Interview: The Band Whose Name Is Symbol
I really became a junkie for their records in the 1980’s. I’ve been “hardcore” with everything Can related since and play them or related stuff all the time to this very day. I find all of their records “transcendent”, I always get something new out of them, every single time, without ever tiring. I often think how incredible it is that after all of this passing time, that I have actually played drums behind Damo Suzuki 3 times!!! That’s pretty freaky...who’d have thought as a teen in the mid 70’s.
“Mark McIntyre and I started The Band Whose Name Is A Symbol after being the rhythm section in a hard 60’s/70’s style garage power trio called Four ‘N’ Giv’r. Over 4 years we released 2 full length albums and played many shows, sharing stages with Lost Sounds, King Khan BBQ, the Dirtbombs, Bellrays and many others”, John Westhaver, drumming psychonaut, record store owner, community radio host, and all round nice guy is reminiscing on the history of his band. Following the release of their latest album Droneverdose, and now a packed box set simply entitled Box II, The Band Whose Name Is Symbol have emerged from a thriving Canadian psych scene, as something of standard bearers for a do it yourself attitude. Picked up by Cardinal Fuzz, who have take it upon themselves to re-release a series of originally ridiculously limited albums to a wider psych buying public, there is almost some fortuitous timing going on. Of course, to do this, there has to be a history behind it all.
“We drafted two close friends to play guitars, one of whom was Bill Guerrero who had been playing drums in a great band with Mark called Weapons of Mass Seduction (Bo Diddley meets Headcoats style). We basically started jamming, mixing hard driving garage rock, with psych, proggy bits and freak out breakdowns. We started recording improvs straight away and based on these recordings developed semi structured pieces that could be played in various ways depending on circumstances. Framework was loosely established with the idea of free wheeling improvisation whenever and where ever”. John explains the early days of TBWNIS and how their jam ethos came about. It’s a loose style which means the band follow no rules, yet from that their came album releases.
“Coinciding with our 1st gig in the fall of 2008 we released a ltd. edition lathe cut album (40 copies). This was followed quickly by two vinyl only self released LPs (100 copies each) entitled Superficial Marks and Biker Smell. By 2011 we became a 6 piece and on occasion for gig purposes, as many as 9 players. We released 5 more LPs up until 2014 including one of 3 shows over 3 years we did with Damo Suzuki of Can.”
Where those early albums were sold strictly on a “who knew” basis, it was with Pathfinder that John would come in touch with Cardinal Fuzz, “At the end of 2014, Pathfinder was released and Dave Cambridge of Cardinal Fuzz got in touch regarding acquiring a load for his online record shop. I rushed a second pressing out of 100 copies to accomodate him as the first pressing sold out in less than 3 weeks. Cardinal Fuzz released our next studio recording Masters Of The Molehill 2015 and a number of others since”. It’s been a working relationship built on mutual trust and friendship, which has ultimately led to the band gaining a wider reputation within the psych community.
To listen to TBWNIS is to fall into a world where music structures take second place, and the emphasis is on “where the music takes them”. A song may sound one way on the record, and then completely different a night later when they are playing a show. “When we started the group, we intended to not be a “verse/chorus, verse verse/break/chorus” type of band. We all have done that and frankly it’s boring to play. It’s easy to do. It is more challenging to free wheel and let it rip. The chemistry either works or it does not. The nucleus of the band all have strong feelings as to what one another can put on the table at any time so we work “free” and then out of that “pieces” that are loosely structured take form. When we have a show, there is a skeletal set list. ‘Sour Kraut’ can be played one way this week and sound largely different the next.”, John opens up about how the bands inner workings happen, “Improvisation is encouraged but not spoken about much, it’s just the way that shit happens with us. Sometimes when we actually structure something it’s based on time. Having said that, some pieces which are say 6 minutes long generally can and have been played for 20 minutes…It’s largely a “mood” thing or even the type of gig maybe.”.
Much of this ethos is down to the kind of music they grew up with, “TBWNIS are a reflection of the music we all listen to. We are all avid music junkies and we are not kids”, John states, before opening up on krautrock, and in particular Can, “I ran into Can’s Ege Bam Yasi as a teenager the same year I scored Hawkwind’s Space Ritual. I was way into some obscure stuff but these 2 albums, freaked me out and excited me at the same time. I was reading Circus, Creem and a few other mags monthly at this time and then discovered Trouser Press. Ira Robbins and his “team” were writing about bands and records that were hard to find from the underground and all over the world and that excited me. Can’t recall who, but a bunch of obscure bands, were claiming Can as an influence and that made me really pay attention to them. I really became a junkie for their records in the 1980’s. I’ve been “hardcore” with everything Can related since and play them or related stuff all the time to this very day. I find all of their records “transcendent”, I always get something new out of them, every single time, without ever tiring. I often think how incredible it is that after all of this passing time, that I have actually played drums behind Damo Suzuki 3 times!!! That’s pretty freaky…who’d have thought as a teen in the mid 70’s.”
This love of music has played out is different ways than just as a fan and being in a band, and as well as running a record store, Birdman Sounds, he is also an avid community radio presenter. “Radio for the most part is and has always been shite on a general scale. Pandering to mainstream tastes and driven by advertisement revenue. Community /Camus based radio stations have been around in Canada for decades and have historically been staffed and run by folks who were deviants, rebels, mentally unbalanced and people with a vision of educating”, John opens up about his passion for radio, “I was drawn to involvement in 1979 and been “dedicated” since. Punk and new wave pushed me to it. I was a music junkie and a bit of a “class clown” so to say, so taking to a microphone and being the dj excited me. I have always looked at my capacity with being a radio programmer as being an “educator”. Community radio is a huge part of me and I know for a fact my input has been important for many others over many years.”
One of the more interesting factors about radio is that of curation, and with the birth of the Internet there becomes a lack of control over who curates what. Essentially this idea of curation takes a wider picture within John’s day job as storeholder of Birdman Sounds. “Curation has to be developed from solid provable years of participation to be taken seriously – in anything I think. Nowadays, everyone’s an instant something and an expert, the Internet and its simplistic access has made it easy for far too many people to do whatever and a ton of it is fucking horrid. Obviously the Internet and whatever access, has both good and bad aspects. Smart people with a thirst for discovery tend to find the great stuff..it’s out there you just have to have the passion and thirst for discovery”. It’s this thirst for discovery that you think would drive Birdman Sounds but John has another take on that.
“Birdman Sound started as a mailorder biz in 1989 and became brick ‘n’ mortar in 1991. I slung platters previously in 3 other shops going back to 1978. I have been a community radio programmer since 1980 and to this day attribute the majority of obscure stuff I sell in my shop to the fact that folks get exposed to it here and there through my radio show. The two do not cross pollinate promotionally ever, but after all this time with regard to both, smart peeps have figured it all out!”, John elaborates, and in the end it all comes down to this idea of “thirst for discovery”, the need to look out for new music however you can, “I think that many people are discovering more with relative ease due to the access allowed by the computer age. One needs a “thirst” for discovery and clearly loads have it. Having said that, 50 % of the folks that come through my record shop are lost. By that I mean, based on visuals, they know nothing on the surface. It’s not stupidity it’s simply lack of knowledge and maybe being “stuck” which can also lead to “fear”. Have seen this all my life. I do not sweat any of it. Through my shop and radio program and any band I’ve been in, it’s been working towards the educational side of whatever situation. Many are willing to experience new things but need guidance. There’s nothing wrong at all with always going back to The Grateful Dead, but the joy is, or should be, discovering WHY they existed and where they came into being from. Then, figure out they influenced others, who picked up the ball, or portion thereof, made it different, or their own ball and ran with it….it’s neverending…connect the dots and make the circles. The only way this happens though is you need to have “the thirst.”
As well as acting as a kind of curator of independent music, either through radio or his shop, there has also been promotion, “The shop has been the hub for bands rehearsing and starting out new projects. Also was heavily into booking and promoting live shows at many venues around town for many years. Have had the great honor of working on numerous occasions with The Bellrays, Dirtbombs, Andre Williams, Dead Moon, Nathaniel Mayer, Simply Saucer, Plastic Crimewave and a huge ton more too numerous to mention”, John explains. This promotion has now resulted in Ottawa Psych Fest due to take place on 7 July, “When Dave Cambridge was over last fall and Christopher Laramee of Shooting Guns was in town for a few shows as discussed, we kinda joked about doing something “next summer”. Chris messaged me late 2017 and said plan was to come out in the summer and I thought lets do a small psych fest and make it all Cardinal Fuzz centric, which it obviously is! The guy that owns the label is playing in The Golden Rule with the guy from The Dead Sea Apes and the rest of everyone has releases on the label as well…one big happy family evening of improvised socially oriented psychedelia”.
The mention of Dave Cambridge and the Cardinal Fuzz guys leads to a reminiscent discussion on their working relationship, and how it came about. “Well, Dave and I are both diehard fans of a lot of different kinds of music that spans the ages and many genres. He found me through my old blog and long running radio show back in 2010. We emailed a bit and then nothing for a few years and then he reached out when we self released Pathfinder and the rest is history. Hate to sound trite but it all just seems cosmic in a way. There’s some weird chemistry there that I cannot explain. Having said that, I would not take it personally, if he stopped releasing our music. We would still exist and so would Cardinal Fuzz. It’s just a thing. We are not doing anything that “fits” with any label,” John explains before eruditely praising them, “Dave also, to his credit, does not release “the same” fucking record over and over again. That’s why I religiously follow Cardinal Fuzz. I’m a fan of the label in general and a friend of the guy that runs it, two separate things there. Brett is a real close friend of Dave’s. Our latest studio LP Droneverdose was coming up at the end of 2017 for release in early 2018 and I thought given Brett’s artistic prowess which I greatly admire, why not ask if he’d be into doing the jacket…he said yes without hesitation, needed no direction and we were thrilled which what he came up with and, in “record” time !”
This collective theme, which is a common thread throughout all psych circles, as been a key part of TBWNIS to the point where a random act of kindness results in collaboration, “I love to bring other like-minded people who dig TBWNIS into the collective, artwork included. Another dude, Jeff McLennan who lives down in eastern Canada where I hail from, did both Pathfinder and Masters Of The Molehill LPs and under the same sort of scenario. Met him at a record fair in 2010 and he said he was a huge fan of the band. He offered his talents if I was ever interested and I eventually took him up on it. I did not know him from “Adam”!! I love having like-minded people involved in the TBWNIS collective in all aspects. I truly believe that it’s all about heart, love and togetherness, which makes projects fire properly. It separates honest and interesting music from the abundant dreck that sadly most people are into and seem to produce.”
Of course, all this talk of Cardinal Fuzz leads us to Box II, the new behemoth box set which takes in a bunch of older limited releases and provides them alongside some rare jams in one big package. But how did Box II come about? “Box II came about when Dave Cambridge of Cardinal Fuzz was over in Canada in October of 2017,” John states, before providing the full story, “Here’s the “skinny”. Me and Christopher Laramee of Shooting Guns hatched a plot to split airfare for Dave to come over as Shooting Guns were booked in Ottawa, for 2 nights at a local “old school” movie theatre- The Mayfair to improvise their suite and tribute to the classic silent film Nosferatu. I suggested to Chris, a secret LIVE show coincide with this event with The Symbol and Guns and we fly Dave over. That is what happened. What a week! Dave landed and was driven straight to our practice space and was literally lambasted with a full on TBWNIS rehearsal, jet lagged and all!!! Over a couple of beers some nights later, Dave suggested another box set and I said sure. The idea was obviously to include long out of print LPs not covered in the first box. Dave also thought a bonus LP and several CDs would also be included and I told him that he could have free reign to do whatever he wanted regarding the bonus stuff. I sent him roughly 35-40 unreleased “pieces” and said I wanted nothing to do with choosing any of the tracks, or the cover of ‘Basement Blowouts’, that would all be down to him and Brett Savage (Dead Sea Apes)”.
Those extra jams offer an insight into TBWNIS that you wont find in the albums. Playing much looser, old favourites, and new jams emerge from the practice room floor to ceate a nebulous cloud of music. Some of these have already made it on to their Bandcamp site, although whether they will find themselves on to platter is another thing…”Be nice to do The Damo Suzuki recording…the LP we released was edited to fit one LP from over two hours of actual recording. We also have audio from the following two shows with him that could also work on some “set”. Also there’s a shitload of stuff that Dave did not use when doing Blowouts, so always an option to do Vol. 2 of that I suppose. Yes…there are three or four Bandcamp digital only albums that I would love to see properly on vinyl…I dig those alot. Both UK labels Drone Rock and The Weird Beard approached me after I posted what were initially digital only albums. I’m always game and easy to deal with… You want to press 300 copies of something, send us 50 and you are part of our life, simple as that.”
That there are other labels interested pays homage to the respect that the band are deserving of. It’s a two way process though, and you can often find John championing his new favourite sounds. John provides a list of labels which he religiously buys from, “For new shit – Clostridium, Riot Season, Fuzz Club, Adansonia, Beyond Beyond Is Beyond, Gurugurubrain, Sulatron, Kommun2, Rocket Recordings etc. These bunch are my “go to” labels. Personally I buy everything bar none on all of them. Older re-issue labels that are paid close attention to are Lion Productions, Acme, Mental Experience, Wah Wah, Guerssen, and a bunch of other smaller outfits who once in awhile do something. I keep my finger on the pulse, trust me!”
Outside of all this music, John is more conservative about the Canadian music scene, “The Canadian music “scene” is a weird one…we have a ridiculously large land mass with very few people within that space. The most well known artists from here are utter rubbish for the most part and it’s more like a million little scenes with underground artists from all genres, coast to coast and always been that way…I pay zero attention to popular music and try to keep my ears and eyes peeled for stuff that’s in my general areas of interest. The garage and psych scenes here ebb and flow and always have…lots of folks are connected through the Internet but again due to the size of the country there is not tons of stuff always going on and not many festivals here either for that matter with those specific genres in question. There has always been great bands going back decades, but the more obscure stuff you might not ever see due to the aforementioned country size…one really has to read and research in “old school fashion” to find and discover”. It’s a situation which also as an impact on the wilder side of rock and roll life, or touring as its generaly known, “We don’t tour. In fact, we rarely play many shows in the run of a calendar year in our own town. We’ve been a six piece solidly for a bunch of years now and it’s hard enough to organize six grown, busy adults, much less nine! The parameters of “touring” in Canada cost wise, make it very irresponsible for a group such as TBWNIS as well. Some of us are self employed so lost wages are damn hard to recover. We live in a vast country where travel is super expensive and general interest in the kind of music we play is super minimal at best. We do not sweat any of it although we have been talking about getting our butts over to the UK sometime…maybe in 2019.”
Potential explorations into the UK aside, what else lies in wait for TBWNIS? “Hard to say really. When Four ‘N’ Giv’r self imploded and Mark and I started jamming as a duo and playing with a few different guitarists to figure shit out, we thought about a “jam band” kinda thing steeped in weirdo psych vibrations but encompassing somehow, all of our influences. When Bill and Nat joined, both of whom were friends, it all fell into place. With the additions (short or long) with everyone involved, it has always involved actual friends, who were interested in playing free style music, but the emphasis has always been on having fun! Having said that, there have been some very tenuous moments over the last 10 years as there has to be a “serious” element involved in any band if you are going to play out, record and progress in whatever fashion. There has been some issues for sure. Personalities, attitudes etc., can all play heavily with regard to maintaining friendships and having fun. We do approach all with a semi-proffesional “attitude”. With regard to the future I do not know? TBWNIS rehearsals generally are “the lads night out”. A few beers, a few smokes and shitload of loud rock music. We intend to just keep on truckin’ as that is what we enjoy I suppose,” and on that note its left to that age old Echoes And Dust biscuit question to lead us out. “Ritz Crackers with peanut butter!”, is the reply…