The Cowboy Junkies: ‘We were big Joy Division fans’

As country and folk rock band Cowboy Junkies head to the region, Duncan Seaman talks to founder Michael Timmins.

Thursday, 11th July 2019, 8:47 pm
The Cowboy Junkies. Picture: Heather Pollock

The Cowboy Junkies’ latest album, All That Reckoning, is a rumination on romantic commitment in an age of political and social disillusionment.

The Canadian band’s founder, songwriter and guitarist Michael Timmins, says he can’t help noticing in his fifties how much old certainties have begun to disappear.

“I think part of that is just my age,” he says. “I think any person as they get older, as things change, they feel that’s crumbling, so maybe there’s an element of that to it. But certainly there’s a lot of talk about it, and to my eyes, there seems to be a lot of foundational things crumbling, a lot of stuff that we took for granted that seem to be disappearing.

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The Cowboy Junkies. Picture: Heather Pollock

“But All That Reckoning is not just about social and political, it’s also about personal and individual relationships too. I think it’s a combination of those elements and how they work together. It’s an age thing as well. Certain people hit a certain age and marriages hit a certain point, relations with kids begin to change – not crumble, but just change, there are different footings, where you thought they stood they’re now over here. Transitions are always difficult.”

Though the band, which is now in its fourth decade, remains based in Ontario, Timmins says the seismic shift in US politics during the Trump presidency has been felt north of the border too. “Canada is so uniquely connected to the United States and intimately, on political, social and also personal levels. Just for me, my wife is American, my youngest sister has lived in America forever and her kids are American, and from an economic point of view my work in the States all the time.

“You can go through every family unit in Canada and it would be very rare for you to find a family that didn’t have some kind of connection with the US, and even in those families if you go two or three steps beyond, economically you’ll find how they are tied to the United States. We are very aware of the United States and it affects us deeply, for sure.”

These days The Cowboy Junkies prefer to tour in short bursts. Timmins says “experience and age” have taught them that’s the best way for them to do it. “There was a time when we did do it, when we were younger we’d be on the road for weeks and months on end, it was exciting and new and we were breaking new ground, we were just pouring all our energy and life into it. But as we’ve got older, first of all physically it’s impossible, touring is so difficult, it’s exhausting. So that part we realised we can’t really do it like that, we had to figure out how to do it in short bursts otherwise it’s not fun, it becomes more of a struggle and you don’t gain enough energy off the show to be able to counteract energy you give up during the day getting from city to city, so that’s a bad thing. You don’t want to come home off a tour thinking, ‘I’ll never to that again’, you want to go, ‘That was fun, I’m ready to go for the next month or whatever’.

“I think one way we’ve stayed together is by adjusting how we do things, whether it be touring or recording or dealing with other entities like record companies. That’s a lot of things we’ve definitely adjusted over the past few years.”

Timmins actually lived in England for a couple of years in the 80s when he was in the post-punk and experimental bands The Hunger Project and Germinal. His early musical influences were Anglophile. “I was born in 1959 and I have two older siblings, so all that first wave of English bands – The Beatles and Stones wave – was on in our house all the time. Then in my mid to late teens the punk invasion happened and that was huge, Alan [Anton], the bass player, and I were so into that, it was a big part of our awakening as individuals and as people. All that late 70s to early 80s little explosion that happened in the UK, and out of New York as well, but for us it was very English-orientated, that was very important to us.”

The change in musical direction towards quieter, more acoustic-based material that came in the mid-80s when Timmins and Anton returned to Toronto was sparked by “a few things” – not least the arrival of Timmins’ sister Margo on vocals.

“We were big Joy Division fans, and I think if you listen to a lot of them it doesn’t necessarily come across as quiet but it very spacey and very intimate, it encourages the listener to fall into it, and even early Cure stuff we were very into, so that spacey atmospherics we were into. And then as that scene exploded music kind of changed for us, and we didn’t really like what was happening to popular music. We really got into blues music, again that quiet, intimate, personal music, so that was an influence on what we were doing. And when we started to form Cowboy Junkies and Margo joined as a vocalist, she brought this very quiet approach to how she sung as well, so it all sort of tied together, like a few different streams coming together and suddenly there’s this one river. All of these influences formed the Junkies.”

The band’s international breakthrough came with their second album, The Trinity Session, which was recorded in a church in Toronto. Thirty-two years on from making it, Timmins says he “remembers a lot” about that session. “It was obviously a very important day for us, not just retrospectively but even on the day it was special. It was just a one-day session, a lot of the people that played with us that day some of them we’d never met and never even played with, it was really a lot of tapes being passed back and forth, a lot of conversations. People were scattered around Ontario and we couldn’t afford to bring them in [beforehand]. It was an experiment, the whole thing, but we left that day really knowing that it was special.

“We didn’t know what was on the tape yet but from a musical experience from a very young band we knew we’d had a very special day, and even the musicians who were with us, who didn’t know us but were more experienced than us, we got that vibe off them too, it was unique, that we’d done something today, whether it just floats away into space and would be something we would remember or it was captured on tape we didn’t know. Then because the nature of the recording, it was just two tracks, there was no mixing involved, we were able to pick up the tape the next day and listen and again right away we realised that we captured it, that special feeling that we had in the playing of it we captured it on tape, which was unusual, it didn’t always happen that way.

“The power of it didn’t take us by surprise because we experienced it ourselves, what did take us by surprise was that other people recognised it.”

Where their first album, Whites Off Earth Now!!, had sold a few thousand, suddenly the band found themselves elevated to the status of million sellers in North America and beyond. “That was like, ‘oh my gosh, people are actually hearing this?’ That was cool. But the day itself we all have very distinct memories of it because it was so special. It’s a really ingrained, emotionally deep experience.”

The Cowboy Junkies play at Holmfirth Picturedrome on July 18.