From the El Mocambo to Cambodia: the long strange story of Will Canuck

There’s a familiar story told around the traps by musicians in Phnom Penh – “I’d given up on music before I came here, now I play all the time.”  It might be the water or the air, but Cambodia continues to inspire.  One of the latest across the border is Will Nygren (aka Will Canuck), the Canadian at the head of the first world problems, who will be playing at Oscar’s on the Corner on Saturday night.  He sat on the Oscar’s balcony with Leng Pleng and told his story.

“The roots of my fascination with music was watching The Beatles, when I was not quite four years old, on the Ed Sullivan Show, and being physically drawn towards the television.  Next it was The Monkees – essentially an Americanised version of what we thought The Beatles were, the four-headed beast of buddies living together and having adventures.  The first time I heard a really distorted electric guitar electricity just shot through me.  I was in a friend’s basement with his older teenage sister, and they started playing records.  They put on Revolution by The Beatles and that first riff – oh my God!  More of this please!  And so quickly sought out anything that sounded like that.  Deep Purple’s Machine Head, then Alice Cooper’s I’m 18 in 1971 – the way they were using melody, and a voice that was clearly talking about more than just girls and cars.  Also the fact that parents automatically hated it – why is he called Alice?  Look at their hair!  They look like women!  I don’t know what it was about me as an 11, 12 year old suburban kid from Mississauga, Ontario, that made them appeal so much, but visually, sonically, thematically, it grabbed me big time.

The next step was obvious.  “My best buddy and I decided we had to be in a band.  We went down to a department store in Toronto with our paper route money and spent the lot on absolute garbage Japanese $59 guitars.  My buddy wanted to play lead, so he conned me into buying a bass.  I didn’t actually really know what a bass was – I knew Paul McCartney played the bass, but I had no idea that it made a different sound than an electric guitar.  Took it home, wired it into the back of my dad’s stereo, and I was immediately disappointed when I touched the string and instead of it going “waaah” it went “thud”.  Wait a minute!  I’ve been fooled!  But I had it, so that was my instrument.

“And at the same time I was a jock, and the athlete thing took up most of my time, but my head was very occupied by rock’n’roll.  I was a track and field athlete, provincially ranked for 800 metres, but fate intervened: my dad came home one day and announced we were moving to Switzerland.  So suddenly instead of living in Mississauga, the very definition of suburban blight, I was going to a small American international school in Zurich with no sports programmes!  My identity had been wrapped around being Bill the runner, so I just went whole hog into rock’n’roll.”

Finding a fellow Alice Cooper fan who played guitar kicked off the next chapter.  “He couldn’t play for beans.  We found a drummer, who in retrospect also couldn’t play for beans, but we were young and raw and didn’t know what we were doing.  Years later the guitar player sent me a copy of an old practice tape that he’d ripped – oh my God!  I had no idea the drummer wasn’t playing patterns, just hitting things with sticks.   After school we’d commandeer the stage and plug everything into the school’s amp and two speakers that they used for events, and we would play the monthly school dances there, without ever actually having asked anyone if we could or should.  And the correct answers were yes we could and no we shouldn’t have.  We were called Axe, which we thought was a great name, but we really couldn’t play.  We played songs by The Ramones, The Runaways, I think we tried a UFO song which was way beyond us, and I would sing, it was just godawful.”

Will returned to Canada for university, with the motivation to start a band.  “Which is exactly what I did.  We were playing Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and The Who and The Beatles, way beyond our range.  We should have been cranking out Sex Pistols and The Ramones and The Clash and it would have been fine, but it was a little early for punk in 1979.   I came back to Canada with a heap of records that weren’t even yet called New Wave, much to the chagrin of my roommates in residence:  what the hell is this stuff?  But within months it was on the radio.

“We morphed from the 70sish overly ambitious cover band to a Beatles band, because we met a guy who could sing John Lennon to a T, and who taught me how to sing harmony.  We played other early 60s stuff, like The Who and Dave Clark Five.  We sounded like The Ramones with two part harmony.

Serious and lucrative gigging on the university circuit followed, but the band folded after graduation.  “About a year later the drummer and guitar player and I decided we’d play again, but I said I don’t want to play covers anymore.  The guys were sceptical, but I had little sketches that turned into songs.  We were lucky to be asked to open a show at the iconic Toronto venue the El Mocambo – when bands playing in Toronto for the first time that was the stage they went to, Blondie, The Ramones, Elvis Costello.   Stevie Ray Vaughan – and I was there, oh my God!  In a room with 500, 600 people.

“So he said she said played our six song set at the El Mocambo, and we got a management deal that night.  And we were making a record within three or four months of that.  I ended up having to fire my two buddies, because management insisted that we bring in actual players.  One of them forgave me, and the other guy, well, we continue to have bouts of forgiving and falling out again.  And all I was doing was writing, because the management company told me to quit my job, and paid me a salary so I could just write.  I would sit beside the pool at my crappy apartment during the day with no one around, with an acoustic guitar which I could barely play, and I wrote a bunch of songs.

he said she said publicity shot, 1987

he said she said ended the way that many promising young rock bands do: our manager was a crook.  For about 15 minutes in the spring of 1987 we were the next thing that was going to come out of Toronto.  We didn’t play all that many shows, maybe 10 or 12, but they were always showcased.  But it turned out our manager actually was a criminal – he was floating it all on borrowed and stolen money.  In the end myself and my writing partner Brad were left with thousands and thousands of dollars of debt in our names that we didn’t know about, and that put me off music for a while.”

Will diverged into a career in advertising and audio production, eventually returning to playing and writing in his late 20s.  “The most money I’ve ever made from music is writing godawful jingles for tyre companies or travel agencies.”  Then one day, now married with a daughter, he was shovelling snow when a neighbour, also shovelling snow, said:  I hear you’re a musician, so am I.  “We had a little chat, found out we were both writers, and in 2008 we formed Truth Panel.  Our first album came out in 2010, Preliminary Hearing, produced by a highly renowned Canadian film composer and soundtrack writer, David Findlay, who was working with me at my audio production company.  Completely self-released, it did really well as an indie.  We were getting letters from around the world from people who were really into it –  we were 50 year ago guys who practiced once a week and played once a month. Unfortunately that all came to a close when my business kept dwindling and I was offered an opportunity to go to China for a job.”

China proved to be a dead end musically.  “There really wasn’t much of a live music scene, and rock’n’roll is still very much frowned on by the authorities.  In Beijing there was a small but dedicated hardcore scene, but it’s not my thing.  I bounced around a couple of bands in Hanoi; there wasn’t much going on, but the minute I set foot in Cambodia there was something.  And when I discovered Oscar’s on the Corner it became pretty obvious that I had to start a band again.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, introducing the first world problems.  “I’m very lucky with the two guys that are in the band with me, Pavel Ramirez and Ricky Haldeman.  It’s a band that plays my songs, and I’m the frontman, but both of those guys is every bit as important as the person who brings the tunes in.  They’re mostly songs from either Truth Panel or he said she said, and they have a sound of their own that’s different how they’ve been played before.   It’s pretty damn exciting to watch new life being breathed into this little body of work that I have.

 

The decision to form a three-piece band was deliberate.  “You get tight as a three piece, because you have to, and you have to make two melodic instruments do all the work.  At some point we will add a second guitar or keyboards, but the key element is a third singer.  I tend to write choruses that are built to have a big harmonic explosion, and you need three voices to do that.  Pavel and I blend vocally in an interesting way; together there is a sweetness and power – I think he brings the sweetness and I bring the power.  I’m not the greatest singer in the world but I have a style and I hit my notes.

“I wasn’t sure that I was ever going to write again.  I thought maybe I had lost the muse, but there’s something about Cambodia that brought it back.  I like to tell stories.  My lyrics tend to be more storytelling as opposed to calls to action, they’re observational and they tend to have a beginning and an end.  I like melody.  If a song doesn’t have a melody I’m probably not that interested, and if it doesn’t have a guitar in there I’m definitely not interested for the most part.

“Baby songwriter in 1979 with Slick Ali Con.”

“Performing is what I really love to do, and I love the studio, but songwriting is probably the thing I’m proudest of.  I really, really like playing bass, it’s my instrument, but I have style as opposed to chops.  It took me a long time to be able to play, I was horrible until I was about 30.  In he said she said there was a constant debate about the guys taking my bass away from me, because they were all incredible musicians, but they couldn’t get rid of me because I wrote ‘em, I sang ‘em, and I was cute.  145 pounds, 28 inch waist, very blonde hair, and kind of looked like a girl.  Pretty good frontman for an 80s band, right?  Now I’m 200 pounds and receding hairline and jowls…  [laughs].

“My favourite songwriter of all time is Ian Hunter from Mott The Hoople, who had a significant solo career after that – he’s over 80 years old now, and he made probably the four best albums of his life over the last 10 to 12 years.  Well, we always think at some point we’re not going to listen to a lot of loud rock’n’roll because it’s not dignified.   Well, I’m 60 years old, and I’m still listening to loud rock’n’roll.  It’s not going away.  Your tastes broaden and change, but the core is always there.”

 

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