When it comes to promoting hard rock bands in this country, Canadian groups are wasting their time. So says Nick Walsh, former Juno-award winning lead vocalist of Slik Toxik, now enjoying a renaissance of sorts fronting new rock band, Famous Underground.
“People talk about a resurgence of interest in hard rock over here, but in Europe, that interest never went away,” noted Walsh who will be leading Famous Underground on stage Saturday November 23rd at Toronto’s Rockpile East venue. “In Europe, particularly in Germany, metal is a lifestyle. There’s lots of bands being signed by labels and unlike the Fast Food mentality of North America, people over there are actually buying vinyl and CD’s instead of resorting to downloads on their iPhones or Mp3 players.”
It is no surprise then to find out that his band’s debut self-titled record, released earlier this year, was issued first in Europe and that Famous Underground are managed by Axel Weisenhauer’s Germany-based Rock ‘N Growl company.
“There’s so much more opportunity over there, especially with festivals ”, enthused Walsh, “We are planning to go over to Europe in March, play the clubs, get noticed by the top promoters and hope we get invited to the summer festivals. It’s just a matter of getting exposed to the right people.”
Famous Underground, comprising of Walsh, lead vocals, Laurie-Anne Green, bass, Rick Corvese, guitar, Darren Michael Boyd, guitar and their Austro-German drummer Desche Sparboom, have been together for just over two years, after changing their name from Revolver.
“I formed Revolver with Ex Helix, Nelly Furtado, guitarist Sean Kelly in 2002 but as the name implies, it was a bit of a revolving door with various lineup incarnations,” explained Walsh. “It was like, oh, Sean can’t make it this week, then okay we have Gene Scarpelli. We recorded two albums but there seemed to be a stigma attached to that name.”
Walsh and long-time bassist Green had written a bunch of new songs and were contemplating a new look and a re-branding of the band when they found out a French band was also calling themselves Revolver and were booked to play at New York’s CMJ Music Showcase.
A sarcastic comment passed during dinner by Nick’s wife, Patty, provided the band’s new moniker. They were entertaining new guitarist Rick Corvese who was chatting enthusiastically about being in Walsh’s band and how he’d been a big fan of Walsh and Slik Toxik growing up. Walsh’s wife’s response to Corvese’s comments were; “Yeah, he’s famous alright, famous underground!”
“I thought, Wow! What a great line, I’ve got to use that somewhere,” responded Walsh. “So when Laurie and I sat down to brainstorm a name for the new band, I said `we don’t have to think any further, Famous Underground – that’s it!”
Walsh has been knocking his band into shape for their anticipated Euro invasion by performing at a string of Canadian club dates but finds even this scenario somewhat depressing.
“There’s no radio exposure, no print promotion, it’s pretty well impossible to create a buzz about a concert appearance,” noted Walsh. “You get major bands like Saxon and Motorhead who pull in thousands of people at major festivals in Europe but they can’t draw flies in Canadian clubs. Anvil just returned from opening for Metallica in Singapore but only drew a couple of hundred people to Rockpile East, what’s that all about?”
Canadian radio wasn’t always this dead observed Walsh of a time in the mid-eighties when rock stations were supportive of local talent.
“When Slik Toxik started out, hard rock/heavy metal still dominated classic rock stations. Station’s like Q-107 had Joey Vendetta’s `Power Factory’ that played our demos and invited us into the studios even before we were signed. These days even if you are playing a show in their town, you are lucky if the local station gives you a spin. These days deejays are totally redundant, you just need an iPod playlist and you’re good to go!”
Former guitar mate Sean Kelly has just penned a book, “Metal On Ice” which tells of the trauma a number of domestic bands, including Slik Toxik in trying to break out of Canada, although Walsh notes that his band’s undoing was purely based on bad timing.
Signed by EMI Canada, after label president Deane Cameron had been drawn to the band through publicity Slik Toxik was receiving in local magazines like M.E.A.T and Brave Words And Bloody Knuckles, the label picked up on the band’s independent EP “Smooth And Deadly” released in 1991 and issued a full 13-track CD titled “Doin The Nasty” in 1992.
Walsh and band mates; Robert Bruce, guitarist, Kevin Gale, guitarist, Pat Howarth, bass and Neal Busby, drums, enjoyed initial success. Their debut album won the Top Rock Album Juno award in 1993 plus two Much Music awards, including top rock video for `Helluvatime’ and they made quite an impression stateside touring with the likes of Faster Pussycat, Overkill, Yngwie Malmsteen and even one date at Toronto’s Massey Hall opening for Black Sabbath (Dio reunion).
“Unfortunately, our album was shelved for a year while EMI tried to co-ordinate the scheduling and by the time they did release it, their timing sucked!”, bemoaned Walsh. “The album came out in North America just as the grunge rock movement was kicking in. You had Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and all the record companies were dumping their power rock bands. We knew we were in trouble when our U.S tour with Faster Pussycat got cut short because they got dropped by Elektra.”
Even though Slik Toxik’s debut release had gone gold (over 50,000 units sold) EMI-Capitol Canada were balking at releasing a second album and the label was given ammunition to dump the band when bassist Pat Howarth, commandeered the band’s limo at Capitol’s 1984 post Juno party and smashed it.
“Contrary to public opinion, Capitol didn’t drop us, we asked for our own release,” noted Walsh. “The terms they offered us were totally unacceptable so we left them, recorded ‘Irrelevant’ with producer Paul Gross and released it on A&M affiliate Strawberry Records.”
By that point (1994) the Grunge movement was in full force, Walsh dissolved the band in 1995 and he and bassist Green eventually hooked up with Kelly to start Revolver.
It’s a relationship that has come full circle with Walsh working with Kelly and an all-star cast of Canadian rockers including, Brian Vollmer (Helix), Carl Dixon (Coney Hatch), Lee Aaron, Darby Mills (Headpins) and Russell Graham (Killer Dwarfs) to record a six-track Metal On Ice EP to accompany Kelly’s Metal On Ice book.
“I was in the shower, which is where all us rock stars do our thinking,” noted Walsh, somewhat facetiously, when I came up with this idea for a theme song for ‘Metal On Ice‘. I ran the idea about a theme song to Sean and he said he had thought about it but he was too frazzled to come up with anything. I told him I had some ideas for the song, we met up and about a week later we were in the studio working on the track.”
It was a dream for Walsh to co-produce the track with Kelly and have those top performers all singing on the track. “I mean I am standing a few feet away from Darby Mills and I am listening to that distinctive voice of hers,” enthused Walsh. “The whole experience was amazing.”
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– Keith Sharp