The following is the first part of a two part interview with Circus in Flames leader Doug Andrew, apropos of an upcoming Circus in Flames gig (September 9) at Falconetti’s East Side Grill. Part one will deal mostly with Andrew’s backstory on the Vancouver punk scene, particularly in terms of Shanghai Dog. More to come next week!
Part One: Kicking the Dog
True confessions: I never cared much for Shanghai Dog back in the day. I was pissed off—as a suburban fourteen year old—that I’d discovered the Vancouver punk scene only after the Subhumans broke up, coming into awareness of the band through DOA’s "Right to Be Wild" single, and their cover of (then-imprisoned) Gerry Hannah’s “Fuck You”. I had Incorrect Thoughts and the Subhumans’ classic four song EP, and thought them remarkable; but the fact that Shanghai Dog featured Subhumans’ guitarist Mike Graham, and Hannah’s replacement, Ron Allan, on bass (also on the second, under-rated Subhumans LP, No Wishes, No Prayers) probably did the band no favours by me. I tried to listen to Clanging Bell, Shanghai Dog’s debut EP, and grumbled at the singer’s reedy whine.
"What’s this, this isn’t Wimpy!”
It was like someone had switched out the coffee for yerba mate: I was having none of it. Their inclusion of the Subhumans’ “Hiroshima” on their second release, This Evolution, probably only made things worse, grinding my young punk face in the fact that I’d never, ever get to see the Subhumans.
Of course, I was wrong on both counts: the Subhumans, featuring Hannah, would eventually reunite; and—having gotten over my resentment—I would learn, too late, that, in fact, Clanging Bell was a great little EP, with smart lyrics themed around working people’s struggles. It also has killer musicianship, which besides Mike Graham’s very recognizable style and bouncing, rolling basslines from Ron Allan, also featured Young Canadians’ highly able drummer Barry Taylor.
Having amply, um, “kicked the Dog” for not having been the Subhumans, I now can kick myself for having missed dozens of opportunities to see Shanghai Dog back in the 1980s, especially since the odds are—unlike the Subhumans—they’re never going to reunite.
Weirdest of all is trying to figure out what problem I used to have with Doug Andrew’s voice. It’s true that it’s gotten a lot richer since those days—spin the Circus In Flames' Outside America, his current release, and you’ll hear a very different, deeper, stronger more confident singer, with a much wider range and expressive capacity. But even Shanghai Dog’s original 1983 EP, that I’d rejected so fervently back in the day, sounds great to me now, and Andrew’s voice now is nowhere near as hard to take as I remembered.
What an asshole I was. My first act on meeting Doug Andrew at a recent Pill Squad gig at Lanalou’s is to apologize to him for having so perversely and unfairly rejected him as a singer back then.
“Well, to each his own,” Andrew replied. (I wasn't the only person who dissed him back in the 1980s, it seems.) When we finally end up in an interview, he picked up the topic: “It’s often hard to listen to yourself singing. When you sing, you’re always trying to find your voice. You don’t want to sound like somebody else, you want it to be distinct. I’m always trying to get better at it.”
Andrew will occasionally break out one Shanghai Dog song in his Circus in Flames sets, he says, like “American Desert”, which he wrote. (“I kind of like hearing mandolin on it”—Circus in Flames being very much a roots music band, with more in common with raw rural folk than punk rock.) In fact, "American Desert" was featured not too long ago at the request of Jack “Fucking” Keating for a Mayday “fuck band” tribute to fallen comrades Brian “Wimpy Roy” Goble and (sometimes Rude Norton vocalist) Howard Rix.
Otherwise, Andrew tells the Straight, he hasn’t “really listened to the Shanghai Dog stuff recently. I’m sure I wouldn’t consider it a masterpiece but it’s where I was at the time. As far as the band goes, I’m very proud of it.”
Things were “starting to get less fun” on the Vancouver punk scene when Shanghai Dog were at their peak, Andrew recalls.
Andrew—a native of South Vancouver—first got into music when he was a kid in the 1960s.
“I have a sister who’s four years older than me, and she had a transistor radio and we’d listen to the pop songs of the era while we did the dishes. Because of her I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and heard all the British Invasion bands like the Stones and the Animals and the American bands like the Byrds and the one-hit wonders. The radio was pretty good at the time,” he remembers. “As I became a teenager, I had a close group of friends that were all into rock and roll. We started scrounging up guitars and got together to try to learn how to play. One of my friends was Jim Imagawa. I’d known him since grade five.”
Imagawa would, of course, eventually replace Dimwit as the drummer for the Subhumans; he can be glimpsed sitting on the bus on the cover of Incorrect Thoughts. He’s one of those rare Vancouver punks who has not returned to the playing field in recent years, even declining interview requests, though one still sees him around; in fact, it was Imagawa who sold me a copy of Shanghai Dog’s Clanging Bell when I finally decided to revisit it, a few years ago at a local flea market.
Imagawa, Andrew remembers, “really wanted to be a drummer and got a kit and started taking lessons and quickly became way better than the rest of us.” Years before joining the Subhumans, “Jim would be playing with the rest of us in the basements and garages of our parents homes trying to learn how to make music. We had to move from home to home to give our families a break from the racket. We called it Shitrock. It was more of a genre than a band name. Then we started hearing about the Sex Pistols and the punk scene in England...”
While people now credit Iggy Pop or the Ramones with the birth of punk, defining it—probably correctly—as an American musical idiom, for many first-generation punks in North America, it was the British bands that caught their attention and taught them about this new style of aggressive, angry music.
“When the Vancouver punk scene started,” circa 1977, “some of my friends were now going to art school and they’d hear about shows and we’d go to them. I hadn’t seen a lot of live music before that, especially up close and down and dirty like this. It was very exciting and inspiring—all these outcasts and people like us that didn’t fit in or didn’t want to fit into boring, old, regular society. I remember being at the K-Tels”—later the Young Canadians—“debut gig at a little Gastown art gallery called Gambatto’s. I thought Art Bergmann, Jim Bescott and Barry Taylor were great. Little did I know that a few years later I’d be in a band with Barry.
Long before that, Andrew and his South Van friends tried their own hand at forming bands (like the Exkretionz, who “never got out of the basement,” as he recalls). “Around that time, we started going to the Smilin’ Buddha pretty much every weekend to hear all the local punk bands. Then Jim became the Subhumans drummer and I, not wanting to get a regular job, decided to try and play semi-pro hockey in the States. While I was tending goal in Illinois, the Exkretionz bass player, Bruce Walther, started playing with a guitarist and drummer and he sent me demo tapes of their songs. They needed a singer and I said I’d do it when I got back into town. (My team didn’t make the playoffs.)”
That band took the name Soldiers Of Sport. “Our first gig was at this warehouse down on Railway Avenue called City Space. It was a great place where a bunch of artists, musicians and the like lived. They’d built a stage and I think Cecil English had his PA set up there. It was like a speakeasy and they had it together pretty good. They put on shows and sold beer and I loved it there. It was a few floors up in the warehouse and they had spotters on the ground watching for cops. They’d get the word up before the cops had climbed the stairs and by the time they arrived the bar was closed up tight.”
One night after such a gig, “Ron Allan came up to me and asked if I wanted to audition for this band. Brian Goble had left the Subhumans to play bass with D.O.A., and the Young Canadians had broken up, so Ron and Mike Graham had started a band with Barry Taylor on drums. It was pretty tempting to be offered a chance at playing with guys from two of my favourite bands. However, I told Ron that I was flattered that he asked but I was committed to Soldiers Of Sport. Ron told me that he respected my loyalty, but he also said that bands have a habit of breaking up, so keep them in mind. Sure enough, a few months later the guitarist, Mark Findler (later of Brilliant Orange and Stigmata) was heading off on an extended trip to South America and the drummer, Mark Hons (former guitarist with No Exit), was taking a long holiday to Europe, so Soldiers Of Sport would be on hold for an indeterminate amount of time.”
At that point, Andrew had been seeing Mike Graham with the Subhumans for years. “I thought he had the greatest guitar sound and he wrote a lot of my favourite Subhumans songs,” one of which, “Firing Squad”, Andrew would also sing at the JFK Mayday event earlier this year. “When my friend Jim Imagawa joined the band I got to know them, especially Brian. To me, they are the best punk band to ever come out of Vancouver. So when Soldiers Of Sport got put on hold I went over to Mike’s place and asked him if they still needed a singer. He said yes and that they were going to try out another guitarist, as well. We all showed up at the next practice at Dave Gregg’s house on Gore Street. The second guitarist turned out to be Ron Scott. Everything seemed to click and the first edition of Shanghai Dog was born.”
It’s impossible not to ask Andrew about what he was up to when the so-called Squamish Five (known among themselves as Direct Action) were arrested in January of 1983—an arrest which eventually saw former Subhumans bassist Gerry “Useless” Hannah going to prison, and which launched a thousand “Free the Five” demonstrations and punk benefit concerts in the Vancouver music scene.
“Yes, that all happened while we were in Shanghai Dog,” the singer replies. “The day after they’d been arrested, the news people were making a big deal about one of them being the former Subhumans bassist, and I ran into Mike in a mall, of all places, and the first thing he did was smile and say, ‘Gerry who?’ He knew he was going to get a shitload of questions.” (During the Subhumans reunion phase in the early 2000’s Graham assured me he had had no idea what Hannah was up to, and that news of his arrest came as a total surprise.)
So what about that chapter in Vancouver’s radical history? Did Andrew support the Five and their methods, which often drew on property damage, including dynamiting a BC Hydro substation, firebombing a pornographic video rental chain, and blowing up part of a plant in Toronto where Cruise Missile parts were being manufactured?
“We were involved in a lot of benefit shows for their defense fund,” Andrew replies. “Lawyers are expensive. Although I agreed with them about not wanting components of the Cruise Missile being built in Canada and not wanting Red Hot Video selling or renting out exploitive pornography, I don’t and didn’t at the time agree with blowing things up to get your point across. People can and did get hurt” (Andrew is referring primarily to security guard Terry Chikowski, who was nearly killed at Litton Industries; you can read my 2008 interview with Chikowski about how that affected him, here.
“Hiroshima” was the only Subhumans song, to Andrew’s recollection, that Shanghai Dog covered—a song that showed the band “starting to move in a different direction, which is what we were trying to do with Shanghai Dog.” The “slow song” on No Wishes, No Prayers, it has a much slower pace than the rest of the album, which Brian Goble once told me had been “sped up” by the label: “No way were we playing that fast,” I believe is what he said.
But while Shanghai Dog never quite got to the level of local fame that the Subhumans achieved, they had some remarkable gigs. “In those days the promoters would always put local bands on the bill with the touring acts that came to town. We were on shows at the Commodore with bands like the Ramones and X. Even Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, which was a bit of a strange one. Shanghai Dog toured a lot, too—especially up and down the west coast but we also went all over the U.S. I remember playing with Hüsker Dü in Bethesda, Maryland, and with the Replacements in a suburb of Cincinnati, 7 Seconds in Lexington, Kentucky, GBH, Meat Puppets and the Circle Jerks in San Francisco. We played a lot with DOA. I even remember doing some shows with them in Texas.”
Were there any particularly unruly, odd, or moving concert experiences on the road?
“The thing that sticks in my mind the most about that time was just the excitement of traveling across the continent in a van, being in a band. I remember heading off on probably our first tour, looking out the front windshield at the freeway and feeling that this is exactly where I should be. It was incredibly exhilarating.”
But there are “always the usual goofy road stories,” Andrew continues. “When we played with the Replacements at the Jockey Club in Newport, Kentucky, they had this rider with an incredible amount of booze in it. When we’d open a set we often banged off three or four songs right in a row without stopping, bam, bam, bam, bam. The Replacements were watching us and started bringing out cans and bottles of beer from their dressing room and placing them on the edge of the stage for us. The stage was really high and the audience’s heads were right at our feet. We were frantically playing away, looking down at these beers and hoping the crowd wouldn’t take them away. Finally we stopped after about three songs and gathered up the booze and started chugging them down. Meanwhile, the Replacements were drinking away and of course the evening eventually turned into a drunkfest. By the time they hit the stage everybody was well lit and they started switching instruments with each other and trying to play covers like ‘Walk On the Wild Side’ with the roadies and everyone getting into the act.”
Vancouverites, including a young Al MacInnis, witnessed similar behaviour from the Replacements when they toured Pleased to Meet Me through the Town Pump, though by their next Vancouver show, they’d cleaned up their act considerably. They were a lot more fun drunk.
Andrew’s memories of that show don’t stop there.
“Westerberg sang ‘Help Me Rhonda'," he continues, “and when he got to the chorus he just dumped the mike stand into the crowd for them to sing. When they finished the chorus they hoisted the mike back onto the stage for him to start the next verse. At one point, I was standing on one side of the stage and Westerberg was singing ‘Hitchin’ A Ride’ by Vanity Fare when his guitar strap unhooked and he had to stand on one leg so he could support his guitar with the other. It looked pretty funny and I figured a roadie would come running out and fix this. But nobody came, so I whipped out on stage and hooked him back up whereupon he grabbed my head with one arm and pulled me onto the mike and we did a nice little harmony on the ‘Ride, ride, ride, hitchin’ a ride’ part of the song. After that, Ron Allan and I went to the bar to get a drink and he told me that we sounded pretty good. As we were enjoying our drinks and watching the Replacements up on stage I happened to glance down at the end of the bar and there’s Tommy Stinson, the bassist, sitting by himself having a cocktail and a smoke. He raised his eyes and saw me looking at him and I started pointing at him, then the stage and back at him again. He raised his palms and shook his head, doing the ‘you must have me mistaken for somebody else’ thing. From what I can recall it was a pretty glorious night.”
Ron Allan remains an occasional collaborator of Doug Andrew’s, and Andrew agrees that his praises are under-sung. “He and Barry Taylor on drums were such an integral part of the drive and dexterity of the band,” Andrew remembers. “Maybe twenty years after the breakup of the band, Ron called me out of the blue from Austin, Texas where he was living. He told me he was still playing and even using an upright bass. I was wanting to record a new CD with the Circus In Flames”—what was to be their second release, A Little Bit of Gasoline—“but we had no bassist at the time so Ron flew up and recorded the CD. He also toured and played some festivals with us,” though he won’t be at the band’s upcoming Falconetti’s gig.
While This Evolution came out on the local Undergrowth label, the initial EP, Clanging Bell, appears to be a private pressing, with no label information. Private pressings are kind of fascinating; when they garner attention, as with local artists like the New Creation, Huckle, or in the odd case of the Langley Schools Music Project, it is generally because they're fascinating and unique. But in fact the EP was distributed by San Francisco’s CD Presents, the same label that put out DOA’s Bloodied But Unbowed compilation, and by processes never quite made clear, would end up in control of the Incorrect Thoughts master tapes, necessitating the Subhumans return to the studio to re-record their own album (cf. Same Thoughts, Different Day).
So why is there no CD Presents logo on the album?
“I think they might have gotten involved at the last minute and that’s why their logo isn’t on it. Probably, no one wanted to pay to have the artwork redone. We eventually ended up having a falling out with the label anyway. I remember on one of our trips to San Francisco, Ron Allan having a big argument with the owner, David Ferguson. While they were yelling at each other in one room, the rest of us found boxes of our records in another room and carted them out the back door. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the master tapes and we started seeing new pressings popping up in a different kind of shrink wrap. But Robert Christgau of the Village Voice and 'Dean of American Rock Critics' rated it B+. Maximum Rocknroll liked it too.”
The EP kicks off with “Bawl and Change”, one of Andrew’s very first ventures into songwriting, co-credited to a B. Romanin. Who’s that?
"Ben Romanin is one of the friends I grew up with in South Van. Part of Shitrock. In the beginning, he could play guitar and I couldn’t so he taught me some things. It wasn’t the first songwriting I’d ever done but still pretty early on in the process. On the Clanging Bell EP I also co-wrote “The Closet” with Mike Graham. I don’t really think a lot about those songs now. I think they were all a part of my musical evolution, which is a nice segue into the next recording.”
This Evolution involves Andrew a lot more in the songwriting process, including the aforementioned “American Desert”.
“On This Evolution I was just trying to improve as a songwriter, singer, and guitarist,” he says. “I do want to stress though that Mike Graham was the main songwriter in Shanghai Dog and Tin God, for that matter. He wrote the lion’s share of the material and I learned a great deal from playing with him. He’s a great songwriter.”
For more on Doug Andrew, see http://dougandrewmusic.com/. Part Two coming soon!