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coverpic flag Canada - Full Moon 56 - 05/07/01

Cowboy Junkies
The Timmins' talking

"Open" up to new sounds

Sometimes a band becomes an instant favorite of yours. Maybe you just hear them once, and you're instantly hooked, go out and buy their records the next day, follow them on tour (if you got the time and money, that is), and tell your friends how much their music means to you. More often than not, favorite bands like that leave you as suddenly as they emerged. And then there are bands that you would never even think of in categories like "favorite band" - you wouldn't wear a shirt with their name on it, you wouldn't tell your friends about them, you wouldn't put their poster on your wall, but they just never leave you, they just stick with you for years.

Canada's Cowboy Junkies are a band that most certainly fits the ladder description. The first time I heard about them was in 1988 via the now defunct Italian cable TV station "Super Channel" which had the videos for Misguided Angel and the awesome version of The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane on heavy rotation. I loved the songs, but I was too busy soaking up the tiniest bit of gossip about - yeah, I admit it - U2 and The Cure to even consider the Cowboy Junkies as a contender for the "favorite band" category in my own little universe. Now, 13 years later, I don't listen to U2 at all anymore and I put on Cure records mostly for sentimental reasons about once a year. The Cowboy Junkies still do time on my turntable every other week though and while their early masterpiece The Trinity Session is still my favorite, the band managed to grow and with each record explore new facets of a recurring theme. They introduced (not only me) to Townes Van Zandt (via their Black Eyed Man album), opened the doors for gazillions of slow-core bands and even managed to cross over to the pop market with their glorious 1996 album Lay It Down. After they got dropped by their (major label) in 1998, they released two "archive records" on Latent Recordings, their own label which also had put out their first two - subsequently re-issued - records in the mid 80s. Open is the name of their first album of all new material in three years and it shows that the Cowboy Junkies are still willing and able to surprise us. Gone is the pop appeal of the previous albums, which made way for more sound experiments and the long promised "rock" album, which should clear the band once and for all of the "quietest band ever" tag. In early April singer Margo Timmins and her songwriting/guitarplaying brother Michael visited Europe on a little promotion tour (you can check out their diary on the band's excellent homepage.) and after a long day in Gothenburg, Sweden, I met up with them for a late evening interview at the Radisson hotel in Hamburg, Germany.

Luna Kafé: What's it like to be in the Cowboy Junkies in the year 2001?
Margo: It's a lot like being in the band in 1988, except that we're a little older (laughs). I haven't thought about it, but I'd say it's the same.... we're just stronger as a band.

Luna Kafé: This is also the first non-major label album of all-new material that you did since, well, 1988! Did being independent again make a difference?
Margo: Yeah, it did. It made a huge difference. Well, it did and it didn't. When we record music, we never really consider whether we are on a label or not, because we've always been very lucky with our labels. They stayed away and let us do our music the way we wanted it to be and they didn't interfere. What has made a difference is, when you finish the record and you hand it over to the record company, that's where all the headaches start. This time, we didn't have these headaches and that's been nice. We're happier as a band now because we have less frustrations than we used to have. We're in a healther place now than we were a couple of years ago.

Luna Kafé: So what did your former label Geffen do?
Margo: It was mostly marketing and that sort of thing. They wouldn't basically do their job and give us some attention and that has been very frustrating. If you work on a record for a year and you put on a lot of time and effort, it's a labour of love and then you give it to somebody and they don't pay too much attention to it and you have no control, you just get angry. The good thing about the new record is, we still own it at the end of the day. If the labels we work with now don't do what they are supposed to, at least we get the record back and put it out again or do something with it. The frustrating thing with all the other albums is, we don't own them and we never will. That's the hardest part. We gave them away and now they are owned by people who don't care. I care! I want them back! (laughs). And also the deals with the various labels now are short, just for this one record. And they are fair. If they don't work, we don't lose much.

Luna Kafé: Without wanting to spend too much time discussing the non-musical side of things, does this new situation where you have various deals around the globe with smaller record companies like Cooking Vinyl also mean you will have to work harder on promotion etc and are more in charge? Things you rather would not care about?
Michael: Ideally it would be great if you'd not have to think about business at all, but the reality - especially at the beginning of this new century - is, if you're in the music industry, you better pay attention to business, otherwise you get lost. We've learned a lot in the 15 years since we started and especially in the last 10. For a while we didn't take care of business and we probably should have, but we couldn't at that point, because we had to focus so hard on the music. Now the band flows a lot easier musically, we're a lot more comfortable together, touring is a lot easier and there's just not as much stress on that end of things, so we have more time to get involved with the business side of things. It's great to still have that kind of command and control after being around for such a long time.

Luna Kafé: So being in charge helped you to carry on after getting dropped?
Michael: I've always wondered: 'How do bands break up?' I always knew that bands broke up on the road, because that's hard and I've experienced that, and they also break up because of the obvious reasons, one guy is a jerk, you know, personality differences, but now I'm sure they also break up because they don't have command of their business. We probably would have broken up in that situation as well, because you get dropped and you think: 'So now, what do we do? How do you make a record?' We knew how to do all that stuff [because that's how the band started in the mid 80s], whereas a lot of other bands are controlled by their label or manager. And if one of them or both leave, they are clueless. They still know how to be a band, how to make music, but they don't know how to tour on their own or make a record by themselves. There's also a big difference between the executives in a major company and the excutives in an independent. The independent guy is usually working hard just to make a living, just like we are, the major executive, there's one wealthy guy. Even if he gets fired tomorrow, he still leaves with a huge check in his hands. If the independent guy doesn't do his job, the company goes down the toilet and he's out of work. It's easier to communicate with someone like that, because he wants to succeed with your record as much as you do. For an independent we're a decent sized band as far as selling records is concerned. A major is selling millions and millions of records and even though we sell 500 000, that's still meaningless to Universal [their former label Geffen's parent company), that's like lunch to them.
Margo: The definition of success is just different. An independent will get excited about smaller things - and we do too! In the transition period after the Geffen deal we very quickly put together a tour and that was really crazy to do and we had to work really hard on it, but we put it together and it was a great tour, it was a lot of fun and we made a lot of money and we proved to ourselves that we can do it on our own. We knew, regardless of what happens, we can at least do it ourselves and it's gonna be okay.That gave me a lot of confidence.

Luna Kafé: Do you think "Open" would've sounded the same if you hadn't been dropped?
Michael: No, because it would have been different circumstances. We recorded this album very leisurely, we would write a couple of songs, go out on tour a couple of weeks, come back and record - there was no real aim to it. If we would have been still in the same cycle that we've been in with Geffen and RCA... it was: write an album, record it, go tour, write an album, record it, go tour... getting out of the Geffen contract meant that this cycle was broken. If this album would have been part of that, I'm sure it would have been a very different sounding record.

Luna Kafé: The atmospheric side has always been part of your music, but it seems to be more important on the new album than on the last few, who seemed to be more pop oriented and polished.
Michael: This record was recorded very live, we just had the six or seven-piece band that we had on tour in the studio and we just played, there was no layering or tracking and very few overdubs. Even most of the vocals were live. That's the dynamics of the band playing together and that really leads the atmospherics.

Luna Kafé: So I suppose that's very similar to what you did for your first two albums in the 80s...
Michael: Exactly. It was a very, very similar approach. We toured a lot and when we did Whites Off... and Trinity Session we knew those songs very well, we had played them live many times and we knew how we wanted them to sound, so yeah, it was very similar.

Luna Kafé: Your career is coming full circle then?
Michael (laughing out loud): Let's hope!

Luna Kafé: Since you've been around for quite a while now - do you have an idea when people first heard about you? Is it still mostly people who got into Trinity Session?
Michael: There are still a lot of those around for sure, but we're always kinda shocked what record brought people into the band, especially since our website has allowed us a lot more to be in direct contact with fans. There are a lot of people who first heard about us when Pale Sun Crescent Moon came out, and that's interesting because in the context of our other records it didn't do that well. It did okay, but definitely not compared to Trinity... or even Black Eyed Man. Lay It Down did really well, but not a lot of people mention that, but it's one of my favorite records.
Margo: After every show I go out and talk to everybody and we get a lot of people who are in university now and they say: 'When we were kids our PARENTS used to play your records all the time'. Hmmmm (laughs).

Luna Kafé: So is that good or bad?
Michael: Both! It's all part of the psycho therapy!

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