Thursday, September 17, 2020

A Dennis Mills interview: of AKA, Rhythm Mission, the Jazzmanian Devils, Les Goodman, and THE JUDYS, PLAYING THIS WEEKEND!

Okay, so: as far as wildfire smoke goes, we have nearly-breathable air again (for now). We have children in the school playgrounds, shrieking and laughing almost like there is no pandemic afoot (tho' clearly there is, because I'm still working from home and think no more of wearing a mask to go shopping than I do of wearing socks or underwear). But will the Judys CD release scheduled for Saturday at Lanalou's actually take place...? And then there's the eternal question, "Is it safe?" 

AKA, September 1980 at the Arcadian Hall, by Gord McCaw; not to be reused without permission

I will let people weigh their options, here, but one thing is clear: Dennis Mills deserves better! The new Judys EP is pretty durn great, and Mills has had a very long and interesting career on the Vancouver scene, which stretches nearly back to the dawn of the scene (he identifies as being in the "second wave," but 1980 is still early enough that punk was whatever you decided it would be). His debut in Vancouver (and anywhere) was singing and playing sax for AKA, alongside future notables like guitarist/ critic Alex Varty and keyboardist/ slide guitarist Andy Graffiti (the AKA rhythm section of Warren Hunter and Warren Ash were also in Rhythm Mission, Mill's next band, but I don't know their full discography, otherwise). I've felt kinda guilty about not having interviewed Mills about anything, ever, given his contributions to the Vancouver scene. It seems kind of necessary to start at the beginning...

Red Therapy is kind of a crazy EP, packing in several flavours of No Wave, from the abrasive DNA-style gut-punches to spidery, playful aggro-jazz. Like the U-J3RK5, it doesn't make much sense for Vancouver 1980 - seems more like New York 1978 - but holds up plenty well now. AKA started for Mills when he responded to an add from Alex Varty on a message board at Quintessence Records ("Many bands formed in those days from that message board," he tells me by email).  

AKA, September 1980 at the Arcadian Hall, by Gord McCaw; not to be reused without permission

To say no more, an interview follows, which I'll lay out Q&A style. Apologies to all for obvious questions I have missed. Maybe see you Saturday at Lanalou's...?

AM: What were you doing musically before getting involved with AKA? Can you sketch out the early history for us...?

DM: I had jammed previously with Reed Eurchuk , which is recounted on my blog as The Puffy Coat. Reed soon after formed a band called Exxotone with Randy Pandora ( ex-Generators), and the two Warrens - Warren Hunter and Warren Ash. The Exxotone was originally called The Detectives. When the two Warrens were “let go”, they joined Alex and I as The Rejectives (inside joke). There was also a female singer in the first lineup of AKA, Angela Kaya. I still have a button with her face on it, and last saw her at Michael Wonderful’s celebration of life. Classical pianist Tommy Wong joined after that. Our first show was at Pumps Gallery as part of an Erotic Art show. On the way to the show, we were still deciding what our name would be. That first gig we were called The Not. Later it changed to AKA, (also known as). AKA also means Red in Japan, so that is why our first and only record was called Red Therapy

Before my sojourn into Vancouver and music, I had guested once with some high school friends called Estipod in Richmond, where I went to high school. We did a version of "Blank Generation" with Estipod, and it is rumored that there is a super 8 somewhere. Before all that, I had imagined myself an actor, until I was forced to sit in a lighting booth on a technical rehearsal while Patti Smith first played the Commodore. It was missing that show that made me want to form a band. I decided then and there that acting was not my gig. I needed to live life before I could play someone else's life. I was drawn to the punk aesthetic of DYI, where I could be actor, performer, writer and director all in one. The sugar water of the early punk scene drew my "human fly" ego to it, and it has never let go.

AKA by bev davies, Dec. 1980 at Gary Taylor's Rock Room, not to be reused without permission

What were you listening to? James Chance, DNA, that sorta thing, or…? AKA was a bit “out there” for 1980; were you also pretty much into aggressive avant garde, or…?

Yes, I love the No New York record, but earlier influences were Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Pere Ubu, Television, and Talking Heads. AKA was very active for about 3 years. We opened up for Ultravox and for Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. We also did a short tour with Doug and the Slugs.

I prefer the more playful/ tuneful stuff on
Red Therapy, like “634 Dog.” Did you write the lyrics? 

I wrote all the lyrics. Warren Ash wrote some lyrics for a Rhythm Mission song, which I reconstructed a bit with the cut-up method. Lyrics are my thing, above all else.

I have no idea what "634 Dog" is about... can you enlighten me?

Most of my lyrics and poetry just come to my blessed pointed head. Lots of stream of consciousness, and wordplay.When I was in AKA, I was 20-23, I was also experimenting with the cut-up method (Burroughs, Gysin).

"634 Dog" – the title came partially from the song "634-5789" - the Wilson Pickett song. The "dog" part is referenced in the song.

The basic song structure came from Warren Hunter. His songs on guitar with AKA are very different from the ones that Alex played on - playful and tuneful as you note" "634" "Dog," "Fear," "Ragged Andys,"

Alex on guitar songs were more angular, short, choppy, jazzy: "God," "City Drugs," "Mental Timebombs," Warren’s playing was very different.

What was working with Alex Varty like? I've only had good experiences with him as a fellow writer...

Alex is on the most knowledgeable and creative people in our little city. I always thought of him as my Bob Quine! He didn’t check all the boxes for punk or new wave fashion, but we wrote some cool, strange music, which was far more interesting work that most of the bands that got all the press.

There was a bit of a divide at one point with the CITR power pop fans, hardcore, and the weird stuff we did. But we played with everybody, DOA, Subhumans ( my favorite), The Rabid, etc. When we released our EP, we later were at CITR, and found the play copy with giant letters written all over the cover, ALEX VARTY PLAYS WITH THESE GUYS, DON’T PLAY THIS!!! We had a laugh, but some people didn’t understand that Alex was a critic, who made some kind of a living from writing. He is one the best, and has mellowed over the years.. AKA had a reunion show in 2015. We had not played in well over 30 years, and in some cases, hadn’t really spoken much. It was so much fun, and interesting to play the weird songs you wrote when you were in your early 20’s, when you were now in your late 50’s. 

Were you with AKA when they opened for Captain Beefheart? Any Beefheart stories? 

Captain Beefheart by bev davies, Commodore, January 1981, not to be reused without permission

Yes, AKA broke up about a month before the Beefheart show, and we then played it. Don Van Vliet was a shaman. He had an incredible memory. I was backstage at the Commodore after we opened, and came by the dressing room ( much different that the ones now). He would be making these oblique statements, and looked at me and said something about Lower and Higher Mathematics. He saw this bouncer and signaled to him. “Century Plaza, 1973 or something like that.” Yeah the guy says. Beefheart remembered a bouncer from about 8 years previous. The next night, Melodic Energy Commission got to the open ( he played two nights) and I got hang out with him backstage. He was in a more contemplative mood that night. He was drawing with felt pens, and made a joke about the fumes. His art looked like a cat but as if the cat was made of glass, and the glass had just shattered. His wife Jan was very carefully guarding him, and you got the sense that she shepherded him through all this music life. 

Captain Beefheart by bev davies, Commodore, January 1981, not to be reused without permission

What was the process of leaving AKA and getting into Rhythm Mission? Did you do anything between, or did the bands overlap, or…?

AKA broke up after a gig in DTES at the Lotus where AKA played with The Modernettes. I did mushrooms that night, and gave out Japanese oranges to the crowd. Alex and I had lived in a communal house, but like sometimes happens, it was too intense. I finished the gig and said it was the end. But we did the Beefheart one after. AKA actually kept going for a few more months with Colin Griffiths replacing Alex. Another interesting anecdote from AKA was the Red Therapy record. AKA at that point was Alex, me, the two Warrens and Andy Graffiti on keyboards and slide guitar. We had the choice of paying for the master tape ( about $400) or renting it. We rented it. The only master is the remaining copies of the EP!

We met Scott Harding at an AKA show at the Laundromat ( soon to be Richards on Richards), and previously The David YH Lui Theatre, where I worked as an usher. He was underage, but we got him into the Commodore for Beefheart. Later we jammed with him and Lee Kelsey (who had been in the Payolas), the two Warrens, and Andy joined later for Rhythm Mission too. We were active from fall of 1981 to 1984 when we broke up briefly. We reformed about a year after, but by then, Scott, Lee and I started Jazzmanian Devils (1983).

Did you like hardcore? It seems like the kind of music AKA was making in 1980 wouldn't have happened if the "orthodoxies" of hardcore had set in, and it seems like Rhythm Mission and Jazzmanian Devils are both kinda reactions against hardcore...?

Not generally a fan of hardcore. That said, I loved the Minutemen, Subs, and Death Sentence, although that was much later.

Rhythm Mission had lots of funk influences and world beat too. Jazzmanian Devils were definitely an idea to take it back. Buddy Selfish and others were bringing back rockabilly, so we went back a bit further to the real father of rock n roll, Louis Jordan.

Was the Mo-Da-Mu label/ scene a thing in Vancouver when Rhythm Mission started? (It looks like the first Animal Slaves EP was released a couple of years before 
Wild Mood Swings, but I don’t know!). How much of a shared vision or politic did the Mo-Da-Mu bands have? Did bands co-ordinate their sound in any way, so that recordings had a recognizable brand to them? (Because I can hear similarities between Wild Mood Swings and Dog Eat Dog, say).

I was living in a housing co-op and a member of East End Food Co-op, later worked at Uprising Breads – a workers coop. I figured a music co-op to put on gigs and put out records was a good idea. I gathered together the folks who started it, but it was my concept. We were all friends and rivals, a healthy competition, and a communal sense of co-operation. Lots of strong egos though. 54-40 started out opening for AKA, we worked with them on Mo-Da-Mu, Tin Twist, Animal Slaves, Work Party. I’m probably forgetting someone important. 

Who did the cover art for Wild Mood Swings? It's pretty crazy!

Jan Wade. She is very cool and a close friend.

Did you interact much with Elizabeth Fischer? Any memorable moments? I kind of loved her way of doing things but gather she was also kinda cranky…

I wrote about Elizabeth on my blog Condensed Milt. We worked together for many years. She went out with Ross from Animal Slaves, and he played with me in Rhythm Mission and Jazzmanian Devils. We had many disagreements over the years, as she wasn’t the easiest person. But she was always an incredible artist (visual) and musically. She even sang a few songs with Jazzmanian Devils!

Also interested in hearing Scott Harding stories…! Did you follow his hip hop stuff? Are you still in touch? I actually forget if any bands you were in participated in that Commodore benefit…?

Yes I helped push the rock that was Hardstock up the hill, with help from about 1000 people. We also did Holy Hardstock at Christ Church Cathedral. I had curated both shows, which caused a bit a fuss with Elizabeth, as she wanted to play at the Commodore, while I wanted her to play Holy Hardstock. She yelled at me and basically told me to fuck off. Again. Oh well, I yelled back. I had this vision of her music in the big cathedral. It would have been beautiful. So many stories there.

I am curious about a series of concerts that Rhythm Mission was involved in: Shindig, back in December 1984. I gather that Red Herring won against the objections of some of the audience – I have heard many people say that the real popular favourites were Rhythm Mission. Any memories of the Shindig event? Did you dig Red Herring? Did you feel like you should have won? (I gather Stephen Nikleva would later sit in with the Jazzmanian Devils, so it sounds like there was no bad blood…).

All the CITR kids were upset that Rhythm Mission applied for Shindig because ….get ready…we were too professional! Anyway it was a lot of fun, and we won a lot, but Red Herring got the nod that night. Red Herring was and is a great band. Great musicians and people. Stephen Nikleva just gave AKA a shout out on YouTube.

Did the Jazzmanian Devils never record? I don’t see any collectibles for sale on Discogs… are you a live band only?

Jazzmanian Devils recorded 2 cassettes ( Let’s Drink and Happy Hour) and a CD called That’s the Groovy Thing. There is a live session at the CBC that Jacek was going to put out on vinyl, although I haven’t heard from him for awhile.  

Jazzmanian Devils by Gord McCaw, not to be reused without permission

Never having been to a Les Goodman After Dark event, I was shamefully confused by you being Les Goodman throughout the last Bowie Ball. Is Les Goodman just a stage name you use for certain projects, or is he anything else? Where did the name come from? (I honestly thought Les Goodman and you were two different people!).

Les Goodman was my name in the Jazzmanian Devils. We were all Goodman brothers. Many people in Vancouver were given Goodman names. Manny Goodman gave me the name Les Goodman, because I was the Last Goodman in town ( see movie, songs, etc) Les Goodman is slippery character. A couple years back some film people were trying to get me to revive it for Much Music. We got as far as contracts, but it didn’t seem right. The concept of Les Goodman After Dark was imitation of a talk show, using the talk show format at a form of entertainment, but in a live context only. The Jazzmanian Devils were the House Band, and Manny and Herschel Goodman were my sidekicks. The joke was we were all about TV, but not on TV. We started that in the late 80’s, early 90’s. I have a collection of them on disc. Some were very funny, and others were just alcoholic. We had a famous show where we invited Art Bergmann to come and do "Bound for Vegas" as a lounge song. He was wasted, and we conducted most of the interview under the table. Very funny. In recent years, we revived it at Lanalous. First I did it with Big Top, then with the new After Dark Band, with Taylor, Scott, Bob Petterson, and Gord Rempel and Ron Kenji. We had a tradition of doing Canada day for three years, or maybe it was two. 

Dennis Mills as Les Goodman, MC'ing the 2020 Bowie Ball with Tony Lee, by Bob Hanham; not to be reused without permission

When did the Judys actually start? Is it the same lineup still…?

The first Judys was a fuck band with me, Dano (keyboards and slide guitar in the Judys) , Keith Porteous, Warren Hunter and a drummer no one remembers. We used to practice with AKA at the Female Hands house in Burnaby, so the drummer was either the guy from Female Hands, or Bobby Herron from the b-sides. I don’t recall a single song that we played, and we only played once at the Railway.

The Judys started with Taylor Little telling me he had always wanted to be in a band with me. He was playing with Dano, and Pete worked with him. I came over to a rehearsal in fall 2014. We then invited Scott Fletcher to bring his righteous riffs, and The Judys were born. One night at Pandoras, they put the bands names up on the white board. I came in and Dano had put The Judys up there. So we became The Judys. Again. We played our first show at Lanalous with all covers on Boxing Day 2014. Our plan was to pick songs we loved from our youth, and Judify them. So we picked "Walk on The Water," and "Revolution Blues," "Radar Love," "So Tired." 

Then once we had created our ‘sound”, we started to write in the Judys style. Our first song was either "Judy’s Got a Big Mouth" or "Freedom 85."   I forget which came first.

Dennis Mills fronting the Judys by Bob Hanham. Not to be reused without permission

Unless I’ve missed something, and I probably have, the Judys are the most straight-up rock band you’ve played in – where did the impetus to do something kinda more straightforward come from?

I have always wanted to play in a band like The Judys. Taylor encouraged me to adapt my voice. He claims he taught me how to sing. I will agree he taught me how to sing better. I have always loved Taylor since he played in The Shades with Chris Arnett (of the Furies), Reed Eurchuck, and Mike Raycevik. They were NY sounding, which has always been my favorite. My first experience on-stage was screaming on "Psychotic Reaction" with the Shades at the Buddha. I then fell backwards into the crowd and they caught me.

Where did the name come from? Is there a particular Judy that inspired you?

Original Judys were of course inspired by Judy Kemeny (TinTwist), Judy from Pink Section, and Judy (Ebra) from Tunnel Canary. And of course Judy Garland. Wizard of Oz is my favourite movie.

Did you spend time in New York at any point? “Welcome to New York” seems more inspired by Lou Reed than Richard Hell…

The lyrics to that song started in 2007, on a trip to NY to visit Scott Harding, where I had a heart attack a day later in Atlanta. The heart attack started in NY, then there was the plane ride and then in Atlanta, the hospital.

There is some truth to the song. Especially the part of "Forgot all the Stupid Words."    New York in the song represents that drug state where “you wont be staying here too long”. We liked the idea of 
"another old fashioned drug song”, taking the piss out of old fashioned love song by Three Dog Night. Musically, a very Exile just off Main Street, where we rehearsed for awhile.

I loved both Lou and Richard Hell, so many great memories of both of them.

Did you ever get to meet them, or have any other encounters with your musical heroes?

Warren Hunter and I went to Seattle and saw Richard Hell. This was around the time of his second record. It wasn’t really the Voidoids, and he wasn’t very good.

I saw Lou Reed in 1976. He was doing the Rock 'n Roll Heart tour with the wall of TV sets. During the show, a guy sitting next to us got up to get a drink. His wallet dropped and I noticed, and gave to his girlfriend.

He came back and thanked me with a huge chunk of hash. I thought, wow, this will last a year! He then came back again, and asked if I had eaten it. I said no, I didn’t know you could eat it.

"Yes, just eat it."  

And I did. Midway between driving my buddies back to Richmond in my mother’s car, the hash kicked in. HARD. By the time we went to Tom’s Pizza ( long gone), the pizza was vibrating and I was hallucinating. Somehow, I managed to drive them all home, and went to bed, getting up in morning for my first day at work in teller training for the Royal Bank. 

Ha! On that topic, I can't make out all the lyrics for The Whole World’s on Drugs.” Can you share’m? 

Baby’s got a bucket and she’s putting on some pudge.
She’s got a brand new drug, calls it Tattoo Fudge. 
 You don’t have to go to circus to find yourself a clown
Just put on the tv, see what’s going down. 

The Whole World’s on Drugs. 

You can roll it you can lick you can find it on the ground. 
Some people falling in love some people falling down. 
Some people living on the street, man they’re living on the edge. 
 Some people holding hands when they jump off the ledge. 

The Whole World’s on Drugs

Sugar makes the world go round. 

(Tell it to me Sugar. Sell it to me sugar. )

Dennis Mills fronting the Judys by Bob Hanham. Not to be reused without permission

I’m listening to “Something in the Air” and really enjoying the dark, heavy vibe of it. Who wrote the music? Who wrote the lyrics? How were they married together? Between wildfires and COVID it seems like it could have a whole other timely topical verse…

All songs by The Judys. I write the words. We started that song in 2017 after the first two came out. The Very Best of The Judys, and The Very Rest of The Judys. [Not on the bandcamp, but it includes some of the covers mentioned elsewhere, like "Radar Love."]

So we all write them. Taylor is a very compositional drummer. He is a great arranger. Scott provides the killer riffs, Pete the monster bass, and Dano is the special sauce that really makes it Judified. Shelley [Preston, of Preston and Fletcher, whose Fletcher is the Scott, above] has become a part of the band too in the last couple years. Her work on this new record is so good. Check out the pads she does on "Best Before" and [the Tom Waits cover] "Goin Out West."

Were the lyrics of “Another Goddamn Man” written by a man? 

Yes. Guilty as charged. Did you catch my Jesus Christ Superstar reference? [nope - it's been awhile].

Dennis Mills fronting the Judys by Bob Hanham. Not to be reused without permission

What are the odds that the Judys concert is going to go ahead under the current COVID restrictions? Anything you want to say about it? The last time I saw the Judys at Lanalou’s, there were female backup singers, including Cass King… not sure if Shelley Preston was there…? Anything else I’m missing?

At this time, it is going on. We will take all precautions. Our last gig was December, so a long time away. Who knows when or if the next one will be. We love Cass, but she was very busy with her own thing. Cass and Shelley and Taylor’s daughter Alex were the Big Mouths on the first records. But Shelley is in the band now. She’s grown up to be a real Judy.

I could go for hours. But I’m sure you have lots. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask.


IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: the show - which I did end up going to! - was actually a benefit for a friend of the Judys who was horribly injured in a car accident, who has a GoFundMe afoot. Dennis gifted me some swag as a result of the above, some of which was quite collectable, so I donated (at his suggestion) fifty bucks to the cause, and encourage anyone else who can do so to do the same. 

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