Sitting in the side room of the Pig’s Ear Tavern on a Saturday a while back, Cris Cuddy was explaining to me that good rock music is in the performer’s delivery, the energy that comes off the stage, not the technical precision of the performance. He has a lifetime of music business experience, going back almost five decades, to draw on, and makes his points anecdotally.
His long-time bandmate JP Hovercraft sums up Cris’ point, saying, “It’s like Ludwig van Beethoven said: ‘To play a wrong note is irrelevant. To play without passion is unforgivable.’” Tilting his head to one side, Cris smiled and said, “Hey, I like that—what was that name again?”
JP and Cris are now, and have been numerous times in the past, members of Max Mouse and the Gorillas, among other bands too many, and many of them too short-lived, to mention. Cris is also a solo singer-songwriter, and JP is long-time sideman of Joe Hall and Buzz Thompson.
JP and Cris met at Trent University at the turn of the 70s. Cris had already made two albums as Jeremy Dormouse, beautifully bare, homemade albums on which his Roy-Orbison-meets-Fred-Neil voice and the voices of his various friends enjoyed minimal accompaniment. JP arrived at Trent from the US (“draft-dodger,” he coughs) looking for a musical gang, and quickly found one. “I was heading up the stairs to my dorm and I saw some people singing and playing guitars in the stairwell. I said, ‘Musicians, yay!’ I ran up the stairs and hauled my gear down again, and said, ‘Hi, can I sit in?’”
Those jam sessions were loose, friendly occasions, without any focused ambition. Dennis O’Toole, David Tingley, and various others were around sometimes, and other times others were around. Eventually a band with a stable line-up “fell together,” as Cris puts it, and took the name Bacon Fat.
At this stage the band was mostly doing covers, playing residencies (six days plus a matinee) at hotels and resorts, filling an entire evening with music to dance to. “We weren’t doing originals, but we did develop a style,” Cris says. “We weren’t a top 40s band.”
“We could open with bluegrass, do a set of country, and a set of rock’n’roll. We’d just keep cranking the levels up.”
They were eclectic, but with a pronounced country orientation. “We could open with bluegrass, do a set of country, and a set of rock’n’roll. We’d just keep cranking the levels up.” A lot of this range was due to Dennis Delorme, a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist who could play the banjo and pedal steel.
Cris grew up hearing real country and loving it, but it was really Dennis who pushed him in that direction, teaching him “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard. Coming from the US, JP was more keyed into the hippie country stuff like the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds. Their twang would often alienate audiences expecting a rock band, Cris says. “It was like, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re not the kind of band you like!’”
Often the band got off on messing with the audience. “We used to play the intro to ‘Smoke on the Water’ and then go into ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown,’” says Cris, noting this was a venue that charmingly “left the jukebox on full blast while the band played. That’s how much they respected musicians!”
But they were definitely taking a rock’n’roll approach to country. Delorme’s steel playing was not as traditional as it would become in Prairie Oyster. It was angular and brash, a bit like Sneaky Pete Kleinow, but looser, and with even more Jimi Hendrix-style flash.
Bands came and went over the years, and often gig to gig. “We’d throw something together, different combinations and different names, try to approximate what they wanted.” They didn’t make much money, but rent was only $60 a month and they had no real expenses to cover.
Eventually—no one’s exactly sure when—they became Max Mouse and the Gorillas. By the late 70s, they had migrated from the hotel circuit, where bands would play covers as the house band in multi-night residencies, to the university circuit, where they played covers and originals to more engaged audiences who wanted to experience something unique. That was “refreshing,” JP reflects.
They were a great party band, playing danceable songs but unusual songs, many of them written by Cris and featuring the duelling solos of Dennis on steel and George Bertok on keyboards. “Sometimes we’d hit a place and we’d strike a nerve, and they’d bring their friends” the next time. “Once people got to hear they loved us.”
In the late 70s, the Gorillas self-released two albums, Who is This Max Mouse Anyway? (1978) and Stilla Gorilla (1979). There was very little going on in the Canadian music business at the time, according to Cris. Doing it themselves wasn’t a conscious thing. JP says that punk and new wave definitely had an effect on their outlook. “All of a sudden there was an upsurge of people ignoring the labels, saying, ‘We’ll get it out ourselves.’”
They even did a music video a couple of years later for “Steppin’ Out,” from their first album. An upbeat pop song built on the riff from Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” it features a relentless chorus and stratospheric slides throughout from Delorme. By the time it was made, the band was disintegrating. Buzz Thompson was playing with them at this point, and JP started backing up Buzz at his own gigs. “These lines are not firm,” Cris says, “They bend and they overlap.”
Cris moved to Calgary in the early 80s, and played solo shows with a small group backing him up. Besides being in Buzz’s band, JP replaced Paul Quarrington in Joe Hall’s band the Continental Drift. Joe and JP toured out west at one point and hooked up with Cris for an efficient touring unit that could support both Joe and Cris. “We did two or three ska numbers,” J.P notes. “We were a hell of a ska band.”
For the rest of the 80s, “everybody was doing whatever,” Cris says, declining to trace it all back precisely. JP was playing with Joe and with Buzz Thompson, and Buzz was backing up Ronnie Hawkins. Little by little a new Max Mouse line-up solidified.
Playing music is “something we had to do, which is basically our whole careers, what we didn’t have enough sense not to do!”
These days the band features, besides Cris, JP and Buzz, Bobby Watson on lead guitar, Jim Leslie, the “King of the Jungle Drums,” and John “Johnny Homburg” Lang, the new guy, who spent the 70s in jazz fusion band Audiomaster, on keyboards. They enjoy each other’s company a lot, and they love the sound they make together. Playing music is “something we had to do, which is basically our whole careers, what we didn’t have enough sense not to do!”
Their next gig is a benefit for Lakefield Animal Welfare Society, and I can’t restrain myself from asking JP, who self-identifies as “one of the internet’s many cat people,” what he makes of the city’s new by-law that requires outdoor cats be leashed. He first declines (“I’ll get into trouble,” he mutters) but then immediately blurts out, “Put a cat on a leash and see how far you get, buster!”
With that one heated comment, he reverts to his thoughtful norm, noting only that “Animals are smarter than humans,” JP says. “Hence the aspiration to be gorillas.”
Max Mouse and the Gorillas play the Red Dog Tavern on Sunday February 12, from 3 to 6pm. All proceeds go to Lakefield Animal Welfare Society. Tickets are available in advance for $10 at Moondance, and admission at the door is $12.