Music-Biz Veteran Gets Back in the Saddle

Greg Potter has seen most angles of the music business, and definitely enough to be enthused, disgusted, bored, and now, cautiously interested again. In the 1980s he performed with the sometimes rowdy, nearly big-time country-punk band Lost Durangos, then spent several years toiling as a cultural journalist for a variety of publications, including the Georgia Straight and Vancouver Sun. In 1999 he received a Western Magazine Award for feature writing and put out his first book, a critical history of Canadian music called Hand Me Down World: The Canadian Pop-Rock Paradox. After that he seemed to settle down into a quiet life of anonymous corporate writing jobs and the occasional movie review.

But this year Potter has reemerged to show us what he's really been working on. First of all there's Backstage Vancouver: A Century of Entertainment Legends (Harbour Publishing, $39.95), a new book cowritten with Red Robinson, a local entertainment legend in his own right. Then there's Downland, a songwriting partnership with Mark Fancher that has led to a self-titled CD on the pair's own record label--DLM Records--as well as the production and release of Kisses in the Whiskey: Raincoast Rhapsodies Volume One. The latter is the first album (at age 73) from renowned gritty B.C. poet and hard-living old-time logger Pete Trower, and it's a growling, jazzy, blues-drenched and strikingly affecting tavern crawl that practically scrapes its way out of the stereo.

"I stopped doing music for a long time," Potter says. "Between playing shows, the major-label fiasco with Lost Durangos, and going to gigs for years as a rock critic, I got kind of tired of it." Following a lifestyle change that involved giving up drinking six years ago ("I couldn't possibly have gotten any better at it," was his comment soon after), he gained a renewed appreciation for music and began listening with an entirely different perspective. "I discovered a lot of things I missed the first time around."

His friendship with Fancher, a graphic designer who moved to Vancouver from Toronto, started up around the same time. It turns out they had met a few years previously, although Potter didn't recall it at first. "When Mark first lived here he'd been the Zamboni driver and caretaker at Karen Magnussen Arena in North Vancouver, where the Durangos had played one very drunken evening with 54*40. Actually, I don't think 54*40 was drunk, but we certainly were."

Potter and Fancher began writing songs and recording demos together, but with an approach to the business that came from a more experienced point of view. In other words, they weren't kids any more, trying to scare up just enough for rent and Kraft Dinner. "The intention was to do music-publishing and license the songs. I'd had a couple of songs end up on movie soundtracks and that paid more than the two-and-a-half years I was in Lost Durangos. Between us, we knew how to do certain things right--and we definitely knew how to do certain things wrong--so we thought we'd just try to not do the wrong things."

Paul Baker of Bakerstreet Studios liked the demo recordings and lined up several session players to turn them into album form. "Man, they were great. We cut 10 songs in about five days. We couldn't decide if we wanted to release it or not, and then Pete Trower came to us to do his record."

Potter had long been a fan of Trower's poetry. In fact, it was his 1999 Straight article "Tough Guys" about Trower and fellow Sunshine Coast author/poet Jim Christy that won Potter his Western Magazine Award. He and Fancher enlisted local players like John "Buck Cherry" Armstrong, Darryl Havers, Butch Murphy, Taylor Nelson Little, Johnny Ferreira, and Gord Nicholl to capture Trower's raw spirit and beautifully gritty lyrics. "By the time we got Pete's album done, we realized we had two records we liked--someone else might like them too."

DLM Records put out both CDs late this summer, and Potter was surprised to get an offer for Downland to perform at Greenpeace's 35th-anniversary benefit at the Commodore in September. "I was kind of worried," he says. "It was the first time we'd played live and the first time either of us had played sober, probably since we were teenagers, plus it was a sold-out crowd. We had no intention of playing live, but the gig went so well we thought, 'This is fun.' "

Downland began performing at small coffeehouse-type venues outside of Vancouver, and will appear (tentatively on a double bill with Trower) at the Railway Club on December 14. Potter says the change to quieter music in an intimate setting makes performing a lot more fun than it used to be. "Some of those old shows were great--playing with X and the Blasters was fantastic--but playing for 35 people that are there because they're actually into it is a lot better than playing for 300 people who are just getting drunk. I should have learned to sing properly years ago, I guess. I took some lessons."