The scene vets of the VanRays take a thoroughly original approach to classic unvarnished soul
The first time you check out the VanRays, you might assume you’re hearing a classic Stax or Motown band. With soulful vocals, funky guitars, a swingin’ rhythm section, and jubilant horns, you’d be forgiven for thinking a song like “Take a Dive” (the cookin’ kickoff to the group's eponymous new EP) came out of Detroit in 1965.
A unit like this is just too damn authentic, too damn tight, to be pieced together from members of Vancouver (and Vancouver Island) bands, isn’t it? But, as the name might tip you to, the members of the VanRays, in fact, are all from Vancouver (and Vancouver Island). They’re a kind of local supergroup of veteran Vancouver musicians, where past CVs do a lot to explain the skill levels on display.
Drummer Eric Lowe, who reached out to the Straight in advance of the Vanrays May 4 Railway gig, started out on Vancouver Island, and is maybe best known for his tenure in 64 Funnycars. Vocalist Spencer McKinnon is the singer for Swank, and, Lowe explains, is the founder of the project. “Spencer assembled a crack team of like-minded musicians focusing on paying tribute to that early ‘60s Stax sound, complete with horns. Being old punks, it ended up sounding more like ‘60s garage soul, but that is a good thing.”
Lowe was already drumming in Swank at that point, alongside Vanrays bassist Phil Addington, who has previously played in Insex and Family Plot.
“Phil is also currently playing with Circus In Flames,” Lowe explains. “Gord Rempel, on organ, comes from the Beladeans, and Scott McLeod is from Big Top, plays with Linda McRae, and is a recent addition to the Frank Fink Five. It was Gord that suggested Scott play guitar for the project. Rhythm guitarist Eric Cottrell was in 64 Funnycars and later in POLLY [also with Lowe] as well. The trumpet player Peter Juric is a pro, playing in the R&B Allstars, and the Vanrays trombone player Dexter Juric’s other band is the formidable Jaguar.”
Aware of Lowe’s long history in the Victoria and Vancouver scene, the Straight focused its questions on Lowe’s background, only to discover that he’d forwarded them to McKinnon himself, as well, turning the interview into a three-way. But what the hell, three-ways are fun (or so we’ve heard).
So other than knowing you were in 64 Funnycars (and before that, the Ryvals) with Tim Chan, I don't know the whole of your history. You started on the island, right? Are you present on (authoritative Victoria scene comp) All Your Ears Can Hear? Are there other noteworthy bands you were in?
EL: I was born and raised in Victoria. Started playing drums in Grade 6 with the school band, that's where I met Tim Chan (who played baritone). He was a grade higher than me, so I didn't reconnect with him until Grade 9 when we were both in intermediate and stage bands together. It was also in grade 9 that the Ryvals were formed. On and off, I’ve played a lot of music with Tim. Even though we're not in the same band now he is one of my best friends (all because of a love of the music... awwwww).
In my young and snotty days I played with a ton of alternative and punk bands in Victoria. Notable? Hardly, but I played in the Ryvals, Automatic Shock, Da Jeep, and a few others whose names escape me. As for All Your Ears Can Hear, I play with those three bands plus I produced the tracks for Ryvals, Automatic Shock, Da Jeep, Divine Right, and Red Tide. Apparently I had a lot of time on my hands in my teens (and access to a four-track recorder). Looking back, my poor parents put up with a lot of shitty punk music in a room above their corner store.
In 1986, I moved to Vancouver and hooked up with Eddy Dutchman and the old Boys Club gang, where I played with the Fabulous Wallys and Chainsaw Running. I also subbed for Jesus Bonehead for about 12 Dayglo Abortions shows.
In 1988 I moved back to Victoria and reunited with Tim Chan where we formed 64 Funnycars. I was also the first and third drummer for BUM. Moving back to Vancouver in 2001, I played with the Getaway Stix, Swank, Butch Murphy and the Bloody Miracles, POLLY, and the VanRays.
So why the name the VanRays? I think I can guess the "Van" part, but there's also the Bellrays, and probably some other rays (not counting the Manta Rays, I presume). Where do "Rays" come from? (Are you all Bellrays fans?).
SM: Why not the VanRays? And yes we love the Bellrays, Deathrays, manta rays, and Man Ray! but we do not wear Raybans cause that’s something else altogether, called the Blues Brothers.
I never figure music fans start out with classic soul and R&B and such, unless they're lucky enough to be raised in an environment where it's the main music. I always figure people are going to start with either the pop around them, or if they rebel, with punk or metal, and only later in life come to genres like country or soul or even garage rock. They seem like the stuff of "mature" music tastes—I would expect most 18-year-olds to turn their nose up at them. Is that true of you or other members of the band...?
EL: Speaking for myself, I always had an appreciation for classic R&B/ Soul but focused on louder, punkier vibes in my youth. As for the others in the Vanrays, I get a sense it's the same. We're all a bit older so we didn't grow up with alternative/punk rock from an early age; maybe that's why we got broader musical tastes? My older brother listened to a lot of Motown and we both watched Soul Train on TV.
SM: I wouldn’t say it is for mature tastes. If you learn the history of soul, funk and country, that’s where the real rebels and outlaws lived. If you have ever seen Mike Judge’s Tales from the Tour Bus you would understand. I love Iggy Pop but he has nothing on these old soul guys for sheer unbridled audacity. Most of them had an appetite for drugs and debauchery that is otherworldly. That, and they wrote a good song that you could dance to.
I don't know how you sound live, but the EP sounds like you seem to have pretty exacting standards of musicianship. Is this a harder music to play than, say, 64 Funnycars? How does that impact you as a drummer? Are there things you've had to learn how to do (or had to do more of, or such) in taking up the kit for the Vanrays?
EL: I had to learn a whole different drum vocabulary for this style of music. It's much tighter and a lot more pocket than power-pop, that's for sure! It took me a while to settle into it, and I'm figuring new stuff out every day. Those old R&B drummers, wow—beats seems so simple but there is a subtle complexity to them.
The pics I see show a bunch of guys who are dressing pretty snazzily. Does everyone wear suits onstage? (Including you?). Is that tough, as a drummer, playing in a suit? (It strikes me that many drummers I've seen wear shorts, I presume for comfort). Do you guys have a clothing budget? Does everyone just pay for their own outfits, or are you one of those lucky bands with Brixton sponsorships or something? Is there any sort of "dress code?" Do you have input into what each other wears?
EL: Clothing budget?!? That would be nice but we dress ourselves (and with me, it shows—I have such a shitty fashion sense!). It is hard to drum with a suit jacket on and it gets hot really fast. Usually I'll shed the jacket after two or three songs. I have NEVER worn shorts to perform, that's the musical equivalent of wearing socks with sandals (ha-ha). Spencer imposed his dress code on us. Track pants and western shirts just don’t work for a soul band. It’s an insult to the genre if you don’t go all in.
Are all the songs originals? Do you guys also include covers live?
SM: All the songs on the EP are originals and written by me. When we started the band we were all in agreement that we did not want to be in a cover band. We do some covers live, but with so much original material, we just don’t always have time. “Chains of Love” and “Nobody Loves You Like I Love You” are a couple covers that we do regularly.
"Take a Dive" is a great tune-who wrote it and what experience were they drawing on? Also curious about "Hey Barcelona." Why Barcelona? Has the band played Spain? Are you planning to? (My understanding—from Rich Hope, the Pointed Sticks, and probably some other local bands—is that the Spanish are pretty enthusiastic for good power pop and blues rock and such).
SM: With this style of music I have been trying to keep the lyrics really simple. I always loved how the late great Howard Rix would write those songs for the Trespassers about wanting do nothing more than rock and roll! Just rock and roll—keep it classic.
EL: We’ve never been to Spain, not sure how Spencer came up with that.
Do you feel a musical kinship to the Bad Beats? Are there other bands in Vancouver that you regard as doing similar things?
SM: We have played some shows with the Bad Beats. We share an appreciation for great organ driven ‘60s garage and garage-soul music. If you hear of other bands doing similar things let us know please.
Any fun stories of concerts past?
SM: We recently played a sold out show at the Fox. That was fun but it doesn’t really make for a funny story though. The smoke machine never stopped smoking, to the point that we couldn’t see beyond the front row. I ran into people for a couple of weeks that said they were there but I couldn’t see them.
What other bands are on the bill at the Railway? Any particular stories about or connections with them?
SM: This Saturday (May 4) we are playing Big John Bates’ Noirchestra album release party (before his European tour) with noir-country superstar Shiloh Lindsay. Swank (pre-Eric Lowe) toured with Shiloh a few years ago throughout Alberta and BC. Swank has also played with Big John Bates before. Mr. Bates always puts on an amazing show! It’s a great line up with the Vanrays on second at 10:15 p.m.
Any other things I should mention? Is the EP coming out on vinyl, or CD only, or online only, or...?
EL: There’s a CD available at the show and online. We have buttons and shirts. Maybe vinyl after we record this summer. Lots coming down the pipes, so stay tuned!
For more information about Saturday’s gig at the Railway, with Shiloh Lindsey, the VanRays, and Big John Bates, go here.