I hope that this is the last autobiography I have to inflict upon readers for a long time. Music industry bios are generally chock full of bold-faced, highlighted references to bands you've never heard of and probably wouldn't want to: ("…He auditioned for the Ukrano-Celtic Grind Core outfit "Hackneyed Ranting" but his disheveled mullet failed to impress deaf lead vocalist Derek Plimsoll…") To boot, there is always a melodramatic paragraph about the artist's early hometown life, meant to serve as exposition to all the "excitement" which follows. So here goes….I was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. It was flat, cold, & windy. For fun, young people fought, played hockey, got pissed up and drove around on 'the strip,' played more hockey, and I suspect sometimes partook of farmyard bestiality.
I'd have to say that life began when I moved to Vancouver and started really chasing my career goals. I played with folks like Steven Drake and Doug Elliott. They went on to form "The Odds" a little later but at that time we played in several bands together, the most noteworthy being "The CroonToons." Three complete fools we were, clad in custard yellow polyester tuxes, crooning the corniest material imaginable with a zest and gusto that had to be seen to be fully appreciated. Drake was chronically late, never apologetic, oblivious to these shortcomings, and always able to get away with it. Elliott, when not prancing around in lingerie or spitting fake blood was a good natured referee whose evenhanded nature kept me from constantly yelling at Drake. Of this lunacy and tension was born deceivingly subversive musical comedy.
I also did a long stint with Long John Baldry who was one of the grand figures of Canadian music. An absolute delight of a gentleman, John; flamboyant, hilarious and able to regale one and all with fantastic tell-all tales of the world's most famous rock stars. His band was, at that time, a collection of misfits too unlikely even for the most far-fetched road movie ("…and featuring Judi Dench as 'Spud'...")
His sidekick Kathi McDonald, an earth-shaking singer and performer, made me, at the tender age of 23, quake in my boots. She played as hard as she worked. There were others too; ones who constantly lost their shoes or ones who would pee on my pant leg while I tried to steady them as they took a leak in a Michigan ditch. One piano player ended up asleep onstage after drinking a jug of whisky he'd stolen from me. Baldry was detached from all of this, worried more about keeping the driver "at a sedate pace" or finding a London Daily Mirror at the news stand. A piece of Baldry wisdom that I have since tried to keep in mind is, "Oh Vince...If this madness is your biggest worry, you have no worries at all..."
It was around that time that I began a hitch with Sue Medley (who Baldry always referred to as Moo Sedley). With Medley we had a crack team of young tigers, none of whom would ever be allowed to find real value in the massive expenditure of energy required to earn such pitiful rewards. Sometimes, especially early on, the tour routing was sheer torture, booked by an agent who surely lived at the seventh level of hell. One tour, in particular, began in the evening in Burnaby, BC at a political rally for Ed Broadbent, the old NDP Federal candidate. We played our set, packed the van like sardines and headed non-stop for (get this) Thunder Bay, Ont.
We arrived after a grueling winter run across the nothingness to appear as opener for Dwight Yoakam. We played our 30 minute set, got a couple hours of shut-eye and then doubled back for a show in Winnipeg the next night. Need I say more?
A stint later with Doug & the Slugs was sheer luxury by comparison. They were all savvy road vets. I got paid on time, sometimes more than promised. There were always plenty of free refreshments around and lots of food. To my utter delight, the airlines were occasionally called upon to transport us. There were conversations with interesting band mates who were much better read than the average aggregation (or is that aggravation?) of musicians. Always, always a proper hotel room, a dressing room with a real live toilet, a crew to hump gear and the irreverent, very clever and now dearly departed Mr. Bennett holding the reins. Doug was a great boss - in fact the best boss I've ever had in the touring game.
Sometime during this period (it all gets blurry) I also toured the US with BTO, which was not Bachman Turner Overdrive, but rather simply BTO, featuring youngest brother Tim Bachman. I often wondered if there were a Zeppo and Gummo Bachman somewhere in the woodwork. It was a high paying ringers-in-a-franchise kind of deal. Most money I'd ever earned to that point but it never felt very legitimate. I heard "Y'all wuz the first concert ah ever seen in 1972" far too many times for comfort. Surely someone out there, even a BTO fan, had the arithmetic skills sufficient to deduce that I would have been about 8 or 9 in 1972.
One of my twenty-something career highlights was my brief but satisfying hitch with Paul Hyde. Paul is a lovely guy, a brilliant songwriter, a generous gentleman and capable of the most unusual Rodney-Dangerfield-with-a-Yorkshire-accent imitation. We trounced across the tundra in about 1988 in support of his solo album "Turtle Island" which I thought was tremendous. I still do, actually. With Paul we reached the zenith of road absurdity when we dead-headed from Moncton, NB, back to Vancouver non-stop with me farting all the way and as a result turning the motor-home full of band mates into a festering hotbed of resentment...75 hours of ludicrous agony, worthy of only one pitiful sentence in a bio.
Throughout these years I played sessions on various albums, some which achieved success, and many which did not. The spookily photogenic Mae Moore had me appear on her "Oceanview Motel" disc. I still hear "Red Clay Hills" on the radio today, which I think of as a lovely keepsake of that period of my life.
At around that time, and due in great part to Paul Hyde's kind endorsement, I hooked up with Spirit of the West. They had never had a full-time drummer and were looking for someone to carve a niche for himself. This suited me fine, as I was never completely fulfilled simply playing copycat "rock" drum parts, no matter how much self-hypnosis I used.
The blessing and the curse with Spirit, at that time, was that although they had established themselves as a solid folk trio, they were now trying to expand their own instrumental & stylistic capabilities while simultaneously adding a dominating fifth voice (drumkit) to the lineup AND find a balance with the recently added fourth member Linda McRae. All of these factors were new and not under consistent control, turning the first few months into quite a musical schmozzle. As well there was a pervasive air of suspicion towards any influence which smacked of "the establishment," musical or otherwise. None of this was ameliorated by my extreme directness, infamous lack of patience, or the Spirit's stiff upper lip unwillingness to confront vexing issues.
What I did know about the band, however, was that although there were some rough edges, there were some dazzling aspects, too. John Mann was (and is) an idealistic, competitive, proud fireball, who has taken for his own all the surplus charisma left languishing by frumpy math teachers far & wide. Geoffrey Kelly was revealed to be the funniest and cleverest man I'd ever met. Hugh McMillan, the quintessential mad scientist, seemed quite possibly as good a musician as anyone in the known universe, but this was difficult to demonstrate when a series of Rube Goldberg wiring experiments and technical jury rigs often resulted in equipment standing charred and silent, with Hugh kneeling, perplexed, over its dead hulk lying there on the stage. Linda McRae was profoundly kind and gentle - but often overshadowed among this collection of remarkably powerful personalities. Spirit's songs were like beloved children, with never a hint of watered-down commercialism.
Euphemistically put, there were some "growing pains" but clearly they have been worth the suffering as I feel very proud of what we have achieved. With Spirit I have been able to tour much of the world, cross Canada countless times, play with nearly every major Canadian symphony, perform thousands of concerts, many TV shows, radio broadcasts...I could write an entire book just on the Spirit road stories alone...
During these years with Spirit I was able, during our rare down-time, to record and tour with such people as Oscar Lopez and James Keelaghan, the whip smart and much under-appreciated Pete McCormack, and a number of others.
Keelaghan and Lopez together are difficult to sum up in a single paragraph. Both are experts at what they do - but what they actually do is deceiving. Keelaghan is as broadly and deeply educated as he is traveled, and that is saying something. Perhaps some of the Mir cosmonauts have more miles on their odometer than Jimmy, but not many. He disguises himself as a folk singer of historical songs but the truth is that he is a teacher, specializing in history and culture, in the old and honoured troubadorian sense. If I had to make a comparison I'd venture to say he's like the Carl Sagan of music.
Oscar is known as "a guitarist." Truth is he's a force of nature that uses the guitar as a conduit. He is well and truly a warrior; performing with him is a visceral, pants-on-fire experience. He is powerfully charming, but occasionally moody and testy unless you can stand toe to toe with him, and then you have his respect. This motherfucker can play.
By 1994 it seemed clear that I was settled with a young family on beautiful Vancouver Island. This is heaven in its own way, but a tough go as a musician. I was miles away by ferry, making me practically invisible for all intents and purposes. Spirit was pretty well it, at least on a day to day basis. In Spirit I had not entered the line-up as a composer and the law of precedent seemed, much to my dismay, to possess great weight. It was obvious that I had to strike out on my own to prove that I could write and conceive music as well as I aided and abetted my fellow writers.
I began to write and produce. This gestation went on for a long, long time, until I felt I could acquit myself in a solo project. Eventually, I tackled what would become "Supertonic"(an album I am very proud of and which sold literally dozens of copies). Thousands of dollars and months later I realized that the exhausting, costly, occasionally gratifying, and totally transforming arc of making a debut solo album is actually peanuts compared to the planning, legwork, marketing and 'exploitation' (ugh, can't we find a better word?) of the 'product' that follows.
Conceiving the child is easier than the labour of delivery.
That said, I learned a vast amount about contracts, lawyers, record company reps, marketing plans, advertising, budgets, 'buzz' (another 'ugh' word), contacts, resources, self-motivation, astronomical phone bills, 16 hour workdays, the plusses and perils of partnerships, the vast difference between thinking you've gotten a 'yes' and actually getting the 'yes,' and the mystical balance between the smile and the snarl.
In the meantime, in a half-baked attempt to capitalize on my hard work as a composer and producer I took a stab at movie soundtrack composition. Though I, along with cohort Alec Watson, can claim credit (?) to a couple of film soundtracks ("Salmon Chanted Evening," "Beauty Shot") I found the whole movie industry alien to my experience. After all of these years I had apparently stumbled into an odd, secret club which bore no resemblance to the loosy-goosy but at least democratically minded music world I had called home for all these years. Granted, musicians tend to be a bit misguided in the nuts and bolts of a career, but here instead was a business construct rigid, inflexible and arrogant, with the Director at the top sitting exalted like an absolute monarch, with a neurotic court of Producers flitting about like drones feeding this Queen bee, all wary, all officious, all kicking down but kissing up. What a wakeup call. Now I was expected to learn the subtleties of sycophancy. Good sense, it turned out, was to be determined by others farther up the food chain. I didn't provide the feast; I was merely a bus-boy. I choked on the lessons... I failed the course.
As a kid the music compelled me to become a drummer. But I realized that in this modern technological era a drummer will probably end up a cipher, unless by some miracle he chokes to death on vomit, preferably not his own. Artless twits with more software than brains have nearly succeeded in eradicating real drumming -- reducing it to nothing more than a way to discern port from starboard in the rhythmically retarded. Undaunted, I figured I could always write songs for the sake of expression. But bringing them to life requires a producer. Therefore, I had to produce. Soon afterward I discovered that a producer's job ends exactly where the real endurance test begins - management.
In the summer of 2004, while playing on a workshop stage at the Winnipeg Folk Fest with Spirit of the West I happened to start a conversation with a young man on the chair next to me. I'd never met Matthew Harder before but I liked his vibe and I could instantly appreciate his skilled musicianship. He was accompanied by a gaggle of people who were all part of a group called "House of Doc." By the end of the hour long workshop I had realized that this group of people was very special indeed, remarkably musical, and easy to like. We hoisted a much needed pint afterward and, quite literally within a few minutes I had thrown my hat into the ring as a potential producer of their next project.
The album was a complete joy to make. I mention this because so few of them ever are. I felt an unusual amount of confidence in House of Doc - They were young, a bit green, but the musical depth they already demonstrated in early days left me convinced that this would be a group that could endure and excel for 15 years, 20 years, maybe a quarter century. I put my shoulder into the project and with their constant help got the animal into motion.
Much to my own surprise, and against a heretofore strict personal dictum, I happily agreed to become House of Doc's manager when they suggested it.
Management, it appeared to me after a time, was not a long list of thankless tasks as much as it was a conundrum. “When will it ever end?” is actually balanced perfectly with “Where in the hell do I start?” But on the other hand, I had a fire in my belly lit by decades of hard won experience. I could author a syllabus on 'what NOT to do,' and given a choice between stewing in my own cynical juices, or using my experience to foster better decisions in deserving young artists I decided to take the high road. And I began to love the job for some absolutely inexplicable reason. It likely has something to do with a desire to be the boss, or a desire to be bossy, at least. After about a year of dragging myself and House of Doc through the dust and weeds towards greater success I met 'Quinzy' who were also Winnipeggers and close friends the Docs. Young upstarts they were, but it seemed crystal clear to me that their conceptions, compositions, and overall attitude were well worth representing to the musical world, worth nurturing; like House of Doc their achievements and personal deportment fill me with pride.
So now all these years later I am a manager who represents a small but growing roster of artists, and I hope I've explained how I got here from way back there. If you have read this long bio in its entirety you are either a total keener doing deep background research for some arcane project or else an insomniac desperately looking for a soporific. Either way I hope I've helped out.