The Ugly Bug Band has always been a side band. It's functioned as a pressure-free way to explore different ideas and approaches to music. It's also been a valuable way for me to get my songs out of the basement. I've tended to do all the songwriting, but the arrangements have always been a bit more collaborative.
The band got together in 1993, I think. I had a bunch of songs I'd written, and my friend Bob had just set up his home studio and offered to record me if I put a band together. I had been in a band called Phoenix Park (horrible, horrible band, and it's all my fault) with Joan Rusza and had loved her singing, so she was a natural to call. Mike Rosenthal was the drummer in Antimatter, who I was playing with at the time. John Laldin was a buddy of Mike's. So we rehearsed a few times and did the recording. Then we played a few times and it was fun but nothing out of this world. Then we broke up.
This first incarnation of the band, I guess you could call it quirky pop. The songs were hooky, but ultra simple. The playing was really hyper and fairly fast - caffeinated might be a good way to put it. The lyrics were sort of kindergarten Modernism. I was really into the possibility of merging the clarity of pop with esoteric allegory and tempering the mixture with irony used in a liberatory fashion. That sounds pretty cool, but the actuality fell far short of the theory.
The band reformed a bit later, with another singer - Joan preferred to sing harmony. So we found Perstephone through an ad in NOW. We recorded another bunch of songs at Signal to Noise, where Antimatter was in the process of recording its evil opus, Afterthought. John left the band immediately after the recording, so we recruited Mark Watts and played some shows.
This band was still playing the quirky pop, but it was much better quirky pop. I'd grown up a bit as a songwriter, and definitely gotten better as a player. Plus Mike and I had gotten a lot tighter together, thanks to Antimatter, and the songs had a lot better guitar parts than previously. So instrumentally, I can proudly say that we rocked. The melodies were better than before, always at least solid and occasionally inspired. The lyrics continued to be hit or miss. I was really into cookie-cutter, stop-on-a-dime type pop at the time: songs didn't move from one part to another as much as they would just change abruptly. It's a strategy that works better live than on record. However, I do think that the instrumental tracks are tight and very together, and manage to get a big, full sound out of just the three instruments. We were a good band.
The next version of the band didn't play live. Mike had opted out, so I drafted Anthony, who I had played with in Anodyne Necklace. By this point I felt like I had taken cleverness and quirky pop as far as I cared to, and consequently the four tunes that we recorded are straight ahead rockers - lots of chunky barre chords and "wo-oh" backup vocals. The lyrics are still too cutely clever by half, but I had found the right track: I was trying now to encapsulate moments, rather than conduct self-conscious experiments with the pop form. This ep is nothing special, but it's good solid entertainment, fun and down to earth. And Mark managed to get a glorious distortopop sound out of his gear - really, I could listen to his tone forever.
After that, there was a fairly long layoff. The Lowest of the Low broke up and Ron Hawkins, their lead singer, asked me to play with him on his solo album and then with the Leisure Demons and the Rusty Nails, and I was busier musically than I had ever been in my life. Also, I was busy learning. I don't know how conscious of it we were, but one of the things that the Demons were about was a reinvention of roots. We sounded nothing like a roots band in the usual sense of the word, but there was something about the feel of the band that definitely connected us to much earlier, earthier styles of music. It was paradoxical: on the one hand what we were doing really felt rootsy, but on the other hand our actual roots were in the early punk and hardcore scenes, if anywhere. Consequently, our roots music was dirty and sloppy and painfully loud, but it did have that earthy feel that you always get when people, of whatever background, are playing music that feels natural to them.
At any rate, the experience of playing in the Demons, and trying to figure out what the Demons approach meant to me and the ways in which it could be valid, had a huge impact on the Bug Band. Not in the sense that the Bug Band started to sound anything like the Demons, although we did recycle a few of their songs. But rather in the sense that finding roots, finding validity, became very important to me. I had already been going towards a simpler, more real sound with the last ep. With the next recording session I wanted to do several things, which have remained as goals of all the subsequent Bug stuff.
First of all, I wanted to get quieter. I wanted more intimacy in the sound - I wanted to hear how things sounded when they weren't hidden by volume and the way volume changes music. Also, since for me the most interesting music usually comes out of rehearsals and jam sessions, I wanted to capture that feel. Accordingly, we only rehearsed once or twice before recording - just enough for people to get some idea of the songs. Finally, I really wanted to make the record sound like it reflected a community, so I brought in a whole bunch of people, all of whom had played with some of the other people, but none of whom had played with all of them.
In order for this to work, the songs had to be strong. There was no place for quirkiness in them: they had to have really sturdy structures, so that they could be convincingly essayed by people who didn't know them that well. My ineptitude on guitar actually helped in this regard: tunes had to be simple enough that I could play them competently, which meant they had to be simple indeed.
Overall, I am thoroughly pleased with the result. Everybody got into the spirit of the affair and played sensitively and well, I like all the tunes and most of the lyrics, and - to me at least - it feels like a party.
That band never played live.
The next Bug band did play live, but never recorded. In some ways it continued in the same direction as the last version: the songs were quiet and simple, the lyrics were down to earth. But in other ways it was totally different. Dean played like a show-band drummer: more concerned with gently supporting the melody and establishing moods than in laying down a definite groove. Bob was happy to just suggest chords, to float and to chime. I was playing bass again, but more simply than ever before. And all this came together as a backdrop for Joan's silky vocals. It could have been completely gorgeous, but we were all too busy and could never find the time to get together. The fact that we never recorded is still a big regret of mine.
After all that gentleness, I was in the mood for some noise. Not volume necessarily, but noise. Electric guitar noise. I was also into taking the next step in downsizing the band. Mike had already been downgraded from sticks to brushes: it was time to do something about his drum kit. Out went the rack toms, out went the bass drum, in came a suitcase with a kick pedal hooked up to it. I was playing a cheap guitar through an amp that was actually built into its case. I called in Dave MacKinnon to make nasty, cheap guitar sounds, and away we went. Just the two guitars and drums. The goal was to be raw, spontaneous, and electric - like Deja Voodoo or very early John Lee Hooker. The concept was great, the performance was not. I still think those recordings could be salvageable, but it would take some studio work. And that seems contrary to the whole idea. In retrospect, that version of the Bug band was more of a detour: the insanely distorted guitar meets the punchy little duo. It was an attempt to move a bit closer to rock territory, or rather to reclaim and reinvent some aspects of rock. No gigs.
The next Bug Band was formed because Joan was too busy. She went back to school, had no time for music. At the time, I just didn't want anyone but her to sing Bug songs. So the obvious idea was to do instrumentals. And as I was still entranced with the ideas of raggedness, spontaneity, and general garagey feel, I put together the Dixie version of the Bug Band. A trombone played by a keyboard player, a clarinet played by an avant-garde classical composer, a cheap guitar and an ever smaller drum kit. Five instrumental tunes, with as few chords as possible, plus one tune that Joan took time out from school to sing. Recorded amazingly quickly in my living room. Sometimes I listen to it and hate it. Other times I think it's the purest thing the band has ever done. It's definitely got feel. Tons of feel. It lacks a lot of the other things you expect from music, but it does have feel. As my friend Braz said, "I don't know if anyone else got it - but I got it." And this is from a man with damn good taste.
That band unfortunately dissolved when the trombone player moved to Montreal and the clarinet player was forced to realize that being a father of two, manager of a movie theatre and a composer left precious little time to make caveman music. So it was down to Mike and me. But I kept writing songs, and I'd even started playing the accordion. There was no way the flow could just be turned off. What to do?
Simple. I called up Mark Watts and asked if he would be interested in rejoining us. And he was. And at the same time my wife, Wendy, quit a job that she hated, and the relief liberated all kinds of dormant artistic energy, and she started playing the trumpet again. So the band existed again.
What was the band to play, though? Well, part of the point of the preceding few years' work was to get to the core of what music meant to me, stripped of all the artificial accretions: to find out what my folk music was, to find the music that was natural for me to play. Of course, this being the kind of world it is, the natural thing takes years to learn to do. But that's another point.
What matters is that we did it. With the Dixie Bug recording, I think we finally managed to make music that, whatever its flaws, was pure. Pure what, that's another question. But pure. We'd finally grown our roots, and now it was time to move on if we didn't want to get stuck fetishizing our new history. We came out of the basement, started play live again to extremely small groups of people. The Dixie Bug recording had been done in my garage: now we moved to Dave's garage and recorded Big Bug Eyes - same energy and feel as the Dixie Bug stuff, but better: we were a lot tighter as a band and there was all kinds of interesting stuff happening all over the place. Some technical problems, but no problems with the feeling.
Then Mark left, and Wendy left, and Dave and Joan came back, and we recorded Monkeyshines, another step in the same direction as Big Bug Eyes, but even better, tossing generous amounts of pop into the garage jug band sound that we'd learned how to make. The record is kind of all over the map - it was a matter of going through all the odds and ends of the past few years' worth of recordings at Dave's, primarily just drum and rhythm guitar tracks, and then adding bass and lead guitar and vocals and occasionally keyboards, all of them played by whoever was around and felt inspired. By that point in his career Dave had become a guitar ultraminimalist ("I don't do chord changes"), so I ended up playing a lot of the lead guitar, as well as rhythm and bass. Too bad. You can definitely hear the ramshackle nature of the project when you listen to the album, but you can also hear how much fun it was to make.
With Monkeyshines completed, that Bugband, the loosest of them all, scattered to the four winds, and I finished up my MA in Québec. When I got back to Toronto, I realized that a city suffering under Harris, Eves, and Lastman desperately needed a new Bugband. But Mike, our faithful drummer, was ... well, he was off being unfaithful with superGARAGE and had no time. Joan had no time. Dave had no time. All the old stalwarts were busy. Time to reconstruct.First came Keith, and he and I set out to become a rembetika (Greek folk/pop music from the 20s, 30s and 40s) duo, clarinet and guitar. Then we added Mike, whom I was playing with in Melvin, to strum the guitar and I switched to bass. I hoped that he would sing, too, but he refused, so I was stuck with it. Then Wendy rejoined, adding her pop-via-Mexico trumpet harmonies to our little group, which by now had mostly left the Greek music behind and was playing Bugtunes. Then Scott, recommended by Keith, joined our happy family, and we even did some gigging, but realized that we sorely needed a drummer. One add in NOW magazine later, we had Conny, whose work in the rhythm section of Random Order I used to love, back in the day. The latest incarnation was complete, as was the latest sound, which is by far the most lush, smooth version to date - except, of course, for the lead vocals. Conny and Mike and I focus on keeping the tunes flowing along, and then Keith and Wendy and Scott layer ragged-but-right sweetness over top. Lots of fun.
So far, we've recorded two demos (which you can download from this site) and done a bunch of interesting shows, mostly in Parkdale - in fact, we've done more live gigs in the past few months than most of the preceding bugbands put together, and plan to do more, as well as recording a new album this winter. Maybe we'll see you at the shows.
I stole it from Daniel Pinkwater. He's written a whole bunch of children's and young adults' novels, and he mentions a band called the Ugly Bug Band in two of them. He's one of my favourite authors in the world, and I haven't dared ask him for permission to use the name because it would be far too crushing if he said no. His best books are probably The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Doom, Lizard Music, and Borgel. Check him out.
The above is no longer true. I finally got the guts to email him and asked for permission to use the name, now that the band is getting active. And he actually wrote back the same day and said, "Go ahead and use it. I hope it brings you luck." WOW! So we are legit.