You need a powerful presence to front a band like the Vipers, a very talented bunch of players, two of who were in bands previously fronted by the dynamic Ray Condo. In the man called Petunia they have a equally striking frontman, one who is able to step back and allow his players their time in the spotlight. Petunia cut his teeth as a busker who discovered classic country along the way and currently hosts a show that mixes his own songwriting talent with classic country songs that distill the essence of what is good and vibrant about the music. Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to talk to him prior to one of his recent Irish shows.
When did you started to treat music as a career?
I started playing music about fifteen years ago, playing in the street for six or seven years. I played in every major city in Canada, every street corner. I played in New York City in the Subway and that got me an article written up in the New York Post, it was a whole page. I woke up one day and was taking the Subway to work and there was a picture and people were looking at me. I hitchhiked around Canada and did some shows. I used to make movies and I met a lady I feel in love with and she had a suitcase full of country music tapes. That was the first time I heard Hank Williams, Jimmie Rogers, the Carter Family and various others. They're the main three I started out with. From there I started playing on the stage every now and then but hitch-hiking you can't book regular shows. I moved all over Canada and played with different musicians and while doing that I meet a lot of the guys who are playing with me now. Jimmy Roy and Stephen Nikleva both used to play with Ray Condo. When I'd go up to Vancouver I would go up and see Ray and I'd see Jimmy and Stephen play and I thought "wow, I'd love to have those guys in the band". Then Ray passed away. Ray Condo played in Ireland in Kilkenny and Jimmy was also with Big Sandy. Marc (L'Esperance) joined later and we used some different bass players and now Patrick Metzger is playing bass with us.
So your love of country grew from listening to those tapes?
I'd never heard country music before that, so yeah.
What had you listened to previously?
Immediately before, it was mostly classical music, the year or two before I heard those songs. But before that it was bebop music, experimental jazz and I was into punk rock before that in my teenage years. I had my hair all spiked up and a leather jacket with studs. Most people I meet in country music now feel that punk rock and country are very closely related. It's so common that people that use to be punk rockers are now at our shows. Fans of regular country don't necessarily get what we're doing. They want to hear Hank Williams or Johnny Cash but the punk rockers they latch on and they know what we're about. They have the same roots that I do.
There seems to be a fair amount of country now in Canada with people like Lindi Ortega and Daniel Romano.
I don't know those people but a lot of acts apply for grants which are available in Canada but I have never applied. I was brought up with a different attitude, not that it's wrong, maybe it's wrong in the sense that if you rely on a grant, and the key word is rely, which I call a hand-out, then what happens when it runs out? You don't learn how to make the money you need. If you tour and rely on the money that's available with the grant it can all fall apart when that ends. While if you have never applied for them in the first place and you go the harder road you learn how to do it. Even going into a studio if you have tons of money you can use a wonderful studio with great engineers and everything else but you haven't had much experience working in a studio. You haven't learned any tricks, how to mic something so that when an engineer is mixing something you can say "well, actually this is the way it should be miced".
Do you know Greg Garing at all?
No, I don't know him.
I can see some similarities in what you both do.
You are writing a lot of your own songs now?
Well on the new album there are two that aren't mine. I wrote the rest. Forbidden Lovers is a Lefty Frizzell song. He's one of my favourites.
You draw inspiration from that era?
I draw from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and so on, whatever I hear. We're learning a Dead Kennedys song right now. 'Cause it sounded cool. There's a couple of my songs that are heavily influenced by Peruvian music. I spent time there. When you travel around you hear things. Now that I'm here in Ireland I'm sure that will be there too (laughs).
I heard about a great Scottish guitar player who learned from listening to the radio as there was no country music going on then. So he learned off the radio. In the Caribbean with Bob Marley and others there is a huge Grand Ole Opry listenership. There a lot of country music influence in early reggae. It was AM radio.
You have released your album in vinyl too.
Yeah, it comes with lyrics, a picture and a download card. It was recorded in Los Angeles in the Sound Factory which is next to Sunset Studios. We had a Grammy award winning engineer (Ryan Freeland). It was mixed by our drummer Marc. He's a top notch engineer and the proof is that when the mixes were sent to Bernie Grundman who said "who did the mixes?" He though they were brilliant as he barely had to do anything. He just ran it through his analog gear.
Did you release it yourselves?
It's Trapline Productions, which is me and another fellow.
Is it your first album with The Vipers?
I have, me the Petunia guy, eight or nine albums. We did another one before this one which was just done to have something to sell on the road. We did it in, like, four days. We were leaving in five or six days and we went into the studio, a room. We brought in our gear and laid it down. Spent a day or so non-stop mixing it and mastering it, then we were on the road. Just so we could have a CD to sell. This is kind of the official debut.
How has Europe taken to you guys?
Different feel from the audience?
It is the reverse. We have had to adjust. I'm not faulting anyone. They're just different. Here's the thing how do you respond?
LH: Well, we get into it, enjoy some real country and tap our feet.
Petunia: That's the level of understanding here while in America the level of understanding is people getting up to dance and drinking loads of beer. The two audiences see things differently. In a bar in America people make a lot of noise and they drink. That's the norm. There's no one telling you to shush. If some guys says ‘ shhh’ he's liable to get punched out. But here they listen. But there if the band is really good they do shut up and they listen because they are genuinely interested. But there are no rules and it's not like you are creating them. If they listen, then you're creating a scene. That's something special. So you know you're doing something good when that happens. You don't have that sense over here because everyone's quiet anyway. They're ready for things on a more intellectual level. It may even be the use of language. With the Irish or Scottish you have conversations on a different level. We have played in many theatre settings and when people are sitting and watching you they're ready for some that's a more intellectual kind of stimulation that the average American person. But I haven't been here long enough to say. I used to live in London for a year but I didn't go see too much music. I lived in Brixton, Leytonstone and Stoke Newington. I just spent time in all these places, in squats mostly. There wasn't much live music I could pay for. I played a little bit but didn't make any money playing in London. This is the first tour here with the band so I'm trying to add little side of the theatrical to the show. Talking between songs, things like that. We make some space for people to dance if they want to at the sit-down shows too. When people do that, it helps, because when people are dancing you feed off that.
Petunia: Do people here dance less?
There's a bit more self-consciousness about dancing with a band playing, everyone waits for someone else to start but once it breaks out it can spread quickly. These less inhibition in a dance club with a DJ though.
How much of what you do is about being an entertainer rather than just a musician?
A bit of both. If people are there for a good time, then it's part of the job to give them a good time. But also as a musician, what it is historically to play music in front of people, then you have to look at your role. Its part spiritual and part entrainment. The spiritual part is wide and you have to consider too what's your responsibility as a musician? I could be operating on any level in trying to do that. If that includes politics or something sociological or religion or whatever I think people are interested.
Well the origins of country music comes from the blues and a mix of different influences that reflected peoples lives to a large degree.
Take someone like Hank Williams. You think of him playing blues music or country blues. You don't think he's a rebel but if you're back in 1948/49 and you're in a place that's full of white people I can imagine that his playing a music that nobody was doing then as no one is doing exactly what he's doing and it's to a white audience so that's a socio-political statement without even talking about politics, just by the fact he's doing it. Johnny Cash told a young song writer "don't talk about politics" but he himself was a political figure I suppose. Yet he did songs like Don't Take Your Guns to Town. His songs don't usually talk about thing directly but they are stories that a relevant none the less.
Interview by Stephen Rapid. Photography by Ronnie Norton