With the release of their first album Whites Off Earth Now!! in 1986, Cowboy Junkies launched an original sound that captured the frontier spirits that made Canada’s music scene so unique on the global stage. In the 30 years since, the quartet– led by the brothers-and-sister team of Michael Timmins (guitars), Margo Timmins (vocals), and Peter Timmins (drums) and by Alan Anton (bass) – has gone on to sell over 5 million records worldwide.
On Thursday, May 7 the groups successes will be celebrated among their colleagues, collaborators and the industry at large at the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards gala taking place at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel when the band is inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame. Bill King caught up with Michael Timmins for a Conversation with… last week. What follows is that conversation.
Bill King: Are you looking forward to the Cowboy Junkies induction into CMW Hall of Fame? Does this resonate with you?
Mike Timmins: These side of things aren’t what we’ve been about; we feel a bit uncomfortable, but not ungrateful for it. I don’t know how to qualify this kind of stuff. It’s nice that people out there want to give us our due, and in some kind of respect it all feels good and that’s great. The night of we’ll get into it.
Bill: If this was a day gig you’d get a golden watch and be asked to go away.
Bill: That’s not going to happen. These days are what keep you motivated and feeling alive in the industry?
Mike: I’m working with a lot of other artists. The Junkie stuff is always fun and inviting for us but we have to take a break now and then. We just finished a very large project – the Nomad Series, which was four albums over two years. That took a lot of effort and energy on the Junkie side of things. We finished touring about a year ago and decided to take a year off, to just back away and recharge our batteries. In the meantime, I’ve been working on a number of Latent projects with acts like Jerry Leger, Lee Harvey Osmond - a few younger bands too. I’m in the studio producing a lot of bands and engineering. That’s what keeps me interested and excited. All sorts of different energy coming at me.
Bill: The Under Cover project?
Mike: That comes off the Latent page. The Junkies have done a zillion covers over the course of many years and we still do them. Whenever a band comes in the studio I ask them to do a couple cover songs and we offer them as free downloads for a month off the Latent Facebook page. It’s just a way of keeping people interested with content. Every month we offer a cover and a Latent artist cover of a song in some related way. It’s another way of getting new artists’ names out there and keeping people interested in Latent. It’s a fun way of doing it. I have my own studio and it’s easy for me to do, and I like doing it.
Bill: You’ve approached music with a different perspective going back to the Trinity Sessions.
Mike: We’ve never stopped doing that, even with the amount of success we’ve had. Sometimes - when we were with major labels - it became a bit of a sticking point. We just did things the way it felt best. We approach things in our own way artistically and business wise and it’s worked for us. It’s not the way everybody should do it, but for us its kept us going forward.
Bill: Once you became successful did you feel pressure from the majors to keep doing much the same?
Mike: No one knows what makes one thing successful. There are so many factors– timing, the music happening to fall on the right person’s desk at an opportune time. There are all sorts of criteria. To pretend you can replicate that on the next record - well, we have always thought that was kind of a fool’s game. We just did what we wanted to do, made sure we were happy and the path we were following was a true one . We sort of followed our gut even when there was external pressure.
Bill: Just recording in a different facility or circumstances will bring change.
Mike: We sort of had a roots approach. The best way to capture the band was (live) off the floor. We still do lots of overdubs but as a producer I’ve always felt the energy of a band is best captured when they are playing live in the studio – at least for the bed tracks. The other side – where we record and how we do it has always changed. That’s the evolutionary part of it.
Bill: Do you work with a core rhythm section on most projects or does that fluctuate?
Mike: It does fluctuate. There are players I use a lot. If I can bring them into a project I will. It’s nice to be with people you like and enjoy. It offers a high level of communication too.
Bill: How do you get new players who walk into your studio comfortable. Some younger players feel intimidated by the process?
Mike: I don’t know how I do it other than keeping things low key. The studio I have isn’t very intimidating. There’s no jelly beans in glass jars, no chrome, just lots of wood. I rarely do a project that’s based on the clock, where you have to be out at a certain time or charging by the hour. There’s an understanding up front that we are working together to make a great record and neither me or the band want something bad to go out the door. I find people relax pretty quickly when there’s no pressure on them to produce. Recordings are easily erased. We can try again tomorrow. No big deal at all. The magic is in the playing and the actual session is what it is.
Bill: Are you a first, second, third-take guy?
Mike: Yes, that’s one of my jobs as a producer. I’m there to help guide the band through and let them know when it feels really good and point that out. I think I’m pretty good at doing that.
Bill: Trying to market music in a congested scene is difficult. How do you step around and get people to listen to all of this music?
Mike: These days there is a real choke-hold; that’s where things get stopped up. There’s lots of ways to get the music out there, but it can be very hard to get people to listen. To tell you the truth, I haven’t figured that out yet. We try different things, all kinds of social media stuff. Obviously, the old tried and true way is still the best. Getting the band on the road, getting them to play music. It’s hard for a young band to do that, most have other jobs. The key to success is still have a good live performance and get out there and play.
Bill Do you still enjoy the road?
Mike: Yes I do. We still go out quite a bit. The actual road work gets wearing after awhile and as you get older it’s harder from a physical standpoint – but playing live is still the best thing about everything. That’s what it’s all about!