I'd made a fresh pot of coffee for Tom Wilson's Sunday morning visit, but like a true Hamiltonian he showed up with Tim Horton's cup in hand. Over the next two hours, and repeated coffee refills, he related his musical history to me, featuring various milestones.
1) Seeing the Beatles on TV
Tom attended Peace Memorial, Highview and Sherwood High.
"I always wanted to be a musician. I thought I had a revelation and that I was the only one who saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan when I was five years old until I started running into all these people who I grew up with musically and they all had the same revelation!"
"I went to what used to be Waddington's in downtown Hamilton. You come down for a guitar lesson to try it out and they'd give you a guitar to take home and use. I brought a fake cheque, and made up a fake address and got the free guitar. I was about twelve. And that's how I got my first guitar."
"I didn't write anything very good but as I started learning chords, I started writing songs. My first live performance was in a church group which was another reason to go to church. We played songs that we had written that were pretty bad and songs that we covered that were equally as bad, like Sister Goldenhair."
2) Going to Festival of Friends
"Festival of Friends had started here in town and I went down to that for the first two years and was just amazed. I was about 17 and I saw all these musicians that I'd never seen that were really good like Dave Essig and David Wiffen, Willie P. Bennet, Doug McArther, Stan and Garnet Rogers, Mose Scarlett, the Original Sloth Band and Jackie Washington. I didn't know where these people came from, I didn't know they existed because it was a sub-culture that didn't get to my high school."
"I grew up on the east mountain. The school there encouraged you to strive for mediocraty, to fit in. More so than a place like Westdale where freer thinking was coming out. Always has been, always will."
"David Essig did come and play at our high school once. It was 25 cents to get in at noon hour and it was at the time that David Essex had that hit "Rock On", so everybody thought it was him. They expected to see this guy from Midnight Special show up on stage but instead there was this hairy little grandfather hippie guy with no shoes on playing slide guitar. And people went nuts, they were angry, they threw shit at Dave Essig. I never went to it because I didn't want to see David Essex!
"I'd take the Upper Kenilworth bus downtown and go to Bit By Bit, the Knight Two coffee house, The Ebony Night, that's where all these people played and I started hanging out."
"I'm self-taught completely; my guitar playing is still pretty limited even though people that I work with enjoy my style of playing."
"It's personality. I think that's what music's all about. It's not about whether you went to Mohawk college or whether you study for years, it's completely how you express yourself and if people are interested in attaching themselves to that. Because you can be the world's greatest guitar player or drummer but if you can't communicate your ideas, you're not going to be able to entertain people."
Next step was coffee houses around Ontario and Quebec, solo in an Austin Marina. "I wasn't very good but people encouraged me. Then the coffee houses dried up and these musicians were relegated to pizza patios and loungey bars where people weren't coming to see the music."
3) Teenage Head at Bannisters
"In 1978 or 79, I was playing in downtown Hamilton and Bannister's was next door. It was a rock and roll bar and I was going to my gig and it was really a shame because it was a pizza patio with horrible plants in it and it served pizza and pasta and beer and this was where people like Whiffen and Willie P. Bennett and Noel Harrison had to go to play. Well, I was going to do a gig there one night and there was a huge line-up down the street. I looked at myself and I was the same age as these people and I had to go and play this pizza patio and so I had a little white shirt on and a little sweater and I hated it. But I had to do it because I had to look clean to do the gig.
"And this line-up of people had ripped T-shirts and their hair was insane and they had safety pins in their ears and in their noses and it was really wild. And they were lined up way down the street for this band Teenage Head. And I looked at that line-up and looked at where I was going and figured there was something really fucking wrong with what I'm doing. That's when I got a band together."
"People were going out to see original music again. After years of technicians being musicians there was a bunch of people who were given guitars, who didn't really know how to play them who kind of came from the same place that I did, which was , we know some chords, lets make our own music out of that. Punk still is a reigning factor over mediocrity."
"This was the start of the Florida Razers, a rockabilly punk band.
That went on for about 5 or 6 years. "We did everything wrong, did a lot of bennies and drank a lot, got a real big buzz going around the music industry in Canada, but we just didn't have it together."
They never got signed by a major label but made two records for local independant label Warped Records, who also released albums by the Shakers and Tim Gibbons. They sold thousands and the band played constantly in Ontario and Quebec. "We were just interested in getting laid and taking a lot of substances."
"I recognize completely that if I had been 24 or 25 and had success, I would have definately gone absolutely mental. I would have ended up dead for sure. I know that for a fact."
Different band members left and it "just kind of petered out, probably the same way really good bands in Hamilton still peter out. We never grasped the fact that we had to go to Toronto. We were real Hamilton lunkheads and we wanted nothing to do with Toronto. We hated Toronto. We'd go play there, but it was always, "Fuck Toronto. Why do we have to go kiss a record company guy's ass in Toronto, we don't have to do that, lets just stay in Hamilton."
"It's a lesson that I learned and took into account when Junkhouse started up. "
Around this time, Tom's girlfriend got pregnant, moved to Hamilton and Tom worked at a succession of day jobs, construction, etc., for the first time in his life, playing only at the Gown and Gavel on Wed. nights.
He'd worked the mail room at the Spectator week-ends and nights through his teen years but, since then, had made great money as a working musician. Now he was working regular jobs.
"I stopped writing, became bitter. The Razers had stopped being a place for creative force and just became a chance to get out and get drunk."
4) Ray's suggestion and the trip to New Orleans
"At the gown, Ray Farrugia and myself, Mike Williams, guys would get together and play."
"Ray said, "You know this is such a waste, why don't we get a band together that features your songwriting. And I said to my girlfriend, who is now my wife, I want to go back to playing music and she said, "Well that's a great idea but if you're gonna do it, take it seriously. Take it on as a business, not as a chance to get out to drink and do drugs and act up."
It was at this time that Dan Lanois invited Tom to visit his house in New Orleans. "I went from an environment where I was a slug, where nobody had any interest in what I was doing musically at all, except for some beer drinkers. I went down and all of a sudden I was surrounded by a musical community, with a great creative vibe going on that I had never experienced before. It's why Lanois is such a genius because he sets himself up in environments that lend themselves to creativity which is something I've done for myself now in Hamilton, surrounding myself with people who are interested in creating music."
"They'd be mixing a Bob Dylan track or the Neville Brothers would be in and they'd be talking and they'd turn around to me and say, well, what do you think Tom? How's it sound? It really gave me confidence even though it was just because I was another set of ears in the room. I took it that, well, Dan Lanois or Bob Dylan is asking my opinion about the music that's going on in the room, I must have some kind of worth, and it gave me my confidence back, to go back to Canada to start a band."
"Ray and I started Junkhouse at my kitchen table, playing drums and acoustic guitar. Ray is the guy who encouraged me to write songs and not go back and play songs I'd written ten years ago. I was about 30 years old and I was starting another musical career."
"The whole idea of Junkhouse was to go to Toronto. So that was it, instead of doing every Wed. night at the Gown and Gavel, playing in Hess Village for a bunch of hoedads who didn't really give a shit about what we were doing, we decided to go to Toronto where there was a whole other group of beerdrinking hoedads who didn't give a shit about what we were doing."
"But it was the centre of the Canadian music industry and it was easy to get A & R men and publishing people down to see us. We set ourselves down on Queen Street because that's where things were happening, where people were filling clubs and new artists were coming out."
A friend of Tom's at EMI Publishing picked up a tape and loved it and tried to get them signed. When EMI didn't go for them, the tape was sent up to Sony Music and the publisher there loved it and signed Wilson to a publishing deal.
"When we started breaking things, and pushing chairs and tables around, and getting aggressive and dark in our music, people started to notice and then we were signed to a record deal."
The band was Tom Wilson on guitar and vocals, Ray Farrugia on drums, Dan Aachen on lead guitar and Russ Wilson on bass.
"Some people think its walking into the jaws of the dragon, getting involved with a big music label. All of a sudden things get scary, they start taking off."
"When that first record came out I wasn't scared at all, I knew exactly what was going on. All of a sudden Junkhouse were on the cover of Billboard Magazine and I started to believe it for about five seconds, but never totally believed that anything was going to happen, which I think has kept me healthy, kept my ego intact."
"It was a really fast ride. It lasted for about a year, where it was just being plugged in. It was the complete music industry run, as big as it could get. Not that Junkhouse got that big out of it, just that the band being the product, was really intense. If people needed to see us it was nothing for them to send us a limousine and fly us around the world to do a 45 minute set for somebody."
Some members of the band weren't ready for how fast things were going to be. "It didn't scare any of us but it definately made people question,"What the fuck am I doing this for? This is stupid. I'm in the middle of a tour, why am I getting on a plane to New York to go meet somebody for five minutes?"
Tom's second child was born just as he was recording the first album, Strays. He was home for about a week a month, for about two and a half years, which he acknowledges wasn't enough. Despite the strain on other members of the band, and on his family, Tom admits that he liked the lifestyle, the fast pace. He knew what the potential of all the flying around was, that Sony wanted them to be a success.
Wilson insists that he never believed that it was going to happen for them in the United States. They toured in Canada and Europe and their single "Out of My Head" was a hit in Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan.
But in the States, it didn't happen, despite the cover on Billboard.
"They spent a lot of money on us and got a lot of hype happening and put the single out to radio and when they didn't get the response that they wanted back it was phvstt! It was over in, like, a second."
"I didn't buy into it, so I wasn't that disappointed. Because the entire stance I took through all that hubbub and hype was that I'd always wanted to be a musician and that at the very least what I'm gonna get out of this is, finally, an audience for my music."
"After the states dropped the project it was not disappointing at all, because the tour of the states was so depressing. It's something that every Canadian band does, Holly McNarland is on that tour now." They went from doing a show at Manhatten's Harley-Davidson cafe for their record release party "with all sorts of people flown in, TV personalities, movie stars, rock stars and exactly that scene that you can imagine. And we were walking around in our lumber jack shirts and our ripped jeans and our work boots looking like Hamilton guys. And we were gonna be the next big thing for Epic Records and it was hilarious."
Booked on their tour, Boston started out okay, but as the tour went on and the record didn't hit, the hype faded. "The lifeblood stopped flowing during that tour, after that big hype in New York. All of a sudden we were going to really beautiful concert halls and ballrooms, and you could see it, our future on the marquee, Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, Pearl Jam, Junkhouse. The excitement and anticipation of our success was on that tour. And we'd be pulling up to these ballrooms for these big rock shows and no-one would be there, because it never happened. It was like the ghost tour. It was so fucking weird! I mean like seven people in a 2000 seat place. We did a gig in Milwaukee where we invited the audience to sit on the stage with us! And that's the Junkhouse story of our first attempt at playing in the States."
But things were taking off in Canada and everywhere else, and they ended up selling 60-70,000 records in Canada.
After two and a half years on tour, which ended on New Years Eve in Winnipeg, they all went home for two days and then got on a plane for Austin, Texas to start work on the second album, Birthday Boy.
"That was a record that was full of hate, nobody was getting along, it was terrible, like a rat's nest of hate. When people ask why did Russ leave the band, why isn't the band getting along, is the band breaking up, I say you take three of your best friends, and sit in the back of a van for two and a half years, and then see how much you still like each other! "
"We made a record that I still think is really good, but that didn't live up to our potential. The Birthday Boy tour was a good tour, but we were on with Alice Cooper and the Scorpions, it was the wrong place for us to be."
"Going into the next album, everybody wanted to be a part of the writing, we tried that, it didn't work, and that's when Russ decided to leave. We were going in different directions and decided it was time for something else. Grant Marshall came on as the new bass player and it was at that time that (former Crash Vegas) guitarist Colin Cripps joined the band too."
5) Colin Cripps
Now they're starting a new tour in Hamilton, to promote their third, and best, album Fuzz.
"There's a lot of space for jamming in the show now and the show changes every night. Everybody feels really good now and everyone is very happy with the new record."
It's happened at a time when Tom feels the most creative and has the most positive energy around him. "And one of the reasons for that is Colin. I have a co-writer, someone who's really smart and really talented, and who I work with easily."
Wilson co-wrote Freedom with Colin James and has two songs on Stephen Fearing's new album. He's just come back from Nashville, "down there, musical collaboration is like casual sex," working for Reba McIntyre's publishing company.
"I did one song with Gary Scruggs, whose father is Earl. All I could think about, and I finally got the nerve to ask him, 'Gary, what was it like having your father on the Beverly Hillbillies? It must have been so cool!' And he said, 'yeah, Tom, it was pretty cool.'"
"Our whole concentration is on Canada now, its the only place the new album is being released."
"All you want is a creative situation where you can be allowed to create and do what you want to do and hopefully have people that are interested enough in it to sustain your lifestyle so that you can keep doing that. That's all I want."
"Junkhouse have no desire to play Hamilton at all. Four years ago we came back from a tour and said, 'let's do our home town'. This came straight from the heart, we want to do the food banks benefit again, we'd been doing it for years. We play Hamilton, we do it for no money. We promoted it, we had the Killjoys, Crash Vegas and us and 150 people showed up. The next day we flew half way round the world to Rotterdam, where we played to a sold out club of 800. And I figured there's really something fucking wrong here. I play my hometown with two other great bands and get 150 people. That was the FIRST time I said I'd never play Hamilton again. But next year we did it again, at the Tivoli theatre. We had Junkhouse, Daniel Lanois, the Killjoys, Stephen Fearing, Garnet Rogers, I think 100 people showed up. That was the last time I said, "I'm never playing this shithole again. I like living here, I like going down Locke Street, walking my kids to school, I like taking my son to Coronation Arena, but playing here is pointless."
"Hamilton is a condensed version of this entire country; question everything, question success, and pull the carpet out from anything that comes from your country or your city that does well. Its something that I like about this city, that nobody gives a shit. I kind of like that. Its such a ridiculous place! And here we are playing Hamilton again."