot of people who are really into seeing us at this place. Which makes me think—what a goof! Again, it doesn’t make me regret that this thing is over, but maybe this Massey Hall gig could be a step to something greater. You never know, really.

Any overall theories on the current CanRock Rennaisance? Are we better businessmen, better musicians? Or is the world simply more curious about us?

Nah, I think it’s the natural progression and evolution of art. Even bands that don’t get the big headlines. The Elliot Brood record, Ambassador, I didn’t hear that record until a couple of months ago, and it was one of those, ‘What is this?’ And inevitably whenever I have that reaction, it’s a Canadian band. Or a band like the Dears, their last record I think is brilliant. It’s so crowded now that even great bands aren’t getting the banners. I think it’s evolutionary and a lack of self-consciousness. It’s just as complicated as all those other Canadian complications in art, in terms of ‘what’s the sound, what’s the voice.’ It is what it is, which is very freeing to a lot of people.

When I reflect on the period that I wrote about [in this book, which had a chapter on the Rheostatics], there are similar stories that appear all through the book, the same mistakes people made. No matter how indie they were, a lot of them really wanted a major label deal, that was the goal—that and touring from Halifax to Vancouver. A lot of people had blinkers on, as if those two things were the only thing that would make you succesful, and the mainstream was the only end game. Now people don’t believe that at all, and conversely they’ve become way more successful—nationally and internationally—than anyone from that period.

That’s the mudslide that is the industry right now, too. And even the ethereal-ness of it too: what is the fucking record industry? It was a lot easier to figure out back then, because you’d play the Rivoli and there would be eight A&R people at the back of the room. Now I can’t even tell you who those people are or what their motivations are. It’s probably simpler for the musicians now, but more complicated for the industry because they don’t even know what they are themselves. It’s interesting, you’re right, how not having a major label is actually a band’s strength. It’s beautiful. And the industry only has themselves to blame.

As someone who has mentored a lot of young artists and taken them on tour, do you find it harder to impart elderly wisdom when everything has changed?

Yeah, but the elderly wisdom was always: write a good song, play a good show, be true to yourself. All the stuff Joey Ramone told me. There’s no rulebook, no formula. It’s always about following your nose and learning for yourself what the right decisions are.


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