Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet
Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet's great instrumental music has thrilled me since they started back in '85. They've done things on their own terms, releasing 7" EPs with crazy packaging, such as the Schlagers! EP/Game and the Explosion Of Taste packaged with popcorn! Guitarist Brian Connelly, bassist Reid Diamond and drummer Don Pyle have a great sense of humour and fun which is shown when they play live, and most recently on their excellent Dim The Lights, Chill The Ham release. After a few aborted attempts, I finally managed to track Reid down for an interview which was done over the phone in May.
Cryptic Tymes: So, how's the new one selling?
Reid Diamond: As good as the last one, anyways. It's done really well in Canada, OK in the States.
CT: Is it getting distributed down there?
RD: Yup, we just did an American tour, we opened for The Fleshtones on their tour. So we've started to get down to the States a lot more. What can I say, it's pretty nice to be in Texas when it's 80 degrees in February.
CT: I heard you have an Estrus single out?
RD: Yeah, that's all new stuff. I think the last time we talked we were going to put "Spies For Grandmother" on one side and a cover of Gene Pitney's "Mecca" on the other. Then we have a single coming out in England, I forget what label that's on, but "Mecca" is going to be the A-side, but there's also going to be "Farbs Car Wash" and "The Singing Cowboy" on that.
CT: Where do you guys come up with these insane song titles?
RD: Sometimes they come out of, uh, somebody'll say something and they haven't heard them properly, like we have a new one that I had called "What I Like About Greece", and those guys thought I meant grease, the pliable substance. And that was much funnier so we changed it to "What I Like About Grease". Or maybe "Grease" the production. They just come up in different ways. Sometimes we'll be in the van on the way to a show and something funny will come up.
CT: Can you ever foresee a time when you'd write lyrics or start singing?
RD: Well, we have one song called "Singing Cowboy", I sing a bit in it.
CT: You do "Reid Does Neil", too…
RD: Sure, why not… "5 American, 6 Canadian". Who knows, we might do a whole epic of a story for ten minutes. It wouldn't be the kind of thing where we'd use it for a commercial reason to sell a record. I'm into story telling, so, you know. There's no ideology about instrumental music, it's just what we've done so far.
CT: How much of influence were The Diodes on you?
RD: Um, let's see… you're asking that because of that single, right?
CT: Yeah, the split one with Change Of Heart.
RD: When I first heard The Diodes, me and Brian lived in Calgary, in the 70's when the whole punk thing was happening in Toronto. So for us, The Diodes were a pretty big thing 'cause it was punk happening in Canada. And that wasn't happening in Calgary, so we actually moved to Toronto. When we got there, though, everything was over. The Diodes broke up the day we got there! So it was really over, and we had a punk band for a little while called Crash Kills Five and Don was the singer in that. We were around about two years, but the scene was really pathetic then. The only thing people were interested in was like U2. So, we split up and went our separate ways and got back together quite by accident. We started jamming around and before we knew it, people seemed to like it and we were playing shows.
CT: I was going to ask you if you ever thought of re-issuing the CK5 single?
RD: Send for the mail order catalogue and I have about a hundred of them left under my bed! We sell 'em through the catalogue for $5.00. I had hundreds of 'em but I used to give 'em away to kids on Halloween.
CT: To me, that single reminded me of The Diodes.
RD: Yeah, Don sang a lot like Paul Robinson. Something you have to remember is that The Diodes were never popular in Toronto.
RD: They were popular for about a week. They were known as arrogant little art school kids who ran their own club. People were much more aligned with groups like The Viletones. The Diodes were thought of as realy wimpy. But, yeah, they were a huge influence on us. We totally grew up in a punk rock ethic. When I got out of school, I played in cover bands, me and Brian both did, and when the punk thing happened, we thought "This is the way to do it!". I think it's obvious with Shadowy Men that we've kept a lot of the punk ethics about the way you do business, the way you don't just fuck people around. You're not just out to make it, you're out to do things in a different way. Even if it's not a political statement, at least by nature of not doing things the way big companies want you to, you are making a political statement. Even by not having a singer.
CT: I think it shows in your packaging. You've always had unique packaging.
RD: We had to stop doing stuff like that, though, because of the sheer manpower involved. We put together 3,000 of those Schlagers! things. When we make 'em now, we don't put the chips in.
CT: Doing the popcorn things must've been crazy.
RD: We only make 500 of those, there's not a lot of those around. They changed the Jiffy Pop package, made it more microwaveable, so you can't fit the record in it anymore. You wouldn't believe how many people popped the popcorn with the record in it and wrecked it!
CT: You guys have a CD out of Dim The Lights…. I bought the vinyl and noticed there's a bonus track at the end. I presume that's not on the CD?
RD: No, the CD has a song called "Thanks For Buying The CD", and the tape was "Tape, Tape, You Bought Our Tape". I sing all three. They're personal messages, but on the CD we made a point of saying that they spent all this money and we didn't get to see any ot if. The tape one is my favorite, but the vinyl one is very close to my heart, also.
CT: How many Ventures albums do you own?
RD: I probably own 3 or 4. The only one I really like is "Running Strong". That one song is good, and there's a beautiful song on there called "Lonely Karen". I really like that album because the playing's good and they didn't do much "schtick" stuff.
CT: But I mean, are you guys fans of instrumental music?
RD: Well, when the band started I was actually interested in guitar stuff, I wanted to learn guitar since I'd been a bass player all my musical life. I was probably as much influenced by The Revillos, Dave Edmunds, that twangy guitar sound. We were just sort of influenced by that sort of stuff. So it wasn't going for some kind of 50's reverb schtick. It was sort of like punk rock but without the grunge. It wasn't until the band was together a few years that we started buying instrumental records to see what had been done in the past. Once I did, I stopped because I thought "All I'm going to do is re-write this stuff through osmosis", so I sort of shunned the idea. Brian got a lot more into the idea of investigating the whole past history of Dick Dale, and I have a few albums by Link Wray, but I'm much more into looking at country guitar.
CT: Well, you guys manage to combine a lot of different influences, Flamenco and Spanish guitar, Mexican stuff.
RD: I'd be kidding me if I said we'd never sat down and written a surf song, in an attempt to do something in that genre. And we still do that. It's funny, the more I say we're not a surf band, the more we're turning into one. Rock 'n' roll is so unplanned anyway, you can say one thing, and then you end up writing something totally stupid that you told someone you'd never write again. If you want to delve into the whole history of instrumental music, even instrumental guitar music isn't as "white" as people think it is. We've always been interested in the way instrumental music has used weird scales and all that. We were reading an article that said Dick Dale's parents were Lebanese and that's why he learned to play, you know he learned all these great scales, and it came from Lebanese music. People always say to me "Surf music is the whitest music there is". Well, listen guy, it may not be as white as you think it is! But you know, I hear some of the old instrumental stuff, like when you hear the original "Walk, Don't Run" on the radio, it's keen and it's very punk, very garagy.
CT: What about other current instrumental bands? Do you feel a kinship with them? Like, do you know The Phantom Surfers?
RD: I have a single by them, it's great.
CT: Or Huevos Rancheros?
RD: They're great. I don't see them as being anything like us. Huevos Rancheros, we've played with them. They have a toally different take on instrumental music. They're a lot grungier.
CT: I think it's silly to assume all instrumental bands are the same.
RD: That's one reason that it'd better if there were more. People comparing Huevos to us, or us to the Ventures, I think that's totally lazy. I guess because there's so little to compare it all to, the generalization is about trying to identify, explain it to somebody on their terms. It's too bad that there are so few instrumental bands. So, I think, the more the merrier. When I hear others, I don't get jealous or whatever. And certainly, we could use the competition, you don't want to get complacent. There's an amazing instrumental band called The Mermen, and another band in Vancouver called The Surfdusters who are really purist. I think that bands that don't really help the "instrumental scene" are the ones that just learn a bunch of covers, and go out and play "Walk, Don't Run" and stuff. You need to expand in any medium. When we started this band, and we did start the band for fun, it quickly dawned on me that we'd better add something or else it'd all be useless. You know, that doesn't mean we want to take it into free-form jazz or rock and wear some sort of banner, or you either become progressive rock, which is ultimately regressive rock.
CT: I was going to ask you about this one song you do, which is a medley of every clichéd rock guitar riffs, what is it called?
RD: "16 Encores". We came up with the idea on the bus one day. We never put on our set list, like "encore". We do them, but we don't take 'em for granted. So, we thought about how bands use certain songs for the encore, and so we took the biggest songs that people would use for their encore. As we were putting it together, we wanted to take riffs that everybody would know. They had to be clichéd or else we had to really like it. We noticed that everything we had put in there had ended up being a beer commercial. I mean, it starts off with "All The Young Dudes", "Lola", "Having An Average Weekend" (which we put in as a joke), "Satisfaction", "Louie Louie", "Ballroom Blitz", "Steppin' Stone", "You Really Got Me", "All Right Now", "The Boys Are Back In Town"… it's sort of making fun of encores. It's also really fun to play it. They're all really, really easy songs to mimic.
CT: Do you find it hard to play that many snippets of songs in a row without screwing up?
RD: No, it's just like learning your lines in a play or something. God, if we had to play them longer it'd be much more torturous! I think there's like 16 or 17 songs it. It's always getting bigger.
CT: So, you guys are still doing the "Kids In The Hall" thing. Is that working out for you guys still?
RD: Well, it helps. We never sort of banked on it.
CT: Have you ever thought about putting out something of music from the show?
RD: No, not at all. Some of the stuff we write for the show works itself into the set list, but that's doing soundtrack stuff. I mean, the KITH thing is big business, and to get involved releasing stuff from the show would put us right in the middle of corporate stuff, and so our relationship with them is very arms length. We go in, we do our stuff, we leave. We've never been involved in any marketing strategies. We're not really supposed to record things we wrote for the show, but we do. KITH classifies as a job, we don't think about it. We like working with them, but it's not as much fun as doing our own stuff. I don't know if it's going to go on another year, anyways, it might be time to move on.
CT: So, what does the future hold for Shadowy Men?
RD: Well, we're doing this western Canadian tour, then we'll be back in Toronto and playing around southern Ontario. Then in September we're doing a west coast tour. We might do some recording. We did a lot of recording down in Chicago, we have a lot of stuff in the bank as far as recorded material, so we could have another album out in the fall, or a series of singles. We're talking about going to Europe. A lot of stuff we're just talking about right now. The American thing is opening up for us a lot more now. You know, we've always taken care of Canada first, but it's nice that when you get to Vancouver, you can head south and play more gigs!