Junkhouse’s Tom Wilson believes there’s a Birthday Boy in all of us



By Steve Newton

If you happened to see the Beatles Anthology series on the tube last week, you’re probably aware that the Fab Four quit touring in 1966 and became just a recording act. That move worked out alright for them—but it probably wouldn’t suit Hamilton, Ontario, rockers Junkhouse. They’d go stir-crazy in a minute.

“I like to work, number one,” says lead vocalist and main songwriter Tom Wilson, calling from a tour stop in Sydney, Nova Scotia. “I’m a guy from Hamilton who never thought he would see outside of Ontario, let alone travel the world like I’ve had a chance to, so the fact that I’ve been to Australia and will be going again in February is mind-boggling to me. The fact that I’ve been to Europe four times—like really, I never thought I’d be in fucking Europe in my life, man.

“And there’s equal excitement about travelling Canada,” he adds. “The first time we toured Canada we toured with the Waltons, and travelling in a van and seeing my country was beautiful. I loved it.”

Although still a relatively new act, Junkhouse has already logged thousands of miles on the Canadian concert circuit, and its members will add a few more when they travel here to act as openers for Spirit of the West’s three-night stand at the Commodore, which runs Wednesday to Friday (December 6 to 8).

Since the release of the band’s Strays debut in ’93, Wilson and his mates have seen more of this fine country than most people see in their lifetimes, so it’s no surprise that he sounds slightly pained when asked about the Canada-busting threat posed by the recent Quebec referendum.

“Whatever,” he groans. “You know, it’s like the Plains of Abraham—it’s been goin’ on and on and on. My mother’s from Quebec, I’m French-Canadian and Indian and Irish, and I have no prejudice against fuckin’ Quebec or the French. I think that what they offer this country is absolutely astounding as far as culture goes, but if you wanna go, see ya later, you know what I mean?

“If I’m livin’ with a woman and she doesn’t want to live with me anymore and she doesn’t love me, it’s like, ‘Okay, go. But you’re not takin’ my CDs, you’re not takin’ the fuckin’ cutlery that my mom bought for me, you’re not takin’ my Jimi Hendrix posters that I had since high school. Now get the fuck outta here.’ ”

Tom Wilson doesn’t mince words. He likes to get his views out into the open, and his straightforward commentary on the Quebec question is delivered with the same no-frills approach that his band takes to its gritty brand of guitar rock. It’s that straight-up style that first attracted rock fans to Junkhouse two years ago and caused Strays to fly out of Canadian record stores. But Wilson claims he wasn’t surprised by the debut disc’s strong sales.

“It’s not like something that I threw out in the water and couldn’t believe that it floated,” he points out. “There were plenty of people in this industry that would have been happy to see Junkhouse fall flat on its face, and the fact of the matter was that we had to go out and win over people. We’re in a business of communication, obviously, and we don’t take anything for granted, so it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, our record’s out, it’s gonna sell a lotta copies, let’s go fuckin’ have a beer and smoke a joint.’ It was like, ‘We gotta go out there and work.’ And that’s still our attitude.

“We appreciate that we’ve almost sold a hundred thousand albums in Canada,” he says, “but the thing is that I know how we did it. We aren’t a bunch of really sparklin’, good-lookin’ little 18-year-old snotty-nosed kids; it’s not like you just stick our heads on an album cover and people run to buy it. We have to work hard for what we have.”

Junkhouse built on that work ethic with its strapping sophomore release, Birthday Boy, the making of which took the band to Charlie Sexton’s rehearsal space in Austin, Texas, then up to a studio in Toronto, and finally back down to Daniel Lanois’s studio in New Orleans for completion. Produced by Malcolm Burn, who also helmed Strays, it takes its title from Wilson’s idea that everybody gets their day in the sun.

“I didn’t want to put a theme together for this record,” he says. “I’m not that pretentious—like Alan Parsons or something—but I think we’re all kinda the ‘birthday boy’. Everybody gets to be the underdog on the playground, you know—we’ve all been the person with the big nose or the flat chest or overweight or had pimples, something that people could pick on us about.

“For every kid who walks out with a rainbow of colour in his eyes, there’s always some teacher or some asshole who’s gonna get a big black paintbrush and just take a lot of that colour out of their life. But everybody has their day, you know, and I think that’s what this record’s about.”

Birthday Boy kicks off with a stompin’ track titled “Chunk (Port Dover)”, in which Wilson sings about drinking his first beer at a Crowbar show one summer. That was also the day he dropped his first hit of LSD.

“There was nothin’ like doin’ your first acid trip with your first beer,” reveals Wilson with a cackle. “It was wild. And Canadian music was one of the first things that turned me on, too, because it was accessible. The Guess Who played in my hometown, Gordon Lightfoot played in my hometown, Murray McLauchlan played in my hometown. Lighthouse. So they were the things I went to see, you know, all those great bands.”

Wilson actually hooked up with McLauchlan to pen the most poignant track on Birthday Boy, “Burned Out Car”, which is made especially moving by a vocal duet between Wilson and the inimitable Sarah McLachlan. Junkhouse didn’t have to flash big session dollars in the local superstar’s face to get her interested in the project, though.

“Before anybody was accepting of Junkhouse at radio or TV or anything, it was actually our peers that embraced us,” says Wilson. “There was people like Blue Rodeo and the Odds and Sarah McLachlan. She used to come and see us at the Town Pump, so we knew she kinda liked us, and we’ve been fans of hers for years.

“So it wasn’t just ‘Let’s get Sarah McLachlan on this record.’ We didn’t want a keyboard, we didn’t want another fucking guitar solo, we wanted something really different and unique, and Sarah McLachlan brought this angelic quality to the song that nobody—I mean nobody—could bring to it.”

Junkhouse’s connection to the Vancouver music scene can also be seen in the comical video for the Odds’ “Eat My Brain”, in which the bikerish Wilson and his scruffy cohorts are seen chasing the hapless Odds around in a pickup truck, seeking revenge for stolen gasoline. The local jokers end up escaping the grimy clutches of Junkhouse with the help of a well-tossed Molotov cocktail.

“It was the same thing as Sarah comin’ to work with us,” says Wilson of the Odds clip. “They just called, and it’s like, ‘Yeah, sure, I like you guys.’ And it’s funny, because when we were all up for Junos—it was like the Waltons and ourselves and the Odds—they asked all the bands independently, ‘Well, what do you think about winning the Juno?’ and without any kind of coaxing we said, ‘We don’t care as long as the Odds win, because they’re the best fuckin’ band in Canada.’ And the Waltons said, ‘We don’t care as long as Junkhouse wins.’ ”

So which band ended up having to lug home the most-promising-band award that none professed to want?

“The Waltons. Bastards! A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”

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