Marisa of Austin Daze: How did you originally get your start in music? Do you have a musical family?
Gary: I started playing drums in 1947. I would have been two-years-old, so I don’t really have a memory of it. Let me put it this way: Do you remember when you started to walk? No? It’s kind of the same for me with drums. My father was a drummer, so he started me. I played professional at 4-years-old, did shows with Ames Brothers, the Four Lads, basically variety shows. They would refer to me as a child prodigy. Variety shows would come into Winnipeg, and I was hired to play. I guess it was novel idea for a 4-year-old to play drums with big bands. I think Buddy Rich went through the same in his career. I joined the American Federation of Musicians at 9-years-old, being probably one of the youngest people to join a union. When I started, it was jazz, not rock and roll. That was only local, in Winnipeg where I was from, but that’s where my career started.
MofAD: Do you have any children that are into music?
Gary: I have a son, but he is not into music. He is a master carpenter. On the reunion tour, he asked me if he could be my drum technician, so he got a chance to see that aspect of things. He was born the year after the band broke up the first time. He loves to play bass, but he went into a different field.
MofAD: As a percussionist, do you play any other instruments besides a traditional drum set?
Gary: I used to play alto sax in early days, but not anything proficiently. I played alto by ear, so I really can’t say I play anything other than drums. I did play with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. I have an interest in orchestra, because I have a love of classical and jazz…and country… and bluegrass. I guess I just like music.
MofAD: What was it like reuniting in the rain at the closing ceremony for the Pan Am Games in 1999?
Gary: It was something I thought would never happen for the second time. I had been out with the band for 11 years prior, so it was not like I was not playing. It was nice to have the original band back together for that particular event. I’ve seen other people’s reactions to that night, and it was quite giddy, but I don’t remember having that sort of reaction, as it had happened once before. With this band, you never know, it’s truly the Guess Who; mind you, I’ve been there for most of it.
MofAD: They say finding a name is one of the hardest parts of being in a band. How did the band change names from the Silvertones to Chad Allen and the Reflections, then the Expressions, and finally The Guess Who?
Gary: The name of the band was Al and the Silvertones, from Chad Allen Kowbel. Once we started, it became the Reflections. In the 60s, there was a big hit “Just Like Romeo and Juliet” by The Reflections, and there was a possibility of legal conflict. To avoid the ordeal, we changed the name to something that sounded like Reflections, Expressions. When Shakin All Over” was released as a single, in order to get airplay in the US, our record company decided to put Guess Who on the label (implying that it might be from a bigger act). So many disc jockeys said, “here’s the Guess Who,” that it stuck with us. We didn’t choose the name; it chose us.
MofAD: Kale was asked to leave the band in 2000, but he owned the rights to the Guess Who name. Has this situation been sorted out?
Gary: There’s no conflict. Because of the reunion, he signed a contract allowing the band to use the name until 2005. As it turned out, after a concert in Toronto on July 30, 2003, the original band, for whatever reason, didn’t even use the last two years of the contract. That says to me that they weren’t interested in going out for the last two years. The contract lapsed, he owns the name, so he can go out and do what he did before, have a different band.
MofAD: In the past, the band has worked with songwriters, like with the song “Hey Ho, What Ya Do To Me.” How was that experience different from writing originals?
Gary: Me, not being one of the major writers, it’s not an easy question to answer, but I think bands of that era were looked upon as more valid if they wrote their own material. Fortunately, we had the ability to do that with this band. It’s probably, from my point of view, if you have people in the band writing the material, there’s a shared connection. When material comes from one person to a band at large, it comes in one way, and goes out another. There’s a fine line as to who wrote what, but writers do get credit. The imprint of the band is included in that process. If you write material in the band, it’s more creative, because you’re not interpreting somebody else’s material. I don’t know if I’m expressing that correctly, but we grew up together, went through the same experiences. Writing has a lot to do with experiences in life and togetherness, being able to identify with where one has been, so it’s easier to write your own than go with somebody from Nashville, as it’s kind of from a different world. You know who wrote it? Ashford and Simpson, who are famous Motownwriters, who happened to be the top staff writers at Scepter Records. They were only 17-years-old at the time, but they wound up being famous writers. They were black kids. They were really young and trying to make their way. Little did we know that they’d go on to be famous and we’d go on to be famous, but they were writing from another experience. We weren’t writing R&B. We didn’t grow up in Detroit or New York; we grew up in the Canadian prairies, a different cultural environment.
MofAD: Was it hard to see “Hurting Each Other” become such a hit for the Carpenters?
Gary: No, it was fabulous. I thought it was a thrill that that happened, because we thought it was a great song when we did it. That came out of that same session with Scepter Records. It wasn’t right for our band, but we tried to execute it. It was more like for someone like that, more easy listening area of music, but I thought it was great that they had it. It provthat we knew how to pick a great song at least.
MofAD: What was the most memorable part of performing or the Nixons and Prince Charles at The White House?
Gary: Gosh, I don’t know. I mean, how many people get to play at the White House? It’s pretty bizarre in itself. Just being chosen to do something like that for me was an honor. It’s one of those moments that now that I’m here in the states, it’s more here than in Canada, but it’s a story to tell grandchildren. When it’s happening, you don’t think about it. We were asked not to play “American Woman,” which was our hit. From my point of view, we’re entertainers. If you don’t want us to play our biggest song, we won’t do it. We weren’t railing against the United States, because that’s what the song was about; we didn’t have an ax to grind, but it was our observations. We had seen many things going on, and it prompted the words to come out as they did. We had one girl who thought the song was about a woman, and she would give us the finger every time we played it. She’d be diggin’ the whole show, and the minute we played the song, she’d give us the finger. That’s life. You can’t please them all, but you always try. Even one person that doesn’t like what you’re doing, it still bothers you. I don’t think anyone sets out to displease people when they perform, but I come from the old tradition of the show
must go on.
MofAD: How do you feel the band has set precedence for Canadian music?
Gary: Well, I had forgotten this already, but at the time our records came out, there was a Canadian content law in Canada, where radio stations play 30 percent Canadian music. Once we made it in the states on our own recognition – instead of using us as part of the 30% content in the beginning – once we made it in the states, we made it on our own. It opened up, blazed a trail, for other Canadian artists to have validity based on talent instead of where they came from. If programming is from Detroit or Chicago, is that reflective of the tastes of that area? It’s what you give them, not their tastes. We were pioneers in a way for the Canadian music scene, saying something good can come from Canada. There’s an astronomicalnumber of comedians from Canada, like Jim Carrey, but there’s more than just that. There’s talent up here in all aspects of entertainment. In pop music, we were the fortunate ones. You have to be famous in the US…Canada lived in the shadow of that for many years, but now it has it’s own music scene. There’s all kinds of great talent in Canada, but I don’t get to see a lot of it, as I live in North Carolina.
MofAD: In your opinion, how has the music scenechanged from when you first started?
Gary: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s vastly harder to make it now than then. We have a larger population, more media. People have access to all sorts of ways of viewing and listening to music, so everyone would like to make it. Competition is tough, and the record industry has changed with the Internet. From a business standpoint, it’s much harder to become popular now. Music wise, you can say our era to now was like comparing us to big band jazz era. It’s different now. Pop music has been music of the young for the young, but what do you do with seniors? I’m 60. We’re pioneers in this area, too. People say, “why don’t they stay home?” What do you think, when then get older they play Mantovani? Nobody would tell Tony Bennett to stay home, because there’s always somebody who wants to hear it. It’s all about growing old gracefully. Rod Stewart was probably forced into an album, or maybe it’s something he wanted to do all his life, but I think there’s a stigma attached to people getting old in rock. If you can’t perform properly, stay home, but to say you can’t play the music you created is nonsense. If you try to wear spandex, that’s different. If you try to portray yourself as you were, you should be allowed to do that. It’s the time for the young kids, just like it was the time for my music when I was young, but people who grew up with this music would like to see it. That’s great because it’s more work for musicians. Nobody would like to take anything from musicians coming up. I used to like Matchbox 20 before they broke up. Every year there’s stuff that makes it that makes you think how did that make it? It’s not like the old music, but there’s a lot of good stuff going on. It’s not as wildly creative, but everything is corporately marketed. The worst thing you can say is that it’d be nice to see people not have to fit a mold to sell CDs, let them experiment more. There’s not as much of an outlet today as when we were recording. Everything is calculated from the look on stage to try to sell image and sound. If you listen to our albums, there’s a vast difference between hits and albums, as that was our chance to experiment and play crazy things. I don’t know if a lot of that goes on today.
MofAD: Tell me a funny story from touring and playing.
Gary: There’s so many stories that I’ve forgotten and some we won’t be able to print. Gee whiz. I guess that’s subjective too. When we were in Japan, we had all bought Japanese cameras. Donny McDougal, he’s a very nice fellow, very easy going, and he’s taking pictures of everyone in the Tokyo airport. We hear this cry, “Jumbo!” He was a body builder, and we hear Donny screaming his name. Donny had been taking pictures, with his broken arm, of a couple and they took exception…he had broken his arm while playing hockey, so he had a cast on it. His camera was strapped around his neck, and the husband of the couple was smashing his camera, as Donny didn’t understand that he didn’t want his picture taken. Other stories? Let me think for a minute. We used to have a 1949 bus. We were on a six mile hill and lost the breaks. Jim Martin, Jumbo, same guy, managed to stop the bus before we went over the cliff at the bottom. Burton slept through the whole thing. We were driving in northern British Columbia, and they were blasting the road ahead of us with dynamite. A small bridge ahead could only take certain weight, and it went over a ravine. Our manager at the time, Russell Magillis, said, “you guys walk, and I’ll ride in the bus. If the bus goes down, you won’t go down with it.” Another time, we had a one-ton panel truck and a station wagon. It broke down in the hot time of summer. Russell wanted us to get in back of the truck and lay on our equipment to get to the show, and we said no way. We rented a car and the only one we could get was a convertible. On the way home, the panel truck breaks down, and we wound up towing the truck 500 miles with the convertible. Living in Winnipeg, you had to travel vast distances. Minneapolis is 500 miles away, and Toronto is 1500 miles, while Vancouver is 1800. We’d drive over a thousand miles to Texas to play. We may be the only band, well one of the most traveled ever, because of where we live. I’m sure some of the bands had the same thing, not only going east and west, but we were 1000 miles north of Chicago. It’s been quiet at times, but I enjoy it. We try to replicate the songs, we try to bring the music and make it as authentic as possible. Not disrespecting music, trying to honor it the way it deserves. It’s the fans that want to hear the music. People don’t care who’s in the band, except for the true hardcorefans, but people are off doing their own things. Jim and I want to be in this band, so we still are. On www.guesswhocafe.com, a fellow in Uruguay left a message, and he said the most important people in the band are the ones who go out and play the music of the band. It’s a fresh new approach that made me feel validated for what we’re doing. People rediscover or discover for the first time the band, and they don’t care. It’s not to disrespect the original members, but I would like it to go into public for me.
—[ “into public”? -a.r.]
MofAD: I have three psychological questions that I like to ask everyone, simply because I can. First, if you were a unicorn and you could be any color but white, what color would you be and why?
Gary: Black. I shouldn’t say that, when I was a little kid, I used to like to ride the ponies at the beach, and I always wanted a black pony, but now my favorite color is yellow. Now that I’m 60, I think I’m going into my second childhood, so now I want a convertible.
MofAD: Second, if you were a yogurt, would you be mixed fruit, fruit on the bottom, what flavor and why?
Gary: I don’t like yogurt, but if I were a yogurt, I’d be mixed fruit. Probably apple, because it’s my favorite fruit. I don’t know if they have it, but I love apples.
MofAD:Third, what flavor potato chip best describesyour personality and why?
Gary: Sour cream and onion, I don’t know. Because ofhaving a Slavic background, I guess sour cream and onions and garlic is just part of my upbringing. I’m not thinking of it psychologically, I’m thinking of tastes. Although the Gemini in me says there’s a potato chip started in Winnipeg called Old Dutch. It’s probably the best, other than Utz’s, but I change my mind. You can’t beat a plain unadulterated chip.
MofAD: Do you have any advice for musicians starting out?
Gary: My advice, and this can go for any profession, but music is an art, learn to play any and all music. Learn to appreciate and love any and all music. The question also takes the slant of how do you make it? You play whatever level you are at, whether weddings and banquets or clubs, be the best you can at that level. Play the Holiday Inn lounge, play it, love it and be the best you can. If you’re in a theatre, the same thing holds true. Play the best you can and enjoy it. If you only get to be a wedding man, be happy with it, because you’re still playing music. Whatever level you’re at, and you may never make it, be happy, because it’s great to play music. We did that with the Guess Who, and one day we woke up with a hit record. Do everything you can, record when you can, and embrace it. We even hawked an amplifier to record and get money to contribute. You have to be willing to play for nothing if you love music that much. You may produce something outstanding when you’re not pressured. Take your experiences and tell them through your art.