ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, OCT. 12, 1995
Toronto guitar-rockers 13 Engines recorded their first two albums in a one-room schoolhouse in the bush near Ann Arbor, Michigan. They made their third one on top of a mountain in Malibu and their fourth in the village of Morin Heights, in Quebec’s Laurentians.
For its fifth and latest disc, Conquistador, the quartet finally decided to stick around its home base. But according to lead vocalist John Critchley—who dials in from a sound check in Regina—the band had its reasons for not laying down tracks in T.O. before.
“There’s a bunch of studios in Toronto,” he says, “but they’re kind of gross. They’re sort of big-budget, carpeted fern bars that charge a lot of money and make a lot of jingles and a lot of bad Canadian rock albums, and we just kinda felt uncomfortable in them. A friend of ours had just started a new studio in the basement of a warehouse kinda building just off Queen Street, and we really liked the sound of the room. It just had a good reverberation to it. And as far as equipment went, the board used to be the Nimbus 9 board, which was [Alice Cooper producers] Jack Richardson and Bob Ezrin, and we’re all huge fans of early-’70s Cooper. Not that it really makes any difference, but it just kinda felt right.”
On three of the band’s previous albums, Critchley sat in the producer’s chair himself, but for Conquistador the band enlisted Wisconsin knob-twiddler Mr. Colson, whose work on recordings by Paw, Walt Mink, and the Watchmen had impressed them.
“We were kinda looking for someone to just help us in the studio,” says Critchley. “We didn’t really want a producer—more of an engineer with some ears. We played a show with the Watchmen in Toronto, and they told us what a nice guy he was, so we gave him a shout down in Madison and he came up. We got along, so we decided to make a record together.”
Conquistador continues in the locomotive, riff-driven vein of its predecessor, 1993’s Perpetual Motion Machine, with Critchley’s Ray Davies–like vocals piloting the lively racket of guitarist Mike Robbins, bassist Jim Hughes, and drummer Grant Ethier. When the band plays the Town Pump on Saturday (October 14), with Toronto tour mates Treble Charger, it’ll likely reveal its country side with a performance of its upcoming single, “Tailpipe Blues”.
“I love good country music,” says Critchley. “On our second album we had a country song called ‘Blue Smoke Curl’, and then on our last album we had a song called ‘Going Under’, which was sort of our attempt to do a George Jones, countrypolitan, mid-’60s kinda Nashville thing. I mean, ultimately ‘Tailpipe Blues’ is really just a folk song, but then there’s, like, a pedal steel guitar on top of it, and it gives it more of a country flavour.”
While 13 Engines is best-known for its aggressive musical approach—the band’s name is meant to evoke “some sort of seething mass”—its branching out in rootsier directions could help attract a wider fan base than the band has managed so far. But Critchley says he’s satisfied with the moderate success his group has garnered in the course of its eight years together.
“I feel okay,” he says. “I mean, getting too wrapped up in how things are going on a commercial level can get in the way, so you just try to focus on the music.”