There's no surf in Toronto and Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet like it that way. Jason Pettigrew leaves his board at home and brings his ears instead.
Every pseudo-intellectual rock writer and so-called tortured artist will agree that art imitates life. Lots of great records have been made as a result of pain and suffering (John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, John Cale's Music For A New Society, Big Star's 3rd), no argument here. These records serve as mood music for high emotions and deep despair, providing the soundtrack for death, divorce, unemployment, passion and winning lottery tickets.
The great thing about Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet is that their instrumental rock makes the most mundane events seem like life's great adventures. On their third record Sport Fishin': The Lure Of The Bait, The Luck Of The Hook, the Toronto trio make music that fits perfectly in those occasions that aren't dictated by emotion. Play "Cheese In The Fridge" on your walkman on the way to the convenience store to buy some smokes and try not to lapse into a Mickey Roarke swagger. Stroll into your favorite bar while listening to "That Wuz Ear Me Callin' A Horse," and watch your confidence increase as you pick up the mutant of your choosing. Since neither this writer, your aunt Peg, nor the old guy who shaves the roast beef at the corner deli may have lived the life of Alex Chilton, John Cale or John Lennon, isn't it great to identify with something that enhances life, as opposed to rerun previous emotions? So ahead, see if you can listen to the Men without tapping your foot and slipping into the daydream fantasy of your choice: Crossing enemy lines with the information to save the world from annihilation, winning the dirtbike nationals, driving an MG convertible when all you have is a Mustang II with an accidental sunroof. Each loping beat from Don Pyle, coupled with Reid Diamond's bouncing bass, sets you up for the goodtime twang of Brian Connelly's hollow-body guitar.
But call them a surf band and they'll kill you.
"We've had lunch with writers," says Diamond in NYC's Paley Park where the water coming out of the fountain sounds a lot like, uh … surf, "and I'll say that I've owned some Ventures records but I've had a lot of other records in my lifetime. And the article will always say, 'that Ventures style, Duane Eddy guitar.' We sat down with the guy from the Montreal Gazette and we told him that the Ventures weren't as important to us as maybe, Alice Cooper, the band, was. But when the story came out, it was for people who would only understand sound as a part of rock history."
"Exactly!" agrees Connelly. "When my grandmother asks me what I do, I go 'I … I … I'm in a surf band!"
"It's gotten to the point where it's only your grandmother who knows what you're talking about when you say 'surf band,'" Pyle discloses with a laugh. "Anybody who comes to see us that's under 30 is vaguely familiar with the term 'surf band,' but they know that somehow we fit into that.
The new record features a disjointed, no-wave scrape-fest entitled "We're Not A Fucking Surf Band"; you'd never see thong-wearing beach bunnies dancing to it in reckless abandon.
I think that song has worked to our advantage by naming it that", figures Pyle. "We're not a surf band but there's a lot of things about surf music that's about us. Actually, it's just part of a media uproar when we admit we're just a surf band!"
The band started out like any other band in any part of the world that got bit by the punk-rock mosquito and developed Do-It-Yourself malaria. The band played out regularly, gave out lots of free singles at their shows ("We like to fly in the face of what's profitable, which is punk rock", says Pyle) and became a large club draw. Their first album for Cargo, Savvy Show Stoppers, collected some of the singles onto one platter. The follow-up record, Dim The Lights, Chill The Ham, featured instant classics like "5 American, 6 Canadian" and "Who Painted Whistler's Mother?" The band are also fortunate enough to love their day jobs, supplying the music for the Canadian TV comedy Kids In The Hall. Though the guys refuse to take themselves very seriously, they take what they do very seriously.
"We do have a luxury of income with Kids In The Hall," says Don. "It allows us freedom. It doesn't allow us to buy a house, but it allows us freedom."
I'd rather have a day job than be owned by a record company," stresses Reid. "I think we're a punk-rock band. Since punk rock, the idea of doing a showcase gig and inviting press and music company executives is a lot like going on a job interview. It's like 'Hmmmmm, where do I fill out the application?' Punk rock to me is being self employed.
"Last night some guy came up to me after a show and asked if we were still on Cargo," Reid continues. "I told him yeah, and that things were growing and things were good. And he said, 'Why not just jump to a major label and make a whole lot of money?' I asked him what he did for a living and he said he was a filmmaker. I said to him, 'Do you buy lottery tickets?' And he said no. And I said, 'Why not? You can make a lot of money!' People project these things for no good reason."
Sport Fishin's variety of songs prove that the Shadowy Men are not a stampede of one-trick ponies going over the cliff of the mundane. In addition to the aforementioned anti-surf track, "Spend A Night, Not A Fortune" is structured like a blink-and-miss-it Irish jig, while "Three Piece Suit" is a straight-ahead instrumental that the late Mick Ronson would have smiled upon. When tired catch phrases like "branching out" or "progressing" are bandied about, it's usually an excuse to deliver a crap album. The Men have no pretensions about this. The songs are the result of three good friends writing together. Period.
"Rock music isn't always about originality," admits Reid. "If what we do isn't rock music, it'd be compared to Spyro Gyra."
"Most of our stuff is rock and roll and I generally dislike rock and roll," confesses Pyle. "Old New York Dolls records are hard to listen to now because I'm old enough to recognize Chuck Berry songs and hear the obvious connections."
The silent but smiling Connelly looks at the drummer and drawls "Jerry Lee Lewissss …"
"Jerry Lee Lewis I cannot fucking stand! It's like that Joe Jackson album [Jumpin' Jive] that turned me on to the real big-band stuff like Louis Jordan. Then I went back to the Joe Jackson album and it was the worst piece of shit!"
"You always tend to base what you do on nostalgia anyway, no matter what," stresses Reid. "As a way that it hits you, and you carry that through the rest of your life. Hey, if people are going to walk around humming some piece of trash," he starts to break down into laughter, "it might as well be ours!"
The Shadowy Planet inhabitants will tour as much as schedules permit. Thre are possibly more singles in the works, and still more music to be made. You see, it's the surf going down on these guys, not the sun.
"I thought we'd last for six months in the beginning," admits Connelly.
"I never thought I'd be playing rock music past 30," says the 35-year old Diamond. "But when we were punks we said 25!"
"If this record sinks, we'll make another record," resigns Connelly. "And we'll make another after that. There's no big reason. We do this because we enjoy doing this."
"How good are artists that do art for money?" asks Pyle. "It's the worst reason to do anything."
Does that mean if you make a record that sounds like Def Leppard I can come to Canada and beat the hell out of you?
Don smiles. "Unless we give it away!"