THE INTERVIEW: Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies
Cowboy Junkies is a legendary group who are putting a fresh spin on their careers by doing things their own way. They are coming out with a four album series over the next eighteen months, free of all rules. The band uses their website www.cowboyjunkies.com, in fantastic ways to keep fans and music lovers as involved as possible. I had the chance to talk to Michael Timmins, songwriter and guitarist, about the things that keep a renowned group rocking for years.
You guys are coming out with a four album series over the next eighteen months. Can you give a little background on what it’s all about?
It was just a crazy idea we came up with. We’ve been sort of bouncing around ideas of how to approach our next album release. We had tons of different ideas of how to go about and lots of different materials to choose from, different directions we wanted to go. So we decided because we were completely independent with no ties these days let’s just do it how we want to do it and do everything, do it all. So we decided to tie all the albums and all the ideas into a single series, with four separate records but sort of a series of albums so that’s what it is really. We wanted to keep it on a short, relatively quick release schedule so that it maintains the momentum. Each album has its own theme or approach.
The first album in the series is titled Renmin Park, which I understand to be inspired by a chunk of time you lived in China. Can you explain the concept some more?
I lived there for three months with my family. I have three young kids and my wife, so it was a pretty intense experience. It’s really just a reflection on the stay there and on the personal experiences and on the culture there. It’s also on the way we approach a lot of the songs, where there’s a lot of recording when I was there, some of music, but of street recordings of things I was hearing, listening to or listened to in the park. I brought home hours and hours of different types of recordings. We took a lot of those and developed loops with some of them and then built the songs around some of those recordings. So half the record is built around these loops which were recorded in this little city in China. It’s a very different project for us and a different way for us to approach the writing. We’re proud of it.
You did mention you don’t have any recording contracts of any sort. How has that affected the way the band developed this series of music?
Yeah, for sure. If you were to go to a record company or even a licensor, which we have been using for the last few years, and say, “You know, we’re going to release four records in the next eighteen months”. They would say “Ah, no you’re not.” They can’t handle it, they can’t handle that much output. We call our own shots now, we do whatever we want. We have our website which is very important and vital to the band. Some of these records, for example the Renmin Park record, will in the next couple of months will be available everywhere, online and to regular record stores. In the mean time it will be available just through our site, some of the records, probably the second or third will be exclusive to our site. We can pick and choose how we want to release every record, it’s our call. There is no set way of releasing albums anymore. It’s made a big difference to us.
I’m glad you mentioned the website which I look at frequently, there is a lot of blogging and great other resources for your fans. Something I stumbled upon that I thought was really interesting was that part of the inspiration for the Nomad Series was by four paintings.
It’s kind of odd that the whole idea for the series, the inspirations came from different directions. I think that the final piece of the puzzle was when our friend Enrique Martinez Celaya, who is a painter, quite a well known painter who has been a big supporter of us for many years now, offered up this series of paintings that he had done. We had been talking about him doing an album cover for us. He offered up this series of paintings and was like “Hey, choose one of these.” They are just beautifully linked and we loved the four of them. At another level we were thinking of doing four records. It was kind of this weird synchronicity thing where here are four record covers and we can do four records. The name of his series was called “Nomad.” That seemed to link into some of the themes that we were working on with the various records and it also works a little bit with how we’re a band that’s all up on the road with all this touring and all this moving so it sort of sits in the back with that idea and sense as well.
The concept of doing four records, is it something that you guys have been sitting on for a while and waiting to do?
Not for years, certainly over the last year we have been thinking about how we want to release the next record. We thought in terms in releasing EPs as we go along and releasing a double record, or something like that. Certainly the idea of releasing a multiple release is an idea that we have been toying with for a year anyways, but not really knowing how to go about it. No, I wouldn’t say it is something we’ve been itching to do for five or ten years.
You guys have been in the U.S. on tour for a couple weeks now?
We were, we’re back home now. We were just in the mid-west and we head back out in two weeks for another ten days. We usually do about ten days a month. That’s how we do it, we go back and forth rather than putting it all together we kind of do little regional tours here and there.
What’s life on the road like for everybody, do you guys like it?
Yeah, the thing is after twenty-five years the performing and playing is still really, really fun. That’s sort of the ultimate goal of any band I think, to play live and we have been fortunate to do that for so many years. The traveling and the packing up and getting up gets a bit tiring. It wears on you a bit, but like I said, the payoff is the performance and the pleasure is still greater than the pain. That’s all that matters.
Quirky question, everyone has a favorite hole in the wall restaurant or dive bar. Is there somewhere in the U.S. that you would go out of your way to visit or love coming back to?
That’s a funny question. There’s probably a whole bunch of them, we go everywhere. We were just in Madison and right across from the venue there is this great brew pub that we love to go to. We always make sure we go there. In Portland, Oregon we always go down to VooDoo Donuts which is a specialty donut shop. There is a great rib place in Memphis that’s pretty famous, it’s down an alley but it’s a hole in the wall.
One of the last albums you released was Trinity Revisited in 2008. What is the hype and energy like the few weeks before you guys release something?
Most of the energy comes when you’re finishing the record. The actual release is kind of irrelevant to us at this point in our career. When we were with major labels there would be a lot more hype and energy because back in the day when majors would release an album they would focus all their energy on the first week of release. There would be a lot of interviews and photos and jazz like that. We don’t really do that so much now. Most of our energy gets into completing the project, looking into the master and when the release happens it happens. It’s not as big a deal anymore, the actual release itself.
Stepping back, what inspired the creation of Cowboy Junkies?
Me and the bass player Alan [Anton] were in bands probably six years prior to Cowboy Junkies so we were just big music fans and loved playing music, so that’s what really inspired us playing music together. The Junkies kind of came together by default. Alan and I ended up in Toronto after being in New York and being in London and kind of jamming in a rented garage that we had. My brother Pete walked in with a drum set one day and set up and said “I want to play around” and it kind of grew from there. The music grew and then we decided to invite Margo in, who was hanging out, and tried whatever she could sing and she did. It sounded good and we went from there. It was very haphazard.
Did you grow up in a musical household?
We always had music in the house as far as listening. We were all big music fans and we still are. My two older siblings brought tons of music into the house in the 60’s and 70’s especially. That was a great period for music. It was always a very inspirational part of our upbringing. My dad was a big music fan too, he listened to big bands. There was not a lot of music being played or performed but certainly being listened to, for sure.
How do you think your group works differently than other groups because for the most part your band mates are your siblings?
I don’t know how other bands work. We have obviously a very intimate relationship. Us being siblings and even Alan who is not a sibling, I’ve known him now for over forty years. There is a very intuitive side to what we do on all levels, not just the music, but how we deal with all aspects of being in a band. I think that is probably a difference. There are very few arguments about petty things, we kind of have the same values in that and know what we want to get out of it. I think that is probably a big problem in a lot of bands. Personal space, we understand each other’s personal space, that is a big thing, especially on tour.
When you are not on tour and not recording do you still see a lot of each other?
We try not to. We’ve all got kids, they’re cousins so that plays into it. We have to get together every now and then at my mom’s. We try not to talk “band stuff” when we’re together and not in the band setting. We try and get a break from that. We see enough of each other so we don’t go to each other’s socially but we get together socially at my mom’s. We drop off our kid’s to each other’s houses and stuff like that.
What music are you currently listening to?
Right now I’m listening to a ton of Vic Chesnutt because the next record of the four is going to be a Vic Chesnutt cover record. So that’s what to do for right now, go through the catalogue and see what we want to do.
You guys are known for doing lots of different covers in lots of different ways. What’s it like doing that as part of your music?
We were music fans first before we were musicians. We want to maintain that, so it’s a big part of us celebrating what we love, which is other people’s music and what inspires us. It also helps I think as a band and also as a writer, it helps if you can get inside someone else’s songs and figure out what makes it work and why you’re liking it. That I think helps to give you tools to write your own material. It’s a learning thing as well. They are fun to do, live covers are fun.
Do you have a song that you haven’t covered yet that you would like to?
I’m sure there are dozens of them. There are none off the top of my head that I can say “This one for sure.” If we want to do a song we just do it because there is nothing holding us back. There are dozens of songs, probably hundreds that I would love to get to eventually. We have lots of time.