30 Years of Junkhouse: A Conversation with Tom Wilson
In the annals of Hamilton rock history, there are many legends whose names will be forever remembered for their contributions to the city’s music scene. There’s Kelly Jay, Frankie Venom and Gordie Lewis, Daniel Lanois, Harrison Kennedy, Matt Mayes and Jackie Washington, Chan Kinchla, Lorraine Segatto, King Biscuit Boy and, despite legitimate claims from St. Catharines, Neil Peart, just to name a few. And then there’s Tom Wilson – a rounder of the highest order, a distinguished ambassador for Hamilton, and someone who’s longevity and chameleon-esque creativity has kept him relevant – and interesting – for nearly 40 years.
From his psychobilly days with the Florida Razors to his eclectic western/roots style of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Wilson has been a musical shape-shifter, never content to get cornered into being something or someone he never intended to be. It was his work as vocalist for Hamilton rock band Junkhouse – featuring guitarist Dan Achen, bassist Russ Wilson (no relation) and drummer Ray Farrugia – that gave Wilson his first real taste of international success – scoring hits like “Out Of My Head,” “Shine,” “Praying for the Rain,” and “Jesus Sings the Blues.” It's been 30 years since the band formed in 1989, and the band’s first full-length album, STRAYS, turns 26 this September, a fact that has remaining band members (Achen passed in March, 2010) back together for a celebratory gig at the annual Dundas Cactus Festival August 17th.
To celebrate the occasion, Wilson sat down with GoBeWeekly for a conversation to discuss the origins of Junkhouse, the joys of a long career and the pitfalls of being drunk with a video camera.
GoBe: It’s been 30 years since the formation of Junkhouse. When you reflect on your musical journey, your growth and development, experiences, love, knowledge gained and friends lost during that expanse of time, what comes to mind in terms of your sense of accomplishment or appreciation or perspective.
TOM: It’s funny. I was just sitting here with my friend, Luke from the band The Dirty Nil was over. He’s 25 years old, they’re rocking all over North America, all over Europe. In fact they’re in Buffalo with The Arkells tonight. He was talking about how thankful he is to be going out and doing these shows. He’s 25. That’s exactly how Ray Furriaga and I felt in 1993 when Junkhouse started. We were just a bunch of guys playing around Hamilton. We never really expected to see much past the 401. Somewhere between Montreal and Detroit is where we thought we’d be playing for the rest of our lives. Suddenly, we put a record out and every hotel I woke up in wherever I was, we were on TV. “Out of My Head” was on MTV all over the world. We were flying to castles and playing with Oasis and all kinds of weird crap, stuff that is funny to look back at. But at the same time, there’s this warmth. As a 60 year old man, I look back at that as pretty precious moments, jumping on planes to do one-nighters in Scotland. That was pretty heady stuff for a bunch of guys from Hamilton.
GoBe: It’s the early 90s, you’ve just come out of your run with the Florida Razors. What’s your mindset and motivation when you get together with Dan, Ray and Russ to form Junkhouse.
TOM: I remember that around this time 30 years ago I was in New Orleans on an invite from producer Daniel Lanois. I was working for a construction company at the time. I was rather despondent about where my music was going, where to take my music, what I wanted to do. In the 80s the Florida Razors sold about 11,000 copies of our first record, which today would probably be considered a hit. It was hard to get anyone interested in taking the band up to another level. So I get this invite from Lanois, I’m in New Orleans, and all of a sudden you’re opening the door and it’s the Neville Brothers, or Bob Dylan, Malcolm Burn, all these iconic artists sitting around. They’d be mixing a song and they’d say ‘what do you think Tom, what do you think about the mix.” I was like, ‘wow, no one in Canada would ask me my opinion about anything.’ It kind of gave me a confidence that maybe what I was doing and what I was thinking and what I was writing was okay. I wrote a song with Lanois for his tour, all of a sudden I brought that confidence home. Ray Ferrugia and I kind of brought Junkhouse together over our kitchen table on Barnesdale Boulevard in east end Hamilton. We slowly put together a band.
GoBe: A band with some characters in it.
TOM: Different members kind of came in and out for about a year. Russ Wilson was a bouncer at a Hell’s Angels bar. Dan Aiken was a guy, not a technically great guitar player, but he was a very interesting guitar player. He was kind of in the band just because he was so , you know what I mean. We could have found a million guys who could play a guitar and whip themselves up and down a fret board. That wasn’t very interesting to us, it still isn’t very interesting to me. What’s interesting to me is the creative mind behind that playing and the writing. That’s kind of how it fell together. It all kind of fell together between Hess Village and the east mountain of Hamilton.
GoBe: A distinct group of people, but all like-minded when it came to the music?
Tom: We did anything to play. We performed with a vicious desperation and I think that is why people liked us wherever we went. People mostly wanted us out of their restaurants and bars because of the way we looked. But I think we offered something unique for the times.
GoBe: Speaking of those times, it was 1993 when you released the first Junkhouse album, Strays. It was released in the same year as Nirvana’s In Utero, U2’s Zooropa, Siamese Dream from Smashing Pumpkins, VS from Pearl Jam, and we’ll throw in Informer by Snow. Some big releases and seminal grunge albums. Along comes Junkhouse – did you feel any sense of inclusion in that 90s alt rock scene or were you just doing what you’re doing
TOM: No at all. I didn’t have anything to do with that. Junkhouse was put together with an acoustic guitar and a snare drum and a shaker. It wasn’t put together as a rock and roll band really. It was put together as a songwriter band, so I didn’t really have a lot to do with what was really the next generation coming up, what was considered, I guess, punk rock. Punk rock to Ray and I was Larry’s Hideaway and The Edge. The first round of punk rock were people who were actually punks.. They were kind of glue-sniffing living on the streets youth that somehow managed to put together bands and play music. I didn’t really relate to Nirvana or Pearl Jam or really any of those bands. It’s not that I didn’t like any of their music. It was just that it didn’t resonate with me in a way that inspired me to create my own music. The music that Junkhouse created was coming from Hank Williams, from Muddy Waters, coming from a whole other place that had nothing to do with the current music scene. Maybe that’s what made us separate from the pack. Maybe that’s why alternative stations didn’t turn on to Junkhouse. We never had a song played at CFNY. Rock and roll radio seemed to like us. We didn’t really care who played us. We were just interested in continuing to do what we were doing. Thirty years later I’m still doing what I want to do, wherever I want to do it, mainly because of the opportunity Junkhouse gave us.
GoBe: I took a look back at Strays. There’s 14 songs on that album, a full 53.86 minutes of music. By contrast, In Utero clocks in at 37.81. That’s a lot of music for the time. Why so much?
TOM: Well that was mostly a band argument, between me and the record company and the band. The band wanted so many songs on it, the record company only wanted 10 songs on it. I said, I wrote all this stuff, take them all and do your job. That was the line in the sand for me. Looking back, there are songs on that no one has ever heard, that will never be heard again. Maybe it should have been a 10 song record, but I thought what the hell. Songs like “The Waiting,” which is the last song on the record, no one would recognize that as a Junkhouse song. They only really recognize the hits, which is the only unfortunate part. The double-edged sword of having hits on the radio is that that’s all people know and want to hear. And that’s something that, as I’ve continued on in writing music and creating art and books, I really don’t write for anyone but myself. I don’t really paint for anyone but myself. I don’t author books for anyone but myself. And it seems there’s still an audience for that kind of thing. Nobody’s calling out the hits when you’re reading from your books. I seem to have found a place where I’m really comfortable.
GoBe: Do you remember where you were the first time you heard JUNKHOUSE on the radio?
TOM: Probably the first time I heard it anywhere was on MuchMusic I guess. On the radio, I can’t remember. That’s a question I love hearing the answer to. There’s always that cinematic moment. There’s a bunch of kids driving around in a car and they hear their song on the radio and they pull over, they listen to it. None of that happened in my movie. My movie I don’t know. I was already a father and I was already busy doing stuff. When my song was on the radio for the first time I was probably watching Mr. DressUp or Sesame Street with my daughter.
GoBe: You talk about moments. I remember a story you told me when we were in the Caribbean. It involved a video camera, an elevator and an advance payment from Sony that netted some unique results, including video footage that was mostly of carpet. Do you recall that story?
TOM: Yes, they gave me a video camera with a battery pack that was a really involved piece of equipment, way more involved that just shooting with an iPhone now. So I had the camera and the battery pack, and the camera was attached to probably 10 feet of cord between the camera and the battery pack. I was drunk in Winnipeg and I guess I must have passed out in the elevator, and I had the cord from the video camera wrapped around my leg. And it was this kind of slow, staggered video shoot that I did of the camera dragging along behind me as I crawled through the hallway of a hotel to knock on my door to try to get into my hotel room. So yes, that’s why I’m not a film director today.
GoBe: So it’s pretty safe to say you had some fun during the Junkhouse years.
TOM: Oh yea, lots of fun, way too much fun. Enough fun for rehab and divorce, how’s that.
GoBe: You got three albums plus a greatest hits collection out of the band. Was that just right amount, or did Junkhouse end it too early?
Tom: Well, no it ended at the right time. I didn’t want it to become – I won’t mention any bands names – I didn’t want it to just wheel down until I was playing the local chicken wingery, you know. As soon as I sensed that, I decided it was time for the band to disappear. It’s the same reason why Junkhouse doesn’t do too many shows today. We could easily load up the truck and cross the country doing bars I guess. We wait until the money is respectable and the venue is proper. As a result, we do maybe one, two three shows a year and we love dong them. That’s way more important. Also, you know, it’s great to have all those hits and all those records that were sold. I’m not being a pretentious artist here, but I don’t want to rely on my past to completely pave my way into the future.
GoBe: I don’t think anyone can accuse you of that. You’ve got your hands in so many things, you’ve released solo records, there’s Blackie, Lee Harvey, so many collaborations. Is that your primary motivation, to keep tapping that wellspring of creativity to stay active?
TOM: Yes, you’ve just got to keep going. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have been together 25 years next year. That is terrifying. I joined Blackie at the same time I was in Junkhouse. I just signed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to a record deal with Warner. It’s our first record deal in 25 years. (laughs). If you can stay together and it makes sense, it’s great to keep a band together. Luckily, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings get to play Massey Hall and NAC and beautiful theatres. That’s respectability, and that’s something we need at this stage in our lives. Junkhouse, we’re playing the Dundas Cactus Festival. That seems like a beautiful street concert and the right place to be this year.
GoBe: You spent your 20th anniversary in Toronto, you’re back home at the Cactus Festival for your 30th anniversary. What’s the plan. Who’s going to be there, any special guests or friends?
TOM: Not really. It’s going to be just the band. With the band, there’s enough ego on that stage that we really can’t fit anyone else. We lost Dan Achen, it must be like 10 years ago, so we have Aaron Goldstein who plays with City in Colour and plays with me in Lee Harvey Osmond. We might even have Ian Blurton join us on guitar. Other than that, it’s going to be the original band.
GoBe: Final question. You’ve had such success in your career, in music, in publishing with your memoire Beautiful Scars, you’ve got your work with the Indigenous projects you’re doing and your art. What’s next on the horizon for you.
TOM: I just signed a book deal with Random House for a second book. This art show that I did is one thing that’s interesting me. It’s going to be travelling across the country in the next year. I’ve got the second book to write. I’ve got a Blackie and the Rodeo Kings album and tour starting in 2020, and hopefully a couple more Junkhouse dates so people don’t forget about us too quickly. I mean, if you forget about us, you guys can always come over to my house. I’ve got all these groovy gold and platinum records hanging around to remember who I was.
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