Interview: Bruce McCulloch reflects on his debut album, Shame-Based Man
Interview: Bruce McCulloch reflects on his debut album, Shame-Based Man
By Will Harris
Although he's arguably best known for his work as a member of the Canadian sketch comedy group The Kids in the Hall, Bruce McCulloch has also spent a portion of his career as a recording artist, even if the release of his debut album did not result in McCulloch suddenly thinking of himself as a recording artist. When Atlantic Records released Shame-Based Man in 1995, it was - to use McCulloch's recurring adjective about the era - a weird time, and the decision to record and release an album for which he had no particular commercial expectations wasn't exactly the best of all possible paths toward achieving normalcy.
Having said that, however, Shame-Based Man is still a pretty great album, and it's held up well over the course of the past two decades, which is why we're psyched that we've been able to make it available again. In conjunction with the album's digital reissue, we caught up with McCulloch, who was surprised - if pleasantly so - to learn that his album was back in print again, and he was kind enough to take a bit of time to reflect on how the album came about, what the writing and recording process was like, what he did to promote its release at the time, and how he might've handled it differently if he hadn't been in his thirties and, in his words, “going through a weird space.”
Rhino: So what were the origins of Shame-Based Man? Was it a case where you'd always wanted to record an album and suddenly had the opportunity?
Bruce McCulloch: I think it was some version of that. You know, when I did a couple of songs when we were super hot, people really wanted to put out “Daves I Know” and stuff, and I was, like, “No! No, I'm not fucking doing that, man!” [Laughs.] Because I was young and stupid! And then someone approached me - Tim Sommer, who was at Atlantic at the time and who worked with Hootie and the Blowfish - and said, “Do you want to do a record?” And I was, like, “Yeah! I want to do a record!” Because, of course, growing up on records and not TV, it felt more important to me in some ways than doing my television series!
So how much material did you have squirreled away when you got the opportunity to make the album? Or did you have to more or less start from scratch?
I started semi from scratch, which was the fun of it. We went through kind of a normal exploratory process where I wrote some stuff, and then I did, like, a theater show for a couple of nights at the Tarragon Theater in Toronto, just to play some music and hear some stuff. But the wonderful thing, I think, about certain records is that you go into a space for a week, and you have some concepts, but you see what comes up. And that's what we did with this. We actually did it a couple of times. And that was the fun of it, too. You know, a lot of it is improvised, and some of it is highly worked upon. It depends which piece.
I wasn't sure of the timeframe in terms of doing Kids in the Hall and doing the album, but based on what you just said, it sounds like this wasn't something that you just sat down and did in one sitting.
Yeah, I did a couple of big sessions, you know, and we recorded out of town at the Tragically Hip's studio, which was great, because it was just like all of us living together, which is what I'd read other people do, and it was really, really fun. And then finally we went and did some at Metalworks in Toronto, which is more of an old-school rock place. But, yeah, I did it in pieces, which is what I've always done. I just wrote a book, and I did the same thing. You do a bunch, and then you leave it for awhile, and then you do a bunch more, and then there's a certain day that you have to have it ready, so you cram it in by then. So you can create fast and hard, and then you can kind of look at what you've got: some of it's really good and some of it isn't so good, and the stuff you thought was really good may not be good at all, and the stuff you thought was kind of flimsy is actually kind of cool.
How was the actual construction process once you had all the material recorded? Was it difficult to find a flow?
Well, you know, I'm obsessive. [Laughs.] So, yeah, it's always difficult! But it's like putting together a one-man show: somehow you know that something's going to begin it, and then you know something's going to end it. And it's actually fun once you've got the important pieces together, and you start going, “Oh, should I do a little radio thing? Oh, that's good. Let's go do some radio things!” So being kind of an obsessive artist, that's the fun of it, too. And doing the cover, and doing the photo shoot, and doing all of that… All of it is the fun!
Say, how did that cover come about, anyway?
Well, there was an artist - I actually bought a couple of paintings of his - named Marshall Arisman out of New York who's, like, a big deal guy. I saw his illustrations in Esquire on a story, and I somehow got hold of him, and he sent them to me, and I bought them from him. And then I said, “Oh, I want him to do my cover!” And it was, like, “No, he'll never do your cover. We can't afford him.” But, yep, before I knew it, Marshall, he was doing it. And then I did the craziest, longest photo shoot ever that was so conceptual with a guy named Danny Clinch, who does a lot of stuff and is still a fucking titan of stuff. And it was all just following my weird impulses, like, “Oh, I'll do a picture of me holding a bowling trophy! Yeah, I'm obsessed with that!” [Laughs.] And the great thing about a record is the economy of it. You can follow all your fetishes, and it doesn't cost a million dollars. It costs a thousand!
Aside from the general brotherhood that bonds all Canadians, had you known Bob Wiseman of Blue Rodeo prior to going into the album?
Yeah, you know, my first solo film… I did a film called Coleslaw Warehouse.
I've heard of it. I've never seen it.
Yeah, you know, I should find it and put it out. I'll mention that to my producing partner. But it's basically Death of a Coleslaw Salesman. [Laughs.] And it's got very serious music, with cellos and stuff. That was a real serious time in my career, which lasted for about a month. But Bob Wiseman scored the most delicious music for me. So we kind of became friends from that, and he did a couple of things on the show. He did a thing called “I'm Brucio!” where he came and played. So we became friends, and he's a great producer, so he just seemed like the right guy to do it.
I actually did a double take when I saw his name, because I'm a fan of Blue Rodeo, but I hadn't realized until prepping to chat with you that he not only produced your album but also co-wrote the majority of the tracks.
Based just on Blue Rodeo's stuff, he seems like someone whose musical sensibilities would be more mainstream.
Oh, no, he's a freak. [Laughs.] You should listen to his solo records. He's a freaky artist. I think Blue Rodeo kind of - in some way - was constraining to him, because he's a guy who'll improvise on anything for an hour if you want, and he can follow anything. That's a kind of thing that I like. As opposed to, like, “Okay, let's spend three days working on the drum sound!” You know, it was more like following our impulses, which is what he does in his work.
As noted, Bob Wiseman co-wrote the majority of the material, but there's at least one song on which Kevin McDonald is credited as a co-writer.
Oh, really? What did he write?
Apparently, he co-wrote “Doors.” Well, reportedly, anyway.
Yeah, I mean, he wrote that sketch with me, and then I put it on the record. I don't want to make that mistake! [Laughs.] Otherwise, Kevin's calling you drunk in the middle of the night, going, “I thought I wrote that Doors sketch with you!”
There's also the song “Eraserhead,” which was co-written with Don Kerr of the Rheostatics.
Yeah, he was our drummer, so there's a couple of things that we did. I mean, we actually jammed… [Hesitates.] I've never used that word before. I probably won't again. But, yeah, he was our drummer, so there were a couple of things where I wanted to credit all of those guys, like Brian Connelly (Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet), because they were all, like, “Oh, let's do this! Let's try this!” And before you know it, you've made a thing.
When the time came to release the album, did you have any particular commercial expectations?
You know, I didn't think about it. It was so weird. I remember flying to New York, and I did a commercial which…I wish I knew where it was. If I can find it, I'll send it to you. I think the whole commercial cost a thousand dollars, but I did an open call for what I called “sexy 70-year-old women,” and I got the freakiest, craziest women ever, and they did, like, a bass and drums thing, singing, “Bruce McCulloch's got a record out / It's called Shame-Based Man / I don't really know him / But he hired us to sing this song.” And then I'm, like, spinning on a bronze platform thing, and I'd been bronzed. In fact, I remember it drying on my skin, and I couldn't get it off, and I had to fly back to Toronto that night 'cause we couldn't afford a hotel. So I, uh, didn't really have commercial expectations. [Laughs.]
That was actually the point in my life when it was probably the ripest with sheer offers, where I was getting offered things. So, no, I don't think I had commercial expectations at all. I always have creative ones, though, and I thought I was creatively well-received with the record. But, like, I've just done a book, and I went, “Oh, I should do some shows promoting my book!” I never did that with Shame-Based Man. People would go, “Oh, we want to fly you to Boston to do a show?” [Sneering.] “Why? To promote my record?” “Uh, yeah?” [Laughs.] So I think it came out at a time when Kids in the Hall was kind of ending its first phase, and I just wanted to make work and not promote it at all. I mean, it's not like I didn't promote it, but I didn't promote it like I would now. Now I'd kind of follow the energy and go out on a little tour and do all the interviews. I don't think I thought about that at that time.
So did you do any live dates at all? Or was that even viable?
I did a couple of things. We did South by Southwest. We did the Halifax Music Festival. So, yeah, we did a couple of things. And it was weird, because I'd always done one-man theater shows, or one-man theater shows with music, so it would be kind of natural that I'd go and do something. [Sneering.] But, you know, just because something's natural and makes sense doesn't mean I'm going to go and do it! [Laughs.] That's my 30-year-old self.
So was Shame-Based Man a one-album deal?
Yeah, I….can't tell you. I don't know. I'll find the contract, now that I know that it's been re-released! [Laughs.] I think it was. I did another record after that, which I just did on my own because I became tired of people coming up to me at shows going, “Oh, I can't get Shame-Based Man!” And I was, like, “I can't get it, either! I don't know where the fuck it is!” So I have no idea. I'm sure I have a contract somewhere…but I don't think they picked up my option!
At this point, that's probably a safe bet. I was just wondering if there was ever a gentle conversation where they sat you down and said, “We hate to break this to you, Bruce, but…”
No, I don't think I ever thought of doing another record! [Laughs.] It wasn't like I was going, “I'm going to go do another record!” I didn't think, “I'm a recording artist now!” Which is the beauty of it. You don't say, “Guys, I'm in a band now, and I'm really serious about this.” No, you do it because you can, and because it's a great creative outlet. And if you don't put this expectation on something, then it can maybe be better. Now that I'm in my fifties, my joke is always, “I'm going to make it this time! Finally, this time, I'm gonna make it!” I didn't think I was going to tour around playing music, 'cause I didn't want to. So, no, I didn't think about doing another record until many years later, when I actually felt like doing another one.
Did you make a video for Shame-Based Man? I couldn't find one, but that doesn't mean you didn't make one.
I did make a video.
Did you? For which song?
Well, I did a very cynical thing, actually. Lorne Michaels got me to do some short films. Maybe I can try to find one somewhere and send it to you. I'm sure Rhino would love that. Not that I know I'm getting a dime from this fucking deal. [Laughs.] But I did four short films for Saturday Night Live, and I was going to do four more the next year, but I never got around to it. Which, of course, now I'd feverishly go, “Oh, I'm going to be doing the Saturday Night Live films!” But I did a video for “Eraserhead,” and it aired on Saturday Night Live, but…I don't know if it aired on Much Music and stuff. There was a time when Much Music and MTV were important.
I remember those days.
I don't know if it aired on there or not. I can't remember! But I did a special on Much Music. Like, a really conceptual special. If one of us could find it, it would be really fantastic, because it had the commercial on it about nine times. [Laughs.] But I got out of a limo with my wife, who was about 70 years old, and then we played live, but I did weird conceptual things where I was dressed as a member of KISS for awhile. It was wild. So, yeah, I did do a video, but I don't know if it ever got played. I really should try to find it.
Actually, I just hit Google, and I'm not sure what phrase I searched before, but a video for “Daves I Know” just popped up, one that was posted by Nerdist.
Oh, but that's from (Kids in the Hall). “Eraserhead” was done for Saturday Night Live and for wherever else. But then…I think I did my own video. I don't know. I'm thinking now that I was probably going through a weird space then.
Well, at least you made it through to the other side.
Have you been tempted to revisit music again and do another album? Beyond the other album you referenced, Drunk Baby Project.
Yeah, I've started recording again. I recorded a couple of things in Vancouver the last time I was there, with my producer who did Drunk Baby Project, so…I'll release those at some point. But I haven't yet.
Before we go, you're currently working on a new series, Young Drunk Punk, in Canada, which I've written about for TV Week in Vancouver but have yet to actually see. Has there been any talk of a US network picking it up?
[Hesitatingly.] Yeah, we're in talks right now. I don't know if it'll happen or not. But we hope that's going to happen.
I've heard good things.
Well, it's pretty good. [Laughs] And it's got some pretty good seminal punk from the early '80s. So it's a pretty cool show, I think.
Lastly, I don't suppose there's been any talk of your ABC series Carpoolers coming to DVD.
No. Only way back when (it was originally on the air). But maybe you can start the flame. I mean, now that Shame-Based Man is out digitally, doors are going to open!
With this album available again, I think it's fair to say that the world is your oyster.
Oh, yeah. I can do whatever I want!