by Mark Anthony Brennan
MB: So Johnny Feelings is your stage name?
JF: “Yeah. Silly name.”
Hey, so is Bono. So, what are Tower of Dudes about?
“It’s an avenue for me to play the songs I write. The band itself is a rotating cast of characters. The most recent bunch have been together for about 2 1/2 years. Of course, there’s my wife, she plays the accordion. The band started in the Czech Republic. We lived there for about 5 years.”
How did you end up there?
“We were finished university and we wanted to go traveling. So we went through southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand. We came back here and lived in Vancouver for a while. Friends were getting jobs and buying houses. That didn’t seem like fun because we still wanted to travel. However, we had no money. The easiest thing to do, it seemed, was to teach English. We applied all over the world but the first person to call was someone from the Czech Republic so we went there. We only intended to stay for a year but we ended up staying for five.”
That’s where you started the band?
“Yes. We toured a lot. It’s a lot easier in Europe. You can get from Prague to Paris in twelve hours. When you tour here in twelve hours you only get to, what, Williams Lake or something? Not that’s there’s anything wrong with Williams Lake but you’re not reaching a lot of people.”
You’ve have two kids now. How has that changed things?
“Touring is a lot different now. We just completed one and we took the whole family. That’s weird because now you’ve got the demands of the whole family. With just the band it’s case of “the show must go on”. But with kids they have no sense of balance.”
Where did you tour?
“We were playing Kispiox, which worked out really well because it’s very family-friendly. It’s up near Terrace. We played Smithers and then went to Artswells, which is in Wells. Really fun. And then we played Vancouver. It’s a difficult road to go between, with the kids and the music. We took a tour nanny with us.”
How did band start?
“I had a bunch of songs I’d recorded myself in our one-room apartment in Prague. I met a woman who wanted to promote bands so I said, “Oh, I have a band.” even though I didn’t. She said “Great. Come play at our festival.” I knew I guy who said he’d play bass, so all we had to do was find a drummer. I think it was my neighbour who introduced me to the drummer. He was from England. We practiced in the dirtiest jam spot in central Europe. I think it used to be a pig farm and it was heated by coal. The only toilet was this outhouse that they’d built and the floorboards were rotting. We came up with the name Tower of Dudes and we thought it was funny. It was only meant to last that one show. There have always been women in the band so the name never did make sense.”
How did the band keep going?
“People kept asking us to do shows and festivals. We hadn’t been a band for very long, so for a lack of knowing the songs we made up for it with stage presence. We wore face paint and stuff for a while. It became a spectacle of ridiculousness.”
Was it a novelty that you were Canadian?
“Yes, for sure. We had Canadian, American and British members, so our nationalities were a big draw. We’d even do Johnny Cash songs and play up the American accents. They loved that. When we toured Britain and Ireland it was a novelty that we were a Czech band, that was something different.”
When did you do your first album?
“When we got back from that first tour of Britain and Ireland. We figured we had to record something and then get back out touring. We recorded it in my apartment. It only took a few days. We got some press on that and started touring around Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. Austria. All throughout central Europe. After that it was mainly Germany, which is good because they always feed you and give you a place to stay. One time we were playing at a squat in East Germany. There were 700 people. There were bands and DJ’s. It was on three floors. On the top floor there was a vegan restaurant and we slept in behind there. My wife was three months pregnant at the time. She would get morning sickness and throw up into her instrument on stage. All the punk rockers would go “Yeah!” because they thought it was alcohol poisoning.”
How did that change things?
“We wondered about the future of the band, but then we just said, “We’ll have the baby here, and then the kid can come with us. We’ll just do it.” The first one we did was in Berlin. They had some live bands and they had all-night raves. We stayed in a cabin on the Danube River. In the morning we went out to get breakfast. It’s Berlin, right, so they don’t stop partying — the rave was still going on, right in the middle of the city. Well this German guard wouldn’t let us back in. “No, no, no baby. You can’t come in here with baby. There’s a rave going on.” We argued with him and finally our bass player says, “It’s OK. It’s a hardcore baby.” The guard goes, “No! No hardcore baby.” So, we suddenly realized it’s actually difficult being on tour with kids.”
So, the album ‘Make Your Own Culture’ is the first one that you’ve done back here in Canada?
“Yes, and it’s the first one with this version of the band. The first one ended in rather dramatic fashion. First, we had to come back here to Canada to reapply to get back into the Czech Republic because my wife had visa problems. While we were here we thought, “This is nice having parents around to help look after the kids.” Then the bass player went back to England to go to recording school. And then our banjo player got arrested. He ended up in solitary confinement for about 3 months. It was a minor charge originally — marijuana, which is not serious in the Czech Republic. But then they found out that he had been in the country illegally so they put him in jail. Then the police can sit on the paperwork for months. They put him in solitary because he is non-white and there a lot of skinheads in the system there, so they were fearful he’d get his ass kicked. So, that was the end of that chapter. When I got back here I was able to pick up the drummer and bass player from Black Valley Gospel because they were going through a change.”
Is it tough making it as a musician today?
“I have a “real” job. I think that’s what it’s supposed to be anyway. Originally. I have friends who live life as musicians and they’ve given up a lot — you don’t get to have a family because that costs money, and you don’t make enough to have a nicer place. You tour six months of the year. It’s a hard life. I’m perfectly happy doing it this way. When we tour it’s like a two week vacation. When we get back I’m not sick of anyone. I’ve toured Europe for longer and it can be tough in the close confines of a vehicle.
Festivals is where we make most of our money. Playing bars doesn’t pay. By the time you’ve paid everyone out there’s nothing left. House parties are more the things these days.”
How would you describe your music?
“Eclectic east meets west kind of thing. Accordion laden. Punkish. I’ve always listened to different kinds of music — never really married to just one style. Growing up I was into punk because there were a lot of local punk bands. I could go to the shows because it was only $5. But I listen to all kinds. Records from the ’60’s and ’70’s. I download a lot of music and read reviews on what’s out there. Thing is the band pays for itself and any money we make from music just goes back into making another record. It’s not paying anyone’s rent. So, I don’t care. It allows us flexibility. On this album we did a Latin number, because why not? There’s another song on there with a Balkan rhythm because I got into that when we were in Europe. Some reviewer said it was like you’d walked into a Greek wedding by mistake.”
That was me! Anyway, what now?
“Now we are back from tour we have to get a new car. We had a 1981 Toyota Corolla, but it’s so low to the ground that the windows got splattered with rocks right away. Then we blew two hoses along the way. When we got back to Vancouver a guy took a brick and smashed the window. All of our valuables were safe in the hotel, so he was just rummaging through my daughters’ Spiderman and Hey Kitty backpacks. We caught him because he stopped in the middle to inject some drugs. Didn’t help though — the car is wrecked. So, yeah, we have to get a new one. Then we are going to do a show up in Tofino and we have a couple of festivals coming up. All on the Island. I like staying on the Island — no one throws bricks through your window and steals your Hello Kitty.
In the Fall we are going into the studio to record another kid’s album under the name Oh! Ogopogo! We like doing kid’s music and it sells well. Then I need to write some more songs for the next Tower of Dudes. I usually spend the winter writing. “