Canadian band emerges from the shadows

Justin Brake
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The Skydiggers to play in St. John's after releasing 20-year retrospective CD

Every Skydiggers fan has a story about how they discovered the band. This is a testament to their music - argued by some to represent the best output of Canadian roots rock since The Band - as you won't find many radio stations doling out the airtime the band deserves.

Emerging from Ontario's singer-songwriter band explosion of the late 1980s alongside The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and the Cowboy Junkies, the Skydiggers endured two decades in the shadows of their contemporaries, but built a cult following and a distinctive repertoire of tunes along the way.

Every Skydiggers fan has a story about how they discovered the band. This is a testament to their music - argued by some to represent the best output of Canadian roots rock since The Band - as you won't find many radio stations doling out the airtime the band deserves.

Emerging from Ontario's singer-songwriter band explosion of the late 1980s alongside The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and the Cowboy Junkies, the Skydiggers endured two decades in the shadows of their contemporaries, but built a cult following and a distinctive repertoire of tunes along the way.

"The Truth About Us," a 20-year retrospective released earlier this year, is the culmination of their journey so far.

The album features 22 songs, a bonus DVD and a booklet of memoirs and essays from the likes of Jim Cuddy, Sarah Harmer, Gordon Downie and others.

Tonight, founding band members Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson will make a long-awaited return to St. John's, where the duo will perform at The Ship.

From the road in Victoria, B.C., last week, Finlayson spoke with The Telegram about the record and reflected on the last 20 years.

Despite the band's relative obscurity, the guitarist-songwriter-producer said he gauges its success by the fan response.

"The best you can hope for is that your music makes an emotional connection with people," he said. "I know we've done that with some people. Whether it's with as many people as I would have liked to make that connection with or whether that opportunity still exists, that's kind of out of my hands. The only thing we have control over is the quality of work that we put out, so to worry about things I can't control, I've learned to let that go."

The band achieved moderate success with the song "I Will Give You Everything" from their 1990 self-titled debut album.

In 1988, the musicians became the first Canadian band to be signed to Enigma Records, a popular American record label that was acquired by EMI/Capitol a year later, consequently ending the Skydiggers' first shot at widespread distribution.

The misfortune was only the first in a sting of adverse events. They worked with several record labels with minimal success and parted ways with a pair of band members, which resulted in a steady rotation of quality players.

Despite an eight-studio album catalogue that often garnered them critical praise and a 1993 Juno award for most promising band, their destiny, it seemed, was to reside constantly on the brink of success.

While The Hip and Blue Rodeo were off filling hockey arenas, the Skydiggers were either opening those shows or playing bars and halls across the country.

"The interesting thing about that is that a lot of these bands we were both influenced by, and I think we influenced as well - they were our peers, but we're still friends and still work together," Finlayson said. "I remember talking to Gord Downie, and he gets this question asked to him all the time - 'Why aren't you more popular in the States?' - and Blue Rodeo do as well.

"It's almost like there's this weird sense of you not measuring up because it hasn't translated somewhere else."

Each of the band members has a hand in other music-related projects. The record label adversity prompted them to start up their own in 2002, MapleMusic Recordings, which has proven invaluable to independent Canadian musicians such as Sam Roberts, Joel Plaskett and The Dears.

But they continue reuniting to make records and tour the Great White North.

"A lot happens over the course of 20 years," Finlayson said.

"Certainly for Andy, Ron and I, what has endured and what has been the most consistent thing is our friendship. The songs have helped galvanize that friendship.

"That's a pretty humbling experience, so I think we sort of owe it to ourselves to maintain that."

With "The Truth About Us," the band is celebrating a rare feat in the music world, and according to Finlayson, they'll keep at it until stagnancy reigns.

"Something I've learned from being in a band for 20 years is I don't think you can ever repeat yourself," he explains. "You've got to take what you've done and build on it. Even if it's a move sideways, you have to keep moving. I know from the get-go, the only thing I wanted to do ... was make recordings that were timeless. It sounds like an arrogant statement, but I still want to do that, to try and write songs that seem relevant 20 years from now."

"It's always about learning something else or being shown a different way of doing something, or discovering something that you didn't know you would do or try. In a lot of ways, I feel like I'm just starting."

Finlayson and Maize perform at The Ship tonight. Opening are Halifax's Rose Cousins, celebrating the release of her new album, and local acts Les Domestics and Texas Chainsaw.

For more information visit

www.mightypop.ca

.

Organizations: The Ship, Tragically Hip, Cowboy Junkies EMI

Geographic location: St. John's, Ontario, Victoria

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