By Craig Woods
Hailing from the idiosyncratic punk scene of late 1970s Toronto, The Scenics were, from the off, a band whose outsider status extended beyond the boundaries of that milieu. While the city’s major exponents of punk, such as the Viletones, Diodes, and Demics favoured a blunt-edged, fast-paced sound directly inspired by the Ramones, Stooges, and early UK punk acts, The Scenics’ significantly broader sonic canvas marked them as outsiders among outsiders. The joint brainchild of singer/songwriter/guitarist Andy Meyers and singer/songwriter/guitarist Ken Badger, the band established a dynamic that allowed both men equal luxury to pursue their individual creativity as part of a cohesive musical entity. This early disregard for the then usual rock band hierarchy was indicative of The Scenics’ capacity for experimentation which would see them craft some of the most unique recordings by a North American band during the punk/post-punk era. Enlisting a revolving roster of interesting and always capable players to fill out the rhythm section, Meyers and Badger carved their peculiar furrow for six years, continually redefining a rich and diversely textured sound that encompassed art punk, garage rock, psychedelia, and pop, all marked by a distinctly John Cale-esque appreciation of sound and jazz-influenced avant-garde flourishes. Confidently straddling both the abrasiveness of hard punk and the accessibility of new wave, often within a single song, The Scenics were largely defined by their creative refusal to be defined. Their impressively accomplished debut album, Underneath the Door, was released on Bomb Records in 1979, and consolidated by frequent live performances that saw them share stages with a variety of acts including Talking Heads and The Troggs. They made an appearance alongside a selection of their local contemporaries in the seminal film The Last Pogo, which captured these acts at the height of their power while also serving as something of a swan song for the first wave of Toronto punk. In 1982, having seemingly beaten their wide and skewed path to a logical if abrupt conclusion, The Scenics called it a day, eschewing rock n’ roll clichés one last time by parting on entirely amicable terms.
Fast forward 25 years: Meyers and Badger, having been in touch only sporadically since the break-up, had reconvened and begun sifting through the extensive Scenics archives of demos, rehearsal tapes, and live recordings. Pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming quality of much of the material, it was quickly decided that an official release of sorts was long overdue. Unleashed in 2008, How Does it Feel to be Loved?: The Scenics Play the Velvet Underground offers exactly what the title suggests; an album-length collection displaying the band at their inventive peak, reinterpreting Velvets classics in snapshots from numerous boundary-breaking live shows. Considerable critical acclaim followed, spurring Mayers and Badger into decisive action. Within a year The Scenics reformed as a fully operational performance unit with former members Mark Perkell and Mike Young assuming duties on drums and bass respectively. A series of live performances and a further release of archive demo recordings of original songs, Sunshine World, assuredly bolstered the band’s comeback credentials.
Late 2012 saw the arrival of Dead Man Walks Down Bayview; the first full-length album release of all-new Scenics recordings in over thirty years, presided over by acclaimed producer Joby Baker. The result is a lush-sounding record that evokes the new wave era as vividly as it resonates with the contemporary. Incorporating upbeat stomps, lethargic bluesy waltzes, extended passages of light noise, and intricate guitar workouts, the album affirms The Scenics’ remarkable faculty for assimilating a broad array of influences and channelling them into a distinct, coherent vision that remains unique, whilst dipping a toe or two into previously uncharted waters. Of course there are legions of bands in existence whose sound owes obvious debts to the likes of the Velvets, Television, Pere Ubu, etc, and hints of each of these acts are easily identifiable on Dead Man Walks Down Bayview. But The Scenics are no mere imitators and display a startling ability to blend their influences in interesting ways; tales of toil and fatigue bounce upon bar-brawling riffs; post-punk experimentalism segues into rockabilly; finely tuned, classic rock guitar-work flows and ebbs to opaque, mantra-like lyrics. Every aspect of the Dead Man experience is a tile in a larger mosaic, and each as vital as the next.
Like the musical equivalent of Doctor Who’s TARDIS, Dead Man Walks Down Bayview is considerably bigger on the inside. Packing a wealth of experiences into its nine tracks, it’s an encyclopaedic statement of a band’s renaissance and the long journey to get there. Andy Meyers and Ken Badger are on hand to help me unpack it a little.
How are things in the Scenics camp?
Andy: Good. I went to see D.O.A. last night. Great show. It made me feel very happy, there was just something so much fun about it. I discovered a piece of punk rock trivia; Joe Keithley and I are both half Finnish. So we’re the Finnish-Canadian punk contingent.
Almost every published item of press on The Scenics describes you specifically as “Toronto post-punk legends.” You seem to have become as synonymous with your home city as The Stooges are with Detroit, as Pere Ubu are with Cleveland, and as Television were with New York. In the minds of many commentators, it seems you’ve come to represent a certain archetype in sound and attitude. I’m curious as to how important Toronto has been for you and how your environment plays into the workings of the band.
Andy: I was born and raised in Toronto. Ken moved up there with his family from the States. Toronto was a pretty safe town at the time, a pretty benign town. A big bland Canadian town with a population of about 2 million in the mid-seventies. It was really the centre of the English-speaking Canadian media and broadcasting in those days, and still is. CBC did a lot of work out of Toronto back then, it’s more diverse now. There was a great jazz scene, lots of great players like Ed Bickert, a fantastic guitar player who went on to work with Paul Desmond and do all sorts of stuff. Lenny Breau spent a lot of time in Toronto, I saw him quite often then too.
I grew up in the suburbs but I actually started out in town, and then midtown, and by the time I was a teenager I was in the suburbs. I was a pretty innocent kid, I think, and it was a pretty innocent place to be. But Toronto’s also a town that eats its young if you’re doing something different. You don’t tend to get a lot of support, especially back in those days. I’m talking really about the official media, the mainstream. At the same time there were places like A Space, which was a performance art gallery. The first time Talking Heads came to town, one of the two shows they played was at A space. That was an amazing show. A 75-seat gallery with the three of them playing. It was fantastic. And there were places like The Music Gallery, which is an experimental performance gallery. They would do things like bring in the British guitarist Derek Bailey as artist in residence for a month. I had a chance to play free improv with him in ‘80 or ‘81. So Toronto was a weird combination creatively. It’s true that back then there was less going on and a lot more space to claim things. So people just made things happen. It was kind of a bridging time between Toronto just being Toronto the dull, or ‘Toronto the Good’ as it used to be known, and more of a dynamic city. Part of the work that artists and musicians did in the seventies, including the punk scene, was part of what made it more dynamic.
Did Toronto provide any specific influences, cultural or environmental, which may not have manifested elsewhere?
Andy: I suppose every place is specific. Especially back in those days because there were less chain outlets on every corner, and more quirky individual spots, including venues for music.
Ken: I love film, and Toronto had a great repertory cinema. I’m thinking of the 99 cent Roxy. There was another one on Roncesvalles; the Revue Repertory Theatre. Plus screenings at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Andy: Two of the important influences that Toronto provided were the two Garys; Gary Topp and Gary Cormier, who were music promoters. Gary Topp had run the 99c Roxy. That was a kind of freaky place where they’d show all sorts of interesting movies and have Roxy Music playing really loud before it, or Brian Eno or John Cale. It didn’t tolerate people getting too drunk or getting rowdy, but the place was full of stoned people. That was before the punk scene.
Ken: The filmmaker Colin Brunton worked there. They moved from there to the New Yorker Theatre, and that’s where Gary Topp hooked up with Gary Cormier and they began to bring in some great music.
Andy: First at the New Yorker Theatre, where we later opened for Talking Heads, then elsewhere. Gary Topp was getting bored of showing the same movies over and over, and at the same time hearing about The Blank Generation, and hearing about all these bands and thinking he should bring them in. They brought the Ramones in very early in their career, same with Talking Heads. For some of those bands, Toronto was their first gig outside of the New York area. Then Gary and Gary moved to the Horseshoe Tavern, which is a venerable tavern on Queen Street which has recently celebrated its 65th anniversary. Hank Williams among others played at the Horseshoe Tavern. So for about six or eight months a lot of punk music was happening. They brought in the Stranglers, they brought in Pere Ubu. And an amazing show with the Contortions and Teenage Jesus, that was definitely as good as any show I’ve ever seen. This was the original Contortions line-up with George Scott III. Fantastic players. And then Suicide too. But they also brought in people like the Cecil Taylor Unit, Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra. So it was just a fantastic place. After that they moved to The Edge, an old tavern originally called Edgertons, and continued bringing bands in there for a few more years. The Edge was a better place because the Horseshoe only held about 750 people, whereas The Edge only took about 250, so they could take more chances and not have to worry about empty tables.
Ken: All through that time, Topp and Cormier blew all our young minds with the stuff they were putting on stage. Major cultural influence on us, and on Toronto in general.
Andy: When The Scenics got back together in 2008, the first gig we did was at the Horseshoe, opening for Carla Bozulich. Gary Topp booked that gig too. He wasn’t booking full-time for the Horseshoe anymore, but he did book that show. Gary and Gary won a Toronto Arts Award in the mid-nineties for their work as promoters, and they’re the only promoters to ever win that. So that’s definitely a specific influence that Toronto offered. Beyond that it’s hard to say. I definitely have very particular memories of Toronto. I haven’t lived there for thirty years now, but Toronto to me is a city of neighbourhoods; really attractive, nice old neighbourhoods; old brick buildings. It’s a town laid on a grid on the shore of Lake Ontario, so it’s a really clear-cut, laid-out plain, like an open face sandwich. It’s easy to navigate and there’s a fairly good transport system with subways and buses. So it’s a connected place. What can I say, I was a kid there and I had a ball.
The band is fairly well known for being significantly influenced by The Velvet Underground. You paid direct homage to the Velvets with your 2008 release, How Does it Feel to be Loved: The Scenics play the Velvet Underground, and several tracks on the new record, Dead Man Walks Down Bayview,also bear some of their markings. For example, ‘When You Come Around’ and ‘Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe’ sound a lot like the direction a post–Loaded Reed-fronted Underground might well have travelled in, while the absolutely gorgeous ‘A Fox, Her Fur, and Where She Parks It’ wouldn’t sound out of place on the third Velvets album. What is it about that band specifically that was so inspirational in comparison to their contemporaries, and why do you think their influence continues to be felt so palpably in each musical generation since the 60s?
Andy: We always did play a bunch of Velvet Underground songs. Ken was a huge fan of them, still is to this day. I’m a lot less of a fan. I do really like them when I listen to them, but I never think of them if I’m considering my top ten bands. I’m more into John Cale’s solo records than I have enthusiasm for the Velvet Underground. I think it’s the whole Lou Reed thing. I got into the Stones a lot more than I liked Jagger, and I like the Velvets better than I like Lou. Bands tend to be so much cooler than the lead singer. But we’d have great mix tapes playing in the Scenics basement, and a lot of the Velvets’ ‘69 live album would be here and there on those tapes, and so we’d hear these songs over and over. The Velvets’ songs are so easy that you can just play them a couple of times and pick them up. Like the version of ‘I’ll be Your Mirror’ that appears on the CD we did; we literally played it twice, did the gig, played it at the gig, and never did it again. It was a song that was just going through our minds that week. So we ended up doing a lot of their songs because they had harmony which we loved, they had noise, melody, and really interesting lyrics that were approaching things from a more kind of literary viewpoint. That was a combination that worked for us. We love melody and harmony and pop choruses, and we love taking things apart too.
Ken: The Velvets were something I could cling to as I navigated my way through the drug-induced haze of the early seventies. Just a very powerful body of work; the first four LPs, each one unique. I had bought White Light/White Heat when it was released because the cover and the image on the back intrigued me. I knew nothing about the group. I was 17 and relatively straight, but into music. I think I listened to it twice then filed it away. By 1970 I wasn’t relatively straight anymore and was way into music. The rock press had begun to manifest itself and I read Lester Bangs’ review of Loaded in Creem. I lived in the Loaded world for a while, then eventually moved into the Velvet Underground & Nico world, then on to the White Light/White Heat world, and wound up in the third album world.
Andy: I’d say the Velvets barely had contemporaries. Or if they had contemporaries, they didn’t really have peers. Who else was doing what they were doing? There were some artists like Dylan, Hendrix, the Stones, who just get what they’re doing so absolutely right that they’re undeniable. The Velvets are in that category. The other great American ‘outside’ bands of those days; the Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls; they were all great bands, but they didn’t have the range the Velvets did, and they were all kind of doing one thing. The Dolls were doing the Stones thing, that kind of hard abrasiveness. Same with the Stooges, though admittedly their sound has some interesting influences like free jazz in it, but still it’s mostly just a hard-hitting attitude thing. A great band, but it’s a very specific thing they do. The Velvets on the other hand had incredible range. The first album has those noisy pop songs, more structured songs. The second album is more awash with noise and drone. The third album has those beautiful lullabies, and the fourth album is more of a straight-ahead rock album. So they had great range, and the incredible combination of Reed’s lyrics and ideas about noise with guitar. And then they had John Cale who was a person who had been recognised by people like Leonard Bernstein and La Monte Young, after coming from a small village in Wales and deciding that rock music was more interesting. Cale was bringing really developed, sophisticated ideas about sound into the Velvets. Then they had Maureen [Tucker] who was a great drummer, and Sterling [Morrison] who was kind of the Ringo of the band; the straight-ahead beautiful player who held everything together. That’s why they remain influential. They’re just unique. And they were lucky too; they had the associations with Andy Warhol and Nico. And of course John Cale went on to produce all those amazing artists and introduced them to the public. And Lou went on to do the stuff he did, so much of which was so good. So I can’t think who you could argue is a peer of the Velvets.
Ken: Truly great music is ageless, and the Velvets LPs have sold steadily since they were released. This is rock n’ roll 101.
How did The Scenics first come together? Where were you each at in your lives at that time, and what factors propelled you to form the band?
Andy: Ken and I started playing together in July ‘76. I was just out of high school. I put a sign up in a big music store downtown.
Ken: McQuades, where I was working when it was at Spadina and Bloor. I fixed amps there, and anything electronic. Or at least I tried. They had a cork board where people could find other people to form bands, etc. Andy and I each posted ads. No-one answered mine. I answered Andy’s.
Andy: Ken was the only guy to answer the ad, the only person to respond to it in the whole city. We talked on the phone first and he sounded kind of interesting. He called me because I’d put Patti Smith’s name on the poster after having seen her at Massey Hall, a beautiful little concert hall, at the end of ‘75, and having a copy of her Horses album and loving it. When I got out of high school, I really had no idea what I was going to do with my life, and all I had was this awareness that something really exciting and powerful was about to happen musically. And I don’t mean in the macro, like a new wave was going to happen or anything like that. I just knew I was personally going to be involved in something like that.
Ken: I had been playing bass in a show band and had recently quit. I quit because I had found out the guy who fronted the band was going to dump the whole band, except the keyboard player, who thought we should know about the impending mass firing and told us, bless him. The show band was a real beatdown stint that involved honing Neil Diamond show tunes and the latest disco hits. One month of rehearsals. Six or seven days a week. Up to eleven hours long. We had a showcase and then sporadic (though well paying) shows for the next 3 months, at the end of which I was going to be retired. Now I can find it in myself to make anything I play interesting for me to play. But back then, for the amount of work required, not to mention the assholes you may have to put up with, I decided that I was going to play exactly what I wanted. Hence, for me, the Scenics.
Andy: The sign I put up in the store said, ’Do you wanna do something powerful? Do you wanna do something different?’ The sort of stuff you write when you’re nineteen years old. And Ken had responded to it because of Patti Smith in my list of influences, along with Eric Dolphy, The Band, Bob Dylan, Traffic. So when we got together, Ken had all these records by all these New York and Cleveland bands. I didn’t. I had been reading about them, I had started to hear about them in Rolling Stone. For instance, I’d see Jonathan Richman’s name dropped in the Random Notes column, but I actually hadn’t heard him yet. I wasn’t into that stuff yet. The album that showed me that you could play rock music and do something that was really creative and individualistic and artistic was Ziggy Stardust, which was huge for me. Aside from that I was into Exile on Main Street, Dylan, The Band. That was more my area at the time. But me and Ken got together with this awareness that there was this wave of really interesting stuff happening. And it was very varied, all those [punk] bands sounded very different. The only thing they had in common is that they really were themselves.
Once you started playing together, how quickly did things gel? How did you establish your sound and your creative process collaboratively?
Andy: We started experimenting with songs immediately. Right on the first day, Ken would have played ‘In the Summer’ which is a song we kept around; it was on our Sunshine World CD, and we still play it to this day. We would also have done ‘Where Have all the Good Times Gone?’ by the Kinks, because I knew the song from Bowie’s Pin Ups album and Ken knew the original, so that was common ground. Those two songs stuck around for some time. For six months we couldn’t find a drummer, and so we had a lot of time to play together, get our sound together, get a feeling for what was going on. We would write songs, reject songs, decide on which songs we were keeping. I think it was a really positive thing for us that Ken and I got so grounded together and got our sound together before the band expanded. But then we did have a drummer for a while at the end of ‘76, beginning of ’77. On the album that we put out of Velvet Underground covers is a song called ‘New Age,’ which was recorded with this drummer who was with us for only a little while, Mike Cusheon. That was actually from the first public gig we ever did. We just locked into this beautiful slow version, and it’s kind of sweet that we have a song from our first gig on that CD. But there was never a real good mental meld going on with us and Mike. He was a drummer who was into doing it with us and so we weren’t going to say no. But eventually he left, and so in about May of ’77 I got talking to a high school friend of mine, Paul French, who had a twin brother named Mark who was a drummer. Mark agreed to come in while we did a demo. It was a long demo; ten songs. We were really hoping Mark would stick around because we liked his playing. Years later he said it was one of the things he really regrets, but he didn’t stick around. But we did the demo with him and were very lucky to hook up with Barry Steinberg at a four-track studio called Mushroom Sound, not to be confused with the much larger studio in Vancouver with the same name where some of the biggest albums by Heart and various people were recorded. Anyway, we ended up using the demo to attract a new drummer, and we got a copy to the two Garys. They really loved it and they came on board as supporters of us, which was great because we’d only played a couple of gigs by that point. Various songs from that demo ended up on the Sunshine World CD thirty years later. It’s the funny thing about The Scenics; Ken and I were totally immersed in forming our sound, writing songs, making recordings, playing gigs, and it was all very un-theoretical; it was all just about doing what felt right, doing what moved us. When someone brought in a new song, we wouldn’t talk about what key it was in, or about what the person wanted to do with it, what the composer thought should happen. We would just start playing and find out what happened as we went along.
Bradley Cooper became our first full-time drummer in the summer of ‘77. Mark had been a kind of floating, subtle player. Brad was a skilled player but pretty heavy. He was a real basher. So the sound kind of changed; it got rockier, more hard-edged. Some of the lighter and more free-floating pieces slipped out of our repertoire at that point because it just didn’t make sense to do them with Brad. During this time we got to really know Gary and Gary, and their posse which included Colin Brunton who would go on to make the movie The Last Pogo, a long-time friend of the Scenics who is now finishing up a full length documentary on Toronto punk.
To us it seemed that, as part of the new wave, it was your responsibility to be as idiosyncratically and directly musically powerful as possible. So we just set about finding our own thing. We were soaking up a lot music, and we definitely created elements of our sound where you can hear kinship with all these different bands. You can’t help but do that when you’re listening to great recordings. But it was also very wide open. We just had this awareness that it was our job to do what we felt most strongly, musically, in the moment. That became important to The Scenics and has continued to guide me in creative work to the present day. Just being present in the moment and seeing what happens. That’s very much how the Scenics sound came together and how the musical arrangements came together.
What shape was the Toronto music and punk scene in at the time? Did you feel you were operating as part of a scene or community?
Ken: Hmmm. This was ‘76. The stuff from New York; Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Ramones, Television, was just starting to make its way North. I don’t think the hardcore punk bands had really started yet. I did go to see Rough Trade several times. They always had bomb rhythm sections, and I enjoyed the R&B/fetish thing. Art school band the Dishes were doing shows then.
Andy: I remember when the Ramones played Toronto. That was the event that, for most people [in the city], launched their appreciation of punk and new wave. You hear a lot of bands from Toronto like the Viletones, the Diodes, some of the prominent bands who really accomplished a lot, you hear them say, “We saw the Ramones and decided, ‘this is it, we have to start a punk band.’” And then the Toronto scene really became largely made up of people doing music directly inspired by the Ramones, or the Stooges. Some of it was a bit more power-poppy, some of it was a bit more bluntly punk. But it all had that element of heavy, crude directness, and a lot of antisocial behaviour, antisocial lyrics. I love the Ramones, and I love what some of those bands did, but I don’t think the world needs a whole bunch of people directly following that and only that. So the Toronto punk scene was pretty conservative really. That was apparent fairly early on. But I think this is true in probably every place except New York. That original New York scene was my real inspiration. So to us our immediate scene seemed quite restrictive. The biggest stuff for us was what was happening internationally, it was never what was in the local scene.
Ken: We were still looking for a drummer that would play with us full time. The ‘scene’ as it were was pretty much just starting, and we weren’t part of anything.
Andy: When Ken and I had started out there really weren’t very many punk and new wave bands in Toronto. In those days, “new wave” was what you would call bands like Talking Heads and Television; things that weren’t the hard-edged punk like the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. But then a couple of years later, New Wave came to be used to describe a kind of neutered punk that had been made commercial and had anything dangerous taken out of it. But at first the only band in Toronto that was surfacing with any regularity and consistency were the Dishes, who were a kind of fey pop Roxy Music or Sparks-type band. They had some good songs and some good stuff going on. They had a saxophone player and a keyboard player. They would play around the art school, they were art school kids. They also were the first band to start playing at the Beverly Tavern, which was the first real regular venue for bands to play at. It lasted for years and years with various different clubs floating in and out of it, but the Beverly was a weekend gig for a long time. We played there and then Topp and Cormier booked us to open for Talking Heads on their first album tour. I just found out very recently that the day we played with them, September 17th 1977, was the day that their first album was officially released. It was also the day that Marc Bolan died, which we heard about while we were standing around at the New Yorker Theatre before the show. I remember us waiting around for soundcheck and stuff, and Colin telling us that news which was devastating to hear. So by now the Garys had moved to the New Yorker Theatre. The reason Cormier had got out of booking music was because he was so bored with the scene, but now he was starting to get excited about the same bands Gary Topp was. So they began bringing bands into the New Yorker from time to time; the Ramones, Talking Heads, John Cale, the Dead Boys, etc. So at the time the Scenics played this gig with Talking Heads, we had only played the Beverley once, and that was kind of the only gig we had done that was on the local radar of the punk scene. Gary felt this was going to be like a beautiful ‘coming out’ party, where he was going to give the scene a treat and introduce them to this band that he really loved. But the problem was there were bands like the Viletones and the Dishes who wanted to open for Talking Heads, and felt it should be their gig. These were the popular boys and girls in the scene, and were more well integrated into it than we were. The Scenics were always loners and always off doing our own thing. We did that gig and there was some heckling, mainly the Viletones and the Diodes trying to disrupt us. We played quite well, but in terms of our relationship to the scene, we put more people off than we ingratiated ourselves to.
So that was really our introduction to the scene. It’s weird because we were there in those years, we played those clubs everybody else played, we played with a ton of other bands; we played with Talking Heads; we played with Téléphone, who were a punk band from France. We actually even played with the Troggs in ‘78, which was very cool. We played with Simply Saucer; the Government, who were one of the bands who were doing something as sort of diverse as we were doing; different thing but definitely on the fringes as we were. The Viletones, Teenage Head. So many of those bands. So in that way we were part of the scene, and we were inspired and excited by bands who were coming out then, and we were eagerly chasing down all the new releases by The Clash, Television, and all the rest. But in another way we spent four or five nights a week down in our basement playing and weren’t al all scenesters. We were neither connected with the art school scene nor the loose scene of kids hanging around downtown and figuring out which bars they could get served in underage, many of whom went on to be in punk bands and had kind of known each other for years, just a loose downtown scene. So in that way, the Scenics were not part of the scene. It was a weird dichotomy. The scene was our home and our life, but simultaneously we were outsiders to it.
So outside of your local environment, what things were happening in music at the time that you were reacting to? What were you listening to at the time, and were there any musical or cultural phenomena that you felt you were reacting against?
Ken: The only stuff we were reacting to was outside of our local environment.
Andy: When we first started playing together, Ken was already into The Velvet Underground, Pere Ubu, Television, The Modern Lovers. And of course Eno, Roxy, the Stooges, all sorts of people right back to various sixties groups. But it was really those first few singles by Patti Smith, and Talking Heads. Actually, Talking Heads hadn’t reached us yet, but we were reading about them. So they were an interesting band even though we hadn’t heard them yet. That was reality in those days; you couldn’t just look it up online, you would look at the back of some magazine like Trouser Press, or New York Rocker, or Punk, and you’d find out about some store where you could send away for a copy of Pere Ubu’s first single or something like that. That’s how you heard and found out about these things, so it took a while.
Ken: Mail order brought all this music to our doorstep. Plus all kinds of great mid-sixties garage punk from my collection of 45s and a shitload more. The New York group Television had one single out, ‘Little Johnny Jewel,’ that we learned to play. It was wonderful and crude.
Andy: We were knocked out by this stuff. ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ was a really influential record for me. I was already into jazz and improv stuff, but now I was like, “Oh right, you really can just make any sounds you want, and play anything you want on guitar when you’re playing rock.” That was a nickel-dropping moment for me. So we heard those first half a dozen or so bands coming out of New York and we thought, ‘Wow, there’s obviously something big happening here. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know why it’s happening exactly, but thank god it’s happening because music is so boring. What’s being put out is so boring.’ That’s why in retrospect it’s obvious that punk had to happen.
Ken: There was a whole lot of dross on the radio. It made for a great backdrop to our stuff.
Andy: Like everybody else, we were really brought down by having the DJs telling us that Bob Seger was happening and that this is where it’s at. To a young kid this all sounded sentimental and overblown and boring. And a band like Led Zeppelin –I liked Led Zeppelin when I was about fourteen or whatever, I always had appreciation for them– but at the same time you had Jimmy Page with fantastic hair and an incredible guitar, incredible equipment and amplifiers, a five thousand dollar satin suit, and beautiful women hanging off him. None of those things had anything to do with my reality as a pimply-faced fifteen year old. And those are really the kind of reasons why punk happened. That’s definitely part of what we were responding to. When those bands were happening, it was just so exciting for there to be a new Talking Heads album, or for the second Television album to come out, or to have tickets to see Talking Heads play phenomenal shows at the Horseshoe in the summer of ‘78, or to see XTC playing at the Edge, or to see Gang of Four playing, or to see Nico. So it was the combination of a steady stream of amazing new music at the same time as we were still discovering some of the Stones’ music, or the Flaming Groovies, or Fairport Convention who were another band Ken introduced me to whose first few albums are really huge for me. There was just so much exciting music. And that was our whole lives. I’d have a series of very minimal jobs, and in fact I was on unemployment insurance for about a year and a half, and just surviving in order to play music, to write songs, to get high, to listen to music, to be a young lout. It was a good time.
Listening to your recordings, that sense of intuitive creativity that originally propelled you to form the band is very evident. Considering the Scenics existed as a functional unit for only a few short years, you covered quite a breadth of musical ground. The contrast between Sunshine World and Underneath the Door is striking for the range of sonic textures explored in each.
Andy: After recording Under the Door in the spring of ’79, we realised how much fun it was to do overdubs. Sunshine World had been done in a four-track studio, so there wasn’t a lot of space for overdubs. We did the album with eight tracks and started to notice what a lot of it fun it was to lay a bunch of guitars down. So after that we didn’t want to be a trio anymore. We got Mike Young in on guitar, so that was the start of a change. In ‘79 our sound got really weird. Each year there was a different sound; ‘76 was exploratory, ‘77 was like urban folk-rock, a kind of delicate sound that got heavier as the year went on with Brad playing with us; ‘78 was quite hard-hitting; in ‘79 we were inspired by the Contortions and Pere Ubu’s New Picnic Time album, and things got weird. We were really experimenting with deconstructing pop song forms, that’s just what we were interested in. Then at the beginning of 1980 that whole long strange trip drove Brad out of the band. Brad was basically a suburban straight-ahead rock kid who really came from a different cultural place to find where the Scenics were at and to be a part of our sound. He really worked at that, but it was never natural for him. I doubt Brad is listening to Pere Ubu today. So he quit in the spring of ‘80 and we got Mark Perkell in on drums, who was an old friend of mine. I first played with Mark in middle school. He was a jazz drummer who was also very into The Who. He had actually been at the show we did at the New Yorker with Talking Heads, and he was a great fit. He’s still drumming with us today and is a fabulous drummer, I love playing with him. Much lighter sound than Brad’s, much less tense sound, much more musical, responsive sound.
The other thing that really caused our sound to change in 1980 was realising that Ken and I should both play guitar full time. Up until that point, Ken and I had traded off on guitar and bass. The whole time we were a trio we’d play half of a set with me doing my songs on guitar, then we’d switch and Ken would do his songs on guitar and I’d take over on bass. That made the sets really kind of schizophrenic, because one half would be one particular sound, one style of writing, and then the other half would be the opposite. So being that we were a quartet by 1980 with Mike Young on guitar, providing the second guitar for each half of the set, we now went to Mike and said, “Hey, guess what, Mike? You’re going to play bass, and Ken and I will both play guitar.” Mike wasn’t crazy about that, but he agreed to play bass until we found a full time bassist, which took about four or five months. Ken Fox stepped in; very young guy with a fairly rudimentary playing style, very green, but a very nice guy who was enthusiastic about what we were doing. He stuck with us for a couple of years and we were happy to work with him. After the band broke up he went on to play with Jason and the Scorchers briefly, and he’s been with the Fleshtones since about 1989.
Over those few years of experimentation, we squeezed our sound so tight it cracked open and became much more musical; it breathed a lot more and was simplified. That occurred in 1980 along with Ken and I both playing guitar so that there was more consistency in the sound. We had picked up some rabid fans in Toronto, at the same time as continuing to confuse a lot of people who really didn’t know if what we did had any merit whatsoever. But just by sticking around and sticking it out, slowly more people started coming around and would get it.
After such steady development and a strong set of recordings on which you’d continually redefined your sound, The Scenics dissolved suddenly in 1982. What informed the decision to call it a day back then?
Ken: I think we all were feeling frustrated. I’m sure I was. I had also moved north to Markdale, a small town on Highway 10, because my wife had gotten a job teaching there. I had been spending half my time there and half the time in the city. Then quite a bit less time in the city as my daughter had been born and I required gainful employment.
Andy: Ken would literally drive in every Sunday night, work at his job during the day all week and play with the band all week, and then he’d take off for the weekend. He was doing this for a couple of years before he lost his job and then would come in a little less frequently. We’d maybe practise one week a month or something, but by then we had tons of songs and we got pretty good at learning stuff quickly. Ken is a few years older than me; when we started I was nineteen and he was like twenty-five, twenty-six. And by the time ‘81 came around, Ken’s wife had had a baby. And it was really like, why is this guy coming down every week or even once a month to play with these guys whose career isn’t really advancing? Again, as part of that being-part-of-the-scene-but-not dichotomy, we had been offered the chance to record our album with Bomb Records, and we were one of the few bands to be recorded for that Mystery Train show, a half hour set we recorded in a cable studio in 1978 and ended up being included on the Last Pogo DVD in 2008. So we had definitely accomplished things, and we had been appreciated and recognised. But in terms of getting greater numbers of bodies into seats at shows, that didn’t shift hugely. It did a bit, but we never got to be super-popular with the punters.
We’d proved what we could do; we’d created our sound, we had written tons of songs, we had picked up tons of covers that we had our way with and transformed into Scenics songs, we’d recorded the album. What was there left to prove? Ken and I really had this kind of insular path with the Scenics, and a lot of it had to do with the fact that Ken was older, he had a job, he couldn’t get away so easily. So we were never road warriors at all. We played a few gigs in Buffalo, a few gigs in London, Ontario, but we didn’t go down to New York to play, we never did that sort of stuff. So that’s what broke the band up essentially.
Ken: Andy started another group called The Outriders. Our bass guitarist Ken Fox was playing with the Raving Mojos. A lot of our early lack of success was attributable to our arrogance and uncompromising attitude. But for me, at the end, it was just that we were getting a lot of the same old nothing, and I didn’t have the time or money to get down to Toronto often enough to make it worthwhile. I don’t think anyone was happy about it, but the split was going to happen and it wasn’t anything personal.
Andy: I was younger, I didn’t understand what a big deal it was to have a baby. Of course a few years later I had one of my own and then knew that it changes everything. So the break-up happened kind of quickly. We recorded one last single, but by the end of ’81 everyone was kind of pissed at each other, all the frustrations of the whole experience boiling over, and I guess we had to do that to smash it apart, and that’s what we did. We played one last gig in the spring of ‘82 because things had cooled down a little, so we played a set opening for Ken Fox’s new band, the Raving Mojos, a very cool punk garage band. And that was the end of the Scenics.
You reportedly stayed out of touch with one another for 25 years before entertaining the idea of reviving The Scenics. How did this come about?
Andy: We were pretty much out of touch. I would talk to Ken very infrequently. We’d talk maybe once every three years. I left Toronto in ‘87 or ‘88. So in those first few years we were living a few hours away from each other, and it’s funny because Ken and I always had a deep connection musically, but we didn’t hang out a lot. We definitely had a friendship, but we didn’t hang out a huge amount. So we moved on with our lives and would see each other infrequently. After I moved to the west coast, which is an eight day drive from Toronto, we’d write, maybe drop each other a letter or card once in a while.
Ken: Andy surfaced at Saltspring Island and we began sending each other stuff. Andy had left all the Scenics rehearsal and live cassettes he had made with me for safekeeping. Andy recorded EVERYTHING. I had been listening to all this incredible wild music, and around 2005, 2006 I began sending collections of some of what I thought was the best stuff to him.
Andy: Ken sent me a few boxes of recordings of Scenics gigs and rehearsals. There was about three hundred hours of Scenics on tape which we’ve since started to archive and release as downloadable albums. The Scenics were quite far back in history in my mind, though I’d kept doing music, kept doing other things. But the Scenics were gone. So Ken had sent me these recordings saying, “Put these on disc before they fall apart.” I put them on a shelf and forgot about them, and they sat there for almost three years. But then I started to see them sitting there and was feeling bad about the fact that I wasn’t doing anything with them. Eventually, over one weekend in 2007, I sat down and listened to about twelve to fifteen hours of these tapes. To my surprise I was totally knocked out by them; by the intensity the Scenics played with; the great range of repertoire we had; the cool songs we had; hearing us as kids wisecracking onstage and stuff. It really affected me powerfully. About an hour or two into listening I sat down and kind of wrote myself a letter; literally writing about those days. And that writing became Punk Haiku, which is a memoir of those times, about being in a band that’s kind of on the outskirts. Ken and I started talking…
Ken: We both realized that, although the audio quality left a lot to be desired, this stuff deserved to be released.
Andy: We started getting back in touch with the Garys, and with Mark Perkell and Mike Young, Ken Fox and Colin Brunton. A bunch of people who had been important to us. We decided to put out an album, and it seemed like it would be a good idea to start with the Velvets cover album. I just had this idea that that would be something that would cross a critic’s desk, because it’s a bit like a challenge; “Can these guys pull it off?” I thought there was a good chance they’d check it out. And it turned out to be true. It was well received, made critics’ top ten list in the Village Voice and other high places. Was in the top 30 of Canadian campus charts, national charts. And this was coming out of nowhere. Nobody knew who we were. We released it ourselves, managed to get distribution. I knew that we always did the Velvets songs well, and some of them we had quite a unique take on. That noise/cool lyrics/simple structure thing worked well for us. I wasn’t expecting that critics would take the shorthand that we were ‘Canada’s Velvet Underground’ or that we were huge Velvet Underground fans, or acolytes carrying on that work. I mean this humbly, but that’s the kind of thing critics were saying, that we were trying to carry the Velvet Underground torch. And we’re not. That’s just one thing we did. Ken and I have each written dozens and dozens of songs. But now I understand this is what happens when you put out a CD of Velvet Underground covers.
You followed How Does it Feel to be Loved? with an album of previously unreleased recordings from 1977. What was the experience like of revisiting that era? Were there new or forgotten elements of the band’s original incarnation that took you by surprise?
Ken: The LP was Sunshine World, and was our best studio stuff. It was the best of three demos we recorded in ‘77 and ‘78. I’ve never stopped listening to the tunes, so it wasn’t like I was revisiting an era. But there are tunes on the cassettes that I had forgotten about, and it’s great to hear those again.
Was the release of these two records intended as a precursor to reforming the band as a performing/recording unit, or had that not been decided? At what point did it seem right to make the band fully operational again and why?
Ken: It wasn’t intended as a precursor, but we enjoyed making the Velvets CD so much and got such a good response that it was only logical. The illogical part was that to do that, Andy would have to put his life on hold to fly from Victoria to Toronto and back again.
Andy: In early 2008, Ken and I were doing a telephone interview, he in Ontario, me in BC, with a Toronto writer named Liz Worth. And during that interview, going by the way our conversation was going, how the rhythm of it was going, we started to think we could play again. The band was still there. So we talked about it, and decided to play again. So that April we went to Toronto and played at the Horsehoe with Carla Bozulich, did a few more gigs in Toronto and Hamilton. Then in June we played North by Northeast, so were back in Toronto again doing that and a bunch of shows.
Ken: We basically did two short tours in 2008 after the release of the Velvets CD, and another in 2009 after the release of Sunshine World. Mark Perkell on drums and Mike Young on bass. This version of the band had previously existed only very briefly from April to June in 1980. It is also one of the most powerful incarnations.
Andy: I think in November of 2008 there was the 30th anniversary show from The Last Pogo. Colin Brunton filmed that show and a lot of the same bands were playing it, so we decided to play it. So having come together three times in eight months or something, we pretty much thought we were in a groove musically, and so we decided to go into the studio. We laid down a bunch of bed tracks which I guess took us about two or three years to wrap up, but it eventually became the Dead Man Walks Down Bayview album. In-between we released the Sunshine World CD, did more live shows, and the album was eventually released in October 2012.
Those first few shows must have been interesting. How much of a challenge was it to slide back into the Scenics groove
Ken: No challenge. We were all into it. So great to get Mike and Mark and the stun guitars happening again.
Had the dynamics between you changed in the intervening years?
Ken: Apparently quite a bit. We lead very different lives now. But that had already begun prior to 1982.
Given the band’s personal history and prior break-up, how are relations between each of you now? Are there any tensions, and, if so, do these play productively into the workings of the band?
Andy: Relations between the band members are good. Mike Young is our Ringo; he’s the easygoing guy that everyone gets along with. Really pleasant, fun guy. Ken and I, when we’re playing, it’s almost always smooth. But when we’re talking about things we almost always disagree, or a lot of the time we’ll have totally different ideas about something. Mark is also a very kind of individualistic person, so we can definitely have some real tension, and real disagreement, and frustrations with one another. But at the same time we’ve each got a really reasonable side, and that has saved our hide many times.
Ken: It is a very difficult thing to make a record or, in fact, be in a band when you have two chief songwriters. Andy and I each have strong opinions on how things should sound. We were very fortunate to have Joby Baker get involved with Dead Man. He led us out of the deep dark woods and into the light of day.
The last decade has seen more than a few bands reconvene in a similar way. While there are inevitably detractors who criticise each of these developments as exercises in nostalgia, it has to be said that some of the most exciting music of the last few years has come from bands such as Swans, Mission of Burma, and The Pop Group among others getting back together to boldly pursue new territory rather than retread the old ground. Do you see what you do as being part of a wave in that respect?
Ken: Probably, but not by design We didn’t get back together with any other intent than to get our rocks off on the sounds we could make. The new LP was just an extension of that
Andy: I guess you could view it as part of a wave, but I think I just see it as us being part of a logical phenomenon.
Are there any specific conditions or phenomena about the current cultural landscape that you think are conducive to post-punk acts setting out to resume a journey that was perhaps truncated?
Andy: These days, if a band have been playing regularly together and they have a bit of a hiatus because maybe they’ve got some tension or something, they’re more likely just to come out and say they’re taking a hiatus, that they’re having a break and are going to do individual projects for a while. Or they’ll say that the shape of the band is shifting and they’re going to focus on being more of a studio project or something like that. Back in the late seventies, early eighties it was more like you were in a gang. You’re in a band, you’re playing all the time, and then if you’re not playing all the time or something has shifted or gotten rocky, you break up. Also a lot of the bands getting back together now who were playing back then, I can only imagine were having a lot of the same kind of life experiences that we had; you’re a kid, you’re playing all the time, it’s fantastic, you’re loving it. Then you mature and you don’t know what’s going on; there’s a lot changing, and it’s hard to maintain that. Other things come in; you meet someone, you get married, you have a family. Maybe you do some schooling or a job or something, or maybe you’re aware there’s no money in this sort of music and some other course also becomes an equally big part of who you are. Then fast forward thirty years or something and people’s kids have grown up, they’ve got a bit more space in their life again, they’ve done a lot of different things and have established themselves in some way or another. And so suddenly there’s time to play again with these people you’re connected to.
Ken: Yeah, the kids have all left home. The demographic dictates. For me, it’s kind of a do it while you’re able. Stay in shape. Stay awake. I just really loved that Velvets CD. Just put it out there. And then maybe release some of the other great stuff from the vault. Andy was the one who pushed the getting together to do some shows. Mark, Mike and I didn’t require a whole lot of coaxing though.
Andy: A lot of these bands [who have reformed], Scenics included, were definitely pursuing new ground. When Ken and I talked about getting back together again, he said, “If I’m going to do it, it’s going to have to be as me the way I am now.” It was intriguing to find out what that would be. It’s also totally in line with what the Scenics always were, because it was always about who we are in the moment. It was like a jazz band, even though we were obviously playing rock. I think that really comes through on Dead Man Walks Down Bayview. There’s a lot of feedback, there’s a lot of the sense of it being a group of people playing together in a room with live takes unfolding.
Listening to Dead Man Walks Down Bayview, it’s clear that your sound has developed a great deal since those early days, and yet it retains a distinct signature. In a sense each Scenics record has a “classic” feel to it in terms of the arrangements and production. How would you assess the development of your sound? What core elements continue to bind the new material to the old, and what would you say mark the most significant evolutions of yoursound?
Andy: [Dead Man Walks Down Bayview] is very much a Scenics sound. It is very much like the sound we had in ‘80, ‘81 when Mark was playing drums with us.
Ken: During the intervening years I had kept writing, performing, recording. You bring all that to the table when you get back together. The core elements are the Mark Perkell ‘adventures in percussion,’ and the way Andy and I play together. The evolutions have to do with the songs themselves. They yank you along to the new places.
Andy: It’s looking like we’re going to record more in the fall of this year and have another record out for next year. I definitely hear things I’d like to have different for next time around. But considering this was our first time out in so many years, and that we were dealing with the distance factor in terms of getting it completed, I’m very happy with it, and it definitely sounds like the Scenics.
What are the primary sources for your lyrical inspiration, and how have these evolved since the early days?
Ken: Kindred spirits. Soulmates. Alive and dead. Quite a few more dead.
Andy: It sort of like when you’re asleep and then suddenly slip into a dream. I’ll just be walking around doing my thing during the day and all of a sudden a combination of thoughts, occurrences, feelings, stimuli just move me into a space where I can see there’s a song. I try to write well, but I don’t try to write about any particular theme. I know I’ve got particular topics I tend to write about, but I sort of ignore that because the song, to me, is something that just arrives and I try to get it down as clearly and as well as I can. I wouldn’t want to be writing, and thinking; oh, it should be this sort of thing or that. I don’t think that would work.
Obviously you’ve all acquired a great deal of life experience since 1982. How has this affected your approach to lyrics? Have your concerns been altered significantly?
Ken: More human. Less deviant.
Andy: I don’t think life experiences have altered my songwriting hugely since 1982. Though I’m not stoned all the time like I used to be then. In some ways I was very free then because I was young and crazy, but in other ways I think I’m really free now because I’ve got more craft and more muscle to bring to my songwriting.
In a recent interview I read with Andy he described the sound of the band as “Urban Folk Rock Noise.” This suggests not only a continuing connection to the band’s DIY punk origins but also implies that the music you make performs a kind of communitarian function. Can you say a little something about that? How do the ideas of community and culture interrelate for you?
Ken: Interesting description but makes a crappy acronym.
Andy: I wasn’t thinking in a communitarian sense when I said that actually. I was thinking of folk music as being songs that people naturally came up with out of their surroundings. I feel like that’s the same thing we’re doing, and any music that has that idiosyncratic slant to it is always kind of going to be that, just updated to the present. I include the word noise because we were always interested in our songs as sound; just always creating a series of sounds. I like to keep that in mind. It keeps things simple. So I wasn’t thinking too much of community. We were loners. We were outsiders doing our thing. But music plays an enormous role for people, and music that reaches people and seems honest to them is really important to have. It’s a way that people really keep their sanity, I think.
So, from what I gather, quite a few songs on the new album have been around in other forms which predate The Scenics’ resurrection. It seems to be a mixture of old songs previously unreleased, and a selection of others written in the intervening years. All the more remarkable then that the record possesses such a coherent, ‘complete’ feel. What‘s the split between older material and songs that were written specifically for the album?
Ken: Some were from the early days, such as ‘Growing Pains,’ of which there is an incredible live version recorded at Larry’s Hideaway May 1980. ‘Miami,’ ‘I Can’t Be Careful’ and ‘No Sleep’ were from around the same time. Andy was very fertile around then.
Andy: The song selection pleases me a lot. We started off with ‘O Boy,’ which Ken wrote in ‘77, and that’s something Ken would do from time to time is turn up at practise having rewritten a song. This version of ‘O Boy’ has a different groove, different lyrics. Ken’s written two really good set of lyrics for that song. And he’s added a coda on the end which is totally different.
Ken: It seems I do ’O Boy’ every time we go into the studio. The original version of that is on Sunshine World.
Andy: Then it’s got four songs of mine from 1980; ‘No Sleep,’ ‘I Can’t be Careful,’ ‘Growing Pains,’ and ‘Miami.’ Those were songs we were doing at the end of the Scenics’ first run, and songs of mine that we never recorded and that I thought were some of the better songs I’d brought to the band. So I really jumped at the chance to do that. Then there’s ‘Dark Cave,’ which I wrote around ‘89.
Ken: ‘Fox’ and ‘When You Come Around’ were probably written mid-nineties sometime. The newbies are ‘The Farmer,’ and ‘Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe’.
Andy: So the material on this album really encompasses our whole range and bridges the gap of all the years we weren’t together, and brings the Scenics sound right up to the present.
Album opener ‘Dark Cave’ is ostensibly a classic “work song” in the blues/folk tradition, though the toil described might also be appreciated metaphorically, but the song also bounces along on one of the most infectiously upbeat grooves this side of Devo. What informs this juxtaposition of elements?
Andy: I can’t remember what critic it was who had that famous line about rock music being happy music about sad things. It only seems natural for me to have that song move along that way. That’s where it’s most fun; to play, to write, to experience. So that’s where it’s going to land. It would be kind of a dreary song if it was done as a slow, mournful thing. Beyond that the listener is welcome to bring their own inferences to that song. I think it’s really just that you’ve got to have that kind of upbeat determination if you’re going to face that unending task that life is
A similar melange is found in ‘Miami,’ which admirably separates the two halves of the album with its quite haunting use of harmony backing vocals repeatedly chanting ‘this city is the biggest thrill’ alongside proclamations of everyone having their own camera (a remarkably timely observation despite the song having been written some thirty years ago). Against its sumptuous backdrop of fluid guitar-work, the song seems to embody both the privilege and alienation of contemporary urban living simultaneously. Can you elaborate a little on the inspirations for this song?
Andy: I’ve always loved doing collage. As a family we still do it. At Christmas, kids come over and we’ll have a table set out with some collage stuff, and at the weekend at some point we’ll sit around for a few hours and put on some spacey music, some dub or something, and just see what happens. That is a big part of how I like to write; just see what happens. Trying to strengthen my connections to being able to ride along with what happens and find out what it is I’m creating. ‘Miami’ came out of that sort of thing. One evening in 1980 I was sitting in my place doing some collage thing using some old National Geographic from the ‘50s, and there was all these ads in back; ‘Fly to Miami for the thrill of it all,’ and ‘Take perfect pictures with your own camera,’ and all this stuff. It just spoke to me, I don’t know. If I remember correctly, I just started playing with a tape recorder, and how the song ended up is pretty much what I did exactly on that tape. The only thing I added lyrically is that line, ‘this city is the biggest thrill,’ that I picked up from this magazine. I was really thinking about Toronto, and the thrill of being in the Scenics in Toronto, and so I capped that line off with ‘I don’t understand you.’ I like that song a lot and am really happy with the way it turned out on the album. I think it’s cool. It’s not important for me to understand it in any intellectual way. It’s just important to me to try and make it work.
One song which really struck me on first listen is ‘Growing Pains.’ I was actually surprised to learn that this is one of the older songs on the album. It has an irresistible melancholy to it with its intimations of time inevitably passing and seasons shifting. Musically it’s also notable for its lush, quirkily-tinted vintage rock arrangement, like a marriage of Neil Young and Television. Is such an assembly a conscious pursuit on your part, or is this current version of the song more of an organic result of a band maturing?
Andy: That was a song that just started showing up, and I was very pleased for it to show up. It’s a song that really meant a lot to me personally. It is very much in the vein of that Television and Neil Young type stuff, yeah. I’d actually written it in 1980. It’s always been a great song to do because it has various tempos, and it lives in various places in the set. We did this one show in Hamilton in 2008 or 2009. We’d been doing a few days and everything was good, then we turned up for this show in Hamilton and things were weird and we were pissed off. There’d been a bit of weird stuff going on with the club and by the time we hit the stage we’d gotten into a bit of a stew. We opened with ‘Growing Pains’ and did it slower, a really kind of determined tempo. It really cleaned the slate for us that night. Every time we do that song it’s one of the ultimate happening-in-the-moment Scenics experiences. It’s about being what it is in the moment. So it was actually a bit intimidating to try and record it. We did several takes of it at various tempos, and the one that worked was sort of at the slower end of things. We’ve gotten very strong reviews back on it, and I’m very appreciative of that because I know it’s a song that takes its time, goes through some changes, starts off kind of subtly in quite a low key fashion. So I really appreciate that people have stuck with it and have gotten it.
The title, Dead Man Walks Down Bayview, has an esoteric edge. On one hand it has perhaps a morbid implication, alternatively it suggests a form of resurrection. What is the significance of that title?
Ken: I like the resurrection angle. Ostensibly an analogy for returning home after all these many years and finding all the furniture is different, and the paintings have all moved around on the walls. Disorientation.
Andy: Bayview Avenue was the street we had our practise place on all those years in midtown. It wasn’t like a downtown loft or in a really grungy industrial part of town or something. It was on what is almost a boulevard in midtown with parks around it and side streets with nice homes. We had a couple of basement rooms below a toy shop and that’s where we played all those years.
Ken: We’d get incredibly high and try to wake the dead.
Andy: My feeling is that the title refers to this thing which was deceased; i.e. the Scenics being inert. We got it up walking and animated again.
From all of the press I’ve sifted through, it’s very apparent that reception for Dead Man Walks Down Bayview has been overwhelmingly positive. How do you receive praise, and how does it affect how you approach your work?
Ken: I accept it greedily and with glowing heart. It inspires me.
Andy: Honestly I just appreciate it when people like our stuff. We had a weird experience in Toronto where, to some extent, it was like we were operating in a vacuum. So it’s great to put out stuff now and have people come back and say they really appreciate it, they really get it. We’ve really gotten about two bad reviews. Most of them have been good. A lot of them have been very positive. We had a couple of people who just didn’t get it at all and thought it was crap. And that doesn’t bother me, that’s just the way it is. I know that music is important for people, so it’s great to be able to give people something that they like; music that moves them. I’m a huge fan of music. Stuff that moves me, I’m very unreserved in my appreciation of it. So I have a great respect for that whole process. I think it’s natural for a writer or a musician to put something out, like a wave going out, and getting a response back is the natural thing too. It’s like a greeting that’s acknowledged and exchanged. So the feedback and praise is part of what it’s supposed to be about.
What has your touring schedule been like since the release of the new record? Any significant difference in experience between Canadian and US shows? Also, crucially, any plans to venture further afield? Europe perhaps?
Ken: We’re trying to have a schedule. It’s the Andy being three thousand miles away on his island and us landlocked in Ontario conundrum. So that’s to be determined.
Andy: We haven’t done any touring since the new record. It is really down to the reality of me being on the west coast and everyone else being in Ontario. We would love to play Europe, and push further into the States. We’d love to that, but we’ll see how that develops.
Ken: Always willing to plow new fields.
Andy: We’d love to get more people on board who could help us in those areas, working with us and for us. We need to get a slightly bigger army.
Is there new material in the pipeline? What might we expect from the future of The Scenics?
Ken: We have two more unreleased tunes from the Dead Man sessions. A version of the Big Star ballad ‘Take Care,’ and a studio improv version of the Velvets’ ‘Here She comes Now.’ Both are excellent. Would be nice to get those released somehow.
Andy: There’s a bunch of stuff coming up next year. I’ve received a Canada Council Grant to do this thing with a quite celebrated poet named Brian Brett and a very talented composer and singer named Susheela Dawne. I’ve taken Mark Perkell’s multitrack drum tracks from Dead Man and created drum loops from them, and embedded samples from all those old Scenics recordings. I had listened to all those tapes and pulled out little moments. When you’re a band playing together regularly and are as in synch as were in those days, you just listen to the tape, and in-between songs someone would cough, someone would tune up, somebody would hit a drum. It struck me that all these little moments had a musicality to them. So I pulled out all these samples, and they are mostly very brief, fragmented samples, and I’ve been building up compositions with them. And Brian has performed his poetry over some of them, and Susheela has taken some of them with Brian’s poems and created melodies for them. It’s been influenced by dub stuff, and by the kind of thing Eno and David Byrne were doing on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. So that’s going to be coming out in the spring. In the summer, Rave Up records in Italy is going to be releasing Sunshine World on vinyl. We’re all also going to be doing some live playing sometime over that period, summer or fall. And then we plan to do some more recording for a new record to be out in 2014. I’ve also got a bunch of other songs, that aren’t so much Scenics songs, that I’d like to do a recording of as well if I can fit that in. I’d also like to finish the Punk Haiku memoir, because that’s not finished. But we’ll just have to see what we can manage to pull off.
Sounds like a mixed bag of exciting stuff. Good luck with all of that, guys. Look forward to more as it develops. Many thanks for your time.
Ken: Many thanks from us for grabbing the bull by the balls and doing this interview, Craig. You had great questions. And many. Now I must sleep.
The Scenics: thescenics.com