Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Pete Campbell Interview: of Pink Steel, the Wardells, the Sweaters, and Coach StrobCam


David M. left, Pete Campbell right; NO FUN Alone at Christmas (photo provided by Pete Campbell)

So I've seen Pete Campbell a dozen times at NO FUN's David M. at his Christmas shows (and elsewhere). Seen him do a few originals, too, at these shows. I absolutely love at least one song he wrote, the Sweaters' "Hockey Sucks," which appears on Johnny Hanson Presents: Puck Rock Vol 1. It's very funny,  very smart, very Canadian, and very true to my own experience as a non-consumer of hockey; but I never realized, until earlier this year, that the Pete Campbell credited with writing that song was the Pete Campbell I'd seen live so many times beside David onstage.

Anyhow, I wrote about all that here and here. The song isn't online, so I can't link to it (though another great Sweaters song, "Harder," is). People trying to find out about ANY of Pete Campbell's bands are faced with somewhat of a scarcity of information online, so with him debuting a new band this Saturday at the Princeton, Coach StrobCam, I thought I'd get some of Pete's backstory down, as much for my own edification as yours. What follows is an email interview we did this week. 

Truth is, I doubt very much I'll be at the Princeton on Saturday - or even at the Northwest Horror Show, the way things are going (I had thought maybe I could meet Lynn Lowry and still make the show, but I suspect I'll be in Maple Ridge; a small irony of the piece below is that I just sang "You Are My Sunshine" to my Mom in the hospital today, albeit without a guitar). Pete informs me that Coach StrobCam will be the second of four bands on the bill, with Whiskey Karma headlining. Pete says his new band will likely hit the stage around 9pm... There's no cover, so there's no risk; check it out!


Pink Steel, photo provided by Pete Campbell (second from left)

AM: You started in the Victoria music scene, right? What's your backstory? What was your first band? Are you on the All Your Ears Can Hear compilation?

PC: Ah, Victoria in the late 70's...a cultural oasis if there ever was one...albeit an oasis with fuck all to drink for the most part...Pink Steel was formed by me and a bunch of my high school drama friends...we had this very inspirational drama teacher named Tony Burton whose aesthetic criteria was: talent and skill are not as big a deal as energy and drive...pretty much the ethos of punk rock as it turned out...we came up with the idea for the band when a drama practice was cancelled and we decided to get high instead of heading home...we somehow started doing an improvisation based around the idea of a cool radio DJ who was the only person who had contact with the greatest band of their era:the enigmatic and elusive Pink Steel...yeah we were pretty high...lol...six months later we followed through on the implicit threat and 3 of us got together for a 'jam session'...Jeff Carter was the musician of the group as he had taken a few piano lessons as a kid...the bassist and I had rented gear that week and couldn't play at all..we wrote our first song at that rehearsal:a 2 chord wonder called "We Get High On Music" that became our theme song and we played until the band disbanded in 1982...we added friends to the group as needed until we were finally a full band of 8 members...we formed before we ever heard punk rock...cover songs were too hard for us to play so we wrote our own music...over the next couple years we released two 7- inch records...a 4 song EP called 'A Taste of Pink Steel' and a single called 'It Won't Come In Your Hand'... one of those songs from the EP, 'Here We Go Again' appears on the All Your Ears Can Hear compilation... Everything you would ever want to know about Pink Steel can be found here:
http://www.oculartip.ca/ot/pinksteel.html

Not to be confused with the gay metal band from Germany of the same name that formed later and stole our name......yes you read that correctly...


The Wardells: John, Rich, and Pete

Did you ever identify as a punk? What was the state of the punk scene when you were coming of age in Victoria?


Well that one is a bit tricky: we all loved punk rock, especially The Clash, The Ramones and all the amazing Vancouver bands of the era...in my mind, however these were just great rock bands, never mind the label they were given..we got to see the 3 piece version of DOA at some hall in Esquimalt and they blew our fucking mind...Pink Steel had an incredible drummer, Dave Robbins, who later went on to be one of Canada's premier jazz musicians..he actually went up to Chuck Biscuits after the show and told him "I used to be faster than you, but now you're a bit faster than me..."....Dave eventually caught up with him...

The scene in Victoria was interesting and diverse: many bands were cutting their teeth at the same time in different parts of the city, but were unaware of each other's existence...NoMeansNo was already happening, in one suburb, The Sickfux, who would later become The Dayglo Abortions, in another...Pink Steel played a show at our old high school and apparently we were so bad that we inspired the Infamous Scientists to form!... The I- Sci's as everyone called them were the coolest band in the city, pretty much from the day they started...I saw their first gig at a house party and they were already a great band..Andy Kerr, who later joined NoMeansNo, played guitar and Kev Lee, always the coolest guy in town played bass...he later went on to form one of my fave all time bands: BUM...John Wright joined the Scientists in the next year and they ruled the scene and were universally worshipped...the first speed-core band on the west coast, The Neos, recorded two EPs at NoMeansNo's basement studio and were an unbelievable fast and powerful live act as well...

Over the next couple years bands popped up all over town,most of them quite good, renting halls and putting on gigs...fanzines started to appear and records were released....in the spirit of punk rock, many local bands released their records on a co-operative label called Alandhiscar Records which was a label in name only, but was reflective of the spirit of solidarity in (most of) the Victoria scene...
Pete rocking out with the Sweaters

Since Pink Steel was formed before we ever heard punk rock, we felt it would have been disingenuous to 'dress up' so we never adopted the visual style associated with punk...and our music was all over the place: some of our shows would have an acoustic set in the middle where our sweet voiced co- lead- singer John Robbins would make the girls swoon, backed by the band's often terrible but heart- felt 'harmonies'...but we had an amazing rhythm section that allowed us to play as fast and hard as any punk band when we felt like it...which we increasingly did as time went on...

Maybe I just hang around Tim Chan too much, but I get the impression that while Vancouver leaned mostly more towards punk, there was a bit more of a "pop thing," so to speak, in Victoria - that there was more love for bands like Seattle's Young Fresh Fellows and such... would that be accurate? (I think of the Wardells and the Sweaters as included in that, as power pop bands, really - yes?). 

With our deeply held belief in the 'authenticity' required to make great 'rock and roll' or 'punk rock' or whatever you would call it, once Pink Steel disbanded John Robbins and I decided to start a band called The Wardells...we billed ourselves as "Victoria's Pop Sensations" and we kind of made the first movement towards the sound that you associate with the Victoria scene....Victoria was a government town, with a firmly entrenched suburban middle-class, so I would say that for many of the kids at the time,the energy of punk rock had great appeal but the politics not so much...I think The Wardells gave some local kids the idea that they could make melodic music that still 'rocked', as it were...and as a result bands of that style began to emerge: probably the best of them being 64 Funnycars who were just a terrific band, both live and on record...3 great songwriters (Tim Chan, Eric Cotrell and Eric Lowe- all still shining lights in the Vancouver music scene) and a breezy, effortless command of the 'power-pop' genre....and yes, when The Young Fresh Fellows first started coming to town they were treated like rock gods....I saw them play in Vancouver a couple times and the audience response was less than overwhelming...however, they were The Replacements' favourite band, so I think we Victoria folks had it right...


Screencap from the Wardell's "In a Hurry" video

I would agree! So... what were the high (and/or low) points of being in the Wardells?


The Wardells had one pivotal gig that changed the trajectory of our 'career' and brought us out of the backwaters of the Victoria scene: we opened for Stevie Ray Vaughn at the Royal Theatre....in the audience that night was our old high school friend Woody Turnquist who at that point was the advertising director of The Georgia Straight....he was impressed by our performance and offered to manage the band...within a few months we were signed to Zulu Records and were opening for many of the great bands of the era: we played with Soul Asylum and Husker Du in the same week!!...shows with X, Rank and File and many others followed over the next year or so...I think many of the Vancouver bands felt - somewhat justifiably - that we didn't deserve these gigs and so never really became fans of The Wardells; and as you say, it is true that Vancouver was much more of a punk than a pop town...I have to mention in our defence though that after a gig with The Enigmas, during which I basically told the audience to go fuck themselves if they didn't like us, Paul McKenzie told me that I was "The craziest motherfucker in town..."...a badge of honour that I proudly wore through our many poorly attended Vancouver shows...

The low points: well, when our manager decided that he'd had enough of pouring his money down the drain trying to 'break' the Wardells into the national scene, he chose to resign...within weeks our 'connection' to the music business in Vancouver evaporated...our agent Laurie Mercer told us that we could easily book our shows ourselves and Zulu Records let us know that our next release would not be with them...our rock solid drummer Rich Lang decided he was going to go to music school back east....we did find a new drummer and released a cassette called Back To The Drawing Board but by then John Robbins had had enough of both me and the trudge through the muck that being in an indie band was all about...when he quit the band my heart and spirit were pretty much broken....but James Richards ,who played drums in the final year of the Wardells as 'cousin Dizzy Wardell' wanted to keep playing so together we formed The Sweaters...


Screencap from the Wardells' "Under the Johnson St Bridge"

What were the high and low points of being in the Sweaters?

The Wardells always prided ourselves as being able to play songs in pretty much any style, which we eventually came to see as a weakness as much as a strength, so James and I decided that The Sweaters would focus on one particular style: fast punk-pop...there were really no bands playing that style in the late '80s that we were aware of and we felt that someone should be carrying the torch that The Ramones had lit and carried for so long...we had no idea that there were bands in California with basically the same idea...when bands like Jawbreaker and Green Day first started to come to town and performed at The Nappy Dugout (!!) there were really no other bands in town playing that style so we always got the opening slot...we opened for Green Day 3 times over the course of a year or so...with my never- failing sense of what worked and what didn't I made the proclamation to some friends at one of the Green Day shows "What a great band...too bad they will never make any money!"...at least I was half right...

The high points and low points of The Sweaters were both pretty much the same: we became punk rock road warriors and crossed the country numerous times playing anywhere we could get a show....in some cities we had quite a large following and were known as 'Vancouver's Punk Pop Kings'....In Edmonton we even had kids waiting for us outside the venue when we pulled into town...in other places, including Vancouver we often had more people on stage than in the audience!!...I remember one gig at the Railway Club, we were playing our last set and my buddy Jeff Carter stayed even though he had to work in the morning because he was the only patron left in the club...that is a true friend!!

The Sweaters; "Pete, Turk and some clown"

...I also should mention that our fortunes in Vancouver changed quite drastically when Kuba started playing bass with The Sweaters...he was from Winnipeg and punk rock from head to toe....Winnipeg had always had a pop element to much of their punk scene and Kuba brought some of that punk legitimacy to the group...there was also a huge expat- Winnipeg community in Vancouver and they welcomed us with open arms...suddenly we were playing after hours shows and parties and were part of the hugely talented Van East punk rock scene...Kuba was an awesome bassist, especially live and later went on to play bass for a few years with DOA...


The Sweaters' family portrait: Pete, Kuba and James

Tell me about the "Hockey Sucks" song! I love that song! Is it totally autobiographical? Does it appear on any Sweaters albums? How did John Wright contact you? 

Of course we knew John Wright form the Victoria scene and we heard about the call for submissions to his hockey- themed anthology...we all loved the Hanson Brothers, maybe even more than we loved NoMeansNo and really wanted to be on the record...I had been a huge hockey fan as a kid but that enthusiasm kind of waned as I become more a 'music' than a 'sports' guy...not that the two were mutually exclusive as the compilation would certainly prove to be the case...

Anyway I was looking for an 'angle' to participate and the intro to that song kind of fell out of my head onto the guitar and the page...once I listed all the NHL teams and realized that Mighty Ducks rhymed with Canucks I pretty much had the meat of the song sorted out...I have always been a contrarian by nature and it seemed to me that an anti-hockey song would be pretty much the 'punkest' thing that could appear on a punk rock hockey themed compilation...NoMeansNo's manager Laurie Mercer did not want it on the cd but John said it was a great song and insisted it be included...we were thrilled to be a part of it...


Screencap from the Sweaters' "Do Anything You Want" video

How did you end up a collaborator of David M's?


To tell you the truth I can't really remember how that first started...I should say though that I was a huge fan of NO FUN during my formative years...the partnership between David M and Paul Leahy was pretty much perfect in my opinion and their songs were as good as any ever written!...I bought every cassette they released, including the Snivel box set and played them all to death...I went to every show they ever played in Victoria..David has photos of me sitting on the floor in front of them at a show at Uvic...

At some point I reconnected with David when I was doing solo shows around Vancouver...we played a show together at The Main and he asked me to get up onstage and play a couple songs with him...The Wardells used to cover 'Ream Me Like You Mean It' so I knew that one and was more than a little jazzed to accompany one of my idols...the next time he did a solo show David and I got together and worked out a few songs: I am not even half the guitar player that Paul Leahy is so in the beginning of our collaboration we mostly played cover songs or songs where I didn't have to try and then fail to fill Paul's lead guitarist shoes..David always welcomed whatever I brought to the table and in time I became a fixture at his shows...he is a ridiculously undervalued member of Vancouver's musical history and I consider it a great privilege to play with him whenever he asks...

Sing Along With Pete at Christmas

Tell us briefly about Sing Along With Pete? How did that start? Did you get exposure to these older songs through anyone in particular? What are your favourites that you've learned how to play?


During my years as a musician I always had a day job at long term care homes as a janitor, laundry guy etc...I owe a great debt to The Hospital Employees Union - of which my mom was a regional vice president for a few years - due to the fact that because of the union I never had to be a 'starving' musician..the work environment completely suited my personality and I loved working with and getting to know the seniors in the places that I worked...when The Sweaters finally tired of touring I decided to try my hand at playing music at care homes...most places have a weekly pub day or birthday party where they hire a solo performer to provide entertainment...limited budgets means they can't usually afford a whole band...I had seen many of these musicians over the years and thought to myself "I could do that"....and so I just started doing it...I would take requests at my shows and learn the songs for the next gig...over time I amassed a catalogue of about 600 songs from the 1920s to the 1970s...I play between 40 and 50 shows every month and that is now entirely how I pay the bills....most of the songs are not the cool, obscure material that hipsters would learn to impress their musician friends but rather the popular songs of the era....even though most of the material I play is not 'cool' I have learned and internalized so many chord progressions that most rock musicians and even many singer- songwriters have never heard, and elements of them come out in my own songs... the most popular song is 'You Are My Sunshine'....I must have played that song a couple thousand times and it has some sort of strange universal appeal...I have a love- hate relationship with that song...audiences love it , so I play it at every show...I think I know how Sting must feel about 'Every Breath You Take'!!

In starting 'Sing Along With Pete' I unknowingly stumbled into my vocation....I perform often in units where people have various forms of dementia and to be able to make these people who have lost so much, happy for a while is one of the great joys of my life...so much of a 'music career' is about 'me' , 'my pleasure' and in short, 'my ego' ...to be able to put the focus squarely on making the people in front of me happy is extremely liberating and deeply fulfilling...I tell people ,often and completely sincerely that I have the best job in the world...


Who or what is Coach StrobCam? That's a strange name and a strange graphic, what's the backstory? What kind of music is it? Who is in the band? Oh, and will you be incorporating any Wardells or Sweaters material into the show?

Well, Coach StrobCam is the name of my new band....and of course, it goes without saying that to call something 'strange' is really a personal judgement call...

I formed the band with a couple of fine musicians I met through my involvement with Clancy's Angels...The Angels were a group put together by Clancy Dennehy: a smoking hot rock band fronted by a fourteen to eighteen member choir....we did a show at the Wise Hall every Christmas for the last 10 year...this past Christmas was our final show so I decided to raid the group and put together my own band!!

Rachel Strobl has become one of my best friends and is a fabulous singer and also plays the guitar...just a couple of days ago she ordered a 'singing saw' online, so that will definitely be something to look forward to...

Greg Kelly was the keyboardist for the Angels and now plays and sings with Coach Strobcam....he is an extremely versatile musician and a hell of a nice guy....

We had musical chemistry right from the start and I was inspired to write about twenty new songs over the last six months or so...our style is hard to pin down: describing music with words is kind of like dancing about architecture, as some smart mouth once said...so I suggest you come see us play and decide for yourself...

The name: when my little brother was about 3 years old he used to have this stuffed baseball player doll ... he used to carry that thing with him everywhere...even though we told him the real name of the doll was Mickey Mantle he insisted on calling it by the name that he chose for it: Coach StrobCam....we still tease him about it to this day!!

Once the time came to name our band, for some reason that name came into my head and it kind of stuck...so Coach StrobCam it is....

The graphic was designed by former 64 Funnycars' dude mentioned above, Mr. Eric Cotrell who runs Thinkwell Graphic Design and is kind of a genius in my humble opinion...

But really when all is said and done, who cares what a band is named as long as the music is good?

We are thrilled to be playing our very first show this Saturday, April 23 at 9pm at The Princeton Pub on Powell Street, so if you really want to know about Coach StrobCam I suggest you come check us out and see for yourself... We will not be playing any Wardells' or Sweaters' songs as that is in the past and I am all about the future!!...oh, and a bit about the present as well, I guess...

Pete screams: screencap from the "Do Anything You Want" video

2 comments:

Steve Bailey (NEOS) said...

Thanks so much for doing this interview with Pete Campbell. Pete was always one of the shining lights of the Victoria music scene. We punks used to give Pete and Pink Steel such a hard time because they just weren't punk enough, but when they weren't there to hear we played their records and talked about what great guys they were, especially Pete. I'm so glad that he has continued to make music no matter what setbacks he's faced. You rock Pete!
Steve Bailey, Victoria, BC

Pete Campbell said...

Wow!!!...Steve Freakin' Bailey of the MF Neos!!...once again Allan MacInnes' blog has made my day....one of the stories of the Victoria scene that I omitted for brevity's (!!!!) sake was this:
Even though we were never 'punk, the other much cooler bands in the city were for the most part kind to us, despite the fact that they weren't fans of Pink Steel...i remember at one gig I went to pat little Steve Neo on the shoulder in a friendly older brother kind of way....he stopped my hand in mid-pat to point out that I probably didn't want to do that as he had razor blades pinned to the shoulders of his leather jacket!!
A fond memory indeed of a very good dude and great local musician....although the potential scar on my hand may have lasted infinitely longer than my rapidly fading memory...
Pete Campbell