Bruce Wilson talks Tankhog and his road back from the brink with the brilliant Sunday Morning: “The scars are real”

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      You get the feeling that Bruce Wilson’s moment in the current Vancouver music scene is yet ahead of him.

      Sure, he was amazing in Tankhog, but you almost have to be in your 50s to have had a decent chance of having seen that storied band. For those who missed them, back in the early 1990’s, Tankhog brought a decadent, growling, Slow-influenced grunge to the stage of long-closed venues like the Cruel Elephant. No other band could cover Ministry and the Partridge Family with equal degrees of conviction and sprawling rock majesty. Tankhog’s version of the latter band’s “I Woke Up in Love This Morning,” on their 1992 Zulu Records release House of Beauty, is one of the greatest punk gestures of its decade, ranking the band with other, more southerly heroes of grunge, like Tad or Green River. (I mean, Tankhog’s originals are great, too, but who covers the fucking Partridge Family? A+ for inspiration on that one, guys!).

      But somehow, despite the presence of Stephen Hamm and Terry Russell of Slow, and Bruce Wilson’s fearsome vocals, House of Beauty never had the staying power of Slow’s Against the Glass. It might simply be that Slow came first, so Tankhog would only ever seem their kid brother, an echo of an earlier roar. Still, House of Beauty still holds up as an underrated Vancouver gem--the pockmarked, sweaty face of Vancouver grunge in all its ugly glory.

      Then Tankhog fell apart, and Wilson lost some years to drugs and wandering, far from the music scene. The Straight wrote about that time in 2017 (go here for the story),  when Wilson emerged with a new project, Sunday Morning, once again featuring Hamm. There weren’t many Vancouver albums that year that drew comparisons to both Leonard Cohen and Iggy Pop, with Wilson drawing equal praise for his evocative, soulful, and commanding vocals and capacity to rock out, undiminished for his years away from the scene. And people who were lucky enough to see the band live, where they are considerably rawer, were staggered by just how charismatic and robust Wilson still is as a performer, with an Iggylike charisma and a voice seeming to emanate from a body five times his actual size. See R.d. Cane’s Sunday Morning videos, which capture a full range of Wilson’s abilities – from the mournful, agonized expressivity “Come the Rain” to the tense, Stooges-like rocker “Sick in the City,” they give a pretty good indicator of the polarities at hand.

      It was unclear to a lot of people, in 2017, whether Sunday Morning was going to stand as a one-off. The band’s handful of live shows ceased after a span of a few months, maybe so Hamm could focus on the return of Slow. Memories of Wilson’s vital showmanship at the SBC Cabaret (or other stages where the band played) remained, but, save for Wilson’s guest appearance at the Slow 10-night stand at the Penthouse, there was no indication that he planned to remain active as a vocalist, or that Sunday Morning would record or play again.

      Until a few weeks ago, that is, when Sunday Morning announced that they were going back into the studio, with a new lineup, and a new gig announced, at the Fox Cabaret, sharing a bill (and a member) with Trailerhawk.

      Eagerly anticipating the new album (and having heard two songs off it, “The Visitor” and “Breathe,” which sound promising indeed) the Straight put some questions to Wilson, taking in both Tankhog’s glory days and Sunday Morning’s future ambitions. His answers follow.

      GS: What was TV Repairmen? Mike Usinger mentioned them in the previous article, but I know little about the band. Is there any surviving recorded evidence? Who was in the band besides Tom and you? Why “TV Repairmen?”

      BW: The TV Repairmen was my first band that included Tom Anselmi, Shane Davis, Mark Findler, Scott Chernov. Most of us were still making attempts to attend high school. Shane and I later formed Tankhog with Hamm and Terry. Mark Findler went on to play guitar in Brilliant Orange. Scott Chernov has played with Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Tom quit the Repairmen to form Slow. I don’t believe there are any recordings—we did however play at least five shows: two at Stalag 13, one at the Plaza, one at my high school Ideal School, and we also played at my parent’s moving sale (my father convinced the police to let us finish our five-song set). My parents also attended one of the Stalag 13 shows and my mother remembers full cans of beer being lobbed at us. I don’t recall that but I trust her memory over my own.

      The name originated from a song written by a friend of ours called “TV Repairman” that dealt with the darker side of appliance repair. It was a staple in our set.

      Where did the name "Tankhog" come from? Is that some sorta car slang that nondrivers won't understand, or...?

      When I moved back from Boston to start a new band with Hamm, Terry, and Shane we indulged our criminal tendencies by stealing tanks of Nitrous Oxide from hospitals. Our affinity for the gaseous delicacy and the fact it was difficult to pry these tanks from our arms resulted in the frequent expression, “Don’t be such a Tankhog!” It stuck. We don’t do that anymore…

      I have always wondered about one song on House of Beauty, "Reptilian." The chorus as far as I've ever understood it is "she fucked a reptile."...Which I assume is a metaphor for something? ...the rest of the lyrics sound vaguely political... what was that song about? Did you write the lyrics? Where did that image emerge from?

      I wrote that song while reading Kafka and listening to Motörhead. It was an expression of alienation with a “Love Me Like A Reptile” soundtrack. 

      The Partridge Family cover was pretty inspired--who’s idea was that? What’s with the wounds/ scars on your chest in the video--are those real, or…?

      “I Woke Up In Love” was our drummer Terry Russell’s idea and Grant McDonagh from Zulu Records was a huge fan of the Partridge Family and wanted that song to be the lead off single. I’ll always have a fondness for that song and the accompanying video. It encapsulated a vibrant time in our young lives.

      The scars are real. They still exist.

      Bev tells me that that Nettwerk party truck story is pretty funny... I'd love to hear it from you. What did you guys do, exactly? How did Nettwerk respond?

      That happened during the New Music West Festival. We rented a large flatbed truck and a generator that we parked a few blocks away from the Nettwerk records where they were having a respectable barbeque in their parking lot. We knew we wouldn’t have much time and the Nettwerk offices faced 2nd Avenue by the Granville Street bridge so blocking traffic was going to be an issue. We somehow managed to pull off this logistical feat and treat the party goers to three full songs before speeding off back to east Vancouver. I spent the night before steaming the labels off of beer bottles and replaced them with our own Tankhog labels—our roadie (the extraordinary Christian Letnar) distributed these to the crowd during the quick set. We’d also alerted MuchMusic that we were planning the surprise invasion so Terry David Mulligan was there with a camera crew. It was one of our better ideas amongst the countless terrible ones.

      Bev Davies.
      Bev Davies!

      If you mean profit financially I can assure you that none of us made any money. Tankhog was always a band that existed outside of popular music culture and I never felt like we belonged to any particular movement or genre. I’m still not certain what grunge was aside from bad fashion so I can’t say if we can be associated with such a thing or not. Stylistically I always thought we looked damn good.

      Some of my favorite live performances were when we backed up Skinny Puppy on their Too Dark Park North American tour. Our show at the Ritz in New York was particularly memorable. We played in front of thousands of diehard Skinny Puppy fans who were not appreciative of our rock and roll sound and aesthetic. They absolutely hated us. I’ve never experienced so much blatant hostility from an audience. They were screaming “fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou” as they tried to climb the barricade to get at us. At that moment I realized we had complete control and there was absolutely nothing they could do to stop us—we abandoned our usual set and played a series of Kiss and BTO covers to further offend their NYC goth sensibilities. It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever had on stage.

      Tankhog holds a very dear place in heart and from what I do remember of those six years it was a tremendous amount of fun amidst the chaos. People often ask about the chance of a reunion but it wouldn’t be Tankhog. It would be a pale imitation of something that existed in a specific time and place—neither of which could ever be recreated or done proper justice.

      Coming up to the present… the debut album from Sunday Morning seems to really be about your lost years and struggles with addiction–tho' you gave yourself some distance in writing about that through this device of imagining reconstructing that life based on your found journals... will the new project continue to mine that territory, or is it going somewhere else? (I assume all your lyrics are drawn from life? …Did you ever recover those journals, by the way?).

      I believe in the power of narrative. What’s true and what was fabricated within the lyrical content of those songs is irrelevant. What was important to me was to create a narrative soundtrack of sorts to tell a classic hero’s journey. Sunday Morning started initially as a way to look at parts of my past in an objective manner—using truth and fiction to reconcile troubling parts of my personal history and explore the duality of human experience.

      The forthcoming album is titled Consequence Of Love and continues that exploration concentrating on the purest human emotion, love. Without being too verbose—they’re love songs… Not all of them are pretty.

      As far as I know my journals are still in the basement of a house in Western Massachusetts somewhere. The guy who found them at the dump went ghost right before the album came out. (And there’s the draft of my unfinished novel, Sunday Morning, which I’ve been writing forever, on my bedside table—it’ll get finished eventually. I’m pretty busy right now.)

      Why the white cross? Do you have a Christian upbringing? How did it fit in with the first Sunday Morning album?

      No Christian upbringing but I was born and raised in the American south so it was inescapable. I do, however, have an affinity for the Virgin Mary but I’m not down with idea that she was fucked by God. I see her, Lady of Guadalupe, and the Celtic goddess Brigit, as powerful symbols of creation and divine inspiration. I talk to them a lot.

      The cross (for me) has strong aesthetic value as geometric shape and I don’t see it as an exclusively Christian symbol. Two intersecting lines invokes some kind of deep human reaction—it’s conflict, motion, change. The fact that our name Sunday Morning and a cross can relate to Christian ideology is unavoidable in our culture but that wasn’t what I was thinking when I had the grease pencil in front of the mirror.

      I feel lucky to have seen Sunday Morning live, though the gig I saw, with the band at the SBC Cabaret, seems like it might have been different from others; was video incorporated in the Cultch show? (Some of the press sounds like you had ambitious plans for staging it). How many Sunday Morning shows have there been, now? What's the occasion of the current one?

      The record release show at the Cultch was presented in a theatrical manner that included performances by our amazing videographer R.d. Cane and Rod and Carmen Bruno doing a beautiful stripped down acoustic version of their band Trailerhawk. It felt like an intimate night in a beautiful space with 200 hundred of our friends. It was special. The SBC show was us just letting loose and being loud—I loved that too. We haven’t done many live performances so we like to make our shows unique events whenever possible. The show on Saturday is to debut our new line up and some of our new songs. We’ve been in the studio for a while working on the new album and we thought it would be both fun and beneficial to do some shows.

      It’s been great working with Felix Fung from Chains Of Love in his New West studio Little Red Sounds and having him on board as song writing partner, producer, and guitarist has been invaluable to the process. Writing and recording with him is so fun, easy, and productive. Along with Felix we have his partner at Little Red Sounds, Max Sample from the amazing Ballantynes playing bass with us. Max is an extraordinarily versatile musician and we’re incredibly fortunate to have him playing with us. Our latest addition is new drummer Jay Schreib, who got thrown into the fire a couple months ago, and he’s a killer drummer and an absolute joy to work with. For the Fox show we have visual artist Kevin Mnz coming in to do projections. I’m really excited about his work. 10. Any particular vocal influences?

      Some of what you and Tom do live sounds similar-did your vocal styles influence each other? (How was singing with him at the Penthouse?).

      In Tankhog I did a lot of screaming—I scream well but with Sunday Morning I needed to learn how to actually sing. It was a dramatic shift in how I related to my voice. I don’t know about influences but I’m awed by Leonard Cohen’s phrasing, in love with Scott Walker’s crooning (“Duchess” might be my favorite song ever—it’s perfect, and the impact of Nick Cave’s emotional vocal presentation has brought tears to my eyes.

      Honestly I’ve never thought Tom and I sounded much alike though I’ve heard that said before. I’ve always loved his voice and he’s a brilliant songwriter.

      What did you and Hamm discuss in crafting the "quiet" side of the first Sunday Morning album? (It seems more European than American). Is the discussion different this time out?

      We were listening to a lot of Roxy Music and mid '70s Berlin era Bowie and Iggy but I was also on a bit of Drive-By-Truckers bender during that period so I think there was a melding of continental genres that happened. Though I’ve spent over half my life in Canada my formative years in the south are inescapable. That wall of heat and humidity penetrated deep along with the ubiquitous sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

      How do you and Hamm work together? (Is the music his and the lyrics yours, or do you shape the music? Does he ever get involved with the lyrics?).

      Usually I have a lyrical idea—sometimes with a melody or some chords. I’ve always been more of a writer than a proper musician. I bring what I have to Hamm and he magically fleshes out the music and makes suggestions for possible lyrical changes. For the new album I originally started writing the songs with Felix out at Little Red Sounds then Hamm came out and joined us. It’s been a very natural and easy collaboration between the three of us.

      The video for “Come the Rain” – if that’s lip-synching, it’s the best lip synching ever. How did you and Rd Cane do that? (Is there going to be a multimedia aspect to the new album, as well?).

      It was lip synched so thank you! That was the first video R.d. and I worked on together and I’m so happy with how it turned out. It was just the two of us in a room and he gave me the space to get to where I needed to go. We did four or five continuous takes with breaks in between so I could recompose myself. By the end of it I was an emotional wreck and it’s still hard for me to watch that video. I can’t say enough about R.d.—he’s a masterful director and I can’t wait to work with him on the new material.

      The video for “Sick in the City” – are you, like, tensing your entire torso for that video? You look about as sinewy and fat-free as Iggy in it. (That particular song seems like it could belong on Kill City – is there a particular period or album of Iggy’s that matters most to you? Ever get to interact with him?).

      That video was another one continuous shot session with R.d. and I was trying to physically express the internal conflict and nihilism of heroin addiction. I grew up with Iggy Pop the same way I grew up with Bowie and Madonna. I think the fact that Iggy and I have similar body types and expressive stage personas has naturally drawn comparisons. Kill City was another album Hamm and I listened to a lot during that period so it was certainly an influence on that song—though I also think there are also undertones of Elton John going on.

      The first time I saw Iggy live was in Pittsburgh on a night off during a Tankhog tour. We were backstage drinking Alice In Chains beer and I met his son briefly in passing but I’ve never met Iggy. I’ve heard he’s a lovely man.

      Always curious about cover songs. Do you do any? What are the chances that Sunday Morning will suddenly whip out a Tankhog tune, someday?

      I love doing covers and we’ll be doing one on Saturday night. I’m pretty excited about it! The odds of a Tankhog cover is unlikely however.

      Anything else we should say about the gig? (Who will be onstage with you this time? How has the lineup changed) Any connections to Trailerhawk?

      I think I ran through the new lineup in question #9 but just to reiterate: Felix Fung on guitar—formerly with Chains of Love, producer and owner of Little Red Sounds Studio with Max Sample… Max Sample on bass—bassist for the Ballantynes and runs Little Red Sound Studio with Felix in New West. Jay Schreib on drums—original drummer for Raincity. Stephen Hamm on keyboards. J Carmen from Trailerhawk will be singing on a few songs with us too. She sang on the first album and that’s how we originally connected with Trailerhawk. They are an absolutely amazing band and Carmen’s voice gives me goosebumps—it’s so beautiful. I’ll sing with her any chance I get. Trailerhawk are like family to us and I’m so grateful to get to do this show with them.

      The songs you shared with me - "Breathe" and "The Visitor" - will they be in the set on Saturday? How far are you into recording the new album? Will the live performance in any way influence how you record material? (I recall Brian Eno doing a mini-tour after years of not touring, because he wanted the experience of playing live to influence an album he was recording, called Drawn From Life - is there any of that going on here?)

      “The Visitor” is in our set for Saturday. We’re forgoing using prerecorded backing tracks and technological tricks with this live show so it’ll be more immediate and stripped down than the recordings—approaching this show as a band rather than as recording project. In our practices there’s been a feeling of purity and true magic in the musical chemistry between us. The spectrum of sound ranges from lush and beautiful to a visceral attack quality on some songs that almost feels like the Birthday Party. The majority of the new album is recorded and the songs are in varying stages of completion. We hope to have it released sometime in the fall and we’re shopping labels in the meantime. This show has unified us as a band and I’m sure that will affect how we approach recording in the future. It’s also made it possible for us to do more frequent shows and we’re looking towards touring the new album next spring.

      Oh and it’s a birthday weekend for both bands! Carmen’s birthday is tomorrow, mine is Saturday and Jay’s is on Sunday.

      Thanks to Bruce Wilson for the interview. Sunday Morning and Trailerhawk play the Fox Cabaret tonight (May 25). Event page here