Grid City Magazine pays tribute to a New Brunswick original.
by Matt Carter @m_j_c73
The most exciting bands are often the ones you can’t classify – bands that choose to be guided by their own collective creativity instead of the self-imposed boundaries created by their initial sound experiments. Challenge your audience by challenging yourself. A creative unit in a constant state of flux, or is that just simple evolution? It’s a risky move indeed, but one that almost always proves more rewarding in the end. When creativity can flourish freely, there are no walls high enough to contain what may be.
“Wooden Wives were conceived as a band whose efforts are collaborative in nature.”
Such was the approach taken by Wooden Wives. For ten years the band acted as the creative catalyst for Jud Crandall, Pierre Cormier and Alex Keleher. Adam Mowery was there for the first seven years and Sean Boyer for the last four. From conception to demise, Wooden Wives welcomed over a dozen members and collaborated with countless others. Through the music they created, ‘The Wives relished in the joys of what could be. We should all be so lucky.
Members of The Organizers and Port City Allstars start talking about collaborating or amalgamating for an idea they referred to as ‘The Big Band’.
“The original idea was to literally combine the two bands, possibly adding more members, so it would have been a kind of Jefferson Airplane inspired big band,” said Crandall.
“I knew I wanted to work with the Jud, Pierre and Alex’s old band, The Organizers,” said Mowery. “They were hands down my favourite Saint John act ever, and still are. In a time when the bands in Saint John and the surrounding area were usually metal or gutter punk or fucking jam bands, The Organizers were a breathe of fresh air. Snappy dressers whose high energy live show recalled the melodic nature of the Kinks and the Jam, a distinct British flavour I’ve always enjoyed.”
The idea of combining both bands didn’t take hold with everyone and soon after the idea surfaces, both bands call it quits. But the remaining members who had originally dreamed of combining both bands remained true to the idea and began hammering out possibilities.
“We have never been a band interested in celebrating ourselves, but rather in creating situations together, helping others, and encouraging independence and inclusion.”
Wooden Wives come together proper over the summer of 2006 and play their first show by Christmas with the line-up: Jud Crandall, Pierre Cormier (The Organizers), Adam Mowery (Port City Allstars), Mike Dionne, Shelley Brown, Steve Zaionz & Jacques Marmen. That same year, the group release their first single, Crazyblood.
“We had asked folks like Shelley Brown and Mike Dionne who had a lot to offer the stoner-folk-psychedelic band we were brewing,” said Crandall.
“Jud is a man of big ideas, and that’s what I’ve always found to be exciting about him,” said Mowery. “I remember him talking a lot about Fairport Convention in those days, and Comets on Fire, and Pierre would talk a lot about Kraut-rock, so at that time they were ready to shed the power-trio skin they had been developing with The Organizers.”
At this point in time, Mowery had no experience playing electric guitar but knew that was the instrument he needed to play in this new band he helped create.
“I knew my contribution alone wasn’t going to be beefy enough,” said Mowery, “so we started inviting folks to jams and doing epic dirgy jams on old Leonard Cohen and Neil Young songs. Basically trying to make the most of big slow chord changes. The rehearsals were always a party, lots of Colt 45 being tossed around, so the party atmosphere of those twice weekly jams (Tuesday and Thursdays) helped the band grow. By the time of our first performances, we were somehow seven members strong, and really, really fucking loud.”
The line-up shifts to Crandall, Cormier, Mowery, Dionne, Brown, Zaionz & Marcus Webster. Wooden Wives release the Dead Meat EP and the song Gonna Hafta Die Blues on Saint John 3: The Revenge with BBQ Records. By end of the year Keleher is back drumming again drumming and Brown leaves.
Wooden Wives continue to experiment sonically and branch out with a country & western alter ego called Green River Killers. The band was lead by Mike Dionne singing and playing guitar, Crandall on drums, Mowery on bass, Cormier on slide guitar, and Webster on lead guitar. This line-up records and gigs regularly through 2008.
2008 was one of several turning points for the band. The quintet lineup solidifies with Crandall, Cormier, Mowery, Dionne & Keheler and growing local interest in the band eventually leads to a weekly thirteen-part residency at Melvins, a local bar near the band’s rehearsal space. Dubbed, Summer Love-In, this opportunity contributed greatly to the band’s local status as enthusiastic collaborators.
“Melvins pitched us on a Wednesday residency in which we would be well-paid to basically do whatever we wished,” said Crandall. “Before that, in the beginning of the Wives we were seven or eight people rehearsing at least twice on weekdays, with everyone’s partners and friends hanging out, including more time together on weekends and with side projects. So, four-ish nights of the week much of the extended crew was there together and it was basically a party each time. When we took the Melvins offer, we took a bit of that party down there and used the money to bring in friends from around the Maritimes as well as the odd touring band. Posters were produced each week, we were allowed to fill the bar’s soundsystem with foolishness like MC5 and Can all summer and drinks were nearly free. It was gonzo and evolved into a real community building effort among all who participated both on and off stage. Groups like The Telecasts played there early on, The Fedoras were there, Frigger, The Cambrian Explosions, and The Organizers even reunited for a night. It was a limited-time-offer, all-inclusive, rock & roll circus.”
“The Summer Love-In was a way for us to get better, basically,” said Mowery. “I wanted to be in a band that could play any show, and felt that at the heart of a band like that is a really good bar band. So, we were rehearsing and writing a lot anyways, and myself, Jud and Mike Dionne would all take lead vocals occasionally, so the 13 week residency we felt was a great excuse to develop material for the live show.”
“Togetherness does not have to be the slurry, flaky thing belonging to hippies or religiosity, and it does not need to be suitably commodified and improved upon to retain credibility.”
At this time, live music was a regular Wednesday night occurrence in Saint John, with Brent Mason’s open mic night at O’Leary’s drawing a regular audience out for a little mid-week entertainment. Summer Love-In offered an alternative to the familiar and helped The Wives build an audience of their own.
“The bar would guarantee us a couple hundred bucks every week, which may not sound like much,” said Mowery, “but it paid our jam space rent, and allowed us to invite traveling bands to make some cash on a Wednesday night.”
During this time, Wooden Wives also collaborate on unfinished recordings with Japanese group, Sleepyhead. The connection was made through drummer Alex Keleher during his time spent in Japan following the demise of The Organizers.
“We did some recording with Sleepyhead during a visit of theirs here, which has remain unreleased but contains some gems that may surface at some point,” said Crandall. “They are another group who really value a community of people making something novel together. The collaboration we are featuring on our current record was recorded in 2012 with some spoken word recordings they had asked us to send them. It was released in Japan on their opus album Many of these Memories of the Sun and Increasin’ Gratitude on Kilk Records. We were looking for an opportunity to release it in Canada and it felt like a good fit to open this record.”
Dionne leaves the band at the beginning of 2009 and the lineup shifts to the quartet of Crandall, Cormier, Mowery and Keheler. The album Tail is released the following year. Wooden Wives also release an EP called War Brides, as well as a cover of Elevator’s Bad Thoughts (Coming Down) for Gooseberry Records’ The Great Beyond: A Tribute To Elevator in 2010.
“Mike contributed immensely to the sound of the band, in part from his technical skill and sheer volume as the lead of three guitars, but even more than that in the breadth of ideas he brought to the table,” said Crandall. “From Appalachian music to the New York Dolls, metal, rockabilly and proto-punk, he really understood that rock & roll is not one thing.”
“After Mike left, we were a quartet with only two guitars for the first time ever, so the music very much took on a leaner edge,” he said. “Among the four of us at the time, there was a pretty serious love for power-pop, early punk, soul and R&B music, 50 & 60’s pop as well as underground, and so the sound hardened to a lean distillation of those sounds. Gradually we began to loosen and re-open some of the broader psychedelic sounds on record, but live we retained the taut execution. The wall of sound took on a more focused attack.”
For Mowery, Dionne’s departure was an opportunity to try and get back to the roots of his inspiration. “I wanted to be the best bar band in the Maritimes, one that could play any gig,” said Mowery. “So I took it as an opportunity to try and guide the band back to the things I had loved so much about The Organizers. Their tightness, their melodicism, their energy. Buzzcocks, Undertones, Neil Young and Crazy Hose, MC5, they were all my inspiration at that time. And I think it worked. As a four-piece, we gained more fans and it was easier to do gigs and travel.”
Peter MacDonald records with the band in 2011 and appears live a handful of times during the year for a few quintet shows. The band release Together (We Make Sense Of Life), a split album with The Lee Harvey Oswalds on Hamburger Tapes.
Around this time The Wives partner with Third Space Gallery and Culturehub for a multimedia performance art series called 5 Seconds Of Decision. The band welcome many guests musician over several shows.
“I guess you could say that the 5 Seconds series was our re-emergence from the lean mean Wives,” said Crandall, “back to a more robust sound and presence. The whole event was conceived together with a collective of artists involved in Third Space Gallery at the time, spearheaded by Amy Ash and Gillian Dykeman, as well as our friend and local filmmaker Nick Cameron. Together the event was a more complex realization of what we had put together at Summer Love-In.”
5 Seconds of Decision was centered on monthly performances that were recorded by Saint John musical luminary Corey Bonnevie. Together with writing by band members and photos by Nick Cameron, these recordings were shared online. It was a very community-centered, collaborative endeavor that embodied many of the philosophies that fueled the creation of the band.
“Folks involved in each installment all had dinner together before each show,” said Crandall. “It was all intended to encourage individual and collective action working together, the name taken from the MC5’s opening salvo to their Kick Out The Jams LP demanding if you were going to be a part of the problem or part of the solution, and that you had an instant to decide because this was the nature of performing an act with commitment. We had screen-printed artist posters and did screen printing live at one event. We had a tape fair at one point with Fredericton’s Hamburger Tapes run by Jamie Macintosh, and we released a split tape with The Lee Harvey Oswalds at the first show. Other releases were launched, new local bands like Little You Little Me had their first show there. Friends like Cop Shades and Construction & Destruction were also featured.
“The music often challenged the lines between popular and avant-garde sounds and it all happened in a local pub, questioning how and where acts of performance and participation occurred,” he said. “There’s so much to say that I’m barely scratching the surface of who and what was involved, but it was one of the most exciting efforts I’ve been a part of. It was great to see the thing take its own shape through the efforts of all involved.”
When the final installment of the 5 Seconds of Decision series would also serve as Adam Mowery’s final performance as a member of the band.
“My head was kind of out of it at that point,” he said. “I was unhappy with shows in Saint John and the climate and attitude towards artists there. To give you an idea, I distinctly remember being scolded at Peppers by their staff for the anti-JDI stickers on my amp. The bartender came around, took a black napkin, and used it to cover any part of the amp that he found to be questionable. Meanwhile, we’re bringing in the biggest crowds they’ve got, with all original music and notable touring acts, for basically no money.
“We’d play in other towns and the bar owners would be cool and supportive, but not in Saint John,” he said. “They looked at you like you were putting them out by playing there. The shows at Peppers were fine I guess, but they were nowhere near the chaos and fun we’d achieved at the Melvin’s residency shows.”
“I know we are just a rock band, but this is not too small of an effort to choose the priorities on which you wish to act, and so creating spaces for collaboration has been important to us not only as musicians, but as people within our own communities.”
Sean Boyer and Luc Gagnon debut as new Wives bringing the band back to a quintet for much of the year, along with Crandall, Cormier and Keheler. The band releases the Twistin’ At The Knife and Pilot To Gunner EPs, and the spoken word track Gone With The Wind with Sleepyhead for release in Japan.
Gagnon leaves and the band continues as a quartet with Crandall, Cormier, Keheler and Boyer, releasing the Dead Peasants single in 2013. Kappa Chow perform several times with The Wives, collaborating together on-stage. Guest spots are built into the set at most shows. Dan Chamberlain joins on what would be the final Wives show in the fall 2014.
Recording continues and is completed with Crandall, Cormier, Keheler, Boyer and Chamberlain. The band release the Neat Neat Neat single & Workers! LP with Sharktooth Records before calling it a day after ten years.
With the announcement of Workers! Wooden Wives bring ten years of collaborative music making to an end. Through their efforts in bringing artists together to explore the limits of creativity, the band’s impact on the Saint John music scene will certainly remain relevant for years and years to come.
“Wooden Wives were conceived as a band whose efforts are collaborative in nature,” said Crandall. “At different times different people may take leadership roles in different aspects, but it is always based on participation and contributions from all. We have never been a band interested in celebrating ourselves, but rather in creating situations together, helping others, and encouraging independence and inclusion. I read an article today talking about how taken for granted an idea like capitalism is as being unquestionably just, and how speaking of the concept in critical terms is itself tantamount to a radical or at least a less-credible suggestion economically, which is preposterous as we are passengers to a thing like capitalism and should be discussing our vehicle. Certain lifestyles and perspectives tend to overshadow others on a fundamental level. Commercial sensibilities or goals, ideas that contain self-perpetuating value systems and ethical desires based on self-gratification or prescribed successes, these things create barriers by framing social dialogues in ways that eclipse alternative modes of collaboration, celebration of the whole, and togetherness in a concrete sense. Togetherness does not have to be the slurry, flaky thing belonging to hippies or religiosity, and it does not need to be suitably commodified and improved upon to retain credibility. It can be a power base, and has often been so throughout the history of things like labour, suffragette movements and certainly, music and art movements interested in testing the edges of social structures through people being together. I know we are just a rock band, but this is not too small of an effort to choose the priorities on which you wish to act, and so creating spaces for collaboration has been important to us not only as musicians, but as people within our own communities.”
Wooden Wives 2005-2015