Welcome to Reunionmania, Canadian edition

Remember all those Canadian alt-rock bands from the 90s? Well, they’re back.

Content image
Bill Priddle of Treble Charger, Matthew Marigold/CP

The period between Kurt Cobain’s death (April 5, 1994) and the release of Arcade Fire’s Funeral (Sept. 14, 2004), this country’s rock bands experienced a surge in popularity not seen before or since. Canadian bands dominated radio and television, and scored gold and platinum records while playing giant national touring festivals like Edgefest and Summersault. Major record labels scrambled to plug a seemingly endless cast of homegrown bands into the machine.

There was The Headstones (one platinum, two gold albums), The Tea Party (two double platinum, two platinum, two gold albums), Treble Charger (one platinum, two gold albums), I Mother Earth (two double platinum, one platinum, one gold album), Big Sugar (two platinum, two gold albums), The Watchmen (one platinum, three gold albums), not to mention Thrush Hermit (featuring Joel Plaskett), Weeping Tile (featuring Sarah Harmer), hHead (featuring Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning), Eric’s Trip (featuring Julie Doiron), and the likes of Big Wreck, Econoline Crush, The Inbreds, Change Of Heart, Rusty, Raggadeth, The Doughboys, King Cobb Steelie, Tristan Psionic… the list goes on.

The one thing they all have in common? They all eventually broke up. The other thing? In the past few years, they’ve all gotten back together again in one form or another. 

So why now? What exactly is it that’s causing reunionmania to run wild in this country? If you were to ask Simon Reynolds, a veteran music writer and the author of Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past, he’d tell you it’s because we’ve run out of ideas. There’s nothing new and it’s all downhill from here. If you ask the bands that are actually getting back together, however, it’s got nothing to do with the state of pop culture. Mostly, it’s about reconnecting with friends. And if there’s a little money in it, too, that’s a bonus.

Maclean’s caught up with several of these bands and asked them, “Why are you getting back together?” The answers are remarkably similar.

The bands:

Treble Charger: Formed in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario in 1992, and led by the songwriting duo of Greig Nori and Bill Priddle, Treble Charger would distinguish themselves on Hamilton-based indie label Sonic Unyon before moving to major label BMG and adopting a more commercial pop-punk sound. Priddle, who was always less comfortable in the mainstream, left the band in 2003 to, among other things, become a chef and occasional contributor to Broken Social Scene. Nori tried to keep the Treble Charger name going until 2006, while at the same time managing Sun 41 and becoming a MuchMusic personality. In a Twitter post on Jan. 14, the band announced they were back.

Econoline Crush: Vancouver, British Columbia act Econoline Crush formed in 1992. The band’s sound was a cross between hard rock and the then-emerging industrial sound made popular by the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Marilyn Manson. After releasing the less-than-successful Brand New History in 2001, the band went on hiatus and lead singer Trevor Hurst embarked on a solo career as “Hurst.” When Hurst the band was greeted with indifference, Hurst the man attempted to revive Econoline Crush with new players in 2007-08. It wasn’t, however, until 2010, with the return of core members Robert Morfitt and Ziggy Sigmund, that Econoline Crush were considered properly “back.” The band have since toured and recorded occasionally.

Big Wreck: Fronted by Toronto-born Ian Thornley, Big Wreck formed in 1994 in Boston, Massachusetts, where Thornley was studying jazz. Big Wreck’s well-schooled Zeppelin-inspired rock was a hit, with the band’s 1997 album In Loving Memory selling double platinum. But its 2001 album The Pleasure And The Greed fared less well and the band broke up in 2002. In the intervening years Thornley would tour and record in the obviously titled “Thornley” until a reunion with Big Wreck guitarist Brian Doherty in 2010. Afterwards Doherty would occasionally perform with Thornley in shows billed as “An evening with Thornley and Big Wreck.” In 2012 Doherty returned to the fold properly and Big Wreck recorded their third album, Albatross, set for release March 6.

The Inbreds: The Inbreds formed in Kingston, Ontario in 1992 and relocated to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1996. This ahead-of-their-time two-piece became one of the key bands in the then-emerging East Coast/Murderecords scene. The band scored three #1 albums on the national campus radio chart, toured with The Tragically Hip, and made fans of the likes of Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl before breaking up in 1998. In the intervening years singer/bassist Mike O’Neill would attempt a solo career before settling into television sound work. He’s won a Gemini at that, but is probably best known as the street tough character Thomas Collins in Trailer Park Boys. Drummer Dave Ullrich, meanwhile, went on to create the online music store Zunior.com. The band have played four one-off reunion shows since ‘98 and have another planned for Toronto in March 2011.

Mystery Machine: The Vancouver, British Columbia noise rockers were arguably the last “alternative” band on powerhouse West Coast label Nettwerk Records (Sarah Mclachlan, Be Good Tanyas) before the organization shifted its focus toward acts like Avril Lavigne and the Barenaked Ladies. Although they claim they never broke up, when Nettwerk dropped them in 1998 after the release of their third album, Mystery Machine simply stopped making records and performing live. The band began playing one-off reunion shows in 2004 and have said they intend to release a new EP in 2012, their first recorded material since 1998.

Why did you guys break up?

Ian Thornley, Big Wreck: “I think the first record [In Loving Memory] was almost a big hit. And then of course the record company went ‘Oh, that just means we have to team them up with an A+ producer’ and there was like, ‘We don’t hear a single.’ It was just the classic thing, so it was a long and arduous f—ing nightmare. But when [The Pleasure And The Greed] finally came out we were really proud of it on a musical level and obviously disappointed it didn’t do that well. It’s all fine and dandy when things are going great, but when things aren’t going well, all the cracks start to show. And I think that’s what started to happen with us. Everyone was starting to get real chirpy and crappy with one another. And it was just the classic spending-too-much-time-together. So yeah, I just wanted to go in a completely different direction. I just wanted to break loose from that so I changed everything.”

Trevor Hurst, Econoline Crush: “When we did Brand New History, the biggest thing with that record was we sent it to EMI: we had a gameplan as to how to do the marketing. And as downloads became really crazy, they just threw the marketing plan out the window, ran through a bunch of things and it killed our zen, or at least mine anyway. I was like, ‘If this is the way the industry’s going, I need to step back and rethink.’ So we pulled over as a band and I kinda regrouped. We didn’t really talk about it for some time. The guys were just upset that I didn’t want to keep touring. I ended up going off and doing the Hurst thing.”

Bill Priddle, Treble Charger: “Wide Awake Bored was our big studio album, big budget; we were on RCA. And they said ‘OK, this is great. We hear two really big singles off of this.’ So we figured we could do really well, sell about a million records. But they said, ‘Unfortunately, that’s not good enough so we’re going to drop you.’ So we scrambled around to find another American deal and that never really happened. Then we made another album, Detox, and didn’t have the time or the money to spend on that, so I think the record suffered a bit. Then we toured that record and as everyone knows or heard, Greig Nori and I were going in different directions. Eventually, I didn’t want to do it anymore so I jumped ship. That kind of sunk the band, to complete the metaphor.”

Dave Ullrich, The Inbreds: “Some of my recollections of ‘98 are that it felt like we were losing control of what we were doing. When we were doing our second album, Kombinator, we had our own label. I’ve always been a business-y, entrepreneur-y kind of guy, and I’ve always loved music, so playing in a band brought those things together for me for sure. But at that time, that side of me felt like we didn’t have control over things. We were doing stuff like Breakfast Television in Halifax and I would just consider that a career low. People are telling you you have to do things like that, but it has nothing to do with what we thought we were about or what were trying to be. We just wanted to do good records, tour, and get the chance to play with some bands we really admire and appreciate. We got a fair amount of that through the years, but towards the end, the chances that were coming up were more thin.”

Luke Rogalsky, Mystery Machine: “We took a break after Nettwerk dropped us in ‘98. We had been touring for 10 years solid at that point, or eight years and we needed a rest. But we never broke up or made any announcement. We just sort of stopped playing. We were never very careerist as a group. Nettwerk found us really young and presented us with this opportunity where they laid the groundwork and really did all the dirty work to get us in the public eye and put us on tour and whatnot. And we were really just—it was just never really our forte or our desire.”

What part does money play in your reunion?

Luke Rogalsky, Mystery Machine: “I think it has nothing to do with it in that we’re not expecting any. The money was never a big deal to us, and never will be. And I think that was almost to our detriment because we weren’t—we were asked to care about money by Nettwerk and we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.”

Mike O’Neill, The Inbreds: “I can’t say that it’s for the money because I would be as open to play for whatever. For instance, we’re playing in April in Newfoundland. And I don’t even know—I think that they’re flying us over, but I don’t even know if we’re getting any money beyond that. And if I’m wrong, that’s my fault for not being interested in that. They probably are paying us, but for us it’s just an interesting thing. Dave said, ‘I’ve never been to Newfoundland. I’d like to go. This is a good opportunity and I can bring the kids and stuff…’ I’ve been to Newfoundland myself, but I thought, ‘Yeah, that sounds really fun.’”

Bill Priddle, Treble Charger: “Who doesn’t want to get paid for playing music in front of a bunch of people? I like playing regardless of what’s happening, so playing in front of people for money will be great for me. I’m looking forward to playing in a loud rock band again. I haven’t done that since [post-Treble Charger band] Don Vail has more or less been dormant. I’m not going to be able to buy a house, I’m going to be able to pay some bills. That’s the most accurate way to put it.”

Trevor Hurst, Econoline Crush: “For all of us, it’s really not as significant as it might be with other bands. I’ve got kids and I’m a single dad, so I can’t tour for a length of time and make it make financial sense. Just to get going it costs enough. So we literally go out and tour for fun—barely make the bills kind of thing. But we do it because we love to do it and it’s an opportunity to create and it’s part of our makeup. I know that for other bands financially it does make some sense. They can pull in some good money—like Big Sugar and stuff like that, they must be doing great just being able to go out and do that. I know that when [Big Sugar leader] Gordie Johnson was doing Grady it was tough. And I know that there’s definitely more money in Econoline than a Hurst show. But is it enough to offset all the costs? Not really. It’s just a passion for us.”

Ian Thornley, Big Wreck: “The new song ‘Albatross’ is #2 or #3 on the charts right now. People are like, ‘Goddamn man, you’re soaring.’ I don’t see one penny from that. If there were any sort of people that wanted to get shitty about it and say we’re doing it for a cash grab—we’re going to do the exact same numbers I would think with Thornley than I would with Big Wreck. But I have my friend Brian [Doherty] back in the band with us.”

So why get back together? What’s it all about then?

Trevor Hurst, Econoline Crush: “You try and make music with other people and it doesn’t work. And you get back together with these people and it just works. It works well and you don’t have to re-teach or teach someone the language of your songwriting. That’s the way it works for us. I don’t have to explain to Ziggy why I don’t understand a part. He understands why I don’t like a certain kind of progression, or he does like a certain kind of progression. He knows how to work with me in the studio. So it’s like you have this unique language that you’ve developed over 10 years time and it feels like such a waste to not use it.”

Dave Ullrich, The Inbreds: “I think there’s a water-under-the-bridge thing for sure. There’s no question of that. Like, Mike shows up at my house and I’ve got two daughters and they think he’s a total laugh. Mike and I, we first met each other in high school so we knew each other forever. But you can just burn out a relationship. I think playing in a band does that times a million. Not only are you housemates, but when you’re touring with a guy, you’re seeing that guy all day long. And there’s nobody to break up disagreements. Our disagreements were just passive aggressive. But then when you come back to it, there’s things that only Mike and I, the two of us, know. Things we’ve been through that only the two of us can understand.”

Bill Priddle, Treble Charger: “What this whole thing is about is the friendship between Greig and I. When I left the band I thought, ‘I could go 10 years—I could hang out with the other guys in the band—but I could go 10 years without hanging out with that guy.’ And then very shortly afterwards, I realized that wasn’t at all true. I mean, we’re family, we grew up together… this is about Greig and me, and our friendship.”

Ian Thornley, Big Wreck: “In my own case there’s just so much history there between Brian [Doherty] and me, and it really left a sour note with me; how things were left when Big Wreck broke up. It’s like I’ve got another brother back. We both had to go through whatever we had to go through in the past few years and I think, honestly, it’s just a joy to be around him, to have that same connection and history with someone. You get past all the bullshit that seemed so important that you had to part ways in the first place. It’s not really there any more and it would seem comical if anybody said, ‘You know that you guys were fighting about this?’ I know. It’s just everybody’s so past it now.”

Luke Rogalsky, Mystery Machine: “We have a really close network of friends from the town we grew up in and we all still get together in big groups. And to them, even if we were to get together just for their enjoyment that would be enough. Because we were the soundtrack to their youth. So I think, maybe on a real personal level with people we know, there’s definitely always been a ‘When are you guys playing?’ ‘Are you guys gonna do shows or put something out again?’ But that’s not coming from the industry at all. We were good childhood friends before we played music together and music is sort of woven in and out of those relationships, but the core dynamic has never changed in that we’re really close and really good friends.”