ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 20, 1997
On the Saturday afternoon when Junkhouse leader Tom Wilson calls from his Hamilton home, he’s still buzzing from a wild gig the previous night in Quebec City. It was the band’s first experience with the concert-in-the-round format, and it left the singer-songwriter-guitarist somewhat numbed.
“It was really neat, I’ll tell ya, ’cause the thing that Junkhouse doesn’t get to do very often is sit on stools and play these songs. The audience sat around and listened really closely, and then went nuts after each song. It was kinda set up like one of those cheesy MuchMusic I&I [Intimate & Interactive] things, so I was doin’ my best fuckin’ Amanda Marshall imitation.”
There shouldn’t be a stool or an Amanda Marshall imitator in sight when Wilson’s group plays stand-up double bills with fast-rising locals the Matthew Good Band at Chilliwack’s Area 51 on Thursday (November 20) and the Palladium on Saturday (November 22). The quintet will be showcasing tunes from its superb new album, Fuzz, which features the writing, guitar-playing, and production talents of former Crash Vegas member Colin Cripps, a longtime friend of Wilson’s who cowrote a tune on Junkhouse’s 1995 CD, Birthday Boy.
“We were kinda waitin’ for Crash Vegas to break up so that he could join our band,” says Wilson with a chuckle. “As soon as he quit I called him up and said ‘Well, we’re doin’ a tour of Western Canada, would you like to come with us?’ And he kinda thought it was exactly what he needed, to be just like a member of a band—instead of a founding member, where you end up getting in a lot of arguments and a lot of business bullshit.
“And because he was a friend and really close to the band and had written with me before, I think he felt the same kind of frustration that I was feeling about Junkhouse. We both felt that Junkhouse was a really misunderstood band in that we weren’t being accepted by the wide range of audience that I think our music kind of presents itself to, but instead were being pigeonholed as kind of a Canadian bar-rock band—which is okay, but that wasn’t our single objective. This band has always been a vehicle for songwriting, and that’s what we want to bring back full force with this record.”
During the course of his musical career, 38-year-old Wilson has written songs with Daniel Lanois, Murray McLauchlan, Colin James, Colin Linden, and Stephen Fearing. He also cowrote eight of the 10 tracks on Fuzz with Cripps. When it comes to the songwriting process, he’s not one to squirrel himself away in a room and rely solely on his own creative instincts.
“Not that I don’t trust myself,” he says, “because I think I’ve written some really good things on my own, but I really feel that with a collaboration, instead of having to second-guess yourself, you’ve got someone else who might help the idea a little bit. And with Colin it was real magic. I mean, we’d get together and have a cuppa tea and a smoke and write together in the afternoons at my house pretty well every day for four months, so in that time you get talking about a lot more than what key you want to play the song in.”
The topics of lyrical inspiration on Fuzz include everything from the bar fights Wilson’s been in (“Superscar”) to the gaudy attraction of travelling carnivals (“Funhouse ’69”). But Wilson asserts that there is also a recurring theme of wellness running through the CD, and that it’s partly about the struggles of keeping your health together, mentally and physically. “Only when we fall down do we realize how fragile we really are,” he relates, “and both Colin and I have, you know, fallen down a couple of times in our lives, in various situations. So when we got together I guess we were acting as a little bit of a crutch for each other in some ways.”
Although the image Junkhouse projected with the release of its 1993 Strays debut was one of blue-collar biker types with a gritty, rough ’n’ tumble sound to match, Wilson went on to bare a sensitive side in Birthday Boy’s “Burned Out Car”, a haunting ode to the plight of the homeless that features a duet with Sarah McLachlan. The problems people routinely face were also broached in the new album’s title track, although “Fuzz” is about the sorting out of chaos in daily existence and not avoidance of the local constabulary. Junkhouse’s urge to empathize with people as they struggle through life can also be seen in the dedication of Fuzz to Rod Campeau, a young Albertan the band first met at a concert at the Red Deer Agricultural Centre a few years back.
“He was a huge Junkhouse fan,” recalls Wilson. “He came out and let his presence be known at the show, and we all thought ‘Wow, what a fuckin’ fan! This guy’s great!’ And it ended up that the next year they brought us back for another show, and his brother came and was just kinda broken up, and explained that he [Campeau] was really sick with cancer. So we got our driver and took our tour bus way north of Edmonton and visited him in the hospital just before he died.
“At that point on the tour we didn’t like each other much,” adds Wilson, “and it was something that brought us together spiritually—I mean, we all did something together that we felt was really important. It had an effect on all of us, but mostly on our drummer, Ray [Farrugia], and he insisted that—well, it wasn’t like it was an argument, mind you, but he insisted that it be dedicated to this young guy.”
Before recording Fuzz, Wilson took a year off from Junkhouse to record and perform with Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing in Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. He loved everything about that project, and—thanks to a revelatory experience onstage at the Edmonton Folk Festival—brought some valuable insights back into the Junkhouse realm.
“The lesson that I learned from Blackie and the Rodeo Kings was that there is an audience out there that will listen to music,” he says. “I was on the stage in front of literally 10,000 people and I was doing ‘Has Anyone Seen My Baby Here Tonight?’, which is one of the quietest songs on the album, and it freaked the shit outta me because it was like [speaks softly], I was playing it, and there was no noise. It was like a ski hill full of people, and everyone was paying attention!
“And I said to myself, ‘Jesus, you know, Junkhouse is capable of doing this.’ I mean, I’d been on tour singing ‘Burned Out Car’ from Birthday Boy—a song that was really important to me and that I wished could have taken on a bit more of a life, just because of the cause that it supports, but it never did. We’d play it every night and people would still be stage-divin’ and beer would be flyin’ through the air. And it was just a thing where, I know that Junkhouse is capable—because of the music I write and the way we play—of getting people to listen like that.”