Skydiggers – But not that hip
Given that the Skydiggers are a product of the same mid-’80s Toronto scene that spawned Blue Rodeo and Cowboy Junkies, fans of the band should be forgiven for being alarmed at the opening moments of their fifth and latest album, Desmond’s Hip City. On the title track, that’s a dub-heavy drum loop thumping in the background — this from a gang whose work has typically drawn comparisons to Sweetheart-era Byrds and vintage Neil Young.
“There’s a lot of different stuff on this record,” said guitarist Josh Finlayson as the group prepared for their visit to the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin in March. “There’s country stuff, and ‘Desmond’s Hip City’ does have a drum loop. Nobody could believe it is us, but Andy [singer Andy Maize] and I could sit here with a guitar and sing it alongside a traditional song.”
Desmond’s Hip City moves from the cut-and-paste weirdness of the title track, to the straightforward bang-and-jangle of “Only A Fool” and “Shape Of Things To Come”, to the Lennonesque oddity “Jade Hops” (with lyrics lifted from an Asian sex manual), to the heart-melting “Dear Henry”, performed as a boy-girl country duet with Weeping Tile singer Sarah Harmer.
The Skydiggers’ five records trace a remarkable evolution in sound and style, while always staying true to one simple principle: It’s about songs, stupid. “All that matters to me is that it is a good record,” Finlayson says. “I stand by that from record one to the last record. The band has always been very song-oriented. I saw this record as an opportunity to explore.”
But the new album is more than just a departure in style. It’s also the group’s first release on their own Hip City Records. After recording for now-defunct U.S. super-indie Enigma and Canadian indie FRE, the Skydiggers jumped to the Canadian division of Warner for 1995’s Road Radio. Always one of the hottest draws on the Canadian club circuit, the band hoped moving to a major would expand their audience and win them an international release. It didn’t happen, and at the first opportunity, they extracted themselves from the Warner pact.
“We convinced ourselves that selling 2550,000 records wasn’t enough. We thought our audience was bigger than the number of records we were selling, and perhaps it was,” said Finlayson. “But 50,000 is a lot of records, any way you cut it. As a result, we have come to the conclusion that that’s reason for going back and doing it on our own.”
Back in high school, Finlayson first fell under the spell of traditional acoustic music, but picked up a bass to join friends in a punk band called the Ramblers. In the early ’80s, that group relocated to England and was briefly managed by the Clash’s svengali, Bernie Rhodes (Finlayson lived above a Brixton music store called Desmond’s Hip City).
“We ended up meeting him and all the guys in the Clash,” Finlayson recalls. “The Clash were pretty important to people at the time. When we saw them, we realized they were all just big rock stars…We were all excited, because we thought we were going to be the next big thing.”
When the Ramblers fell apart, Finlayson returned to Toronto and looked up Maize, an old acquaintance whose college-rock outfit Direktive 17 had similarly dissolved. They hooked up as an acoustic duo, released a single as West Montrose and traveled around Canada together.
At about that same time the music scene in their hometown was undergoing a renaissance. Groups with a love of songwriting and rootsy playing flourished along the Queen Street West bar strip — Cowboy Junkies, Blue Rodeo and a host of equally cherished acts. Songwriter Andrew Cash, at the time freshly signed to Island Records, hosted a regular Monday night acoustic hoot at the tiny Spadina Hotel and invited Finlayson and Maize along. Cash’s brother Peter worked the door, passed the duo a tape of his songs, and jumped aboard. They found bassist Ron Macey through a newspaper ad; Wayne Stokes, a friend who owned a recording studio, took over as drummer.
The Skydiggers quickly garnered a devoted local following. Almost as quickly, they landed the Enigma deal, and in 1990 they released their eponymous debut. Over the years, the sound of the band has evolved and personnel has changed. Since Stokes’ departure in 1992, they’ve run through a Spinal Tapian succession of drummers. Singer-songwriter Peter Cash left in 1996; more recently, Finlayson has stepped to the fore and taken on more of the Skydiggers’ songwriting.
What hasn’t changed is the chemistry the band shares onstage. In between promoting Desmond’s Hip City, writing material for their next studio album and running their label, they finally got around to capturing the spark on a live album, due out in May.
“Instinct is a big part of playing live,” said Finlayson. “Despite the changes in the band over the years, what makes it work live is there has got to be a common reference point. You have to find that energy, and between Andy and me, it is very instinctual. After 13 years of playing together, so much of it is instinct. So much of the stuff just plays itself.”