Instrumental Since 1985
Does Reid Diamond want to move to the USA?
"No, hell no!" says Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet's bass-playin' centerpiece, sounding somewhat shocked. "I like Canada a lot. I like the history of it, I like the politics, I like a lot of things about it. Personally, I'm pretty nationalist."
His big boy drummer, Don Pyle, has his own reasons: "My mother lives there!"
And that settles it.
The instrumental trio - rounded out by Gibson-slinger Brian Connelly - has a lot to gain by sticking with Toronto. The band's steady in-house job scoring music for the popular Kids In The Hall comedy program keeps Reid, Don and Brian fed, and brings their musical capers to a vast audience of Canadian television viewers and American HBO subscribers weekly.
Like Southern California's Lawndale and some of the instrumental acts the Sugarcubes have been exporting from Iceland on the Bad Taste label, Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet create songs in the form of tiny vignettes evocative of as much as busy minds can imagine. Without using their voices to do more than yip or howl, the three have filled a string of singles and a record called Dim The Lights, Chill The Ham with songs that have been called spy, surf and suave. The band's use of very suggestive song titled like "Exit From Vince Lombardi High School" and "Hunter S. Thompson's Younger Brother" certainly helps, but they truly do have a knack for making listeners active participants in their own entertainment.
"When we first started out," Reid begins, "we didn't know if people would like us because we were instrumental music, so we tried to have as many distractions as possible." For the uninitiated, these distractions have come in the forms of armies of wind-up toys, bake sales, and effect shows concocted from fistfuls of sparklers, flashlights and smokepots.
"We though that if there wasn't a vocalist people would lack a focal point and would lose interest. Much to our surprise, a lot of people actually liked that, because there wasn't someone telling them the meaning of the song. A lot of people began telling me to cut the goofy gag shit because we were actually good."
Don is too bashful to agree with those people completely. "Some days our songs all sound the same to me," he says. "You know when you're listening to your Ramones records and some days all the songs sound really different from each other and you think they're so versatile, and the next day you think the record sounds all exactly the same? I can feel that way with our songs."
All three speak enthusiastically of their prolific output for Kids In The Hall, which began with the Shadowy Men providing back-up music for early Kids live theater performances. The music they spend six months a year preparing for the television show can come about any number of ways, as Brian explains.
"Sometimes they give us film to look at and then score. Other times they give us a script, and we're supposed to go work from the script. Other times we have to do the music before and give it to them so they can cut to the music.
"Once they came up and said 'Write us a little song - something that goes like this,' and all he did was wiggle his shoulders in a funny way. He told me it was going to be about potato salad."
It sounds like a close partnership. "For the scale of the show," Don confirms, "considering that it's on national networks, it is a really unique personal relationship."
The concept of community is one the band takes pretty seriously. Their introduction to the United States came through a friendship with active networker Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening, and they count their trip to Johnson's International Pop Underground festival in Olympia, Washington, as a refreshing highlight of 1991. Reid also acknowledges the influence of Deja Voodoo, a band composed of two Montreal-based garage grunge freaks who during the '80s toured Canada relentlessly, released albums by dozens of their countrypeople, and hosted an annual barbecue for their music community.
"The way Deja Voodoo managed themselves was very inspirational for us," he says. "They put together a network of bands that they put out records for on their labels, and were very good at being small but being very big at it."
The friendly do-it-yourself attitude is one Reid finds lacking at home these days. "Toronto got very, very commercial because of the success of Cowboy Junkies and Blue Rodeo," he says. "So the young bands starting were automatically commercial, instead of having some time to grow. Record companies were signing everybody right away.
"When you leave people alone, that's when you're gonna get art happening. If you tell people you're gonna make a million dollars, that's when you get business happening."
"It's hard for new bands to break into the established order of things because there are so many bands playing in so many clubs already," Don continues sympathetically. "A young band doesn't really have a chance unless they're able to get opening spots from some older international stars like us."
Reid sees things clearly. "Toronto really needs some punk rock, bad." -- Ian Christe