The Band Whose Name Is a Symbol interview with John Westhaver

December 14, 2018

The Band Whose Name Is a Symbol interview with John Westhaver

The Band Whose Name Is a Symbol are a collection of musicians from Ottawa, Canada who play some of the best improvisational, free form psychedelic music.

Where and when did you grow up? Was music a big part of your family life? Did the local music scene influence you or inspire you to play music?
I grew up in a small city in Eastern Canada in the 1960’s. My Mother played the piano and had a modest record collection so yes music was in the air. I also had a cousin who was 7 years older than me, so he was more like the big brother I never had. In the late 60’s he played congas and percussion in a long haired acid rock group called Tunnel. He had purple walls in his bedroom, burned incense 24-7 and had all the best stuff from that time period on the turntable: Mountain, Frijid Pink, Iron Butterfly, Deep Purple, Santana, Beatles, Stones etc. I was bitten by the image, worshiped my cousin and loved the music. Because of his influence, the walls of Birdman Sound are purple and Nag Champa incense burns everyday! I was the little freak that used to take LPs to school for “show and tell” days which was done back in those times. Lots of kids took, their dolls, or books… I took records! 
When did you begin playing music? What was your first instrument? Who were your major influences?
My parents bought me a snare drum and symbol when I was maybe 10 years old and that’s how I got into drums. First band I was in was called Motorized Milk with 2 other kids in elementary school. We played our only show at the school’s year end assembly and rendered The Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Cotton Fields”. By 1972 I had a full drum kit and was in a shitload of hacker garage bands over the next 6 years, played some school dances, house parties etc. nothing very original but fun for sure. Major influence in these days was Iron Butterfly, Creedence, Mountain, Grand Funk etc. 
What bands were you with prior to the formation of The Band Whose Name Is a Symbol?
Oh boy…in reverse order and all were gigging bands, many with releases… Four ‘N’ Giv’r, Resin Scraper, Beld, Exploding Meet, Crash 13, Angered Wrecks (flexi coming soon), The Curbs, Farrow etc.
Can you elaborate on the formation of The Band Whose Name Is a Symbol?
When Four ‘N’ Giv’r broke up in 2006, Myself and Mark McIntyre (bass in Four ‘N’ Giv’r) jammed one evening playing long funky, overdriven psych oriented improv pieces and decided that a new project was needed. FNG were about on the local Ottawa scene as a 3-piece. The group played late 60’s early 70’s styled hard garage psych originals, fueled and inspired by the likes of Lollipop Shoppe, Kaleidoscope (UK) and tons of other underground greats of that period. After 3 or so years of gigs and 2 full length albums, opening for the likes of Lost Sounds, Bellrays, Dirtbombs, Simply Saucer, Plastic Crimewave Sound and others, it came to an abrupt end. We had several guitar players visit our hallowed basement of the venerable record store Birdman Sound, and although fun, it did not feel quite “game” with the guys who came by with their axes. Mark and I decided to ask Bill Guerrero to come in on guitar (drummer in Mark’s other band, Weapons of Mass Seduction) and our good friend, Nathaniel Hurlow of Dead City Rebels fame as 2nd guitarist. The Band Whose Name Is A Symbol were born in early winter 2006. TBWNIS or TBWNIAS as we are often referred to as, quickly developed a repertoire of open ended high energy improv based psych oriented numbers and recorded a session which became a lathe cut done by the master – Peter King in New Zealand. This was issued as a ltd. numbered edition of 40 copies and sold out in mere weeks!
Who’s in The Band Whose Name Is a Symbol and what do you all play? Have you all made any changes to the lineup since you started or is this the original lineup?
We have had a number of people in the Symbol over the years and whenever they left, it was always because they decided to leave due to other life commitments. We operate a bit as a collective so they “ex” members are still “members in good standing”. So dudes that have been through the band and currently are not: Eric LaRock-electric lapsteel, Jan Lis-violin, Hesham Attaya-oud, Miche Jette-guitar. A couple of other people have been in the band for a gig or two and my wife Carol who played bass and sang in our old group Resin Scraper played keys on a track on our LP Superficial Marks.
Also I should add that co-founder of TBWNIS: Mark McIntyre left the group in 2011 and moved to the other side of our country to pursue scholastic endeavors and continues to make his own great music. Mark incidentally, has played a number of live shows with us since his departure and has also contributed on occasion to recordings and that shall continue if the stars are aligned! 
The current lineup is as follows since the first recording: Nathaniel Hurlow-bass/guitar (took over bass from Mark), Bill Guerrero-guitar and myself on drums and percussion. Jason Vaughan plays all manners of keys and percussion since LP #4, Dave Reford-guitar (since LP #4) and relative newcomer Scott Thompson-space horn and electronics who joined us just prior to the recording of Elevator on Cardinal Fuzz Records in 2016.
When and where did The Band Whose Name Is a Symbol play their first gig? 
Our first show was in September of 2008 at a place called Irene’s Pub with a band called Castor (heavy psych, stoner improve band). The bassist in Castor is Dave Reford who is a guitarist in TBWNIS. Dave’s a longtime close friend. He and I and my wife Carol had a band called Beld, long before TBWNIS. The guy that played keys in Beld; Doug, is the older brother of Greg Watson of Orange Alabaster Mushroom fame who I’m sure some of your readers will know! Greg also played Live with Beld a few times back in the 90’s.
How did you decide to use the name ‘The Band Whose Name Is a Symbol’?
My idea based on a radio interview I heard on public radio here, driving into work one day. Some shitty pop band playing in town was asked by the interviewer how they came up with their name and they said it “took forever” ! They then settled on “the tent pegs” or some such shit, so nights at our rehearsal later I said to the fellas… let’s use a symbol and really fuck everyone up, no words, no “The” etc. We laughed and that was it. Dummies presume it’s a Prince thing, which it ain’t. It was designed to confuse… much like our music in these parts. For the “record”… it was other bands and radio dj’s who complained to me “What am I supposed to refer to you as, it’s a fucking symbol”!!! I said off the cuff; just say the band whose name is a symbol (so in essence I guess sadly we do have a “the” in front of the bus!
What influenced the band’s sound?
Punk, 60’s garage rock, 70’s hard rock, jazz and experimental. All present and all past members are music freaks with huge music collections. An enormous amount of time socially is spent yapping about records and bands etc. We are all total heads…no fucking lightweights ever. When Mark and I were in Four ‘N’ Giv’r one main point was that between the 3 members of that group was we owned several hundred Billy Childish records between us – HA! 
You have your own record store called Birdman Sound Records. Under this name you also released some of the early material.
The store is a labor of LOVE! Started as mailorder in ’89 and physical in ’91. Have 15 or so releases… cassettes, CDs, 7”, LPs etc and not just TBWNIS. Super ltd. editions all DIY, as in custom made sleeves and local artwork… lotsa hand drawn shit etc. Seemed like the right thing to do especially with TBWNIS as we were unknown, low key and wanted to keep it “mysterious” I suppose. Also was what was affordable.

Cardinal Fuzz is reissuing your older material.
Way back in 2010 Dave Cambridge, headmaster of Cardinal Fuzz Records and Optical Sounds fanzine got in touch with me through my long running radio program “Friday Morning Cartunes” found on Ottawa community radio station CKCU-FM. Of course through circumstance and bad timing, nothing ever progressed between Dave and myself other than a few emails and it was not for another 4 years that a dialogue would resume. In November of 2014 Pathfinder, our 8th LP was released as a ltd. edition of 100 copies on Birdman Sound and quite literally disappeared in 4 weeks!
A 2nd run of 100 copies was quickly done and contact had once again been made by Dave and Cardinal Fuzz. The group had already, a low key reputation amongst psych aficionados and Cardinal Fuzz was very supportive in taking nearly a third of the second run of Pathfinder. Through mail order in Europe and selling them out instantly, the reputation of TBWNIS was growing. It was in early winter 2015, post-Pathfinder that The Cardinal asked TBWNIS to release a record. So fast forward and now there are 2 different boxes done housing 6 of our long out of print LPs.
What do they contain? 
The first box has remixed and re-mastered version of Versus The Purveyors of Conspicuous Authenticity (2010), Scrappy Little Jaw (2013) and Pathfinder (2014), book and poster. The second box features remixed and re-mastered versions of Superficial Marks ( 2008), Biker Smell (2010) and Punks, Twats and Urban Cowboys (2011). The jewel, is the never before unreleased live basement recordings found on the 4th LP Basement Blowouts! Dave Cambridge handpicked the whole thing based on having 25 similar scenarios to choose from! 2 CDs including in the box are from this LP as well as other cuts from same process but never gracing vinyl. There’s also a Live 2010 show in its entirety done the night of my 50th Birthday, in a barn way out in the bush ! There’s also a poster and book in this as well…really, really nice set!
You released so many albums in such a short period of time. The most well known to me are your self-titled from 2016, Elevator, Cosmic Curios, and Droneverdose
We constantly play and improvise, since day 1. Most of our titled pieces when they appear on a record with a few exception’s, are improvisations that have been loosely structured. Pieces then (some of them) can become fully structured, but there is always the aspect of improve within, so all are different when played every time in different ways. This method makes it easier for us to plan gigs and what we think we’ll play depending on setting, and type of show and venue.
What’s the songwriting process like?
Out of improv’s come all “pieces”. Many may then lend themselves to some semi formal structure. However having said that, a piece that is 6 minutes long one evening, may become 20 minutes the next, and so on. Most of our material is always born from this process.
Were you inspired by psychoactive substances like LSD at the time of writing the albums?
No not at all… very few of us partake in anything other than beer…
Improvisation is a big part of your life.
Yes in mine more than the others, although all in the band are deep musically so understand the “art of improvisation”. When I was involved in The Exploding Meet years ago, that was a collective. People involved were asked to be involved by the founder of the hive -Mark Carmody. Mark had everything musically thought out, but there was never any rehearsals…just gigs. I adapted that when Beld was formed and that was the way we played. We smoked loads of weed and played krautrock inspired music. I also took the Exploding Meet blueprint in many ways into the beginnings of TBWNIS.
Is there any unreleased material?
Always… Cardinal Fuzz chose all the material that is covered (previously unreleased and or unheard in Box II for instance, Basement Blowouts and material on 2 of the 3 CDs that are included… we have tons of recordings even we have not heard in all honestly… we constantly record!
Basement Blowouts is your latest release (Cardinal Fuzz).
Live, off the hook basement rehearsals… the way we roll…
What other musical activities have you undertaken?
The Exploding Meet was a long running group I was involved with… The Exploding Meet was formed in Fredericton, New Brunswick in the Autumn of 1983 as a songwriting workshop and experimental recording project. Throughout subsequent years the loose collective vastly improved production techniques and expanded early lyrical and compositional ideas.
Once described as “Surrealist-Ethno-Underworld-Fusion”, the Exploding Meet led by composer Mark Carmody, were equipped with standard rock instrumentation but with modified tuning and a broad palate of percussion voices which opened up a somewhat unique and mesmerizing sonic range. Rhythms and harmonic structures reflect the group’s interest in the exotic soaring dance modes of Psychedelic Rock, Jazz and Ju Ju Music. The power and freedom of Coltrane and Coleman mix with the meditative pulses of afro-centric music, Middle Eastern modes and the always present, expansive, influential body of accurately referenced material. Environmental sights and sounds from the weathered cities and diverse rural landscapes of Eastern Canada offer the greatest contribution. This atmosphere furnishes a dreamscape from which the whole identity of the music evolves. 
On July 13th, 1985, the Exploding Meet performed Inaugural Address at Memorial Hall on the U.N.B. campus and thus embarked on a long journey that always focused on developing live performance potential. The intention always being to discover ways of expressing thoughts and feelings in a musical language tapped at its source. Performances over the next few years included the Pineapple Analogy, Slugfest ’86, Scream, Wolverine, Lollapalooza ’88, Bard Mongrel, Gatineau Rebellion, Circus Of Disharmony and many others. The collective performed many shows and released a number of albums in various formats over the course of several decades which garnered global praise from the underground and great support from Canadian community based radio. The Exploding Meet performed primarily in Fredericton although a number of shows took place in Ontario and Quebec. The collective performed a number of times in their home base at First Night, Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival and also at the first ever Maritime Independent Music Festival.
The Exploding Meet also had a “pop” side as well, which manifested itself within the division known as Decade Of Dreams. Under this banner several vinyl LP’s and CDs were also released and were generally well received once again by the aforementioned recipients of recorded material. Mark Carmody also saw the release of what is truly a magical vinyl only LP which provided the soundtrack to NFB film called Tuesday Wednesday released under his own name.
What are some future plans?
We are pretty easy regarding that sort of thing. We are all responsible adults with many everyday challenges in life. We don’t tour, we are not constantly thinking about when or where is the next show. We have fun playing music and hanging out as well are all friends and all of us, me in particular, a lot of history. I met every single one of these fella’s through my record shop as they are all like me into tunes, records and that culture. Record shops are historically important avenues for like minded individuals to meet and many bands get started simply because of this. TBWNIS will make more music and recordings, that is defo in the future!
Who are some of your personal favorite bands that you’ve had a chance to play with over the past few years?
Geezuz… that’s a lengthy list… TBWNIS have played with our Brothers Shooting Guns (interview here), Hawkeyes (interview here) and Moths and Locusts… all very special events. We’ve played with Pere Ubu (who dug us a lot), Slim Cessn’a Autoclub twice actually (Denver greats on Alternative Tentacles) and Simply Saucer. We had the honor of playing with Damo Suzuki of CAN, on 3 different occasions over 3 years and that will be impossible to beat in all seriousness. He is such a great dude and we love him! The two previous bands I was in supported Electric Frankenstein, The Candy Snatchers, Dirtbombs, Bellrays, Plastic Crimewave Sound (interview here), Redd Kross, Lost Sounds, King Khan & The Shrines, New Bomb Turks, Trans AM, Six Finger Satellite and more… all were special!
Do you still go out and dig through piles of records these days? What are some of the latest finds?
I wish… rarely ever these days. The kinda stuff I put in the shop and want for myself is stuff that is rare or obscure. Most of the great collections are either sold or being hung onto…”crate digging” has become a total exercise in futility where I am. Most people everywhere have shit taste in music, just cuz it’s a record don’t mean it shoulda’ been made or you shoulda’ bought it!
The crazy amount of re-issues of ultra rarities and never before released stuff is where my head has been at for the past 10 or so years and then there is all the killer new bands, whatever the genre!
What are some of the most interesting records in your collection?
I have 10,000 records give or take and nothing shitty. I’m 58 years old and have been working on a high learning curve now for literally 50 years. Let’s put it this way, I don’t give a shit about OG pressings, but have tons… between Acid Mothers Temple (and all relations), Hawkwind, Circle, Can and Gong that’s like 350 LPs right there.
Is there an album that has profoundly affected you more than others?
No, not really, although in general, I would have to say that the majority of German music from ’69 through ’74 or so, moves me more than anything else. I have over 1000 LPs specifically from this era and geography. I never grow weary of, Amon Düül I or II, CAN, Guru Guru, Embryo, Agitation Free, Klaus Schulze and others of course… deep shit and a bottomless pit of brilliance.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
Well… there’s way too many to talk about. Newish groups who I absolutely LUV and pursue all releases and would recommend to anyone would be Dead Sea Apes, Acid Mothers, Circle, Lamp Of The Universe (interview here), Bong, Motorpsycho, Øresund Space Collective (interview here), Causa Sui (interview here), Colour Haze, Electric Moon (interview here and here), Electric Orange, Bardo Pond, Carlton Melton, The Myrrors (interview here and here), Sendelica (interview here), Vibravoid (interview here), The Heads etc. No weak moments from any of the aforementioned. There are so many freaking great bands and the new stuff happens all the time… crazy! 
I would actually add, that it’s in my opinion that it may be wise in general for people to watch what certain labels are up to regarding new shit wise. Failsafe in general and never the same old same old: Cardinal Fuzz, Beyond Beyond Is Beyond, Clostridium, Riot Season, Drone Rock, Tonzonen, Sulatron, El Paraiso, Adansonia, Fruits de Mer, Space Rock Productions. Of course there’s more! The people that run all these labels are the soldiers responsible for all our platter matters! Apologies to anyone I know who got left off the list.
As far as the “Desert Island” disc thing goes: LP wise specifically…
Can – Delay, Rush – S/T, U.I.C. – Our Garage, Hawkwind (interviews here) – Space Ritual, Dream Syndicate – Days Of Wine and Roses, Gong (interview here) – Camembert Electrique, Love (interview here) – Four Sail, Fifty Foot Hose (interview here) – Cauldron, The Nils – S/T, Radio Birdman – Radios Appear, Deep Purple – Burn, Kinks – Face To Face, Captain Beefheart – Clearspot… Man there is no desert island big enough.
Thank you for taking your time. Last word is yours.
Music makes the world go round and is the only true universal language! Cheers to you and anyone else that digs The Band Whose Name Is A Symbol. Peace and Love {:>))))
– Klemen Breznikar
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