ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MARCH 2, 2006
By Steve Newton
Back in the late ’80s, when Modelos guitarists Joe Rotundo and Mike Kenney attended high school together in Fort Erie, Ontario, they couldn’t have guessed they’d be playing in a Vancouver cowboy-surf instrumental band one day. At Ridgeway Crystal Beach high school they were more into the Ramones and the Replacements, but judging by the Modelos’ new self-titled CD, spaghetti-western king Ennio Morricone is their current musical main man.
As Rotundo explains between sips of a small dark at a java joint across from the Straight’s new West Broadway digs, he was also inspired to go the instrumental route by Atomic 7, an offshoot of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, the Canuck instro-rock trio best known for providing live music during Kids in the Hall tapings.
“When I was living in Toronto in 2000 I was playing in a lot of blues bands,” he says, “and then I started going to this place called the Cadillac Lounge that just opened up on Queen Street. Atomic 7 were there every Thursday night, and I was there every Thursday night taking it all in. It was pretty much the first time I’d seen a band that strictly played ditty after ditty of instrumentals; they just had this repertoire of fast, short songs, one after another.”
“We kinda like the succinctness of it [instro-rock],” injects Kenney, who once played with Rotundo in a blues band that toured around southern Ontario and western New York state. “After long blues jams that go on forever, it’s nice to hear tunes that are just bang, bang, bang, without a lotta improv. It was a real contrast to what we’d been used to.”
Recorded in three whirlwind sessions at engineer Kory Burke’s Ogre Studios in False Creek, The Modelos crams 11 tunes into less than half an hour. It sports precision-picked Shadows-type ditties and rollicking high-desert odes with titles like “Down the Dusty Trail”, “Blood on the Saddle”, and “Curse of the Cowboy”, and there’s nary a cover in the bunch.
“There’s a lot of good instro bands in Vancouver,” observes Rotundo, “but not many that are doing original music, and that was the thing we really wanted to focus on. We didn’t want to start playing ‘Pipeline’ and all these typical surf standards.”
When Rotundo ventured out from T.O. in 2002 he rented a place in the same East Van apartment building as Kenney, and six months later they pulled out the six-strings and started working on the tracks that would become The Modelos. They penned all the CD’s songs together, resisting the urge to include any personal favourites by Dick Dale and Los Straitjackets. And rather than include a Morricone staple, they paid tribute to the Italian soundtrack maestro with “Ode to Ennio”, which boasts a Tijuana Brass-style solo by local trumpeter Shaun Brodie.
“When we wrote that we were especially into Once Upon a Time in the West,” relates Kenney, referring to the music of director Sergio Leone’s 1969 gunslinger epic. “We played the soundtrack to that over and over again, and there was actually a tune on there called ‘Farewell to Cheyenne’ that inspired that song.”
The Modelos’ rhythm section is comprised of bassist Brad Ferguson and drummer Geoff Hicks, but since the in-demand Hicks is currently touring with Colin James, Bottleneck drummer Liam McDonald will man the kit when the quartet plays Malone’s on Friday (March 3) and the Railway Club on Tuesday (March 7). They’ve played the historic Dunsmuir Street venue numerous times and currently get booked there every third Monday of the month. Rotundo often sits in on the bar’s Saturday-afternoon jams as well. “The Railway’s been good to us,” notes Kenney.
As well as performing in both the Modelos and local rockabilly outfit the Bughouse 5, the clean-cut Rotundo and scruffy Kenney also work together as house painters, but they hope to shelve the brushes for a while next summer and head out on the road, maybe touring back to their native Ontario. With numbers like “Bud Bustin” and “Toke and Stagger” on the set list, you can expect a trip like that to be notable for half-baked smiles and chuckles.
“‘Bud Bustin’ was the first song that Mike and I wrote together as an instrumental for this project,” says Rotundo. “There’s definitely some B.C.-bud influence in a lot of those tunes.”