By R. Overwater
CALGARY — When we loaded in as the opening act for Toronto’s White Cowbell Oklahoma (WCO) almost 10 years ago, the stage was draped with flags, littered with a thousand cables and virtually un-traversable with three bands’ worth of amplifiers and instruments. We played our set on the equivalent of a postage stamp, tripping over each other. Afterwards, the club hoped we’d understand why our rider (free booze) would be smaller than usual. The mammoth thirst of the headlining behemoth was already becoming legendary, and they’d made it clear their desires must be satiated. At 3:00 a.m., our drummer quietly stole most of the beer they’d amassed for their hotel debauchery. Later, we’d feel (slightly) guilty about that—but only after we finally agreed that perhaps this nine-piece band’s boogie-fueled, Southern-fried insanity deserved the hype.
Yes, nine members. Jeezus. And singer/guitarist Clem Clemsen says we had it easy on that first show. “It still wasn’t as excessive as the early gigs,” says Clemsen. “We had nine guitarists, three drummers. Because our initial influences were Southern rock, we wanted to take that three-guitar, two-drummer concept and make it stupidly, exponentially, more excessive.”
Excessive. At that, they succeeded—due in part to the spectacle that is a WCO show: Near-naked dancers, sparks flying from industrial grinders on metal, chainsaws tearing giant rolls of toilet paper into confetti, giant bags of mock-cocaine, you name it. At one Christmas show, “Mary” gave birth to the Messiah and shot him into the crowd with a baby Jesus catapult. “Once, two dancers got a little too far into their poisons and created a full-on porno scene in front of 600 people,” Clemsen adds. “We put a photo of that on our second album cover.”
That second album is Casa Diablo, the grittier, more-solidified follow-up to their debut Cencerro Blanco. Not a term one would generally apply to WCO but, with its sing-along choruses and lyrical, Allman Brothers-style guitar harmonies, the debut is almost innocent compared to Casa Diablo, and its follow-up, Bombardero. Their newest, Buenas Nachas, which they’ll be hawking in double-vinyl format when they roll through town as part of their 15th anniversary tour, is a further refinement of the gloriously seedy themes that typify their music.
Imagine: Through the grimy blinds of a cheap motel room, slits of cold, gray morning light filter in, visible as they curdle the lingering cigarette smoke. A woman whose name you can’t remember, and likely never knew, lies passed out in the bathroom. The cheap hotel art lies flat on a stained mattress, covered with telltale coke traces, inches from a half-emptied handgun. The stench of regrettable deeds, only vaguely recalled, is pungent.
Capturing that atmosphere seems to be job one when recording a WCO song—even the shorter, hook-laden numbers that contrast their more expansive, epic tracks. The other main task is staying true to a time-honoured sound. “The rule is ‘What would they do in 1973?'” says Clemsen. “Like if Jimmy Page was producing Molly Hatchet—because we have three guitarists, we have no choice but to layer those sounds, layer the harmonies, stack, stack, stack!”
Yes, he said “three guitarists.” As important as an over-the-top live show is to them, let us finish by acknowledging that WCO always puts the music first. And that, in recent years, has meant cutting back on band members and, especially, the entertainment entourage.
“We had to go on a personnel diet when we started touring Europe eight or nine years ago,” says Clemsen. “We’ve always taken our musicianship seriously—and people over there tend to applaud after the guitar solos more than when a dancer’s boobs explode.”
White Cowbell Oklahoma performs at Dickens Pub Nov. 19.AB, Alberta, Dickens Pub, White Cowbell Oklahoma