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'Our best work' 

A conversation with Cowboy Junkies guitarist Michael Timmins

THE PAST 23 YEARS have seen the Cowboy Junkies evolve from a little-known Toronto bar band to a consistently impressive, internationally-known act with over a dozen albums to their name.

Essentially a family affair, the group consists of vocalist Margo Timmins and her brothers Michael (guitar) and Peter (drums and percussion). Bassist Alan Anton has been on board since the beginning, and is the only core member not related by blood.

Initially garnering college radio buzz for the brazenly retro (at the time) approach of cutting their first two indie LPs completely live to 2-track using only one very sensitive microphone placed in the musicians’ midst, they have since gone on to embrace lush and layered multi-track studio techniques. The result? Gorgeous, adult-oriented modern rock informed by Americana and a dreamy take on Canadian-tinged country music.

click to enlarge junkies_stairs.jpg

The group recently celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the recording sessions for their breakthrough LP The Trinity Session, which yielded their biggest U.S. hit: a dark and wistful cover of the Velvet Underground gem “Sweet Jane” (songwriter Lou Reed once called this his favorite version of the oft-recorded tune). They did so by revisiting the church where the original album was recorded.

There they welcomed a handful of guest musicians (including 10,000 Maniacs’ Natalie Merchant and roots-rock figurehead Ryan Adams) for an updated reworking of that album’s setlist that was professionally documented and released as a combination CD and DVD set.

Though the Junkies’ albums rarely chart outside of the Great White North, they routinely pack theaters and large showcase venues in the U.S. and abroad. I caught up with Michael Timmins in advance of this rare visit to Savannah (courtesy of Wagatail Productions).

Your band first came to the attention of many when your version of the Velvet Underground’s should’ve-been-a-hit “Sweet Jane.” Although your band has obviously evolved and grown musically over the following decades, one can still hear much of that band’s pioneering blend of confessional melancholy and droning grooves in Cowboy Junkies’ own repertoire. Would it be safe to say that the Velvets’ back catalog remains a source of inspiration for the group both sonically and lyrically?

Michael Timmins: Yes, the Velvet Underground have always been a large influence on the bands aesthetic. We don’t consciously reference them anymore, but their influence is buried deep inside us.

What in particular was it about the VU’s music that spoke to the Timmins siblings when they were first exposed to it as children?

Michael Timmins: It was just so different than anything else that we had heard at that time. Lyrically and sonically they were exploring areas that few rock bands had approached. Their music hinted at worlds that, as young teens, we had yet to uncover.

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Here's the official music video for the Cowboy Junkies cover of "Sweet Jane":

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At the time you made your first forays into record-making, were there ever detailed conversations about concrete career goals the band envisioned, or, like many young groups, were the Cowboy Junkies more caught up in the moment of trying to make records for posterity rather than thinking long-term?

Michael Timmins: It was always about the project in front of us and never about where that project might or might not lead. It’s still the same in many ways.

Many groups who go from being ultra-indie or DIY to being heavily hyped in the music press (and even in the mainstream media) run into all sorts of unforeseen problems as a result of the intense pressure and scrutiny which comes along with such exposure. Looking back, what were some of the hardest aspects of such exposure that the band really had to grapple with, and was there ever a time when you feared the group might not withstand that onslaught?

Michael Timmins: The biggest problem was dealing with all of the demands on one’s energy that the “machine” demanded. In many ways, we were very good at shielding ourselves from the more unseemly sides of the industry. It helped that we lived in Toronto and not L.A. or New York. I think we were very good at keeping unwanted elements out of the creative process — but there is no way of keeping that much energy completely out. It has a way of seeping in through the cracks. When we were in our final year with Geffen and the company was rapidly disintegrating, we realized that we needed to get out from underneath the corporate edifice or we wouldn’t survive for much longer. Dealing with the ups and downs of the corporation and with the revolving door of personnel changes was becoming much too draining. After ten years of it, we’d had enough and were determined to start taking back the business side of what we do.

Cowboy Junkies maintains a loyal live following around the world, and certainly in the USA, although, like many adult-oriented rock acts, it would seem that the band’s radio airplay and record sales may not often reflect that outside of Canada. I notice that you release your own albums independently and license them to different labels in different markets, as well as maintain your own website. Have you found taking these responsibilities on for yourselves to be more liberating or more frustrating, as opposed to having a label or large organization handle such things for you?

Michael Timmins: Its definitely more liberating. There are many frustrations involved in doing it yourself, but at least the setbacks are of your own making. One doesn’t feel as helpless as one does when one is trying to wade through the corporate red tape to find out if people are doing the job that they said that they would do.

If I understand correctly, this is the first and only serious band for most if not all of the members. Has the longevity and close nature of the group been a help or a hindrance in creative terms? In other words, has there ever been a fear that Cowboy Junkies was perhaps too insular for its own good?

Michael Timmins: Alan and I formed two bands before the Junkies (Hunger Project and Germinal) and although we never had any commercial success with them, they were pretty serious as far as we were concerned. I am certainly aware of the dangers to the creative nature of the band that its insularity might create. I try and fight against it by doing a lot of outside projects and by bringing those influences into our projects. That said, I think these past few years has seen some of our best work. I would rank At The End Of Paths Taken, our last studio album, as one of our best. And I think the Trinity Revisited DVD/CD is excellent from all angles, especially our performance.

You recently revisited The Church of the Holy Trinity, to pay homage to your breakthrough album of 1987 by recording new versions of those songs, often with guest artists along for the ride. How were those artists chosen? Did they approach the band, or did the band draw up a wish list and then set about making invitations?

Michael Timmins: We had a wish list which was constantly evolving. Ryan Adams was the first to get involved and from there we began to think in terms of how many more artists do we want and what do we want from the other guests.

How much rehearsal went into that concert/recording event?

Michael Timmins: I had sent Ryan and Natalie (Merchant) and Vic (Chesnutt) a brief outline of what we were going to try and achieve with the recording, and briefly sketched ideas for their parts. I made sure to stress that we were very prepared to let the music evolve and to not stick to any sort of script. It was important for them to bring their own creativity and patience. We rehearsed for a few hours, while the film crew was setting up, the day before the recording session and video shoot. It was important that we didn’t go into the recording being over-prepared. We wanted this session to have the same kind of spontaneity that the original session had.

What was the most pleasant surprise or unexpected outcome of that undertaking?

Michael Timmins: Aside from acting as sidemen on each song, we also gave Ryan, Natalie and Vic a song that they were to take the lead vocal on and create in their own image. I think those three songs are my favorite parts of the recording. I love what the three of them brought.

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Here's Ryan Adams sitting in with the band at their "Trinity Revisited" concert:

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Now that you have taken an updated look back at that landmark album, has it reinvigorated the band as far as playing that material live, or in a sense was this a way to bid a fond farewell to some of those tunes and move forward in perhaps a new direction?

Michael Timmins: Neither really. Those songs will always be, and have always been, in our catalogue to a greater or lesser extent. Its not like we have been feeding on that album for creative inspiration for the past 20 years, so the idea of now letting it go so that we can move forward is kind of irrelevant as far as we are concerned.

What can folks in Savannah expect from this upcoming concert? What will the setlist consist of - any new, unreleased material from your rumored upcoming album?

Michael Timmins: There will be a healthy sprinkling of Trinity and Paths Taken material — plus some odds and ends from the larger catalogue and three or four new songs that we’re working on.

Here’s the Lightning Round: What are three albums that can usually be found in heavy rotation on the band’s tour bus?

Michael Timmins: We’re currently obsessed with a DVD of some of the blues giants in concert in the U.K. in the mid-60’s: Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, etc... Most other music is on our individual iPods. I’ve been listening to Neil Young’s Live at Canterbury House 1968. It’s quite a document of innocence lost. He sounds so young and naive and then you think of what is to come a few years down the line...

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Here's their cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road":

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Is there one type of food or restaurant the band always tries to avoid when on the road?

Michael Timmins: We avoid all fast food, except for pizza.

Most thrilling show or venue the Cowboy Junkies ever played?

Michael Timmins: The Royal Albert Hall in London.

Single biggest business mistake the band ever made (and that you wish you could retract)?

Michael Timmins: We should have licensed The Trinity Session to BMG instead of (just) signing it over. I kick myself monthly over that one. But back then, I had no idea what licensing was and it’s possible they wouldn’t have gone for it in any case. They had all the power.

Approximate ratio of songs the band composes versus the ones that finally make the cut to be on your albums?

Michael Timmins: 3:2

Over the past few years, Bob Dylan has licensed his songs and/or performances for ads promoting Cadillac, Pepsi, Victoria’s Secret, and now a European grocery store chain. What’s the verdict: crass sellout or hilariously sly opportunist?

Michael Timmins: In this day and age its very hard to make a living creating music. Take the money and rock.

If the band could choose one living musician they’d most treasure the opportunity to collaborate with (either live or in the studio), who would it likely be?

Michael Timmins: Scarlet Johannson.

Do you feel it will be easier for people to rock now that George W. Bush is out of office?

Michael Timmins: Bad times are usually good for rocking — so he has laid a strong foundation for years of rocking to come.

What’s the single biggest misconception people seem to have about the Cowboy Junkies?

Michael Timmins: That we’re a family band. It’s just a coincidence that we have the same last name.

Wagatail presents: Cowboy Junkies

When: Fri., 8 pm.

Where: Trustees Theater

Cost: $25 (ALL-AGES)

Info: trusteestheater.com, cowboyjunkies.com

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