Part one here.
Around the time of New Dark Age Parade, the Subhumans’ underrated (if slightly uneven) 2006 reunion album, guitarist Mike Graham told me of a band he was in between Shanghai Dog (who ceased operations circa 1986) and the reunion: “I was actually in a band called Tin God, with the singer from Shanghai Dog, and we had even less of a cultural impact,” he said, laughing. “Eventually, around the summer of 1990 I just kind of quit playing in bands, just because—I still kind of liked doing it in a way, but y’know, the first three or four hundred times you kind of practice for weeks and then haul your equipment up a couple of flights of stairs to play a show for a really small audience, y’know, it’s kind of interesting the first two or three hundred times, but after that, it kind of starts to pale a little bit.”
Graham would be more-or-less musically inactive from 1990 to 2005, when the Subhumans regrouped; he contributed some of the finest moments on New Dark Age Parade, including “Celebrity” and especially “Daisy Cutter,” which surely is the most musically complex song the Subhumans Canada ever recorded.
To my knowledge, Graham has returned to retirement—musically, anyhow—since the Subhumans once again ceased operations in 2010; he made a brief appearance on former bandmate Gerry Hannah’s Coming Home (an underrated album in its own right, with rootsy folk music that will appeal to fans of the Circus in Flames), but if he’s done anything else, it has flown below my radar.
Doug Andrew, however—said singer for Shanghai Dog and Tin God, and now, of course, the Circus in Flames—has been active pretty much the whole time. He took a slight break from music in the early 1990s, but recorded evidence of the Circus In Flames dates back at least to a 1997 compilation called Live at the Press Club. Part one of our interview dealt largely with Shanghai Dog; the following will attempt to bring us more or less up to date.
Georgia Straight: So what did you do after Shanghai Dog called it quits?
Doug Andrew: My memory is a bit foggy when it comes to this period. Shanghai Dog broke up around 1986. Barry Taylor went on to play with Roots Roundup, Ron Allan joined the Scramblers and Mike Graham and I kept working together on what would become Tin God. I think it went from about 1987 to 1990. We went through a few drummers including Scott Beadle (the Hip Type) and Ken Morrison (the Swagmen). I think our first bassist was my old friend Bruce Walther from the Exkretionz and Celebrity Drunks. Later Jaime Nicholson from NG3 played bass with us.
How was Tin God different from Shanghai Dog?
It’s hard to say how it differed from Shanghai Dog. Mike was still writing most of the material. I wrote some stuff and we collaborated more. I seem to remember Mike being asked that same question at the time and him saying that these were just this year’s songs. Some of the songs were slower and a bit more personal. Perhaps we were moving more towards a singer-songwriter thing rather than a band.
Does any recorded evidence exist?
We recorded but we didn’t put out any vinyl. Lack of money may have been a factor. We did produce a few different cassette tapes that we sold at shows and in the independent record stores. I think I saw one recently at Noize To Go. Mike wrote some really great songs. There was one called “Miles To Sunrise” that was from our last recording session. We’d played a few shows in Vancouver and Victoria with Sons Of Freedom and the singer, Jim Newton, was helping to produce this session. We used their drummer Don Short. I was going on Radio Bandcouver recently and was asked to bring a Tin God song and I found “Miles To Sunrise.” Although I’d like another stab at the vocal it still sounded pretty good to me. It was a very interesting song.
I’d like to hear it. Why did the band fold?
I think we were just running out of gas. Mike especially had been doing this for a very long time starting maybe with the Stiffs in the late seventies. (Note: Jason Flower of Victoria record store/ label Supreme Echo is currently working on a Stiffs re-release, as well as other local punk salvage jobs, like the upcoming Zellots flexi; more on that to come.) I don’t think we had the same drive to keep banging our heads against the wall with not a lot to show for it. I don’t think there was as much of a desire to hit the road in an old van with a group of aging guys making sandwiches in the back. I think it just kind of fizzled out after that 1990 recording session. It was a new decade and we wanted a break.
What did you do between Tin God and Circus In Flames? (If it's not musical, and you had a straight gig, I'd be curious to hear about it.
I think I just noodled around on the guitar but I didn’t play with any bands. I had jobs working in a few different plumbing supply warehouses. Shipping and receiving, driving forklifts, that sort of thing. It wasn’t very glamorous but I had to build up the coffers again.
Was there always an interest in folk music or roots music on your part, when you were a punk, or was it a slow evolution? If the latter, what led you to it?
I got into Bob Dylan and the Band as a teenager in the ‘70s. One of my friends had some older brothers who influenced us there, so we were listening to Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. Around that time Dylan and the Band reunited and toured, putting out Before the Flood. The Basement Tapes came out around then, too, and from there I went back and learned about stuff like Music from Big Pink. Then from reading about Dylan I learned about folk singers like Woody Guthrie and bluesmen like Robert Johnson. Things just kind of opened up but it was rather slow in my case. Then the Sex Pistols hit and our generation finally had its own music. And everyone started hiding the music they used to listen to.
Who was your favourite member of the Band? I can see Levon Helm in your voice, especially starting with the second Circus In Flames CD. (Did you ever see them play?)
I never saw the Band perform live. I probably could have in the eighties but I wasn’t interested. Regardless of the reasons for the bad feelings in the group there was no way they were going to be the same without Robbie Robertson’s guitar playing. I really liked the Band but I never had a favourite guy. I thought they all brought something great. It’s funny you ask because a few years ago Peter North, who used to write for the Edmonton Journal and is currently the artistic director of the Salmon Arm Roots & Blues Festival, was putting together a show that was going to be a tribute to the songbook of the Band and he asked me to take part. It would include not just the Band’s songs but also music by people like Muddy Waters, the Louvin Brothers and Bo Diddley. Music that had either influenced the Band or they had covered, especially as the Hawks. I was playing with Alberta musicians that I’ve met from touring over the years and it was great to play these songs with a full lineup including piano and organ. The really good thing about it was that there wasn’t one guy singing all the Levon Helm songs and another guy singing all the Richard Manuel songs like in a lot of tributes. The tunes were just spread around to the various singers which seemed to be more in the spirit of the Band where Danko, Helm and Manuel would sometimes all have a verse in the same song. So I got to sing Rick Danko songs like “It Makes No Difference,” Richard Manuel songs like “Across the Great Divide” and Levon songs like “Rag Mama Rag.” All three were great singers in their own way. Rick Danko is very underrated as a singer. “Stage Fright” and “It Makes No Difference” are not easy songs to sing. Believe me.
I love what you said about how after punk everyone started "hiding the music they used to listen to." Where did that stop for you? When did you decide you wanted to go back to the sort of Dylan/ Band thing and make roots music?
I took a break for about five or six years. Then I decided that I wanted to try and play music again because I missed it but I knew things would have to be different. Shanghai Dog was a kind of “all for one and one for all” type of thing that was somewhat democratic. There was a lot of sharing of the writing credits and voting on how we were going to do things. Unfortunately, as you get older it’s harder to hold a band together with people getting married, having kids and embarking on various careers. This time I wanted to see if I could put something together where I wrote the songs and played with different musicians in a group that was able to expand and contract depending on people’s availability and the size of the venue. I wanted to be able to have the option to do everything from house concerts and coffee houses to bars and music halls. One day a friend of mine said he was going to have a St. Patrick’s Day party at his house. He was going to bring in kegs of Guinness and asked me if I wanted to play at this wingding. I figured that he just wanted the musicians to set up in a corner of his place and play acoustically so I asked Everett Raeburn (formerly of Family Plot) to play drums, guitarist Brian Barr to bring his mandolin instead and Rod Wawryk to grab his accordion. Mark Brichon who had been playing electric bass on some demos of new stuff I was working on said he had a tenor banjo that he’d like to play and I said bring it along. Since Mark was on banjo instead of bass Everett suggested that we ask his old friend and bandmate from Family Plot, Bernie Addington, if he wanted to play upright bass with us and he came on board. As it turned out, there were other bands playing that night too and one of them brought a full on PA for everyone to play through. We plugged in the “acoustic” instruments, started playing and it clicked from the get go. The different instrumentation breathed new life into the songs. It was easier to sing to, the lyrics came across better and the music had all these different dynamics. It felt like this was the way the songs were meant to be performed. Because of all those things as well as the fact that I was on acoustic guitar and the mandolin, banjo and accordion players were performing with instruments they had limited experience on, there was this exciting feeling of newness within the group. I instantly felt ten years younger, like I was in my first band again. We started getting more gigs and it was going over very well.
We knew we had to record this stuff and Brian Barr had some microphones and a couple of ¼ inch reel to reel 8-track tape machines that he could sync up together so we started recording in various kitchens, basements and living rooms. It was a really lo-fi approach but it worked with what and how we were playing. With that, we released our debut CD, the Circus In Flames.
Where did the name "Circus In Flames" come from?
I think I was trying to come up with a name that implied things going to hell in a handbasket.
Did you think when you recorded the first CD that you would still be making this kind of music fifteen years later...?
I never thought too far ahead. I was just happy that we’d gotten this thing off the ground and had recorded a disc that I was proud of.
In regard to the first song on that first album, “Down on the Fraser,” I wondered if the Fraser River was an important part of your youth? (It was for me, so I'm grateful for the song. I used to sit on log booms and eat pizza with a friend... I went there when I was depressed and felt consoled by the feeling of its indifference, its ceaseless flow, which transcended my own problems... I have tons of stories, watching beavers strip bark on its banks, reaching into the water and catching an oolichen, spending a whole night as a kind of experiment sitting on a forested area above the water and just listening and thinking and such and having some furry unseen mammal snuffle by me in the dark...). Do you know other songs about the Fraser? Where did this one come from? (It seems to involve finding a dead body, but I have no idea what story that's referring to).
My boyhood home was close to the foot of Fraser Street so most of our parents drew a boundary at Marine Drive for us kids not to cross. The river was beyond that and around there it was pretty industrial at the time with a lot of mills, a meat packing plant, factories and fabricating shops. It wasn’t very kid-friendly so of course that’s where we’d ride our bikes to: the forbidden zone. We’d do things like climb up these huge mountains of wood chips and bounce our way back down. I think that’s where I injured my back. Some of us had mini-bikes which were primitive miniature motorcycles powered by a small lawnmower motor. Mine was a piece of crap that never worked. You could find vacant lots down around the Fraser River where you could ride them without getting caught by the cops. When we were about twelve, three of my friends were riding on trails around there when one of the kids had to take a leak and discovered a body. It was a young man who’d disappeared with his girlfriend after trying to hitchhike home from the PNE. My friends were very frightened and took off looking for a place to call the police from. I remember them telling me that every once and a while a car would pass them and they were afraid it was the murderer returning to the scene of the crime. They finally found this old shack and banged on the door but the guy inside wouldn’t open it. They explained the situation to him through the door and after several minutes he finally believed them but then told them he didn’t have a phone. That’s what it could be like down there back then. A bit hillbilly. It seemed to take years before someone was caught and there was a trial. By then my friends were in high school and had to do homework in some room at the courthouse while they waited to get called to the witness stand. You look back on it as an adult and it was a pretty horrible experience for them to have to go through.
By the way, to flash forward a bit, is "Woke Up in the River"—on the new album—referencing the Fraser, too, or is it a metaphor for something else, or...?
“Woke Up in the River” isn’t specifically about the Fraser. I think that song was inspired by alienation, homelessness and loneliness.
The first couple of Circus In Flames albums seem more overt as "storytelling," while Outside America seems more of a mood album—it has stories, but they're often a bit less beginning-middle-end-y compared to something like "Helmut," say. Am I wrong about that? Whose storytelling-in-song do you find most inspiring and satisfying (besides, obviously, Dylan).
Besides Dylan I really like Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Hank and Lucinda Williams, Robert Johnson, Black Francis. There are tons of great songwriters and storytellers out there.
When it comes to actual traditional songs, what are some of your covers, live? Based on a quick listen to your three CDs—and discounting "The Cuckoo," more on which below—I only spot one full on cover, "Waiting For a Train," which I know best via, I think, Jimmie Rodgers and in part Mississippi John Hurt... I presume it is an old traditional? (Why cover that particular song? Have you ever ridden the rails? Petunia tells me people still do that back east!).
I believe “Waiting For A Train” was written by Jimmie Rodgers and his sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams and he recorded it in 1928. I don’t know if that constitutes it being a traditional song. I just thought it was a good one and I figured the current instrumentation of the Circus In Flames at that time (mandolin, tenor banjo, acoustic archtop guitar, accordion, upright bass and drums) could do an interesting version of it. But I’ve yet to hitch a ride on a boxcar.
We always like to sprinkle a cover or two into the set and over the years the band has performed a number of them. “The CooCoo Bird,” “Old Joe Clark” and “The Lakes Of Pontchartrain” are ones that I suppose would be considered traditional but Circus In Flames shows have at various times featured everything from “Pennies From Heaven” to Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory.”
“The Cucko'” (aka “The Cuckoo”) doesn't seem a cover so much as a reworking, it is a very loose adaptation. I love the original but I have no idea what it's about. Do you understand the original song? What the hell is the whole thing about the Jack of Diamonds? (Also important in a Townes Van Zandt song that I love, "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold," but I dunno if you like Townes). Curious why you begin your version with a nod to the original and then take it somewhere totally different... what is YOUR "Cuckoo" about?
I love Clarence Ashley’s version of “The Coo Coo Bird” that I learned from listening to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. I’ve read that its roots go back hundreds of years to England. I don’t totally understand the song but maybe that’s why I love it. There is so much mystery in the music on that anthology. I get the same feeling when I hear Robert Johnson. It doesn’t need to be explained. On “The Cucko’” [as it is represented on the album] I took the first couple of lines from “The Coo Coo Bird” and went off writing about a guy beginning to find love again after having lost it to an unfaithful lover. “Cucko’” partially refers to the word cuckold, the husband of an adulterous wife. “Cuckold” derives its meaning from the cuckoo or coo coo bird because they are sometimes known to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. So, in the folk and blues tradition of borrowing a line or melody from another song and have it evolve into something else, I thought I’d tie in the beginning of “The Coo Coo Bird” to my song. And yes, “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” is a wonderful song.
Your voice on the Circus In Flames second CD, 2006’s A Little Bit of Gasoline seems to be really pushing its expressive envelope, especially on songs like "Decatur Blues" and the title track. You really snarl and whoop at times. You SEEM to have toned that back for Outside America —again, I may be wrong. Was there a reason you were pushin' so hard on the previous album?
A Little Bit Of Gasoline was the first Circus In Flames recording with electric guitar and it’s fairly prominent on those two songs. I think I was trying to match the intensity of Brian Barr’s playing. I was also going through a pretty stressful time in my personal life when I wrote those songs so those vocals may have been a bit of an anger outlet for me. The band has actually been taking quite a different approach to A Little Bit Of Gasoline for a while now. Not so manic but it works in a different way.
This may or may not be an observation you want to speak to, but one thing I like about all three of these albums is... I don't notice the influence of Tom Waits IN THE SLIGHTEST. I like Tom Waits, but I get really tired of people who take him as the be-all-and-end-all of a certain kind of music, and overdo references to him. I like that there is OBVIOUS overlap between the songs you write and the songs he writes, but that you don't EVER try to sound like him or use the same sort of clever phrasings he does. This isn't even really a question…
Uh well, I’m very pleased that you don’t think I imitate Tom Waits because although I’m a huge fan and he has definitely had a big influence on me, I don’t want to BE him. You do have to make your own way. But he is a giant in my eyes.
A university professor once insisted in class that all great tales of romantic love involve infidelity, and I immediately thought of that when hearing "Magic Kiss." (Which is probably the most overt "story" song on the CD...). Where did that song come from?
That was me trying to write something along the lines of an old English ballad or folk song but instead of a fair maiden meeting a wandering prince it was a guy driving a truck. It’s one of my favourites.
Did JFK really die on your Dad's 49th birthday? (It's impossible for me to know how much of your stuff is autobiographical and how much is fiction, or if you feel strongly for/ against people writing from their own lives and experiences. I've known writers who feel like imagination is key and that autobiography is narcissistic, lazy, and boring, but there seems to be a real tendency to "write about what you know" now, even if what you know is limited).
Yes, that is true. Kennedy was assassinated on my dad’s 49th birthday. There is often autobiographical and fictional stuff in the same song. You can take things that have happened to you and add things that happened to other people and then make something up and mix it in there, too. There really aren’t any rules. "Helmut" was like that.
Speaking of which, "Helmut" is a hell of a story. Is any of it drawn from life, or is it characters/ fiction? (I am presuming you never danced on a dead man's chest).
My friend had told me a story about a body being found on the roof of a building his apartment overlooked. I started imagining myself being one of the people that had been there when the death happened and then got hauled in for questioning. But I, personally, have never danced on a dead man’s chest. At least, I’d never admit to it. You go to jail for that.
To be honest, I don’t really enjoy talking a lot about what the stories are about. It seems to kind of defeat the purpose. Don’t get me wrong, I often listen to words other people have written and wonder “What made him/her write that?” or “Did that really happen to that person?” but I think song writing or storytelling can be a bit of a magic show. Some might say a con job. You let people in on a story and they use their imagination to take it wherever they want. Give them too much outside information about the song and you could destroy the magic show. They might go, “Oh I thought that song was about this but I read where he said it was about that” and it might snuff out the story that they’d originally imagined it to be which is probably far more interesting than what I said it was about.
Okay, but I have to ask about one more song—“Fall Into Line.” You introduced it at the Anza Club gig a few weeks ago by talking about your own union involvement, but as union songs go, it seems like it’s pretty ambivalent.
South Van in the '60s and '70s was very blue collar. My dad was a machinist in a factory and a member of the Steelworkers Union. My first summer job was working in one of the plywood mills down below Marine Drive. I’ve worked a lot of those types of jobs. Warehouse work, driving forklifts, working in mills, truck driving, so I’ve belonged to a few unions. Teamsters, IWA, CUPE. The only post-secondary education I have is an air-brake course so I could drive a truck. I’ve been on strike a number of times. The first time as a teenager with the IWA but it wasn’t totally foreign to me. I remember my dad being out on strike a few times when I was a kid.
I’ve never gotten really heavily involved like trying to bring a union into a non-union shop but I’ve done things to contribute, like helping to organize and perform at a hardship fundraiser during a strike. I have a great deal of respect for the people who step up and work in the union executive. It’s hard and often thankless work that somebody’s got to do and they take it on.
As far as the song “Fall Into Line” goes, it’s not just about unions specifically. For me, it’s about trying to figure out when to join a group to pull together to fight for or against something and when to pull back and retain your individuality. Sometimes there’s a dilemma. At least for me there is.
That doesn't sound like something people committed to leftist politics would say a lot—so it makes me wonder what your politics are! The Shanghai Dog stuff I've heard makes just enough references to working struggle that I presume it coming from a more dogmatically Left place, maybe even a Communist one?
My politics have always leaned towards the NDP and the Greens. There really isn’t anything very interesting I have to say about it. I am not now nor at any time have I ever been a member of the Communist Party although I did invite one to come and speak at my school in Grade 10.
Ha. Okay. So I know a few people who admire your music. Adrian Mack played on bills with Circus In Flames when he was in John Ford, and liked what you do (he's a big Levon Helm fan too by the way). Rodney DeCroo spoke highly of you (and shares at least a drummer with you, in Ed Goodine, right?) And of course Al Mader respects you a lot. Are there any allies or collaborators you want to give nods to here, whose support has meant a lot, or who you've really enjoyed sharing the stage with?
Al Mader (The Minimalist Jug Band) really is one of my favourite performers and poets and I’ve been honoured to have him invite me to play shows with him. John Ford was a cool band for us to play with many years back. I think Rich Hope spent some time with them as well. Rodney DeCroo is a great and prolific songwriter. Yes, Ed Goodine, Brian Barr and Phil Addington have all played with him. There are a lot of great singer-songwriters that have lived or played out of Vancouver over the years. I think C.R. Avery is a huge talent, and there’s Bocephus King, Graham Brown, Herald Nix, Linda McRae. Some of them don’t live here anymore but they have a definite connection here.
Because I forgot to do it in the first interview, I also wanted to say how important Joe Keithley was to helping local bands along. DOA toured a lot right from the start and when you wanted to hit the road you went to Joey because he had the big black book with all the connections across North America and beyond. Joe was always ready to share that information and it was crucial. More than once he assisted broke bands on the road onto a DOA bill to help get them on to the next town.
Do you still tour widely?
The Circus In Flames doesn’t tour like Shanghai Dog did, especially into the States. Part of that is because we now have families and jobs and businesses to work at but also it’s much more difficult. In the old days you could set up a tour, have someone with American citizenship drive your equipment across the border and away you’d go without any work permits. That’s way too risky now. In the computer age the authorities have much more information at their fingertips.
Has there been any high point in terms of live performances re: the Circus in Flames that you want to mention?
This wasn’t a live performance but back in 2007 Peter North and Holger Petersen asked us to play on a tribute album to Ian Tyson called The Gift. We were lucky enough to record one of his biggest hits, “Someday Soon” and Ron Allan contacted Buddy Cage and he agreed to play on it with us. Buddy had played pedal steel guitar in Tyson’s band Great Speckled Bird but was even more well known for being a member of the New Riders of the Purple Sage as well as playing on Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks album. Our version turned out pretty well and we ended up on this album alongside people like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Chris Hillman of the Byrds and Gordon Lightfoot. The Toronto Star named “Someday Soon” the top track on the album.
Has any of what you learned with Shanghai Dog paid off in terms of the current band, or has the music "business" changed too much for lessons back then to still be relevant?
I really haven’t gained a lot of knowledge of the music business from playing in bands. It’s always remained a mystery to me. Things that I learned in Shanghai Dog that I’d still use with the Circus would probably pertain more to traveling on the road. I was just talking to a harmonica player friend of mine in Edmonton and he reminded me of a quote he’d heard relating to being on tour. I think it’s been attributed to Carl Perkins and goes something like, “Sleep when you’re not tired, eat when you’re not hungry and shower when you’re not dirty because you never know when you’ll get another opportunity.” That’s something I learned from playing in bands.
Are things a lot different from the days of Shanghai Dog?
One thing that’s a lot different is that Shanghai Dog never played music festivals. The Circus In Flames has been fortunate enough to play a few. You’re usually pretty well taken care of with accommodations, food and travel. They usually pay you quite decently, too.
Anything I've missed—stuff that needs to be said about the band, or stuff relating to the gig that I should include?
The current version of the Circus In Flames includes long time members Brian Barr on electric guitar and mandolin and Ed Goodine on drums. The latest members to run away and join the Circus are bassist Phil Addington (The Insex, Family Plot, Swank and the VanRays) and on banjitar, Brian Thalken. Brian was in one of the very early California punk bands, the Authorities out of Stockton.
Regarding Outside America: Sandy Beach (The Spores and Aging Youth Gang) played trumpet on “You Call My Name.” Simon Kendall (keyboards with Doug and the Slugs) played accordion on “Fall Into Line.”
Okay, a final question: Outside America is a really evocative title, but I can take it in a few directions. Was there one you were thinking of more than others? Do you consider the music you make a kind of "Americana," or do you see your music as Canadian? Do you have any strong ties or fans in the USA? Do you tour there often? Why make America the topic of your album title at this juncture?
I was thinking about the song “Don’t Believe I’m the Same Man” and part of it includes a Canadian living illegally in the States. I was thinking about how much of an influence America and especially American culture has had on me as a Canadian. You can’t avoid it and especially with music there are so many American artists that I love. It’s a long list of names: Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Iggy Pop, Louis Armstrong and on and on…I enjoy listening to them and have been inspired by them. They’ve had a tremendous influence on the music I make. But I’m not American and only one guy in the band is, so the music we make isn’t American. It can be considered close but not American. It’s from Outside America. Then the election happened and we got things like America First and Make America Great Again and suddenly, almost daily, Outside America started opening up some more interpretations. Like for some, a more desirable and safer place to be.
Doug Andrew and the Circus In Flames plays three sets at Falconetti’s East Side Grill on Saturday (September 9 ). No cover, show starts at 9 P.M.