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Interview with a Shuffle Demon

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: 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


Written by barbaramackellar

January 28, 2013 at 1:02 am

Posted in Interviews

October Browne on October Browne

October Browne began her music career busking on the streets of London, England at the tender age of 11 with cymbals, tambourine, kazoo, harmonica and guitar. She immigrated to New York in 1988, where she immersed herself in the Irish music scene. In 1991, she moved to Canada and made Toronto her home. Known for her fine fingerstyle guitar playing and exquisite vocals, October has played with such notable musicians as Kirk Elliot, Anne Lederman, Ena O’Brien and Oliver Schroer. 

Browne’s haunting ballad, “Lady of the Streets” (Stuck on a Cold Steel Pole, 1995) grabbed the attention of the local media, winning high praise from critics and a good deal of air play. Also a founding member of Morgaine Le Fay, she wrote the rollicking song, “The Gate” for their debut album, Up She Flew (1997). This fall she’ll be releasing her own self-titled debut album in time for the Samhain celebrations at the Harbourfront Lakeside Terrace.

Curmudgeon‘s entertainment editor spoke with Browne before the release concert about her songs and working with some of the North American music industry’s finest musicians, guys like bassist Peter Bleakney and drummer Gary Craig, a dynamic duo known for their work with Anne Murray. “My producer, Evelyne Datl, has played with them over the years and that’s how they came to be on the album.”

With talented female Celtic musicians like East Coast fiddler Natalie MacMaster and Irish-Canadian multi-intrumentalist Loretto Reid on board, the album virtually cooks with proverbial “Goddess Power.” Browne met MacMaster while gigging at the Dawson City Music Festival and ran into her again in Toronto. “I love her playing. She has such feeling and she’s very smart, very quick.” Reid, on the other hand, she’s known for years and the two have worked together on other projects. “Besides,” says Browne,” if it’s amazing whistles you want, she’s the obvious choice.”

Other North American greats on the album include guitarists Russell Broom of Jann Arden, Colin Cripps of Blue Rodeo fame, and Kim Ratcliffe, a Holly Cole accompanist. Browne gives the lion’s share of credit to Datl, however, the behind-the-scenes magician who single-handedly wove the project into a cohesive tapestry.

“We started recording two years ago in October, but before that, there were grants to write and musicians to contact. Evelyne was there for me through it all. I really couldn’t have done it without her. She encouraged me to record, helped write grant applications and did all the producing.” Datl also co-wrote two songs with October, helped arrange the material and played numerous instruments (harmonica, piano, synths, organ, tablas).

Although October Browne has a mind-boggling variety of styles, the common thread throughout is Browne herself. “First I thought, ‘What a mish-mash. How are we ever going to make this stuff cohesive?’ But I believe we’ve done it. By having Gary, Pete, Evelyne and myself on all the tracks, we’ve kept a consistency throughout.”

Browne is a gifted songwriter whose versatility is reflected in a wide range of original offerings featuring unique arrangements and a broad spectrum of influences, from Lou Reed to James Bond and old Music Hall. “There’s something for everyone,” says Browne. “When I write songs, I don’t stop to think, ‘Now I’ll compose a pop song, or a folk song.’ I just write what comes. I’m influenced by a lot of different musicians and types of music.”

Although Browne’s ballads are my personal farourites — I’m a fool for ballads and hers are exquisite, all her songs are captivating. There’s not a single “throw-away” track on the album. “I don’t like filler. I may not be as prolific as some songwriters, but I take great care with each song.” In fact, she already has a few new songs under her hat for her next album.

The original ballads include “Faithless,” which show-cases some of Browne’s finest guitar work, and “Just Wanna Dance,” a song inspired by a lone dancer at Lee’s Palace. “I saw a young hippie girl at a Nomos concert doing her own free-style dance among some traditional dancers who seemed to find her a little ‘odd.’ Out of generosity, Dora Keogh and Thomasina Reilly took her by the hand and danced with her, and I was so touched that I wrote, ‘Just Wanna Dance’.” Incidentally, the rich-sounding keyboard in this piece is actually a B3 organ.

Browne’s stirring ballad, “Naked & Small” resonates with old-fashioned border English balladry reminiscent of the sixties Celtic music revival, while the Mellotron gives it a modern feel, “similar to John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields. The lyrics come from a personal experience that a lot of people can relate to, something I probably wouldn’t write now,” she muses. “It was a particular time in my life.” Browne’s upbeat “Distant Shore” is another  ballad original with a subtle blend of electric and acoustic guitar and a powerful lyrical angst that takes it beyond being more than just an old-fashioned love song. “It can touch on a lot of things, like having a rough childhood.”

In contrast to her ballads, Browne’s most recent work, “No Return” is a fast-paced retro number with a bit of everything from James Bond, Peter Gunn and the Beatles to the Addams Family’s Farfisa organ. But despite its camp, she considers it her most meaningful song. “It’s about how offended I am by genetic engineering. Even though the long-term effects are not known, these guys don’t have to label. It’s all based on profit and greed and not caring for the planet. the song is called “no return” because that’s where I feel we’re going. I feel that our hearts need to be more open as a species.”

The first track, “Song of O,” is a catchy tune with Dylanesque mouth harp by Evelyne. And it’s a double entendre. “Since it’s about me, I thought of calling it Story of O, but “Song of O” seemed a little more subtle. It’s the first song I ever wrote, so it’s perfect as the first song on the album.”

Natalie MacMaster plays an awesome fiddle in Browne’s re-mix of “The Gate,” a fun tune she wrote for the Morgaine Le Fay album, Up She Flew, about the James Gate pub on Bloor near High Park. “A lot of my material is emotional and serious, so I needed a light-hearted tune on the album. It’s the Beatles with lots of fiddle.”

Browne and her accompaniment also add a few surprising new twists to old favourites. “I just love the groove that Gary and Pete create on “”Foggy Dew” and Loretto’s amazing whistle.” They also do interesting things to Beatle George Harrison’s version of the Hindu chant “Govinda,” a Sanskrit hymn to Krishna. Evelyne’s arrangements combined with Kim Ratcliffe’s slide guitar and Loretto’s whistles and uillean pipes create an unforgettably cool and unusual Indian-Celtic cross-over. “My album holds surprises for everyone.”

Since surprises are rare in the age of post-modern cynicism, I highly recommend October Browne.

Celtic Curmudgeon: Arts & Entertainment Review, Samhain 1999

Written by barbaramackellar

June 7, 2012 at 5:39 am

Posted in Interviews, Reviews

Neil Jordan ponders The Butcher Boy

Oscar-winning writer and director Neil Jordan swept into town this spring with his fiery young protégé, Eamonn Owens, in tow to present the Toronto premiere of The Butcher Boy, his latest and possibly darkest film out of Ireland. Based on Patrick McCabe’s best-selling novel of the same name, Jordan’s distinctive screen adaptation won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Festival, and fifteen-year-old Owens received a Special Mention for his powerful debut performance as the precocious Francie Brady.

Surrounded by a circle of critics, the enigmatic Irish director casually sprawls on a couch in his sunny Yorkville hotel suite answering questions ad nauseam about his latest cinematic achievement. Smiling shyly and squirming in his seat like an overgrown school boy, Jordan seems uncomfortable in the limelight. He bides his time, as though pondering every syllable of each query. Luring the mystery man out from behind his director’s mask is a challenge relished by all but one seasoned critic (who wishes to remain anonymous). “Jordan is a difficult interview,” she pronounces during the break. “You have to goad him with a cattle prod before he’ll talk about his work, and when he finally says something, it’s the same stuff he’s been feeding all the other media.” Arriving partway through the screening, she quickly concludes The Butcher Boy is a typical “boy-goes-bad” slice ’em up flick — which it is not. There’s no Jason-meets-Freddy or Halloween schlock in this butcher shop. It’s an authentically Irish tale right down to the bolloxing bogmen, black-skirted priests and archaic Co. Monaghan dialect.

While The Butcher Boy is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, it is far from being a slick Hollywood slice-and-dice horror. Shot on location in the provincial town of Clones, Jordan’s film is a black comedy that cleverly combines art and realism with old fashioned voice-over narrative (by Stephen Rea). Unlike most literary adaptations, it’s also miraculously true to the spirit of McCabe’s novel. “I found the book very cinematic in a strange way, even though it’s stream of consciousness,” says Jordan. “It’s a story about a Dennis the Menace type who sees himself as a superhero. I thought it one of the best accounts of childhood I’d ever read.”

Jordan was so impressed, he asked McCabe to write the screenplay. “Since Pat’s a friend of mine and we come from the same environment, it just happened naturally. In a sense, I was recreating his childhood. I cast him in the movie [as Jimmy the Skite] and shot him in the town he grew up in…I wanted him as involved as possible. He wasn’t used to writing script, though. His first draft was too long, so I asked him to shorten it, which he did, but when I saw all the changes, I had to say, ‘Sorry, Pat, but I don’t remember asking you for a whole new novel.’ He was worried about hinging the whole film on voice-over, so we ended up writing together.”

The result is a brilliantly performed look at the effects of sixties pop culture on an unstable small-town boy growing up in the underbelly of Irish culture. And yes, Francie does go mad and chop Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw) to pieces, but she deserves it — or so I thought. Not in Jordan’s opinion:

“It was very important that there should be no villains in the piece, because you can easily say, ‘Okay, Francie’s the way he is because those ladies in the shop treat him consistently horribly.’ Then you’d be able to blame them. Even Mrs. Nugent does nothing wrong to the boy in the end. She just doesn’t want him in her company. It is important to see very clearly that it is the child’s mind that drives him, that there is some disturbance in Francie’s interior world and not any particular character, not even the priest who half abuses him. The entire adult world around him is well-meaning. They just don’t notice his specific trauma.”

“Then why is Francie so mad at the ‘well-meaning’ adult world?” I ask. “He had a hard upbringing and must find compensation for the series of disasters that happened to him,” Jordan explains. Francie lives in an imaginary world to escape a life of poverty and shattered dreams. His father, Benny (Stephen Rea), is an alcoholic jazz musician down on his luck, and his mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) is a frail woman who slowly drifts into madness and suicide.

“Actually, Francie is always ahead of the adults,” Jordan continues, as though lecturing a class of attentive school kids. “Even the psychiatrist, but he’s manic, obsessive and estranged and given to grandiose behaviour. For instance, when his blood brother, Joe (Alan Boyle) gives the goldfish to young Nugent (Andrew Fullerton), the son of his nemesis, Francie perceives it as the ultimate betrayal. That’s why he tries to win as many goldfish at the carnival as he can…because he thinks it’s the key to his friend’s heart, to winning him back.

Finding the right Francie Brady was possibly Jordan’s greatest challenge. “I had a team turning Ireland upside-down. We did read-throughs with 2,000 children. It got to the point where I thought we wouldn’t be able to make the movie because there’d be no point without the right child. Eventually we found Eamonn Owens in the tiny town of Killashandra, Co. Cavan, working in his parents’ vegetable shop. He’d never acted before, but when I began working with him, I realized he would be marvelous. I cast his young brother as well [Ciaran Owens], and his friend Joe goes to the same school. I’d like to work with Eamonn again. It’s very rare to come across someone with so much energy and power.”

Jordan’s new young star may take to the screen like a fish to water, but even he has limitations. “The most challenging scene for me was with Milo O’Shea as the [homosexual] priest in the reform school,” says Owens,” because I couldn’t identify it with anything in my life to know what to do in the scene. But Neil was brilliant and Milo O’Shea was fabulous. He knew to perfection what he was meant to be doing. It was easy after a while, even though I was quite worried about the scene.” Overall though, Owens has been having tremendous fun. “I particularly enjoyed the scenes in the house with Stephen Rea, especially when he broke the TV set. Seeing him kick in the screen was very entertaining. He’s extremely funny.” After his debut with Jordan, Owens took a role in John Boorman’s irish gangster film, I Once Had a Life. “I hope I’m offered more parts in the future. If I continue to enjoy acting, I’ll study it in school.”

For Jordan, working with Owens effected a kind of catharsis. “It was a weird experience for me, because Eamonn looks like me when I was his age, especially in the altar boy’s costume. I remember growing up in Ireland at the time and being told I was surrounded by ghosts all the time. The Catholic thing is very strong there, very basic in a very superstitious way. As a kid you were told that voices would speak to you from the sky at any moment. I was terrified by the possibility that one of these figures would appear to me and say, ‘Neil, you are the one. Come and work with us. Wear a black skirt like us, Neil.'”

Sinead O’Connor as The Virgin Mary

Jordan’s apocalyptic scenes and special effects are macabre, gritty and disturbingly funny manifestations of his own childhood fears. “I remember seeing the nuclear blast on TV and being taught what to do in case of a nuclear strike. ‘Get under the bed.’ we were told.” Amid all this gory Goth, Sinead O’Connor’s Virgin Mary shines like a glossy Hollywood neon goddess. “It’s the way the religious statues and pictures appear in real life. They’re very gaudy. I love religious art, the Hindu gods and Indian spirits. If you saw the Virgin Mary, she’d appear very bright, with a big spotlight behind her. I was going to make Marilyn Monroe the Virgin Mary, the way you would imagine it in the Hollywood way. Sinead looks more like the ‘real’ Virgin Mary in the iconography I grew up with: the beautiful profile, dark hair, sallow skin, lovely bone structure — just like Sinead.”

The Virgin Mary’s language is pretty upbeat for a religious icon (she uses the “F” word) and may offend those with delicate sensibilities. According to Jordan, “It didn’t offend them in Ireland. Maybe it will in the States, but that’s how Francie imagines her talking, and she talks in his voice.”

As for the use of authentic dialect, the film is very confusing for an audience not familiar with Irish colloquialisms, and it may take a good ten minutes just to get the accent. “You’ve got a choice,” insists Jordan. “You either mess it up and make it mid-Atlantic, in which case it doesn’t have any integrity at all, or you make it as accurately as you can for the people involved and hope that the audience will reach it. For me it’s better not to compromise so that the power and strength of the movie is more intense. I think if you tried to flatten out this adaptation and make it acceptable all over the world, however you imagine it, you would destroy the book entirely.” Jorden is undoubtedly right, but the Co. Monaghan dialect makes voice-over a necessary evil in this film, for North Americans at least.

The language barrier apparently has had little effect on audiences in England and Europe, however, and Jordan remains in awe of how well The Butcher Boy is being received across the pond. “It’s been praised very highly and it’s getting quite a significant audience for the kind of movie it is. I think movies are becoming a bit too anodyne.”

Whatever the reasons his disgruntled critics attribute to his self-reflexive time-lags, Jordan has not lost his Midas touch. His heady cast of professionals, amateurs and authentic townsfolk, his juxta-positioning of location and studio filming with surrealistic special effects and unique use of religious symbolism in The Butcher Boy recall the art films of Bergman and Fellini, but from a distinctly Irish point of view. Following in the footsteps of these and other art-house icons, Jordan has carved out a body of work and a stock troupe of actors headed by Stephen Rea.

While behaving more like an angry young author than a fervid film director may be a thorn in the side of some critics, Jordan wears both hats with aplomb. Judging by his collection of screenplay awards, his writer’s hat fits remarkably well. So what if he’s crammed it into his back pocket alongside a crumpled Dennis the Menace comic and old chewing gum?

Celtic Curmudgeon Arts & Entertainment Review, 1998

Written by barbaramackellar

May 28, 2012 at 4:52 am

Posted in Interviews