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Cowboy Junkies
an interview with Michael and Margo Timmins by Matt Dornan / pictures by Paul Heartfield

Cowboy Junkies by Paul HeartfieldI just saw before I came here today the jpeg of the new album cover. The symbolism seems to be of something both threatening and beautiful...
Michael: Exactly, yeah, that's exactly it. Along with the title of the record, Open, there's that element of it being open yet it can kill you at the same time. If you're a bug it's a threatening thing, so it's the Ying and the Yang. And the record has that too, the very dark element and also more of an open aspect to it.

And the sequencing seems really important
Michael: Absolutely.

Generalising the themes of the songs, the first is about murder, then death, then adultery...Then the issues become more personal, relationship problems, personal crisis and then things takes a more contemplative turn. Was there an element of apprehension for you, starting the record with two long, dark songs - any fear that people wouldn't make it to the end?
Michael: There was a lot of sequencing of this record and the sequence was changed at the very last minute. It was almost the reverse. The opening and closing songs were always the same, but then we started light and went darker. But last minute we changed it and I'm glad we did because it makes for a more interesting record that way. Apprehension at this point...we basically do the record we want to do and that's all we can do. We learned a long time ago that that is the best way to approach something - do it the way you want and see what happens. Otherwise you can second-guess yourself...into insanity.

You run your own label now but were there, during your time with Geffen, situations where that freedom was curtailed?
Michael: Y'know musically we've always been lucky. Our problems with major labels have never come through the musical side of things. They would occasionally try and make a suggestion but we quickly shut that sort of thing down so we've never really been heavily pressured to change something musically. No, they would do things like 'this record doesn't have a single on it' - Well, y'know, here's the record...
Margo: 'Maybe you should do a cover of Hey Jude...'
Michael: Yeah, they always make suggestions but you just say 'yeah, yeah...go away now.' Our problems have always been on the business side of it. Like getting them to properly promote things or marketing ideas. The idea that we work as hard as we do on an album and are then willing to go out and promote it and tour it but we feel the contract states that you then have to put your side up, and that comes and goes with the record company depending on their focus that month or that quarter. The musical side of it, that's something that's so outside the record industry - that's a personal thing between us that we create. The only reason you're associated with a record company is for business and when they fail at that end of it that makes us...very upset. I think there was a time when you had fans in the industry and then less and less and less. And the industry's mind-set is so pervasive and so insidious that when fans do get in the industry they're quickly brainwashed, they lose a lot of that aspect of being a fan and become so focused on the industry's weird.

I don't want to dwell on the bad experience you had at the hands of Geffen but I presume that after Miles From Our Home you had the opportunity to reflect. By resurrecting Latent Recordings and releasing first a compilation of assorted b-sides and rarities and then the web-only live album, you spent your time reminiscing and finding something positive...
Michael: Yeah, it was fun to go back through all the old recordings. It was something we'd wanted to do for a long time and it seemed the perfect opportunity for it. We needed something to relaunch Latent and the record companies were sleepy enough for us to get these things...they actually own most of those tracks. We basically went to them with our can in our hands and said 'please, can we have these?' And they said 'sure, whatever, get away...'
Margo: [laughs] First they said 'who are you again?'
Michael: Yeah, 'what's your name?' And, so, it was fun to go through the archives and dig stuff up. It was neat to hear stuff that we hadn't heard in a long time. And it was a great record to launch the web-site and label with because it was stuff the fans were interested in and we felt it was pretty good quality too, it was a good record.
Margo: It was revitalising for us too. That whole period was very difficult and so the project was a lot of fun...

Without wishing to sound cheesy, was there a sense of rebirth as a result of this enforced hiatus?
Michael: You go back to that stuff and the revisiting is kinda neat, and you realise that even your outtakes are pretty damn good and's hard to listen to your actual albums because you've heard them so many times but these things were fresh and they came out the speakers and it's like 'that's a pretty cool band, there.' So there was an element of a rebirth there and from a business side there was a rebirth for sure. With that came this record so I'd characterise it as that for sure.

And then there was the live album...
Michael: And again, that was another thing. We'd put this live band together and while we were reorganising ourselves we had to maintain the musical side of things. We had to remind ourselves that we had a band here, because you can get lost in the business side of things. You ask 'why am I doing this?' Once you're up on stage you remember why you are doing it. And that seven-piece band was sounding really good and we liked it, so we kept on touring and then when we did some recording, listened to some tapes and said 'this is pretty cool.' We had the web-site, why not just put a record together and put it on the web site. We don't have to travel the world promoting it; it's just a little fun project.
Margo: Again, with record companies - the majors - doing small, little projects like that just isn't allowed. Because they have this strange theory that if you put out a small project in between your larger studio albums you'll glut the market and nobody will buy your studio record that they put money into. It's frustrating because these smaller projects are fun. And they are not meant to become big gold records and hit the charts, they are for the avid fan. And that fan is going to buy this album and the studio album. So, being on Latent we can do what we want.
Michael: And they're relevant too, they're relevant to us. This [live] record is a perfect transition to the new record. That band you hear doing the old songs there is the band on Open, so it's a nice transitional album too for us. It has meaning in our catalogue if you go through our albums.

It also makes clear your treatment of your fans. That you are aware of their existence...
Michael: That's what the web-site's been so good for. That really direct connection with them and it's been very successful on that level.
Margo: The web-site's run from the attitude of a fan. Before being musicians we were all fans of other bands and still are. And so when we were putting the web-site together we were asking 'what would I want to see?'...on a Neil Young site or whatever. All the pictures and stuff, behind the scenes, I love all 'Neil Young on holiday!' [Laughs] I don't know why but I do. 'Neil Young's dog.' I don't know...

You've always acknowledged a debt to Townes Van Zandt, but I'm curious to know whether you have the time to keep up with contemporary music...
Michael: Yeah, certainly through things like [the magazine], as we get sent a lot and I discover bands that I'd never have heard of. There's so much out there now and I'm certainly not nearly as tuned into it as I was when I was younger. There is a tonne of good music out there and I hope to have one record a year I just can't take off my turntable and I usually achieve that. So far this year there's been a few - the new Low record, I love that, it's so beautiful sounding. Tim Easton is a new guy I really enjoy a lot, his new record love a lot. And this record became huge; someone gave it to me a few years ago...that David Gray record, that Rufus Wainwright album I couldn't take off for months. There's fewer records I connect with now but when I do I connect in a big way. And I'm searching for them all the time. Then the old favourites will come through, like a Steve Earle record will come through every now and then. I don't look at the Top Ten to see what state the industry's in, because that's the industry and there's lots of music underneath and I never cared one way or the other what's in the Top Ten so why should I care now? Look at the Top Ten of any era and it's usually shit, so who cares?

Draggin' Hooks - was that written at the time of Lay It Down, I presume the trilogy was written together?
Michael: Yeah, lyrically, but musically that song has gone through three, four, five changes. I think it's one of those things were some songs have 'a time,' y'know? We'll work on a song and we just can't 'get it' for some reason, maybe the band's not ready or the song's not ready or whatever. And suddenly I'll pull out a song again and, maybe, rewrite the music and it'll click and that one just did that. I think partly it was because it fits, it makes sense in the context of the album. So we're in the right 'head-space' where we're like 'this is where we should play this song.' Lyrically it was done then but musically it's a product of this album, for sure.

Is that a common thing, where you'll have a backlog of lyrics in need of a home?
Michael: Not a tonne, no. I've got a lot of half-finished stuff and often if a song doesn't work there's a reason for it, so I'll take parts of it that I like be it musically or lyrically and it'll re-emerge...there's one song in particular that's been re-emerging in different forms since 1993...
Margo: Oh, here it is again...I think now, from the first [version] it's down to just one line...
Michael: We nearly got it this time. It's just one of those songs that...I really like an aspect of it, I just haven't figured out how to make it a whole. It's funny because when we were working on that song, Ken Myhr who we were working with at the time of Pale Sun, he was with us for a few years and it came up twice in his time and he said 'Y'know Mike, I think 2000 is the year for this song' and it's come and gone! One day I'll get it out there.

I think 'texture' is a key word for this record. There's a lot going on but it seems considered, like it's serving the song.
Michael: Good. I think that comes from playing the songs live and the dynamics of the band. We really got a sense of trading positions in the mix, just dynamically and physically, just doing it as musicians. Trading off solos and parts and letting the vocals come in. That's why you get that sense, which is good.

The use of piano on Thousand Year Prayer is particularly nice...
Michael: Oh, thanks, we'll let Linford know that, I think that's beautiful playing. He told me after we'd done that and he said 'y'know I'd really like to re-do that piano,' and I said 'that's just beautiful.' I mean that's just beautiful, beautiful playing and he's just one of those players who's never quite sure when it's finished. I think it's fantastic. It was a very early take for him so he just felt it, he didn't think about it, he just did it.

It's a weird song lyrically. There are these reflections on environmental destruction and you seem to be talking directly to God and then you come up with the trade-off line about Jimi Hendrix, which adds a bit of humour which is an element, unfortunately, people with a passing interest in Cowboy Junkies might not associate with the band.
Michael: It's an irony and I think there are many references in our songs...I wouldn't put humour at the top of a list of our traits, but it's there and that's a perfect example of it.

There are recurring motifs of nature in your work and you simultaneously embrace the Internet and technology. It's interesting how you've found a harmony and balance when the two concerns are often considered opposites.
Michael: You're right, the internet and computers are supposed to be dehumanising because, yes, it's an individual in front of a screen and you're not out in a shopping mall with everybody. But we've found it's increased our personal contact with our audience's a weird thing. We're all at our screens in separate rooms but we've never communicated more outside of our music with our audience than we have since we started our site. A lot of personal contact, a lot of personal information being exchanged with our audience.
Margo: I think in our society we're always doing that. We always look at things in extremes, the Internet is either good or bad, TV is either good or bad. It's like anything; it's how you use it. It's just a tool in life. If you want to use the internet as something that means you never need leave your room, and never have human contact again...I'd say that's bad. But if you want to you can use it to be more in touch and bring you closer to people that you were never able to reach before. The question is though if you weren't on your computer would you necessarily be walking in the park, looking at the birds.

Birds as recurring metaphor...discuss.
Michael: I admit it, I love birds! I really do. I just love watching them, so they become a metaphor for many things. Maybe that why I like watching them. The metaphors are obvious, the soaring birds, the way they interact...
Margo: And the way they disappear and return...migration.
Michael: There's something cyclical about migrations and the patterns of birds...and they're beautiful too.
Margo: What did we do yesterday, Mike?
Michael: We went to the park and looked at birds, we looked at ducks.

Springsteen has his cars; you have your birds...
Michael: There you go, exactly. I have a feeling my imagery's not going to connect as strongly as Springsteen's will...

I guess the key thing about this new record is that it's reflecting on age, and where you are in your life. We're not dissimilar in age and it's something that's come up in other interviews, people questioning what they're doing and thinking 'shouldn't we be married now or something?' In the song 'I'm So Open' there's the line 'which way you looking?' It's a question we could ask ourselves every day, but if I ask you today will the answer be the same tomorrow?
Michael: It always changes but that is the key line in the record; that's the line. It constantly changing and that's the battle. The battle is to be constantly looking forward but it's very hard to do that.
Margo: And some days you're just not looking at all...
Michael: I think the conclusion is - well I don't know if you have to look at it a certain way, but - the idea is to stay open. To keep open to everything that's coming at you and to allow it in one way or the other, whether that turns out good or bad it's still important to stay open to it. The opposite is staying closed and that's deadly.

I guess when you're eighteen you have a preconception of who you'll be when you're forty. Unless I've got my math wrong you're in that ballpark...
Michael: Actually as of today...I'm way past forty! No, I'm forty-two...
Margo: I think you're having a mid-life crisis...
Michael: I am, right now [laughs]. Actually a lot of people think it's the 21st [April], not the 12th - the 1 and the 2 got mixed up on my...some drunk priest got the numbers wrong, so it's been easier all my life to use the 21st as my official birthday rather than get the church to change my baptismal certificate. But this is my real day. Back to the question, I don't think at eighteen I even thought about being forty...
Margo: My mother had six children at my age, six's amazing to me. It's bizarre. I don't want to feel like I was eighteen again because I don't want to be eighteen again, but I don't feel forty and I don't feel old and mature. I think 'God, I'm too young to have children. I'm not ready yet.' But you look around and your girlfriends' children are going off to university. Definitely things have changed. I would much rather be forty than eighteen. I like the confidence and I like the lack of anxiety over small things. At eighteen everything seems so big and important and so hard...What I'd love to have that you don't appreciate at eighteen or twenty is the time. The time ahead of you. It doesn't scare me but, again it's coming to terms with not being able to do the things that you really planned to all those books, see as much of the world...

CWAS #8 - Summer 2001