ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 24, 1997
I’m usually a pretty patient guy, but sitting at a table in the Web Café, waiting for Rusty singer Ken MacNeil to show up, I’m losing it. He’s only 10 minutes late for our scheduled 6 p.m. interview, but it seems like an hour, because every TV in the tube-clogged place is loudly tuned to MuchMusic, and the hipper-than-thou chatter of Rap City host Master T is taking its toll. Normally, I would have opted for a MuchMusic-free zone to chat with MacNeil, but tonight this high-tech Hastings Street hangout is where Rusty is throwing a listening party for its new Sophomoric CD, so it’s handy for him.
Just as I’m pondering whether to wait outside in the rain, a guy wearing wrinkled pants, an old jacket, and a grungy tuque pulled down over matted dreadlocks makes his way through the venue’s fancy glass doors. At first I’m thinking some poor homeless bloke is about to get the bum’s rush, but then a relieved-looking barman points the guy my way, and pretty soon I’m shaking hands with MacNeil. Looking as if he’s decked out for a night of panhandling, the ragged rocker pulls up a chair, and before long he’s answering the kind of questions millionaire rock stars have to bother with. First off, I wonder why his band chose to record Sophomoric at Vancouver’s Mushroom Studio, with the stuttery-named GGGarth (Garth Richardson, of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine fame) producing.
“We didn’t want to do it in Toronto,” MacNeil says, “and Vancouver was a good choice, ’cause Garth lives here, so he gets to be with his family. I’ve never been here for any longer than two days at a time, so we liked the idea of spending a bunch of time here. And then Mushroom was the studio that kept comin’ up [in discussions of where to record]. It’s a great place, I like it a lot.”
Another fortunate thing about recording here was that it put Rusty within the geographic realm of Vancouver alternative-rock hero Art Bergmann, who performed on the CD’s snappy first single, “Empty Cell”. MacNeil first met Bergmann a few years ago, and became a “distant friend” to the local legend. “When we came to record the album he hung out with us in the studio,” the singer relates, “and it was neat to have him there, ’cause he’s a really cool, interesting guy. But we really had to coerce him to get him to play on the record. Eventually, he played acoustic and did some singin’ on ‘Empty Cell’, so if you listen close you can hear him there.”
Rusty’s previous CD, Fluke, was produced by former Bergmann knob-twiddler Chris Wardman in Toronto, but MacNeil has always had a bittersweet relationship with the home of the Leafs. He says that he’s always worked hard for success in T.O., but—until recently, anyway—never quite obtained it. His previous band, One Free Fall, spent more than six years plugging away there.
“I think everyone’s a little bit hypersensitive to how they do in their hometown,” he says. “I always wanted to do well in Toronto, so it does feel good now to be played on a hometown radio station and do shows that sell out. That’s the best feeling, you know.”
Judging by the catchy crunch of superior punk-edged tunes such as “Oh No Joe”, “Doin’ Fine”, and the aforementioned “Empty Cell”, MacNeil and his Rusty cohorts—guitarist Scott McCullough, bassist Jim Moore, and drummer Mitch Perkins—have good reason to be pleased with themselves. Although “Empty Cell” was inspired by MacNeil’s viewing of To Die For, the Gus Van Sant film about a high-school teacher who got her student lover to kill her husband, he claims that most of the other tracks just came to him through everyday experience.
“If you listen closely to this record, it’s basically about bein’ in a rock band,” he contends. “It’s all just emoting about your life, you know, so it’s nothin’ really all that complicated.”
The day-to-day ruminations that wind up as propulsive Rusty rockers are often scribbled down by MacNeil during the band’s travels. After the release of Fluke, Rusty spent many months touring North America with the likes of Bush, No Doubt, and Collective Soul, and—although it provides him with plenty of grist for the songwriting mill—MacNeil still views touring with a jaundiced eye. All it took was one frosty wipeout in Winnipeg to make him wary of the road.
“I feel bad for everyone that has to get in a van and drive in the winter and risk their fuckin’ lives to play rock shows,” he asserts. “It’s hell, and the longer you do it, the more the odds are of goin’ off the road. That’s why I like the tour bus, because no one in the band has to drive. You can close the curtains and forget about those big trucks.”
Lurking highway dangers notwithstanding, MacNeil says he’s psyched up for a lengthy spring-and-summer tour, which includes a May 10 stop at the Town Pump during Music West.
“We’ve been away for almost a year now,” he says, “so we’re ready to go. And it’s fun to get back with the guys again, ’cause it simplifies your life. If you have a good show, then, really, your responsibility for the day is over.”