Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Joey Only is Troublin' the Peace

There's a long list of people on the Vancouver scene who get taken for granted - especially by me. I only noticed Joey Only, for instance, when I ran into him busking on Commercial Drive one day, back in 2011, and struck up a between-song conversation. There I learned that he was giving up Vancouver and moving to Wells. At that point, he had played around Vancouver billions of times, was on Co-Op Radio, and you could find his albums everywhere, but I hadn't really explored his catalogue or made a point of seeing him live. I figured, superior snob that I tend to be, that I could safely just infer most of what he had to say - earnest leftie folkie East Van gripin', meh.  

Then somewhere around that time I checked out his 2010 album Transgression Trail - even before Gerry Hannah and Todd Serious began recommending his music to me. It's great stuff - authentically rootsy, well-recorded country/ folk with an underlying punk attitude, and a band that included the Creaking Planks' Rowan Lipkovits on accordion and Jeff Andrew, interviewed by me not too long ago, on fiddle. Only's voice sounds a bit like Petunia's, tho' in place of Petunia's yodelling, there's more of a Stompin' Tom-ish East Coast twang. Only - an Ontarian - comes by that twang honestly, mind you, explaining that "Ottawa Valley is very Irish and Scottish historically and is known for a thick accent." It makes him a natural for covering Stompin' Tom songs (see more on that below, or see his song about Stompin' Tom on the his upcoming album...).

There are other points of distinction that could be productive to mine. Compared to Petunia (or Stompin' Tom, for that matter), who seem most comfortable with third-person storytelling, Only's songs tend a bit more towards the self-referential and confessional. That's neither good nor bad - I'm not disparaging anyone - but you can't really imagine either Petunia or Stompin' Tom singing something like, "I was huggin' the toilet instead of my wife/ I've never felt so bad in my life"  - one of Only's many amusing references to his being a "piss poor husband" on the album, a "bastard" who is "plastered." It makes Only stand out, gives him a personable charm; I mean, who else would write a song about turning 29 on a Greyhound Bus ("Birthday Blizzard Busride Blues")?  There's still some socially conscious imagery, for sure - in, say, "The Ghetto Birdz," which conflates images of East Vancouver crows and addicts, scavenging the sidewalks for crumbs or dropped rock - but it's nowhere like the in-your-face preachifyin'/ teachifyin' of Only's debut, Radical Folk of the Great North, recorded only six years previous. In fact, you could see someone spinning Transgression Trail right in sequence with Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, my head-and-shoulders favourite country album, and about as preachily political as "Bud the Spud."

So, there I go: from that album on, I've had abundant reason to want to see Joey Only play live - because this stuff would obviously be just DELIGHTFUL with an audience and some alcohol - except now the guy has moved out of town, and his appearances in Vancouver are nowhere as regular as they once were. (Plus I've been back and forth to Maple Ridge and living in Burnaby, which add my own challenges to the mix). That's what you get for taking people for granted! So other than watching Only busk a few songs on the Drive that day, I've never seen him play. For shame!

Thankfully, there's a chance to amend that. The Joey Only Outlaw Band has a gig July 9th at the Rickshaw; plus Only has a new album coming out, No More Trouble in the Peace - his first since Transgression Trail - and a release party planned for October. Perfect timing! For those yet unsure, there's a video of the title song from his upcoming record here, and while we're at it, there's this terrific little cover tune that he did and shot a charmingly homemade video for. Pretty hard not to like this stuff a lot, innit?

That's about all I can say about Joey Only, except that I'm enjoying following him on Facebook (look  him up under Joey Onley - Facebook weren't about to recognize Only as a real name, he tells me). Just did the following email interview, apropos of the Rickshaw gig (instrumental folkies Cornshed, much praised by me in the past on this blog, have an opening slot, too, plus Devil in the Wood Shack, whom I did a West Ender piece on; should be a great show). Here's Joey...

Joey Only by Karl Mattson, Rolla BC, not to be reused without permission

Allan: Why did you decide to leave Vancouver, and how is that working out? What's your home base now? What's the musical community like around you? Any words of wisdom for people still trying to make it in Vancouver? Anything you miss about life here?

Joey: I first came to Wells to climb Mount Murray in 2005 and wrote a song while in the area called "Smells Like Quesnel."  That song got me invited to Artswells 2006.  The town is quaint and quiet most of the year.  At 4000ft above sea level, it has big snow, big animals and big fishing.  I loved it and somehow conspired to buy this lodge in 2009 with my partner and our friend Josh who is now president of Island Mountain Arts here (the organization that hosts the festival).  Because every musician in BC wants to play the festival it's nice that  they all come here throughout the year trying to impress us.  I've now had my name on the festival bill for 11 straight years, the longest running streak...despite the fact we live way out here, we have credibility in the music world just because of our festival.  People want to know everyone here who is involved.

My advice to people in the big city is tour the province lots.  Make relationships with people all over.  When you are popular all over the province eventually Vancouver will recognize your resume.  Small communities really love live music and they are often willing to treat you well because of it.  If you leave to go live in a small town don't worry, you can create your own thing...Artswells and the Outlaw Band are two local examples here.

Who is in the Outlaw Band these days, and what's the dispersal like? (How far afield do people come from to rehearse?).

The rhythm section (Sean Scallion-drums, Ed Hanrahan-double bass) lives in Quesnel which is only 85km down the mountain.  Mike Mourneau, our shreddin' guitarist, lives here in Wells so that's convenient.  It's not too bad, even then we rarely rehearsed.  Our old bass player up here Joel Stern use to say 'rehearsal is for cowards'.  Joel was the one who got the band together after I moved up here, I didn't intend to ever have a band again...but lo and behold I got some of the hottest country players in BC now!!?!?!

Any favourite Rowan Lipkovits stories? [Note: as of this writing, Joey and Rowan have been arguing naked about the pros and cons of protesting naked on Facebook, after Rowan mentioned in passing having someone come up to him at a nude protest, speaking to him in Hebrew, despite the evidence of his non-Jewishness being plain to see that day...].
Every story about Rowan Lipkovits is a favorite one.  Nobody has ever been kicked out of the Outlaw Band... you earn membership by playing 10 shows.  Rowan has only played one show in four years with me, but he's still an Outlaw member albeit an inactive one.  I met him in the Railway Club and I thought he was someone else and asked if he wanted to tryout for the band.  He said yes and then I was surprised to learn he played accordion and not lead guitar... but I kept him anyway.  Rowan must have played 400-500 shows with me all across western Canada!  Where could I begin to pick a favorite story with a guy who produced so many incredibly hilarious one liners and incessant comedy relief? [Note: Rowan is the guy who deadpans that the Blair witch "prefers to be called the Blair Wiccan" in this fun mini-doc about the band's travels]. 

Do you define  yourself politically these days, if you do? Marxist, anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist...? How politically active are you nowadays?

Descriptive words like rationalist, materialist, humanist, socialist, anarchist and skeptic would all be satisfactory ways to describe me.  The great thing about anarchism is we believe consensus (or pure democracy) is a great way to solve problems.  I also think science is one of the best tools we have to know what's right and what's wrong.  I put in my sacrifice and jail time in my youth and have since moved on to leading an Outlaw Band that advocates artistic and social freedom.  I remain friends with most of my old radical friends but my focus these days is raising kids, getting firewood, working on the lodge and stuff like that.
Pedal Steel photo, recording session at Shaw Cable Building, Quesnel BC, 2015

Really, really curious about your friendship with Todd Serious. Any stories to tell? (You climbed together?). In particular, I'm curious - since I gather you fish and raise chickens - what the conversation was like between you and Todd around the politics of eating meat... note that I'm an omnivore myself (but occasionally have tried to go without meat... I think six months is about my maximum time away).

 Todd and I had a friendship based on a mutual group of friends, a mutual love of punk rock, similar politics, similar understanding of our music scene and a drive to adventure in the mountains.  We did do a five day epic climb/hike once in the Cayoosh Mountains.  Our bands played a dozen shows together in Whistler, Vancouver, on the Island and elsewhere.  If I were gigging in Horsefly or Williams Lake he would show up unexpectedly to run sounds for us and invite us to his parents house.  I booked shows for them sometimes and twice was asked if I wanted to play in the band.  I set up their tour with the Restarts and pushed the northern folk festivals to book the Rebel Spell.  Here at Artswells Festival last year my property was empty without him here camping with us, he was part of the festival volunteering here for 5-6 years.  When we lost Todd I couldn't function, couldn't stop finally I pulled myself together and drove down to Lillooet to be with everyone.  As terrible of a week that was, being with everyone there was a great memory.  We drank, we cried, we hugged.  Not only do I love Todd with all my heart but I love the people he, Stepha, Erin and Chris Rebel brought into my life.

We didn't discuss veganism much.  I was a vegetarian when we became friends more than a dozen years ago.  I admit I lived with west coast natives who had lots of wild meat, so I wasn't a very stict veggie...but I lost 60lbs when I contracted a lethal disease in 2006.  The doctors told me to eat meat now or I might die of I did and I'll never go back.  Nobody who loves me faults me for this.

 I actually didn't know who Dudley George was until I heard your song about him, which Todd Serious had pointed me at when we were discussing Billy Bragg's "I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night." How did you come to write that song? I assume you were in Ontario when George was killed - were you politically engaged back then? (And since we're on the topic, what are relations with First Nations like up where you are? Anything people should know about? My knowledge of the geography of BC, outside the lower mainland, kind of blows, so I have no idea if your area will be impacted by the Site C dam...).

I was part of the movement to fight the Mike Harris Conservative Government.  Dudley George was a native warrior killed by a police officer over a land dispute in 1995.  These were the days that politicized me.  A local Mohawk warrior reached out to us and we got involved with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.  We started our own group in Belleville called Tenant Action Group which attracted some of natives from Tyendinega.  It was the Midwinter Society from Mohawk Territory that sponsored the production of my first record.  People in Ontario back then used to call my things like 'the singer of the movement,' so these were the kinds of songs I sang.  Beyond all that though my brother is an Anishnabe warrior, I have done business with warriors in multiple provinces, I've put on shows on reservations, I supported their protest camps often, I lived with them in Vancouver and built some friendships and alliances in BC that matter greatly to me.  My dad's side has native blood, I don't claim to be anything like that but it explains why I always understood the issues.

Beyond enjoying the sense of humour you find in native communities my abilities to hunt, fish, fall trees and climb mountains have made me many friends.  My dog comes from Neskonlith reservation.  I like native people more than I like whitey.  We have things in common. 

We also seem to have a mutual friend in Gerry Hannah - I gather you played some shows with him. Any stories there? Thoughts about Gerry - areas of agreement, disagreement, or consternation? (By the by, how old were you when the bomb went off at Litton Industries? I assume you were in Ontario at the time; was it on  your radar?) (I'm guessing you might be just a few years young for the arrest of the five to be part of your direct experience, since I *think* I'm older than you and was 13 or 14 when they were arrested...).

On Gerry Hannah,  I was five when they blew up the weapons plant in Toronto but I learned about the legends as my politics matured.  I actually met Ann Hansen long before I met Gerry.  She would still make appearances at activist functions back home (she has/had a couple Joey Only CD's too).  She lives near Kingston, Ontario which is an hour south east of where I grew up.  I read her book when I was very young and it was empowering to me.  Up till I read Direct Action I had only heard of the UK Subhumans so I went searching for a copy of the Canadian band.  I would say 15-20 years it was hard to get a copy of the Canadian Subhumans music out east where they weren't known very well.  I still listen to Incorrect Thoughts all the time, it's my kinda punk.

I first met Gerry and the gang on August 7th 2005.  It was their first reunion show in 20 years at Under the Volcano and I was opening act while they set up behind me.  I got to watch the show from on stage and at the time I was humbled.  Since then Gerry and I played a couple solo shows together at places like Kumsheen Canyon Whitewater Resort, we've talked on the phone once in a while and have visited with eachother.  He's someone I really appreciate, a very smart man. 

I was also lucky to work with Brian Goble a lot with PHS.  When Brian had his heart attack he was sitting in the same office chair I always did during the last two years I was in Vancouver.  I came down for the memorial at the WISE and saw everyone.  Knowing exactly which of my old clients were with him in the end created some painful thoughts, I didn't think things could be worse till Todd Serious died three months later.

Still, I feel lucky to have stories like these.

What got you playing music? When you were in punk bands in Ontario, was there ever a time when you hated country music?  How do people who listen to country music primarily tend to respond to your political side? Any unusual or amusing stories?

I have always hated Nashville pop country.  I grew up listening to Waylon, Willie, Johnny, CCR, Ozark Mountain Daredevils etc.  My love of punk dominated for a couple years but I eventually remembered that I liked rock and old school roots music.  I have a bass vocalist range, so I found singing Johnny Cash easier than singing blues songs.  I was a bass player in punk bands but I sang songs in my bedroom at night.  I was living on a farm 16 years ago and had no punk band to play in.  I started developing a folk show so I could take a guitar to any campfire, protest or street corner and say something.  I knew folk music would let me play small towns.  I didn't think it would take me anywhere, I regarded folk music as a hobby.

As far as my politics go, people don't seem to mind it when it's imbedded in my music.  A lot of country music fans see that I genuinely know the trade and I come from a legitimate background to be a country singer.  I'm not sure all my fans appreciate my Facebook posts but they get a kick out of me when I perform.  I used to sing a song called 'Stephen Harper is a Nazi Douchebag From Hell and I Hate Him So Goddamn Much - FUCK'.  I was singing it to a cowboy type audience in Calgary once and the whole room was roaring with laughter.  When I finished the song two of the laughing hillbillies in front of me were talking and one said to the other 'I voted for Harper, fuck'.  That's when I knew I could say anything if I had enough country cred, the right sound and songs that were really damn funny.

(Left: Joey Only at Artswells by Lynn Connor)
Who are your enduring musical heroes?

My first manager was John Irvine, the same man who was Stompin' Tom's first manager.  When some carny punched him after a show in Trenton Ontario (1998) Steve and the Bunchofuckingoofs came to the rescue. It was a carnival of chaos and carnage as advertised... carnies getting their asses kicked by BFG's.  Meeting the Subhumans, befriended Glenn Anus (from Toronto's Dirty Bird) and a bunch of other punk legends like the Rebel Spell...  I got to be mentored by another hero named Buffy St. Marie and to a lesser degree another named Utah Philips. 

I partied with people like Corb Lund and Gord Downie.  I don't really have many heroes but I have been lucky enough to meet some people I can't help but look up to.  My son is named Waylon, if I had any heroes at all it would be all five members of the Highwaymen.  Other than that the love of my life is Warren Spider Hastings, I grew up 15 minutes from him and his legendary Spiderland Punkfest.  I came of age with Spider being like a grandpa to me, I love him as much or more than any human who ever lived.

What's your history with Stompin' Tom? I gather you have a song written about him on the upcoming album. 

 On Stompin Tom, like I say, the very first agent I ever had work for me, John Irvine, was the same man who claimed to have discovered Stompin' Tom.  John's son Keegan loved my old punk band the Persecuted so John took on setting up our recording dates and essentially managing that band back in 1998.  In Stompin' Tom's book he speaks pretty lowly of John who may have been a different kind of guy back then... but despite the fact Tom didn't like him he never denied that John was indeed his first agent.

I never gave Tom the credit growing up I later realized he deserved.  Some of it I liked and mimicked a little but mostly I thought it was quirky flag waving music.  I never understood what an outlaw Tom was until I was much older.

People point out that I have an uncanny ability to mimic pretty much everything about Tom except his waste size.  This really was an accident.  I was modelling my shtick after the Johnny Cash rockabilly sound up until he died (2003) which is when everyone else started playing Johnny Cash songs (so I largely stopped).  It annoyed me that suddenly everyone was singing Johnny, especially as almost none of them could hit those important low bass notes.

As an anarchist, I was never going to sing about American cowboys, I was gonna sing about my own backyard and things I knew about.  Having a twangy bass vocal range sealed the deal.  I accidentally fell into my Stompin' Tom Tribute Act, people asked me to do it after he died only cause they could think of no one else who could pull the material off.  There was a big memorial show planned for him up here, in the end I was the only person who knew any of his songs... so we became essentially the only act of the memorial. A booking agent was at the show and next thing I knew I went on a string of casino shows pretending to be Stompin' Tom, I hated it but the money was great and the songs needed to be kept alive.  I had no idea how much money there was to be made off of a shtick like this.  I think Stompin' Tom would rather me sing my songs rather than spending so much time learning 40 of his...

Let it be said, I'm a huge Stompin' Tom fan.  I didn't know how bad ass he was.  Twice I stopped at the end of his driveway outside Guelph, Ontario but decided to keep driving.  Both times I had other musicians in the vehicle.  From what I know about him he might have welcomed me in the door, but if showed up with a vanload of grubby musicians it might not go so well.  Pretty jealous of Tim Hus for getting to play those last two Stompin' Tom tours, but the reality is Tim really deserved it more than I did.

 Anything you want to say about the Rickshaw show?

We're stoked for the Rickshaw Show.  It honestly doesn't suit our business plan to come down for it, we have the album launch in the WISE on Oct.9th... but when you get an offer to play with great bands on a great stage you run with it.  It will give us a chance to show off some of these hot new tunes we got.  It's a good bet we'll have some guests up there with us too like Steven Drake on steel guitar and Adam Farnsworth on keys.  One thing is for sure: we'll amp the energy up, we'll convince you to get another beer and we'll prove to the hipsters that hard-ass outlaw country music is the real deal.  This is the best lineup of musicians I've ever had...we'll roar like a locomotive flying down the mountain!
Joey Only Outlaw Band, Canada Games, Mainstage, Prince George, Feb 2015, photographer 

Once again, the Joey Only Outlaw Band's new album, No More Trouble in the Peace will be available this fall, with an upcoming album release in October at the WISE Hall. But come see this show too!

1 comment:

Karen Horne said...

Great interview. I must mention as the wife of the President of Variété D'Arts Society That Joey Only Outlaw Band plays the Haney Public House in Maple Ridge on July 8th 2016. We are very pleased to help Joey get his music heard and look forward to building up our festival plans here in Maple Ridge moving forward. CANADIAN MUSIC matters. Stay tuned as we continue to do shows our here.