One December afternoon, while feeling rather galactic, I strapped on a jetpac and exchanged words with Don, the drummer from The Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet. We spoke of punk rock, Hunter S. Thompson, Dim The Lights, Chill The Ham, and the Kids In The Hall. Don is a personable fellow. Like the other Shadowy Men he exudes charm and wit. As a band The Shadowy Men use few words, so as is the practice with other things in life, take them when you can get 'em. Don was calling from Chicago.
Discorder: Over the past year, the Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet have released two seven inch singles (one on K records while the other was released on Cargo with Change Of Heart), a full-length LP called Dim The Lights, Chill The Ham, you guys have done a hell of a lot of touring, and now you are in the Windy City recording again. Is this all getting a bit overwhelming or are these the type of things you had always hoped would come?
Don, a shadowy man: No, certainly not overwhelming, it has always been that our schedules are pretty full, it just shifts as to what our schedules are full with. I mean a few years ago our schedules were full with having day jobs and trying to find the time to play shows and now our time is full with doing Kids In The Hall, touring and recording and that other stuff. So, at this point, our schedules are still very full and actually you seem to have more free time when you have a job. We do pretty much everything in the manner of independent music in that we answer our own mail and, for the most part, organize all our own tours. There are other things we're starting to get help with, you know, like booking shows… Because we do everything and we run everything sort of like a small business out of our home you spend longer at your desk than you really want to. We have full plates, but we are happy that way.
As was mentioned above, one of your releases this year was the cover of the Diodes tune. The Diodes were one of the first punk bands to emerge from Toronto during the late seventies. I was just wondering what sort of a role that whole scene played, particularly The Diodes, in The Shadowy Men getting together?
Well, not really in so much as Shadowy Men getting together… I mean, when I was first starting to go see shows the first bands that I ever really saw were punk rock bands. I think the first concert I ever saw was in 1974. It was something like 1976 when The Diodes were running the Crash and Burn Club and I was like 14, 15, 16 when I started going to see bands. I wasn't able to get in to some of the places but even when I was 15 or 16, going to see The Diodes, their singer, Paul Robinson, gave me his ID so I could get in to see them. Around that time it was almost entirely based out of Art school. This was even before bands like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys, which people can't imagine there ever being a history of punk rock before that. At that time, two years meant a very big difference because the original punk rock bands were more like, kind of, arty sort of bands. The Ramones were like the heaviest and fastest thing then and now it sounds like pop records compared to Bad Brains or something like that. So, The Diodes were one of the first batches of Toronto punk bands and I thought they were totally cool and a really great band although they really haven't quite stood the test of time that well.
Savvy Show Stoppers was a record that came about after four or five seven inchers that you had released…
By the time we had done Savvy Show Stoppers I think we had 5 out and one of them was like a give away.
I was just alluding to the putting together of the record. It was surely a decision made by you guys; did the response that the record generated give you renewed enthusiasm?
Not really renewed enthusiasm, it has always been slowly building, but more and more opportunities are becoming available for us to do things. We only put that out because we compiled it for release in Europe with Glass Records and then Glass Records went bankrupt right after that. Cargo in Montreal had been asking us, sort of like a standing offer, to put it out. Partly because we thought that anybody who wanted our singles, the early songs, would have been able to buy the singles. We figured everybody had them. But by this point it was getting more and more difficult to even get seven inch records manufactured so when the Glass thing went under we decided to put it out here and that is how it came about. It actually did much better than anyone had ever expected, including us and Cargo.
We'll just jump to the new record now which features "23 beefy recordings." I recently heard you in an interview during which you were speaking about the large backlog of songs that you guys have. With Dim The Lights are most of the songs newer or are they songs that have been hanging around for a long time, and you felt you just had to get down.?
I think it is probably two thirds older stuff and one third newer stuff. We usually play things for a long time before we can play them well enough to record. (laughing) There is a song on the new record called "I Know A Guy Named Larry," which we had only been playing a couple of weeks when we recorded for the album, and it is funny to hear that now. Even three months after we recorded it sounded like, "Gosh, we sure play this better now." I'm glad we did record it because it did happen quickly. We just decided to do it when we were in the studio. Also, the album was sort of recorded in the same way as all of the singles: while we were going through all of the legal hassles with Glass Records, and being involved with the Kids In The Hall, and all the other things that have taken up so much time, the album ended up being recorded over two and a half years, so some stuff was recorded a few years ago.
The new record also features a bit of a venture into some other instruments. Maybe not in a big way but on "D. Tour" there is a harmonica and on "Running Meredith" Brian plays keyboards. I was wondering if we can expect to hear some strings on some upcoming releases?
(laughing) Not quite strings but we just did some recording and we thought, "God, this would sound so good with some Herb Alpert trumpet on it." It was that kind of a song. They are all still pretty basic sorts of things and they are instruments that… Brian can barely play organ, Reid can actually play a little piano, but they are all sort of one finger things like typing. If you know how to type, well, that's sort of the way Brian plays the organ.
What prompted you guys to put "You Spin Me Round" on the new record as well, this time in its studio version?
Just 'cause we thought it sounded nice with a bit of guitar in it. That was pretty much the only reason. I tend to think that live records are a pretty dumb idea. They are usually inferior versions of the songs and it was only because we had done the live single that this version appeared on record. It wasn't that we were trying to correct the previously bad version. I kind of like when bands put the same song on a record over and over again. I also like the idea of there being live songs on a record; putting the recording out that you think you want to put out rather than having something that is a "live record."
You were talking about rejects for the new record. That got me wondering what a bad Shadowy Men song sounds like. Could you enlighten us further on this phenomena?
Well, ah, you ought to send us $13.98 and we will send you a cassette chock full of them. (giggle, snicker) For the Dim The Lights record, partly because it was recorded over a long period of time, we had a whole bunch of bad recording sessions for various reasons. We had one where the engineer was really quite ill, and one where we had tried to do stuff in an eight track studio, 'cause we wanted to get a rawer sound, and we just ended up having an engineer who just didn't know how to use any of the equipment. We tried a few different things that just didn't work. It ended up that we recorded two whole albums and picked the stuff that worked out of it. Most of the album is pretty fast because the slow songs we had recorded just didn't turn out, they were crappy. Even the version of "In My Room". the Beach Boys song. We recorded that for one of those dumb tribute albums that was supposed to come out, like, three years before they became the horrible cliche that they have become now. The record company went under and someone beat them to doing the Brian Wilson tribute album. We had this version of the song we all really liked, none of us huge Beach Boys fans, and we decided to put it on the album because it would just be another thing to drive people crazy when they try to call us a surf band. We would then say that we are not a surf band and they would say, "Oh, you did a Beach Boys song?" (Don says this with a whine)
The song "Hunter S. Thompson's Younger Brother" is a great tune. Who is Hunter's younger brother and did it come about that he had a song written about him?
Well, when you were asking us about the old songs "Hunter S." is probably the third song we ever wrote. There used to be a guy that Brian and I used to play in a band with called Doug Thompson. Brian and I were talking about him one day and Reid asked us, "Who is Doug Thompson?" One of us, smart-alecly, answered, "Hunter S. Thompson's younger brother" and Reid believed us for a while. It ended up working its way into our conversations and, I guess, to rid it of being part of conversation we named a song after it. (obviously hasn't worked)
I was going to ask you about the International Pop Underground Festival in Olympia. Did you guys have fun doing it?
Yeah, we had a really great time, it was probably the most fun that we ever have had. There were really amazing bands playing at it and just an amazing sense of… it is hard to even tell people about this without it sounding like Woodstock or some horrible hippy sort of thing, but it had a sense of community where people were all having fun together and people from bands brought no star attitudes. There were no fights or drunken goofballs. Everybody was cool on every level, even the police. And the merchants were saying, "This is the nicest bunch of kids we have ever had here." We saw lots and lots of really great bands and just had a really great time. Our show was totally ridiculous because we flew out there with no equipment. Me and Brian just took a guitar each and we had totally borrowed equipment. The drumkit that Calvin (K Records) had rounded up for me was from the group Bikini Kill. It was like a little toy drumkit and it was broken, so through the entire set there was always something falling over. For almost our entire show there were two sets of hands that I could see reaching between my legs either holding stuff together or putting stuff back together. The whole kit was falling apart, so it was a lot of fun.
So, you are now in Chicago and, as has been written about in many publications, you are recording with Steve Albini
Yeah, it is unfortunate that the word has gotten around because it places expectations on us. Obviously, we just put out a record and another one won't be out for a while.
I heard that he liked your music and expressed an interest in producing you. Was it a choice based on getting someone outside the band to produce some sessions or did you just take it as an opportunity you said you couldn't pass up?
Well that was sort of like how it was. First of all, we read an article in Forced Exposure saying that he really liked us and that we would like to produce us. He wrote to us not too long after that. As it turned out we were coming down here to play a wedding, Steve was a friend of the couple getting married, so we met him when we were down here. First of all we just thought it was totally bizarre that someone like Steve Albini would be a fan of ours based on just the stuff he has produced and the type of music that he plays. It was a real surprise. We thought this was totally weird; it makes no sense. I think that was part of the appeal about it. For one thing, we have never worked with a producer before, we have done everything ourselves and lots of times we haven't been fully happy with our recordings. There are times when we have tried to get live sounds and it hasn't happened very much, he works very much with doing things live.
Did it go off O.K.?
Yeah, it actually went really well, I think it is the best sounding stuff we have ever done. We are all really happy with it and he is an amazing engineer. He acted more as an engineer because we have a pretty specific idea about the way we do things and I think that judging by the way he works he would prefer to have bands be that way because he doesn't want to be making the band sound like him. He certainly wanted us to sound like us and did not meddle at all, he would just say that stinks or if it was good he'd say- awesome. For the first time ever we were allowed to play at the volume we play at when we play live. We didn't have an engineer flipping out saying, "No, no, you can't do that." Just out of habit of doing this for so long, you know, the drums are ringing and I'd say, "Is that too much ring for you?" and we would say, "What do you mean? They are drums, they are supposed to ring." He helped us a lot and did a really great job.
Without taking too much of an emphasis off of Dim The Lights what do you plan on doing with these recordings? Can we expect some seven inchers in the new year?
We haven't even really talked about it. We don't really know. It just felt as if the opportunity was right; we had just finished a tour, and we always play best when we have been playing a lot, and so we just thought it better to do it and decide afterwards what to with them. It might end up being 6 seven inch singles or it might be half an album and some singles or it might be part of an album. Part of what was good about it was just getting the backlog of songs… we are at a point where all the songs that we like and want to record are now recorded with the exception of two new songs that are too new to play well enough. Now we have some time off in January and February, and being so busy, all these songs that we have written in the last while we have time to learn them. We can learn a whole slew of songs and then hopefully, you know, it would be nice to come back and work with Steve again and record another batch of songs. By then, enough time will have passed that it could be a record.
In this month's Discorder I think that there is going to be an interview with one of the Kids In The Hall. I wanted to talk about your relationship with them, how does it work in terms of the music? Do you continuously submit things or was it just a one off type deal where you gave them a bunch of tracks and they have slowly worked them into the shows?
It kinda works a bunch of different ways, it just sort of depends on what it is that they are doing and what they need at the time. A couple of times a year we go in and record, you know, 30 or 40 short pieces of music that would be like 15 seconds of less. As we come up with ideas in our practice studio we just put them on a tape recorder and save them up until we go into the studio. In Canada, you don't see a lot of those things, they are joiner bits of music in between scenes and skits. In the US they show those much more because there are no commercials on cable. We do a whole bunch of those that are really a free-for-all, they don't have a clue what were are going to do when we go in. Generally, all the other stuff that would be songs is composed for the skit. There is this thing that was just on TV called the "Flying Pig" where they would come to us and say like here is the scene, they would give us a description, "So, what this is going to be is theme music for a superhero that is a flying pig." So we had to, in our minds, try and write something that sounded like the theme music for a superhero that was a flying pig. The pig was pretty sick.
I realize that you guys feel you deserve a break in an effort to bring some normalcy back into your lives in Toronto but when can we expect to see you guys touring again, particularly up in our neck of the woods?
It will probably be summer by the times we get out to the West coast. We are doing a tour going south into the United States in March which is something that we have never done before. That will take us through the month of March. I think Kids In The Hall ends in April so that puts us at May or June… just going through the calendar in my mind. We definitely want to come back out there and I am not just saying that because you are talking to me from Vancouver but we have just always had a great time in Vancouver. Some of the places between here and Vancouver are another story. Actually the whole Northwest area… we really love Olympia. Playing in Olympia the first time was one of the best times we ever had playing a show and then the International Pop Underground thing, again, was just really great. Last time we were out there we played some great shows in Seattle. We played with the Young Fresh Fellows and we did our own show so we do want to come out.
Thanks for talking with us Don.