The Town Pants: Aaron Chapman trades in his kilt for a pair of pants
The Town Pants are a three piece from Canada who play their Celtic Folk with a fuel injected punk rock kick up the arse. Musically the Town Pants can be best described as a non-nerdy Makem Brothers. If you can imagine that. The interview was carried out via email with Aaran Chapman and I want to thank Aaron for taking the extra time to do an exceptional job answering the questions.
(S’n’O) Aaron – Can I first ask you about your musical history, you were a member of the kilt wearing, blue face panted, Sassenach slaying Scottish punk rock gods the Real McKenzies. What was that like, what was your involvement?
(AC) Always something when I’m asked about I’m not sure where it’s coming from, especially from people within the music industry. When people find out that I was in the Real McKenzies, often their demeanor changes–like finding out I have a prison record and done hard time… Either people are intrigued and impressed, or they’re bloody scared of you!
Where do I begin?… The band is a little different today than it began. For what its worth, I was one of the original members and played in the band from 1992-1997, and toured the US and Canada several times with the band. I appeared on the first IFA Records album–which I gather has just been re-released–a couple of compilations, and wrote or co-wrote some of the songs like the “Sawney Beane Clan” or stuff that appeared on records after I left like “King o’ Glasgow” on the Clash of the Tartans album.
For those who never saw, or have seen the group. The Real McKenzies earned a reputation as sort of a Scottish Sex Pistols. One person termed it a punk rock version of the Hells Angels in kilts. It really all started just as a one-off joke, but I met someone in Ottawa earlier this year who considered the band the best punk band in Canada at the time. It was generally certainly reviewed as one of the best live acts in North America. I’ve heard the Dropkick Murphys, who’ve gone onto greater popularity considered the McKenzies a big influence. And I know the guys in the Swinging Utters–who I still try to drop in and say hello to when they come to town to play–are big fans, as are some of the Bad Religion guys.
The original band consisted of Paul McKenzie (vox), Tony Walker (guitar/vox), Lought (drums), Angus McFuzzybut (bass) and myself (tin-whistle/vox). Dirty Kurt Robertson (guitar/vox) joined a bit later, but he didn’t play in the band for the first year. Alan MacLeod (bagpipes) joined a year or so after that. That lineup was pretty consistent all in all for the first three or four years of the group. I sort of was the Flavor Flav to Paul McKenzies Chuck D. Rod Bruno from The Walkerband termed me the Ed McMahon of Rock and Roll, which I thought was a tremendous compliment! I suppose I’m remembered in the group as the comic, and maybe the sense of humor of the band – who was never short of a word on the mike to put down an unruly audience member, or if that didn’t work I’d fill my whistle up with spit when I played, then launched it with a flick of the wrist to shoot gobs at the idiot. I got pretty accurate… Spider Stacy was a big hero.
The band was being courted by Atlantic Records in 1996, but it all sort of imploded and dissolved in 1997. The record deal went down the toilet, and I’d kind of had enough. People weren’t getting along with one another, and there were other problems… The band reformed, but not totally with the same people. And I was out. Currently, Paul and Kurt are really the only original members. I’ve never seen the band play live since I left, so I couldn’t tell you if its still the same. But the original line-up was responsible for much of the legend that I think surrounds the band. But I don’t want to sound like a “good old days” guy, or whatever.
On a personal level, The Real McKenzies started shortly after I’d turned 21. So I did a lot of growing up in the subseqent five years. Aside from a great band, it was a remarkable education and a very unique way to grow up. I was a young kid, the youngest in the band, who was sort of growing up in the spotlight learning all these life lessons all within a tremendously wild environment of travel, sex, alcohol, violence, joy, sadness, poverty, wealth, confusion, philosophy, personal physical and emotional injury, and a dozen other vivid themes. And I was finishing my degree at the time through it all!… Our tours were insane journeys. I’ve read portions of my tour diaries of the period to people, and over college radio and they make Rollins’ “Get in The Van” sound like a cub scouts weekend getaway, and I am thinking of publishing them. I kept really good records of those years. Plus, I have some great tapes, demos, and live excerpts that McKenzies fans would love. A lot of hidden gems like our version of the Damned’s “Love Song” which we re-did as “Kilt On”, and more which would be great to release as an odds & sods album.
I don’t see Kurt and Paul much anymore. They tour a lot, and Paul spends a lot of time living in the U.S. now. But its amazingly good to see each other when we do. A lot of the old crap is forgotten. The Real McKenzies seem to be going strong, especially with this new album coming out soon. I managed to bump into the band backstage at the Shane Mac Gowan and the Popes show here in Vancouver, and I got introduced as old alumni to all the new lads in the group, and got treated like royalty – which I suspect is a lot better than some ex-members are remembered! Like a cockroach that won’t die, the Real McKenzies seem to be going strong! Especially with this new album coming out. So, even though I’m not there and I do miss seeing the guys as much as I used to–especially Kurt and Paul–its kind of nice to know the group is still out there doing its thing. I sort of feel like in spirit I’m still there. But maybe that’s just the scotch whiskey talking…!
Steve Jones anyone? Photo by: Bjoern Fredrich (S’n’O) How did you get involved with the Town Pants?
(AC) After the McKenzies dissolved… It sort of happend with a bit of acrimony. I figured I was done with music altogther, it was five years of very enjoyable madness. But it was still madness. I figured I’d get back into film which I’d gotten my degree in when I was at University. But I started working for Nomeansno–Initially as a Tour Manager and Merchandiser, and later I photographed the NMN album cover for “Dance of the Headless Bourgoisie”. The Nomeansno tours were MUCH different than McKenzies tours. It was like going from a cop in Beruit to a crossing guard in Beverly Hills! But no less enjoyable. Everybody’s on the same page.
It was kind of like going to rock-school as well, and re-learning a lot of important things not only about music, but touring and perhaps life in general. Basically keeping your eye on the prize. I didn’t know the band that personally when I first was working for them, but I got to know them. John Wright and I made a film about beer together, and later, Tom Holliston and I did some comedy pieces for CBC radio. I occasionally appear on Show Business Giants albums of his under the pseudonym “Hilly Sands”. Rob Wright has been very encouraging of my fiction writing, too. They are a great band, and great people and I can’t say enough good things about them. Go buy an album of theirs, already!
Sooner or later just seeing my friends get up and play every night started to eat at me and I kind of wanted to do it again, and for the right reasons. The lusty siren of music called me back to her fatal shores! I wasn’t necessarily sure it was going to be another celtic band, as I had some musical interests in other genres. But a friend of mine saw an ad in the local musicians wanted paper for a tin-whistle player. All of this was sort of strange because it was a mag that was full of “Bass player needed… Guitar player needed… Drummer wanted”, etc. and somebody asking specifically and just for a whistle player was uncommon enough that I showed it to my girlfriend at the time and we thought it was a set-up! This turned out to be The Town Pants who had already been up and running for a year before I joined, replacing a departing accordionist. Anyway I called, went to the audition, and they asked me if I could learn 56 traditional songs by that weekend! I still don’t know if I’m in and got the job, they just didn’t tell me to leave!
The Town Pants is a lot different from the Real McKenzies musically speaking. Its all acoustic instruments for one, so there is a certain challenge there to play music with some heat just with acoustic instruments… And some of it is more “pop” dare I say. Well, the Keogh brothers write the catchy pop songs, and I write the angry annoyed rants. It makes for a good balance of love and hate!
(S’n’O) The Town Pants are currently touring Scandinavia, how’s that going and how did a band from BC, Canada find themselves playing Celtic folk in the Bars of Finland, Sweden and Norway?
(AC) A little odd. Scandinavia is the one place you can go as a Canadian and be considered exotic maybe. They don’t know that much about Canada over here, and the only Canadian music they know is Bryan Adams and Celine Dion. Reciprocally, I couldn’t really name any Swedish bands aside from Abba so its been a good learning process for Canadian and Scandinavian nationalities.
They really only know this music as “Irish” music over here. So they always think its strange to hear us as Canadians playing what they strictly term “Irish” music here. I guess they’re still expecting all Canadians to go into Adams and Dion tunes? So we’re here to confound them. We initally got over here from some friends who had toured here and recommended the organization that now books us in Europe, and we’d sold a few records here. It wasn’t a lot. When we finally arrived it wasn’t the Beatles coming to America or anything, but it was enough to pique our interest–and we’ve done a tour here every year for three years in a row. Also, for reasons science cannot wholly explain, I find at least six weeks a year of vodka and Swedish girls keeps me in good health, too.
(S’n’O) The Town Pants jammed with Iron Maiden once. How did that come about and if you had a choice to jam with anyone who would that be?
(AC) We were playing in Stockholm, Sweden. Iron Maiden was playing the next night for two nights at the big stadium in town. They’re still huge over there! Heavy Metal from that era still is in general… Anyway, they happened to come into the bar that we were playing. I guess it was their night off, or they had just finished soundchecking or something. A bunch of Swedish people came up to the wings of the stage and said, “hey, do you guys know that Iron Maiden is here!”. I didn’t recognize any of them. The whole band was there with some of their crew.
I was trying to work into a song introduction a excerpt from one of Bruce Dickenson’s children’s books I’d memorized–don’t ask why–but, I was drunk and couldn’t remember. Dave the banjo player is an old headbanger at heart and used to play in a thrash band when he was a teenager and he remembered the Maiden tune, “Number of the Beast” and went into it on the Banjo! They got a big kick out of it, and we met them all after the break. Jannick Gers the guitar player came up and played on a song of ours on the second set. It was all pretty funny and we all had a good time. I wish we would have recorded it or gotten a bootleg of it. They invited us to come out to their show the next night, but we had to hit the road in the morning and play in Norway that next night. So, both bands bid a drunken farewell to each other on the streets of Stockholm. Damn, it would have been good to get a photo of that scene too…
Who would I want to jam with? Some of the names would surprise you. Somebody asked me this question not so long ago and I had to divide it into living or dead. Then I realized I had to divide the people who I just wanted to get drunk with or people I wanted to stare at. Don Rickles and Elizabeth Hurley I think topped the latter of those two respective categories…
(S’n’O) I noticed a much more Scottish feel to the second Town Pants CD, is this your doing?
(AC) Hmm… Subconsciously, maybe! The other guys in the band are all of Irish ancestry, and our current fiddle players family is German… so I guess as the lone one of Scottish descent I try to work some Scottish feeling in there. But there were some Scottish songs on “Liverdance”… like the “Gallant 40 Twa” which they were doing before I joined. We all liked the trad song “The Dundee Weaver” that the Dubliners did, so we did that one on Piston Baroque. There’s no pipes on the album though… I was hoping to bring in my friend and old Real McKenzies bagpipe player Alan “Raven” McLeod on in for a track, but we didn’t have anything that really fit. Maybe on the next album.
(S’n’O) What is the story behind Annie Chapman in the song “Dark Annie”?
(AC) A relative of mine was a big royal family nut. You know the kind. Collects all the plates and pictures, goes downtown to wave a flag when the Prince or the Queen comes to town every decade… Maybe you don’t have them in America as much…?
She decided to search through the family rolls – I guess hoping that we’d be 80th in line to the throne of England or something like that. Some Scottish or Jacobite link maybe! She spent a lot of time rummaging through old records and documents, hoping for a fifedom or a Lordship we could claim of some nameless Scottish highland field, I guess.
Instead she found out we were related to one Annie Chapman, a London prositute who happened to be Jack the Ripper’s third victim! The rest of the family all seemed a bit shocked. She lived and died in one of the poorest sections of London, and I guess some might want to write a murdered prositute out of the family tree. But I was fascinated, and I consider any woman that the guts to walk the streets of London at that period of history was probably more brave than most, and certainly more than me. They weren’t doing it because they saw “Pretty Woman”, or were paying for their crack addict boyfriend. They were just poor and that was it. They did it because most of them were from little to no education, who couldn’t get other jobs, down and out alcoholics, that Britains class society didn’t have any time for. Maybe you could say that society still doesn’t have time for broken and battered women and they turn to that… I don’t know, and I don’t mean to sound or get political with it.
I wrote the song when I was about 19 or 20, and was probably one of the first songs I ever wrote, but the melody is based on an old traditional tune I’d heard called “The Lowlands of Holland”. It wasn’t the right kind of song for the Real McKenzies so it pretty much just sat in a book for six or seven years, until I brought it out at a rehearsal with The Town Pants not long after I joined the band. I hope if Annie heard the song she’d like it.
Hugh McMillan [from the band Spirit of the West] who produced Piston Baroque also played on “Dark Annie” a bass part on a Chapman Stick, a 10 stringed musical instrument that looks like a big cricket bat with strings on it… I thought playing a Chapman Stick would be pretty fitting for a song about Annie Chapman. I suppose its my sense of humor at work, in an otherwise humorless song…
(S’n’O) Why is there so much great Celtic based rock coming out of Canada these days? Any bands you recommend?
(AC) Canada is somewhat unique that Celtic rock actually charts on the radio, and the videos by these bands get played on the music video channels… That doesn’t happen anywhere in Europe, or America in the major media. Maybe Australia is different with bands like “Weddings, Parties, Anything”. So, Canada really supports this kind of music. And its not such a strange genre of music as it is to hear in other countries, maybe.
Plus, so many people in Canada have parents or Grandparents from the U.K. So its not uncommon as a kid to have heard some drunken uncle singing some dirty pub song to you, or your Aunt to have an old fiddle or Mandolin somewhere in the attic just begging to be played, or maybe a few old records of old Irish drinking tunes in your parents record collection, so and you grow up with this music. Maybe if you’re not in French Canada, but its an immigrant country… So you hear this sort of music sooner or later, and in Atlantic Canada in the provinces of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and so on, there are a lot of bands playing celtic music from very traditional to punk.
As for bands currently in Canada… Aside from us! Get the Real McKenzies first album–the one I’m on! There is a band from Toronto called The Mahones. They have some great music, and they’re good friends, too. Track down the Hard Rock Miners “Rock and Roll Welfare” album if you can.
There was a band in Vancouver in the early 90’s called The Stoaters that were great. I used to go see them, I think they were influential to many. If you can track down their “Keep the Head” album on Turtle Records, pick it up. I heard they are going to record another album again. The other guys in the Town Pants might recommend the now defunct Jimmy George who are from Ontario. Spirit of the West of course are worth exploring too if you don’t know them.
(S’n’O) What do you think of Ashley MacIssac?
(AC) He seems ok. I met him last when The Town Pants opened for him last year at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver. But I mostly only saw him backstage in his dressing room smoking a heap of pot. Our support slot at the show went over really well… And it seemed like his fans enjoyed us. He was out of bow rosin when he got on stage. I play the Musical Saw a bit when I feel cheeky enough to do it, so I tossed him mine out of my gig bag right there out on the stage. The bastard never thanked me!
He seems like a nice enough guy though. I don’t own any of his records, but that “Devil in the Kitchen” number I liked. Some of the stuff he’s done with hip-hop beats with Mary Jane Lomond I am not so interested in. It’s sort of… predictable.
(S’n’O) What are the future plans for the group, any plans for some US dates?
(AC) More hitting the lonely highway of touring… Leaving a wake of broken bottles and hearts wherever we go! Well, Once we get home, we’re supposed to film a couple of overdue videos for songs for the Piston Baroque album, so we’re going to do a bit of work on that. I don’t know if I can speak about details yet, but one video might even be an animated thing. We’ll see. It will be quite something else if it comes together. The Town Pants meets Shrek! Its all a bit twisted. As for United States dates, we’ve played in New York and in Arizona for various things, and I think we have rough plans to go down to New York again in late March of 2002. But we’ve been so busy over the last couple of years doing tours in Canada, and spending the time doing longer tours in Europe that we haven’t really delved into the United States like we should be. Especially in places closer to home in Vancouver like Seattle and in Portland. Back when I was in the Real McKenzies, Seattle and San Francisco were always great shows. Texas was always a riot. Always a good audience. So it’d be great to bring this band down there and see how it went over. We’re probably going to start sketching out more new material for a new CD too in 2002, as well… It’d be nice to get a better distribution system or company handling the CD’s as well, because sometimes people have a hard time tracking them down in stores, and are forced to get them through mail order on the website.
(S’n’O) Who’s the best the Clancy Brothers or the Corries?
(AC) Hmmm… The Irish & Scottish rivalry there! I’ll get into trouble here with somebody. Honestly, I would probably want to vote for The Dubliners if I was going to vote for bands like that of yesteryear. Dave from The Town Pants is a huge Clancy Brothers fan, and collects the old viynl, but I never really got into them.
I was more turned on by the same music that was given an edge by The Pogues, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, or Weddings Parties Anything… those sort of bands. So consequently we argue about, for example, which is a better version – the Pogues’ version of the “Parting Glass”, or The Clancy’s! We usually listen to both. Decide we should go out for a drink. Then we forget about the argument!
The Dubliners had that sort of edge. Ronnie Drew’s voice I think is on par with the soul of Louis Armstrong or Tom Waits.
Of course, the truth of the matter is probably the greatest Irish band has gone unrecorded. They played in some small bar in Dublin, or maybe in London or Manchester, or maybe even Halifax or New York or maybe in Gastown in Vancouver at the beginning of the century and they were all drinkers and carousers who played with more fire than any band we know, but went unrecorded. Not so long ago this was just considered immigrant music. Who would want to buy records of this? God knows there must have been more people than Robert Johnson playing some stuff at some other crossroad just down the road that somebody with the microphones and acetates missed hearing about to record. Maybe it was even meaner or original and raw than anything he had.
Its traditional music, celtic and blues… Maybe Punk will be traditional soon! Punk rock and celtic music aren’t really that much different. Good rowdy celtic music, when its played right, has the same honesty and passion that punk music did for me so I never saw them as that much different.
My point is, everybody can have a shot at it. And you don’t need to be Irish or Scottish to appreciate it or play it. Maybe some band playing down the street from you tonight at the pub is the best celtic band in the world tonight. Go check em out.