Don Pyle sheds light on Shadowy Men reunion
To many, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet are remembered as being the band that soundtracked the formative years of countless Canadians through their presence on The Kids in the Hall . Their music was used throughout the show's run, and the closing track of their debut album, "Having an Average Weekend," played during the title credits for the entirety of the series. To leave it at that would be a major disservice to their extensive catalog, though - from 1984 to 1994 they released countless EPs, singles, and three full-lengths that still hold up as some of the best genre-straddling music of the day.
There are flashes of rockabilly, post-punk, and yes, even a bit of surf thrown in (even if they don't want to admit it), all mixed with the ethos of the punk-informed late '80s underground. Despite the variance, the common thread running through their material is rapid fire, mostly instrumental songs that always tend to maximize melody in a bare minimum amount of time. The group disbanded in 1994, and with bassist Reid Diamond's death in 2001, it looked like the possibility of a Shadowy Men reunion was off the table for good.
However, with the reissue of their three LPs (the first, Savvy Show Stoppers, is out this month care of Mammoth Cave), drummer Don Pyle and guitarist Brian Connelly enlisted Dallas Good of the Sadies to fill in for the late Diamond on a few select Canadian dates this summer, including a nearly sold out show at Lee's Palace tomorrow night. I had the opportunity to ask Pyle a few questions about revisiting old material two decades later, what he and Brian have been up to in the interim, and their successful return at Calgary's Sled Island festival.
Why now for a Shadowy Men reunion? With reunion fever having been in full swing over the last few years, and many of these bands playing bigger venues to larger audiences than the first time around, why did it take this long to get you guys playing together again?
When there are only three people and it's instrumental music, each voice is a huge part of the sound. With our bass player Reid Diamond no longer being alive, there wasn't even a band to reunite. As such, to us this hasn't been a reunion. Reunion fever should remain locked in a bottle along with Rockin' Pneumonia and Boogie-Woogie flu. We haven't caught reunion fever, and in many ways, the idea of a few people playing rock music together is so mind-numbingly common that some of the preciousness of that whole band thing evaporates. So, why not? We are alive, and doing this sounded like fun right now.
These shows totally came about because of Mammoth Cave reissuing our three albums over the next year and asking us if we'd consider playing at Sled Island. We hadn't really considered it on our own so it was a good case of someone else putting the idea into our heads. Once we thought about what the reality of doing this now is, especially with Dallas, it all seemed like nothing but great and enjoyable.
Was the prospect of playing out again brought up prior to Reid's death in 2001? Did you think that closed the book on the band at the time?
There was never any talk about being Shadowy Men again. We all had more than enough new things going on that there was no reason for us to return to S Men at that time.
Dallas Good of The Sadies is filling in on bass. How did that come about?
Dallas is really an aspiring bass player, as most guitar players are. Our connections go back pretty far. Dallas's old band, The Satanatras, did shows with S Men. I recorded the first Sadies sessions and still continue working in the studio with Dallas all the time. Brian and Dallas both played with Neko Case early on, and it was Dallas who took over Brian's parts for the Jad Fair collab album, in what eventually became Phono-Comb - which also included Reid, Beverly Breckenridge and I. Reid occasionally played lap steel with The Sadies too. Being a close friend of ours and Reid's - and he seemed to like our music too - made him really the only person we wanted to do this with.
In your original incarnation, much was said of how certain options were limited as a result of (mostly) not having vocals. However, you guys went on to win a Juno and create music original and striking enough to be in demand two decades later. Do you feel like this 'glass ceiling' for instrumental bands really exists?
It's easier to get things done when you aren't aware of what the so-called limitations are. We saw losing the singer as being really freeing. All of a sudden we were unburdened by the need for a PA, we didn't have to repeat chorus ad nauseum to accommodate words, and without a singer, others heard the potential in us for scoring. Atmospheric music and film scores were certainly a big influence on us so it opened up great opportunities. We were the three-legged dog that didn't know it was missing a leg until other people told us.
We weren't after Bon Jovi's coveted spot so we didn't miss what we didn't aspire to.
When you did utilize vocals, such as on "5 American 6 Canadian" or "Dim the Lights, Chill the Ham," what role did they serve? Was it a conscious effort to avoid lazy categorization?
I don't think we were ever formalists about being "instrumental" so we used and did whatever entertained or suited us in the moment.
So are you and Brian still living in Toronto? How do you feel like the music scene in Toronto has changed or not changed since Shadowy Men was an active concern? What have the two of you been up to since the band's dissolution?
Yes, we both are still here. It's a pretty good place, mostly. When we were away, they invented the internet and that seems to be sticking. The most obvious change is in how much support, audience and information sharing there is for local music. There are more ways to reach an audience and the country is way more unified and less shame-based as "Canadian Music."
"Scenes" are nationally way more connected and unified so cuddlecore bands in Salmon Arm now feel community with their cuddlecore affiliates in Skinner's Pond. People in Vancouver know way more now about what is happening in Halifax, and vice versa. Of course, the downside is that things are more genre-oriented and the various niches are more fractured from each other. With the media explosion comes list explosion and a greater need to categorize, usually detrimentally.
The Toronto real estate cram means there are also way fewer places to rehearse now.
I made five albums collaboratively with Greek Buck/Andrew Zealley, including two feature film scores. I've created scores or sound design for a number of films, particularly for Wrik Mead and have two bands on the go. Black Heel Marks have one single out and an album almost finished. The Filthy Gaze of Europe, which is Dallas and I, have our first single out this week. I produce and mix recordings for others at my studio and I also published the book Trouble In The Camera Club last year.
Your original run found you taking idiosyncratic measures to provide a visual approach to your show, including building model rocket ships and giant clamshells to operate as backdrops. Why did you feel the need to augment your music with such a unique onstage approach? Can anything of the sort be expected at tonight's show at Lee's?
It was all a strategy to deflect attention and keep ourselves entertained. If we tap-danced like crazy, no one would notice how inept we were. All the time to build those things was a big part of our hanging out together, and the social component was always - and still is - a pretty big part of the pleasure of being in a band. As we got busier and toured more, those things started to feel like a burden and weren't as much fun to devote days to and they started falling away.
Lastly, can we expect any more surprises or activity from Shadowy Men in the near future?
We are playing the lovely Starlight Social Club in Waterloo on September 14, and will be doing a benefit show in Toronto very shortly. As of right now, our agenda extends to playing these few shows well, enjoying seeing many friends at the shows, and celebrating the release of our albums in a situation that feels so supportive. Anything beyond this is up in the air and can change at any moment.
Last two photos by Rebecca Diederichs, first photo by Heather Cameron.