Red Herring: A View from the Id

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      I haven’t been to many New Year’s Eve house parties, but the best ever was at the end of 2015, when Red Herring rang in the New Year at Id Guinness and Susan Smith’s place in New West. The band—at that point consisting of original members Enrico Renz, Stephen Nikleva, Martin Walton and Steve Lazin—had a numbered list of the 50+ tunes in their repertoire which allowed audience members to request songs without realizing what they were. One of the numbers I called out—six?—turned out to be “The Monkey Song", a bleakly funny and unspeakably sad narrative told from the point of view of a lab animal, remembering his days in the forest and trying to embrace his fate, trusting that the humans around him are putting him to good use. It’s vaguely reminiscent of their other first person (or should it be “first animal?”) songs, “The Crab Song", which has a crab about to be boiled alive mistakenly believing that the water awaiting him is his element, and something to be trusted, because, you know, God is a crustacean, and looking out for him.

      Red Herring has a kind of unusual approach to their songcraft, you might gather.

      Even more movingly, Animal Slaves vocalist Elizabeth Fischer—who had recently gone to Switzerland for assisted suicide, then not yet legalized in Canada—was present in spirit, represented by a pair of her army boots, which Susan Smith had bought from Fischer at a garage sale years ago. They were placed on a ledge overlooking the band. Guitarist Nikleva, who also plays these days with Petunia and the Vipers and the Rocket Revellers, had been a member of a past Animal Slaves incarnation, and the band shared a leftist art-punk affinity with the MoDaMu scene of early 1980’s Vancouver. Fischer had been one of the familiar faces present at Red Herring’s first reunion gig back in 2013, which was perhaps the second-to-last time I saw her, the last being coming out of a Nikleva solo show with the Straight’s Alex Varty earlier in 2015.   

      “It would have felt wrong without her being present in some way,” Id explained that evening in his kitchen, during one of the band’s breaks. Id and Susan were personable hosts, and the audience—mostly friends (or friends of friends) of the band was relaxed, attentive, polite, and, by the time midnight rolled around, uniformly pretty tipsy.

      There’s not much likelihood that the new, expanded lineup of Red Herring—featuring Guinness as a permanent  member, and backup vocalist Tania Gosgnach—will repeat the event this year (“We can’t fit in the living room anymore!” Guinness jokes) but Red Herring will be playing at the Princeton on Friday (November 30).  They’re working on a follow-up to their (superb) 1985 EP, Taste Tests, which spawned one of the Vancouver scene’s more memorable rock videos; it will be on sale that night, no doubt, along with Nikleva’s Roma/surf/lounge exotica showcase Square Moon and a more recent addition to the Red Herring merch table: a new solo LP by Id Guinness, 2018's Lost Language. With that album having come out only a few months previous, I took the opportunity to ask Guinness a few questions about the upcoming event, his history with Red Herring, and his solo album.  

      So about your name—I've always liked it and wondered about it, if "Id" was short for something, if it was your birth name, or if it was some sort of punk handle? 

      I began using it in the early '80s when the last of the bands I’d been in broke up and a started dabbling in solo recording projects. I partially nicked it from A Clockwork Orange. There’s a scene where Alex is flipping through the vinyl in a record store and one of the discs is by Id Molotov.

      Are you a native of the Vancouver scene? What bands or projects were you involved in at the time? Did you have any involvement with MoDaMu bands? (Michael Turner has remarked that that was a very interesting scene, the history of which has yet to be properly documented, so if you were and have memories or stories to tell, please go for it...)

      Born and raised in East Van. In the late '70s, I got involved with some musicians in North Van and we recorded a couple of indie albums there at the original Ocean Sound studios. One was a sort of folk/mellow rock/prog influenced set by songwriter Donn Tarris, who was an engineer there. This morphed into a more proggy band called Arrival. The other one was by a Byrds/CSNY sort of group called Airborne. Interestingly, both of those albums were re-released a few years ago by a Korean label that specialized in '70s West Coast mellow gold. 

      A little later I was in a new wave/power pop band called the Wet. We put out a pretty cool EP that got played on the radio quite a bit thanks to our manager who had been a DJ at several big stations. Our engineer recently restored the tapes and sent the surviving members rough mixes of it along with a couple of other tunes we had recorded later. I’m actually quite proud of it. To try to re-release it will be a legal mess, but I hope it can happen. It’s a cool little artifact. 

      As for MoDaMu, I followed most of those bands but was never part of that circle. Later, in late '84, after the label folded, I was one of the coordinators of the Open Your Heart Vancouver Ethiopian famine relief benefit album. 54-40 and Bolero Lava both contributed tracks to the album and played at the benefit concerts. 

      What is your backstory with Red Herring? How did you meet the guys? Enrico (as far as I know) plays keyboards, so why did you end up playing keys on "Love Machine" and "If You Work for Me?" (You look to be maybe a bit younger than the rest of Red Herring, so how old were you then? Were you friends with the band before you were a member?). 

      Enrico and I are roughly the same vintage and Tania is barely out of her teens, I believe. I would have been in my mid-twenties when Taste Tests was recorded.

      I got the gig through the late Ken Spence, who produced the EP. I’d met Ken a year earlier and he’d hired me to play keys on a bunch of demos and indie albums. Enrico is a much better keyboard player than I am, but I do have a knack for coming up with hooks on the spot and that got me a fair bit of session work for a few years. It may be that Ken wanted me to try and make those tracks a bit more radio-friendly. 

      Any (other) favourite bands or gig stories from the 1980'? Formative concerts?

      Opening for Tom Petty at the Commodore was definitely an interesting night. k.d. lang singing my song on the benefit album (Open Your Heart) was a thrill as was recording and playing a couple of gigs with Randy Bachman. Accidentally being in the Hong Kong Café in L.A. when they were filming The Decline of Western Civilization is a vivid memory. It’s all long ago and far away now, but these kinds of moments still make me smile and want to make music.

      Did you ever play with Red Herring live in the 1980s? Did you attend the Shindig! that they won? Again—if you have memories or stories...

      No. I missed it all, unfortunately. I only met a couple of them at the recording session I played on. I think it was just Martin and Stephen there, but no one remembers anymore. They remember the studio, but I don’t. 

      "If You Work for Me" (and Nomeansno's demo of "Self-Pity") are my two favourite tracks from the Undergrowth compilation cassette. Any insider stories of that cassette, favourite songs on it? Do you have a copy? By the way, re: "If You Work for Me", what dayjob were you doing when that song first came out?

      I honestly only discovered the tape recently. I think you can still stream it from CITR’s website. [Allan here. I  an’t find the link but the whole double cassette is on Youtube. I can’t find Red Herring but that demo version of Nomeansno’s “Self-Pity” is around the hour and twenty minute mark!]

      When Taste Tests was released, I was working overnight shifts in a group home. If there was no drama going on with the residents, I could catch three or four hours sleep. During the days I was usually in a recording studio or pre-programming parts at home. 

      Taste Tests (and other "first time around" Red Herring tunes like the ones on the Shindig! album, “Tone of Voice” and “Brain Song”) seem like they’re pure "new wave/punk”, with obvious touchstones in early Talking Heads (or maybe Bowie's "Fame", which seems to inform "Love Machine" a bit). Was that what you were listening to then? What were you playing? 

      David Bowie has always, always been my muse, but I’m pretty sure Ken Spence came up with that horn line in “Love Machine”. He had been a sax player in Nina Hagen’s band in Holland prior to moving to Vancouver. 

      What was I listening to then? Talking Heads, Devo, Art of Noise, Shriekback, Gang of Four, Pere Ubu, Thomas Dolby, The Clash, Iggy and Lou. Everything I could, really. By ‘85, it was all kind of done, but that ‘78 to ‘83-84 period was pretty rich. 

      Was the term "new wave" sort of disrespectful back then? (I remember it having a bit of a pejorative sense to punk bands back in the day—cf. DOA's "New Wave Sucks" follow up to "Disco Sucks")—but it seems to have lost that aspect.)

      I loved punk and had a pretty decent vinyl collection but being a keyboard player, I really had nothing to contribute so I gravitated more to the new wave and power pop scene. It wasn’t always safe to associate with it or dress the part. The punks were peaceful enough, but they would snicker and mock. The East Van metal heads would hurt you, though. 

      At least in terms of genre influences, the band's approach to songwriting seems to have expanded a lot since back then, incorporating a lot more world-music—especially Roma and Latin—and folk influences. They seem less a band from mid-'80s Vancouver and more a holdout from the 1960s, in fact. Has working with them/being around them changed in other respects? How much freedom are you given to improvise on keys? 

      Enrico once told me that I "bring the sugar". They’re very tactful in letting me know when I need to dial it down a notch or two—which is almost always. I’m learning. As far as changes to their sound and writing, they’ve clearly all explored a wide variety of genres over the years. Most people know Enrico and Stephen’s work, but the rest of them are great songwriters as well. Martin regularly sends us batches of new tunes he’s recorded at home. Steve Lazin put out an excellent album of Middle Eastern influenced music and seems to be cooking up something new. Tania is a classically trained pianist who also writes wonderful songs and sings like a badass Annie Lennox. I feel very lucky to be in the middle of it. 

      How did you find out that Red Herring would be working together again? Were you in the loop from the start? How about Tania?

      We just saw a listing in the Straight for that first gig at the Prophouse on Venables. There were maybe 25 people there at the most, but it was definitely a happening. I thought Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol could materialize at any moment. They were so great, and we started following them. Every gig was better than the last and they became my favourite band in the world. [I still hadn’t met them and being an introvert, wouldn’t approach them.] At one of their Railway Club gigs, a friend pointed me out to Enrico and mentioned that I was that guy that played on their record. So that was the beginning of it (...and I slowly got to know them all). I invited Enrico to demo some of his songs at my place and eventually he convinced me to come out and do a gig with them. 

      Tania was singing with them for a while before I got involved. Nothing is formalized, and I still don’t know how decisions are actually made in this band. It seems like one of us will make a suggestion and if there is no opposition, it goes ahead. My mission is to get their magical, quirky songs recorded and released.

      What's the band's process to recording? If you're at liberty to say, how close are you to a new album? 

      We recorded 14 or 15 bed tracks at Enrico’s house, and then did most of the overdubs at my place. Some of them we’ve figured we can do better now, so we’ve decided to release a six or seven song EP for now. Craig Burner, who does our live sound is mixing it and doing some last-minute tracking and repair work. Our day jobs have drawn the process out, unfortunately. 

      Let’s talk a bit about your new solo album, Lost Language. You have put out solo albums before, as I recall…?

      This is my third solo album. The first (Cure for the Common Crush) came out in 2007 and was followed up by Soul Envy in 2010.

      The letters on the cover of Lost Language, what are they? (Great cover art by the way). 

      Ah, the artwork is courtesy of my beloved Susana. The font is Wingdings 3, and the characters spell "Lost Language".

      The title and the alphabet make me think of First Nations themes, and there seems to be a theme of loss and/or displacement to some of the songs ("On the Frontier of Beauty" for example). Where did that song come from? Are there particular losses you were think of? Is there an overarching narrative to the album? "Embassy Walls" seems like it has a particular historical or political referent—does it? 

      "Frontier" goes back to around the rise of the Tea Party when signs of fascism were starting to appear in the U.S. The title is Einstein’s, though, from a story about a house concert he’d attended and his attempt to explain Bach to a tone-deaf man seated next to him. 

      "Embassy Walls" was written when Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange were in the news a lot. I wrote it from the point of view of a hacker who gets sold out by his lover and has to go underground. 

      It’s not a concept album, but if there is a theme that keep re-appearing, it’s the lost language of dissent. 

      I don't recognize a lot of other guest musicians, besides, obviously, Enrico. (Who is Bo Peng? I am pleased to see that it's a real cello and not electronics being treated as a cello). Anyone with other band connections I should know?

      I run a non-profit and one of our projects is the KPU International Music Festival. Through this I’ve met many wonderful classical musicians. Bo is one of them and he was kind enough to transcribe and play the cello part on “Water Wings.” My old friend Leslie Harris sings some background vocals. We used to be a lounge duo in the late ‘70s and played the gay bar circuit in town. She sings in a vintage blues and R&B band called Lesismore. The guitarist Curtis DeBray and the other players are from that band and their circle. A local young songwriter with a ton of potential named Matt Gibson sings on a few songs. His music reminds me of Sigur Ros. My daughter also sings on some songs which is pretty special to me. 

      Was "White Bird in a Blizzard" inspired by the novel or the Gregg Araki movie, or...? I never read the book and only saw the movie once—so is the story in the song connected to either, or are you just using the title, or...?

      I just stole the title from that very strange movie. It’s about my dad’s death a few years ago. I spent a lot of time with him during his final week on the planet and the song was written within a couple of weeks of his passing. 

      Since I was a punk rock snob back in the 1980's, I missed a lot of what were considered "new wave bands," so—aside from seeing that you do a cover by Ultravox—I can't really pin down influences. Are there any that look really large (By the way, do you go see people like Midge Ure when they play Vancouver? Do you have any wishes for reunion tours of vintage new wave bands?)

      The Ultravox cover is how I imagined Brian Ferry would interpret it. Most people seem to hear Pink Floyd and Bowie in my stuff. I try to stay on top of what’s being put out now, but the sounds of my formative years always seem to creep in. 

      I don’t enjoy seeing the old bands unless they’re still putting out good new material. Otherwise they’re just sad reminders of my mortality.

      Do you do any Lost Language stuff in the Red Herring set, or have other solo gigs upcoming, or...? 

      Not at the moment. I may try to sneak one in during our December gig. My workload is extremely intense during the first half of the year and I am usually able to coast a bit during the summer and fall. This year though, the society I run went though a lot of changes, so I’ve really had no break at all. We tried to put together a small run in Europe this fall but it fell apart. 

      Is there anything I've missed or should mention about the Princeton show?

      We have a few new songs worked up and a couple that we’ve only performed once before. It’s been several months since the last gig, and we’re all in a great space and looking forward to it! We’ll also be at the WISE Lounge December 27.

      Red Herring, featuring Id Guinness on keyboards, will play the Princeton Pub on Friday (November 30).