Dylan, Da Slyme and Discussing Live Music in NL with Sean W Murray
The album is called out of nowhere but I know that you’re from Gander. When did you first start playing shows in St. John’s? What was the scene like for original music then? What could a band make on a good night?
I started spending summers and Christmas in St. John’s around 1990 while I was going to university in Nova Scotia. There were fewer bands doing original music then, although even at that time there was a knot of hardcore punky bands and other bands doing original music at all ages shows, playing the Peace-A-Chord, etc. Bounders, the original Bar None, Bridgett’s, the Ship, and the Rose & Thistle. I used to get up at open mic night at the Rose hosted by people like Darrell Power & Alan Doyle, you’d have Shirley Dalton and Bill Rose’s band playing there, Ron Hynes, etc. I caught the tail end of Figgy Duff – I remember seeing one of their last gigs at Bridgett’s.
The big bands of the era doing original stuff I enjoyed were bands like Dead Reckoning, Thomas Trio, Pressure Drop, who all had stints in Toronto & on Much Music in its heyday. My band was Banquo’s Ghost, which I put together in ’93 upon moving here full time. We were doing mostly covers with a handful of originals. We won a “Battle of the Bands” on George Street and won some recording time. I did get 4 of my songs recorded and mixed, one co-written with Charlie Barfoot, but we moved onto other things. I was also playing in a duo with Derm English off and on for a few years in the early 90s at places like the old Spur, and I played in a cover band led by a guy named Jason Belmer.
I didn’t feel like I was one of the cool kids at all. In those years I always felt like there was something going on in the music scene downtown that I wasn’t quite a part of. Partly it is because I didn’t grow up here and I didn’t fully break into the scene socially, but partly because I’m not the most gregarious guy and I don’t always put myself out there or get noticed. When I’m a sideman I’m kind of notorious for standing off to the side and not moving around too much. I was a substitute teacher and a contract worker with some non-profits in the early 90s, but probably half or more of my income was from music for a while. I guess I’ve never been an A-lister around here, so I’ve never made real good money, but when I first started gigging in the late ‘80s in Gander, I was coming home with $100 in my pocket every night. These days, you’re still doing okay with $100 as part of a band for a gig, but of course minimum wage was $4.25 an hour back then, so $100 is a lot less today with inflation. $10 cover charges may seem steep to some, but really they’re not even catching up.
I once heard a story about the night Bob Dylan was in town and his band came down to check your band out. What was that all about?
The band was called Rocking Pneumonia. It was primarily a roots rock type of band – The Blasters, some ‘50s standards, with some Dylan & Stones thrown in. We got word that Dylan was set to play Memorial Stadium, this was in ’97, and he was doing 2 shows on a Monday and Tuesday night. We had a guy doing bookings for us named Geoff Hoddinott and we even asked him to see if he could get us in as an opening act for Dylan, which was preposterous to contemplate, but I think he actually contacted the promoter, David Carver, although I don’t think he got his sentence finished “I have this band…” sort of thing.
Anyway, we figured sometimes these big shots will show up at the local club and jam with the local band or something, so we came up with a scheme where we booked Trappers on Monday & Tuesday. I made a poster which implied, without promising, that Dylan might show up at our gig. Then each night of the concert we went down to the lineup outside the stadium and handed out tickets – I think it was free cover or something on the tickets – and we had a deal with Trapper’s that we would get the door plus 10% of the bar. Wallace Hammond was doing sound those nights. We ended up blocking the bar both nights. People were coming up to us telling us that Dylan’s whole band was in attendance – people were pointing them out to me, but we didn’t know any of them to see them, so we just took people’s word for it. People were chatting them up though, and apparently they were saying good things about the band, and they stayed almost to the end of the night. The next day I was heading down the steps by the Ship and some fellow was coming up, and he said he was at our show at Trappers and we sounded great and I said thanks. That night I went to the Dylan show before our Tuesday night gig, and I saw buddy up on stage playing with Dylan. It was Bucky Baxter, who toured with Dylan from ’92 to ’99. So I was on top of the world then.
Speaking of the past, I notice you have Wallace Hammond guesting on “Hardcore Skeet”. A lot of people probably don’t realize that aside from being a respected live sound engineer, Wallace is also one of the most original guitar players the city has ever produced. Can you tell me why you asked him to play on the record?
Wallace was just nominated for an ECMA as a sound guy. Unfortunately he didn’t win, but he’s great at what he does. I find it unfortunate that a lot of young players I talk to today don’t even know that Wallace is a musician, let alone that he played such an important role in the music scene far beyond his role as a sound engineer. Wallace was part of Da Slyme (google it), Newfoundland’s first punk band from the late 70s, and one of the first generation of Canadian punk bands. I understand they were the first punk band in Canada to put out a double album. It’s quite a rare album actually. There is a lot of humour built in, a lot of social and political commentary of the day. The band was terribly awesome, and their attitude was part defiant Newfoundland identity, part punk ethos, and a tiny bit Pythonesque, or something. Wallace later issued a number of albums with different projects on his own Vikkibeat label, including a later band called Dog Meat BBQ, which was sort of a reboot of the Slyme concept with awesome, rocking witty punk songs. It’s hard to explain how awesome it was to hear a Dog Meat BBQ tape as a teenager growing up in Gander. It made downtown St. John’s seem like such an awesome, rotten, rusty, shag carpeted hell hole with cigarette butts ground into it (and I mean that in a good way) that we just loved it.
Wallace is actually a much more sophisticated musician than he is given credit for, and at the same time he has a great affinity for noise, which he pursues through his Black Auks project which is always featured in the Sound Symposium. The chord progression for this song has been kicking around for a while, but when I started thinking about recording I wrote some lyrics. It was my attempt to do a song somewhat in that vein – Dog Meat, etc, although with my own stamp as well. I wanted Wallace’s lead guitar to bring that element, and I wanted him to do not only his proper lead guitar, but also his noise, which is featured in the last verse and adds that element that the whole thing is threatening to come off the rails. Wallace showed up with a cheap amp from the 70s and a bag of tricks, and he pulled off one of the greatest combinations of guitar solo and noise that I could have hoped for, and it’s all about the feel and the style. Wallace told me that he was thinking of doing a Robert Fripp type thing on there, and sure enough, someone told me after hearing the album that it reminded him of Robert Fripp.Wallace is very self-deprecating, but it’s shocking to me that he hasn’t been recruited as a session player more in the past.
I found a “creative commons” licensed short animation online that was made in 1931. The license is basically a copyright free-for-all where you can use it for any purpose, including commercial, and you can remix it in any way you want, as long as you credit the source. I had spotted this some time ago, and realized the narrative was a great fit for “Hardcore Skeet”, although it was about twice as long as the song. I had a pretty good plan for what parts to keep and cut out, but I don’t have the video editing software or the patience to try to do it myself, so I got together with Liz Solo and we had it banged out in no time and barely had our tea drank.
On the album, you play almost all of the guitars (acoustic, electric, rhythm, lead and bass) and you seem to have picked the best players in town to play all of the instruments you don’t. How did that process work and what can you say about your choices?
Andrew McCarthy is an awesome drummer, so he was an easy choice. I went to Natasha Blackwood to play sax and put together the horn section and help with those arrangements, and that worked out well. Darren “Boobie” Browne actually recommended her – they had played together with the Burning Hell, and she’s gotten quite busy on the music scene of late with the Long Distance Runners and Illia Nichol. I’ve long admired the playing of Dave and Geoff Panting (Rawlins Cross) so I asked them to play on a little country number. I’ve jammed with them many times over the years and I’ve always found them to be top notch players but very humble and down to earth guys. Andrea Monro is back on the scene these days with Flower Hill, and we go back a number of years when we played together in a bluegrass band called Five for Silver – she sings a couple of songs with me. Ward Pike plays keys on a few tunes, and I recorded the album at his studio. Although the album is self-produced, his skill and experience as a recording engineer were instrumental (pardon the pun) in making the album what I wanted it to be. Other friends on the album are John and Caroline Clarke who rip it up on “To the Few”. I also recruited old band mates Leonard Gallant and Don Ficzere. Don and I played in our first bands together in Gander and have continued to work together on and off over the years, and he delivers a blistering guitar solo on “Rock It”.
You’ve already played a handful of shows and have dubbed your live band The Shiny Buttons. This is a totally different set of musicians. How does one go about drafting a killer live band?
I knew I needed to put a band together which could play some gigs to promote the album, but I had no definite plans other than I wanted to get the best musicians I could get. Around the end of last summer I got a rare call to fill in on lead guitar for a gig with Sherry Ryan’s band at an out of town wedding gig. Elliot Dicks was playing drums, and I had played a few gigs on bass with Elliot years ago with Blair Harvey & the Dregs. I mentioned to Elliot what I had on the go and that I was going to be putting a band together soon, and to my surprise, because he is a very much in-demand player, he said he was interested.
I then said to myself that I would like to have a great lead guitar player on board because although I consider myself to be half decent, I frankly wanted a better guitarist than me for most of the leads, so I asked Brad Power. Again, I had played some gigs with Brad with Blair Harvey several years prior, so we were acquainted and I guess he must have thought I was good enough to get involved with. The list of bands the boys have played in and people they’ve recorded with is too long to recite, but I love their playing, they’re laid back and professional, and I’m delighted to have them on board.
Matt Hender was a guy I did not know whatsoever, but I had seen him play with the Long Distance Runners and I really admired his playing and his personal style on stage, and again, a super nice guy, highly professional, and one of the most sought-after bass players in town. I contacted him out of the blue, sent him a couple of demos, and I would imagine that having Brad and Elliot already on board helped. Luckily, he agreed to join in.
Leonard Gallant, not to be confused with PEI’s Lenny Gallant, is a guy I played in a band with many years ago, and he was part of an informal group of guys who used to get together in my basement and jam, so he was the final piece of the puzzle. He’s a fantastic musician, yet almost completely unknown on the music scene, so he’s kind of our secret weapon.
While “Hardcore Skeet” comfortably fit on a Dog Meat BBQ recording, the album is really more of a trip down Highway 61 with the bulk of the tunes in the American blues/folk rock tradition. Is that a fair description?
Yes. That’s the music I’m most drawn to and influenced by. A band who exemplifies this was The Blasters, and my track “Rock It” comes closest to where they were coming from. I was also influenced by bands like Commander Cody, Canned Heat, Dr. John. I am also very driven by rhythm as opposed to melody, so you’ll find that I try to add in a bit of the groove and the funkiness, whether in the song arrangements or in some of my guitar playing.
Out of Nowhere drops (as the kids say) on Saturday night at The Ship and I know that the tables will be put away to make room for people to dance it up. What else is on the go for the album release party?
I’m in a comfortable place in the St. John’s music scene right now. If I go see Pet Vet or Slick Nixon or one of the other younger bands, I imagine they probably think I’m someone’s dad, which I find amusing. I’m a bit more connected with musicians in their 30s and 40s. Although I don’t think I’m well known as a solo artist at all, I have lots of friends who are musicians, many of whom I’ve known for a long time, so I was spoiled for choice in terms of putting together the bill for this show. I’ve invited a new folkie band called Flower Hill to open up the night, which is Sherry Ryan, Andrea Monro, Dave Rowe and Darren Browne, who are very active in lots of other bands and have long histories of playing, recording and touring – they’re kind of a super group in the folk genre for St. John’s, but they’re pretty new as a group. We’ll be playing the middle set, and closing the night will be the Colleen Power Band. I’ve always admired her clever and creative songwriting, and her compadres Ed Sutherby on drums and Aneirin Thomas on bass are both great players who bring out the best in her songs.
One of the things I love about St. John’s is how easy it is to grow the seeds of an idea into fruition. Over the years you’ve insisted to me that it is a great place for “hatching schemes”. How has this project reinforced this philosophy?
I’m always a supporter of schemes. One scheme I hatched was the Georgestown Neighbourhood Association here in St. John’s, which is still going strong since I moved on. I also hatched the scheme of running for City Council some years ago. I like to say that I successfully ran for City Council, although I didn’t win. There are so many other great hatchers of schemes who have pulled off some great ones. I always like hearing the latest schemes of folks like Liz Solo, Bruce Gilbert and Lori Heath, because they’re subversive and they stir things up and help make us question how we move forward as a community and a planet. The people who started and ran the Peace-A-Chord festival for years, the Folk Festival crowd, the Wreckhouse Jazz and Blues crowd, the Sound Symposium crowd, the Lantern Festival crowd are actually all great schemers too, whether they see themselves that way or not. Each one of those endeavours helped create something new that has taken on a life of its own. I’m not done hatching schemes. I’m still playing this one out and I’ll see where it goes. The next one could be musical, or it could be something else. Some schemes are kind of overnight, but sometimes you gotta play the long game.
Sean Murray’s album “Out of Nowhere” drops Saturday, May 30th, 10pm @ The Ship Pub. The night will also feature performances from guests Flower Hill and the Colleen Power Band. You can check Murray’s soundcloud here, and find out more about the event here.