Lesson 2- Embrace Being Different (Lessons From A One-man Band Singing Sensation)
Updated: Jun 12
Photo by Kathy Fisher
My first original band was about to break up and I could feel it. When I was seventeen I joined the band we called, “Gorp” and it was a great experience for me. Everyone in the band were kind of virtuosos. I can say that without feeling like I’m being arrogant because I had no virtuosity. I could put on a good show but musically, those guys were on a different level. However, together we figured out how to write and perform songs, get a gig and record an album. We were the fifth band to sign to local indie label Sonic Unyon (they were riding high at the time), released two records and toured all over Southern Ontario. It may not sound like much now but back then, we felt quite accomplished for a bunch of high school kids.
photo by Alx
Gorp had started practising without me and Graham, the guitar player wanted to sing. I wasn't a great guitarist (I’m still not) so I knew I couldn't just move to guitar when the other guys were so far ahead of me on their instruments. My instrument was my voice. The end was nigh and in a few weeks, my prediction would come true. I came out of my night club job to be told by Gray and Mark that the band had just played their first gig without me. I was kicked out of the band. It sucked but my grief was short-lived when I went on my first solo tour less than a week later. Here is how that happened:
About a month earlier (1996) my friends, Dave Brott, Steve Salama and I were sitting around, smoking a hookah and listening to Ben Harper's 'Burn One Down'. The song starts with a simple drum and acoustic guitar. It was scarce, simple and strumming and it sounded like one person could perform it even though it was a multi-instrumental piece. It gave me an idea:
I knew how to play drums and sing at the same time, that's the first musical position I had when I played in my cover band, “The Tuna Melts”. I knew a little guitar. So what if I played guitar, drums and sang all at the same time? I grabbed a piece of paper and scratched a drawing of me with an acoustic guitar, bass drum and a kazoo that read, "Mayor McCa is in the house". It was the spark that lead to my gig for the next fifteen years.
The more I thought of a one-man band as a real possibility I thought even if the songs are rubbish, I'll put on a great show. In a fortuitous moment I went by the Gorp practise space and my buddy Joe Sellors was hanging around in the studio across the hall, recording on a 4 track he had rented to record his own band. I asked if I could use it once he went home he kindly said yes. I spent all night making up and recording songs which included, “Cotton Candy World”, “The Mayor McCa Rap”, “The Great Kazoo Symphony”. All these songs made it on to my first album but two didn’t make the cut; “The Glennifer Song”; an ode to my friend who gave me a spot to help support to inspire me (and help me stay up the night) and a cover of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s, “Younger Generation”.
I made it through the night and in the morning, I took an early mix over to my buddy Dom's house to have a listen to as I drove him to school. “This is actually pretty good”, he said.
Later that day I played it for my friends Andrew Fraeney from Smoother their newest member, James Flemmings. They listened to the tape and immediately invited me on their forthcoming tour. Hell yeah, I thought! A month later, off we drove to Vancouver to start the tour.
The aforementioned tour was with my friends from Hamilton, Smoother, Molly's Reach from Edmonton, Alberta and 1000 Mona Lisas from Los Angeles. They were the first people I had ever met from LA and they really didn't disappoint. They were wise to the industry, seemed to have met every musical hero we could think of and had that American confidence that we humble Canadians just didn't have. They were also almost thirty years old which seemed ancient at the time.
Their lead singer, Armondo was quite supportive of me as a songwriter and suggested that I lose the one-man band all together and just get up on stage with my guitar and sing my songs. But I was young, had a punk attitude and just not confident as a person, let alone as a songwriter. Now I can look back and see that I was just too insecure to get up, feeling exposed and sing my sensitive songs. What if the crowd didn’t like it? What if they made fun of me? I continued on with the one-man band, focusing more on my silly songs to distract everyone from who I really was.
I can look back now and see that it definitely would have been wise to heed Mondo's advice but there were some benefits to the gig: when a show was as different as I was, I didn't fit in anywhere. And the really interesting about that is when one doesn't fit in anywhere, one fits in everywhere.
The example I always gave of this was going on tour Blag Dahlia from Dwarves and Nick Oliveri, formerly of Kyuss and Queens Of The Stone Age. We toured across the UK, playing to punk crowds in some pretty wild venues. When I finished up on that tour I hopped on a plane to Vancouver to start my tour with Stars' Amy Millan, who was touring her stunning country album. Those are two very, very different tours and I did pretty much the same show. I wasn't like either of those acts and because of that, I fit with both of them.
Over the years I found it quite frustrating that I wasn't taken a little more seriously as a singer-songwriter. My plan to distract people worked so well that I did the singer-songwriter part of me some real harm. But because I was, 'weird' I was put along side some pretty amazing (and very different) acts like Wesley Willis, Daniel Johnston, Bob Log III, That One Guy, Chad Van Gaalen, The Tratchenburg Family Slideshow Players, Jay Retard and Captured By Robots. I think it’s safe to say that all of these acts are one-of-a-kind.
I recall setting up after Jay Bot (from Captured By Robots) and he checked out my set up: bass drum, tambourine, 2 guitars, ukulele, clarinet, harmonicas, keyboards and bass pedals. "Oh man. I used to to a gig like this. Guys like you are crazy." He said.
"Dude you built twelve friends to play with you and you're calling me crazy?"
We both gave a little giggle. Check him out and you can decide who’s gig is crazier.
I can honestly look back now and see how fortunate I was to be lumped in with that group of people. I met and played with some people that are truly legendary in the way that people talk about it for years to come. I don’t know that I’ll be lumped in with those people forever but it was nice to be colleagues even for just a gig or two.
There was a film made about one-man bands called, "Let Me Be Your Band" by Heather and Keith Emerson. I was one of the subjects of the film and in it, they interviewed my then label boss, Mark Milne from Sonic Unyon about me. He said, "Half of the people that are in to this, music business in general, they want to be in a big band. They want to make a living doing this. And if you’re going to do that, you’re going to sort of set yourself up to say, ‘okay I need a bass player and drummer and I have to look conventional, this is what’s happening now and I’ve got to be a certain way.’ Odds are, I will be more successful if these things happen. But if you’re in a one-man band you’re obviously saying, ‘screw all that stuff’ because you’re immediately putting yourself in a position wheee you’re less likely to succeed. So obviously what you’re doing is coming from you’re heart.”
When I heard this quote, it was genuinely the first time I realised what I had done. I’d made succeeding way more difficult than the average musician. This is, perhaps one of the many reasons why I was never courted by major labels, even when my album was number 2 in the Canadian College charts. Perhaps it was why for the first ten years of Mayor McCa, I had no manager or agent?
Predominantly, anything good that happened to me was a result of another artist sticking their necks out for me. They realised that I could have a wild, different and manic stage show and write good songs. The artists often had to fight to get me on tours with them. This is why I often traveled with the band I was opening up for. I was told the agents would often say, "if you want him on tour, you have to take him. There is no budget for him". I can think of almost no occasions when I was put on a show or a gig because of someone’s management. It was always the artists, themselves.
When I was a teenager my musical goal wasn't to sell a million records or to be famous. What I wanted more than anything was to be an artist that was maybe a little underrated but really admired by his peers. I ended up achieving that goal but like a lot of things; when I got there, it didn't feel quite as good as I thought it would. I was too insecure to show the sensitive and thoughtful young man I was. I would rather have tap danced on the bar or do an armpit fart solo as to distract you from that.
A wiser man would have just got up on stage, opened his heart and mouth and sang his songs. It took me a number of years and a lot of mistakes to become a wise person. And now as a wise person, I can look back and see how awesome it was to live the life of someone who was truly different.