Back In The Saddle

By Perry Stern
Music Express #145 '90
March 1990

Although The Caution Horses continues in the same vein as The Trinity Session, The Cowboy Junkies claim to have changed a lot. And they've got certificates to prove it!

We’re seated, the five of us, around guitarist Michael Timmins’ kitchen table. As a late December blizzard rages outside, Michael boils water for tea, his sister, the honey-voiced Margo, excuses herself briefly to chat on the phone with her husband and bassist Alan Anton stares moodily at the floor. Inexplicably, drummer Peter Timmins, the youngest Cowboy Junkies, is sullenly hollowing out a long, stale French stick and poking holes in the curst with a ballpoint pen. Alan and Peter don’t normally give interviews.

Talking with the Cowboy Junkies is not unlike listening to them in concert. The mood is subdues, the volume is low, the pace is languorous, the emotions are very real and if you’re not in the same headspace as they are, you may as well put on your coat and go home. What is different from their performance façade is the ready humor that bubbles just barely under the surface and frequently erupts in explosions of laughter after a sly aside.

Only the day before the finishing touches were put on The Caution Horses, the much anticipated follow-up to 1988’s critically acclaimed LP, The Trinity Session. A triumph of melancholy splendor, the new album continues the Junkies’ subtle exploration of mood and emotion using minimal energy to optimum effect. More than a year on the road has matured the band inestimably, with Margo’s dramatic, newly confident voice taking center stage and lusher, more elaborate arrangements embellishing (for the most part) Michael’s words and music.

“We’d been playing a lot live with the seven-piece band,” Michael explains of the time spent before the recording of The Caution Horses began, “and the songs had been developing along a certain way. We wanted them to sound like they were sounding live, which is very full and lush, and that’s what we wanted to get across on the record.”

That The Caution Horses carries on where The Trinity Session left off will come as a relief to some, a disappointment to others. If nothing else, the earlier album illustrated that you don’t have to spend a million dollars to sell a million records. Costing only $250 to record – with only one mic (albeit the highly sophisticated Calrec Soundfield Ambisonic Microphone) and in one day – the album went on to sell over a million copies worldwide and made Cowboy Junkies the indie success story of the year.

Initially, the new album was to follow the same technical route as the two previous LPs (in 1986 the Junkies recorded – in Michael’s garage – Whites Off Earth Now!! for their own Latent Recording label), and time was booked in an obscure church north of Toronto. “In April”, Michael elaborates, “we did a Calrec recording at a place called Sharon Temple which is right up near Newmarket – a really cool building. We spent three days up there and it went really well, we liked it a lot.

“We sat on it for a month,” he continues as Margo resumes her place at the table, “then we went on tour. When we came back in July we realized it really wasn’t the way we wanted to sound. We’d been talking about it for a year and the Sharon recording didn’t capture it. It was more [a matter] of attitude than anything else, attitude and ambience, which is what Trinity really is. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves in that way.”

Even still, production values aside, The Caution Horses is anything but a departure from the band’s earlier efforts. At the time of its release The Trinity Session proved an oasis of quiet calm in a desert of noisy confusion. Those critical of the band heard something else. Tedious, bland, narcoleptic – the so-called monotony of the music’s somber tone deadened some ears to the simple (to them, simplistic) beauty of the presentation. At such odds with bombast that generally passes for contemporary pop music, the Cowboy Junkies, they theorized, must be dying to crank up the volume, to speed up the pace…

“You mean we haven’t?” asks Michael, to a chorus of laughter from his bandmates.

Flashback. It’s 1982 and in the dimly lit backroom of Toronto’s Rivoli, then still a new café on the as yet un-gentrified Queen Street strip, you can only see the silhouette of the backlit band on stage. The singer seems gigantic, her tall slender body capped with a Siouxsie-esque cascade of big, black hair. A flailing drummer is hidden behind her and she is flanked by two guitarists – no bassist in the band – both of whom have their backs to the audience. There are perhaps 35 people in attendance, all of the seated in rapt attention, all of them deafened by the mind-numbing din blaring at them from the stage.

Looking back on it now, it’s almost impossible to link the aggressively atonal cacophony of that band, Hunger Project, with the group it would one day evolve into: the sensual, sedate Cowboy Junkies. But, then, stranger things have happened.

Predating the Velvet Underground inspired, feedback-fueled Jesus And Mary Chain wall of noise by several years, Hunger Project (with Michael Timmins and Alan Anton on guitar, vocalist Lisa Dawson-Whisker and drummer Jeff Railton) struggled fruitlessly for two years in Toronto and then London. One single, “The Same Inside” b/w “The Assembly”, was recorded (not to be released until the band’s Latent Recording label was established in 1984) but Dawson-Whisker soon split and the group broke up.

Lacking a singer, the band evolved into Germinal, a trio that experimented in raucous, free-flowing, instrumental improvisations. Having earned some small critical approval for their anti-popism, Germinal persisted in London for almost three years (with a cassette album, Germinal 1 released in 1983 and vinyl LP, Din, in ’84) before packing it in and moving back to Toronto.

It’s safe to say that by the time they returned from their foreign sojourn the appeal of playing loud and fast had diminished considerably for Michael and Alan. “I think we just explored that area of music,” the former says, “and we did it for a long time. It was an area we explored and we did lots of interesting things with it, but you come to a point…If you look at Al’s and my music from Hunger Project to now, there’s an evolution. It looks like an enormous gap, but it has evolved. We like to explore different ideas and different areas of music, and that’s what we’ve been doing, really.”

Instead of listening almost exclusively to British avant-garde music, the two began mining the past for raw material, finding inspiration in early blues artists like Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Soon they were playing with the eldest Timmins, John (soon to be replaced by Peter), on drums and little sister Margo quietly singing beside them. From those early sessions the distinctive Junkies groove was perfected.

But now, three albums into their career, isn’t it time for a little more variety in mood and tempo?

“We don’t sit down and consider those types of things,” Michael argues. “We never say, ‘Okay, guys, we need a fast song so this one’s got to be fast.’ We just play. When we get in the garage” – the same garage where Whites Off Earth Now!! was recorded – “that’s when the dynamics and the groove all happen. We’ve probably played these [new] songs at all different speeds and, finally, after a year of playing them, we’ve settled into a groove.”

Is it a matter of not messing with the key ingredient to your success?

“That’s not what made us famous,” Michael asserts, ‘because we also did it on Whites Off Earth Now!! and that didn’t exactly make us famous. We used slow grooves then, even slower than now, and we carried it through The Trinity Session and now we’re still doing it. But I think we’ve changed a lot in terms of actual songs. We’ve kept the groove, but we’ve added another element, which is our songwriting. And the arrangements, too. I think the arrangements are very different.

“The way I see it,” Margo interrupts, “is when you’re on a stage and you’re making music in front of a thousand people, it’s not an intimate thing. An album is something that you go home to tonight and you put on your record player and you sit there, listening, in your living room. I approach the songs on a the album, singing-wise, for that one person listening. I want to tell a story and I’m telling it to you in the way that I see it. If it’s a sad song, then I want you to believe how sad it is. Just you.”

Michael nods in agreement. “We believe that people have 45 minutes to spare to listen to 10 slow songs. I love that. I can listen to slow songs forever, but some people just don’t like to do that sort of thing.”

“When a song is working, whether it’s fast or slow, it’s because it’s touching [the listeners] and, therefore, by touching them it’s inspiring them. That, in itself, is uplifting. Whether it’s making me feel sad or happy or whatever, it’s just the fact that it’s emoting some sort of something out of you that makes it an uplifting experience.”

And “work” is something the songs on The Caution Horses do in spades. From the opening strains of the conversational “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning” on through the chilling cinematic power of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger,” to the melancholy realism of “Where Are You Tonight,” and concluding with the plaintive Mary Margaret O’Hara composition “You Will Be Loved Again,” The Caution Horses amply illustrates how far the Junkies have come while seeming to stay in the same place.

Though the listener’s attention is rarely distracted from the soft, seductive tones of Margo’s voice, it’s the confident, but restrained, playing by the rest of the Junkies – augmented by Jeff Bird (mandolin, fiddle, harmonica), Jar Czerwinec (accordion), Kim Deschamps (pedal and lap steel guitars), who all played on The Trinity Session and have toured with the band, and newcomer David Houghton (percussion) __ that illustrates the group’s improvement. You have to remember that Margo had never sung and Peter had never played drums before becoming Junkies.

Dismiss any notion that, with Michael writing the lion’s share of the songs (there are only two covers on the new LP -- as opposed to the all-covers Whites Off and the half-covers Trinity) and Margo dominating the public profile (as a magazine covergirl and one of Esquire’s “Women We Love To Love”), perhaps the rest of the players are disposable. Michael points out, “You just have to listen to our music to know how important Al’s part is. The bass’ character is unlike any other band. Without Alan’s bass, we’re not Cowboy Junkies. And Pete, too, is beginning to play an enormous part in the actual groove and feel.”

Acknowledging the marked improvement in his playing, Peter, putting aside his peculiar bread sculpture momentarily, explains haltingly, “Over the years I’ve been able to judge myself from the three records and by listening to [tapes of] the live gigs. It’s different from being a drummer who has developed for years but has never been on stage. There are benefits…”

“…from playing every night in front of people,” Margo assists.

“I get help from roadies, from other people,” Peter continues.

“It’s not like we were brilliant musicians, either,” Alan pipes in.

“But we’ve got our certificates now,” Michael adds, nodding with mock wide-eyed innocence.

“RCA gave them to us,” Al agrees, as the others crack up.

Margo’s certificate ought to be gold-plated. Gone is the girl who could rarely open her eyes in performance, let alone communicate directly to the audience. A year in the limelight has broken her shyness and, at a recent surprise performance in Toronto, Margo spoke comfortably to the crowd between songs. Never one to take glamour too seriously (sisters Suzanne and Callie are an ex-model and soap opera actress, respectively), she sees the endless photo shoots and offers of Hollywood stardom as “a joke.”

“There are always little things like that,” she shrugs. “I mean, I’ve gotten a lot of strange offers to sing here or do that. Disney at one point wanted me to do a screen test. Doing this is full time. Cowboy Junkies isn’t going to last forever…”

“Gee,” Michael interrupts, dumbfounded. “The contract that I got…”

Giggling now, Margo continues, “You don’t know. Those things are flattery, that’s the way I look at it. All that stuff, “she adds, referring to misinforming interviews and panning reviews,” the negative and the positive, like the Esquire thing, it makes you laugh. It’s very difficult to look at that and say, ‘Yeah, that’s me. I am one of the women you love to love’. Same with the weird stuff, like I’m having an affair with Sean Penn.

“The only way to control that,” Michael offers, “is by not doing any more [interviews] and, at this point, we think that would do us more harm than good.” Wistfully, he adds, “But some day…”

Perhaps that someday will soon come but, for now, how will the Junkies combat the ennui that is bound to descent on a band that’s continued in the same basic direction for three albums?

“I think there’s already been a change in direction,” Michael protests. “If you listen to Whites Off Earth Now!! compared to this album – they’re very different. From song structures to instrumentation, they’re radically different. I don’t think there’ll be an enormous jump, like there won’t be a jump from Hunger Project to Caution Horses, but there will be between The Caution Horses and what we’ll be doing 10 years from now.

“No, there won’t be a radical change,” Michael concludes. “The only radical thing would be if we broke up and everybody went their own way.”

Does that mean someone in the band has itchy feet to get away from the rest?

“Yeah, me,” they all say in unison, before collapsing again in laughter.

Return to Main Articles Page