Like their native Canada, The Cowboy Junkies' music is quiet, sparsely populated and ferociously mellow. Now three albums old, the group's turn-it-down approach is beginning to warm even the coldest of hearts. "You spend a lot of time here thinking, I'm definitely not going out today," they tell Robert Sandall.There is something about 547 Crawford Street with its beer crate-strewn hallway, ashtray-scented kitchen (replete with moist, green furry organisms in the unlikeliest of places) and ill-conceived interior decor which repeatedly brings to mind the term "student". It makes it an unlikely sort of launch pad for Toronto's whisperingly restrained, delicately nuanced country blues quartet, The Cowboy Junkies. But this is where The Cowboy Junkies formed in 1985 and where they recorded their first album, Whites Off Earth Now!! the following year - using one microphone and utilising the kitchen of Number 547 as the control room. And it was here too that they learned to invert every known precept about rock presentation, evolving instead an introverted style which, to this day, relies chiefly upon stillness and chronic reticence; an attitude - with a very small 'a' indeed - which finds them seated usually and completely silent in the passages when they aren't being extremely quiet. "It was so stripped down, natural and sincere sounding when we first did it," the Junkies leader Michael Timmins explains from behind his natural and sincere-looking fringe. "It wasn't a case of us saying, Let's play something nobody else is doing, it was just four people sitting down playing their music. And at the time we weren't hearing that anywhere else.
Though you would hardly guess it from the noise - or lack of it - they make now, The Cowboy Junkies are true, if indirect, heirs of punk rock. It was the DIY ethic of the British New Wave which first inspired Michael Timmins (guitar) and his childhood chum Alan Anton (bass) to form a band, called Hunger Project, in 1979. They took their musical cues from The Velvet Underground and Siouxsie And The Banshees and duly auditioned for a female vocalist. One of Michael's three younger sisters, Margo Timmins, applied for the job and was turned down. "I wasn't very disappointed when they said no," the Junkies' pre-Raphaelite-looking front person observes, in a voice even softer than the one she sings in. "I didn't have the style or attitude."
Toronto being a far sleepier town then than it is today, Hunger Project decided to re-locate to where they thought the action was - New York first, and after that, in 1981, London. Unfortunately they were too late. "The scene had died in the clubs by then," Timmins recalls. "It was all Haircut 100 and ABC. I just became disillusioned with pop music of any sort." He made his dissatisfaction more widely felt by forming, with Anton, an "experimental" noise band, Germinal. A totally improvised, vocalless racket, Germinal's music was, Timmins now concedes, "quite obnoxious to anybody not actually playing it". Back in Toronto, sister MArgo listened to the tapes and concluded that "Michael was having a nervous breakdown." Nobody else, however, took this much interest in the project and after a spell working in the Record & Tape Exchange at Notting Hill ("probably bought some records off ya") Timmins gave up on Germinal and at the end of 1984 he and Anton went home.
By now his loathing of smooth and synthesised pop-rock music had led Timmins into exploring the archive. He listened to early blues legends, in particular Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and his personal guitar hero Lightnin' Hopkins. "It wasn't so much the blues structures I like, it was the blues attitude. So simple and direct." Adapting the anybody-can-do-it lessons of punk to the informal style of the older music, he invited his younger brother Peter round to Crawford Street to learn how to play drums and enlisted his elder brother John to help out on guitar. Margo - an unashamedly little-sisterish character who by this time "was listening to what Michael was listening to, which I've done all my life" - passed here second audition as a vocalist and despite feeling "really, really nervous", duly joined her first,a nd so far only, group. With Anton back on bass, that was about as many bodies as the garage at Number 547 could accommodate.
"We were a lot louder in the beginning than we are now," says
Michael, sipping reflectively form a mug of mood-stabilising mineral water.
"We had some floaty stuff but we had some fairly raucous tunes too.
The big change came when my brother John moved to Montreal and we suddenly
realised that all the space that opened up was really cool. That enabled
Margo to sing quieter and meant we could all really hear the sound of
Even Margo, who experienced acute onstage anxieties - "just staring into that black void and wondering, What am I doing here?" - noticed the strange effect the Junkies' music was having. "People would often lie down on the dancefloor of these smelly clubs, I think because they were trying to get close. It was like there was this bubble surrounding them and us. And then outside it, there was the bar."
After a few months of tip-toeing through the club gigs of Canada, The
Cowboy Junkies decided to make an album. "We were very wary of
recording studios," Michael says, "and not just because we
couldn't afford their rates. We didn't want any of those studio effects.
What we heard in the garage was what we wanted to go on the record.
The basic idea was if you came to our rehearsal space and sat in on
us, that's what you'd hear. Kind of like an early jazz recording."
And with the help of an engineer friend, Peter Moore, and his wonderful
new Calrec Ambisonic Microphone, that's the way it was. Recorded in
six hours from one mic straight on to digital two-track tape, the arrestingly
titled Whites Off Earth Now!! ("it's a dig at ourselves as four
more white kids playing the blues") appeared on the band's own
Latent label in the summer of '86.
A year down the road from Whites though, the Junkies really hit their stride. Using the same basic recording technique and timespan but, at Peter Moore's suggestion, a new venue - Toronto's Church Of the Holy Trinity - they spent $250 on an album which has since gone on to sell over a million copies worldwide. IT covered similar blues and country ground as their debut but, by relying more on original Michael/Margo material and less on erratically phrased electric guitar solos, The Trinity Sessions seemed to lead a shimmeringly cool life of its own. After quickly shipping 5,000 units in Canada on Latent, the album attracted major A&R interest from Britain and the US> Most of the summer of '88 was spent arranging showcase gigs for visiting chequebooks and by the autumn The Cowboy Junkies were signed to RCA, on the strict understanding, as Michael explains, that "they don't have to invest a whole lot of money in us but we want a lot in terms of what we do with our music."
The eventual scale of the success of The Trinity Sessions - re-released with international distribution at the end of '88 - was largely down to the MTV-friendly nature of one track, the band's five mph cover version of Lou Reed's oft-copied Sweet Jane. Endorsed by its author as "the best and most authentic version I've ever heard", it earned the Junkies an audience with the awkward old goat himself. "Lou was real friendly. The first thing he said was, Fire your manager, don't trust your record company and don't talk to journalists. When we saw him doing a show in Paris he held on the bridge in the song which we put back in (for the Velvets' original) and said, I'd like to thank The Cowboy Junkies for this."
Putting out the same album twice in one year forced the band into a
gruelling 18 months on the road across America, Europe and Japan, form
Spring '88 until the end of '89. "We'll never do that again,"
Michael remarks warmly, "but it tightened us up a lot. Our road
crew went nuts laughing at us because they'd just come off some heavy
metal tour and there we'd be in the van reading books, Margo doing her
needlepoint. After the show we'd go to bed. None of us has a drug habit
or drinks heavily. We get on real well because it's hard to develop
star egos when your brothers and sister are around. I guess we must
be very boring"
"He's a twisted kinda guy," Margo giggles, girlishly. "I'd
never listened to country music until Michael started when we toured
down South, but I love it now, because in country music there are so
many beautiful female voices which sound really different. Plus the
voice plays a bigger role in country than in rock. You're telling a
story rather than just making a noise."
Slightly more difficult to control were the four session players they brought in to provide the country-ish fiddle, pedal steel and other instrumental textures. "Those guys could easily keep going through the whole song, but we wanted to make sure that nobody was playing just for the sake of playing. We had to impress them with our less-is-more philosophy. The running joke on the Horses tour was, Who stood around most each night? The slogan was When In Doubt, Don't."
The next album - which the Junkies would have all been rehearsing today
if a violent snow-storm hadn't turned travelling around Toronto into
a fender-bending nightmare - will be different again. Margo, who has
been taking voice control classes, promises to sing more loudly. They've
done quiteness and country for the time being. The only constant element,
they say, will be that sparse and spacious signature, their sound.
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