Wednesday, September 7, 2016


Crash Vegas, Parkdale, August 1990

I SHOT A LOT OF BANDS IN MY HEYDAY AS A STUDIO PHOTOGRAPHER. Many of them were local acts, and a few of them were friends. One of the first promo shoots I ever did for a record company was Crash Vegas, a band that I'd seen live a few years earlier when Greg Keelor from Blue Rodeo was a member, and when they had a far more goth-y, post-punk sound than the roots/country band that I shot in my Parkdale studio that summer at the turn of the '90s.

I was friends with Ambrose Pottie, their drummer, who might have been the source of this job. On the day I set up a big, skylight-like softbox in front of a roll of gray seamless and explained to the band that I wanted them to sit or lie on the floor of my studio in a tight group - the better to keep my composition neat - while I shot with Agfapan 25, the slowest film I could find, to get the most smooth, detailed negative possible,

I also told them that the aperture would be very wide, and that the whole band probably wouldn't be in focus for every frame. I shot countless Polaroid tests to show the look I wanted, and the band - singer Michelle McAdorey and bassist Jocelyne Lanois seemed to be in charge of the shoot - said they liked what we were getting, so we moved to film.

I shot a fair number of rolls that day, but when I sent it along to the band and the record company it didn't go over well, precisely because of the narrow depth of field I'd tried so hard to sell on the day of the shoot. I don't know if any of these shots ever got used, and I felt quite bad for Ambrose after all of this. Years later I'd end up living with my wife and young daughters above a coffee shop a few blocks north of my old studio, where Michelle and her young son were neighbours. I'm sure she recognized me as we stood, watching our toddler children play with each other outside the cafe or around the corner at the park, but neither of us ever mentioned this shoot.

The Satanatras, Toronto, July 1992

One of my regular hangouts in the early to mid-'90s was Rotate This, a record store then on Queen West near Bathurst run by my buddy Pierre Hallett. The store's backroom was an occasional concert space, but for a while it was rented out by the Satanatras, who were probably one of the best bands on an almost wholly unsung musical scene in Toronto at the time.

We became friends, and when I was assigned to shoot them for NOW's weekly band profile page, they told me they were going to do a bit more than look moody in the backyard of their bassist's house or some park adjacent to their rehearsal space. The band showed up in full KISS makeup and the results of a raid on a friend's costume rental house, and we did the shoot on a weekend in the nearly empty financial district, in the vast sculpture courtyard of the TD Bank towers.

They released a cassette and a record and then broke up - bassist Bernie Pleskach ended up in instrumental combo The Stinkies, for whom I shot a NOW cover and a CD, Jeff Beardal is some kind of boffin and Dallas Good formed the Sadies with Sean Dean and his brother Travis and became the finest band in Canada. I still think the Satanatras' "Powerful Wonderful" is one of the best singles to come out of this city.

Violent Brothers, Danko Jones, Toronto, July 1995

The Violent Brothers were another band from this same scene, and another footnote mostly because they were an early version of what became Danko Jones. I shot Danko and Paul Ziraldo at what I remember as an apartment in a house near Bathurst and Bloor. What struck me was how meticulous they were when I arrived, having set up drums in the nicest spot of light in the gable at the top floor of the house. Few bands put this sort of aesthetic care into a NOW band shoot.

I shot everything with my Rolleiflex, and the shot of Danko at the drums was part of a diptych I submitted to Irene at NOW. I did another roll of the two of them together as well, and I was always fond of this shoot for how unexpectedly elegant it turned out, as elegance was something I always strived for in a portrait but rarely achieved with a rock band.

King Cobb Steelie, Parkdale, January 1997

King Cobb Steelie were another Toronto group who were, for quite a while, probably the best band playing Queen West. I'd shot front man Kevan Byrne's old band, Heimlich Maneuver, for Graffiti magazine and ended up seeing his new group at the urging of my roommate Sally and upstairs neighbour Don Pyle. They were a natural fit for me, drawing from the same stew of music I listened to on my own - dub reggae, post-punk, Bill Laswell, world music, trance, Bill Laswell, techno and Bill Laswell.

I don't know how many times I saw them live, and I'm still not sure how I ended up doing this band portrait in my Parkdale studio around the time they released Junior Relaxer, their third record. It might have been for NOW, but I shot both slide and black and white film of this setup, so it may have been a promo shoot for their record company. I wanted to do something stark, so I asked them to all wear black and set them up in a crossfire of hard lights in front of a black seamless.

To be frank, it doesn't really capture the essence of the band, but I wanted to give them a simple, usable promo image that would stand out on a busy newspaper page. They're still active, at least according to their Wikipedia page, though their website doesn't have anything posted more recently than three years ago.

Sloan, Parkdale, January 1997

Sloan were technically a Halifax band, but they were all living in Toronto by the time I got to know them, mostly through Andrew Scott, their drummer, who lived with his wife above Rotate This. They swept into the public eye and an American record deal on the coattails of grunge, though they were a far more interesting band than that, and despite constantly being on the verge of breaking up, put out a series of great, unique records throughout the '90s that were smart and tuneful and generally acquitted Canada musically.

I was assigned to shoot them for a NOW cover after they'd released One Chord to Another, and when they showed up at my studio I explained that I was going to do a basic, Beatlesque high-key studio shot with cross-processed film to boost the colours and contrast. They were all pretty graphically savvy guys, and when I finished my spiel Chris Murphy shrugged and said "Of course, that usually comes out all green."

His comment rang in my head throughout the whole shoot and for the next day until I was able to get into the darkroom to make my prints. I worked overtime in the rented darkroom at Toronto Image Works to correct every bit of green cast from the shots I handed in to NOW. Of course, when the cover ran a week or so later, it had a glaring green cast on the paper's cheap newsprint. It's only now, with the control afforded by Photoshop, that I can finally publish these shots the way I intended them to be seen.

The Headstones, Parkdale, October 1997

The Headstones formed in the late '80s in Kingston, Ontario and I shot them a decade later for NOW in my Parkdale studio. They had a dodgy public image, fueled mostly by occasional drug problems among band members and front man Hugh Dillon's confrontational attitude to both his audience and the music press.

I shot them under a big softbox in front of a simple seamless backdrop - a basic Penn/Avedon light scheme that served me and a million other photographers well. I went through a few rolls trying to get them to do something that captured the band's rather menacing image, and ended up with this shot, which I visualized ahead of time as the sort of thing you probably didn't want to see when you'd fallen off your stool in a bar you'd been warned about.

The band broke up, Dillon cleaned up, slimmed down and made a name for himself as an actor, and then - as seems to be so much the thing nowadays - they reformed to play for a dedicated audience who respond strongly to their songs about desperate living and (I have it on good authority) will do quite a bit of damage to a bar or concert hall while boosting liquor sales for the night.

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