This interview has been substantially expanded since it flickered on my blog a week or so ago! I posted an unfinished version of it in honour of Stephen's birthday jam at the Princeton; since that time, I've put two videos from that gig on Youtube, one of Noah Walker of Kitty & the Rooster fame joining Stephen for "Fret Frenzy," off Stephen's album Square Moon, and another of Jimmy Roy singing (!) Gene O'Quin's 1954 country hit, "Too Hot to Handle." Stephen's band will be playing Gastown's Guilt & Company tomorrow (Tuesday May 9th - it's kind of got a restaurant vibe, so reserve ASAP and maybe go there for dinner?).
One of the nicest people Erika and I have met as a result of my journalistic vice - and also one of the most talented guitarists in Vancouver - is Stephen Nikleva
(don't make my mistake - I have a bad habit of pronouncing the "e" in his last name as an "eh" sound, but it's actually and "ee" one!). His documented history on the Vancouver music scene extends back to the second album ever released by Ferron
, Backed Up
- a private press rarity from 1978 that sells for fair coin (there is only one on Discogs at the moment
with an asking price of $120 US; I believe I bought the one Stephen is holding below for $80 -- or did he give me a deal?). A couple of tracks of the album are on Youtube; this one
showcases Stephen's guitar quite nicely and has a slightly more rockin' vibe than many of the songs on the album.
Stephen is on the next album by Ferron, too - which I believe he's referred to as, "the one that everybody has," Testimony
, which is vastly more common; you can still easily find thrifting (it's in the New West Salvation Army as I write this; for all I know, there is a copy in every Salvation Army in the Lower Mainland, but that shouldn't stop you from getting it!). It was by virtue of Ferron and UBC creative writing professor and novelist Keith Maillard that he met fellow musician, poet, and chess fanatic Enrico Renz - who was on hand for an early video interview I did with Stephen
, at his apartment off Commercial Drive. "Keith was playing bass with Ferron at the time, but he was really a writer," Stephen explains. "Then later on, he got teaching at UBC in the Creative Writing Department, and I think he was teaching a course on songwriting. Enrico was going to university there. So I got a call from Keith: 'I've got this guy who's writing some really interesting material, you should come and have a listen. That's actually the beginning of Red Herring."
A few years later, Red Herring would win a Shindig!
battle of the bands put on by UBC (the album
, which also features Death Sentence, is not so rare but not so common either, and also features - among the bands people remember - Death Sentence and Rhythm Mission (with Dennis Mills
, also of AKA and The Judys). The whole album is online here
- Red Herring contribute two tracks, "Tone of Voice" and "The Brain Song;" there's also footage of a young Red Herring performing at the Savoy
from this time period. Red Herring would, decades later, record an official studio take
of "The Brain Song" for their 2020 EP Neon
, and make a video for it too
, but between about 1985 and 2020, this
compilation, a contribution to the Undergrowth cassette
(rips of which circulate on file-sharing programs), and Red Herring's original 1985 EP Taste Tests,
which they funded from the proceeds of winning the Shindig!, were all the evidence you were likely to find (there was also a demo tape that a few copies were made of, but it's not something you'll likely see out there, aside from the collections of members of the band; none have sold on Discogs, for example - ever).
"It was a packed house," Nikleva remembers of the Shindig! shows (he thinks there were actually three separate concerts Red Herring performances as part of the series, but I believe he's speaking of the finals, here). "Rhythm Mission were kind of a funky, danceable band, a little bit quirky; I think Go For 3 was one of them, and what was the other band, Nerve Tubes? Ellie O'Day was one of the judges, so we did have a little help. At this point, the band was really tight..."
Nikleva and I are having this conversation on his balcony in the midst of COVID, masked and distanced; it's odd to hear my "old voice" asking him questions. Occasionally gusts of wind find my microphone and the voices distort, which complicates things for me, since I'm not a guitarist or gear geek, and don't always know the terms Nikleva is using (in fact, he has another word with "tight," above, but it's lost in a gust, so I'm not 100% sure I've gotten that right, either!). In fact, my first question here was not one I actually asked, but it allows me to begin with the usual italicized-question/ non-italicized pattern I favour. The Stephen Nikleva band (with Noah Walker) will be playing Tuesday, May 9th, at Guilt & Co. in Gastown
... check'em out!
Allan: So what were you using, at the Savoy shows?
Stephen: I had just recently upgraded my guitar sound by getting a guitar synthesizer. It was the second version of a guitar synthesizer, and what that consisted of, it was analog, it was basically a blue box and you could do one setting and change the envelope or things like that on your guitar. After that, synthesizers got to the point where they had pre-sets: you want a sound, there's a pre-set, you get it; but before that, you had to fashion the sound on the go, as it were. And that's what that still was. Of course, it doesn't work so well if you're playing guitar because - 'Okay, I want this sound now, I want a different sound now;' so what I did, I created two volume pedals, one for the regular guitar sound and the other one for the synth sound, and then I would be playing mainly the regular sound and once and awhile would bring in a synth, for something different - bwyeeewr, that kind of thing. That wasn't very common at that point. And the band was really well-rehearsed and confident. We were wearing these suits with fish lures stuck on there - so it was a bit quirky, maybe a bit dangerous, too. And all these things helped. The band was just different from what was going on, and probably musically at a slightly different musical level than some of the other bands. And maybe we were slightly older, too - I certainly was.
Do you remember there being any hostility between, say, Red Herring fans and Rhythm Mission fans?
Well, it's interesting, we were just talking about this the other day, and Steve (Lazin, Red Herring drummer) was saying how glum the Rhythm Mission guys looked. I'm sure they thought they had it. And they were well known in the scene, and they had lots of friends; Steve said they had bottles of champagne in the green room, ready to go.
That's heartbreaking. Do you know those guys?
Oh, yeah - subsequently, I think I even did a couple of shows with Dennis, with his swing band, filling in, Jazzmanian Devils. He had that going for years. They were kind of ahead of their time.
Well before the swing revival.
Yeah! So I think I filled in a couple of times with that group. And Andy Graffiti
I got to know because he was such a guy around town, playing in lots of bands, very active, and I tapped Andy while I was playing with Paul Hyde, briefly. Paul Hyde had done the Rock and Hyde album, and then he released his own album, and somehow he called on me to just do some duos. So I was playing mandolin and guitar, and he was doing some Payolas songs and some newer material. I'd never really had any of the Payolas records, had never listened to them, and I remember saying, "Should I listen to them?" "Oh no no, just play what you're playing." It was only later that I went back to finally hear some of the songs: "Oh my god, listen to how much synthesizer stuff there is in there!" They were so overly overproduced in a way that it strangled them. And I'd toured with Paul; he listens to folkie kind of music, very rootsy-type music, and when we played as a duo, that's kinda how it came across! So it was a shock to then hear this stuff.
So at one point, he wanted to put together a quartet, and he got his old bass player, A-Train [Alex Boynton
], a black guy that had been part of his groups; and he wanted a drummer, so I got Andy Graffiti, and we toured across Canada as a four piece, doing kind of a rootsier version of his stuff.
The Payolas are one band I associate with a kind of story that you really can see in some Vancouver bands - Doug and the Slugs are another: bands that start creative and fresh and even punky, then get a taste of success and get on the radio, and things get increasingly produced, increasingly watered down. [Note to the reader: click those last two links for a study in extreme contrast - and remember, the songs were released only five years apart!] Even the Payolas having to change their name to Rock and Hyde... it's a sort of death-by-a-thousand cuts story, that always leads to the diminishment of the band. In a way Red Herring dodged that bullet, because you stopped playing together. I don't think you ever got radio play?
Some CBC and college radio, and Much Music, because it was so new...
Right - those videos are great, "Taste Tests" and "The Crab Song" are two of the greatest videos to come out of Vancouver.
Martin-Stephen-Steve, I believe, with Enrico's shoulders in the background
Those videos were just great. I remember watching "Taste Tests" on Soundproof, one of the cable access shows. Just fantastic. And you did those yourselves!
And Zulu were distributing you, at that time, as Zulubird Records. How did you get hooked up with Zulu?
Probably just because of the Shindig, as well!
So why did Red Herring stop playing together? You had had some taste of success...
There was a friend of Martin's; they had lived together, and - it was obvious that the band needed help. We had been playing together for awhile, and she came on to be our manager, because nobody in the band were that type of person. We needed help! And she stepped up, and she was trying to do our best, but she wasn't a manager, she was just a friend helping out. She did have some graphic skills, so she did some posters and collected information and helped with the tours. Bridget, was her name - Bridget Trousdell. And all I remember was that a band meeting was called, and Bridget announced that Enrico was going back to school. And maybe she said he was getting married, as well?
So that officially was the announcement. I can remember being surprised. I remember thinking we would carry on. I'm a kind of person who is used to doing different things, different bands, so the question was what else was going on. I was doing little jazz things, then later on there was a group called the Crimpolines, with Sandy Scofield
. It was a duo with her and an accordion player, Nova Devonie
. That wasn't her name then, but it's her name now. And she played accordion and sang, and they had a duo. It was kind of kitschy; like, they'd have purses hanging down as she played the accordion, and dresses or prom dresses, and they'd do some songs from the 50s and 60s. I got to know Sandy and Red Herring became the backing band, when they wanted a backing band. [There was a simulcast in 1986 where] the Crimpolines played with Red Herring, on the same night. So in 1986, they were already starting to do things like that. So yes, there were other things going on, and then I started to do some things with the Animal Slaves [Stephen is on their final album, 1991's A Fine End
And I know that by that point we had lost Steve Lazin
, because Red Herring was doing just the occasional thing, and - I think he was sharing a place with one of the people in Bob's Your Uncle
, and he became Bob's Your Uncle's drummer. So we got another drummer, but he was also playing with the young Canadian woman blues guitar player. singer, Sue Foley
, so we could only have him sometimes. So we were having some drummer problems, going near the end. But you'd have to ask Enrico whether he felt there was no future here, or, "I need to get a real job," y'know? I know a lot of people who are either this or that, they have a hard time doing what I seem to be able to do naturally, which is to do different things and survive that way.
I can appreciate him wanting long-term stability.
Yeah, and we were really on-again-off again, the odd show. There was a lot promise, but we would have actually needed really strong management, or the band would have had the gumption to say, "Okay, we're going to go to Toronto," you know what I mean? Sometimes if you come from another place - when we played that Toronto show, people were just so astounded. If we'd gone there as a fresh new thing coming in like that, it would have been different. I think in Vancouver, the name, the unusualness of it, the fact that we weren't part of the different cliques, it just made us not really fit in.
Also the late 80s were not the best time to be a band. The stuff people remember is all from the first wave. There was some great bands from 84-90, but no one really remembers them or talks about them. The scene wasn't supporting bands the way it did initially.
I wonder about things like that. I think before that there was definitely a Do-It-Yourself attitude, and I think as the late '80s came, labels like Nettwerk records were trying to sign bands, and now you were either signed, or you weren't. And if you were signed, you got all the press, all the thing in the papers, if you weren't signed, you were...
Or you were a band like DOA, who had already established themselves. I don't think Red Herring had enough infrastructure that could take it anywhere. And I don't think... I do recall, I went to a fellow who was working with the Feldmans, booking underground bands. And I remember going to him, but he had his hands full. In retrospect, the band would have had to do something drastic.
L-to-R, Steve Lazin, Sinead X Sanders, Stephen Nikleva at the Princeton, May 2023, by Allan MacInnis
So Red Herring didn't exist anymore, what's next?
Whatever I'm trying to do no, whenever I get a piece of information, I try to put it on a timeline. In actual fact, from 1986 to 1993, I was incredibly busy. There was the Animal Slaves, the second band. And there was Jimmy Roy's 5 Star Hillbillies
and the Yo-Dells
[with Herald Nix, Ian Tiles and Mike van Eyes, among others]. It was an all-star lineup of roots musicians led by Herald Nix that included Howard Rix.
Oh, god, they were in the same band together? I always get their names confused.
So it was like all these guys had a western swing group, and Jimmy Roy got some tendonitis - he was the guitar player, so they called me to fill in, and he started playing steel guitar, because he could still play the steel. I became the guitar player in that group. They probably also knew me because Red Herring was doing shows, or maybe they had seen me with the Crimpolines. I remember Andy Graffiti coming up to me after a gig with the Crimpolines and saying, "Wow, you really can play guitar!" Because with Red Herring, I was playing guitar, but I was also creating soundscapes; with the Crimpolines, it was more guitar playing. So that's what he meant by that. And interestingly enough, that's how I first met Jimmy Roy, at the Savoy at a Crimpolines gig. And we've carried on, playing off and on with each other since that time.
So I started rehearsing with the Yo-Dells, me and Herald Nix worked out a lot of twin guitar parts, where he was playing maybe a four string or a mandolin. We worked out a lot of intricate twin things. I don't know if it got released. There is a demo recording of the band, stuff that's never been released, that Mike van Eyes has a copy of, and I have a copy of. It sounds fantastic.
So in the same era, all these were going on, but I had seen the Yo-Dells a couple of years before that. At the Arts Club, there was a venue downstairs, and I remember seeing this band - they came out wearing suits and hairpin ties, playing this great western swing. It was old but new at the same time - it had something really cool about it. That was the Yo-Dells! I thought "wow, this is one incredible band..."
So all of a sudden I liked country music, but... I had always liked country music, and I remember trying to develop skills at it, and then there was swing music... I was trying to blend these two together, and it was only years later that I found out there was this thing called Western Swing. Nobody told me about it! It was only through Jimmy Roy that I got to learn about these different kinds of music. Now at some point, Jimmy started getting his own group together, and he had a different singer, and for awhile, there was a couple of different bass players - there was a bass player that became the Ricochets bass player [Clive Jackson?], and there was Ronnie Hayward
, Rockin' Ronnie. Jimmy Roy released a cassette on East Side Records, and we added more songs and it got onto a CD that got released on a label in England [probably 5-Star Hop
, from 1993].
I do recall that I was touring with Sarah [McLachlan] while I was playing with the 5-Star Hillbillies. As a matter of fact, I think they came and picked me up - I don't recall whether they were travelling in an RV or a bus, but... I was playing a barn dance in Chilliwack with the 5-Star Hillbillies, and at that point, Sarah was accommodating enough that they actually started the tour by coming and picking me up; I went from the barn dance onto their RV or tour bus. And there's actually a picture in one of Sarah's albums, I think this limited edition Canadian-only release, a live album that they did, that shows the band playing at the PNE, and there's one of my old Tweed amps on the stage. The reason that amp is there is that I played earlier that day with the 5-Star Hillbillies at one of the outdoor beer garden stages.
So I was doing very different things at the same time, but like I say, to me, it wasn't a big deal. These were very different kinds of music, but I like different kinds of music.
Did you enjoy working with Sarah McLachlan?
It was really... y'know, the best times for any band are when you're coming up, do you know what I mean? When you get established, it starts turning into work; you start playing bigger places, but your band rooms are down there and you don't even get to meet people, and you even get to the point where, like, you've got to stand there [in a specific spot onstage], this kind of thing... but I was part of a time with her when she was coming up, and I got enjoy all those wonderful experiences.
Later on when they become well known, that's the time when you make all the money and play the big places. I didn't get to make the money or play the big places, but I got to slog it out on the road, living in an RV. And then later on the bus. And travel around North America; I got to go Europe with her, and I got to go to Japan with her...
And you're on a couple of records.
I'm on her first record, and I'm on a Canadian release second record, which is live. The hits from the first record were released on greatest hits albums and b-sides and rarities, and they've been released on so many other records that I can say my playing is on a few million records.
Do you get anything in the way of SOCAN royalties from them?
Nothing! I got paid a small amount for playing on the first recording, and never got really anything more. Now if I had filed it through the union, every time those recordings were used on another release...
You'd get a cut.
Yes. But to be fair, Sarah did try at one point to help the band out, she gave us each a 5% cut on the song she added to the second release of the album....
Did you continue to work with Ferron later on?
So the pink cover one, she had met a woman who was able to put some financing together, who said, "You should be well-known; I'm going to help you." Someone who had a vision and an awareness of what could be done. So she got... it was the piano player in the Powder Blues, Willie MacCalder
, he became the producer. And aof course ll of his friends were all people who were playing in these kinds of bands, they were all session-type guys; guys that were well-known. They became the main band. And as a favour, Ferron got me into playing with them on that album. I think at that point she started doing gigs with some of those players, and then she moved out of Vancouver.
But to Ferron's credit, years later, she got discovered by Arista or, maybe not Arista, but another label. Arista is who signed Sara. [I think Stephen might mean Still Riot, released on Warner Brothers in 1996?
]. I was on the road with Ray Condo, and I got a call from Ferron: "There's this guy from a major label. I got discovered and they're going to do a big album..." Or maybe they'd done the album and they had a tour bus and they were going to go out on the road, play big places. But - did I want to be a part of it? But I was with Ray, and we were in the middle of barnstoming the country. It was really happening, so I couldn't. But I appreciated the opportunity.
We still haven't really talked about how you got together with Ray Condo.
Okay, so - we're in the 80s with the Yo-Dells and Jimmy Roy. I think I'd already met Ray, because I was going down to that warehouse on Railway, City Space it was called. Kind of a pivotal place, actually. And I was trying to find bass players and drummers, and I probably touched shoulders with him; in the early 80s, Ray Condo was living down there, and we probably knew each other a bit in passing. He was maybe around that time also playing in the Secret Vs
. How did we connect later on? It was before Jimmy Roy got involved - somehow I got tapped into playing with him and Tony Bardach.
Of the Pointed Sticks!?
Yes! Tony Bardach and a fellow who was on drums who actually passed away a few years ago, Robert Harvey. There's actually some footage that was released of us
, it was called Ray Condo and the Blackouts. We did a couple of gigs like that, so I was starting to get together with Ray. That was actually before I hooked up with them through Jimmy Roy. The Blackouts did a few gigs. After that - Ray had been living in Montreal and got that band together (Ray Condo & His Hard Rock Goners
). And at some point, Ray moved back to Vancouver, and a couple of Ray's friends from Montreal moved back here with him. And Jimmy Roy started getting together with him. Ray was really into, like, Billie Holliday and classic swing. He was playing saxophone, and they would get together and do songs like "Rockin' Chair
," But he wanted to mix in a little bit of rockabilly, and they called me to be part of their group.
Then with Jimmy Roy, we released that album and toured over to Europe. And that was pretty pivotal, too, because there was a huge rockabilly scene in Europe. It hadn't extended so much into hillbilly music and western swing. So we went over there and played in the rockabilly scene, but we've all got cowboy hats on and Jimmy's playing the steel guitar, and we're playing these rockabilly festivals with this kind of music. A few years later, everybody's got cowboy hats and steel guitars! It was a pivotal change for the European scene. It expanded what people could do.
Note: there are two versions of the Ricochet's debut album; the one on Joaquin (right) is re-sequenced and has a couple of different tracks. I'm partial to the one on the left, the smaller first release on East Side; but find them both if you can! Check out the "Hadicillin Boogie" as a sample (Cousin Harley occasionally covers it, still; it's on both versions of the CD, but note - the photo on Youtube is NOT this lineup of the Ricochets (you see Stephen next to the seated Jimmy Roy on the Joaquin cover...)
So you have quite a varied and rich career. When did the decision come about to put Red Herring back together?
I always felt that Enrico had some really cool, unusual stuff, and always thought that maybe the band would get back together. I think I masterminded that the band played the 20th anniversary of the Railway Club; I think I got the band back together to do that.
What year was that?
I don't know now...
It was long before that, maybe in the year 2000?
Oh, I don't know about this gig!
And I think another time happened that we played at some show or some dance. I think in both cases I was in-behind, masterminding it, but there was some tension [between members] and there was no point trying to push something. I hoped in both those cases that we could have carried on, but...
But Enrico had been getting together with Steve [Lazin] and Chris Blades, doing a more free-form thing at the Prophouse, and he started to bring in some Red Herring songs. And I was encouraging them, and I think I suggested we get Martin [Walton] in. So that's how it started happening. So when you came to that first reunion show [in 2013], it wasn't like we were prepared to do all that Red Herring material, so there was some jamming, and maybe I sang a song, Martin sang a song... I think Enrico always hopes for there to be a band input. Martin goes through these spells where he was writing songs every week. I think at one point I said, "Martin, you play guitar and I'll play bass." I think we tried it once. It never quite worked that way. But from that, it became a vehicle for us to get back together.
Red Herring at the Princeton, May 2023: Steve, Tania, Enrico, Stephen
"Shaker" [which Stephen sings part of] doesn't sound like an Enrico song.
But it is Enrico!
How did you come to take a couple of verses on that?
Probably just in us playing it; I might have just started singing it, and Enrico said "Yeah, yeah!" I'm not really a singer, I haven't sung much, but once in a while, if it's simple I can do it... Maybe eventually I'll record some songs where I sing!
Square Moon 2?
Well, Square Moon 3. I've already got ideas for 2!
Stephen has kept very busy since the time discussed, touring & recording with Petunia & the Vipers and Romanian violinist Lache Cercel, including a few tours of Romania... Stephen's second album is underway (but may take some time yet). Go see the Stephen Nikelva band at Guilt and Co. on Tuesday!
Stephen Nikleva last year, by Erika Lax!