Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Zunior Independent Music Hall of Fame 2010 Inductee: Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet
Official Illustration by Trevor Waurechen.
As legend has it, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet fired their singer after just a pair of initial rehearsals. From that point on, the remaining members -- guitarist Brian Connelly, bass player Reid Diamond and drummer Don Pyle -- felt they could do anything. And that’s precisely what they did.
Formed in Toronto in 1984, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet were always outsiders in the Toronto music scene (and, by extension, the Canadian scene). True independent pioneers, the band never had a manager, always released recordings on independent labels using indie distributors, and didn't even have a booking agent until their final years. The trio invested time (not money) into innovative packaging for their singles, made clever, original videos on paltry budgets of as little as $50 and forged sincere connections with various American underground scenes, scenesters and veritable institutions like K Records in Olympia, Washington and producer Steve Albini in Chicago. All the while, though, Pyle, Diamond and Connelly made a point of taking the time to play in just about every corner of Canada.
Shadowy Men defined a time in Canadian independent music that flourished with the help of Montreal-based Og Records (they were on all five It Came From Canada compilations), CBC Radio’s groundbreaking overnight program Brave New Waves, campus radio and MuchMusic, all of which were huge supporters. Despite the relative accessibility of their musical style, and the familiarity afforded it as houseband of The Kids in the Hall’s TV show, Shadowy Men found kindred spirits among groups like proto-riot-grrrls Fifth Column and other "art" bands, rather than the typical, aspiring rock 'n' roll circuit. Additionally, they sold 175,000 records in total -- an astounding number, both then and now, for a band operating on such a small scale.
Though currently (and unimaginably) out of print, all of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s releases, from 1985’s Love Without Words, to the 1994 EP It’s A Wonderful Record!, still stand the test of time. The group’s influence remains strong and can heard in bands like the Sadies, Broken Social Scene and just about any others that embark on cinematic instrumentals.
Writer and Thickspecs contributor Michael Barclay caught up with Don Pyle at the Shadowy Man’s shadowy living room in sunny Toronto. The wide-ranging conversation transpired just prior to the legendary band’s 2010 induction into the Zunior Independent Music Hall of Fame.
Michael Barclay: In 1985, it seemed like the options were major label or bust, even for early punk bands. There was no alternate industry.
Don Pyle: Independent records, when punk began, there was almost nothing. It took a few people doing it to make everyone realize that it was possible.
And yet the birth of the rock ’n’ roll involved so many independent labels. Only in that ten-year window when rock ’n’ roll went corporate did it become the template for the next generations, even for the Sex Pistols and the Clash.
Whereas every little country bar would have a band with 45s to sell. I remember a friend of my uncle having a 45 out and thinking he was a star.
What did Toronto bands aspire to during that time?
My first band, Crash Kills Five, was 1979-81. What did they aspire to? (laughs) I know for Crash Kills Five there was no aspiration. Things were definitely different in 1980 than they were in 1976; things evolved quickly. The proportion of everything was so different. There was a fanzine called Drones and one called T.O. Punks and then Shades, but these things that were just photocopied eight pages are now not necessarily legendary, but collectible things that people have an awareness of. If you did that today, no one would notice and it would have no cultural resonance ten years from now. From 1980 to 1985, it was so different. Shadowy Men started in 1984, which felt like a completely different world than Crash Kills Five, but we also had different ideas.
What changed by 1984?
The punk explosion still resonated a lot in that period. Of course after that everyone was empowered by the idea that anything was possible, they could do things themselves, that art, theatre and music were all coming together. It was the growth of things. In 1976, there wasn’t a lot to be inspired by in terms of believing you could make something happen by yourself. But between 1976 and 1980 there are four years of accumulation, tons of great records and great artists and small press magazines. By today’s standards it might look minimal, but it’s all about the foundation being built, and the bigger the foundation the more there is for the next generation to stand on. Also the rise of community radio. That started happening at that time. CKLN wasn’t even something that existed in 1980. When Shadowy Men began, it was there. Other things like CBC’s Brave New Waves were on the air, which was a huge thing. It was totally Brave New Waves that allowed Shadowy Men to tour across Canada with one 45.
What was Brave New Waves’ influence across the country for non-classic rock bands? How many connections were being made between cities?
It bridged all of that. There are three significant things: Brave New Waves, community radio and Og Records. For us, Og Records was a connecting point to a lot of artists in other places. Being on those compilations, you automatically had a friend in Vancouver or Montreal that you shared a sensibility with and could stay with. It helped create a unified sense across the country.
These days, a band from Toronto might play in England or Germany before they play Vancouver. To what extent did bands used to look beyond Canada and think about touring the States and Europe?
We were very patriotic and we did play in every corner of Canada except Newfoundland. But we also had friendships beyond those things and didn’t consider the border as a limitation. If you’re going to play for no one and no money, why go to Thunder Bay when you could go to Chicago? We did both. It’s totally about community building. So often it’s one person in one place. In Olympia, Calvin Johnson was playing us and knew our records. We became pen pals and toured with Beat Happening and played at K Records festivals. In Chicago, someone wrote to us and asked us to play at their wedding and then Steve Albini did some interview where he said he wanted to work with us. We forged these friendships in all these different places and that created opportunities. You just want to work with that person and share that sensibility. With us it was never a conscious thing that we were going to conquer the U.S. market. It was small areas and doing hit-and-runs. >From that, word about you and your records spread from there.
Were you all still day jobbing?
Around 1989 we all left our day jobs.
Because of Kids in the Hall?
Yeah, when we signed the contract to do the series, we didn’t have time to work a day job and be a band and do a TV series. It was an amazing situation and rare for anyone we knew. I was always aware of how lucky I was. We were empowered a lot by our own feeling that anything was possible. Once we didn’t have a singer, it felt like we could do anything. We wrote to NASA once, saying that we wanted to be the first band in space. I remember Richard Hyatt from the Dundrells saying to us, “You fucking guys, you’ll probably get it.” At some point, nothing matters, there’s nothing to lose here. We can play anywhere with one amplifier. Touring with Beat Happening was really inspirational in making anything happen anywhere. We’d show up places with them, and there would be no PA, sometimes people wouldn’t even know there was a concert. We’d be anxious because we didn’t have drums, and Calvin would just be totally cool and ask people if we could borrow drums. People always wanted to help. At the end of the night, there are 200 people there and everyone’s dancing and having fun and it’s magical because we’re in a place that isn’t a concert situation, no bouncers or infrastructure associated with doing the bar circuit. We were lucky that we were able to circumvent the bar circuit. We certainly played a lot of bars, but we were open to anything.
Are you talking about shows in smaller communities or larger cities, too?
Large cities, too. We did that in Montreal and Portland and New York, different places where we had friends in different bands.
Who else do you think chose a similar path to Shadowy Men?
We had friendships and relationships with a lot of bands here, but we felt like outsiders in a lot of ways. Our closest friendships were with Young Fresh Fellows and Girl Trouble and Moto in Chicago. In Toronto, Fifth Column was a band we really saw as allies. We were doing similar things and playing in spaces that were unconventional and renting our own PA and doing things outside of what was the tiny system set up of booking agents and established clubs. We didn’t have a booking agent until years and years later, and we never had a manager. Fifth Column had their own community they were creating. In town we had Heimlich Manoeuvre, Dundrells, Dik Van Dykes we felt allied with, but Fifth Column felt like outsiders as much as we did, and conducted themselves in the same way, connecting with people in Chicago and L.A. and getting more support there than they were in Toronto. That was part of our reason for going other places. Playing Halifax was difficult and inaccessible; playing in Olympia or Seattle was easier.
To me, Shadowy Men tap into a fairly classic, accessible sound with older references. I find it weird that you guys were such outsiders when the music seems so welcoming.
We weren’t part of this community that was aspiring to be on a major label or sign with the biggest indie. We were doing things with a sense of humour, which alienated a lot of people. I look back on some of our stuff and think, oh god, that’s so corny or kitschy. At the time it didn’t feel like that, but now I groan. Humour was our way of dealing with self-consciousness about being on stage and not having a singer: “O my god we have to entertain them or they will kill us!” Humour was motivated by fear. Between the three of us we all enjoyed Woody Allen and Bugs Bunny, who were just as influential for us as Alice Cooper and the Sex Pistols.
Part of the appeal of Shadowy Men was in not taking yourselves too seriously and casting off aspirations of cool by being so uncool it was the coolest thing in the world. In the early ’90s, though, humour became a bit of an albatross for some Toronto bands. Thinking of milestones in independent music at the time, acts like the Shuffle Demons, Barenaked Ladies and Moxy Fruvous did very well, and even Look People and Corky and the Juice Pigs. There were strong ties between the comedy scene and music. Did you recognize a shift from that comedy/music connection going from a cool outside thing, to something a little more cringe inducing?
That was never an issue for us, because we never felt associated with those bands. If anything, we reacted against those bands. I remember seeing interviews with Barenaked Ladies really early on and feeling some embarrassment knowing that we probably look like that. I also remember a Dead Milkmen interview where they were giving stupid answers. We had just done our first interview giving all stupid answers and I thought, “Oh god, I’m never going to be funny again.” I was aware that our stupid answers came from self-consciousness, deflecting from people saying “you’re really good,” and we would say something self-deprecating to defuse that. We sought to distance ourselves from that sensibility. I don’t think we ever thought of ourselves that way, even if other people thought a similar thing was going on. We reacted against those things.
And yet at the same you’re doing Kids in the Hall…
Absolutely. So much of that is denial! We were already doing really well as a live touring band across the country and a few select places outside the country before Kids in the Hall. Obviously Kids in the Hall blew things up and people knew us in that context, so the connection was inevitable. But it wasn’t our reality; it was their reality and we would step into that and be part of it for a while and then go off and do our own thing. There’s no big laugh riot in sitting in the van for days and days. We had good camaraderie in the studio, but it wasn’t like the set of a comedy show. For us, our live show and our records stood on their own. We had a different perception of who we were than the audience did, and there’s no controlling that. The association with Kids in the Hall I’m so grateful for. The show was great, it was funny and I see it now and have no shame about it, which is unbelievable in comedy. It was a good show to be associated with because I really dislike comedy for the most part. Some of them were friends of ours. Reid was their theatre tech from when they had four people coming to their shows. We did shows with them because they were friends. It was like working with your friends who were really funny, not like we were entering the comedy business.
The Kids in the Hall’s success came at a time when perceptions of Canadian culture were changing, both at home and internationally. It had been a long time since something came out of Canada that people aspired to that wasn’t on the Bryan Adams level. Certainly growing up in Toronto and seeing Toronto reflected so well on that series made me excited to live here, as opposed to always thinking the best things happened elsewhere.
That was in line with our patriotic mood, that we were a Toronto band and a Canadian band.
How did that manifest itself?
A lot of that comes from the outsiderness that is inevitable in being the neighbour of the U.S. I don’t think that exists anymore. All those borders have dissolved. People in Tokyo know Broken Social Scene as well as people in Saskatoon. Brian and Reid came from Edmonton, and Reid came from Manitoba as well, and I grew up here. We all grew up with Don Messer’s Jubilee and the Tommy Hunter Show and Wayne and Shuster, things that were so distinctly Canadian and felt so corny but also normal. This is what Canadian TV is. I think our sensibility was informed by this discount presentation of what our culture was. If there’s something that’s distinctly Canadian, it’s that it’s low budget. Things like Arc Records and a lot of country music coming out of Canada, like Stompin’ Tom or the Canadian Sweethearts, those things definitely were touchstone things for us that had been part of our childhoods growing up in our parents’ record collections and what we watched on television. The Canadian sensibility, if you’re born here, it’s ingrained in you in a way that’s almost indescribable. It’s about isolation. In the ’60s and ’70s Canada was very much a distinct country from the U.S. Culturally, we had more of a distinction at that time, and some of those things can’t even be articulated. We just are different.
I wanted to ask you about videos. Shadowy Men had a very strong visual aesthetic. What was the most expensive video the band made?
We did one for a song called “They Don’t Call Them Chihuahuas Anymore” which was directed by someone else, and she got a grant to do it, that we were barely involved with. I think the budget for that was $7,500. When we started, our first video cost us $50, which was “Countdown.” Brian was working at a video editing place that does a lot of archival stuff, so he could edit things. Reid had a Super-8 camera and wasn’t going to art college yet, but was on that path. You have a camera and an editor, and space to do things. We had a huge space in the basement of Brian’s work. We’d hide our equipment in the corner and hide boxes of videotape around it so no one could see there was a band there. We had this warehouse we could spray paint posters and do the arts and crafts thing, which were as much a part of our “fun” experience together as the other things. The first one was $50, and each budget doubled after that for the first four videos. The second was $125, the third was $250, and the fourth was $500. That’s when we thought things were getting out of control.
How many records did Shadowy Men sell?
We sold about 175,000 copies of all three combined. The first album sold the most, about 85,000. The second one was the lowest selling at about 50,000, and the third one was about 70,000. They were only really available in North America. One of the things I’m most proud of about Shadowy Men is that we paid for everything ourselves and we own everything and years later we reap the rewards of that by getting all the royalties.
How much of the Shadowy Men catalogue is in print right now?
Nothing. We did a licensing deal to Cargo, who didn’t pay us for more than 10 years. Reid Diamond was very fiercely loyal to anybody who had been supportive of him. Brian and I would have cut ties with Cargo years ago, but we had a consensus policy in the band. Reid wanted to stay with Cargo, and we got totally shafted by them and haven’t been paid for about 100,000 records. After Reid died, we severed our ties with Cargo and Brian and I will be doing a reissue, remaster thing sometime in the future. We’re busy maintaining the present, and maintaining the past is a lot of work.
Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet Discography
Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet EP - 1984 - Self-released
Love Without Words (single) - 1985 - Self-released
Wow Flutter Hiss ‘86 EP - 1986 - Jetpac Music
Schlagers! EP - 1987 - Jetpac Music
Live Record with Extra Bread and Cheese EP - 1987 - Jetpac Music
Explosion of Taste (single) - 1988 - Self-released
Savvy Show Stoppers - 1988 - Glass Records/Cargo
Reid Does Neil (single) - 1988 - Jetpac Music
Music for Pets - 1991 - Jetpac Music
Dim the Lights, Chill the Ham - 1991 - Cargo
Tired of Waking Up Tired (single) - 1991 - Cargo
Just Married (single) - 1991 - Self-released
Dog & Squeegie (single) - 1992 - Estrus
Sport Fishin’: The Lure of the Bait, The Luck of the Hook - 1993 - Cargo
Take Outs (single) - 1993 - Derivative
It’s a Wonderful Record EP - 1994 - Jetpac Music
Musical Interlude/Shadowy Countdown* - 1988
Rover and Rusty - 1991
Memories of Gay Paree - 1993
They Don’t Call Them Chihauhaus Anymore* - 1993
(* both of these starred videos are available via the Shadowy Men web site’s video page: http://shadowy.brainiac.com/smen-videos.htm)