The Trews Celebrate 20 Years of Debut Album
“Somebody once told me our sound is blue-eyed soul mixed with punk rock,” suggests John-Angus MacDonald, co-founder and lead guitarist for top-selling Canadian rock band, The Trews. “We’re more of a traditional rock band. We loved Aerosmith, The Beatles, and The Stones. Colin (MacDonald), he grew up as a punk rock guy. He’s the singer and I think he carries that spirt with him. Somewhere in there, when you amalgamate all the influences, you can figure out who we are.”
Regardless of any attempt to label their sound, The Trews have undoubtedly been one of Canada’s most consistent hit makers for the last two decades. Since the 2003 release of their debut album, House of Ill Fame, The Trews have scored an incredible 18 Top 10 hits at rock radio. Produced by Big Sugar's Gordie Johnson, House of Ill Fame included the band’s first #1 hit, "Not Ready to Go." That song earned a Juno nod as Single of the Year and The Trews were nominated as New Group of the Year at the 2004 June Awards.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of that release, The Trews will be spending the first half of their upcoming live shows playing House of Ill Fame in its entirety. According to MacDonald, revisiting the album conjures up an infinite number of memories of the days The Trews first landed in Niagara, leaving their homes in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, to pursue their rock and roll dreams. He took time to chat with GoBeWeekly.com about the band, its history, its new box set, and time spent in Montebello Park!
GOBE: The Trews are heading back to some familiar stomping grounds. What are your fondest memories of those early days in Niagara?
JOHN: There’s almost too many to list. We really got on our feet as a band, as young adults, in the Niagara Region. We were all transplants from the East Coast. Up until that point in our lives we were still living with our parents, 19 or 20 years old when we left and came up to Niagara. It was the first time being on our own. We had a band house in Niagara Falls at Main and Murray that actually got demolished this year. The friends we made and the gigs we played, it all sort of happened within a couple years of being discovered as a band. To me it’s all a big positive time in our lives. I look back on it very fondly. We were there two or three years and made a lot of good friends.
GoBe: They demolished the house. I guess that put an end to any thought of turning it into a Trews Museum.
John: (laughing) I guess so. They’ll have to recreate it somewhere else.
GoBe: You did get the big break winning HTZ-FM’s Rock Search in 2002. A lot of bands are hesitant to enter competitions. Was there any hesitancy from the band to enter Rock Search and what did the win do for The Trews?
John: There was no hesitation. I think in those days we were looking for any avenue to be exposed. I think we really believed in what we were doing and we were very much of the mind that we just needed to get in front of people. We would open for anyone and everyone that would have us and do things like enter contests like Rock Search. Looking back, I think we were pretty confident that we had the goods. We were constantly writing, rehearsing, and performing five to seven days a week. We knew we were a pretty good band. What came of it was our first ever radio play. It’s hard to overstate the importance of radio, particularly 20 plus years ago. Because we won the contest they entered “Fleeting Trust” into rotation on HTZ-FM. The rest of the country got to see that people were reacting positively to the show. You can almost draw a line from there to signing our first record deal. It just showed people we were a commodity that could work.
GoBe: You speak of confidence. Your first single hit #1 on the Active Rock charts. What was the feeling in the band at that time with that initial validation?
John: I think those first couple years before the album came out we were clearing 200 shows a year. We played so much. It was right in the middle of that we got the news that the single hit #1. Then we got the news that we were up for our first Juno Award. I think every day was bringing something crazy, whether it was good news or we’re playing Barrie one night and then London the next. It was all very much a whirlwind. I don’t think we ever sat down and said, ‘well boys we’re number one, we can carefully plot our next move.’ It was all a crazy snowball. We were obviously thrilled that it happened, and it got us very ready and hyped to make the next record. At that point we were able to consider all the dream producers we wanted to work with. We had a lot more decision-making power and more money to work with. All of it helped move the career forward.
GoBe: You talk of the snowball. I was doing my research for the interview and found you have 18 top 10 hits. I’m a fan of the band but realizing how many radio songs you have is an eye opener. It’s a testament to the strength of the songwriting. When you reflect on that number, what does it mean to you?
John: It’s really great. I think you’re right. We’ve always prioritized our songwriting. I don’t think we’ve felt that we’ve written our best song. That’s the thing with songwriting, you have to keep chasing it. We still chase it. We’re constantly working on new music. You have to believe that your best work is ahead. We’ve always been hard on ourselves in that department. We’re very disciplined in keeping writing. I think that’s a big part of it. And we were really lucky to have the support we did. Not every band and not every great Canadian band – and there’s a lot of them – have received the sheer volume of support that we got from Canadian radio. I feel very lucky in that sense. I know we had the goods, we had a great team around us, but at the end of the day you also have to get lucky. People have to decide to support you. We had it for a couple of decades really.
GoBe: You’ve had producers over the years including Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson and legendary producer Jack Douglas, and you’ve also produced yourself. What if anything did you learn from those guys that you’ve applied when behind the board?
John: I’ve learned something different from everybody. I was always engaged in that world of production. I played teacher’s pet when we had these producers. I was always following them around like a shadow trying to pick things up. I learned something different from all of them. Gordie is really an amazing arranger of not only songs but bands. When he found us, we were pretty wet behind the ears, pretty green. And I feel that we did what a lot of young bands do. You overdo it. You overplay, everybody thinks their part is its own little symphony. He really did teach us to minimize, that everyone can simplify to make the song better. Those are the lessons you learn that you can always apply especially for young bands. When I came across The Glorious Sons and became their first producer that’s lesson number one. Everyone’s got to simplify a bit to serve the song more. With Jack Douglas, he fancied himself a bit of a psychologist in the studio. Ultimately, it’s an emotional endeavor in creativity and you have to keep people’s confidence up. He focused on keeping spirits high and the mood good. He cut his teeth producing Aerosmith when they were all out of their minds. He taught us some valuable tricks about the vibe of the session. I didn’t know at the time he was almost like a genius at that. You take little bits and pieces from people along the way, but you also add your own style to a project.
GoBe: There have been many great milestones for you and the band along the way, from awards and tours and albums. But as a Stones fan I have to ask you, what are your memories of that gig opening for the Rolling Stones at the Phoenix?
John: It was one of the craziest few days of our careers. We had just put out the Den of Thieves. It was the summer of 2005, and the Stones were living in Toronto. I’ve heard a lot of different stories, but because we were all over the radio some members of their families had heard it and were fans. They were going to make the announcement of the Bigger Bang tour and album and were going to do a secret show at the Phoenix. We got wind that it was happening. We were in the city trying to find any way just to get into the show and two days before we were at the photo shoot for the new album and our manager called and said, ‘they want you guys to open.’ We said that can’t be possible. We’re going to open for the Stones tomorrow? It was literally the day before. You can’t say anything. If this leaked out we’d be fired. We couldn’t even call our girlfriends and family members. We had to wait till they said something. Then it got announced and it was just wild.
GoBe: Did you pick up any tricks during your short time hanging out with the world’s greatest rock and roll band?
John: I have recently been listening to interviews with Mick Jagger and he was saying how he likes to get out into the venue and observe the crowd during the opening band. That lit off a lightbulb with me. I remember looking around at the Phoenix and seeing Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger standing on stage. I took it as a huge compliment that he wanted to see us, but he was checking out the vibe of the room. He wanted to see what kind of audience was out there. It took me 20 years to realize why he was standing in the wings at our show. Then we met them after and they were all cordial and polite and kind. I still have a picture that Keith Richard gave me. It was a magical experience.
GoBe: The Stones are releasing a new album this year, kind of raising the bar on the age limit at which old rockers can continue to play. What does the future hold for The Trews? When you look into the future what do you see?
John: I certainly feel like we want to keep going. We don’t get to control all the elements that allow you to keep going in a career. We can try our best to be the best band we can be when we step out on stage which we do. We put that pressure on ourselves. And we have to deliver on a long level of material that people want to keep coming back for. We’re driven to make that happen. Nobody knows what the future holds but we want to do that. We want to go as long as we can, as long as our health holds up and we remain friends. That’s our ambition. It’s amazing to look up at a band like The Stones who are twice my age and they’re still going. It’s unbelievable. And their music is good. I think “Angry” is a really good track. It’s unbelievable how vital it sounds and Mick’s going to be 80 this year. It’s really something else. They’re complete trailblazers. There’s no other comparable 80-year-old rock bands. Most of the blues guys didn’t live that long. It really is uncharted. It’s cool to see them forge ahead.
GoBe: Speaking of the future, The Trews have their show coming up in St. Catharines in February. The band has immortalized Montebello Park in song. Might that song creep into the set list here in St. Catharines?
John: The box set came out in November. It’s 20 years since the first album. And so the tour dates we’re doing in 2024 we’re going to play the first album in its entirety as set one. That’s the format of the shows in the first half of this year. The box set features the original record, and then it features a second vinyl of all live stuff from that era. Also a 23 song bonus CD that has ultimate versions and some songs from that time. Everything from that era. There’s also a 20-page book that comes in the box that has liner notes by Alan Cross. I worked on for more than a year with Nettwerk, the label that controls that album. They put together this crazy collage of photographs. It’s really cool. There’s only 1,500 of them being pressed. People should get it while they can. Only half the show is first album because it’s only a 40-minute album. The back half of the show is going to be everything else. You make a good point. We haven’t played “Montebello Park” in a really long time. It would be a fun place to revisit that track.
GOBE: Final question. I love your song “Man of Two Minds,” a song I could relate to when it came out. Did you ever get any brushback on that song. In this day and age, you’re probably get vilified for singing a song like that.
John: We’ve had some weird things happen with thing song. Like we’ve had people come up to us and say ‘can you ou please play that song, it’s our wedding song.’ What?? Honestly, it’s a scumbag ballad. The truth of the writing is, at the time Colin and I were getting together with someone named Simon Wilcox, daughter of David Wilcox. She’s become one of the top writers in L.A. She writes for Nick Jonas and Britney. At the time she was still in Toronto. She was a solo artist and great co-writer. She was actually having this dilemma where she had the guy who really excited her, and she had the more stable guy. And she was seeing these two guys. That’s where the story came from. We just kind of flipped it for us into “Man of Two Minds.” The song was inspired by a real-life thing. It wasn’t our particular real life thing at the time. It amazes me how people can relate to it. It says a lot about the listener. People haven’t called us out for it.
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