In conversation: Shadowy Men’s Don Pyle

On playing hardball with HBO, saying no to the Pixies and what makes reunion shows work.
Michael Barclay
Zuma Wire Service/Alamy

Shadowy Men drummer Don Pyle took time out of his 50th birthday trip to rural Iceland to talk to Maclean’s about the beloved Toronto trio’s upcoming reunion shows and the long-awaited reissue of its three classic albums from the early ’90s, which marks the first time the band’s music has been available digitally. Best known for being the house band for the Kids in the Hall TV series, Shadowy Men were endlessly inventive musically and fiercely independent, making them artistic and business role models to musicians across North America. For at least the last 10 years, their legacy has survived solely on word of mouth and Kids in the Hall reruns. Now it steps into the light on its own terms.

Q: What are you most proud of musically when you hear those records now?

A: Other than a few nasty reverbs, they are somewhat unplaceable in time and I really like that. I am also not embarrassed by any of the music, which I find quite remarkable. The first album [Savvy Show Stoppers] is so great because it all sounds like singles, like hits. Those songs were all written and recorded as singles so it has a wallop still very apparent, and it was only 30 minutes long, the perfect length for an album. The second album [Dim the Lights, Chill the Ham] was the best of the rest of the songs we had at the time, so I love that it sounds like an album. By the third album [Sport Fishin’], we were so tight and confident—and it was the only one of the three that we recorded all at one time, in a one-week session—so it has weirder songs executed at our best moment, as far as our abilities go. We were always trying to entertain each other, and had such a vocabulary developed between us that we were tough audiences.

Q: ?Shadowy Men was a popular band that always stayed true to its community; everything was very DIY and successful commercially while doing so. Bruce McCulloch told me how you played hardball with HBO about retaining rights to all the music on the show.

A: At the time that we played “hardball,” there was nothing at stake so it was easy to hold out—particularly since the first thing we did with the Kids for TV was a one-hour special, which used snippets of existing songs, so we were very adamant that we retain all of those rights. The Kids themselves also played hardball for us. [The show’s producer] Lorne Michaels didn’t want us. He said we sounded like “cheap porno music”—what a compliment coming from him! We were already taping episode four of the series without a contract. One of the producers approached us and asked if this was just about money. We said that for them, yes, it was, but for us it was about ownership. So he said, “Okay, you can keep it.”

Q: Were you making residual royalties from the show’s perpetual reruns? Is it safe to say that was a decent income supplement for the last 15 years?

A: Now that’s a personal question! It was great money for two years while the show was in its first run on the U.S. network, but it has consistently dwindled as the show reaches the bottom-of-the-barrel echelons of cable. The money is now less annually than what you’d need to buy a single bed from Ikea.

Q: What were some of the more unusual offers or temptations the band turned down during its time?

A: Two offers that stand out for me that we said no to were to license our music for a Labatt’s Blue ad and an Aspartame ad. Gallon Drunk asked us to open for them one New Year’s Eve in London, with PJ Harvey on first. The Pixies also asked us to tour with them. Those were hard to say no to, but they were victim to our consensus policy. For some reason Jethro Tull asked us to play with them, too. That was easy for all of us to say no to.

Q: The band always struck me as a conceptual art project that also made amazing rock music.

A: Thank you for saying that. I know that we occupied a unique place where some people thought of us as dumb rock and some thought of us as snooty art project. Ultimately, we were both. Brian [Connelly] is a great and creative visual artist. Reid [Diamond] developed a parallel career as a visual artist, which developed out of an interest in art ignited by being a maintenance person at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I’ve always had an interest in photography and sound as art. We worked pretty much every day once we got rolling, and so much of that was making things other than music.

Q: I can’t imagine anyone other than Dallas Good, who played with you and Reid after the Shadowy Men in Phono-Comb, stepping in [after Reid died of brain cancer in 2001] to play these shows. And yet there’s obviously going to be so many emotional, bittersweet feelings—for band and audience alike—seeing Shadowy Men without Reid. What were your hopes and concerns doing this?

A: In some ways it was to change how the story ended from something difficult and painful to something positive and celebratory. In so many ways it can never feel like or ever really be Shadowy Men. But because we all know each other so well and really do love each other, it has very quickly felt like its own real thing that is also great to experience. It feels so right having Dallas playing Reid’s parts. Once Reid’s wife loaned Reid’s Thunderbird bass to Dallas, it certainly felt like Reid’s voice was added to the music once again. My greatest concern was misrepresenting ourselves as being Shadowy Men. In some ways, it feels like shorthand for other people’s benefit. Our first draft of the name was The Remains of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, followed by an asterisk; an asterisk below that would read: “Some objects may appear larger than they really are.” That was a little too unwieldy, so we eventually settled on the old name. For us and for so many people, it isn’t the “real band” without Reid but we are certainly the best Shadowy Men cover band ever.

Q: ?Reunion shows in general: yay or nay? Best/worst ones you’ve seen, and why?

A: I have mixed feelings. One that was totally incredible and inspiring was the Stooges at Yonge-Dundas Square in 2010. [Founding guitarist] Ron Asheton had died very recently. James Williamson started playing and Iggy Pop stormed the stage and yelled, ”We the f–king remains of the f–king Stooges and we’re going to play some songs before we’re all DEAD!” It was so shocking and irreverent, it actually took my breath away. And then they played the most scorching, incredible set that I could ever imagine them playing—and I’ve seen Iggy lots of times since 1976. What he said about playing before we’re all dead had such a panic and urgency to it and I actually thought of Reid. Everything can be over for any of us at any second, and if you are going to do something, do it now.

I went down on my bike to Molson Amphitheatre when the Sex Pistols did their first reunion, to listen from the outside. I thought their reunion was all wrong, shouldn’t have been happening, and I turned down scalpers selling tickets for $1. When they started playing, I felt the power that I felt when I first heard them in 1976, and I thought, ”You’re an idiot for not going.” You can never predict these things.

It is so rare for any band to retain or be reinvigorated to play with that original vitality, and that is what has made the best reunions good for me. Most bands reunite as the terrible last version of the band, or one that I am no longer interested in. Of course, anything I could say about any other band is meaningless now that I am also doing it.

Michael Barclay is the co-author of the recently re-released book Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995You can read his print story for Maclean’s on Shadowy Men here, and his 2010 interview with Don Pyle here.