SKYDIGGERS CD Release at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas W). Friday (June 8) and Saturday (June 9). $22.50 - $25. 416-531-6604. See listing.
Singer Andy Maize and guitarist Josh Finlayson of local roots rockers Skydiggers have been working together for about 25 years now, and it shows.
Over pints at Pauper's Pub, the pair - who both went to North Toronto Collegiate Institute, though they were in different years - finished each other's sentences while they talked about the band's new album, Northern Shore [out on Cowboy Junkies' label Latent Recordings], and the 2009 retrospective, The Truth About Us, that helped inspire it.
Skydiggers worked on Northern Shore with producer Saam Hashemi at three different studios - Finlayson's home studio, the Mancave, Blue Rodeo's Woodshed and the Tragically Hip's Bathouse - incorporating various styles, sounds and approaches (from folky to alt-pop, to country swing), and ending up with more material than they could fit on one disc.
The deluxe version features all 25 songs from the Northern Shore sessions, 10 songs from a 1988 demo predating the band's debut album - recorded at the Lanois brothers' Hamilton studio Grant Avenue - and songs recorded early in 1996 for an unreleased album, from before Peter Cash left the band.
How many of you, which of you, would be required for you to call it a Skydiggers show?
Andy Maize: Two at this point.
Josh Finlayson: Probably, yeah, the two of us.
I don't want to put you in an awkward spot, because it might be impossible to list everyone. But who are some of the players who were pivotal in the band's evolution?
Finlayson: Peter Cash.
Maize: Peter Cash for sure. Wayne Stokes was our original drummer; he was a big part of the band at the outset. Andrew Cash, who was never a member of the band, but has always a collaborator and compatriot.
It's interesting you ask that, because when we were putting together the retrospective [2009's The Truth About Us] with our friend Kim Cooke - who runs Pheromone Recordings and actually signed us to a record deal with Warner in 1994-1995 - Kim's the one who suggested that we do a retrospective, and that he wanted to help us put it together. In doing that, we listened to a lot of older material, and it was interesting because we started to think about how fortunate we were to have the community, and to have been part of a community that we've been part of. And that was a big impetus for making this new recording, was to involve our community and celebrate our community.
Looking back hasn't been something that we've often done. But putting the retrospective together with Kim has forced us to look back and we've also been archiving all of our old analog tape recordings because they've been sitting in our basements, we're afraid that they're deteriorating. There's a fellow by the name of James Paul who runs a studio called the Rogue Studios, and he's been digitizing them for us.
What was it like when you were starting out in the 80s?
Finlayson: There were a lot of venues you could start out at. Small venues that would seat maybe 50 people and you could gradually develop and build an audience until you were playing in larger venues.
Maize: That's still the case.
Finlayson: NXNE is a great testament to that. We were able to build that audience in Toronto and we got a record deal within a couple years of playing out and doing that and started touring across the country. Doing the same thing, starting in small rooms and then slowly building up an audience.
But would you say it was the songwriter scene that you started in?
Maize: The 80s got a little silly fashion-wise and production-wise and then there was a movement where things got stripped down again. And the song became important: Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies, The Hip, 54-40 out in Vancouver.
I was a big R.E.M. fan and they certainly have influenced a lot of people, and they, in turn, were influenced by a lot of bands we like, like The Byrds, The Beatles. We always consider ourselves to be part of a tradition, in service of the song.
Finlayson: It is referred to now as Americana. In those days it didn't really have a tag, but it was very much song driven.
Can you explain what happened with Restless (1992) and Still Restless: The Lost Tapes (1999)?
Maize: We were with a company that was based out of the U.S. called Enigma Records, and they had an office in Canada and at some point they went out of business. And that affected the Canadian office.
Well, they ended up selling the masters they owned [including the Skydiggers albums Restless and Just Over This Mountain]. Those masters were sold to a company based out of Montreal called Unidisc who we're not really sure what they do other than buy up masters and then they don't really do much with them. So it wasn't available for a long time, because they didn't put it out. So we got our demos for that and put those out.
And then they put it out again finally, but they don't return phone calls, even until this day.
You include a lot of covers on your albums, is that an important part of what you do as a band? Why do covers?
Finlayson: It certainly gives some indication of what we're interested in, what might inspire us. Sometimes a cover is what you might sing well as a singer too. And then there's some stuff that you just like and it fills a space in a recording, and hopefully creates a balance amongst the other material that's there.
Maybe people have the wrong idea that they need to cram as many of their own songs on an album as possible
Finlayson: From the get go, with the original lineup of the band we wrote as a band together and then Andy and I wrote tunes together and Peter Cash would write songs with us. We were doing songs of Andrew Cash's. The best songs always sort of floated to the top. Because ultimately the audience doesn't really care who wrote the song, more often that's important to the band. And, you know, it's out of doing other people's songs that you develop your own sound and your own voice, whether as a songwriter or even as a band. When we started out we often did covers to fill out our sets. It was easy to learn them, and stuff that worked stayed in the repertoire for a while and stuff that didn't work sort of died on the vine.
Maize: Still to this day one of our most popular live songs is a cover - Slow Burning Fire (by J. Buckingham). And I don't think that most of our audience members even realize that it's a cover.
Finlayson: And nor do they care, they just want us to play it.
Do you have a personal favourite of your older albums?
Maize: I don't, do you Josh?
Finlayson: Ah, No. I don't know that we've made it yet.
Maize: It's funny, part of the issue is figuring out which songs from the catalogue - you know, obviously when we have a new recording and we go out we want to play songs from the new recording - but we also want to play songs from the catalogue. Say we've got 25 or 30 songs that we're picking from to play a show each night, I'm always sort of interested where they come from. There's something from every recording.
Finlayson: One of the good things about making recordings is that they're very representative, they're real documents of where you were at the time. So there's things that you go back to and you listen to and it conjures up certain memories and you realize you were in a certain place, but favourites is a hard one, because at the time they were what you felt was most representative of where you were at. When you get a little distance from it you see it in a different light and in a different way.
Maize: Not as judgmental.
Finlayson: And not as attached to it either. Sometimes it's just great to enjoy it for what it is and sometimes it takes a while to really do that.
How did you record the new album, Northern Shore, and why did you record in three different studios?
Finlayson: We knew we wanted to work with Saam Hashemi. We'd done a few things with him and developed a good relationship with him. So we thought we'd start with a studio in my basement and we'd record some songs to a click track, Andy and I singing. We ran through maybe a half dozen tunes that way and that's how we started. Saam's an adept engineer; he added some strings to stuff and we went into the Woodshed - the Blue Rodeo studio here - and we added some other instrumentation. So we had these two different studios that we were working out of.
And then we ended up going to the Tragically Hip studio, the Bathouse, and that was more full band, live of the floor stuff. And then we added some stuff to that as well back at my place.
The one method that we've learned over the years is that there's ultimately no right or wrong way of recording, there's just serving a song.
Maize: When it was time to make a recording, we used to sit down and we'd decide how we wanted to make the recording. "This one we're going to record live off the floor."
Finlayson: Clown nose, and some bellbottoms.
Maize: This time we said, "let's just make a record." The process isn't important, what's important is the result and in doing that it made the process even more fun.
Fire Engine (Red Explosion) [came out of a demo session]. We started out with an acoustic guitar and a voice and I sang a part that was meant to be a guide vocal for horns and that ended up being the chorus of the song and Saam added samples and we added live keyboards and drums and bass to it but a lot of it is created sounds. It's great. You just let go.
That song is really fun.
Maize: Well Josh and I wrote that nearly 25 years ago.
Finlayson: Liar Liar is another one that predates the band. We tried recording it in the past with the band, and it just didn't work for whatever reason, but this time we just did it as a demo, the two of us ... all of a sudden everyone was playing to the dynamic that we'd created as opposed to trying to document the full band, and that was cool.
Ultimately we engaged and employed all the different ways [of recording] we'd learned over the years and this record has a little bit of all of that.
When did you start working on the album?
Maize: [Between the retrospective and Northern Shore] We started to do some recordings where we were bringing women in to sing songs, because it had always been such a male thing that we do, and we wanted to hear what it would sound like. We'd still be the band and we'd be doing songs that we had written.
We did a song with Jessie Bell Smith, we did a song with Saidah Baba Talibah. And Alejandra Ribera.
Maize: They're not released yet. We were recording with Saam before we started the record [Northern Shore] because we were thinking of making a record of covers of our own songs with female singers, and then our friends in Blackie And The Rodeo Kings did the Kings And Queens album, so we thought we better hang on.
Finlayson: That stuff will come out at some point. It just sort of evolved into making a new record. Part of the process, is like, why are you making a record? It sounds a little It's existential, but I think it's a question you have to keep asking yourself to make sure that what you are doing is relevant to yourself at least. We're confident that we achieved that with this record.