Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet
"The idea for the band started because we had been in bands. We liked playing in bands, but we hated the music business. We just wanted to fuckin' play and be left alone. As soon as we did that, we became successful," says Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet bassist Reid Diamond, whose band has a new CD release, Sport Fishin' - The Lure Of The Bait, The Luck Of The Hook (Cargo Records/MCA). He insists the Shadowy philosophy has more in common with the Sex Pistols than the Ventures.
"The band is pretty influenced by the punk rock era of music," says Diamond, "and when you've said what you've got to say, that's it. When I first heard the first Ramones album, the songs sounded comically short to me, but they wouldn't now. They'd seem exactly the perfect length. I think it's sort of a patience thing, too, how long you want to be sitting around playing a song. I mean, an eight-minute song, wow! I would just go nuts!"
The Shadowy Men sound ain't rock 'n' roll, that's for sure. It's a twangy howl from somewhere dry and criminal, and it could be background music to a Cold War thriller. For some, this makes Shadowy Men a gimmick group, a 'surf' band stuck in the mid-'60s. Diamond doesn't care much for those options, or the critics attached to them.
"You can take people to lunch and talk until you're blue in the face, but they'll write whatever they want anyways. People always describe you in terms of references that are broadly known, so no matter how much you say to a reviewer that 'no, we're not in a surf band,' they still say that, because that's what people reading a newspaper recognize as a broad reference. And reviewers echo other reviewers."
Okay, Reid, here's your chance to set the record straight. If the Shadowy Men aren't a 'surf' band,' what are you doing, anyway? "Those handles, you can attach them to us, but they fall off. There's certain songs we do that are obviously and intentionally written in a surf genre, like "Bennett Cerf" from the first album, but that whole idea of calling something surf music, no. Instrumental guitar music was annexed by surf culture on the West Coast in the early '60s, but it certainly never came out of surf culture. That's like calling rock music beer-commercial music, which is what it will be historically known for. The instrumental surf music thing came from San Francisco jazz clubs, and composers like Dick Dale, who was writing music that was based on his parents' Lebanese music, with which he grew up as a kid. That's why it has all sorts of minor scales. So, they might as well call it electric Lebanese music, instead of surf music."
Diamond reacts rather badly to the suggestion that, what with their playful titles, colourful stage shows and 'fun' music, his band were the instrumental equivalent of vocal group Moxy Früvous. "Oh, God," he said, "I've often said that to Don (Pyle, the Shadowy drummer). What Moxy Früvous do is pretty close to what we were doing a few years ago. But I don't know much about them, having never seen a live show. When I read about them, some of the things they do sound incredibly cute, so maybe we've done some incredibly cute stuff too. That's for other people to judge." He adds, "Maybe that's why we stopped."
"I think that Moxy Früvous is really looking desperately to make it in the mainstream. I think they are 'outside looking in,' as opposed to 'outside making fun of.' It seems to me that the way they talk about assembling management teams and stuff in the newspaper sounds pretty calculated to me. But heck, who wants a day job? It's very tempting. But at least when you have a day job - and I don't want to romanticize it - you're free to make decisions that aren't money-based about what you want to do musically."
The Shadowy Men must have something right: they've managed to avoid waitering for quite a while. "The band's been self-employed for three years, due to Kids In The Hall, which is, in effect, our day job." The band is also self-managed and has only recently handed over booking duties to regional agents for road trips. "We never had a manager; there's never been a need. We hire agents piecemeal to book tours, which I used to do, but it was getting way out of hand and taking all day long." Diamond says that, as touring vets, they have a pretty good idea of where to play, what to charge and who to have open for them right across Canada. They provide local agents with guidelines, so booking a tour becomes a matter of delegation, rather than being on someone else's idea of a schedule. "Otherwise," says Diamond, "you could tour universities fro three months, and sure, make a lot of money, and play to a bunch of drunken university yobs, or you could play really cool clubs in town, and have everybody come to see you."
If you guessed that touring the college circuit hasn't been artistically rewarding for the Shadowy Men, Diamond confirms it. "We got bear up pretty bad in Guelph once in a riot. Nothing to do with us: the football team lost that day, and they had to take it out on somebody. Unfortunately, they were the bouncers in the club. It was ugly, and a shame, because Guelph has always been one of our favorite places to play. Quite often, with college shows, you've just been hired for an event, like homecoming week. You get into those situations, and you're just a hired band. People aren't there to see you. You're just like a clown or a jester; you're there, and you're a service industry. We've played very few universities as a consequence. I was reading an interview with Change Of Heart, and [vocalist/guitarist] Ian Blurton feels similarly when he said that universities might be the best paying shows, but they're usually the worst shows you do."
Diamond cites Rob and John Wright of NoMeansNo as people he admires, and with whom he feels an affinity. "They've built up a following over the years, they're not fashionable and they have a really good sense of how to do things on the proper level. They're not young, either. Neither are we, and they obviously keep playing because they really love doing it. And they're not opportunists. There's just so many groups in Toronto who are total opportunists. When you're in the music business, you've got to make so many decisions about if you're going to sell out over little things or big things, and who you're going to get to represent you, and all of that kind of stuff. It's to know what to do, or you get led down a path, and NoMeansNo has obviously never been led down a path."
That sort of independent spirit is admirable in a veteran unit like the Shadowy Men, but the question begs: What of the future? Is there life after Kids In The Hall? Can you pay the rent as a childless Shadowy Man?
"You sound like my Dad. We could do more soundtrack work, or spend more time making records, or work at Canadian Tire. The three of us has very separate lives, and the band is what keeps us together as musical friends. I've been very fortunate to play in a band until I'm 35, but I wouldn't stop playing either. If the Kids In The Hall goes, I would play with somebody else, but not necessarily in a way that I would sleep on floors and wait for the day I made it. You've got to integrate it into your life in a way that's bearable and enhancing, as opposed to oppressive. The bottom line is: if you want to make music, if you want to make records, you can get it done." - Marc Dacey