Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet Interview
Conducted by Todd Ambrosini, Demi Brown, & John Wiencek
6 - 14 - 92
The Shadowy Men (or just the bassist really) come off as a fun loving bunch of guys that definitely have a high sense of humor. At least that's what we thought. The accused stood before us and riddled out long, exacting, serious answers to our sometimes not so serious questions. We had taken some of the questions out of the then current issue of Sassy magazine, (we are NOT Generation X types though, and you'd better not confuse us with their ilk, thank you very much. - J.W.) and some of that attitude as well. Boy, that was a stupid idea. He came off as very intelligent, thoughtful, friendly and long-winded. It was hard to get a word in edgewise, but the man had a lot to say. This is a severly edited (notice the shrunk down type) version of this interview, so you get the idea. Reading this now, the whole thing is pretty interesting. It came off well. This interview is a good thing. Now without further ado… - T.A.
P E R S O N N E L
TA = Todd Ambrosini
DB = Demi Brown
SM = Shadowy Man
JW = John Wiencek
BW = Bob Wiseman
All photos by: Todd Ambrosini
Shadowy Men On A Secretive Planet
TA: I've seen very few Shadowy Men interviews.
SM: Yeah, well… The guitarist never says a word and either me or the drummer do all the talking.
TA: Can he only talk on stage?
SM: He never says anything. Did you hear him say anything today?
TA: I thought he said something in the last show.
SM: No. I don't think so.
TA: It's not a big secret that he's a mute?
SM: No, no, no. He just doesn't talk on stage.
JW: Is he shy?
SM: Wellll… he's quiet.
TA: O.K. For the record, state your full name and rank.
SM: The Bass Player from Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet. (laughter)
SM: (Chidingly) Our names aren't on our records, so why should we give it to you now?
JW: I've noticed that.
SM: That way if someone leaves the band they can be replaced instantly and no one will ever know.
TA: How about the people who have seen you live?
SM: Oh, just replace them with people who look the same. Cheap Trick did that. (laughter)
TA: How did it feel to play this city on such a momentous night in Chicago sports history, the end of Puerto Rican week, and the eclipse of the moon?
SM: We've been on the road a lot and I didn't know any of those things were happening to tell you the truth.
TA: Did you see…
JW: The Eclipse. It was beautiful.
SM: I didn't know there was an eclipse tonight. I did hear some people howling. Uh… I guess it would have been neat had I known about it, but frankly, I couldn't care less that the Bulls won.
TA: There are naked people in the streets.
SM: Yeah, I know. We have a big city too and people do that sort of shit when major sports things happen. You know when Italy won the World Cup for soccer there was five hundred thousand people in the streets of Toronto.
TA: And where were you?
SM: Inside where it was safe, thank you very much.
JW: O.K…. Now for my question… "Who Painted Whistler's Mother" makes me cry… What do you think about that?
SM: Well, it should make you want to paint… But that's the thing about songs without lyrics. You just interpret them any way you want. If you think that was bad, wait till you hear our version of [whatever he said here, it sounds like - "I Weep To The Lord's Spanish Boy." If anyone has any information on this rare punk classic, get in touch with us. Perhaps this is one of those Fruit Bats singles that Dave Riley's on.] The song makes you cry?
[Shadowy Webmaster's Note: The song title is "I Weep For The Lonely Spanish Boy Who Dreams Of Faraway Lands".]
TA: I feel the same way.
SM: It's melancholic. When we were in the studio I felt very melancholic.
TA: And you captured it.
JW: It's your turn.
TA: It's my turn. Oh boy… "5 American, 6 Canadian" -- That's like a monetary thing, right? Did we pick up on that?
SM: Well, yes and no. When we wrote that song we didn't really think about that. The guitar riff just seemed to be saying "5 American, 6 Canadian"… and as soon as we did the vocal part, we thought of the exchange rate… that's it's always been like 80% to 100%. So five to six is about right. So that was the first thing we thought of, but it wasn't on purpose. It was more intuitive. If you know how intuition works… you really haven't thought it over and it just comes out but yeah I guess so it's more about that than anything else. (Yeesh)
TA: Did you start out as an anti-lyrical band? Did you ever have lyrics?
SM: It just started out as a thing to do on the weekends. We had all been in bands before with lyrics and stuff… then we split up and didn't really work as musicians anymore. We all had jobs and other careers that we were doing, and we just wanted to get together for fun and forget about the business because we all had lives that were going quite well. We just wanted to play on the weekends. We would just get together and play. We wrote songs out of jam sessions. We realized we could have more fun with the material if we didn't have to worry about lyrics and getting a PA system. (This name has been censored. The individual will forthwith be referred to as "Blank.") has never drummed before. He used to be a singer. We were all in a band called (unintelligible). I used to write all the lyrics so have some experience with lyrics and singing. I think we just wanted to… Well, this was the '80s -- '84/'85 -- there wasn't a lot of guitar bands happening, There was Wall Of Voodoo, R.E.M…. The rest was all that synth-pop stuff… Flock Of Seagulls…
TA: The Smiths… (Todd doesn't really know how he meant that)
SM: Yeah! (apparently the Shadowy Man does) There wasn't much emphasis on the guitar, even U2 was pretty much…
TA: … effects?
SM: Yeah, pedaled effects guitar, and I just wanted to hear something clean. I don't know if you've ever heard of The Revillos?
DB: Yes!! (Now he's got her attention)
SM: But that Revillos LP…
ALL: Big Revillos fans here.
SM: … That Revillos LP was really… like… originally I was the guitarist in the band because I wanted to learn how to play the guitar…
JW: (Not following) In The Revillos? (laughter)
SM: No, no, not The Revillos. I would learn to play the things off the Revillos LP… and I got together with Blank and (This name has been censored. The individual will forthwith be referred to as "Blank.") becuase I wanted to play guitar and play some instrumentals, but Blank had always played guitar and I had always played bass. So we switched back and forth. Well in practice we would switch back and forth. When it came to doing a live show… I couldn't stand up in front of an audience and play guitar where I had played bass for years. (Why no one in the room questioned this Shadowy psychosis is not known.) The way the band works now is that we all write parts for each other. A lot of people might think seeing Blank on stage that he wrote all those parts, but that's not necessarily the case. Blank and Blank write bass parts for me or we'll write drum parts for Blank on the drum machine. None of us subscribe to the notion of authorship. Blank's the guitarist but he doesn't write all the parts. Blank's… (This goes on like this for the next 4½ minutes… I think everybody gets the point.) We'd rather just credit everybody. It all evens out in the end anyway.
TA: When you were starting out Jetpac [Label that all of the early 45s were on] was that all by yourselves?
SM: Jetpac Records? Pretty much. We were playing with Hüsker Dü at one of our very first shows, and a guy came up and said "I think you guys are great. I have some free time in the studio. I'll record you if you put out a 45 and put my name on it." His name was Paul Edwards and he had all this free time he was owed for back hours. So that's how the first 45 came out. We distributed the first four or five records on our own and eventually those made up the LP Savvy Show Stoppers, which was an international release which even though it was an international release did very well in Canada which we didn't suspect it would because all those songs had been hits on college radio over the years.
TA: A lot of people don't buy singles.
SM: Well, there was a new audience. There was a new audience once we started The Kids In The Hall TV show, right? And a lot of people wanted that song "Having An Average Weekend" - which had been our first single back in 1985.
TA: How did the Kids In The Hall thing come together?
SM: Me and the guitarist, Blank, grew up with Bruce McCulloch back in Calgary. When he moved to Toronto, we had the band and he was in the comedy division of the art school and they would use our music before their shows. We would do live tapes for them or sometimes we would play live with them at the comedy reviews, too. And someone saw one of these live shows, made a pilot out of it and turned it into a series. So we already had a working relationship with them before there was ever a television show. I think, had we just been approached like "Do you want to do music for a major syndicated television show?" we would have said fuck off, 'cause you know it would have just seemed like big business and we're pretty anti-big business and a lot of people I'm certain ask about Kids In The Hall and see this or that perception of us is that we're involved in the corporate world, but we're really not at all.
TA: You got money out of that?
SM: Oh, HELL yeah.
TA: It helped you out?
SM: Well, did you ever see Wayne's World?
TA: (Lying) Sure.
SM: You know where they get 5000 dollars? Well that's how we were at first, right? We got smarter as the years went by, so sure at that point any money was a lot of money, but now that we do this full time and we're on the road and it seems to pay more we get much more than when we first started. Back then we thought that was a lot of money, but now we look at it and are embarassed at how little we got the first year.
JW: So the band totally supports you now?
SM: Well, that just goes with hockey I guess.
JW: Where would you take a girl on a first date?
SM: Where would I take a woman on the first date?
TA: He was supposed to ask it like this… O.K. --
JW: O.K. Here's one for the ladies. I'm a girl. You like me. Where do you take me out?
SM: O.K., let's put it this way: If a woman won a date with a Shadowy Man to go on a tour of Toronto… Is that what you mean?
JW: That would be a good Tiger Beat contest.
SM: What's that?
JW: I said that would be a good Tiger Beat contest.
SM: I don't really know if I want to take someone from Tiger Beat out… Um… Where would I take them… In Toronto?
JW: Yeah, I like that.
SM: Well, when people come to Toronto, I always take them to Center Island. It's a great island in the center of the city that is really beautiful, and you can't hear the traffic and it's all green and lush and it's kind of like what Central Park is to New York I guess but it's safe. And then I'd take them to the Blue Bay Cafe which is the most amazing place in the world. They serve Mauritian food. It's the only Mauritian restaurant in Canada and maybe North America. Mauritius is a small island not far off the coast of Thailand and it's the most amazing food I've ever eaten in my life. I could not move from Toronto because this restaurant is absolutely amazing.
[Shadowy Webmaster's Note: Mauritius is actually off the coast of Africa, by Madagascar.]
DB: Is it similar to Thai food?
SM: No, it's not. They serve food to the Mauritian embassy in Canada because they're the only Mauritian restaurant in Canada. The food is… Well, the history of Mauritius is much like that of New Orleans. It was inhabited the French so it's sort of like Creole cooking, but it's not really like that at all. It's very fresh, very light, not heavy on the sauces and spices and everything is probably… You would never add salt and pepper and you know the vegetarian dishes are just amazing, really just amazing.
JW: Tonight you had a guy with you on the organ. Who is he? Is he like the fourth Shadowy Man or something?
SM: Have you ever heard of a band called Blue Rodeo?
SM: He was the keyboard player for Blue Rodeo and he left about a month and a half ago. He opened the show tonight solo. He's touring with us, right? So he's a real good friend of ours and he just comes up does some songs with us during the show.
JW: He's great.
SM: Yeah he's a very good player isn't he.
SM: Fantastic. That one song… "You Spin Me Round"… we're going to do like another version with him. Yeah cause it's on two LPs, but we're going to do one with him playing on it - it's so incredible what he does with the song.
TA: You've got a single coming out and a how many song CD coming out?
SM: Oh. I don't know. It's not set in stone what we're doing with those tapes. Quite often…
TA: I've seen a press release that says like nine songs.
SM: Oh yeah? Record companies always hype dumb things. Like we didn't want to tell anyone that we were working with Steve Albini, and our record company says… Y'know we don't like to tell people things until they come out. Rather than teasing them for years about stuff, what we generally do… Our process is that we make tapes and then save up the tapes until they make a cohesive record and then we put it out.
Musical Men From A Perfectionist Planet
(Bob Wiseman walks in)
TA: Talking about recording sessions, did you actually record the last LP that many times or was that just a joke?
SM: Dim The Lights, Chill The Ham? Well, the liner notes are a joke, yeah. But that album was very hard for us to make. We had a lot of false starts with it. We tried an 8 track studio because we wanted a real basic thing and we were working with an engineer and then he died of cancer as we started working with him.
TA: Who was that?
SM: Bill Aldred. He did a lot of the stuff on Savvy Show Stoppers. We didn't really get tapes done to satisfaction and then he he died of cancer, unfortunately, because he had our sound. Then we had to go and find a new studio and a new producer and that was very painful. And most of it didn't turn out. We kept throwing tapes away - literally erasing them and it cost us a lot of money. Then we came down and worked with Steve. One of the attractions of working with Steve was that it was taking a long time to make the LP and we had heard that he wasn't going to be walking in saying that he was the boss. It was very much like working with a competent technician co-producing stuff. Steve didn't work on the arrangements or go over the tapes. He was just likem "Well what do you guys want?" and he got the sounds we wanted and that would be transferred over to the tapes.
TA: Did you do it very quickly?
SM: Oh yeah. And incredible amount of songs in two days. It would have taken us a lot longer. It was great. We might be recording with Steve Fisk come September. He's in Pell Mell. Have you heard of him?
TA: Absolutely. Are you fans of Pell Mell?
SM: Well… I've never heard Pell Mell.
SM: But I am a big fan of Beat Happening, one of the Shadowy Men's favorite bands. I've always thought the production on those records was perfect. It's always suited the band in the progress they've made. He's a great producer. You can tell he has the same ethics about the studio that we would… Overdubs in just the right place…
TA: Exactly. When I heard he had joined Pell Mell I thought there would be a lot of samples… a lot of keyboards thrown in… and I didn't know if that would fit. But he's almost nonexistent in the mix. He's there but you can't tell it.
SM: We've actually used a lot of samples on our records, but you wouldn't know it. We don't use them in obvious ways. A lot of the drum sounds on our records have been samples because we couldn't get the right sound for the song. We're not against technology. It's one of the reasons that we've never fallen into the ideology of the garage band. We try to move forward. We'll go into the studio and record until it sounds full. But we don't try to have some goal. Whatever happens, happens. You can get some great recordings that way. It's sometimes luck. We want it to sound as natural as possible. We want to hear the songs we have in our heads like we hear the songs in reality.
TA: Do you use the same equipment that you use on stage as you use in the studio?
SM: Yes! Yes, and that's actually… The volume that we play at is always the same. So when we take a song into the studio… We don't change the song from when we play live to when we go into the studio. We play the song live until it's ready to go into the studio. We know how it's going to sound. It's quite often 2 years time before a song gets recorded because, ideally, we' like to take a long time to get a very natural feel and we become very comfortable with it. Some of the songs - and particularly with Steve - some of that stuff was 3 or 4 years old. Ironically, we recorded some of our slowest, prettiest stuff with Steve. We had never had that much luck recording it before. That's the hardest stuff for us to do actually: get that full, rich sound.
TA: Do you usually record live?
SM: Yeah. We all play together. Sometimes we'll be in secluded glass rooms, but most of the Dim The Lights stuff was recorded all in one room staring at each other over pillows or whatever. We've never done the record one instrument at a time thing. We're pretty leery of that. The best way to kill music is to dissect it, I'd rather it sound rough that have it separate everything.
Angry Men On A Anti-Punk Rock Planet
JW: Time for another dumb question.
TA: (looking at questions) No, that's an O.K. question.
JW: Could you ever fall in love with 2 girls at the same time?
TA: (laughing) I don't remember that one being on there.
SM: TWO WOMEN! WOMEN! I'm 34! I'm dealing with women here.
TA: (laughing still) Not necessarily. You guys have that kind of appeal now. You've sold quite a few of your records to 15/16 year old girls.
SM: Well, that's great. Our audience is pretty diverse. We did a show in Calgary that was really… Y'know we did this Kids In The Hall stuff, but sometimes I worry that it's going to attract a real stupid college boy audience. We would hate that. A lot of the people coming… They slam dance in front of the stage: killing everybody. This show in Calgary was full of fucking idiots. I was thinking, man I hope we're not starting to attract the wrong sort of audience. Then we did a show in Minneapolis last night and there were these 2 gay guys waltzing in front of the stage. It was so great. (Laughter by all) It was great. The more diverse the audience would get, the happier I would be with the band. I would really hate it if it was all white males at the show… I'm just not interested in having… becoming, one part of one part of the culture. You know we get guys who are 50 years old and are into it for the guitar. They come and stare at Blank. They're like old Ventures fans with their wives, who are just looking around like, what am I doing here? As you said, the younger girls who are 15/16 are the results of the Kids In The Hall. People who come are usually very polite and really interested in what's going on. We don't really get a yahoo crowd. I think tonight was really one of the best audiences we've had all tour in terms of being responsive and listening. Sometimes you can get really jerky audiences that want to monopolize the show and you're thinking "Why did I come all this way?"
Riotous Men On A Disco Planet
TA: That was one of our questions. What was, like, your worst show? I mean audience-wise or place-wise, not performance-wise.
SM: Well, the worst show was at Guelph University. You know we don't play a lot of universities partly because we don't want to play for these yahoo party crowds, and universities tend to breed that sort of thing. This was before The Kids In The Hall and they wanted us to play this disco. Now, the thing we've learned in our lives, is not to play shows at dance clubs. They're there because they want to be the center of attention. If a band is on stage, then they're pissed off, because they're not the center of attention.
SM: And that's great. It's a very democratic sort of thing. Everyone's a star at a disco.
TA: Hold it right there: "Everyone's a star at a disco."
SM: And so we played to this crowd of about 5000 people… and they're screaming for "La Bamba"… that's when it was a hit right… So we go to the guy "Don't put us on," and he says "What do you mean?" We'd done 2 shows (that night), one earlier at the same place and were like "Don't put us on. These people do not want to hear us." This is like before we had any hits or anything… and he said "No, no, just do a couple of songs." And I said "Did you see on T.V. that Jesus And Mary Chain video where there was a riot… That's what's gonna happen."
(all laugh hard)
SM: So we started playing, and all of these guys came up to the front and started harassing us. This one guy, he grabbed my bass, and then he took the mic stand and hit it, he almost hit my forehead but I moved out of the way. So I lost my temper and kicked his beer in his face, right?
JW: What happened?
SM: Well that was it, right? The whole place just broke out into this total fuckin' riot! They were all trying to kill us, and Blank got his leg almost broken. This guy kicked it. And Blank came over from the drums with his cymbal and smacked this guy in the head. There was blood everywhere. The lights came on. The music stopped. There was so much confusion, but no one really got hurt. Then it was quiet for a minute. Then the police came and blamed us saying "We never have trouble here. You guys are from Toronto." It was just awful! The worst show we ever did. Guelph was the first town that supported us outside of Toronto, and it's a great live music town. I wouldn't put it down. There was this show in Milwaukee, we drove 2 days to get to and they hadn't advertised it, in fact they even had a weekly schedule saying they were closed on the night we were playing. (Laughter) We had to pay $50 for the P.A. There were these 2 people who came, and a bouncer. They sat right in front of us in 2 chairs. They clapped and bought shirts… We tried to sneak out between sets but the owner caught us and made us play.
Shadowy Men On A Capitalist Planet
TA: Why would you play for only 2 people?
SM: We wouldn't have had to play if they hadn't come and we wouldn't have had to pay $50 for the P.A.
TA: So you're not doing it for the fans, eh?
SM: Well, there's a limit.
TA: When it costs you money.
SM: We were so tired. It was just depressing… They were nice… They were great.
JW: You tried to sneak out!
SM: We tried to get the equipment out between sets. We happened to be caught by the owner, and he says "Where are you guys going?" The 2 people had left. They were nice but sometimes it ain't fuckin' worth it. At least they were fans… But that was a bad show.
Melancholic Men On A P.C. Planet
TA: Uh, You can think about this one if you want. It's a serious question. If you could be any song, what song would you be? What song do you identify with the most? The one you would say: "That song is me."
SM: (Immediately) "Theme From A Summer Place." Do you know it?
TA: (Laughing) Yeah.
SM: On man, that's just… A lot of people would call it shopping mall music, but have you ever seen the film? They play it like a billion times in that movie! (More laughter) It comes on every time they kiss, and I'm a melodramatic kind of guy. It's just a wonderful song. It was just last year that I actually bought it, and the record store guy knows I'm in Shadowy Men abd he was very condescending. He's one of those guys who comments on what you buy. When I was looking around, I found the record and I said "Percy Faith for a buck!" And he said "Blank, it's endearing to know that you like music like this."
SM: He's a jazz musician. I think that's a wonderful song.
JW: Who does the graphics for the band? Is that one of you?
SM: Blank, the guitarist is a cartoonist, and he does all the lettering and the little Shadowy Man stuff. Blank, the drummer, he's a very good graphic artist too. He painted the ham and he does a lot of it too. I'm the only one who went to art school. (All laugh) That's the way life works, right? Yeah, we do all that stuff ourselves, and we like doing it. I work on the ideas and stuff. I'm good at 3-D stuff, but not very good at two dimensional things.
TA: You guys seem to have a lot of control over your promotional material, and stuff like that.
SM: Oh, it's fun.
JW: Like the Ham Cans.
TA: I have one of those.
SM: We didn't do those.
SM: It wasn't the kind of thing that I think we would have done. We didn't do those.
TA: More of a collector's item thing?
SM: A promo for record stores, but that's one thing we didn't do…
JW: Did they give you any?
SM: 3, 1 each. I don't know… I wasn't crazy about using ham as a gag… It seemed…
TA: I've heard it's not actual ham in the can.
SM: Yeah, there is… They're pretty heavy. At least mine is. I actually didn't want to have ham in there. I wanted empty cans cause I didn't want…
TA: Why waste the ham?
SM: Yeah, Don't waste ham, no one is going to eat them. Also vegetarians… with these fuckin' cans of ham on their shelves. I thought it would be just as funny if they were empty.
TA: Goddamn… You are serious.
SM: It's my point of view. We took a vote, and decided to put the ham in. (laughter by non-members of Shadowy Men) That kind of ham is pretty gross too.
JW: I shook it around, it's kind of lumpy.
DB: It's the kind my grandmother buys.
SM: So… uh… There was no vegetarian backlash. (non-Shadowy laughter)
TA: What scares you most about Shadowy Men?
SM: Well… I wouldn't tell you… (all laugh hard) … what your deepest, darkest thoughts about sexuality are!
TA: We're talking about the band.
SM: That was my answer! (Think about it) No, the thing would probably be that success would cause us to lose control, and just have it become no fun and just for money. Outside influences are what destroys bands. Somebody offers them a golden carrot, a T.V. commercial.
TA: Would you ever do a T.V. commercial, I know you did Kids In The Hall, but you were pals.
SM: Kids In The Hall, yeah, but we would never do a commercial as far as I'm concerned. It's disappointing when you see David Bowie do that. He doesn't need the money. The only way we would ever do that is if someone sued our asses off for ripping off one of their songs, and we were so far in debt that we had to do it. It would be a desperate measure.
TA: Only then would you become whores.
SM: (Laughs) Yeah, but it would never be just for money. I resent the way rock music has been co-opted to sell beer. NutraSweet asked us to do a commercial for them.
Violent Men On A Dreaming Planet
TA: Do you have any recurring dreams?
SM: Well, I actually get up in my sleep and try to strangle Blank and Blank while they're sleeping.
TA: Are you serious?
SM: They're used to it. When we travel with people, they have to warn them: "Blank might try to strangle you…"
TA: Does that give any insight into band tension?
SM: No, I've always done it. (For the record, John thinks he was pulling our punk rock legs)
(Bob Wiseman walks back in)
SM: I didn't try to strangle you, did I?
BW: Last night> Naw, not that time.
SM: Bob knows about it, it's cool. They wake me up. It's fun.
JW: Wait… Do you all live together? How often do you strangle people?
SM: No. We all have our own homes back home. Any more questions?
TA: No. that's about it.
SM: Well. Those were some pretty great questions actually. It's seldom that we get asked anything interesting.
TA: I thought you'd be more… We approached it from a humorous direction, but you came across very seriously.
SM: Eeee… I'm sorry.
TA: No! No, it's not like that… I mean…
SM: (Scary voice) Well, the whole thing about Shadowy Men is that we want everybody to have a wacky time…
TA: No… You impressed me with the way you answered all of my questions.
SM: We'll see when see it in print. I generally like to think before I answer things.
JW: You understand the tax system of your country very well.