Thursday, March 29, 2007

Northern Wishes: Rheostatics p4

Final excerpt from Have Not Been the Same today, to mark the eve of the penultimate Rheostatics show tonight at the Horseshoe. Who's the ultra-secret opening act? Full report tomorrow.
For Dave Bidini's perspective on the impending break-up, look here. For parts one through three, look no further. For an excellent and thoughtful obituary, check out Howard Druckman's fine piece of writing in Eye Weekly here. I couldn't have said it better myself. Even more illuminating are comments from Laura Barrett, Feist, and others here.

After the release of Introducing Happiness in 1994, Dave Clark became increasingly disenchanted with the band’s state of affairs. “We ended up getting stuck in business, which is the worst place for any band to be,” he says. “I’m the type of person who doesn’t deal well with an overload of negativity. We would go out and have these incredibly ecstatic live shows, with everything from the deepest angst from the darkest pits of our being, to the brightest, happiest times. Certain people started to feel the pressure of commercial aspirations. We were working hard, had girlfriends and were trying to get a life. At the same time, spending that much time with the same four people locked us into a pattern of socializing, so everything was a little bigger than it could have been.”

Things came to a head while the band was touring in the UK in the fall of 1994. “You could see that people were getting tired,” says Clark. “We’d get to a gig and all people would do was complain about their gear. I thought, ‘Fuck, a year ago we were playing on gear that we were hammering together.’ For me it was becoming less about the music and more about everything around it. The joy of it just left me. I enjoyed the people – Dave, Tim and Martin were fun and really nice guys. Martin in particular is hilarious; no matter how much angst was going on between us, he was always very funny and is to this day. But I knew I had to quit and I couldn’t bring myself to do it, because it would be quitting something that had been such a huge part of my life.”

Looking back, Vesely says of Clark, “He thought we were more industry-oriented than we actually were. His interest had gone further and further away from keeping within the mainstream. It might have appeared that that’s what we were doing, because people would latch onto the song ‘Claire,’ even though we were doing all this other stuff. He was reacting against that more than he should have. We definitely weren’t as far apart as he thought we were – or we thought he was.”

In October, 1994, the Rheostatics played two fateful gigs at the Zaphod Beeblebrox club in Ottawa, with Dinner is Ruined opening the show. “They set up all this wacky gear,” says Clark, “and I hung out with them because it was exciting to hang out with different people. They were really eccentric guys.” With a hint of disdain, Clark continues, ‘This was just after that single ‘Claire’ on the charts, and we started to get more of a collegiate audience. It was different; we were getting more guys [in the audience], I don’t know why. [Dinner is Ruined] played, and people felt threatened and wanted to beat them up. Of course, they weren’t afraid at all. I was sitting there thinking, ‘This is great!’”

“All hell broke loose,” says Morningstar. “That was the phase of DIR where we just brought all sorts of shit on stage and tried to make as much racket as we could and keep it going. It was a college drinking crowd, and they were booing us. Dr. Pee ran out into the crowd along the stand-up bar with a microphone, looking for whoever was booing us. I found some movie poster, and I hurled it into the crowd and it hit some gal in the head. This guy came up to me and tried to start a fist fight with me while I’m on stage, and I was like, ‘Hey, fuck you!’ It was pandemonium, fucking lunacy. Clark was just snapping pictures. The next night was all-ages, and these kids were totally into it.”

Morningstar continues, “But after the first night, Pee and I went to a party somewhere in Ottawa and then left to go back to our hotel room. This was Ottawa, it was October, and it was freezing out and Pee had the window rolled down. I told him, ‘John, roll the window up.’ He just said, ‘Michael Stipe.’ Because Michael Stipe always has to travel in his own van so he can have the window down, apparently. I said, ‘Fuck off, Michael Stipe, you’re not Michael Stipe, roll up the window.’ I pulled the van over and said, ‘Look man, it’s fucking cold, have some decency and roll the window up! I’m giving you to ten, either roll the window up or get out!’ He got out and said, ‘Alright, fuck it.’ We were miles away from where we were supposed to be, and I said, ‘John, ten count. Here we go… bye!’ I drove off to our buddy’s house, and didn’t hear from John. The next night at soundcheck, the Rheos were asking, ‘Where’s Dr. Pee?’ ‘I don’t know, left him by the side of the road.’ He showed up. He had slept in a parking lot garage. He ran into some prostitute and her john, who woke him up and turned him on to some hash. The Rheos were like, ‘What? You guys did what?’

“Later that night, while we’re playing on stage, halfway into our set, I heard this drum. I turned around and there’s Dave Clark playing his drum kit on stage with us. Clark’s been a part of every gig ever since. He told me he was hearing voices on stage that night telling him, ‘This is your part. You belong in this. This is part of your future.’”

“After that I was a big fan,” says Clark. “They had freedom and a real spirit. It wasn’t cerebral. It wasn’t from the head down; it started at the crotch. I started going out on gigs with them, and they didn’t even ask me to learn any music.”

Clark’s last gig with the band was playing “Claire” on Rita McNeil’s CBC-TV variety show. After that, they held a band meeting. Says Vesely, “We sat down eventually when his days were up and he was ready to quit and we were ready to tell him to quit. He came up with this ultimatum list of all these points. At the time, we thought, wow, you can’t bring an ultimatum to the band and say ‘this is what we should be doing.’ So we said, ‘Yeah, maybe you should look for something else.’”

Clark says, “When I was leaving the band, I said, ‘This is the way I’d stay in the band: if we had Kevin Hearn join the band; change our management; and start paying ourselves so we can live’ – and a bunch of other things that subsequently happened, but I didn’t have the patience to stick around.” Vesely concurs: “A couple of years down the road we ended up being at all those points, which is a bit unfortunate. Maybe that’s what it took.”

Immediately after his departure, Clark booked a gig at Ultrasound with Lewis Melville, Kevin Hearn, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir guitarist Andrew Whiteman, and Rheostatics guitar tech Tim Mech. He dubbed it The Woodchoppers Association, and it was completely improvisational, free-form music, which continues today with an ever-revolving cast of characters.

Clark and the other members of the Rheostatics had an acrimonious relationship for years, and they didn’t bury the hatchet until the band’s 20th anniversary shows in March, 2000 at Ted’s Wrecking Yard in Toronto. Dinner is Ruined opened two shows, and at the end of the second show, Clark sat in with the band for the song “People’s Republic of Dave.” “It was nice to see the guys,” says Clark. “It tied a bowtie on something that will be looked at as a beautiful and wonderful time. I strongly reiterate: the time that stuff was going down, when I wasn’t enjoying it, was very, very small compared to the other 99 percent of it that was fantastic. The band was magic. I’ve since had that magic with other bands and other people.”

After Dave Clark’s departure, the Rheostatics were determined to continue. Introducing Happiness had only been out for four months, and “Claire” had just won a Genie award for best original song. After a month, they started to get antsy and decided to move on. Their first call was to Don Kerr. “I saw the name Rheostatics everywhere, all my life,” says Kerr, “but I never saw them until two years before I joined the band, when they walked into the studio.” Kerr had never heard Whale Music before, and the first time he saw them play was at a benefit gig at Sneaky Dee’s, where Kerr was accompanying cellist Anne Bourne.

Kerr got the call to join in February, 1995, and the first song he played at his first Rheostatics practice was “A Midwinter’s Night Dream,” a Tielli song that would appear on Blue Hysteria. Their first gig together was an unannounced shot opening for London, Ontario smart-rock band Adam West at the Horseshoe. The second was in Calgary, kicking off a western tour. The band took on much more of a rock edge right away, with a faster version of “Saskatchewan” and a more straightforward, riff-rock approach to “Fan Letter to Michael Jackson,” from Introducing Happiness. The latter was released as a 7” single, marking Kerr’s first recorded Rheostatics appearance.

Because Dave Clark was such an integral part of the band’s sound, the difference was jarring at first. “I loved Dave Clark,” gushes Yvonne Matsell. “I adore Don as a person, and he’s wonderful as a musician. But that was really hard for me to deal with, hearing Don play the first couple of times. All their material is in my head, because sometimes they’d come in [to Ultrasound] and rehearse for hours at a time. I remember waiting to hear Dave’s fills, and it was throwing me off. But now, he’s been a great choice.” Kerr knew that he had an uphill battle for the fans’ acceptance. “At first there were some drummer fans who said, ‘I could play those parts better than that guy,’” says Kerr. “But most fans knew that it was a different thing.”

The band’s next project was a commission, like the Whale Music soundtrack. This time, the National Gallery in Ottawa wanted the band to compose music to celebrate a retrospective of paintings by the Group of Seven. The band would debut the music live at the Gallery. To pull it off, they enlisted the help of Look People keyboardist Kevin Hearn to help them with the composition and performance.

“We just scraped it together,” says Kerr about the initial performance. “We had never even run through the whole thing. We thought we’d have the day to rehearse it at the sight, but we got there and the P.A. was still in the truck. The only time we did the whole thing was in front of the audience. It was amazing to turn around and look at the visuals.” The multi-media show was accompanied by projections of film and slides thematically linked to Group of Seven work.

When it was over, they decided to work on the music a bit more and commit it to disc, which they did in the space of two weeks. They would perform it live on two other occasions, this time with Bob Wiseman filling in for Kevin Hearn, when the exhibition travelled to Toronto and Vancouver. “It made me think that the sky’s the limit,” says Bidini. “The fact that if that project became a reality, created its own momentum and had a life of its own, then anything’s possible. I didn’t think we’d be able to pull it together, that people would like it and that it would be an important part of our career, but it has.”

The time had now come to focus on a new album of songs, The Blue Hysteria, which again marked a few changes for the band. They had been dropped by Sire in 1995 due to “corporate ennui,” says Bidini. Not only was Blue Hysteria the first “real” album with Kerr, but it was the first time since Melville they decided not to work with Wojewoda. The songwriting and arrangements were also quite a departure.

“When we went to the Gas Station and started recording,” says Bidini, “we all thought we were going to record live and be a bit more rock. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to work with [Wojewoda], because we wanted it to sound more like four guys playing together. There were some things we wanted to try. I thought editing ourselves would be a problem on Blue Hysteria, but it wasn’t really. To me, Introducing Happiness sounds more self-indulgent, but not in a bad way.”

“When I joined the Rheos,” says Kerr, “everyone was like: ‘Yeah! We can play some straight-ahead rock now, and no one’s going to turn the beat around on us!’ I was having fun; I like to play more groove-oriented than Dave Clark sometimes. But everyone was unleashing these rock songs, and I don’t like rock music at all. I like something to be straight ahead, but grooving and soulful, like the Bourbons. It was like everyone was getting their ya-yas out after Clark was gone. There are some dumb heavy metal approaches. ‘Bad Time to Be Poor’ is a good song. Everyone just wanted to plow, and I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I like to do the weird shit too!’ But that was just a phase.”

There was some interest from other major labels for Blue Hysteria, but the band decided that they were better off charting the waters themselves – especially with a raw, warts-and-all rock record. “[Major labels] never know what to do with any of our records,” says Bidini. “There’s no ‘Claire’ on [Blue Hysteria], that’s for sure. But then again, there was ‘Claire’ on the last one, and it didn’t really matter.”

Through some twist of fate the Rheostatics landed their second hit single with another Vesely composition, “Bad Time to Be Poor,” a pointed swipe at the individualistic turn in Ontarian society following the election of an arch-conservative provincial government: “It is a bad time to be poor/ ‘cause we don’t give a shit no more/ if you want to go for help don’t look next door/ the line’s been drawn and staked outside.” That climate also seeps into Bidini’s “Feed Yourself,” a homicidal tale that details a girl’s gruesome murder and the urban paranoiac witch hunt that follows.

Otherwise, Blue Hysteria falls short at a time when they were poised to capitalize on increased awareness of the band. As a first impression for new fans, The Blue Hysteria does not suggest the rich history of the band nor their continuing potential. The two best songs – “Feed Yourself” and Tielli’s “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” – were bettered on the band’s 1997 Double Live album. Oddly enough, the album’s most enduring performance is a goofy ode to The Who’s “A Quick One” entitled “Four Little Songs,” a live favourite consisting of four linked vignettes sung by each band member.

Upon the album’s release, the Rheos were chosen to open for The Tragically Hip on a 30-date cross-country arena tour in November, 1996. It was an experience Bidini would later detail in his 1998 book On a Cold Road, where it would take on mythological meaning, and rightfully so – it was a nod of approval from the country’s biggest rock band, one that would expose the band to hundreds of thousands of new fans.

The Rheostatics had played with the Hip before, both on multi-band festivals: Canada Day 1994 at Molson Park in Barrie, and in 1995 on the Another Roadside Attraction tour. Both incidences had them on in the middle of the day, and this time they were the opening act. That tour undoubtedly brought them plenty of attention, new fans, and for Bidini, the opportunity to eloquently write his way into the CanRock pantheon. The members of The Hip would sing the band’s praises in many interviews, and on stage Gord Downie would sing excerpts of Blue Hysteria material in the middle of Hip songs.

Not only did it give the band short-term publicity, but a permanent place in Hip mythology. On their live album Live Between Us, recorded at the tour’s Detroit stop, Downie opens the show – and the album – by saying, over the beginning of “Grace Too,” “This is for the Rheostatics – we are all richer for having seen them tonight.” Says Tielli, “I was up in the rafters when he was saying that. I was up on the catwalk, 200 feet above the audience. I was shaking in my boots, mortified and grateful as hell.”

Earlier that evening during The Hip’s soundcheck, Bidini was interviewed and modestly downplayed the importance of the tour. “It’s going as well as can be expected,” he said. “We’re all a little sick of doing short sets and the same kind of response night after night. It’s a little hard to keep playing just for yourself, because that’s all you can really take back from it, but it sounds really good. We played in Vancouver, and the best night was the second night of the tour. As soon as we came out on stage, a big 350-lb guy in a Team Canada sweater, got out of his seat, stood at the top of the stage and started waving his fists in the air before we’d even played a note. He was our audience, and it was great.”

Reflecting for a minute, Bidini continued, “I thought about what [this tour] would be like with Dave Clark. His whole thing was to really take things to the extreme, and he would have relished this scenario. We’re playing it pretty straight. Then again, compared to the Hip, we probably sound like the Local Rabbits: we’re moving around, going crazy, trying funny things, playing weird, goofy music. We feel like we won some kind of lottery.”

Don Kerr recalls, “We were basically musical ushers as people were finding their seats. We just went for it. We wanted to be ourselves. There was none of that thing: ‘We gotta scale it down, play the same songs every night and hit them with the most impact.’ Although we felt that way a bit at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was Toronto, and we wanted to be tight and exciting. That was an unbelievable thrill, playing two nights at Maple Leaf Gardens. The second night I rode my bike there.”

Those two gigs closed the tour, and ended a productive 18-month period that saw the Rheostatics redefine who they were, setting a template for the five years to follow. Kerr was now juggling commitments with Ron Sexsmith, his old friend who began touring the world in 1995 on the heels of an international recording contract. In 1998, he’d enlist Vesely into Sexsmith’s band, which ensured that the Rheostatics became more of a part-time band that focused on specific projects and limited touring. They released the comprehensive Double Live album, a session recorded for the final night of David Wisdom’s Night Lines program, and a kaleidoscopic children’s album—The Story of Harmelodia— produced by Wojewoda that picked up where the sonic experiments of Introducing Happiness left off. In November, 2000, they entered the Gas Station with producer Ian Blurton to start recording their first “real,” non-project album since The Blue Hysteria. [This would be 2001's Night of the Shooting Stars, the best of the late period albums.]

On that night in 1997 at Cobo Arena in Detroit, Bidini mused about the band’s future. “I was thinking about ways to take our music to another level,” he said. “It all starts by sitting down with the guitar and a crazy idea and seeing how far you can take it. It’s the same process whether you’re writing your first song or your thousandth. We’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before – by us, and by other band’s standards, too.”


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Northern Wishes: Rheostatics p3

Back to our Rheostatics saga today, in anticipation of their final two shows tomorrow at the Horseshoe (tickets here only) and Friday at Massey Hall.

As with the last two installments, this is an excerpt from the 2001 book Have Not Been the Same, which I co-authored with Jason Schneider and Ian A.D. Jack.

When it came time to follow up Melville, the Rheostatics almost found themselves in a sophomore slump. [Producer Michael Phillip] Wojewoda recalls, “Even though Greatest Hits was already out [before Melville], Whale Music had a sophomoric anxiety about it, which led to a lot of rap sessions and freaking out. I got into big fights with [drummer] Dave Clark, because he kept saying, ‘It’s gotta be great. We have all this pressure, people have all these expectations.’ Finally, everyone just went ‘Fuck it!’ For two days I couldn’t even get them into the studio, and we only had two weeks to make the record. What was amazing was that Whale Music is even better, and went even further than Melville.”

To ease the tension, the Rheostatics drew on the musical community they’d immersed themselves in over the past two years: Lewis Melville, Dave Allen, Tannis Slimmon of The Bird Sisters, UIC’s Joey Bechta, the Barenaked Ladies (dubbed “The Scarborough Naked Youth Choir”), and from the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Gene Hardy and Chris Brown. “Having a lot of guests on the record was like a buffer,” says Wojewoda. “That helped them get past the fact that none of them wanted to play, because they were too freaked out to be there.”

Chris Brown recalls, “They thought they were going too far in the studio. I sat with them and saying, ‘Don’t think about anything else. Don’t think about the live show or being able to recreate anything other than spirit.’ I remember a really wonderful, really loose creative time, and letting stuff happen. They’re all such individuals that it’s amazing they could come together like that.”

Whale Music opens with a lush string section – which is actually multiple overdubs of Dave Allen’s violin – introducing the theme of “Self-Serve Gas Station.” The song slowly evolves from a lush country ballad into a howling rock epic, set to lyrics detailing crippling suburban ennui: “To say that this is anything/ is saying much too much.” It establishes a tone of elegance that continues through the rest of the album.

Lyrically, there’s a recurring theme of escape and coming to terms with one’s past and present, and it’s [Dave] Bidini who scores most of the best stories. The narrator in “Queer” consoles his brother, who has been banished from the family home by a homophobic father after a violent confrontation: “I don’t care about the damage/ But I wish you were there to see it/ When I scored a hat trick on the team that called you a fuckin’ queer.” The musician in “Rock Death America” wants desparately to shrug off the stigma of being a Canadian band always compared to foreign examples: “Someone said we sounded like the Replacements/ but we’d never be the Beatles or Byrds/ someone said we should’ve stayed in the basement/ instead of littering our noise on the earth.” The slacker in “Legal Age Life At Variety Store” is a curbside philosopher who muses, “I’m the king I am therefore what kind of a fool am I?”

Lewis Melville argues that one of the band’s main strengths is Bidini’s lyrics, including “his social awareness and his ability to put that across. Bidini writes very straightforward and in-your-face lyrics,” Melville continues, “that really capture the mood of what it is he’s talking about. It is rare—capturing the mood, not just saying it, but getting the essence of it. He’s very good at capturing the simple and expressing it in a very powerful way.”

Whale Music’s biggest strength, when compared to the rest of the band’s catalogue, is that all three principle writers are in peak form. [Tim] Vesely pens what is perhaps his best song, “King of the Past,” and [Martin] Tielli wrenches some of his most emotional and dramatic performances on “Shaved Head,” “California Dreamline” and “Dope Fiends and Boozehounds.” The latter closes the album and encapsulates much of its lyrical and musical ambition, making it Whale Music’s definitive song.

One of the biggest boosts the band received was from Neil Peart, the uberdrummer for hometown heroes Rush. Bidini had interviewed him for an article, and when he asked about Peart’s favourite new Canadian bands, Peart cited the Rheostatics – completely unaware that Bidini was in the band.

They invited Peart to play on a couple of Whale Music tracks, including “Guns,” a piece by Clark which consisted of a poem and a drum solo. “I didn’t even want to have him out,” admits Clark. “I was too afraid of having a hero come out and play.” But Clark and Peart got along famously. “The way he played drums, you could tell that he’d been playing stadiums all his life: the power, the conviction,” says Clark. “It hurt my ears with the headphones on. The control room was full of people watching: the Barenaked Ladies, our band, and others. This was a big moment, because he was a CanRock god – well, an international god. The talkback button was on by mistake, and we heard [BNL drummer] Tyler Stewart say, ‘Look at Dave, man, he’s out there shitting his pants!’ I said, ‘No, I’m not! This is great!’ When I was there this adrenaline took over me and I felt completely supercharged, like I could jump over walls.”

“Almost everything [on Whale Music] was planned with half a day’s notice,” says Wojewoda. “So much of what they do is just chaos, then you edit it away to give it some order, and then the listener must follow suit to provide the rest of the order. Recording them is like wildlife photography; it’s just noise most of the time.”

Lewis Melville adds, “The texturing was done by Michael Phillip, but the band worked out of a lot of the ideas at shows. They had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to do, but didn’t know exactly how to pull it off. Michael Phillip is as creative a producer as you can find. He’s totally involved, he’s very positive and supportive, and he’s very sensitive to the mood of a recording. He’s pretty good at steering around trouble spots, but he’s not totally successful in the case of the Rheostatics, because they tend to have a mind of their own regardless of what anyone else thinks.”

Immediately following Whale Music, Wojewoda went to work on the Barenaked Ladies’ Gordon album. He got the job at the last minute. “They came in and sat on the couch for a day, ended up singing, and before they left they said, ‘We’d love you to do it,’” says Wojewoda, who refuses to take much credit for Gordon’s success.

“The machine was already in place,” he argues. “When I [started recording], the artwork was already done: the photos, the layout, everything. They had pig latin wherever the lyrics were to go. It didn’t matter. They just plugged me in, chose the songs, and were ready to go. In the hands of another capable producer, it probably would have done just as well. Their success has been largely based on their live shows, their tenacity and charisma. I knew I was a cog plugging into something, but I felt very comfortable with that idea. I thought, ‘Great, if I don’t fuck up, then all the better.’ I almost liked it more, because so many indie records come and go, and I knew someone was going to play this when it was done.”

Wojewoda wasn’t a fan of the band at first, particularly their lightweight humour, which he thought overshadowed their real strengths. “I got the yellow cassette and I heard it and thought, ‘Ehh, collegiate schtick.’ Then I heard ‘The Flag.’ There’s an insightful darkness to Steven [Page] that made me like it, and I realized that I could do something with that. I could be party to elevate that out of the collegiate stuff and give it a serious twist.”

The Gordon sessions were haunted by the spectre of the still-uncompleted Whale Music sessions, which both Wojewoda and the Barenaked Ladies knew were special. “We were laying down the beds for Gordon, and Michael Phillip would bring in rough mixes of Whale Music, and we’d say, ‘Our record’s shit!’” laughs the self-deprecating Ed Robertson. Gordon went on to sell a million copies in Canada, but Wojewoda didn’t reap any immediate rewards – quite the contrary. “It was the brokest I’ve ever been,” he laughs.

“My phone stopped ringing. My whole indie base thought either I wasn’t cool or that I was in L.A. being fabulous. I was dying for work, really bad.”

In the meantime, a job Wojewoda had started in the summer of 1991 had taken on a new life and was on its way to being another milestone in the CanRock Renaissance: Jane Siberry’s When I Was a Boy. Wojewoda was involved in the genesis of the album, what would become a small role in a much larger project. He got the job through John Switzer, Siberry’s former partner, with whom he was collaborating on an album by London, Ontario band Suffer Machine. Recalls Wojewoda, “I told John that at the time I was going through a little impasse on a learning curve, where I needed to watch someone else work, just to learn stuff. Then Jane was about to make another record, the first one John wasn’t going to be involved in. John and I were heading out to London to record more Suffer Machine stuff, and he says, ‘Jane’s going to be doing this thing, and she needs an engineer and I’d be really comfortable if you did it.”

A couple of months after the release of When I Was A Boy, Siberry was scheduled to play the Hillside Festival in her old university town of Guelph. To back her up, she called on the Rheostatics, who had begun adding their cover of Siberry’s “One More Colour” to their live set. Says Dave Clark, “We did it because Martin and I were both big fans, Martin in particular. One day I was walking down Spadina, and ran into her and said, ‘We should play together sometime.’ Then she phoned us up.”

The band was excited to do it, although warning bells started going off once rehearsals started at the Gas Station studio. “I was into it,” says Tim Vesely, “maybe because I’d had experience backing other people up before. But she rubbed the two Daves completely the wrong way, so they were going in the opposite direction that Jane and me and maybe Martin were.”

The show was to be the closing event of the weekend-long festival, with Siberry performing first and then the Rheostatics closing the night. After a long delay, they took to the stage, and although there were moments of magic, it was clear that the much-anticipated fusion was going to work like oil and water. “When we took the stage, she became a different person than in the rehearsals,” says Vesely. “She was out of touch with us, and had a completely different way of thinking about us as people. I didn’t pick up on it; the two Daves did for sure. I was concentrating on my parts. But I remember the experience pretty fondly, and musically, we did pretty good.” Tielli says, “I’ve got a videotape of it, and I don’t think there was a problem; she didn’t think there was a problem. It was the Daves, they didn’t dig it. And onstage, she was uncomfortable.”

At several points in the performance, Siberry wryly poked fun at the lack of synergy, asking: “What is this, some kind of game show?” as well as, “What am I doing on stage with these clowns?” “My face went red when she said that,” says Tielli. “But when I watch [the videotape of the performance], it was fine, other than that shit. I think she thought that Bidini jumping around didn’t quite fit the ambiance she was trying to create. He was like a boy, a bouncing rabbit of rock with these giant lead feet. There was a spotlight problem.”

“We had gone from being very free to accommodating someone else’s vision,” says Dave Clark. “We tried to the best of our abilities to do that, and I still deeply respect her songwriting to this day. But it was an unpleasant experience, to put it lightly.”

Afterwards, the Rheostatics were scheduled to back up Siberry for a taping of the MuchMusic show Intimate and Interactive, but retracted, partially at Clark’s insistence. “I said, ‘You guys can do what you want, but I’m not doing it,’” says Clark. “I called her up and told her. She’s a great musician. Everybody has times in their life when they’re not on the ball as they are at other times.”

Today, Siberry recalls, “It was just an interesting thing. Some kooky things happened, and I don’t really know what to make of them still. They’re a pretty emotional band. Musically, they’re in a different world.” She pauses, before adding, “It’s a different degree of refinement.”

The Rheostatics had a few shaky shows of their own around that time. Because of their adventurous nature onstage, they were capable of either the most transcendent moments or a meandering mess. On the heels of the accomplishment that was Whale Music, which had musicians across the land uttering the name Rheostatics in hushed and reverent tones, their live shows were burdened with high audience expectations. Although their carefree nature had initially attracted a lot of people to the band, suddenly there were new fans who were looking for the perfection found on the studio recordings.

Lewis Melville, who was often found on stage with the Rheostatics during that time, says, “The weakness of the band is that they don’t have the strength to be consistently strong. They can collapse easily. Tim would be the guy who they’d fall back on. Tim is the foundation.”

Mike O’Neill of The Inbreds frequently toured with the Rheostatics. “I spent a lot of my time watching their shows and being jealous, because I thought they were incredible,” says O’Neill. “They’d have really great shows and shows that weren’t as great, and I thought that was a beautiful thing. We toured with bands later on in our career who would play the same show every night, and it didn’t even make any difference.”

In November 1992, the Rheostatics staged a show at the Bathurst St. Theatre in Toronto, their first venture outside of the bar circuit, and the same venue where the Barenaked Ladies held their first big show. They took to the stage in tuxedos, which they had rented to sing the national anthem at a Maple Leafs game the night before; it was also the week of Dave Bidini’s wedding to childhood sweetheart Janet Morasutti, the co-author of “Northern Wish” and “Dope Fiends and Boozehounds.” “We put everything into that show,” recalls Tielli, “and that might have been one of the best. That was a big step, musically and performance-wise.” They were joined on keyboards by Kevin Hearn of the Look People, the first of many appearances he would make with the band; he would later join the Barenaked Ladies and become a key Rheostatics collaborator in the late ‘90s. The magical evening closed with Dave Bidini’s “When Winter Comes.” The coda of the song – normally sung by Tielli – was sung a cappella by Meryn Cadell, Tannis Slimmon, and Michelle Rumball (Grievous Angels) as fake snow fell from above the stage. [ed note: this show was later released as a double album on]

While Whale Music made converts one by one, the Barenaked Ladies were taking over the world. They were managed by Nigel Best, an aggressive British expatriate who soon added the Rheostatics to his roster. When BNL signed to Sire records, Best convinced the label to take the Rheostatics as well, and a remastered version of Whale Music was re-released on Sire in 1993. It didn’t have a significant effect on the Rheostatics’ visibility, or their schedule. “We never met the people from Sire records,” says Vesely. “We’ve always chugged along at the same kind of pace. Even at that time, we’d take our two/three month hiatus, where we barely talk to each other or even think about being in the band. The best part of that whole experience was learning how [major labels are] not really a part of music, and you don’t need record labels or managers.”

A major label deal did, however, mean the opportunity to use a major label budget. Wojewoda insisted that they go to Compass Point studios in the Bahamas in March, 1994. “I had to convince Tim,” recalls Wojewoda, “who wanted to spend it wisely and thought they should keep it. I said, ‘When are you ever going to get a chance to do something fun?’” Tielli says, “We were in the Bahamas thinking, ‘Are we going to pay for this for the rest of our lives?’ But we have an amazing ability to put things like that out of our minds, so we had a blast. It was almost like we were getting along.”

Dave Clark was beginning to question what he thought was the focus of the band at that time. “We had all these older songs that we were really enjoying, and newer stuff that Tim was writing, which was the direction the band ended up going in, straightforward pop stuff. Leading up to the recording, the band started closing in on itself. We didn’t work with Lew anymore; we started using less people as guests on stage, unless it was Green Sprouts Music Week. There was less adventure in the music, and for me it felt like we were rewriting stuff we’d already done.”

Wojewoda’s initial excitement for the recording quickly dissipated, as his notoriously weak constitution caved in at the worst possible time. “I landed a sinus attack and an ear infection: tinnitus, burning hot, and sick as a dog for the whole thing,” he says. “I had no fun in the Bahamas; I just felt a burden of responsibility. There are nuggets on the album, but everyone had to be served on that one. The need for democracy overtook clarity of the album, and I was too sick to do anything about it. I was physically ill, and just thought, ‘what the fuck.’”

With 18 songs, Introducing Happiness is incredibly eclectic and sprawling; if Whale Music was their Sgt. Pepper, Introducing Happiness is certainly their White Album. Much of it sounds like solo material as fleshed out by the band, as opposed to a true team effort, particularly four songs in the middle of the album: “Digital Beach,” “Earth,” “Row” and “Full Moon Over Russia.” Much of the album’s best writing belongs to Tielli, and Bidini’s best moments are reduced to when he and Tielli are collaborating on songs such as “Jesus Was a Teenager Too.” It’s a huge, head-spinning and confounding album, the sound of the Rheostatics blown up to a 70mm wide-screen and THX sound, magnifying the band’s best and worst moments, wrapped in a sparkling package of pristine and innovative production. It’s also the most comprehensive Rheostatics album, featuring their most conventional material alongside their quirkiest.

It doesn’t sound like a major label debut, partially because their label didn’t seem to care what they did. Vesely figures the song selection was a reactive measure. “In our limited dealings with managers and industry stuff, they always say ‘Focus! It’s too much crap in there,’” he says. “So naturally we’re going to do even more; it’s part of what we do. We thought, fuck that, let’s throw it all in and take it even further.”

Just before they started recording, they were contacted by Richard Lewis, a film director who was adapting Paul Quarrington’s novel Whale Music; Quarrington played the Rheostatics for Lewis, and the band was commissioned to work on the score. In the novel, the Brian Wilson-esque narrator, Desmond Howell, is living in seclusion, trying to create a symphony for the whales that surface outside his seaside mansion, because he feels only they truly understand him. His world is turned upside down when a young woman named Claire stumbles into his life and brings him closer to reality. Her presence inspires him to write a pop song about her, which leaks out to his former manager and becomes a comeback hit.

It’s not surprising that it was Vesely, the most concise pop songsmith in the band, who rose to the occasion. “We took the scripts home,” he recalls, “and I was looking at this little part that had these lyrics, ‘Purify me, purify me Claire/ clarify me Claire.’ I put some chords to it and brought it into the band sheepishly, because I have a hard time introducing new songs and I wasn’t really sold on it, but it was part of the soundtrack job, so I thought, whatever. The song came easily, because I sat down and thought of simplicity and a catchy melody. We were all into playing a simple beat and a simple song.”

It was the first single from Introducing Happiness, and became the band’s first hit. Tielli says, “Dave Clark hated it, but we were totally successful at what the assignment was. Nobody’s picked up on how funny that is: the assignment was to write Desmond Howell’s hit song, and we did it – and it’s our only charting hit, except maybe for [1996 single] ‘Bad Time to be Poor.’ It’s funny as hell that we can do it if we want to. I don’t want to, particularly.”

The band debuted the song at a noon hour concert outside the National Gallery in Ottawa, and workshopped it at Toronto’s Gas Station studios before heading to the Bahamas. Recording the demo session was Dale Morningstar. “I was never a huge Rheostatics fan,” recalls Morningstar, “until they recorded demos for Introducing Happiness at the Gas Station. I was sitting at the board, and on the other side of the screen they were working on ‘Claire.’ I thought, ‘Fuck, this is like the Beatles or something’ – the whole communication between the four guys, arguing to make a better pie. That was very inspiring, and that’s how I got to know Dave Clark.”

-end of part three of four-

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Great Lake Swimmers

A break from the recent Rheostatics posts, because today is the release date for the new Great Lake Swimmers album, Ongiara. Also out today is the new issue of Exclaim, which features my article on the band (link not yet available).

Oddly enough, though I’ve reviewed the band many times and got to know frontman Tony Dekker through various associations, this is the first time he and I have ever sat down to chat on the record.

I first saw the band at NXNE in 2002. My dear friend Lisa Moran (of Three Gut Records) had a job pre-screening NXNE submissions, narrowing down thousands of submissions to a shortlist that the festival organizers then chose from. In that crowded field, the one thing she was excited about was a CDR by the Great Lake Swimmers. Based on her recommendation and their fine choice of moniker, I went to their showcase and was immediately smitten with Dekker’s voice and songwriting. He was not yet comfortable on stage. Nor was his keyboardist at the time, who fell asleep on stage. Years later when I see them perform—especially unamplified shows at Zeke’s Gallery in Montreal or at the Track and Field festival outside of Guelph— I’m amazed at how far Dekker come as a performer, and he’s found a wonderfully sympathetic team of players to back him up (including, on occasion, Sandro Perri of Polmo Polpo on lap steel).

Two reviews I wrote of the first album (the initial review and then a year-end blurb) appear here, as does my initial NXNE review where I get the chorus of “I Will Never See the Sun” wrong.

A year-end blurb I wrote about the 2005 GLS album Bodies and Minds appears here.

This conversation took place on a beautiful snowy night on Roncesvalles in Toronto’s west end, a Polish neighbourhood near High Park, an artists’ enclave which is slowly being gentrified but hasn’t been entirely yupped up like College St. has. Dekker chose a signless, rustic hole in the wall that would have felt like a complete time warp if it weren’t for the Radiohead, Arcade Fire and Wilco on the jukebox.

Great Lake Swimmers
Tony Dekker
February 26, 2007
Locale: Intersteer on Roncesvalles

Tell me about this record. I have no notes, no bio, no nothing, so I actually know nothing about it other than what I’ve heard.
Oh, good. So you’re giving me a chance to explain myself here. We recorded it at the Aeolian Hall in London.

Was this with Andy Magoffin [who recorded Bodies and Minds, as well as Royal City, Constantines, Jim Guthrie, and many of the best records to come out of Ontario in the last five years]?
Yeah, he engineered it. We initially did some sessions with Dale Morningstar on Toronto Island, and had some plans to do some recordings in some of the historical buildings there. But we were denied access to those buildings, less than a week before we were supposed to start our session.

What were those buildings?
They have a church there, like a chapel, and an old schoolhouse. In particular, the one I was most interested in was the lighthouse on the island. A lot of history there, and an interesting, unique space. But we were totally shut down, so we had to rethink the whole project.

Was it approved and then retracted?
We had an understanding that it was good to go. Months and months ahead of time, and I had to co-ordinate a bunch of schedules to make it happen. Our drummer flew in from Vancouver.

He lives there now?
He’s studying the gray oak tree and its adaptability. He’s doing his master’s on it, so he’s there temporarily studying acorns. So we didn’t get entirely shut down, because we did do some work in Dale’s studio on the island. But I really wanted another ambient sounding location type of recording.

What were you expecting in the lighthouse? Where would you play, physically?
At the top of it. There was a really nice domed area at the top of it, and a spiral staircase. We were thinking of rigging it up at mics and playing in there on different levels of it.

That would either be beautiful or acoustic hell, wouldn’t it?
That’s exactly what I thought. Either beautiful or hell: a 50/50 chance. Either way, even if it wasn’t a success, it still would have been a good experience. So that having failed, we still did some work with Dale, but I really didn’t want to make a studio record. So we used that as pre-production, and then moved everything to London to the Aeolian Hall, where we ultimately recorded it.

Didn’t you do parts of the last record there?
We did that in a church in the Niagara region.

You went to university in London. Were you familiar with that venue then?
Yeah. I happened to be living in London for the first three installments of the No Music Festival, so I went to that venue frequently for events they put on. Back then it had a really nice organ in it, which is no longer there. It’s come into new management again, and turned into a really great, well organized space. They use it as a music school and a performance room for orchestras. And it’s acoustically beautiful.

What was its original purpose?
I think it was a town hall, like a meeting place. The original Aeolian Hall was somewhere else in London, but I believe it burned down so they moved the name to this place. The actual hall was a number of different things over the years. It was built at a time before there was electricity or amplification systems, so buildings like that had to be built with sound in mind, so that someone could be at the front of the room and orate and the sound would reach all parts of the room.

Like a church.
Totally. Even churches now have some amplification. The Aeolian Hall predates that. It was built somewhere around the 1800s. We don’t have too many old buildings in Canada, obviously, but that’s a particularly nice one, acoustically.

Who appears on the record?
Most of the backing vocals are done by Serena Ryder, and the core band is myself, Erik Arneson who plays banjo and some electric guitar, Colin Huebert who plays drums, and we also have Mike Overton on upright bass on a lot of it. He plays in St. Dirt Elementary School, the free-form klezmer band. He was also a mainstay at the Tranzac for a while. He’s played with the Silt before. He’ll be touring with us too.

Have you toured with a bass player before? Or is it always Almog covering that range with his left hand on the Rhodes?
He was doing bass/Wurlitzer for a while. We haven’t actually toured with a bass player proper, so it will be nice to have an upright bass player to fill out the live band.

I never felt the live band needed more filling out, however.
I don’t know, I guess that’s true. Maybe it will suck, I don’t know. I don’t think it will. It’s still tasteful and quiet. I still feel like I can pull the stuff off solo if I have to, and I’m sure we’ll do a portion of the set that’s just solo. A lot of the early songs are really stripped down and they sound nice like that.

This material sounds very balanced. I was very worried after the first record, which I loved so much, and I loved the continuity, the style of songwriting, the mood of the whole thing. But following that up is always a challenge: do you change everything, do you get stuck in a rut? What I loved about Bodies and Minds was that it progressed naturally from that without overwhelming what was so special about the first record. And this one sounds like a combination of the full-band sound of Bodies and Minds—and taking that further—but there at least four songs here that are just you.
Uh, yeah, three songs, I think. I think it’s balanced. There were songs that we added the band to and it just didn’t sound right. There were songs I added other instrumentation to and it wasn’t working. We ended up taking away a lot more than we added. The idea was to do what was best for the songs, do what they asked for. Some of them didn’t ask for anything, they were okay on their own.

There are some songs here that seem to be written with a band in mind: “Put There By the Land.” Has your writing changed the more this line-up becomes solid?
Leading up to going in and recording this album, we’d been on the road for a solid year and a half, as a three piece and sometimes a four piece. Especially with Erik and Colin, there was more of an intuitiveness. We were more synchronous, more naturally. We played some of these on the road, and there was more time and ability to work through them that way. I still think the songs could be okay even if there was no band on them. That’s a thing that I have: if it doesn’t sound good with just voice and acoustic guitar, then it’s not something I’ll pursue much further.

Colin is a really sympathetic drummer. I’m amazed you found someone like him who can be totally invisible while he’s playing, with this natural sense of where to be and when.
It’s the same idea as the music: sometimes focusing on what’s not being played being equally important. The silences are important; the breaks are important. Showing some restraint to best allow the songs to breathe. Colin’s also great because even if he’s playing the slowest beat ever, his body is very animated. It looks like he’s playing eight beats when he’s only playing two.

The writing on the first album was very circular: the verse and the chorus would have the same chord pattern, with different lyrics, and that was part of the hypnotic effect. Bodies and Minds started to get into more verse/chorus stuff, and on this one there seems to be more experimentation with structure. I love the last track here, “I Become Awake,” where all the verses feel like lapping waves, steadily consistent in the same pattern, before the chorus takes the song somewhere else entirely.
I never try to fit something into a structure. The structure of a song should serve the lyrics, and those two things should work together. That song, Bob Egan plays pedal steel on it.

I was wondering if that was Sandro Perri.
No, Sandro got really busy and wasn’t able to make it to the recording sessions. I would have loved to have him on this one, but he’s so busy with his own stuff and he wanted to go back to being a fan. That’s how he put it to me, anyway. We also shipped the tapes away to Sarah Harmer, who sang back-ups on that song as well.

Is that just her, or her and Serena?
No, just Sarah on that track. Serena is on the rest of the record, did the bulk of it. Having Sarah do it was an idea we had, and I felt it was a long shot. But she totally came through and found the time to do it. I had actually sung all the harmonies myself on the original recording, because I didn’t think it would happen.

Why did you think it was a long shot?
I don’t know, she’s a busy gal?

What, you think she doesn’t have time for you?
(laughs bashfully) I don’t know!

What is the title of the album and what does it mean?
Ongiara. I think it’s a hard “g,” because it’s derived from the word “Niagara.” Actually, it’s the origin of the word “Niagara” before it was translated into French and then Anglicized from there. It’s a native language. The name was taken from the boat, one of the ferries that took us over to Toronto Island with all our gear for the initial sessions with Dale. It’s one of the cargo boats. That’s when I first heard the name, and I thought it was mysterious sounding enough to be an album title. Then I did some research on the name, it’s the original name of the place I grew up. That was enough for me to make it all okay.

What was the town you grew up in? It was on Lake Erie, wasn’t it?
Yeah, in the Niagara region. Just outside of Port Colborne, this small town called Wainfleet, Ontario. It used to called Marshville, because there was a giant tract in the middle of it of swampland, where they harvest peat. (laughs)

When you were talking about being denied access to the Toronto Island venues, that didn’t stop you when you wanted to record in a silo in your hometown, did it? Wasn’t that covert and guerilla?
It was, actually. But there was no one around there to stop us. Initially. Over the course of that session, the owner of the property did come out when we had gone particularly late one night. At first he wanted to strangle me, because he thought I was, you know, trouble.

Satanic rituals?
Yeah, I mean, who knows what he thought? He was pretty upset about the whole thing. But then he turned out to be a childhood friend of mine, and because it’s a small town, everyone knows everyone.

Did you know who it belonged to beforehand?
No, I didn’t. It’s an abandoned piece of land out in the middle of nowhere. We had to go really late into the night a couple of times, and there was no electricity out there, so we had to bring in our own lights and a power generator and had all that going and sheltered off for sound. We ran cables from there into the silo. I had descended on to this old, broken down farm and recorded the record there. But he was okay with it in the end.

Did you know about Lee Hazlewood recording Duane Eddy in a silo to get that guitar effect?
Someone told me that, afterwards. It’s not like I felt I was doing something particularly adventurous, though it was an adventure at the time. I was just looking for a space with good acoustics. I just wanted to capture the reverb sound in it. Afterwards someone told me about Lee Hazlewood recording in silos.

I didn’t think we’d be talking about your first record, but now that I’m thinking of it, did you hear about the Silophone in Montreal?
Someone told me about that, too. They have a website? Where you send sound into it? I gotta look into that again. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about that. I should send a whole record through that.

People would send sounds of themselves singing, or sounds off the television, or a saxophone, or anything. I wanted to ask you about performing in churches, which you’ll be doing for the Toronto CD release, and you made your last album in a church as well. And I’ve seen this happen a lot lately, when I was in Montreal last month with the Arcade Fire, at a church they bought and renovated into a studio.
How are they doing?

Good, getting ready for the big circus to begin.
I can imagine, oh God. I heard a couple of songs from the new record, it sounded good.

It’s interesting in Quebec, in particular, but here as well, that all these old churches are no longer in use and they’re being repurposed and turned into condos, but a lot of them are being recognized for their acoustic properties and using them for shows or recording. I know you likely made your decision primarily for acoustics, but is there a sense of it being a sacred space when you’re in it, regardless of your beliefs?
It definitely does. It’s hard to deny that. First and foremost in my mind are the acoustics, but churches… that’s a loaded place, in terms of speaking of imagery and history and electricity. Maybe not electricity. It is a place where people gather in a lot of ways to get rid of stuff, and absorb stuff, and people are talking about their fears and their worries and talking about their joys. Places like that have a certain charge to them, I guess. Maybe that’s part of the reason I’m drawn to those types of places. But as far as the music is concerned, it’s the acoustics first, and that stuff comes second.

I started thinking about this at a Pop Montreal show in the St. Jean Baptiste church, on Rachel near St. Denis, which is also where the Arcade Fire recorded the pipe organ on their new record. I’m a lapsed Catholic, but being in there almost made me want to come back! The majesty of the structure is such that it’s such a radically different experience from obviously a club, but even somewhere like Massey Hall or anything else. The church was once a social hub, a political hub, and—well, not necessarily an exchange of ideas, but they were a powerful place and the architecture was built to match that, with beauty and magnificence. And that can’t help but inform hearing music in there.
Church isn’t a place you go to get lost. Performing music in there enforces that. The good part of music, the part where it causes you to reflect and search yourself instead of using it as escape—which is fine with me, too, and music is well used as an escape—but it’s also a good mode of reflection.

The opening line of “Where in the World Are You Now” talks about searching in churches and searching in bars. The first time I heard the song I took it at face value and thought it was about a person, but to me it’s also a spiritual quest of a song. And the more I listened to it, I thought the narrator might be looking for the memory of a person lost or passed, or a guiding spirit of any kind. Do you want to speak to that song particularly?
It’s not about a person. It’s more about, uh, yeah. Yeah, seeking, uh, you know. Yeah! I don’t really have anything to say about that song.

In the song “Large Family,” you end the chorus by singing, “And that’s enough for me.” At first I took that as you saying, “I don’t need any more family, thanks. I don’t need to have kids. I have a large family already.” It could be about self-sufficiency. What went into writing that song?
That song is not about me having a large family. That song is about the large family that we’re all a part of. It’s a message of peace.

When listening to it, perhaps because there are other specific lyrical references to music on the album, it also felt like a camaraderie song about your extended musical family.
I haven’t really thought of that. That’s a bit of a coincidence. It’s a new thing for me to invite people in that I didn’t know very well, but that I had admired from a lengthy distance. To have them come in and do stuff was another big change for me. I’m a pretty solitary person by nature. Owen Pallett does the strings on it. Serena, Mike, Sarah, Bob Egan… Bob does the dobro on that song too, actually.

Whenever I hear Serena Ryder open her voice, she has this thing—not unlike yourself—that can communicate so much, she just has that light inside of her.
Absolutely. It was such a wonderful experience to be shown up by her completely. Having the opportunity to sing with her was amazing. She has such a powerful voice. It was a great melding of sound there. She’s such a great singer, and I was completely shown up.

But you weren’t. I wouldn’t have guessed it was her, because of the way she sings here.
The mix is very subtle. And she was very cool, she very modestly took a backing vocal role in it, not a duet role. That’s just a testament to her doing what the song was calling for.

Speaking of you and extended family and extroverted women, tell me about Carolyn Mark.
(laughs). We did a CBC radio show together called Fuse, which puts two musicians together, mostly from different worlds, and has them collaborate on songs for the afternoon, and in the evening they tape it. I think she described it best, when she said it was like ‘putting a scorpion and a mouse in a tank together and seeing what happens.’ (chuckles) By the end of it I was like, ‘Yes, Ms. Mark. Yes, Ms. Mark.’ It was actually a lot of fun. She’s another person I had admired her music from a distance for a long time, and when the opportunity came up I jumped at the chance.

Whose idea was it? Either of you or the producers?
The producers asked who I’d like to work with, and they matched it up.

I didn’t hear the episode. Did an original song come out of it?
We mostly sang on each other’s songs, and did some covers. She did a Jr. Gone Wild song, and we did a duet on a Tom Waits cover, where she played piano. “Innocent When You Dream.”

I’ve also heard you on two other occasions on the CBC in the last four months: once covering Joni Mitchell, the other covering the Dead Kennedys.
I missed that show last weekend. How was it?

I only heard the last part of the song. I was driving around Collingwood that weekend listening to your record to prepare for this, and when I shut it off that afternoon I turned on the CBC and there you were.
Yeah, that was for a program on censorship they were doing on Definitely Not the Opera, and they asked me to do a song.

What role did that band play in your musical development?
A pretty important one, as it turns out. It was a natural pick. I obviously don’t make the kind of music that the Dead Kennedys do, but that style of music was important to me in my formative years. The idea that anyone could pick up a guitar, that everyone should start a band and make music and be a part of music and music is in all of us. We all have a right to express that and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. That attitude came from listening to music like that, even though in the end I wasn’t really drawn to making music like that. Dead Kennedys are a great example of that because of their politics and because they weren’t just delivering the message, they were the message. To fully believe in what you’re doing that much, to unflinchingly devote your life to it, I found inspiring.

Do you see political writing enter your own songwriting at all?
I’m not sure. The best political songs are love songs, I think. The best songs that are seen as political, aren’t overtly political, or could be interpreted in lots of different ways. It’s very difficult to do that well, to be political and say something specific about a very specific thing and a specific time, without being heavy handed and trite, without hitting it too hard.

And yet that’s exactly what the Dead Kennedys did.
No question about it. They were an overtly political band. But the politics were embedded in the music, in their personalities. Jello Biafra was walking the walk too, and he was very important to his community.

Covering Joni Mitchell is a very ballsy thing to do. [Dekker did "A Case of You" for a CBC live concert commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Last Waltz, hosted by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.]
You think so? It seemed natural to me. She’s so great, and such a classic Canadian songwriter. I can’t play guitar as good as her or sing as good as her, but I have such a fondness for her music. It came easily to me.

Blue is one of my favourite records of all time, probably in the top three. Every time I hear it, I hear new things, they teach me something new—even though everything about it is so familiar.
There’s all those lyrical twists in there too, that’s what I really like it. I mean, the songwriting is brilliant, the arrangements are great, the way they’re sung and delivered are amazing, but it’s the razor sharp lyrics.

It’s a very individual record to her, though. Which is why I find it weird when I hear people covering her. Nobody else writes lyrics like that; the guitar playing is so unique. If someone can pull it off, then it’s the most successful kind of cover there is: to make something like that your own. What was playing that Last Waltz tribute like?
It was pretty huge for me, actually. I got a chance to meet Garth Hudson and his wife Maud, backstage. I felt like he was backlit by blinding light, you know? He shook my hand and it was a really cool experience. In general, though, it was a nice thing to be a part of, because of the level of talent there. I’m not used to that kind of thing, to be honest. It was nice to be in an environment where I could tell there were people really working hard at their craft. Kathleen Edwards, for example. I’d seen her at the Hillside Festival before that, we opened for her that night. And Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, Tom Wilson, are all amazing players. It was more fun than I expected it to be. That version of “Acadian Driftwood” they did was really good.

When you travel beyond Canadian borders, do people respond to or even notice regional aspects of your band and your sound? Do they see it as part of a lineage?
I think so, actually. To a certain extent, there is a certain romanticism about it.

To other people or to ourselves?
Well, to ourselves as well. It’s such a young history, but we all arrived at the recorded medium at the same time. We just happened to arrive right when we were getting started. North American culture was just starting to happen when the Industrial Revolution happened, and the first early recordings speak to a hardship of being transplanted. It’s something that’s unique to North American culture, it’s deeply engrained in song, as far back as the first recordings go, and in folksongs even before that. That comes from England and Scotland, the history of it obviously goes a lot deeper, but it’s part of the romance of the North American folksong is that it comes from a pretty lonely place. It’s deeply engrained in our culture.

Are these things you thought about before you went abroad? Or has traveling developed those thoughts more?
Traveling to some extent. But also just broadening my musical horizons, and getting into more of the Folkways stuff and researching these old records and tracing back the lineage just for my own interest, really. Not for any other reason.

Is that from before this project started, or is that a more recent pursuit?
More in the last couple of years. I wouldn’t say that it informs my music, but it informs all music to a certain extent. I’m just tracing it back.

When you first decided on the aesthetic of the band, were there things you were thinking of? A certain mood?
The songs were the songs. It’s important to me to pay homage to a certain extent to your geography, your area, your community, where you are. That was important to me. I didn’t really think it through. Instinctively I was able to choose environments to record in that were indicative of the environment.

Your first two records, to me, felt very lonely and searching, whereas this one has more of a theme of acceptance, something sounds more resolved.
I think that’s fair to say. I didn’t really think that through. It wasn’t a theme I was going for. I was writing what I was feeling. It’s like, you go through a hardship or a hard time in your life, and you write these sad songs. Then time passes, and that hard time is over, but you’re still left with these sad songs. It’s no reason not to move on. I wouldn’t say that this record is completely moving on from that, because I don’t think that the implicit melancholy or sadness in them is necessarily acute. But it’s something that’s more of a filter.

[in the background the non-intrusive jukebox has suddenly become deafening, playing a Wide Mouth Mason’s guitar disco song where the chorus exclaims, “Change!”]

Did things change for you in the past two years personally? Did you come to some realizations?
Things have been evening out for me. Plus, I just spent a lot of time on the road, and time changes things. I would say I’m in a better place, but I’m moving forward musically and just trying to write the best songs I can.

So what will the next record sound like?
(laughs nervously). I have no idea!


Monday, March 26, 2007

Northern Wishes: Rheostatics p2

More excerpts today from the Rheostatics chapter in Have Not Been the Same. (see here for explanation.)

Last night's Starlight show had an awkward, tentative feel to it--due in no small part to the fact that Martin Tielli was rendered mute by a terrible case of laryngitis. In short, the decidedly unsentimental set felt not at all like starting a victory lap for ending a storied career, but instead very much like the opening night of their annual week-long club stint, the Fall Nationals, and diehard fans will know what I mean. More on all this at a later date, but here's the set list (not in order), which also continued many unusual and unlikely choices.

Fat (opening song); Me and Stupid; Here Comes the Image; Marginalized; Ozzie; Little Bird; Feed Yourself; Four Little Songs (with guest keyboardist Ford Pier taking a hilarious turn at one of them); Soul Glue; Claire (with Paul Macleod and Danny Michel on backing vocals); Horses (with Six Shooter/Gun Street Girl Caitlin Veitch on lead vocals); When Winter Comes; RDA (final encore closer); Clouds (first encore opener, Tim solo); Legal Age Life.

Martin songs as sung by others--he could barely speak, never mind sing:
Selina Martin: Rain Rain Rain; Dopefiends and Boozehounds
Paul Macleod: Fishtailin’; Record Body Count/Aliens
Jennifer Foster: Take Me In Your Hand

Corrections are welcome.

Now back to our story...

In 1987, the Rheostatics were finalizing their shift to roots music before recording Greatest Hits. “That’s when we shucked where we had been and went to where we were at,” says Dave Clark, citing The Band and Fairport Convention as new influences. “Dave [Bidini] was discovering acoustic guitar. He and Martin [Tielli] egged each other on, and everyone kept upping the ante.”

This new productivity inspired them to traverse the country they’d already started to sing about in songs like “Canadian Dream,” a [Tim] Vesely composition about his eye-opening travels with L’Etranger. Vesely set up a Rheostatics tour with the help of Sandy Pandya, Andrew Cash’s future wife and manager who was then based in Regina, and Jay Scott in Vancouver. Scott was organizing a festival of independent music for that summer, which featured Deja Voodoo, DOA, October Crisis, and a ragtag team from Toronto that included 13 Engines, UIC, Suffer Machine, Pigfarm, and the Bookmen. “There was a massive traffic jam heading towards Vancouver,” says Dave Clark. “The whole thing was a meeting of the minds, and we were so high on the idea of being away from home.”

The band had tartan jackets made up for the occasion, and hit the road – for two and a half months. There were no more than three gigs a week, and they spent most of the time camping and hanging out with new friends and acquaintances. “It was triumphant when we played in Vancouver, because all these bands were from all over and it was like a competition, even though it was a festival,” recalls Bidini. “We won a lot of hearts when we went in there. Some people who had never heard our music before were singing our music.”

Tielli, who is the youngest member of the band and was 19 at the time, remembers the experience with a considerably more mixed reaction. “The first tour across Canada was a mind rake,” he says, “starting with Thunder Bay, which was a place of debauchery that I’d never seen or experienced before, and I was right in the middle of it. The first tour was a socializing experience for me. It basically fucked me up for ten years. Just hanging out with so many new people all the time, drinking with them and losing control, wonderful things like that. It’s one thing to go to India or Italy or whatever, but to go across Canada is to meet a lot of people that you do actually understand. That was my first time meeting so many people my age, and hearing what they had to say, and being very impressed by them. Really nice people who had similar ideas as me, who had done amazing things. Also falling in love, and gross sexual encounters. But that was only in Thunder Bay, may I stress. And really hating other people, guys who thought they were cool, people who thought they were hipper than hip, everything I was against.” Tielli was inspired by the Prairies and the scenery in general, which would creep into material he would pen for the Melville album, which was all written when the Rheostatics returned from the tour.

Dave Clark had started to recite some of his nonsensical poetry during sets, partly to fill time left void by technical difficulties. “Martin had the shittiest gear in town and he always had to tune it, after almost every song, sometimes after half a song,” says Clark. “His gear wouldn’t work, and he’d be backstage hammering these effects boxes back together, that were just crap. While he was doing that, I would jump upstage and it would be this free improv thing. And that would stretch into our music; then we started forsaking set lists and segueing songs one after another.”

There was one other important thing the band would discover: rock and roll. On the way home, their vehicle had broken down, and they hitched a ride back with 13 Engines. The two bands would also share gigs, combining the dates that they had booked separately before they left. Tielli began covering John Critchley’s song “Indian Arrow” in the Rheos’ set. “[13 Engines] were more straightforward with their sound and we were more eclectic, but it meshed well,” says Clark. “It was inspiring to hear a band chunk it out on a couple of chords and really make it happen. We became the best of friends, and Tim was never the same after that.”

Tim Vesely in particular was a huge 13 Engines fan, ever since their days as the Ikons. Dave Clark would later move into the 13 Engines communal house on Bathurst Street. “They lived like the Replacements, it was pretty wild,” says Clark. “The one woman who lived in the house used to rake all our junk into the centre of the room every Saturday morning and scream at the top of her lungs. It was pretty evil.”

When they returned to Toronto, Greatest Hits was released to a rather tepid reaction, with the exception of Nerve magazine, where Bidini was penning rock journalism, and David Wisdom, the host of CBC’s Night Lines. Wisdom had heard about a band who had a song about a hockey player and asked a Vancouver record clerk who it was. “I found Greatest Hits on LP, it had just come out,” says Wisdom. “I thought every song was really, really good. I liked the sound right away. There was something funny about it, but at the core it was something serious. It wasn’t trivial. It sounded like people who really cared about what they were doing. It also sounded really Canadian to me, rather than aping any English or American sound. And despite the fact that the guys were pretty young, there was something a little older about them. They weren’t posers at all. I read that through the music before I ever talked to them.”

Bidini recalls, “He sent us a postcard back and said, ‘You’re the greatest band in Canada.’ I was blown away, thinking, from that [album]? Wisdom was the first guy to come out and say ‘these guys are special,’ and that’s a beautiful thing. It was pretty nice getting a postcard from a CBC DJ when nobody else would even take your calls.”

The next step for the Rheostatics would be a eight-gig, 28-day tour of Ireland in October, 1988, set up on a handshake by an acquaintance from Bidini’s Trinity days. Although there were highlights of the trip, the biggest lesson, says Vesely, was that the band “learned how much we hated each other. It came to a head over there. We were probably dreaming more than we should have been, in terms of going over there and doing anything. It was ambitious. It put a bit of stress on it. We always did it for fun, and didn’t really expect anything to come of it other than a good time. By then, we’d been doing it for a few years, and then we thought that was it for the band.”

“I was still wrestling with the idealisms I had before I joined,” says Tielli, who initiated the break-up. “I wasn’t particularly into being a silly band, and things were really silly. I didn’t like hosers.”

“Martin didn’t know what he wanted to do,” says Bidini. “He was unsure about the whole rock’n’roll thing. The ‘87 tour took a bit of a toll on him, because he had only ever been in his basement, really. We were a little older, and we came into rock’n’roll knowing what was part of the package, but I don’t think he did, really.”

The band played one gig without Tielli, an invitation to play a Brave New Waves anniversary show in Montreal that they felt they couldn’t refuse. Tielli tried to start another band, to no avail. “I realized that it would have to be good, and I would have to be totally in control, writing all the parts – and I wasn’t ready for that,” he says. “I couldn’t find a situation that was as good [as the Rheos], great players and intuitive. We had already developed this way of working together that was really efficient and instant.”

Instead, he went back to school and finished his high school diploma. Vesely did some travelling, and Clark went on the road with Pigfarm. Bidini did some work as a researcher and fill-in host for Brave New Waves. After a year’s break, Tim Vesely brought the band back together when he and Tielli had started hanging out again. Vesely had some fiction published in an Erindale College anthology of student writing, and his professor asked if the Rheostatics would play the launch party at the Rivoli.

“It totally made sense,” says Tielli. “I don’t think we ever even talked about it. We just played the gig, and it was a blast.” Dave Clark recalls, “I told Dave that I would never get on stage with Martin again. But I did. We got together and jammed and it was way better, like we were never apart. We did need the breather. For Dave, Tim and I, we were basically each other’s family since we were post-pubescent. I saw more of them than anybody I know, and vice-versa. It was very invigorating.”

“People appreciated us playing,” says Vesely. “People like [Toronto music critic] Howard Druckman saying, ‘I’m really glad you guys got back together’ made us feel really good. We recorded a demo in two days, which was Melville.”

The Melville sessions, in December 1989, were buoyed by the band’s newfound enthusiasm and a host of new material. Once again, it was a dramatic departure from the band’s past. There were two distinctively new features. One was Tielli’s use of the Steinberger guitar, which allowed him to become far more dramatic and evocative, giving the band new soundscape possibilities. The other was Clark’s drumming style, which avoided obvious beat placements and, together with Vesely’s bass, transformed what should have been simple three or four-chord folk songs into complex grooves that were complementary rather than sounding prog.

“I started looking at music and rhythm differently,” says Clark. “I didn’t feel that the drummer was responsible for holding down the groove for the whole band, and the band agreed – it was everybody’s responsibility. Shifting simple grooves around, colouration and modulating times was the way to go about doing things. It didn’t come out as some sort of mathematical thing; it was going with my gut.”

The band steered away from conventional arrangements, and workshopped songs until they found their natural surroundings. “We’d play them any way we felt we could until we hit on something,” says Clark. “Sometimes it happened in a second, sometimes only after we played it a bunch of times. I read about the Beatles, how they would try a song in every different feel they could think of, and that’s what we did. I like musicians who can take something simple, add one or two things to it that change the song completely.”

The band called on Michael Phillip Wojewoda to produce the sessions. Wojewoda had started his career working at The Music Gallery, the hub of experimental music in Toronto. He was hired there through the recommendation of John Oswald, the future pioneer of the sound-art known as “plunderphonics,” who had dated Wojewoda’s sister. “It was a great place to have your first experiences, because the music wasn’t just some blues band,” says Wojewoda. “It was some guy stripping to his waist, rubbing his body with oil, and setting his cello on fire. And the better part of it is, that if I don’t record it well, no one’s the wiser!”

When he was called to work on Melville, Wojewoda had honed his craft with the likes of Change of Heart, the Shuffle Demons, the Doughboys and the Plastercene Replicas. But Melville was an album that didn’t sound like any other. He says, “Every band has a critical mass, if they have it at all,” he says. “It’s a combination of people and players. I started getting connected to what they were all about dynamically when they did that cover of [Gordon Lightfoot’s] ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,’ which I absolutely insisted that they did for Melville,” Wojewoda continues, referring to one of two closing tracks that were recorded after the initial session. “It had that improvising, soundscaping quality that they do so well. People were struck by the exotic combination of elements, especially the tracks that mixed the prog rock with folk, on tracks like ‘It’ and ‘Christopher.’ The understanding of dynamics is something I learned from them, and then applied to other projects. Especially Martin, and not just volume dynamics.”

The mood in the studio was enthusiastic, which spread to anyone who happened to eavesdrop on the proceedings. “Gaggles of other people would drop by during a playback,” recalls Wojewoda. “They’d stand there and listen, and just say ‘wow.’ Whether you think you’re making ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or not, and whether or not it’s going to be critically accepted or have commercial value, you can tell if it’s good.”

David Wisdom was even more taken with Melville than he was with Greatest Hits. “It still moves me deeply, that record,” he says. “Melville is one of the great Canadian albums. I put it up there with music by The Band and Neil Young, their very best work.” Years later, when the band released an album of material they recorded for a Night Lines session, Wisdom would pen the liner notes, with this to say: “They’ve got that high, lonesome sound that makes me feel sad and joyous, a fleeting speck in the universe and part of something eternal, all at the same time. Since I’ve started listening to the Rheostatics, I have become a Canadian citizen, and as I swore my allegiance to the Big Dominion, that song of theirs, ‘Northern Wish,’ was running through my head.”

The singing and songwriting balance was tipped in Tielli’s favour on Melville: Vesely wrote and sang one track; Bidini wrote four songs, two of them sung and partially co-written by Tielli (“Northern Wish,” “Saskatchewan”); and half of the songs were written solely by Tielli, who had written furiously during the band’s hiatus. In fact, most of his songs on both Melville and Whale Music were written while he was working an overnight job that would provide direct inspiration for one of his greatest narratives, “Self-Serve Gas Station.” “I’d get maybe six or seven customers a night,” recalls Tielli. “I set up a four-track, and I had no choice other than to sing. I would write about incredibly inane things, and eventually you go from the inane to the insane and everything in between. I wrote about 60 songs or so.”

Tielli claims most of the songs that would become Rheostatics standards were conceived during one two-week period, when he let a homeless kid sleep in the gas station. “I got fired from that job because they thought I was gay,” he laughs. One night, he went in for his shift and the girl working before him was having a birthday party at work. “There was a bunch of these little rocker chicks hanging around. I was sitting there looking at my itinerary. The following morning my friend was coming to photograph me for the [University of Toronto student paper] Varsity, playing my sitar in the gas station. I had written down ‘7 a.m. Dave’s coming by.’ And just above or below that I had written ‘bring vaseline,’” which Tielli used to help lubricate his hands for the sitar he was still learning how to play. “The girls said, ‘Let me see what you’re writing!’ They read this, and my face dropped. I said, ‘No, I have dry hands!’ I wasn’t convincing enough, and they fired me, supposedly because I didn’t show up for a day.”

The influence of the band’s suburban upbringing would echo through many of their greatest songs. Along with the then-unusual practice of explicitly Canadian lyrics, the Rheostatics also stood out for unashamedly coming from Etobicoke, not Toronto. The suburbs were something you were supposed to leave behind when you moved downtown, but it informed the Rheos’ approach and solidified their reputation as existing outside of “downtown cool.”

“I never liked living in the suburbs,” says Tielli, “and I would have hated it more living in the city. But it’s not a matter of choosing what to write about; it was a matter of writing what I knew. A lot of it on my part would have been: ‘What the fuck am I doing in this wasteland?’ Which wasn’t that bad of a wasteland; it’s more of a wasteland now than when I was a kid. ‘What am I doing here and how do I get out to the country’ was my concern for most of my youth. People would say, ‘Why do you write about this stuff? Cut out this Canadian shit.’”

Shortly after recording Melville, Bidini enlisted them into Save the Rails, a musical caravan weekend tour protesting cutbacks to Via rail service by the federal Tories. Bidini had a wedding in Columbus, Ohio, however, and had neglected to tell his bandmates about the tour. “The first thing I heard about it,” Dave Clark says, “was when I read in the newspaper that we were playing.” Also on the tour was the Skydiggers, Stephen Steve & Big Smoke, Pat Temple’s High Lonesome Players, the Cajun Ramblers, Positively Stompin’, and the Grievous Angels, with tour organizer Chuck Angus. “It was a whole bunch of folkies, and I don’t think we ever rocked as hard as we did,” says Tielli, who would later pen the lyric: “I can’t stop writing punk rock/ because I’m stuck in a ghetto of folkies.”

There were three dates in Cochrane, Timmins and Kapuskasking, and Dave Clark recalls the tour as being “a proud and ignoble moment.” “We were pretty extreme,” laughs Tielli. “Naked in the snow in Kapuskasking in February and things like that.” The booze-fuelled Rheostatics were the bad boys of the tour who got into trouble with Angus, but it was there they met violinist Dave Allen and pedal steel guitarist Lewis Melville. Both were playing in Pat Temple’s band, and both would shape the band’s sound over the next two years.

Lewis Melville would have a particular impact on the band, which is why they eventually decided to name their recently-completed album after him. Melville had been playing rock, soul, country, bluegrass and experimental music around the province since the late ‘60s, and lived in Guelph, where he worked as a biology lab technician. In 1993, he and his friend Dave Teichroeb would start the indie label DROG (Dave’s Records of Guelph), which launched with the re-release of Greatest Hits and would continue to have a long association with the Rheostatics. A quiet, unassuming man, Melville holds deep convictions about making music outside of the worlds of commerce and artifice. With little prompting, he’s always more than willing to share these beliefs at length with younger musicians.

Dave Clark recalls, “When we started playing Guelph, it became a real bastion of support for what we did, because we could come out of town and have these special moments playing at the Albion Hotel. There was a certain team effort; everyone felt like they were going for it together. Our sets started getting longer and longer until we could just play for hours. The audiences were playful, and great listeners. Then Lew started sitting in and that started stretching out our minds a bit more. Lew had great textural ideas, and he’d say, ‘Come record at my house!’ We made all these great recordings, some of which we went on to re-record for albums, but some of them eclipse what was done on albums. Others never appeared but were great songs.”

In Toronto, audiences were realizing that this was a new chapter for the band, full of infinite possibilities. Yvonne Matsell had just started booking a new Queen Street. club called Ultrasound, where a few years later she would book the band for week-long stints dubbed Green Sprouts Music Week. The club’s soundman was Gary Stokes, who would later tour with the band and record their Double Live album. Matsell recalls, “The first time I booked them, which was in 1990, Gary Stokes and I both kind of looked at each other oddly. The way the Rheostatics are to new people – nobody gets it, I think. Gary turned to me as if to say, ‘What have you done?’ The next time, the light bulb went on over both our heads. It just sunk in. But the first couple of times, it was like, “What is this?” Now I hardly ever miss a show in town.”

-end of part two-

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Northern Wishes: Rheostatics p1

Tonight marks the first of the final three Rheostatics shows, at the Starlight Club in Waterloo; the next two are on Thursday at the Horseshoe Tavern, and Friday at Massey Hall.

I've said a lot about the Rheostatics since I first fell in love with them around 1992. Oddly, I couldn't actually stand their music prior to my Damascene conversion, which was one wintry morning on Guelph's CFRU when my favourite local DJ, Sara Sosklone, played "Northern Wish," a song I'd already heard many times, on her radio show. And for whatever reason, it suddenly all became crystal clear just what a unique band this was, how they managed to be progressive and very specifically steeped in regional influences that were very dear to me.

In short time, they would become the one and only band that I've ever truly loved: the one band whose records I learned how to play, the one band I've seen live more than any other, the one band I kept coming back to no matter how disappointing one particular show or album might be.

I've been making up for my early skepticism ever since. But perhaps because I've been part of the unofficial stenography team over the years, I was unable to find a professional writing outlet to commemorate this historic week: after a 27-year career, either the Canadian press is tired of talking about the Rheostatics (which was the gist of one reply to my pitch) or, after 15 years of my cheerleading (albeit often with articulated reservations), they're tired of me in particular talking about the Rheostatics. Fair enough.

I'll be attending all three farewell shows, naturally, despite the fact that it's going to wreak havoc on the 9-5 contract job I've had for the month of March. And I'm sure reflections on the next week will appear on this space. But in the meantime, I present excerpts from the 2001 book Have Not Been the Same, a book I co-authored about Canadian music between 1985-1995. You know, long before Texas bands were envious of Canadian control of the musical blogosphere.

The Rheostatics were the main reason I wanted to write this book, because I knew that unlike similarly influential yet obscure American and British bands, no one else was going to step up to the plate and herald that particular moment in Canadian music. Unless bands like the Rheostatics were immortalized in book format--not just fleeting praise in free weeklies and monthlies--that stories like theirs would be lost forever. Of course, the Rheos have an added advantage in that guitarist Dave Bidini is particularly good at self-mythology: check out his On a Cold Road if you haven't already, a vital piece of CanRock writing--a genre that is admittedly miniscule, especially in a book format.

The Rheostatics chapter in the book is called "Northern Wishes and Visionary Flounders," and along with the tale of the Rheos it interweaves the stories of Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O'Hara, the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Barenaked Ladies' early days, Dinner is Ruined, and producer Michael Philip Wojewoda (who later became the Rheos' drummer for the last six years of their career). I've edited out most of the chapter and just left the story of Dave Bidini, Tim Vesely, Martin Tielli, Dave Clark and Don Kerr.

Each chapter in Have Not Been the Same--including this one--was written by one of the three authors, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge the great influence that my co-authors Jason Schneider and Ian A.D. Jack had on this work. It was written in 2000 and published in 2001. Some of the interview subjects would likely have different things to say today; certainly the author would--I've been re-editing this in my mind ever since it was published.

Part one of four:

Sitting in his basement on an insufferably humid Toronto afternoon, Rheostatics guitarist/vocalist Martin Tielli is contemplating his formative musical influences. “Bizarrely enough, I’d say it was 80 per cent Canadian bands. I don’t know why,” he says, fondling his trademark Steinberger guitar, surrounded by his paintings and Rheostatics memorabilia. “I’m not patriotic when it comes to music, but really, everything I liked was coming from Canada: Jane Siberry, Bruce Cockburn, Neil Young. Easygoing yet progressive. I’d like to figure out exactly what it is, the characteristic that I like about Canadian music.”

Citing his aforementioned influences, Tielli pauses, then continues, “It would be an understanding of the sublime, the beauty, fragility, and a certain complexity combined with a certain eclectism borrowing from all kinds of different things.”

Unwittingly, he’s summed up much of what has made his band the “quintessential” Canadian band, a term they themselves tired of hearing long ago. But it’s unavoidable; the Rheostatics truly don’t sound like anyone else. Furthermore, their eclecticism doesn’t sound like it could have come from anywhere else but here, and their collected body of work encapsulates what it meant to be a Canadian rock band between 1985 and 1995.

Their self-consciously Canadiana lyrics can be found accompanying music that alternates between suburban psychedelic rock epics, acoustic folk anthems, pure pop, country hoedowns, Crazy Horse workouts, spoken word, children’s music, punk, Euro cabaret, space rock and cinematic soundscapes. All of these genres are approached with a joyous sense of discovery, a flagrant disregard for what may or may not be considered cool, and a monstrously talented musical collective capable of the utmost subtlety and the most grandiose drama—and, for better and worse, an inability to fear the ridiculous. Their ambition alone is admirable enough.

More than any other single band of the CanRock Renaissance, the Rheostatics’ work, on stage and on albums, epitomizes the creativity and diversity that Canadian bands were, and are, capable of. Their odd career also embodies the trajectory of CanRock’s musical maturation. They start off as derivative mimics of British and American forms – new wave and funk, respectively – before leaving their suburban basements to travel the country. Somewhere across the prairie spine, en route to an independent music festival in Vancouver, the four lads find their voice, and after a few bumps and a brief break-up, start unleashing classic albums into the canon. Two singles (“Claire,” “Bad Time To Be Poor”) crack the consciousness of the mainstream media, but for the most part they win their fans over one at a time at gigs and over the people’s radio. Several of their former opening bands go on to worldwide success, and as a result our heroes get a crack at the American market with a big-budget record that ultimately doesn’t expand their cult audience any more than their traditional word-of-mouth appeal.

Twenty years, several record labels and one drummer later, they find themselves creating music for all the right reasons only, with a devoted fan base across the country that’s still pulling in young converts. Not to mention a secure place in the hearts of many of their peers – some of whom are the biggest bands in Canada and the world, some of whom are quietly practising their craft down the street– whom they inspired to strive for greater artistic heights.

The musical bond between Dave Bidini and Tim Vesely began in 1979, when both budding musicians were 15 and attending Kipling Collegiate in Etobicoke, a western suburb of Toronto. Bidini had just started playing guitar, and Vesely played double bass in their high school orchestra. They enlisted high school friends Rod Weslake on drums and Dave Crosby on keyboards, and started germinating their brand of “original new wave rock,” finding the name Rheostatics in a physics textbook. After two years, Weslake was replaced with Graeme Kirkland, who would later become Toronto’s most renowned professional busker and who can still be found playing a set of buckets outside of the Rivoli club. [ed note: Kirkland retired in the early 00s to become a financial analyst.]

In a neighbourhood not too far away, at Martingrove Collegiate, Dave Clark was already a professional drummer at the age of 14, playing Israeli and Italian weddings. Kirkland shared a drum teacher with Clark, and the pair played hockey together. Clark hooked up with the fledgling band, and was initially reluctant to dig his teeth into the Rheostatics’ “really goofy music.” Clark says, “I was a jazzbo. I played in big bands, and I thought all this stuff was stupid. But I was having fun – I soon realized that I was the stupid one, and that this was a really good time. I didn’t have much connection to kids my age. I thought that going out on weekends and getting pissed up was a real waste of time, compared to playing music. These guys wanted to have fun and write music. It was a very positive way to grow up.”

Like most teenage bands, the Rheostatics played their high school, where they did a reggae version of Talking Heads’ “Heaven.” But unlike other teenagers, they started playing downtown and out-of-town gigs almost immediately. Their first big show was at The Edge club in February, 1980. The opening band that night was the Space Invaders, featuring guitarist Paul Myers [brother of comedian Mike] and drummer Michael Phillip Wojewoda, who would later go on to produce the band’s seminal work of the early ‘90s.

“I was very annoyed with Dave Clark because he brought his drum professor’s Northwood drum kit,” recalls Wojewoda. “It filled the stage and commandeered the place.” Also in the audience that night was Graham Stairs, who was in a band playing later that weekend called Popular Spies, and who would later release Melville and Whale Music on his Intrepid Records label.

The band’s first out-of-town gig was later that year at the Kent Hotel in Waterloo, where they opened for L’Etranger [a band featuring current NDP MP Charles Angus and Now Magazine writer Andrew Cash]. “It was the first time we’d encountered a real band in a real dressing room in a real club,” says Bidini. “They had just come from opening for the Dead Kennedys, and they were freaked out because they had been spat at. They were shaking, they were so nervous. But they had leather jackets on, and torn jeans – they were a real fucking band, and we just borrowed our parents’ car to go to the gig. I thought at the time: ‘I don’t want to be like that. I don’t ever want to have to do rock’n’roll, don’t ever want to have to be opening for the Dead Kennedys.’”

The few gigs the band would play garnered more attention than the average high school band, mostly because of the ambition of the young Dave Bidini. “We had a lot of support from students at Dave’s school,” says Clark. “Dave was a popular guy, for good reasons – he’s very affable. We got a lot of press early on, because Dave knew how to contact people, and that gave us an edge over others.”

Dave Crosby left in 1981, after they recorded a 7” of “Satellite Dancing,” backed with a Devo-esque take on The Who’s “My Generation.” James Gray, later of Blue Rodeo, was in the band briefly, but “had too much talent,” according to Bidini. To fill in the gaps, in 1983 they enlisted a three-piece horn section that Dave Clark met while enrolled in Humber College’s music program for one semester. The horns were dubbed The Trans-Canada Soul Patrol, and they came from a rather different school of music. “These guys were real rubes,” says Bidini. “They had never heard ‘Louie Louie’ before. They only knew Brothers Johnson and all these lite jazz fusion-type cats.” Most of the material, which sounded like British neo-funk band Level 42, was written by Bidini, and sung by Vesely. “Dave couldn’t sing very well then, he was pretty off-key,” says Vesely. “I could shout a little closer to key.”

In the summer of 1985, Bidini left to study in Ireland, while Vesely took up an offer to play with Andrew Cash and L’Etranger, a year-long venture that would encourage him to pick up the guitar and begin to write his own songs on Cash’s four-track. The horn section had been reduced to one occasional saxophonist by this time, and Dave Clark thought the Rheostatics were “at a bit of a dead end,” so he too started working outside of the band. He would soon meet the missing piece of the puzzle that would alter the course of the Rheostatics.

In 1984, Martin Tielli joined his first band, called Water Tower. “We played live seven times, including one battle of the bands,” he recalls. “Our bass player broke it up because he couldn’t handle the clichés of being in a band. To him, he felt like an idiot when we ‘counted in’ a song; he said it felt too much like the Partridge Family: ‘One! Two! Three! Four!’ I figured that enduring clichés was worth the outcome.”

Dave Clark joined Water Tower shortly before their demise, and was struck by Tielli’s original material. Tielli had seen the Rheostatics play live, and he was intrigued by “the fact that they were so comfortable on stage, and I was so uncomfortable on stage,” he says. “Musically, nothing really attracted me to them. I thought it was fun and good but it wasn’t my kind of music at all. But they were famous, as far as I was concerned – I was being asked to join the famous band. And the first thing I was doing was playing funk, which was not the kind of music I knew.”

Bidini had seen Water Tower play, and wasn’t as taken with Tielli as Clark was. “I saw this little kid and it freaked me out that he looked so much like Neil Young then; Martin dressed so much like him, had the fringe jacket and everything. It made an impression, and I hated Neil Young at the time. I felt sorry for him and thought this poor kid was locked in the ‘70s.”

When Water Tower broke up in 1985, Clark invited Tielli to jam with the Rheos, to the objections of Bidini, who had just returned from Ireland. Bidini recalls, “When he showed up for practice it was like, this is the guy? He was way better than me the minute he started playing. I was intimidated and threatened. But it was my own fault, because I never considered myself to be any good anyway. I was a very limited guitar player. I thought that I had better a) practice really hard, or b) if you can’t beat him, join him. I didn’t practice any harder, though.”

Tielli started playing gigs with the band, including one at the large lakeshore venue RPM, where he looked like he was going to die, according to Clark. “Martin did a few gigs with the horn section,” says Bidini. “It wasn’t even like he was going to be a serious part of the band, it was just to have another guy, trying to get some interesting new sounds involved. When the horn section left, we realized he could play the horn parts on his guitar. That became his job for a bit. That’s when we started to write and find our own sound.”

Although Bidini and Vesely were already getting into folk music via Stompin’ Tom Connors, Tielli had been immersed in folk for as long as he could remember, mostly because of what he calls his “Neil Young disease” of the time.

“Everything about [Young’s] music represented everything I loved: dirt roads, fields, open space, and stuff that isn’t clean and polished,” says Tielli. “Everything sounds like it’s breaking down. When I first got into music at the age of 14, I was a folk environmentalist fascist. I was not going to play any electrical instrument, ever. I wanted to experiment using natural sounds, natural reverb and building instruments, and perform in an acoustic trio, with acoustic bass, guitar, and a snare. Until I got out of my Catholic school, I knew zero musicians. By then I could afford an electric guitar. I can’t tell you how fast that [acoustic philosophy] died, once I got my hands on an electric guitar.”

The material that would appear on their 1987 debut Greatest Hits was worlds away from the band’s funk beginnings. As their tastes broadened, they started discovering records by Camper Van Beethoven and Willie P. Bennett, as well as country and the Celtic music Bidini had heard in Ireland. They weren’t trying to fit into any downtown scene. “We were still pretty Etobicoke-based in our whole approach,” says Vesely. “The music scene was something to do on the weekend – come downtown to play a show, go home and hang out. We were in awe of a lot of things, Queen Street bands like the Vital Sines and the Rent Boys, all those funky, dark things. We saw all that stuff but it didn’t really echo with us.”

There was at least one person who decried the band’s shift from funk to folk. But then again, Jaymz Bee – bandleader of the decidedly bizarre Look People – has strange taste in music. “At the time they were a three-piece funk band, they played a show with me and [star of 70s CBC-TV sitcom King of Kensington] Al Waxman,” says Bee. “The Rheostatics did a really hot set, without the horn section, and rocked the house down. This was way pre-Tielli. Bidini was the coolest, guitar-playing, dancing-around, being-weird guy, like a David Byrne character. I thought they were the coolest band ever.”

Bee tried to recruit Bidini into the Look People for an extended European stay. “He played a couple of gigs with us, but he didn’t go to Europe,” says Bee. “He said that his band was really happening and that I should come out to see them. I went to see them, and I couldn’t stand it! I said, ‘You guys are country! What the fuck is this?’ I’m sure I really offended him. I thought Martin was just in outer space; I didn’t like him. But it wasn’t that I didn’t like him, it was that I walked in expecting this funk band, and I got this weird thing. So I thought, ‘Well, obviously Bidini’s lost his mind. He’s not coming to Europe to tour with our amazing, best band in the world – he’s going to stay with this Canadian country act.’

“I saw them again when we came back. And because I had decided that I was a bit harsh and maybe I should give them a chance, they absolutely blew me away. Martin did the opposite: rather than me thinking he’s a creepy guy with no talent, I thought he was a genius, like Mary Margaret O’Hara. He went into a special land all of his own.”

-end of part one of four-