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-

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