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Exclusive Interview


          Tom Wilson: musician, artist, father

             by Lisa McDonald

             Live Music Head

             June 2010

Mohawk mixed with French and Irish,

Tom Wilson is a 3-time Juno award-winning,

self-taught Canadian musician.

An only child of a father blinded in WWII,

Mr Wilson grew up in Hamilton, Ontario,

and began writing songs at the age of 12.

But his first live performance was in a church

covering songs like Sister Golden Hair by America.

Tom may have held jobs as a construction worker by day

and in the Hamilton Spectator mail room on weekends,

but Frankie Venom and Teenage Head soon inspired Wilson

to form his own band.

It was 1981, and the band was called the Florida Razors.

Beat Music, the band’s first album was released a few years later,

but after extensive touring with no

major record deal in sight, the Razor’s split up.

Tom Wilson struck Canadian gold in the 90s however,

as the front man of the ever-popular rock band, Junkhouse.

The original formation of Wilson on guitar and vocals,

drummer Ray Farrugia, guitarist Dan Achen,

and bassist and vocalist Russ Wilson

was eventually complimented by

keyboardist and guitarist Colin Cripps, with

Grant Marshall filling in when Russ Wilson departed.

Junkhouse sold thousands of albums and received

extensive radio play of their songs

Shine and Out of My Head.

But this band too, would go their separate ways,

leaving Tom to hook up with Bob Lanois

for a year of sessions resulting in The Shack Recordings.

And then in 1996,

Colin Linden, Tom Wilson and Stephen Fearing,

upon transforming themselves into an alt country blues trio,

won the 2000 Juno award for

Roots & Traditional Album of the Year

as Blackie & the Rodeo Kings.

Wilson also recorded two solo records,

Planet Love in 2001 and Dog Days in 2006.

After three decades,

Wilson has managed to firmly establish himself

as a survivor of the music industry,

and the substance abuse which so perfectly accompanies it.

His current project, LeE HARVeY OsMOND,

is a collaborative effort with former members of

the Cowboy Junkies and the Skydiggers and

with the 2009 release of A Quiet Evil,

the band has been rippin’ up the road ever since.

As a prolific songwriter, Tom Wilson has supplied material for

Billy Ray Cyrus, Murray McLauchlan, Colin James, and Mavis Staples.

His songs also appear in television, as well as motion pictures.

During a run of Hump Days at Toronto’s Dakota Tavern in May,

Mr Wilson graciously took time out to talk with me about

his past, present and being a dad.

When the song Rock On by David Essex came out in the 70s, like a lot of young girls I was a big fan. I understand you weren’t really a fan, but had an early David Essex experience.

First of all, I AM a fan of David Essex and I love the song Rock On. But there’s also a slide guitar player by the name of David Essig who wrote and sang folk music. Back in high school it was announced there would be a noon hour concert. 750 kids packed the auditorium, including myself, expecting David Essex to come out and perform in platform shoes and satin bell bottoms. Instead, this dirty-looking little guy comes out with food stuck in his beard singing Elmore James songs! The whole place was like, “what the fuck is this?”


But we ended up really digging it, and it was one of the first triggers that introduced me to Willie P Bennett, Brent Titcomb, David Wiffen, Ian Tamblyn, and the late Stan Rogers. In 1975-76, it was places like the Knight II Coffee House and the Festival of Friends in Hamilton where I really got my start in music.

Daniel Lanois, upon inviting you to visit his house in New Orleans, surrounded you in a musical community that led to the end of your first band.

I spent the 80s playing places like Larry’s Hideaway in Toronto, but after selling a song
to George Thorogood, I decided to take on Los Angeles. After discovering I was making my living selling hash to tourists and busking on Hollywood Blvd however, I came back here and formed the Florida Razors. We were a really good independent band and toured with everybody until about 85-86, whereupon I got out of music for a year or two. Shortly afterward, Lanois threw me a bone by inviting me to New Orleans.

Did some of the musicians hanging out with you in New Orleans include Bob Dylan, Garth Hudson and Gary Tallent of the E Street Band? And how did this experience impact on your transition from your first band to the next?

The musicians you mentioned, as well as the Neville Brothers all came through that New Orleans studio. And having been the Canadian who struggled to be acknowledged in my own country, I now tell artists who are young and talented enough that they should leave this country immediately. Why waste energy, thought and soul in Canada when you could be doing the same thing for US audiences who

appreciate it more?

Another story of Canada not appreciating their own artists.

It’s another renaissance for me going to the States now, too. LeE HARVeY OsMOND goes there and plays in front of 500-1,000 people and then comes back to Canada and plays the Dakota Tavern in Toronto. Sometimes it’s packed and sometimes not, but the thing about the Dakota, which is a beautiful place, is that as soon as I walk in there, all I want to do is play music.

I love seeing LeE HARVeY OsMOND at the Dakota. It’s a real treat. But is there a particular memory, experience or influence that comes to mind when you think of those days in the New Orleans studio?

Well, the fact that my opinion was considered; that my set of ears and my heart were as important in the moment as anybody’s. I just didn’t get that at home, especially in Toronto.

And a fire was ignited inside you.

Yea, I came back here and said, “fuck you, get the hell out of my way!” I put Junkhouse together and we became really successful.

The first album Junkhouse released sold 70,000 copies in Canada and received plenty of radio airplay. Yet despite landing on the front cover of Billboard magazine in Apr 1994, major success for the band didn’t really take off in the United States.

Out of My Head was released in the US and given a week to see how it would do on radio. A lot of money was spent, and when it didn’t get the response that was expected, it was over.

And how would the same thing happen today?

Today, the eye of the needle that’s always been there is now smaller than it’s ever been.

Yet in 2009, you released a record despite declining cd sales. A Quiet Evil is not only successful, but for me the best Canadian record I‘ve heard in a long time.

Well, we’ll make another one then! (laughs)

But while touring with Junkhouse , you shared the stage with Alice Cooper. I love Alice Cooper. Do you have a Cooper story?

When Junkhouse toured with Alice Cooper, other people in the band and their wives met him, but I didn’t. I don’t have a story, but I did finally meet Alice six or seven years ago when Blackie and the Rodeo Kings performed on the Juno’s. Our green room was shared with him and Bob Ezrin.

Tragedy happened last March when Junkhouse guitarist Dan Achen suddenly dropped dead from a heart attack at the age of 51. I believe he was making a successful living as a record producer when he fell to the ice playing hockey. Can you talk about your relationship with Achen and the loss of him at such a young age?

Yea, Jesus Christ, what the hell? Dan was in better shape than anyone I know. Dan had an outstanding loving relationship with his son, a great relationship with his ex and was producing gold and platinum records at a time when nobody does that anymore. But he didn’t like going to the doctor, and it’s believed he had a clogged artery. The night after he died, we had a lot of laughs remembering Dan. What a fucking character!

Did this tragedy cause you any pause about yourself; getting older and declining health?

Yes, I’m in the throes of that right now. I’m 50 years old with a heart condition too, and working harder than I ever have. My publisher says, “you can’t let fear hold you back”. But I have to be smart. I try to be careful with what I eat.

How long has it been since you gave up drinking? And is being on the road easier now since you gave it up?

Oh yea! It’ll be eleven years in December since I stopped alcohol. I stopped heroin in ’99 and stopped cocaine in 2003. I lost a fortune doing drugs, and I almost lost my family.

And what triggered you to stop? Did something happen?

Yea, my ex-wife beat me with an axe handle. She beat me with an axe handle, called my record company and they threw me in re-hab!

So it wasn’t really your choice, but I guess you’re grateful to your ex-wife now?

Fuck yea! She kicks ass! I’d be dead by now.

What does the Book of They say? Behind every great man...

there’s a woman with an axe handle!

A Quiet Evil, with songs about prison love, dead presidents and Native land rights, is a great debut album. Are some of the sounds I hear on this record influenced by your Native background?

My daughter’s been encouraging me to get status, but I hesitate to do so because I don’t make my living off aboriginal music. I don’t make my living off aboriginal art and I didn’t grow up on a reserve. Nor did I grow up acknowledging any of the Native ways. I don’t tend to go into much detail about my Native background, but I did get a look into the reserve when I was a kid, and there was a lot of acting up and half joy in drinking and fighting. When I write for other people, I write to their voices. I write to who they are and what they’ve done. For the music I write for myself, I don’t manipulate in any direction. I let it be what it is. I think whatever is coming out in the music is being channelled naturally.

But seeing LeE HARVeY OsMOND live, percussionist Brent Titcomb certainly brings out a Native quality.

He’s fucking wild, isn’t he? Brent’s not Native but he’s a healer and well-versed, having practiced with this country’s oldest and most powerful medicine men. Brent’s a white guy, but as fucking Indian as anyone I’ve ever met. He’s extraordinary, and as pure and beautiful as anyone I’ve ever met.

A Quiet Evil is described as "an album that’s not dark per se, but does reflect more disconcerting areas of modern life: folk-country cabaret music that deals with neighbourhoods that aren't whitewashed, with themes of people in conflict." My sister married a Mohawk and although I’ve never been on a reserve or know much about Native culture, I did get some exposure and remember the conflict that happened at Oka some time ago.

One side of my family is RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and the other side, older church going (I hate to use the word half-breed) mixed women. Some of my family got a police boat to get the women off the reserve during the Oka conflict. It was scary.

Has your Native background become more meaningful to you later in life?

One Native tradition that’s stayed with me, and stayed really tight, is the storytelling. Not the kind of storytelling where someone sat in front of me and told a story, but stories told around kitchen tables where music happened. Various characters would come in from Kahnawake just outside of Montreal (Quebec), where the Native side of my family is from. I would hear stories you would never hear sitting around average middle class neighbourhoods and these stories transformed me and ignited my imagination in different ways. So, writing about characters and situations or even talking off the cuff in conversations the way I do, seems to come naturally.

I’m an enormous Bruce Springsteen fan, and it was both thrilling and hilarious hearing you tell the story of meeting the Boss at Massey Hall in that great Youtube clip.

Word got around that Springsteen liked my song Jesus Sings the Blues, so I was given tickets and invited to meet him after the show. I’m a pretty big fan of Bruce. He’s a fantastic storyteller; as good as it gets.

The art exhibition called Tom Wilson and a Cast of Thousands was presented across Ontario last September 2009. Your paintings have been described as folk art and your method of applying paint with your fingers and using a knife to etch lyrics into the drying oils sounds fascinating. Did you go to art school and what are some of the creative sparks that draw you to painting as opposed to song writing?

I went to Sheraton College for a year of general art, but after going on tour to play music that summer, I never went back. I was going to take journalism as well, but realized I didn’t want to do anything so regimental. I had enough of that.

I see the Nativeness in your paintings as well.

Yea, a lot of people say that. I started painting the first time I stopped drinking in ’97 and kept painting because people were buying it. Painting is meditation, and a great release. I paint the same image over and over with a different story. There’s something about delivering yourself to the canvas that is different than performing.

In addition to touring the US and Europe, you’ve also been known to perform house concerts, taking part in the Winnipeg-based Home Routes concert series.

People will get 50 of their friends together in their homes and charge $20 or $30 for a concert, and suddenly there’s a thousand bucks to be made for an artist. I always have a good time doing them, but with the kitchen being the dressing room and everyone so close, it does cause me to be on for an extended time.

You’ve also co-hosted the 2009 Hamilton Music Awards, for which A Quiet Evil was nominated for Record of the Year. Can you tell me what it’s like as a nominee wondering if your name will be called and what’s involved in hosting an event such as this?

I believe in the event and have hosted it since the beginning. It’s fun, and I’m always surprised to be nominated and happy to win. The first time I won a Juno, I was with my daughter in the press room. She was little then and got really excited over Alanis Morrisette. It was more fun watching my daughter’s excitement than to be excited myself, I’ll tell you that.

Do you like being a dad?

Fuck yea! When my daughter moved out of the house, I had a mid-life crisis and bought a 52” TV and turned her room into an entertainment spot. Over the last four or five days, my daughter’s been back home and we’ve all been hanging out in there. I have one daughter and one son, and I love being a dad. Actually, I have difficulty sustaining a relationship with a woman now because of my commitment to the kids. To tell you the truth, I’d rather be with my kids than be with a woman.

I’ve heard this before from a single dad like you, a musician of roughly the same age with two boys. But why can’t you have both; your kids and a relationship with a woman?

Well I tell ya, if you’ve ever had the threat of losing your family and all of a sudden the sun shines and you get them back, you hang on to that. There are guys my age and younger who, when their lives fall apart, move on and start another family and fuck that up too. But for me, my last three relationships have not been successful because when push comes to shove, I’ll choose hanging out with my kids any day! When I turned 50, I wasn’t thinking of going away with a woman, romantic dinners, or...

breaking bed springs?

I mean, I do that anyway...

What, break bed springs?

I’ve broke a few beds in my time.

(laughs) God bless ya!

But I’d rather be with my kids.

Are you’re making up for the lost time spent being an addict.

Yes, and I have no time to waste. I’m a nice guy, attentive, and try hard, but I’m really a pain in the ass as a boyfriend. A woman can’t be hanging around me all the time.

This past January, you performed as part of a fundraising event for Haiti relief at Hamilton Place. Can you tell me something about this show and who were some of the other performers?

Hey, that was good. The most exciting part was when my son’s band, Harlan Pepper played.

Oh, they’re a great band!

It’s funny. They play these great shows and then when they play a place like the Dakota, they’re only half as good. Maybe it’s because they’re stoned or tired, I don’t know.

But I’ve really enjoyed seeing Harlan Pepper at the Dakota. As I watched them, I wondered how they can be so good and so young. When they play banjo songs, I hear Tom Waits. And what’s that pot song?

Reefer. (Tom singing) “I owe a lot of people, so I smoke a little reefer and hope that my problems fade away...”

Is there a new Blackie and the Rodeo Kings project in the works? Something called Kings and Queens?

We had the idea for Kings and Queens years ago, and Colin Linden put a lot of it together. We wanted to do duets with people so we went to fans of the band first and circled around them. We pulled in Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, and also found new fans like Amy Helm (Levon Helm’s daughter), Sam Phillips, Holly Cole and Mary Margaret O’Hara. Traditionally, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings would go in the studio, record for five days, overdub, and be done. But with this project, finding the right Queens, writing the songs and hoping they like the songs takes time. We still have to find a few more Queens, but the project is almost done and it will come out next year.

Hamilton city officials were in the news last month proposing 325 trees be cut down so the Hillcrest Reservoir can be rebuilt. You were quoted as saying, "As a citizen of Hamilton, I've been lied to, told the pump house was going up because we had a perfectly good reservoir. Now that there's federal infrastructure money to be spent, the reservoir is suddenly in really bad shape." Can you tell me about your community activism and your relationship with your home town?

I’m not interested in talking to politicians, hearing from them or getting emails from them, but Hamilton is a joke to the rest of the country. It’s getting to a point where there is no regard for green spaces. Hamilton is anti-green and needs a green-friendly inspection. The city needs to re-consider alternatives to knocking over 325 trees that took hundreds of years to grow. My ex-wife lives right beside my favourite park in Hamilton, and I live a block from it.

You could probably live anywhere and yet you reside in your home town.

Yes, I have lived in many places. But I’m comfortable in Hamilton and my kids are there. And those are two good reasons for wanting to stay.

Lawrie Ingels, a local musician and fan of yours, told me a story of how he unexpectedly found himself hauling a broken washing machine out of your basement. There were three guys helping, but Lawrie said, “We almost died, and I bled all over Tom’s stairs.” Do you remember this?

There’s always something to be done. And I do remember that day. Mostly I remember the blood. I was asked to write for Ian Tyson once, and he asked me to come out four days ahead of time to help around the ranch.

Mr Wilson, you don’t strike me as the handy man type.

No, I’m not, not at all.

You’ve toured the world. Was there a place that you enjoyed the most?

Chicago. There’s blue collar integrity about Chicago that I like. It’s people being really smart with their surroundings, architecturally. I think the World’s Fair that happened there in eighteen something gave the city a real boost of integrity.

I’ve never been.

It’s a good town. If you go, get a hotel right downtown. If you can get into the Sax Hotel which is right next door to the House of Blues, you’ll also be near those two round towers that appear on the Foxtrot album cover by Wilco. Those same towers appear in the Bob Newhart show and many films shots around Chicago. You’ll feel like you’re at the centre of something.

As a musician who enjoys collaboration, you’ve worked with many household names in the music business; one of which was Rosanne Cash for Johnny's Blues: A Tribute to Johnny Cash. I understand you’ve also had some involvement with Clarence Gatemouth Brown.

When Blackie plays New York, Rosanne Cash, the Cohen Brothers, film makers and other interesting people will gather around. It’s a really positive sign to have other creative people surrounding the band, whether they’re famous creative people or not. Rosanne also worked with me on my solo album Dog Years. When I was in Bubaloosa, Louisiana, I came in to the studio lounge one day and there’s this guy in a hat, sitting there eating a chilli dog. I thought, “holy fuck, it’s Gatemouth Brown!” I went up to him and said, “Hi, my name’s Tom Wilson and I’m recording here. Fuck man, I’ve seen you play so many times and it’s really great, so nice...” He takes out a pipe. “Holy fuck,” I say, “You got the legendary pipe with ya, too! I’ve seen so many pictures of you with that pipe.” Brown says, “yup, I always gots the pipe with me. You wanna buy it?”

(laughs) Ya wanna buy it?!

Yea, that’s what he said! I burst out, “Yes I’ll buy it! How much?” thinking I’d go to the bank and withdraw four or five hundred dollars. Clarence says, “Forty bucks. You want this one, or you want a clean one?” I’m like, “what do you mean?” We go out to his Cadillac and he pops the trunk. Inside the trunk are boxes and boxes of pipes! I laughed my head off. I pulled forty bucks from my pocket, gave it to him, and laughed my fucking head off. Clarence says, “every white boy comes up to me likes my pipe.” I got the pipe he was smoking that day, and laughed my fucking head off.

(laughs) As far as songwriters go, is there one who has inspired you the most?

Bob Dylan. But for more than just as an artist writing great songs; Dylan brings forth possibilities and opens doors when I’m stuck.

How do you go about writing songs?

It starts as an idea. For me it’s almost like acting; a transformation takes place where I get to confront that creative energy.

When can we expect to see another LeE HARVeY OsMOND record?

We’re recording our next one in September, and it’ll be released by the end of 2011.

Are you capable of amazing yourself at this point, and are you happy?

No, I don’t amaze myself. (laughs) I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and I’ve learned not to expect miracles. At the age of 50 I’m happy, but I’m still learning about myself. I know who I was. I know what I need to apologize for, and I’ve made a lot of amends. But I sometimes wish I could’ve been delivered and re-born a little earlier; to start again with the patience, the knowledge and the kindness that’s needed to be who you are.

Blackie and the Rodeo Kings will perform on June 16 at Toronto’s Massey Hall as part of Luminato’s Bruce Cockburn tribute:

LeE HARVeY OsMOND will appear at Hugh’s Room on June 28 for the Greenpeace Amchitka Concert (1970) CD Release also featuring Mary Margaret O’Hara, Margo & Michael Timmins, Sarah Slean, Barbara Lynch & John Timmins, Jory Nash, Mia Sheard, Caroline Brooks, Oh Susanna, and more.

~ photos courtesy of Tom Wilson and Harlan Pepper

LeE HARVeY OsMOND on Myspace

Tom Wilson official website

Blackie and the Rodeo Kings on Myspace

Tom Wilson on Myspace

Harlan Pepper on Myspace


About Lisa McDonald: otherwise known as Live Music Head, Ms McDonald is a vegetarian who enjoys practicing yoga and pilates, but it’s an enormous passion for music that keeps her tapping away at a keyboard.  Living in the downtown core of Toronto, Lisa is currently in conversation with local musicians and television personalities as she develops her interview skills and publishes articles at web-based magazines.

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