Friday, March 11, 2022

Success, Rubble, and Silly Covers: Brock Pytel on the SLIP~ons, Doughboys, his solo album and more

SLIP~ons by D. Ballantyne

If someone asked me who my favourite Vancouver live bands were, even if I weren't writing this article, I'd mention the SLIP~ons. I'd probably drop a few names by way of describing them: "The only band in Vancouver that sorta captures the vibe of vintage Replacements," or maybe "Exile on Main St.-era Stones by way of the New York Dolls, as channeled through the mid-1980's Minneapolis scene." I've seen them four or five times now, starting with the 2017 Paul Leahy tribute, where their gloriously ramshackle cover of "Pills" grabbed my attention; shot video of them at Keithmas - missing the best song in their set, sadly - and the Bowie Ball, even caught them covering the Replacements at the Princeton... 

The SLIP~ons at the Princeton by Allan MacInnis; Brian, Brock, Shockk

...But nothing you see on Youtube captures the experience of seeing the SLIP~ons live. The last time I caught them, at Pat's Pub maybe five years ago - there's a bit of a "concert timewarp" effect caused by COVID so it might have been longer - I was attuned enough to their set to know that it was comprised of all original songs, which - though they do have impeccable taste in covers - I enjoyed every bit as much as I had my previous experiences of the band. I do have a 7" they pressed, of the songs "Bad TV" and "Cork and Kandy Glass," and I've interacted with them a bit, chatting with Brock between acts at the last Bob Mould show in town, swapping a few emails with bassist Brian Minato (about what, I no longer recall), and interviewing the guitarist that they share with the Spitfires, Shockk Mongoose (AKA Rob Matharu)... 

....But the truth is, much as I enjoy what the SLIP~ons do, I don't really know them. There's not that much recorded evidence to pore over, no lyric sheets, not even a whole lot of press that I've stumbled across for the band, let alone done myself. Hell, I think I had already seen them a few times before I found out, probably from his very lips, that SLIP~ons frontman/ guitarist Brock Pytel had been the lead singer and drummer for Montreal pop punks the Doughboys, who I didn't pay that much attention to back in the day (like a lot of West Coasters, I was kind of ignorant of the Ontario and Quebec scenes. I only knew the Doughboys from what Wikipedia calls their "mainstream success" period, when I heard "Shine," say, on Much Music - also not a bad song, but a bit more polished than I like my rock to be. Brock was long gone by then. It turns out - investigating it now - that I could see myself happily spinning Whatever, their 1987 debut, which, while still being tuneful pop punk, has just the right degree of rawness to hook me in). 

Anyhow, we have with the SLIP~ons a case of a band I love live, who have a fairly long history (they're entering their eleventh year)... whom I know nearly nothing about. Without wanting to be too blunt ("How can a band this good exist eleven years without an album?"), I had no shortage of questions. Are the SLIP~ons mistrustful of success, and the phoniness that often accompanies it? How does Brock feel about those later "mainstream success" Replacements and Soul Asylum albums that I never listen to... or about later Doughboys - who reunited briefly about ten years ago, with Brock, before stopping again? Will the larger world ever get a chance to figure out how great the SLIP~ons are, or will we be able to keep them for our greedy punk snob selves? 

These questions and more lingered in the background, as I prepped, and sometimes even got expressed in words. I have not yet read Brock's answers. Join me. 

SLIP~ons by D. Ballantyne, L to R Brian, Brock, Shockk

Allan: What was your involvement in the music scene in Montreal, pre-Doughboys? (I presume that was where you spent your formative years?). Had you seen the Asexuals? Were there other shows that really made an impression when you were young?

Brock: Yes, I grew up in Montreal, so definitely my earliest formative years were spent there. The Asexuals guys, Paul Remington, Sean Friesen, John (Kastner), and TJ (Collins aka TJ Plenty) were all high school peers of mine. TJ and I had been in short lived bands together before he was in the Asexuals, and for the most part, Asexuals were rivals of ours (Paul and I even had a fistfight at school once).

I was in this band called Rogue that mostly played Black Sabbath/Ozzy and Alice Cooper-type covers and we shared at least one bill with the Asexuals very early on. Back then, the metal scene in Montreal was very covers oriented. The pinnacle of that was to play the Moustache Club behind the old Montreal Forum. We would play places like Le Steppe, Station 10, and battle of the bands type deals at the Maples Inn.

As far as shows that really made an impression, pre-Doughboys, probably the most inspiring was seeing Ozzy Osbourne Blizzard of Ozz tour in 1981 just before Randy Rhoads died.  

The Doughboys, April 1988, courtesy of Brock Pytel  

The first Doughboys album, Whatever, reminds me of  While You Were Out-era Soul Asylum. Was there any bleedover from the Minneapolis scene back then, or was that a coincidence? Did you see/ interact with/ open for Soul Asylum, Husker Du, the Replacements, or any other bands from that part of the world? Did they play Montreal much? (I think you told me that the Doughboys shared a bill with Husker Du once... would love any and all details about that show...).

I was listening to Made to be Broken back then, as well as Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, Boink, Hootenanny, Tim, etc. All of that stuff was definitely a big influence on me personally, as it kind of bridged the gap between the Neil Young acoustic-y ballads I was writing as an angsty rebellious teenager and what the punk kids were listening to. I only saw Soul Asylum once at the Ritz in New York around 1988. It was the New Music Seminar and they were opening for Iggy (supporting the Blah Blah Blah record). Their set was cut short.

We did open for Husker Du on the Warehouse: Songs and Stories tour in 1987. That show was at Le Spectrum (a 1200 cap theatre which was briefly called Le Club Montreal) and was the debut of our second guitar player, Jonathan Cummins, who had joined the band the previous week. Welcome to the band, buddy!

Husker had played Montreal at least once earlier than that at an old church but I sadly missed it. John (Kastner) would have to tell you about that one.

As you may have read, by that point, Husker was coming apart at the seams, so Bob was scarce. I met his parents who had driven from upstate NY (I believe) to see the show, and talked to Grant and Greg a bit. Grant was using 7a Regal Tips at the time and whittling the varnish off with a pen knife. I was fascinated because I’d started using Regal 2S and 3S (giant marching sticks) after touring with Bill Stevenson and could not fathom how Grant could use these tiny chopsticks and be making them even tinier (sigh. RIP Grant.)

They opened that night with with "Flip Your Wig." I’m getting chills writing about it.

A wise man once told me, "Never do what you love for money." Would you agree...? How does the concept of “selling out” sit for you? Was it part of your vocabulary and a concern for you when you were a young punk? (Do you or did you have a bad attitude towards “doing what you need to do to succeed in the music industry?”). Has that ever made things difficult for you, as a musician?

You know, there was a time in the late 80’s where the kids cared a lot about whether or not you were on a major label, and “selling out” was a phrase you heard in that regard. For a while, Gilman Street even boycotted bands that had signed deals. Green Day comes to mind. It was ironic because Tim Yohannon (Maximum RNR) and Gilman Street really kind of fostered the whole scene some of those bands came out of. That “music business” aspect was de-emphasized. Everyone got together at the end of the night and got paid based on who had traveled the farthest. There was no “headliner” or “direct support” or whatever.

My personal view on this is that playing music always has been and always will be its own reward. Doing what you need to do, to me, is ALL moving to literally the middle of America so that they could be geographically optimized for touring. Those guys lived at DCH (Descendents Central Headquarters) in Lomita when we met them. Basically they lived at their rehearsal space. I never saw that as “selling out” but rather, commitment. It’s the OPPOSITE of, say, moving to LA or NYC to “make it”. Nobody moves to Brookfield, Missouri for that!

SLIP~ons by D. Ballantyne   

Was there a point at which you got annoyed with the Replacements, Husker Du, and Soul Asylum - where they made albums that were too mainstream, or so forth? (Did you feel any of that for later Doughboys?).

I remember hearing “Runaway Train” in a taxi on my way from the airport after a flight from Mumbai. I wasn’t pissed off or annoyed, I was happy for them. Same thing with GooGoo Dolls, Those guys were pretty raucous when we played with them (in Buffalo I think it was). They did have a big high roller type manager and you could see where he was planning to go with things but I personally think John Rzeznik (or whoever) wrote some really good songs. People seem to have an idea that you can just throw money at something and make it successful, but there has to be a good song for that to work, at least in the pop/rock idiom.

Some of my friends hate later era Replacements, for example. I personally think songs like “Achin’ to Be”, “I’ll Be You”, and “Anywhere’s Better Than Here” are fabulous. Sure, Bob Stinson is out of the picture, maybe Chris Mars didn’t play a note… I don’t care. The songs are great. That’s just me.

As for the later Doughboys stuff, I think Crush was a great record, but I can honestly say I’ve never listened to Turn Me On or When Up Turns to Down. As far as being annoyed, what DID annoy me was that they continued to play my songs after I left the band. I hated hearing John sing my songs. I didn’t understand why they would play live on Musique Plus and choose to do one of my songs instead of one of John’s or Jonathan’s. Maybe that’s just sour grapes.

I have always marveled at people who can drum and sing – I mean, I can’t keep the simplest beat behind a drumkit, but to SING TOO is some sort of voodoo by me. Did it come naturally, or was it born of necessity, requiring a lot of practice? Were you drumming before you picked up the guitar? Did you ever get to interact with Grant Hart about his own transition from drums to guitar?

I never really asked Grant about that. I just assumed it was the same for him as it was for me. It was definitely a born of necessity thing. Early on, all the bands I played in struggled to find and keep a singer. This probably had something to do with the metal requirement of a dude having an alto range… In between singers, I would always sing the songs, and of course once I started bringing my own songs in, I would sing those too. My band mates generally hated that I sang and were always trying to replace me.

The Doughboys was a huge breakthrough in that regard. All four of us sang, and you were expected to sing! Whoever wrote the song would sing it, and everyone else would add harmonies. I was talking about this recently with [Doughboys' bassist] Bond Head (Jon Asencio). I don’t think I realized how uncommon that was. Bond Head in particular was such a fabulous harmonizer, I just took that for granted. He could blend his voice with anyone.

What were your happiest memories of playing with the Doughboys? What was your biggest taste of success, and what did it taste like?

I mean, I guess the obvious answer to the “taste” question would be singing in front of 16000+ in my home town hockey arena at Centre Bell, but probably my happiest memories stem from the van tour days. I remember being out with Big Drill Car and we were camping at some dune-y campground on the Oregon Coast. We slept in the stacks a lot back then (plywood and two by four structures built in the van with gear under and futon over) so for privacy, I would sit and meditate on the roof of the van. There was one time in that forest of pine needles and slight sea air that I will always remember. If you can imagine knowing you are doing what you are meant to be doing in life, and feeling in the right place at the right time, that was it for me.

Wikipedia says that you left the Doughboys in 1990 to study meditation in India. For real? What prompted that move, and what was that like? Were you involved in music over there? Was there a scene where you were?

That’s basically true. I’d taken a couple of 10 day residential Vipassana meditation retreats and really wanted to dig deeper into that because I felt like I was really starting to hit water. There was more to it though. There was conflict in the band between myself and John K and I really didn’t know how to deal with it. I’d taken to not talking at ALL for long periods of time in order to avoid the stressful arguments that would happen whenever we’d pull into a new town. I had a habit of going to extremes. At the time it never occurred to me that I could deepen my practise of meditation AND play in a touring punk rock band at the same time. It was just, “I’m going to shave my head and become a monk.”

The buddha said somewhere that, “all music is lamentation and all dancing is madness” so I kinda let music go and immersed myself into learning Devanagari script and Pali language. The music I heard over there was mostly Hindi film tunes blaring top volume out of crappy radios, and all night kirtan sessions I’d hear when traveling and sleeping in dharamsalas through the whine of hovering mosquitoes.

I kind of had an epiphany one evening when I went to a show at Rang Bhavan in Mumbai. It was L Shankar playing stereophonic violin with Zakir Hussein on tabla and Vikku Vinayakaram on the clay pot. It was a very moving experience for me and I came to the conclusion that music had to be part of my path.

Not long after that, I got off a train in Dadar and bought a tabla and a bayan.

How did the Doughboys reunion take place? How did that feel? Any stories from that? Why did the Doughboys return to inactivity, afterwards?

From my perspective, that was basically Dave Grohl going out of his way to get us on as openers on that tour (Wasted Light?). Gus, The Foo Fighters tour manager, and some of their crew were known to Doughboys from shows we’d played in Florida. I guess when they booked the dates, there was some effort to champion/ curate the opening bands, and for Montreal and Toronto we got the offer. I didn’t have money for airfare to get out there and some of my Seattle music buddies started a gofundme to buy a ticket. Two smaller club shows were added for the fans that didn’t want to spend big bucks for the arena shows.

Aside from John K, who was flying, we all piled into a van again and had huge laughs driving to Toronto. So much so, in fact, that we completely made a wrong turn and wound up in Ottawa when we were supposed to be sound checking at the Bovine. We were discretely texting John, inventing stories to hide our embarrassment. When we got there, folks were lined up around the block because a local rock station had mentioned that Foo Fighters were going to make an appearance. We were very glad that all the actual fans who had driven from really far away got in nevertheless.

The secret show in Montreal was at Club Lambi after the Centre Bell show. Ironically, that was the show Dave and his entourage showed up to, precisely at the moment when our old buddy Gentleman Jim (ex Crucial Youth) took the stage wearing naught but a codpiece made from duct tape. Monk gored himself on a hihat stand… It was a fun night.

Brock Pytel headshot from his solo record years, courtesy of Brock Pytel
I completely missed your solo album, Second Choice – I literally discovered about it today. Where were you living when you recorded that album? What response did it get? It sounds like you were influenced in your vocals and songwriting by Bob Mould, on the first song especially… Give me more details, there are almost none online: is anyone else on the album? How many copies were made? Did it make an impression at the time? Why are most of the copies of it for sale on Discogs, and the top review of it when I Google it, all from the UK? Were you based there, did you tour there, did you have a particularly big fanbase there, or…?

I was living in Seattle when I made it. A few of my Guitar Craft pals played on it, including Steve Ball, Curt Golden, and Bob Williams. The punk rock contingent was represented by Brent Belke (SNFU), Mark Arnold (Big Drill Car/MIA), and of course Bond Head and John Kastner. It didn’t get much response at all, outside of some diehard Doughboys fans. In fact, it got some pretty scathing reviews when it came out in the UK. There were only 1000 copies made and I lost the 2” masters in a "Storage Wars"-type incident. Aston Stephens at Boss Tuneage put the record out in the UK, and Flight 13 sold it in Germany. Some personal life stuff was going on and I wasn’t able to get a band together to tour the record so it just sorta did what it did.

When and how did you come to Vancouver? What were you excited by musically on the scene here at the time? Did you have any musical projects here pre-SLIP~ons?

I moved to Vancouver pretty soon after that record came out. George W. got elected. My son was two years old, and it was getting uncomfortable living in America. I wanted my kid to grow up in Canada. The plan was to go back to Montreal, but my marriage failed so I just stayed in Vancouver.

I played with a bunch of people pre-Slips, but nothing lasted. I worked with Simon Hatton from Atom Smasher/Vim Fuego, Chris Kelly, Johnny Stewart, Greg Whitbeck… We met at a space we shared on W 7th. He was playing with Morning Maker at the time with Rob Morfitt. Eventually I met Shockk and joined Mongoose on drums. He had just finished the White Plastic Deer record so I helped him play those songs live for a while until they kicked me out after some Alberta gigs. I’m very proud to be the only drummer to ever play “Red Tailed Hawk” live! (the drums on the record are programmed and super fast).

Greg Whitbeck and I had a band called Shining Hour for a bit. He still does some of those songs in Whitbeck and I played drums with them at the Roxy a couple months ago.

Shining Hour L-to-R: Greg Whitbeck, Jeff Gantner, Brock Pytel

How did you meet your fellow SLIP~ons? What was your first gig?Did you all have musical ambitions at the time, or were you "playing in a cover band for fun?"

I met Brian through Graham Tuson (GG Dartray). Graham and I used to work together at shows at the Croatian Cultural Centre (I was a stagehand). We were jamming one time with Ben Yardley and Chris Tate (Tayt?) and Brian was the bass player. I just remember playing "Toys in the Attic" over and over for like 25 minutes. We’d finish the song and Ben would go right back into the riff again and off we’d go.

That led to me playing on some sessions for Brian which led to us recording "Apart" (first Slips' single). At that point I got tired of trying to lead a band from behind the drums, so when Shockk joined in, he introduced us to Adam Fink (Actors) who became our first drummer.

Shane and Mongoose had played on bills together when he was in Billy and the Lost Boys. He eventually saw Slips covering Replacements tunes at LanaLou’s and drunkenly vowed to join us at all costs. Our first SLIP~ons gig ever was at Iron Road, circa 2011. I was incapable of playing without looking at my hands, and I’m pretty sure we went on at about 2am. We were pretty drunk and really, really bad!

Shane Wilson and Brian Minato of the SLIP~ons by D. Ballantyne

I know about the Spitfires and Shockk, but do the SLIP~ons coexist with any other bands its members are in – like, does Brian still ever play with Sarah McLachlan, or was he doing so when the SLIP~ons started? (That’s a real big stretch, and something he has in common with Stephen Nikleva - did they ever share a stage?).

Brian doesn’t play with Sarah anymore, no. He played in Delerium with Ash for a bit but I suspect it was one of those "divide up your friends after divorce"-type things.

I cannot make out most of the lyrics for “Bad TV” and “Cork and Kandy Glass.” What are they about? Do you write all the lyrics?

I do write all the lyrics, although there is no rule about it. "Bad TV" is pretty much about what we’ve all been doing to get through COVID, you know, watching mind-numbing shows when you can’t sleep at night. The guy feels determined to get off the couch and get out into the world and stop being pathetic, but then goes out and very soon starts thinking the couch maybe wasn’t so bad after all! "Cork & Kandy Glass" are things that used to be used in film and TV as rubble and for stunts. Sugar/candy glass breaks really easily into tiny pieces but doesn’t hurt the stunt folks flying through it. So the lyric is metaphor for emotions/relationships that erupt in a big storm or explosion and leave this big mess of rubble in the aftermath.

SLIP~ons Rob Matharu (Shockk Mongoose) and Brock Pytel by D. Ballantyne

There doesn’t seem to be much recorded evidence of the SLIP~ons, but it seems like you’ve been around for a longish time now. Do I assume that you all have other gigs that pay the bills, and the SLIP~ons are still mostly just a “for fun” thing, or do you actually have secret ambitions?

That is the biggest concern and focus of my life right now. I had a bit of a health scare last year and it was huge wake up call to think I could die and leave so much unsaid. I used to work 60+ hours a week rigging in film and concerts and the band took a back seat to that. It is true that having fun and feeling joy when we play is the number one thing for us, but music is not complete without an audience, and we are all immensely grateful to be able to do that again soon. We haven’t played live in over two years and have three gigs this month so couldn’t be happier!

 Rob – that is, Shockk - tells me there is a new album in the works, but that progress is slow. What can you tell me about it? What stage in the game are you at? (Are all the songs written...?). Are there labels interested? (Who or what is Scamindy?).

We have three new songs mixed by Dave Ogilvie and a couple more from a 2019 session composting. Shockk has been churning out the riffs and we text voice memos of stuff back and forth between practises. We’re planning to track “Undivided”, “Mosquito”, and one more in May and Cursed Blessings Records in Toronto is putting out a 5 song EP. The pressing plant delay going on these days is probably 6-8 months so that puts us at a fall release, optimistically. There will be a digital pre-order release before that of “Soldier, Don’t Say Goodbye”.

J Robbins is also mixing a song I recorded at Hotel2Tango right after the Doughboys reunion. That stuff features Jon Bond Head (Asencio) and Jonathan Cummins and was recorded by Howard Bilerman. I tracked the vocals here with Aurora Jane at Capsule a few months ago.

Scamindy is just that: a scam indie label that is my vanity for stuff I put out myself, like that solo record, the "Bad TV" 7” or the "La Majeure" 7”. Generally that stuff is distributed by Cobraside in Glendale, CA.

Does the band have any rules about what can or cannot be done in a live show? (I'm particularly thinkin' about the consumption of alcohol here - it SEEMS to me that the SLIP~ons are the second tipsiest band I've seen onstage after the Replacements. But I know some musicians have "no drugs or alcohol" rules, and that even in bands that don't have those rules, not everyone indulges...).

We have no rules about that. We all want to play as best we can, but we also like to have fun, and trust each other to be able to deliver the goods. Personally, I strategically input the bourbon when I sing. Its probably not the best approach but I’m a pretty shy introverted guy so that’s a bit of a crutch, I guess. It’s easy to miss the mark and suddenly find you are playing your guitar with some other person’s left hands, so you might very well see us stumble over pedal boards, unplug stuff, or fall over once in a while. We mean well.

Brock Pytel with the SLIP~ons by D. Ballantyne
Anything to say about the upcoming gigs – thoughts about bands you’re sharing a bill with? Thoughts on Chris Walter? Will you be varying the set between shows? The last time I saw you, at Pat’s Pub around 2018, I think you did all originals; is that the plan this time, or do you still do the odd cover? (What?).

Super excited to play with Bison and Rebel Priest, and of course La Chinga. The sets will be very similar, but we will be swapping out some more mid-tempo stuff at Lana’s for some more up-tempo at Rickshaw. "Mosquito" might make it’s debut! The chances of silly covers are slightly greater at the Railway at the end of the month as we can play a bit longer.

Thanks to Brock Pytel for taking the time with my questions! Interested parties have three chances to see the SLIP~ons live in March: tonight at the LanaLou's booklaunch for Chris Walter's Copz and Robberz, with Rebel Priest and La Chinga; March 18th at the Rickshaw, with ATD, Bison and the Dreadnoughts; and March 31st at the apparently-no-longer-closed Railway, with Balto and Moylan. You can also follow the SLIP~ons blog, which as of this writing, has exactly one piece of writing in it, which doesn't even mention the last of those gigs yet... but they're payin' for a domain name, so presumably there's more to come! 

PS: Hey, it looks like Brock is a fellow Pisces, look what I found on Facebook: 


Unknown said...

Wow! I didn't know that about Brock. In my opinion, his talents would have been wasted behind a drum kit. Why don't they at least have an album or two? Great band.

Allan MacInnis said...

I keep finding stuff out too - bunch of this article was new to me. The questions kind of subtly hint at the weirdness of the lack of an album, probing whether the band is ambivalent about success or something - but I don't see much of that in Brock's answers! (But over ten years together and no rekkid? What?).