URBANE COWBOYS

June 18, 2009 – 4:06 am

In 2007, the Cowboy Junkies released Trinity Revisited, a re-recording of the album that propelled them into the limelight. With its basic set-up, the 1988 Trinity indeed provided a stepping stone for the band to hone its craft, allowing the Cowboy Junkies to experiment and release subsequent albums such as The Caution Horses (1990), Black Eyed Man (1992) and Pale Sun Cresent Moon (1993). Gerrie Lim caught up with Michael Timmins just when the Junkies released their 1996 album, Lay It Down. This article was published in BigO #127 (July 1996).

The private interview suite at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood looks appropriately spartan. Even the coffee’s gone, and so we sit drinking Evian water instead, and I get to face one of my own modern-day heroes. Michael Timmins is tall and gaunt, looks more than a little tour-weary, and today he’s clad in all-black, including a black T-shirt that proudly proclaims: NANCI GRIFFITH.

No, he doesn’t know her, he tells me, he’s just a fan. And this setting, in a nutshell, reflects the quirky stance of Timmins’ band, Cowboy Junkies, who play Los Angeles this evening before heading off to Europe for two weeks. It’s been a long haul since 1988, the fateful year that Timmins, along with his sister Margo on vocals, brother Peter on drums and longtime friend Alan Anton on bass, caught the pop world sleeping with their second album, The Trinity Session, an offbeat collection of bluesy songs recorded in the wee small hours in a Toronto Catholic church (the Church of the Holy Trinity, hence the title), done with a single microphone in a single 14-hour session with an impressive budget of US$250.

That record sold over a million copies, won the Los Angeles Times Critics’ Poll (”Album Of The Year”), the four-star adulation of Rolling Stone (”An album as important as it is inspiring”) and even that year’s New Music Seminar (”Best New Artist” and “Best Independent Release”). It was an uncanny feat of sorts, for four musicians from Toronto, though they remain steadfast and humble about it all, as reflected again in their newest, sixth, album - Lay It Down, their debut on Geffen Records.

The new album returns them to their four-piece, groove-grounded Velvet Underground roots, an influence instilled upon the three siblings by their older brother John, who’d briefly played guitar in the band’s inception.

It brings them full circle, following 1995’s two-CD live album, 200 More Miles, which chronicled the band’s history since 1985, a priceless document in the light of their fractured relationship with their then label, RCA. Ironically, they were signed to RCA by Jim Powers, the very same A&R exec who signed them to Geffen, a fitting climax for a band from Canada who’d basically re-exported country blues back to America.

Michael Timmins, as lead guitarist and lead songwriter, remains something of an unsung hero, except of course to his peers and his fans. Few musicians I’ve encountered today know their way better than him around that complex art involving words and music, and he lets his crystalline-voiced sister Margo steal the spotlight. Talking to him, naturally, confirmed my longtime suspicion that it’s all been a deliberate ploy.

Lay It Down’s opening track, for instance, ponders an old existentialist quandary: “I guess I believe that there’s a point to what we do/But I ask myself is there something more besides you?” And so, because belief is so much a part of the Cowboy Junkies story, and their invocation of it continues to inspire me, I found myself spending this spring afternoon with Michael Timmins, letting him tell me his version of those things I hold sacred and true. In Cowboy Junkies style, of course, barely audible beyond a whisper and a sigh.

GERRIE LIM: When you think of Canadian musicians, you think of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, a lot of the singer-songwriter stuff. But the first time I heard you guys, it was The Trinity Session, and it was astounding to me that this was the blues, coming out of Toronto! I was amazed.

MICHAEL TIMMINS: (laughs) Yeah, I know. Toronto has got a really good music scene. And has for a long time, you know, with interesting and diverse types of music, too. For us, and for me, the blues influence came from simply loving blues music. When the band first started out especially, that was sort of the main influence. We never started out wanting to be a blues band, but we wanted to sort of adopt a lot of the feel and the atmosphere and the approach to music that a lot of the great blues players that we admired had to their music.

We didn’t want to play the same structures or think about the same things, but we wanted to have that intensity that a John Lee Hooker or a Lightnin’ Hopkins had. That’s what we based our style on and we worked at it, getting the atmosphere and the intensity going among the various individuals in the band. That’s sort of how it developed.

Prior to all this, you were living in England, where you had the bands Hunger Project and Germinal. I’ve always been curious as to how the experiences of those early bands must have impinged upon what you do now. Everyone’s now talking about how “Cowboy Junkies have gone back to their four-piece roots,” but I suspect that some of the things you do, like the way you use sustain on your guitar, for instance, these things come from way back there.

Yeah. It’s a good point. When you’re a successful band, a lot of people think that your career started at the beginning of the band and goes to now. But for me, my musical career goes further back, way further than that, to Germinal and Hunger Project. And for Alan as well. Alan was also in those bands.

Hunger Project was a noisy band. It was very noise-driven, so a lot of the ideas about feedback, how to use feedback, and certainly the intensity of a very steady groove, Alan and I developed those ideas when we were in Hunger Project. That’s where we learnt to appreciate those ideas. Germinal, I think, was probably the most influential band for me, because it made me rethink how to play guitar and how to approach the guitar.

At that time, we were listening to a lot of jazz, a lot of really abstract stuff like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, a lot of people like Evan Parker in England, Derek Bailey and those people. They were actually playing around that time, too, and we used to go and see them. Germinal, what we were doing in that band, really taught us that there were no boundaries. You can do anything. Just because everybody plays three chords doesn’t mean that you have to play within those three chords. So I think it really taught me a guitar style which I occasionally get back to now, and which I certainly got back to on this record (Lay It Down) and certainly on the tour.

Which is that you don’t have to be within the rhythm. You can play outside the rhythm, you can play outside the chord structure, and it doesn’t have to be based on melody. There’re lots of different ways of communicating through your instrument rather than playing a pretty melody or a 12-bar blues type of thing. I think that’s what I learnt from Germinal and I continue to bring those things, those ideas, forward.

Your sister, Margo, made a pretty astounding statement, in an interview with another magazine: “Sometimes in order to understand the significance of the words, you have to focus back on what’s happening with the guitar.”

Yeah, we always make sure there’s a connection somewhere between the music and the lyric, whether the music is being juxtaposed against the meaning of the lyric or is complementary to it. And I think what Margo’s saying about the guitar there is that the focus of a lot of the emotional content of the music is through the guitar. I think she’s right.

Sometimes Margo can be delivering a line with a melancholy or a sadness to it but if you listen to the guitar, it’s sort of howling or screaming. And that’s the underlying arrangement which is in the lyric, that it’s not just one level of sadness. It’s also this churning that’s going on within the characters’ minds in the lyrics.

The opening song on the new album, Something More Besides You, is a perfect example. Margo just maintains this very controlled approach to the song and yet the guitar kicks in, so underneath it churns and growls.

Is that how you work? Do you all sit down and have discussions on song dynamics or is it all sort of more intuitive?

I think it’s intuitive, you know. The four of us have a very intuitive way of working together. We rarely have to discuss things on a specific level. If a song’s not going right, then we have to back up and sit down and discuss it, but generally the music and the feel of the music moves pretty intuitively and as one to where it should be.

And if it’s not working, we just continue to keep working at it till it gets there. But it’s very rare that we have to say, ‘Let’s do this, let’s push it in this direction.’ It usually happens very naturally and, as a unit, pushes in the right direction.

Even when it’s you writing the songs?

Yeah, it’s just part of the process. I’m the songwriter, I write the lyrics and the basic chord structures. And then Margo comes into the picture and she develops the character and the emotion of the lyric. And then Pete and Alan will come in, and the four of us will work on the overall picture - the groove and the feel and the overall atmosphere, those little touches that make a song powerful and worth listening to. That’s the whole songwriting process, beginning with me sitting by myself writing and ending with the four of us working on it. Without one of those stages, it doesn’t become a Cowboy Junkies song.

Tell me about sibling rivalry. There’re three of you, so how easy or how difficult is it being part of the same band?

For us, it’s very easy. Our personalities are such that we, first of all, respect each other individually, we all know what each of us does in the band, what we are responsible for. We are very aware that without one of us, this band doesn’t work. Including Alan. And we all realise that if one element drops out, we’re a different band, a different-sounding band. So I think that with that understanding, that makes it very easy for us. Even as brothers and sisters, we get along really well, and we just translate that into the band.

You’re the oldest?

Of us. There are three other brothers and sisters. There are six of us in all. We have an older brother, an older sister, then me, then Margo, another sister, and then Pete. So that helps as well, you know, knowing we’re not just a band, we’re part of a much bigger entity which isn’t just Cowboy Junkies, which is our family. I think that helps as well. It keeps us straight.

Are they in a band, too?

No. (laughs)

Let’s talk about the career of the band thus far. I’m going to interject with some of my own views of your albums and we can discuss from there. When I first came across Trinity Session, I thought it was one of the most phenomenal things I’d heard in a long time and I kept playing it for weeks. I got into Whites Off Earth Now! later. So then Caution Horses came along and I didn’t like it. I thought that you’d gone into a real studio and the result was watered-down.

Caution Horses was a very different record than Trinity. We weren’t trying to do the same thing. The band that played on Caution Horses was an eight-piece band we’d been touring with, and all those songs were written and developed while we were touring. The arrangements and the orchestrations of those songs were complex, in that they were developed over a year on the road. The lushness and the interconnecting of all the added instrumentation is something that I really like. That’s what we were trying to do on that record - to capture the sound of the live band and how we worked together as an eight-piece unit.

That’s why we went into the studio. That record is pretty much live, but the song structures were too complicated to do a one-microphone thing, so that’s why we went into the studio, so we could mix it afterwards. For us, that’s one of the band’s favourite records because it’s a real band album. A lot of people don’t like that record and some people love it. It’s a funny record.

I think that because it came out back to back with Trinity, a lot of people compare this to that. Some people think that it’s a bad copy of Trinity and some others think it’s so far gone that there wasn’t enough connection to it. So it’s confusing. I always find it funny when I hear people’s opinions of it because they’re so varied.

Whereas Black Eyed Man is easily your most accessible record.

I think you’re right. With Black Eyed Man, what we wanted to do was get away from the live band thing but again experiment with instrumentation. We used a lot of outside people. Black Eyed Man was the first time we really used the studio. We went in a four-piece, sort of put down the songs, and then brought in outside musicians and worked with them on different ideas to put on top of what we’ve done.

The idea with that record was to use lots of different instrumentation. There are probably 20 different instruments on that record, from banjo to tuba to trombone. Every song was a little entity unto itself. And I think you’re right. The tempos are a bit more “up,” a little bit more country-rock, an easier record on that level, and that was really the intention behind that album.

And I think Pale Sun Crescent Moon is a very, very underestimated and underrated record.

I think so too. I was disappointed with the reaction to that record in general. The intention behind that record was to record as a five-piece band, with the four of us and Ken Myhr on lead guitar.

We wanted a more electric attack. Someone said it was our version of (Neil Young’s) Zuma, you know, with two guitars going at it. We wanted to do it really raw, and just go and record, and we did that over a three-day weekend. The mixing took a little bit longer. But yeah, that was a funny reaction to that album. I never quite understood it. I was sort of disappointed with the reaction. I didn’t know why people didn’t hear it.

But the funny thing is that now, when we do songs from Pale Sun Crescent Moon live, they get huge reactions. So I think the fans really liked it but the media, for whatever reason at that point, didn’t. Also, a lot of the times, it doesn’t have anything to do with music. It has to do with where you are in your career. Like the media will go, “We don’t like these guys now.” And (laughs) all you can do is go, “****.”You can’t deal with that, you just have to do what you want to do.

And the live album (200 More Miles), how did you feel about that? You were going to leave RCA, so was that a contractual obligation?

Not really. An element of it was. When we put it together, we went through all the tapes and decided that it was for us and for our fans, all the people who had seen us through the different incarnations, with the different bands we’ve had on tour. We wanted to capture all the incarnations, so we’d have everything from the eight-piece Caution Horses band to the four-piece Whites Off Earth Now! band. So it was just a collection. It wasn’t meant to do anything except sort of be a 10-year summary of where we were at that point.

Before the box set someday comes out.

Yeah, exactly. (We both laugh) I really like that record, though. It’s very straightforward and simple. It’s a really good document, is what it is.

And what about this new record, Lay It Down? What are your general feelings about it?

I feel that our career, the band’s musical career, goes in cycles. And to me, this is the beginning of a new cycle. Whites Off Earth Now! and Trinity were one cycle, and the next three records - Caution Horses, Black Eyed Man and Pale Sun Crescent Moon - I see them as a unit. The reason I say this is because Whites Off Earth Now! and Trinity Session were about the innocence of the beginning of the band. We were all learning how to play together as a unit and they were both recorded in a similar manner, both one-microphone or two-track recordings.

They were also “naive” recordings, as I call them, in the sense of, “This is what we do because this is what we do. We don’t have any other option behind it. We are doing all we can do right now.” And then, with the next three records, you have the band learning to grow a little bit - playing with other musicians, getting more ideas, getting a little bit more experienced, learning to work in studios. And I grew as a songwriter as well.

This one (Lay It Down), to me, is the beginning of our third cycle. I don’t know where that cycle’s going to go, but it’s sort of stripping back down to the four of us again, reconnecting with the dynamic between the four of us as musicians. But it’s also about having come 10 years down the line and not getting back to Whites Off Earth Now! We’re seeing where we are now as musicians and as a band, and taking all we’ve learned over these past 10 years working together, stripping away the added musicianship and seeing where we stand now, just as a four-piece.

And I feel that with my songwriting at this point, I think I have really good control over what I want to do musically and lyrically. I guess this cycle is about the maturation of the band. It takes a long time, you know. Learning to play in the studio is very, very difficult. I think we’re just getting it now. We’re just beginning to understand and enjoy it.

Well, if all else fails, you can always go back to churches.

(laughs) Exactly, we can do that all over again!

One last question. What is the secret of great rhythm-guitar playing?

(laughs) It’s hard to say, but I think the secret is to have a good rhythm section to work with. Somebody you have a connection with. For me, playing with Pete - and again this is a brother thing, I think - him and me, we have very similar ideas of rhythm and feel. There are times when we’re playing together when I know he’s about to do something, or he’s about to **** up, or something. I just know it. I can feel it coming in his overall playing.

And I think just having confidence in what he’s doing has allowed me to have confidence in the rhythm, you know. I know that I can fall out and fall in with the rhythm, and push and pull, or fall back, not to be too stiff. To allow your playing to breathe, in and out of the rest of the rhythm section, I think that’s the main secret.

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