ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 16, 1991
By Steve Newton
Plenty of rock ’n’ roll groups have risen from unlikely beginnings, but the Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet were shoved into the spotlight in a particularly unusual way—their first gig was the result of a dare to open for the band that shared their Toronto practice space.
“We had just started a band for fun,” explains bassist Reid Diamond, sipping on a glass of water while lounging in the Georgia Straight boardroom. “We’d never intended on playing live. But you know how it is when somebody needs an opening band. It’s like, ‘Well, you guys’ll be great! Really! But can you give us a name by tomorrow?
“And we thought it was ridiculous, ’cause we hadn’t played on-stage in years, any of us. But we were flattered, so we thought we’d try it. And it went over really well. It stroked our egos enough that we kept doing it. We just said, ‘Well, that seemed to work!’ ”
So, thanks to the headlining Sturm Group, the Shadowy Men were born. The year was 1984, and since then the instrumental surf trio has been recruiting fans via a series of seven-inch singles released on its own Jet Pac label. A one-minute video of “Musical Interlude” that featured a cartoon cut-out band and cost less than $100 to make has seen steady rotation on MuchMusic. And crucial to the band’s recent popularity has been its theme for and live accompaniment to the weekly TV comedy show Kids in the Hall.
But Reid points out that the road has also been good to the band—and is getting even better. “Over a few years we’ve built up a reputation as a live group,” he says. “We’ve always played a lot, so there was enough word of mouth that we could get enough people to shows to make it worthwhile. And now with the Kids in the Hall thing we’ve built it up enough so that we can sell out quite a lot.”
That happened at the Town Pump earlier this month, and tickets for the next Shadowy bill—at the Commodore on Saturday (May 18), with the Young Fresh Fellows, Posies, and Smugglers—are moving nicely as well. Fans who feel teased by the tidbits of SMOASP tossed their way on the tube will be able to revel in a complete set by the Great White North’s surfin’ sensation.
Reid says that while the Kids in the Hall gig is a welcome one, it comes with a few distractions not common to places like the Pump and Commodore. “The show is really difficult sometimes because they make a lot of noise changing sets. Don [Pyle] will be drumming and someone’ll be hammering, ‘Clang, clang, clang, clang,’ and it’ll be throwin’ us off—like someone talking to you when you’re on the phone.” (Reid’s only other beef with the program is that the band credit goes by so fast at the end of the show that his mom can’t see it. “She insists they should slow it down,” chuckles the curly-topped bassist.)
While the music that the Shadowy Men create for TV and records has a lot in common with ’60s surf bands such as the Ventures, and Dick Dale and the Deltones, Reid claims that the band wasn’t directly influenced by such acts.
“When we started the band, we actually had very little knowledge of instrumental music,” he confides. “The type of music that we had grown up on was more ’70s—we learned to play by mimicking things like Alice Cooper and the Sex Pistols. I liked the Ventures, but I probably only had, like, one Best Of album. I never even had my first Shadows album till just a couple of years ago.”
“We’d never even seen an instrumental band until we saw the Surfdusters,” pipes in twangy guitarist Brian Connelly, referring to the local instrumental act that shared the bill with the Shadowy Men at the Railway Club last year. “They’re about as close to surf music as you can get, actually.”
With bands like the Shadowy Men, Calgary’s Huevos Rancheros, and Vancouver’s own Surfdusters hoping to find success with the happy-go-lucky surf sound, could it be that surf is on its way back?
“Oh God, I hope not,” says Diamond. “It would put us out of work, I guess. But I don’t know—I’ve had like 10 people ask me this week if we did a Petro Canada commercial, because apparently there’s an ad that features a reverby, twangy guitar. I had somebody come up to me and say that they saw a James Bond movie, and they were wondering if we did the soundtrack for it. And then somebody else asked me at a show once if we were influenced by Twin Peaks! So I guess there’s a lot of people who don’t even realize that this kind of instrumental music has been done before.”
Whether they’re aware of the decades-old surf sound or not, current fans can indulge their passion for twangy guitar through the Shadowy Men’s latest seven-incher, Music for Pets, a five-song EP pressed on red vinyl. It’ll have to satiate them until the release of the next full-length album, the weirdly titled Dim the Lights, Chill the Ham.
“It’s a much more romantic record than our previous stuff,” explains Diamond with a smirk, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not raucous and rough-housey and fun. There are some twists and turns. Twists, I believe, is the term they use.”