Back to our Rheostatics saga today, in anticipation of their final two shows tomorrow at the Horseshoe (tickets here only) and Friday at Massey Hall.
As with the last two installments, this is an excerpt from the 2001 book Have Not Been the Same, which I co-authored with Jason Schneider and Ian A.D. Jack.
When it came time to follow up Melville, the Rheostatics almost found themselves in a sophomore slump. [Producer Michael Phillip] Wojewoda recalls, “Even though Greatest Hits was already out [before Melville], Whale Music had a sophomoric anxiety about it, which led to a lot of rap sessions and freaking out. I got into big fights with [drummer] Dave Clark, because he kept saying, ‘It’s gotta be great. We have all this pressure, people have all these expectations.’ Finally, everyone just went ‘Fuck it!’ For two days I couldn’t even get them into the studio, and we only had two weeks to make the record. What was amazing was that Whale Music is even better, and went even further than Melville.”
To ease the tension, the Rheostatics drew on the musical community they’d immersed themselves in over the past two years: Lewis Melville, Dave Allen, Tannis Slimmon of The Bird Sisters, UIC’s Joey Bechta, the Barenaked Ladies (dubbed “The Scarborough Naked Youth Choir”), and from the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Gene Hardy and Chris Brown. “Having a lot of guests on the record was like a buffer,” says Wojewoda. “That helped them get past the fact that none of them wanted to play, because they were too freaked out to be there.”
Chris Brown recalls, “They thought they were going too far in the studio. I sat with them and saying, ‘Don’t think about anything else. Don’t think about the live show or being able to recreate anything other than spirit.’ I remember a really wonderful, really loose creative time, and letting stuff happen. They’re all such individuals that it’s amazing they could come together like that.”
Whale Music opens with a lush string section – which is actually multiple overdubs of Dave Allen’s violin – introducing the theme of “Self-Serve Gas Station.” The song slowly evolves from a lush country ballad into a howling rock epic, set to lyrics detailing crippling suburban ennui: “To say that this is anything/ is saying much too much.” It establishes a tone of elegance that continues through the rest of the album.
Lyrically, there’s a recurring theme of escape and coming to terms with one’s past and present, and it’s [Dave] Bidini who scores most of the best stories. The narrator in “Queer” consoles his brother, who has been banished from the family home by a homophobic father after a violent confrontation: “I don’t care about the damage/ But I wish you were there to see it/ When I scored a hat trick on the team that called you a fuckin’ queer.” The musician in “Rock Death America” wants desparately to shrug off the stigma of being a Canadian band always compared to foreign examples: “Someone said we sounded like the Replacements/ but we’d never be the Beatles or Byrds/ someone said we should’ve stayed in the basement/ instead of littering our noise on the earth.” The slacker in “Legal Age Life At Variety Store” is a curbside philosopher who muses, “I’m the king I am therefore what kind of a fool am I?”
Lewis Melville argues that one of the band’s main strengths is Bidini’s lyrics, including “his social awareness and his ability to put that across. Bidini writes very straightforward and in-your-face lyrics,” Melville continues, “that really capture the mood of what it is he’s talking about. It is rare—capturing the mood, not just saying it, but getting the essence of it. He’s very good at capturing the simple and expressing it in a very powerful way.”
Whale Music’s biggest strength, when compared to the rest of the band’s catalogue, is that all three principle writers are in peak form. [Tim] Vesely pens what is perhaps his best song, “King of the Past,” and [Martin] Tielli wrenches some of his most emotional and dramatic performances on “Shaved Head,” “California Dreamline” and “Dope Fiends and Boozehounds.” The latter closes the album and encapsulates much of its lyrical and musical ambition, making it Whale Music’s definitive song.
One of the biggest boosts the band received was from Neil Peart, the uberdrummer for hometown heroes Rush. Bidini had interviewed him for an article, and when he asked about Peart’s favourite new Canadian bands, Peart cited the Rheostatics – completely unaware that Bidini was in the band.
They invited Peart to play on a couple of Whale Music tracks, including “Guns,” a piece by Clark which consisted of a poem and a drum solo. “I didn’t even want to have him out,” admits Clark. “I was too afraid of having a hero come out and play.” But Clark and Peart got along famously. “The way he played drums, you could tell that he’d been playing stadiums all his life: the power, the conviction,” says Clark. “It hurt my ears with the headphones on. The control room was full of people watching: the Barenaked Ladies, our band, and others. This was a big moment, because he was a CanRock god – well, an international god. The talkback button was on by mistake, and we heard [BNL drummer] Tyler Stewart say, ‘Look at Dave, man, he’s out there shitting his pants!’ I said, ‘No, I’m not! This is great!’ When I was there this adrenaline took over me and I felt completely supercharged, like I could jump over walls.”
“Almost everything [on Whale Music] was planned with half a day’s notice,” says Wojewoda. “So much of what they do is just chaos, then you edit it away to give it some order, and then the listener must follow suit to provide the rest of the order. Recording them is like wildlife photography; it’s just noise most of the time.”
Lewis Melville adds, “The texturing was done by Michael Phillip, but the band worked out of a lot of the ideas at shows. They had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to do, but didn’t know exactly how to pull it off. Michael Phillip is as creative a producer as you can find. He’s totally involved, he’s very positive and supportive, and he’s very sensitive to the mood of a recording. He’s pretty good at steering around trouble spots, but he’s not totally successful in the case of the Rheostatics, because they tend to have a mind of their own regardless of what anyone else thinks.”
Immediately following Whale Music, Wojewoda went to work on the Barenaked Ladies’ Gordon album. He got the job at the last minute. “They came in and sat on the couch for a day, ended up singing, and before they left they said, ‘We’d love you to do it,’” says Wojewoda, who refuses to take much credit for Gordon’s success.
“The machine was already in place,” he argues. “When I [started recording], the artwork was already done: the photos, the layout, everything. They had pig latin wherever the lyrics were to go. It didn’t matter. They just plugged me in, chose the songs, and were ready to go. In the hands of another capable producer, it probably would have done just as well. Their success has been largely based on their live shows, their tenacity and charisma. I knew I was a cog plugging into something, but I felt very comfortable with that idea. I thought, ‘Great, if I don’t fuck up, then all the better.’ I almost liked it more, because so many indie records come and go, and I knew someone was going to play this when it was done.”
Wojewoda wasn’t a fan of the band at first, particularly their lightweight humour, which he thought overshadowed their real strengths. “I got the yellow cassette and I heard it and thought, ‘Ehh, collegiate schtick.’ Then I heard ‘The Flag.’ There’s an insightful darkness to Steven [Page] that made me like it, and I realized that I could do something with that. I could be party to elevate that out of the collegiate stuff and give it a serious twist.”
The Gordon sessions were haunted by the spectre of the still-uncompleted Whale Music sessions, which both Wojewoda and the Barenaked Ladies knew were special. “We were laying down the beds for Gordon, and Michael Phillip would bring in rough mixes of Whale Music, and we’d say, ‘Our record’s shit!’” laughs the self-deprecating Ed Robertson. Gordon went on to sell a million copies in Canada, but Wojewoda didn’t reap any immediate rewards – quite the contrary. “It was the brokest I’ve ever been,” he laughs.
“My phone stopped ringing. My whole indie base thought either I wasn’t cool or that I was in L.A. being fabulous. I was dying for work, really bad.”
In the meantime, a job Wojewoda had started in the summer of 1991 had taken on a new life and was on its way to being another milestone in the CanRock Renaissance: Jane Siberry’s When I Was a Boy. Wojewoda was involved in the genesis of the album, what would become a small role in a much larger project. He got the job through John Switzer, Siberry’s former partner, with whom he was collaborating on an album by London, Ontario band Suffer Machine. Recalls Wojewoda, “I told John that at the time I was going through a little impasse on a learning curve, where I needed to watch someone else work, just to learn stuff. Then Jane was about to make another record, the first one John wasn’t going to be involved in. John and I were heading out to London to record more Suffer Machine stuff, and he says, ‘Jane’s going to be doing this thing, and she needs an engineer and I’d be really comfortable if you did it.”
A couple of months after the release of When I Was A Boy, Siberry was scheduled to play the Hillside Festival in her old university town of Guelph. To back her up, she called on the Rheostatics, who had begun adding their cover of Siberry’s “One More Colour” to their live set. Says Dave Clark, “We did it because Martin and I were both big fans, Martin in particular. One day I was walking down Spadina, and ran into her and said, ‘We should play together sometime.’ Then she phoned us up.”
The band was excited to do it, although warning bells started going off once rehearsals started at the Gas Station studio. “I was into it,” says Tim Vesely, “maybe because I’d had experience backing other people up before. But she rubbed the two Daves completely the wrong way, so they were going in the opposite direction that Jane and me and maybe Martin were.”
The show was to be the closing event of the weekend-long festival, with Siberry performing first and then the Rheostatics closing the night. After a long delay, they took to the stage, and although there were moments of magic, it was clear that the much-anticipated fusion was going to work like oil and water. “When we took the stage, she became a different person than in the rehearsals,” says Vesely. “She was out of touch with us, and had a completely different way of thinking about us as people. I didn’t pick up on it; the two Daves did for sure. I was concentrating on my parts. But I remember the experience pretty fondly, and musically, we did pretty good.” Tielli says, “I’ve got a videotape of it, and I don’t think there was a problem; she didn’t think there was a problem. It was the Daves, they didn’t dig it. And onstage, she was uncomfortable.”
At several points in the performance, Siberry wryly poked fun at the lack of synergy, asking: “What is this, some kind of game show?” as well as, “What am I doing on stage with these clowns?” “My face went red when she said that,” says Tielli. “But when I watch [the videotape of the performance], it was fine, other than that shit. I think she thought that Bidini jumping around didn’t quite fit the ambiance she was trying to create. He was like a boy, a bouncing rabbit of rock with these giant lead feet. There was a spotlight problem.”
“We had gone from being very free to accommodating someone else’s vision,” says Dave Clark. “We tried to the best of our abilities to do that, and I still deeply respect her songwriting to this day. But it was an unpleasant experience, to put it lightly.”
Afterwards, the Rheostatics were scheduled to back up Siberry for a taping of the MuchMusic show Intimate and Interactive, but retracted, partially at Clark’s insistence. “I said, ‘You guys can do what you want, but I’m not doing it,’” says Clark. “I called her up and told her. She’s a great musician. Everybody has times in their life when they’re not on the ball as they are at other times.”
Today, Siberry recalls, “It was just an interesting thing. Some kooky things happened, and I don’t really know what to make of them still. They’re a pretty emotional band. Musically, they’re in a different world.” She pauses, before adding, “It’s a different degree of refinement.”
The Rheostatics had a few shaky shows of their own around that time. Because of their adventurous nature onstage, they were capable of either the most transcendent moments or a meandering mess. On the heels of the accomplishment that was Whale Music, which had musicians across the land uttering the name Rheostatics in hushed and reverent tones, their live shows were burdened with high audience expectations. Although their carefree nature had initially attracted a lot of people to the band, suddenly there were new fans who were looking for the perfection found on the studio recordings.
Lewis Melville, who was often found on stage with the Rheostatics during that time, says, “The weakness of the band is that they don’t have the strength to be consistently strong. They can collapse easily. Tim would be the guy who they’d fall back on. Tim is the foundation.”
Mike O’Neill of The Inbreds frequently toured with the Rheostatics. “I spent a lot of my time watching their shows and being jealous, because I thought they were incredible,” says O’Neill. “They’d have really great shows and shows that weren’t as great, and I thought that was a beautiful thing. We toured with bands later on in our career who would play the same show every night, and it didn’t even make any difference.”
In November 1992, the Rheostatics staged a show at the Bathurst St. Theatre in Toronto, their first venture outside of the bar circuit, and the same venue where the Barenaked Ladies held their first big show. They took to the stage in tuxedos, which they had rented to sing the national anthem at a Maple Leafs game the night before; it was also the week of Dave Bidini’s wedding to childhood sweetheart Janet Morasutti, the co-author of “Northern Wish” and “Dope Fiends and Boozehounds.” “We put everything into that show,” recalls Tielli, “and that might have been one of the best. That was a big step, musically and performance-wise.” They were joined on keyboards by Kevin Hearn of the Look People, the first of many appearances he would make with the band; he would later join the Barenaked Ladies and become a key Rheostatics collaborator in the late ‘90s. The magical evening closed with Dave Bidini’s “When Winter Comes.” The coda of the song – normally sung by Tielli – was sung a cappella by Meryn Cadell, Tannis Slimmon, and Michelle Rumball (Grievous Angels) as fake snow fell from above the stage. [ed note: this show was later released as a double album on zunior.com]
While Whale Music made converts one by one, the Barenaked Ladies were taking over the world. They were managed by Nigel Best, an aggressive British expatriate who soon added the Rheostatics to his roster. When BNL signed to Sire records, Best convinced the label to take the Rheostatics as well, and a remastered version of Whale Music was re-released on Sire in 1993. It didn’t have a significant effect on the Rheostatics’ visibility, or their schedule. “We never met the people from Sire records,” says Vesely. “We’ve always chugged along at the same kind of pace. Even at that time, we’d take our two/three month hiatus, where we barely talk to each other or even think about being in the band. The best part of that whole experience was learning how [major labels are] not really a part of music, and you don’t need record labels or managers.”
A major label deal did, however, mean the opportunity to use a major label budget. Wojewoda insisted that they go to Compass Point studios in the Bahamas in March, 1994. “I had to convince Tim,” recalls Wojewoda, “who wanted to spend it wisely and thought they should keep it. I said, ‘When are you ever going to get a chance to do something fun?’” Tielli says, “We were in the Bahamas thinking, ‘Are we going to pay for this for the rest of our lives?’ But we have an amazing ability to put things like that out of our minds, so we had a blast. It was almost like we were getting along.”
Dave Clark was beginning to question what he thought was the focus of the band at that time. “We had all these older songs that we were really enjoying, and newer stuff that Tim was writing, which was the direction the band ended up going in, straightforward pop stuff. Leading up to the recording, the band started closing in on itself. We didn’t work with Lew anymore; we started using less people as guests on stage, unless it was Green Sprouts Music Week. There was less adventure in the music, and for me it felt like we were rewriting stuff we’d already done.”
Wojewoda’s initial excitement for the recording quickly dissipated, as his notoriously weak constitution caved in at the worst possible time. “I landed a sinus attack and an ear infection: tinnitus, burning hot, and sick as a dog for the whole thing,” he says. “I had no fun in the Bahamas; I just felt a burden of responsibility. There are nuggets on the album, but everyone had to be served on that one. The need for democracy overtook clarity of the album, and I was too sick to do anything about it. I was physically ill, and just thought, ‘what the fuck.’”
With 18 songs, Introducing Happiness is incredibly eclectic and sprawling; if Whale Music was their Sgt. Pepper, Introducing Happiness is certainly their White Album. Much of it sounds like solo material as fleshed out by the band, as opposed to a true team effort, particularly four songs in the middle of the album: “Digital Beach,” “Earth,” “Row” and “Full Moon Over Russia.” Much of the album’s best writing belongs to Tielli, and Bidini’s best moments are reduced to when he and Tielli are collaborating on songs such as “Jesus Was a Teenager Too.” It’s a huge, head-spinning and confounding album, the sound of the Rheostatics blown up to a 70mm wide-screen and THX sound, magnifying the band’s best and worst moments, wrapped in a sparkling package of pristine and innovative production. It’s also the most comprehensive Rheostatics album, featuring their most conventional material alongside their quirkiest.
It doesn’t sound like a major label debut, partially because their label didn’t seem to care what they did. Vesely figures the song selection was a reactive measure. “In our limited dealings with managers and industry stuff, they always say ‘Focus! It’s too much crap in there,’” he says. “So naturally we’re going to do even more; it’s part of what we do. We thought, fuck that, let’s throw it all in and take it even further.”
Just before they started recording, they were contacted by Richard Lewis, a film director who was adapting Paul Quarrington’s novel Whale Music; Quarrington played the Rheostatics for Lewis, and the band was commissioned to work on the score. In the novel, the Brian Wilson-esque narrator, Desmond Howell, is living in seclusion, trying to create a symphony for the whales that surface outside his seaside mansion, because he feels only they truly understand him. His world is turned upside down when a young woman named Claire stumbles into his life and brings him closer to reality. Her presence inspires him to write a pop song about her, which leaks out to his former manager and becomes a comeback hit.
It’s not surprising that it was Vesely, the most concise pop songsmith in the band, who rose to the occasion. “We took the scripts home,” he recalls, “and I was looking at this little part that had these lyrics, ‘Purify me, purify me Claire/ clarify me Claire.’ I put some chords to it and brought it into the band sheepishly, because I have a hard time introducing new songs and I wasn’t really sold on it, but it was part of the soundtrack job, so I thought, whatever. The song came easily, because I sat down and thought of simplicity and a catchy melody. We were all into playing a simple beat and a simple song.”
It was the first single from Introducing Happiness, and became the band’s first hit. Tielli says, “Dave Clark hated it, but we were totally successful at what the assignment was. Nobody’s picked up on how funny that is: the assignment was to write Desmond Howell’s hit song, and we did it – and it’s our only charting hit, except maybe for [1996 single] ‘Bad Time to be Poor.’ It’s funny as hell that we can do it if we want to. I don’t want to, particularly.”
The band debuted the song at a noon hour concert outside the National Gallery in Ottawa, and workshopped it at Toronto’s Gas Station studios before heading to the Bahamas. Recording the demo session was Dale Morningstar. “I was never a huge Rheostatics fan,” recalls Morningstar, “until they recorded demos for Introducing Happiness at the Gas Station. I was sitting at the board, and on the other side of the screen they were working on ‘Claire.’ I thought, ‘Fuck, this is like the Beatles or something’ – the whole communication between the four guys, arguing to make a better pie. That was very inspiring, and that’s how I got to know Dave Clark.”
-end of part three of four-