Archive for January 2013
The Man Behind the Myth
My first “up close and personal” encounter with a Shuffle Demon was on a dark and stormy October night in the season of the witch. Black cats prowled Toronto’s back alleys and howling wind whipped the leaves from the tree branches.
He introdcued himself as Richard Underhill. If this were a Tolkien novel it would signify that Shuffle Demons live under hills. They do not…not this one, at any rate. Richard lives in a sprawling second floor flat in the Queen West district, near La Calle, the funky little Latin American café where I enticed him to dine with me in exchange for an exclusive interview for the Halloween issue of What’s On Queen?.
Shuffle Demons I’ve observed neither look nor act alike. They do share certain traits in common, though. They’re all talented musicians with a penchant for travelling abroad. And there are three things Shuffle Demons cannot resist: good eats, good booze, and good schmooze.
While Richard confirmed my observations, I was not prepared for his revelation that the answer is more complex than books on demonology would have us believe. Sorry horror fans, but the shadowy origins of the Shuffle Demons was not brought about by either human or animal sacrifice. Shuffle Demons are part human and part mythological creatures who evolved from nature and technology.
Once we had dined and were relaxing comfortably over a bottle of excellent Chilean wine, my fascination for folklore finally compelled me to ask, “What are Shuffle Demons and when did they make their first appearance in this world?
“They are the offspring of another creature known as the Shuffle Monster.
“The Shuffle Monster is an intuitive, improvisational musical response to a simple, sweet jazz melody. During mating season, it swells up and attacks the melody for the sake of variation and complexity, and somehow these two musical entities end up entwined in a Shuffle Groove.”
In other words, this particular species of demon evolved accidentally and unconsiously from musical DNA. The primal sounds of the Shuffle Demon may be described as a juxtapositioning of simple jazz riffs with monstrous improvisations which then results in a stream of uncanny shuffle grooves. Can you dig that one cyberjazz fans?
When did this remarkable phenomenon first manifest itself in our conscious, or real world?
“That’s hard to say. I think it’s primitve and goes way back to our tribal roots, when we sat around fires together, sharing our communal wealth and drawing men in spacesuits on the walls of South American caves.”
“I see,” I said, nodding sagely.
Um, that is to say, when did you first realize you were a Shuffle Demon?
“It all started out west, when I planted trees with some hippies. By the end of the summer, I was a BC hippie cool type. After that I studied music at York University, where I met this super cleancut guy named Mike Murley, carrying a sax case, and I asked myself, “Who is this guy?” We were like mirror opposites. He was into ultra conservative jazz, and I was into Sun Ra: you know, the New York big band from Jupiter sound.”
Although they later shared a place, music was another matter. They were scared of each other and the music didn’t gel.
“Mike was too good and I was too weird. Then one night the lights went out and in a state of semi-sense deprivation, our jamming clicked.”
As students of David Mott, professor of the York Jazz Composition course, they were encouraged to express what they felt.
“He gave us the tools and then told us to do our own thing.”
That’s when Richard composed the tune, “Mott’s Guru Ship.”
“I admired Mott so much, I was afraid of becoming a Mott clone. So, first I wrote a lilt, then this riff to destroy it, as a melodic statement to funify it. What you end up with is a lilt in front of a massive shuffle groove. This was my first major encounter with a shuffle monster. They’re part of the fun stuff on the fringe.”
Richard and Mike hit the streets and started busking on the corners of Yonge and Bloor and along Queen Street. Then drummer Stitch Wynston joined them, followed by their thrid sax man, Dave Parker, and finally bassist Jim Vivian.
“We called ourselves the Shuffle Demons because the ‘shuffle’ is a musical groove and ‘demons’ signify ‘shuffle monsters.'”
Their street perrformances became wilder and more outrageous, and they whirled and played like ecstatic Dervishes, rejuvenating a dying street scene. The ’50s had Gerard St. Village; the ’60s had Yorkville; today we have Queen Street, Bloor Street, The Fringe Festival, jazz festivals and lots of other happenings. But the Shuffle Demons hit the streets in a void.
“Nothing much was happening in the way of street theatre. We woke a sleeping demon. The streets of TO came alive, and we boogied to pretty much an overnight success. Our first release, Streetniks, speaks volumes about the spirit of our early beginnings.”
Why did your music became so popular so fast?
“I think that music is a language and we were talking a very basic primal musical language that everyone speaks.”
Since those first days, the band has continued to grow and evolve. All the original Demons but Richard have pursued other musical paths. The new ensemble is practically a whole new band with a new sound.
“At first I called it ‘acid jazz,’ but that’s a misnomer with retro connotations. I think ‘cyberjazz’ really says it all. ‘Cyber’ communicates our departure from our old stuff, while ‘jazz’ indicates our tribal roots.”
Even better, they’ve discovered a whole new street on the internet. A very alive and happening street that invites freedom of artistic expression.
“The internet is the perfect tool to do your own thing.”
What are your plans for the future?
“I want to go ‘back to the future’ and blend my past experiences — like the time Mike Murley and I took part in a Zuni Buffalo Dance in New Mexico — with cyberjazz; eclectronic sampler, harmonized wa-wa sax, Farras B. Smith’s cyberdrums, Mike Mulligan’s bass and Eric St. Laurent’s guitar. The cave paintings of men in space suit are a kind of logo for our primitve cyber-space jazz. Our music, bios and photos will go out on the internet and get downloaded by our international tribal sycerstreet fans. The internet allows total freedom of artistic expression. No one has control: not even the record companies, the medi, or the government. I have a new identity on the internet: RAPU (Richard Albert Patrick Underhill). It’s my African alter ego. My address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Call me and join the tribal circle of the Shuffle Demons for cyberjazz an cyberjams.”
As he unmasked, a mythical silver-spacesuited cyberjazz Shufffle Demon emerged. This, coupled with e spectacle of Queen Street natives passing by the café window created a Halloween atmosphere. But while we humans dawn a demon mask for a day, Richard’s musical persona is a lifestyle.
For those who do not have access to the internet, you can catch Richard Underhill live every Monday night in October and November at Cameron House on Queen West, with drummer Stitch Wynston, bassist Andrew Downing, and guests. Don’t miss special guest Kevin Quain, premiering music from his cassette, Hangover Honeymoon. Those of us who celebrate Halloween will appreciate the FX: on the outside, Cameron House is swarming with giant metallic ants, and inside, the front room will be haunted by Shuffle Demons doing their “Blue Plate Special” thing.
“Will you be wearing a space suit?”
No answer. I guess we’ll just have to discover for ourselves what monstrous cyber-grooves shuffle off to Cameron House with the Shuffle Demons these next couple of months.
What’s On Queen?, Oct. 1995