WEST CARLETON - Food and music make a perfect pairing.
But for some years now food has gotten way ahead of music when it comes to diversity and drama. Today’s pub food is not the predictable fare of the past. Customers expect daring recipes and carefully designed plating.
The same hasn’t held true for music. Live music at a restaurant tends toward the stayed, to the tried and tired categories of classic rock and the like.
Shungabunga, a trio based in Constance Bay but with members in the Glebe and on Metcalfe Street, is among a new generation of bands in the national capital working to change that perception of live music.
The three - Craig Irvine on guitar and Dave Wong on guitar and vocals -- recently sat down in the backyard of the group’s elder statesman, horn-man Dale Jones, to provide an insider’s view of today’s music business.
Most self-respecting musicians will resist attempts to define their sound, but when it comes to Shungabunga they truly struggle to find the right words. What it is not, at least, is the rehashing of well-worn songs. Dave, chuckling, said if he has to do a CCR song, it’ll be the “the last song on the third album,” meaning an obscure ditty not found on the greatest hits album.
He is adamant that people in Ottawa crave innovation like never before.
“People don’t want the same old stuff. They are a lot smarter than that,” he said, cooking up a foody comparison. “They have a broad palate you need to cater to.”
Even when it comes to covering, say, a lesser known Stones song, the interpretation will be a re-creation of the song, not a simulation, Dave insisted.
Beyond that, the band tends to play from a wide range of influences – from Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino all the way over to the Ramones. It’s something of a jazz-rock fusion. They are influenced by the New Orleans sound, “the French Quarter” as Dale calls it, but have found themselves adapting to audiences. They recently opened for The Cooper Brothers, then worked the opening of a Food Basics in Stittsville.
Different audiences hold different expectations, said Dale, who started out playing clarinet in a sea cadet brass band before jumping into the 1970 Toronto music scene. But what all audiences have in common is an expectation for a solid performance. He explained the need for constant practising.
“It’s a ratio game. You have to get all the garbage out of the way before the good stuff comes,” he said. “Like nice wine, you can’t make it overnight. It’s finding the right mindset.”
Musicians as soldiers
Dale and Dave are influenced to some degree by the soldier’s discipline. Hence a drive to get the sound right regardless how long it takes to perfect. It’s not such a far-fetched link, the will to produce clean, tight music, and the military code to work as a unit to reach a higher standard. Both tend to treat the journey as the destination. Bono once praised Leonard Cohen – who could take years to find a song’s correct words – as a writer who throws away what lesser musicians would have treated as gold.
It’s about standards set within.
Even as they discussed various aspects of their business, Craig sat quietly strumming his guitar, searching for the right sound. It’s always been that way for the youngest member of the band, a former student of Dale’s. While growing up in Constance Bay he would sit with friends in someone’s basement. As the rest played video games, Craig worked on his guitar.
“Maybe it’s because I sucked at video games that I became obsessed with music,” Craig said, laughing. “Any kind of music is as challenging as you want to make it.
“Music is like a high,” he said.
It’s a high all three have passed on to others. They’ve taught music to children and adults, to the novice and even to those better than themselves. And, like a golfer, their game is elevated when playing with those that are better than themselves.
Musicians as businessmen
However, it isn’t all about the creative act. Shungabunga is eager to line up gigs and make a few dollars. They push their product as hard as any salesman. And they make no apologies for being musical entrepreneurs.
But the attitude some restaurateurs hold toward musicians - that money shouldn’t matter because they are doing what they love - can be tiresome. Like when London Olympic organizers figured musicians would work the opening games for free, Dave grows frustrated at the view many hold of musicians.
“I understand their headspace, and I understand it isn’t going to change,” he said. “But you wouldn’t say to the guy that just painted the outside of your house, ‘OK, that looks great. Now paint the inside because you like to paint.’ It just wouldn’t happen.”
He said the band will sit up on the stage, maybe take a small swig of beer, share a few laughs with the audience, but in the final analysis it is a job. And they are interviewing for their next job.
It seems to contradict every image fans have of musicians. Perfectionists, entrepreneurs, sober? Whatever happened to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll?
“That’s a myth. Anybody can get chicks and drugs,” said Craig, speaking for himself.
Rock isn’t dead; far from it, they say. White Stripes and countless indie bands are proving otherwise. But a day of reckoning seems on the horizon for the large record labels and those who make a living from offering “three flavours on the radio,” as Dave calls it.
He explained that the corporate world is risk averse to the point of stifling creativity. That forces a recycling of sound, which in turn leads to a downward spiral in popular music.
“They’ve created their own problem,” he said. “They aren’t the big monster anymore. They are the big dinosaur.”
Today might be similar to 1950s U.S.A., often misinterpreted as simply a conservative decade. It was more, much more than a blanket of upstanding decorum smothering the artists and the alienated. Beatniks and William Burroughs were putting out some of the most original literature ever conceived. Rebels without a cause were celebrated. Rock ’n’roll was born.
With a few technological advancements, the same creative explosion could take place following these conservative times. If so, bands like Shungabunga appear poised to capitalize.
For bookings or lessons call Dale Jones at 613-832-3950.