Flies on Fire fell in love with Canada and the Tragically Hip

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 16, 1992

By Steve Newton

Although Flies on Fire have already released two albums full of honest, no-frills guitar rock with major-label distribution on Atco Records, they haven’t yet made much of a name for themselves. But they’re probably better known to Vancouver rock fans than to the folks in their Los Angeles home, thanks to the five straight sold-out shows they played here at the Commodore last July.

’Course, a band from Ontario called the Tragically Hip might have attracted a few bodies as well.

“That is the greatest rock band in the world, man,” spouts Flies on Fire bass guitarist Terry “Mess” Messal on the line from Los Angeles. “I mean, I haven’t seen anybody play live like them in 15 years.”

The American band—which returns to town this Friday and Saturday (January 17 and 18) at the the Town Pump—got its first tasty mouthful of the Tragically Hip when both groups shared a mini-tour of the Northwest U.S. a few years back. At the time, Messal and lead guitarist Howard Drossin had heard some of their Canadian cousins’ tunes and “thought they were pretty cool”, but they weren’t prepared for the Hip’s workmanlike approach to rock ’n’ roll.

“We showed up at the gig in Portland for a sound check,” recalls Messal, “and it was real strange, because coming from L.A.—where you’ve got to dress up and look cool—it was so weird to see all these guys just hangin’ out with flannel shirts on and stuff. They didn’t have poofed-out hair and tattoos and stuff, and that’s part of the game.

“So, anyway, we did a pretty good set, and then the Tragically Hip comes on, man, and all our jaws were sittin’ on the floor. We couldn’t believe how great these guys were, and so unassuming. From then on, we just fell in with them, and they asked us to come on that tour. Then we fell in love with Canada, and now we understand why they’re so cool.”

Anyone lucky enough to nab tix for the Hip/Flies run at the Commodore last summer can attest to the fact that both bands live by the same standards musically, if not wardrobe-wise.

“We’ve been bitten by the dress bug,” laughs Messal. “As you can see from our album cover, we tend to dress up a little. But that’s the only big difference between the bands; there’s similarities in the fact that the music’s real honest, and I think that’s why we connected real well in Canada. We’re having a little problem connecting in the U.S., ’cause we’re too honest and straightforward for America’s tastes. I think America’s lookin’ more for fantasy. It’s all flash here.”

As Messal admits, Flies on Fire aren’t above pushing a bit of an image when the record company’s photographer is around. In the group’s latest promo pic, Messal can be seen posing with a handful of small rubber snakes.

“I’ve got a real albino corn snake at home,” he says. “I got her as a birthday present when she was about the size of a worm, but she’s up to about four-and-a-half feet now, and 3 inches in diameter. She’s a lovely snake, but she didn’t want to be in the picture ’cause she doesn’t like the bright lights.”

But would “Mess” consider doing the Alice Cooper trip and taking his slithering sweetie on the road with him?

“I tried to,” Messal says with a laugh, “but the guys wouldn’t have her in the bus. They were afraid that she might get out and end up sleepin’ with one of ’em.”

A native of New Mexico, Messal’s early musical stints included being the only white guy in a black R&B outfit and the only gringo in a Chicano band before latching on to the bass role in Flies on Fire, a position he’s happier than hell with.

“Oh man, it’s wonderful! I mean, God, it’s rock and roll, it’s out there. And they give me a lot of leeway on my parts; it’s not like I’ve gotta thunder away behind the chords and stuff. We bang shoulders with each other and break each other’s [guitar] necks. It’s like a full-on onslaught.”

Messal is quick to point out the highlights of his happy days as Flies on Fire’s bottom end.

“Hearing our first single off the first album on the radio while we were drivin’ around was pretty exciting after four or five years of hard work. But I’ll tell you, man, takin’ off my clothes and hangin’ my underwear on [Tragically Hip member] Gordon Sinclair’s bass on the last night in Montreal was a lot of fun for me, personally.”

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