An interview with Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies

Cowboy Junkies
Cowboy Junkies — Illustration by Jacob Yeates

Cowboy Junkies

First United Methodist Church – Nov. 1 at 8 p.m. ($35+)

To paraphrase Grand Funk Railroad, Cowboy Junkies are a Canadian band—and a family band. It features siblings Margo Timmins on vocals, Michael Timmins on guitar, Peter Timmins on drums and longtime friend and collaborator Alan Anton on bass. Their quiet, hypnotic sound (imagine the Velvet Underground backing Patsy Cline) was cemented on their breakthrough 1988 album The Trinity Session.

Recorded in one evening with one microphone in Holy Trinity church in Toronto, The Trinity Session was one of the great—though sometimes overlooked—albums of the 1980s. It is fitting, then, that Cowboy Junkies will be playing on Nov. 1 in Iowa City at the First United Methodist Church (a magical venue that has hosted a handful of very special live musical performances).

Hipper groups like Low and Codeine have been credited with inventing “slowcore” in the 1990s, but Cowboy Junkies had already developed that hushed aesthetic years before. Given this background, the band’s roots in post-punk noise are a bit surprising. Michael Timmins explains, “For Margo and Peter, the Cowboy Junkies were their first band, but for me and Alan, we were in two earlier bands.”

“We started forming bands in 1979. The first band was Hunger Project, which was influenced by the music coming out of England at the time—a Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division kind of thing. And then we moved to London and formed Germinal, which was a very avant-garde instrumental noise band.” He adds, “It was very fun to do and very horrible to listen to.”

I wonder aloud, how does one go from extreme noise to beautiful minimalism? “After Germinal ended, Alan and I took some time off for about half a year and I began to rethink my next musical project,” Timmins tells me. “At that time, I was listening to a lot of blues, and I was really enjoying its simplicity. The first Cowboy Junkies album was our take on the blues, and from there the country influence sort of crept in.”

Two years after their 1986 debut album—Whites Off Earth Now!!, which was heavy on covers—the band emerged into the world fully formed with The Trinity Session. It was composed mostly of originals and peppered with some killer covers, like the Velvets’ “Sweet Jane” and Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which the band made their own. I saw them in 1988, and it was the quietest and most awe-inspiring show I have ever witnessed (though over the years they have learned to turn up the volume when playing live).

Today, Cowboy Junkies are coming down from an an absurdly prolific burst of creativity. Between 2010 and 2012, the band released a set of four albums under the umbrella of The Nomad Series, plus a fifth bonus disc of outtakes. I spoke with Michael Timmins in 2010 just after they recorded the first album in the series, and I asked him how the group planned to pull off the planned four album set. “If you move fast,” he said, simply, “you won’t lose momentum.”

Three years later, Michael Timmins and I resumed our conversation about The Nomad Series. “The project continually evolved, because at the start we really didn’t know what shape each album was going to take,” he says. “We didn’t really have the content mapped out, but we had faith in ourselves and in the process. We knew that a form would gradually suggest itself and then it was up to us to recognize it. By the end of the series we realized that the four albums reflected the four sides of our musical personality. Renmin Park touched on the experimental side; Demons focused on our penchant for cover songs; Sing In My Meadow reflected our live sound; and The Wilderness was all about our singer-songwriter, folk roots.”

Back in 2010, I jokingly asked him if they had plans for a follow up album. Timmins laughed and said, “We’ll do the four albums, then we’ll figure out what we will do next.” However, it turned out that they did have another album up their sleeve—The Kennedy Suite, which will be released in the U.S. in 2014.

“The demos for The Kennedy Suite, created by the writer Scott Garbe, were given to me by a friend,” Timmins said. “I immediately recognized how intelligent the songs were and wanted to get involved. I played the demos for the rest of the band and they felt the same way. So we have been working on it for a few years in between our tour schedule and our recording of The Nomad Series.”

“It is a concept album,” he adds, “A rock opera, song cycle, post-modern musical that tells the story of the JFK assassination through the fragmented narratives of a series of characters, each of whom experiences the tragedy from their own intensely personal perspective. The recording has more than a dozen Canadian singers and musicians on it, performing various songs.”

I noted that their upcoming album is a concept album and that their Nomad Series also emphasized the album format, in the way that they organized their songs into four discrete groups of compositions. “Yes, albums are what we are about,” Timmins says. “I think it’s our age. We grew up in the golden age of the rock album in the late 1960s to mid 1970s. It’s hard to shake those first impressions, so we look upon a musical statement as being one told in 10 to 12 songs over a period of 40 to 50 minutes.”

And why, exactly, have Cowboy Junkies been so prolific lately? “Part of the reason is the freedom that we have gradually achieved as we have weaned ourselves away from the more traditional music biz models. It has allowed us to experiment without having to ask permission or go into extensive negotiations, which can be soul-sucking and exhausting and ultimately defeating.” Timmins concludes, “These days, if we come up with an idea which excites us, we just run with it.”

Kembrew McLeod will spend his Halloween birthday stealing candy from little children—using force, if necessary.

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