Thursday, September 24, 2009
Zunior Independent Music Hall of Fame
2009 Inductee: Rheostatics
Official Illustration by Trevor Waurechen
(Purchase a t-shirt with all proceeds to charity)
Rheostatics’ induction into the Zunior Independent Music Hall of Fame ought not to come as a surprise to anyone with a pulse and a passing knowledge of the Canadian music scene over the past two-and-a-half decades. Prior to disbanding in early 2007, the pioneering quartet carved its place in the figurative shield of Canadian music lore, logging countless thousands of kilometres on the Trans-Canada Highway, and inspiring as many fans with music at once contemporary yet unconventional, eccentric yet accessible.
But don’t just take our word for it.
“For well over 20 years,” writes Zunior Independent Music Hall of Fame voter and web forum poster carolelarson, “Rheostatics played their way back and forth across the country, released 14 albums, and supported, worked with and influenced countless other musicians, from Barenaked Ladies to the Weakerthans. They are a major part of the foundation of the independent music scene in Canada.”
Formed in 1980 in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke (a neighbourhood so tough residents don’t even pronounce the “k”), the band played its first gig under the auspices of Rheostatics and the Trans-Canada Soul Patrol. Though shortened to Rheostatics soon thereafter, the discarded elements betrayed what would become the unit’s noted tendency for looking well beyond the primer grey horizon of southwestern Ontario, and out into the varied and various heartlands of Canada at large.
Numerous tours followed. And albums, beginning with the band’s self-effacingly titled debut, Greatest Hits (1987). Melville (1991) and Whale Music (1992) spawned numerous campus radio staples from Victoria to Halifax. Videos for such tracks as “The Ballad of Wendel Clark” and “Aliens (Christmas 1988)” saw the Rheos become one of the first independent Canadian bands to enjoy regular spins on fledgling cable TV station MuchMusic.
Though largely ignored by mainstream music-biz tastemakers, commercial radio and major labels, many others were taking notice and taking Rheostatics seriously. Counter-inspired by the band’s 1992 album Whale Music, celebrated author Paul Quarrington invited Rheostatics to score the cinematic version of his novel, the lush results of which were later released as Music from the Motion Picture Whale Music (1994). The following year saw hugely popular Canadian rock band Tragically Hip embrace Rheostatics as the opening act for a national tour. Meanwhile, the National Gallery of Canada commissioned the band to compose music to accompany its 75th anniversary retrospective of another highly original and definitively Canadian combo, the Group of Seven. A dozen tracks of the mostly instrumental material (co-written with Kevin Hearne of Barenaked Ladies) comprised the band’s CD Music Inspired by the Group of Seven (1995). Many comparisons have since been drawn between those celebrated visual artists and the similarly dynamic, highly original and definitively Canadian Rheostatics.
Following those high water marks, Rheostatics issued three additional studio albums, The Blue Hysteria (1996), Night of the Shooting Stars (2001) and 2067 (2004). The band also issued three live recordings (among them 1997’s critically acclaimed Double Live), a full-length disc of CBC Radio recordings (1998’s The Nightlines Sessions) and a children’s album, The Story of Harmelodia (1999), written by guitarist Dave Bidini, narrated by musician (and Bidini’s wife) Janet Morassutti and scored by the band.
Throughout Rheostatics’ career and travels, the band made a point of supporting and encouraging emerging independent acts, routinely sharing stages, resources and whatever advice was asked of its various members.
“Not to mention Green Sprouts Music Week, which gave young up-and-coming musicians (including some of my friends) the opportunity to play shows with the Rheos during their residencies at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto,” wrote Zunior Independent Music Hall of Fame voter and web forum poster loweeda. “This recognition and support of Canada's music scene (from the grassroots up), coupled with their amazing music, means the Rheos deserve to [be inducted]!”
Rheostatics performed their final live concert on March 30, 2007 at Toronto’s venerable Massey Hall.
Further testament to Rheostatics’ boundless creativity is the fact each former member of the band continues to produce a variety of artistic output. Guitarist/vocalist Martin Tielli has released a pair of solo albums and has emerged as a renowned visual artist. Bass player/vocalist Tim Vesely fronts the Violet Archers. Dave Bidini remains an active solo musician and is also a noted author with several books to his credit. Drummer Don Kerr continues to play with Ron Sexsmith, and is a regular studio producer, too. Original Rheostatics drummer Dave Clark is involved in a variety of artistic pursuits, including artist’s collective The WoodChopper’s Association. Meanwhile, long time Rheos producer (and the band’s last drummer) Michael Phillip Wojewoda continues to work his magic in recording studios near and far.
Five questions with Zunior Independent Music Hall of Fame inductee Rheostatics:
It seems Melville, Whale Music and Introducing Happiness are most often cited as Rheostatics’ best albums. In retrospect, where do you rank them in the band’s catalogue?
Don Kerr: I love Introducing Happiness. It's always been my favourite. It's the pinnacle of Rheostatics’ production and songwriting. Melville is great as it's so simple compared to everything else, and I've never loved Whale Music as much as every one else who loves is so much.
Tim Vesely: I think about the Rheostatics catalogue in terms of individual songs, not albums. And not necessarily recordings either. Some songs I identify with live versions more than album versions. For instance, if I think of The Blue Hysteria, I think of playing the song “A Mid Winter Night's Dream.” Or Night of the Shooting Stars, I think of all the times we played the song “Mumbletypeg”, or “PIN” live. Or with Whale Music, the way “Self Serve Gas” and “California Dreamline” go together, or when we recorded “Self Serve Gas” and made up the reprise ending on the spot. Albums are more like arbitrary markers on a timeline continuum. I don't think making albums was our ultimate goal. We were more about crafting songs, playing them live, letting them evolve and enjoying it.
If possible, can you name your three favourite Rheostatics songs?
Dave Bidini: It's hard to pick three because a lot of songs were recorded or sequenced in these big swaths of music, “King of the Past” into “RDA”, “Self Serve Gas Station” into “California Dreamline”, “Earth” into “Digital Beach” and almost all of Harmelodia. And live, it became even more about these big moments, where songs would kind of smash against each other, endings would become beginnings and one riff would appear in another song. I also guess I like the songs where everybody's playing and singing together: “Horses”, “Shaved Head” and “Song of the Garden”, that sort of thing.
Don Kerr: “Fan Letter to Michael Jackson.” The sounds perfectly match the song's lyrical content. “When Winter Comes” because I love a good epic song. And “Introducing Happiness.” Pure joy channelled into a perfect pop song.
Tim Vesely: I wouldn't say "It" from Melville is one of my favourite songs, but I do remember vividly playing that song for the first time live at the Silver Dollar in Toronto and feeling like, "Wow, we're onto something here." It was a departure from what we had done previously and it made me feel like more good stuff was to come.
I feel strongly about “A Mid Winter Night's Dream” too. I remember that song as the first we arranged with our "new" drummer at the time, Don Kerr. I had that same sort of feeling that we were onto something good. I also vividly remember playing that song at our farewell Don show in Ottawa at the Tulip Festival in the pouring rain. One more pick, eh? Can’t decide.
What are you up to these days, creatively or otherwise?
Tim Vesely: I'm starting to think about recording the next Violet Archers record. We've been playing a bunch of shows and it's feeling good. I'm recording and producing a record for my friend Jane Gowan's band Shade. I just played bass on the next Great Aunt Ida record and I've been busy for the past couple of years writing and recording music for television.
Don Kerr: Actually playing and recording a lot with Dave Bidini, Paul Linklater and Doug Friesen as Bidiniband. Also producing a lot of songwriters and young rock bands in my home studio. And my prized creative project lately has been a rooftop garden. It has taken off wildly, providing my family with lots of food and great times.
What is the greatest difference between your creative process now and that of your old Rheostatics days?
Don Kerr: More variety of songwriters now, but I miss the three hour shows every night.
Tim Vesely: I get to record and produce my own recordings, so my songs these days end up sounding way closer to the way I hear them when I write them. As far as bringing it to the people live, I'm much more responsible for it now and I like the challenge. It's been inspiring. In the Rheos, there was always someone to hide behind. You could do your thing for a song or two and then fall back or goof off or just disappear.
Do you think it’s easier or more difficult to be an independent artist these days as compared to a decade or two ago?
Tim Vesely: I would say it's both easier and harder. It's obviously easier to make your music available on the Internet. And it's way more affordable to make good sounding recordings with new digital technology. But there's just way more stuff being put out there. And the idea of actually selling your recordings is becoming more and more remote. In the end, though, the best stuff tends to rise to the top no matter what.
Don Kerr: I think it's got to be either the same or easier with the Internet as a publicity and sales tool. Plus, live music still has huge cultural value, even if there's not a lot of money in it.
Greatest Hits – 1987 - Self-Releaseed
Melville – 1991 - Intrepid
Whale Music – 1992 - Intrepid
Music from The Motion Picture Whale Music – 1994 - Sire Records
Introducing Happiness – 1994 - Sire Records
Music Inspired by the Group of Seven – 1995 - DROG
The Blue Hysteria – 1996 - DROG
Double Live – 1997 - DROG
The Nightlines Sessions – 1998 - DROG
The Story of Harmelodia – 1999 - DROG
Night of the Shooting Stars – 2001 - Perimeter
2067 – 2004 - True North Records
The Whale Music Concert – 2005 - Zunior Label
Calling Out the Chords, Vol. 1 – 2005 - Zunior Label
My Generation/Satellite Dancing 45 - 1982 - Self-released
The Secret Sessions - A Tribute to the Rheostatics - 2007 - Zunior Label
Please leave your comments/tributes to 2009 Independent Music of Fame Winners Rheostatics right here: