Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Interview: Dan Cowan

I don't know how it is that I became fascinated with history. But, if memory serves me correctly, I've always been good at it.

History can help us learn, understand, and grow.
And when I come across someone with years of experience under his or her belt, I ask them to share some of their stories so that their knowledge gets passed on.

Dan Cowan joined The Ska Spot Network a few months ago, and a few of the other members had heard of him and The Villains. (I confess I had not.)

Undoubtedly, being 61 years old, he's got quite a few stories to share. These are some of them.

1)Music truly is your occupation. How long have you been in the music business, and how did you get started?

Just over 40 years working in live music production, 30 + years professionally. I was growing up in Northern California, graduated from high school in 1964 and drifted right into the San Francisco / Marin County hippie / Haight Ashbury / Fillmore Ballroom scene. My younger brother played guitar in a band and asked me to be the singer and manager which I did. Not a lot happened with that band but I became familiar with the how to book a band process which came in handy when I went to college and got involved with organizing school dances.

One thing led to another and I worked with 3 original material concert bands as a roadie, soundman, PR guy, Road Manager, Manager over a 10 year period. I / we are actually "indie" pioneers with one of those bands "Ride". We figured out how to record, press and release and sell our own record on our own label. I was the distributor, in and out of every ma and pa music store in every city the band played (Pacific Northwest of the USA and Canada) In the middle of all this fun, I moved to Canada to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam.

Once in Canada, I got involved in bringing my California buddies bands up to Vancouver to play and dominate the local original material concert band music scene. We did not play bars because we didn't play cover tunes and we were much louder that typical club bands at the time. Thru that process I got involved in producing and running shows in a local 1000 capacity ballroom in downtown Vancouver, BC called the Commodore Ballroom. I became an expert in running shows on time, became the regular MC by default, and became an expert in immigration and customs between Canada and the USA and Europe.

I road managed a guitar army band (Doucette - "Mama Let him play") who's first record went triple platinum in Canada and we were awarded the Juno Award. That led to road managing "Toronto" who also went triple platinum and had several top ten hits in Canada. One band always led to another. I never have applied for a job with a band, it is always a band that worked with or toured with a band that I road or tour managed and they would track me down and ask me to join the team. At one point I found myself road managing the world famous Television and recording stars the "Irish Rovers" for 5 years. It was like an extended vacation. All shows were sold out before we got to town. We played the greatest old and new performing arts centers around N America. The Rovers were funnier and wilder than any of the other famous rock bands I have toured with. (except the Villains)

2)You enjoy many types of music. But what attracted you to ska?

That is a funny story, as you can tell from my previous answer, my musical history is with California guitar army original material rock bands. I was into the Doobie Brothers, Santana, the dead, Tower of Power, Steve Miller, Allman Brothers, etc. In 1980, I was partnered with a buddy in Vancouver , BC Canada who was running a full production rehearsal facility / soundstage where the top local bands practiced. We had various sized rooms depending on what was needed, it was called "Rockspace" and was decades ahead of it's time. We had in-house merch company and dark room, printing press set up. pretty cool set up.
I had been out on tour with "Toronto". We had just sold out the Edmonton Coliseum and I was quite full of myself after helping take that band from a bar band to a major concert attraction drawing over 14 thousand fans and selling out all our merch for the whole tour on the first night. Anyway, my buddy and eventual co-manager says to me, "you got to check out this band down the hall in one of the rooms, they are from England.
We went down there and listened outside the door. To be honest, up to that point, I would not have recognized ska music if it had bit me on the ankle. So I listened, I thought it is just 3 chords and a cloud of dust, it is so repetitive, but.......I do like the melodic sax solos that came wofting our of the room., and wait, my foot has started tapping to the relentless lead bass that was driving the songs, and the beat, it is so infectious, the next thing I know I am boogieing away, (later to known as skanking.) And it made me laugh, especially the Villains skinheads when they played on stage, it just cracked me up..
So I became a fan of ska but didn't really get to hear much other ska music, certainly not live anyway. I knew of the Specials, Madness, Bad Manners, etc but never had the chance to track down their records and play them. It is only lately that I have become what I would call a true ska music fan and have started building my personal collection and getting better at recognizing the different styles, especially the early years.

3)Who are The Villains and how did you become their manager?

Performing in front of a packed club in downtown Vancouver, the VILLAINS were arrested on stage in the middle of a set by Canadian Immigration Officers. Remember, this was 1980 and a full band of skinheads was shocking enough and the fact that most of the media was not familiar with the term “Ska” and they weren’t sure how to describe the Villains music added to the buzz. It seems that a local booking agency had snitched off the band to the officials saying they may not have working visas, turns out, they were right.

Ironically, there was a civic strike in Vancouver at the time and the normal immigration detention centre was not available, so incredibly the arrested villains were taken to the local prison. Imagine the apprehension on the band members part as they learn they are headed to prison!!! But somehow the bands reputation had preceded them and the word inside the prison was that these guys were famous musicians and they were received and treated like rock stars including being asked for autographs for the warden’s daughter. The band members made their appearance in court and were allowed to voluntarily depart the country and not be deported.

At this point, the band asked Terry Gray who had taken an interest and been helpful to the band since they started rehearsing at Rockspace, if he would manage them. Terry said he would only take it on if I would join him. I accepted Terry and the band's invitation to manage them saying “ I can’t let all this all this publicity go to waste, that would truly be criminal!”. I made sure the proper paperwork and performance contracts for a Canadian Tour were filed with the authorities and the band was allowed to return legally to Canada.

I arranged that the first concert they played once back in the country was a free show in the prison for the inmates and the guards resulting in another wave of national media attention. The VILLAINS next sold out the Fabulous Commodore Ballroom and went on a ska crusade across Canada leaving a wave / ripple effect of ska music and non stop dancing fun times. Setting attendance records and breaking bar sales records at colleges and dance clubs everywhere they played, the VILLAINS received truly amazing media coverage, including coverage in McLean’s Magazine and front page write ups and photos in the Globe & Mail.

The Villains approached everything with their particular wacky sense of humor ( and mischief) and countered any negative “skinhead” labels by headlining Anti-KKK rallies and performing free concerts for sick kids in hospitals across the nation. These VILLAINS are really the good guys and their biggest crime is forcing you to dance even if you thought you didn’t want to was the by-line. The Canadian press embraced the fun spirit of the band and they went on a unprecedented 5 year run of non stop touring, sold out concerts, impressive merchandise sales and releasing 2 records in the process.

This was all accomplished without the support of a major record label, in fact, the Villains are indie pioneers in Canada by recording and distributing a record on their own label (Skinhead Records) in 1980. The Villains live shows are legendary because of the unpredictable stage antics which have included gaffer taping the sax player to a high chair and shaving his head for an encore, or when they put the 6 ft 6 in. guitarist on stilts making him tall enough for the lead singer to run between his legs.
At one point Terry left the Villains to pursue other opportunities but I continued to manage the band up to the time we decided to stop touring and go our own ways. We went strong and hard for over 5 years before we decided to take a break - turns out the break was for over 20 years.

4)What prompted The Villains to move from England to Canada?

The band was organized by the Front Man / Singer, Count Steve and Sax Player, Tom Perry, in Vancouver, then the Count went back to London, UK to recruit the rest of the band. As soon as the band was complete, Tom flew to London and joined the rest. They recorded and played around London briefly and then headed to Vancouver. It is quite a story, here it is in Count Steve's own words:

"It all started in Vancouver, BC when I got a phone call from Greek Jim in early 1979 when he said ‘I have written two songs, got a bunch of young musicians together to record and want someone to do the vocals’. I met Jim, who I knew from the Vancouver Alternative Music Scene at the time. I listened to the two tracks, one track was called Sixth World, a dark rock song. Didn’t really grab me, but the second song, Burn Me, was a superbly put together - pure Ska – I loved it immediately.

We went into the studios and recorded the two tracks. Bob Rock produced the two tunes and Jim was over the moon. It was only ever intended to be Jim’s project to get these songs onto tape, the band, which was called IQ, was never going to tour or indeed play live.

This was the time of the Madness/ Specials 2 Tone revival in England. Always being a Ska and Reggae fanatic since the original skinhead wave in the late 1960s, early 70s, I wanted in, but playing, recording and touring in Canada. Looking in Vancouver and further afield in Canada, it was pretty plain to see that I was going to have to go back to London to recruit the band.

Whilst supping ale in my local, the ‘Dover Arms’, in the West End of Vancouver, I was introduced by a friend to Tom Perry, who was a Sax player who had been playing in various local bands. I mentioned my villainous intentions and said I would be forming a Ska band, he’d not heard of Ska so I gave him a tape containing Burn Me, One Step Beyond and Night Boat to Cairo. He said this was the music he had been waiting all his life for and he wanted a piece of the action when formed.
Shortly after this, I left for London via New York with a mission to recruit the best drummer, bass player and guitarist I could find. Tom Perry stayed in Vancouver and was to come to London to rehearse as soon as the other band members were recruited. As soon as I touched down, I placed an advertisement into the NME (New Musical Express) a national music newspaper in England advertising for the aforementioned for a tour and recording prospects in Canada.
I wheedled out the heavy rockers/folk musicians who said they could turn their hand to anything and would give it a go, and rented a small rehearsal space in a studio in Brentwood, Essex with a view to auditioning a guitarist and bass player. Out of the session came Dave Neal who had been playing in a pop band and Tom Robinson who had a distinctive funk flavour to his playing. Now what was going to prove the hardest part was to recruit a drummer. Despair was starting to set in and then through the door walked three young skinheads and an older bloke, two of the skinheads quickly set up the drum kit and John Jacobs auditioned. Within a couple of minutes I knew he was the man for the job.
Time now to get on with some work. By this time, Tom Perry was on his way in from Vancouver, so we got to work. The rehearsals and work schedule were like a military operation, long hours. Ideas were coming from everywhere. John and I went through some Ska favourites and covers that the band could perform and I wrote Life of Crime. Dave Neal also had many good songwriting ideas and the band sounded great and got tight very quickly. We were on our way. I knew this outfit would take Vancouver and Canada by storm."

5)What bands did The Villains tour with?

We co-headlined a cross Canada tour with the Equators from the UK who had just released their new record in Canada on Attic Records and we opened for Bad Manners on a sold out show at Larry's Hideaway in Toronto. Other than that, we never got to play with other ska bands.

6)You're trying to get a ska scene going in Western Canada. What challenges are you facing?

So far, so good but the true test is coming on Friday, March 28th as that is the day I launch the first in a ska concert series I am going to call "Skaspot Live Vancouver" If this project works, it will become a once a month ska show series with 3 or more bands per show. My first show is a SKA-A-THON with the top 6 local ska bands in Western Canada performing live.

The challenges:
Are there enough ska fans to support this adventure?
Are the local ska bands good enough to create a vibrant local / national music scene?
Will the local media embrace my goal of kick starting the ska scene up here and give me the coverage and support I will need to succeed?
Can I pull it off when in fact, I don't have a sponsor or financial backer in place yet, so there is a financial loss risk?

7)You're also bringing back The Villains. How did that come about?

Again, funny story. I have been very busy the past 2 decades with the production of major live concerts and tours through out the Pacific Northwest after the Villains and haven't thought too much about that time in my life, I just moved on. Then one day I googled Villains and realized our 27 year old EP had become a collectors item on ebay and was costing $85 if you could get it. 2 days later I get a call from Tom Perry, aka Jock Strap, the Villains sax player and band leader. He has put a new band of Villains together and they are in rehearsal and he invites me over for a listen. Before the night was over I had signed on again as manager.

Tom is on a mission to return to the Villains roots of straight ahead high energy, up tempo traditional two tone ska - but with a single sax soloist instead of a full horn section. We are taking our time to get the right guys in the band. Lots of interesting internal buzz going on, like maybe the Count will be able to come over from England and sing on the record and perform with the band again. And the original keyboardist and 2nd guitarist is making noises like he might show up. Tom Perry's Scottish buddy "Roddy" is the trumpet player in the Kick Horns, a London based horn section that tours with Clapton and just about everyone else over there and he wants to play on the record and hang with Tom so who knows what might happen........

8)An album is in the works. What can we expect, and will there be a tour?

Yes and yes. Expect high energy, ska dance music with melodic sax solos and intense driving bass lines. Half or more original new songs, some that include social comment and several Villain versions of ska standards. I am running a "Villains Ska Song Contest" asking Ska bands, and songwriters to submit a song for our new album. I have had a few interesting submissions so far including one from Chris Murray.

The Villains were truly famous for their stage presence and humorous banter. The plan is to finish the new record, give it time to get distributed and then tour the larger ska markets in North America, especially the colleges and ska festivals. When we are scary good again, like we were before, that's when we start playing live again. I expect that to be in the Spring of 2008.

9)What other ska bands have you discovered recently that you enjoy listening to?

Zen Baseballbat just knocks me out. Led by guitar playing twins and a killer horn section, they are so hooky. And I am looking to get more familiar soon with the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. I love those guys and Dave from Skaboom says they are flat out the best ska band he has ever seen live. I am listening to a great local ska band called Skaboom with a killer horn section that features former Villain's guitarist and songwriter David Neal. I recently have become a big Chris Murray fan, great song writer. I play Slackness all the time. Another local ska band Los Furios has some some catchy ska dance tunes.

I am trying to listen to as much local ska as I can to get up to speed booking wise for the Skaspot concert series. I still find myself listening to Bad Manners a lot and the 27 year old Villains tunes from the 1980 EP "Life of Crime" still make me smile and nod my head and tap my feet. I only recently got those songs digitized.

10) Any parting words?

Yes, I want to say thank you and your associates for all the good ska music and information and history that I get from listening to Music Is Our Occupation podcasts and reading your blogs. You guys on this site and a select few others are doing a really good job of promoting ska in a healthy way and are performing a great service to ska fans world wide. I am humbled but pleased that you guys even notice what the Villains and I are up to.

No, Dan. Thank you!

Dan Cowan is a member of The Ska Spot Network


  1. Big ups to Gabe for help with the photos.

    And again, thanks to Dan.

  2. Hi again, see tthis is the site i told you i signed up to. It has some nice information about how to make money using OPP, i think you might find it interesting. here it is. bye!


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