They churned a wide, wild path across the Canadian musical landscape in the 1980s and ’90s, topping campus charts across the country with their 1986 debut album Less Art, More Pop! by uprooting chunks of punk, pop and country then scattering them throughout songs that ranged from tongue-in-cheek to heart-in-hand. Edmonton’s Jr. Gone Wild, featuring key songwriter Mike McDonald as the constant among a rotating set of nearly 30 musicians over time, had existed a dozen years when they broke up in 1995, but their impact was indelible, leaving fans jonesing for nearly two decades.
Then, after an Edmonton promotor asked McDonald to name his price for a reunion (“I named a figure I thought was outrageous and he said, ‘OK.’ ”), causing McDonald to “go through the torture of putting this thing back together,” the band re-formed with original members Dave “Dove” Brown, Steve Loree and Larry Shelast.
“We got back together in 2013 and we had to rehearse a lot,” McDonald says from his Edmonton home. “Eventually, the first new song we had was Fool’s Errand. Dove had said, ‘I would have got a lot more accomplished by just yelling fuck off at the sky.’
“And I said ‘That’s a pretty good line, Dove. I’m stealing it.’ At that time the record store that I owned (Permanent Records) was failing so there was a lot of frustration in that, so that really spoke to me because I felt like yelling fuck off at the sky myself.
“So, I wrote that and that surprised the shit out of us because that wasn’t in the game plan at all, new songs, especially ones that worked out real well.”
Thus began the journey of Still Got the Jacket, the first Jr. Gone Wild album since 1995, to be released Nov. 12 in a joint effort by (weewerk) and Stony Plain. During pre-production, Shelast died of a heart attack, nearly derailing the project. McDonald’s nephew, Quinton Herbert, stepped in to fill the drummer’s throne, even though he wasn’t born when their last album, Simple Little Wish, came out.
“He’s my nephew, and he’s been listening to my music since he was born, and at some point he became a drummer. He already knew all our songs; we didn’t have to teach them to him. He saved us six months of work.
“But he’s also a twentysomething kid with a lot of energy and a lot of ideas. We were down in the dumps because we’d just lost Larry, and Quinton kind of pulled us out of it. He brought us up when we were down. He’s not a technician like Larry was, he’s more like a punk rock Ringo Starr, but that suits me and Steve just fine, and Dove and him lock together really well.”
Still Got the Jacket features 16 songs, and although McDonald no longer writes a slew of tunes to pick and choose from (“I didn’t have the time, or the energy; I have a job and a family. We didn’t expect Jr. Gone Wild to come back in my life; there wasn’t any time so I had to just cram it in”), the band’s classic sound remains intact, albeit with updated themes like Cool for My Kids (Good Lookin’ for My Wife) and Old and Ugly. There are also covers of Chilliwack’s Fly at Night and Southern Cross by The Beat Farmers, who used to do shows with Jr. Gone Wild.
This gets us on the topic of cover songs, particularly fellow Canadian artist Carolyn Mark’s exquisite version of McDonald’s Slept All Afternoon.
“I like it better than our version. I wrote it, so I’m pretty close to it and the Jr. Gone Wild way of doing it, but Carolyn made a couple of different singing choices. You know what I mean, she does it differently (and brought out something) that I didn’t know was there. So as a writer, I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know my song could do that! Way to go, Carolyn, that’s fucking great!’ She did a nice, mournful version of it.”
It’s one of the greatest Canadian songs, which makes one wonder how McDonald managed to turn his back on it, and music, for so many years. A writer of his talents working retail seems wasteful. “Well, you gotta kill the ego a bit in order to survive.
“The thing is, Jr. Gone Wild had broken up for 18 years and I’d had a couple of kids (now 17 and 20) and I’d moved on. I’d joined the workforce, which was incredibly hard to do after 20 years of living the life of Riley.
“When the band got together and we do so well at the shows — and I get paid pretty good these days with the band — it’s really tough to go back to the 9-to-5 thing and turn it off and be a retail clerk, because my customers at my store don’t know who the fuck Jr. Gone Wild is. They’re not punks and they didn’t go to college in the ’80s.”
But Still Got the Jacket might yet make converts of those ignorant customers. Recorded at Loree’s studio in Nanton, the tunes showcase seasoning earned over decades. The band recorded in several stints, leading to one of the recording’s strengths.
“Steve would have the bed tracks and he did his guitar tracks when he was alone, so he had no one to interfere with his muse. When you’ve got three or four people in a room, something’s gonna get interrupted, right?
“Pedal steel, six string electric, he layered them. It’s textured, right? They call him Colourman. He got to sit in the songs, you can tell by listening to what he did, he was serving the songs 100 per cent, but also using his own thing to get it done.”
Listening to the new tunes, and the previous albums, it’s startling to think that none of it would have existed except for a chance meeting of two high school students in downtown Edmonton while watching some buskers. McDonald would later learn that the person playing saxophone was Paul MacKenzie from The Real MacKenzies, and that Jerry Jerry (and the Sons of Rhythm Orchestra) was dancing to this spectacle with a girl named Eden.
“There was a crowd standing around and I was standing beside this kid, and it was Ken Chinn (who as Mr. Chi Pig later fronted another legendary band, SNFU). He just started talking to me, told me he went to Vic Comp. I said I go to O’Leary, and that’s sort of where I met him.
“I was friends with Ken Chinn years ago before there was a Jr. Gone Wild and before there was an SNFU. He was one of the first people I met in the punk scene. He was always exposing me to new music, and he was the first one — this is kind of ironic I guess, because he went on with SNFU to be hardcore legends — he’s the guy who brought me the Rank and File album which is the record that kind of gave me permission to proceed with my artistic ideas.
“Yeah, that was Ken Chinn that led me to the American alternative country stuff of the time. Weird, eh?”
Jr. Gone Wild play two album release shows Nov. 21 at the Ironwood.