JR. GONE WILD: Dumb enough to quit, smart enough to start over

Jr. Gone Wild GigCity EdmontonHate to burst your bubble, but the Jr. Gone Wild reunion was motivated by money.

Give thanks to local promoter Frank Klemen, a longtime Jr. fan who felt it was so important that his favourite Edmonton alt-country band get back together that he wouldn’t take no for an answer. “It was up to me,” he declares, “to convince the band that the support was out there.”

After much badgering, reluctant frontman Mike McDonald finally quoted an “outrageous” sum of money – and Klemen called his bluff. It was supposed to be the one reunion gig. It’s happening Friday, May 31 way the hell out to nowhere: at OTS Park on Rabbit Hill Road. Here’s a map.

But of course this has turned into something more – more gigs, including the Interstellar Rodeo, more attention, more realization among the band members that they had a good thing going so why they hell did they quit when one of their best-known albums was called “Too Dumb to Quit?” Head scratcher, that one. The support is out there. McDonald says in hindsight, “Why the fuck did we ever stop? I think we were exhausted. We should’ve taken a break, but we broke up instead.”

Jr. in Nanton (photo by Tippy Agogo)

Jr. in Nanton (photo by Tippy Agogo)

This has become about more than money. The current line-up didn’t actually exist in reality, but is nonetheless considered the “definitive” line-up: McDonald on vocals, drummer Larry Shelast, bassist Dove Brown and guitarist Steve Loree (Loree and Shelast were never in the band at the same time, but both were there for “crucial” moments in the band’s history). They’re serious about their quest. After much preparation, culling material from five studio albums released from 1986 to 1995, they recently staged a dress rehearsal at the Auditorium Hotel in Nanton, Alberta, where Loree runs a recording studio that has hosted people like Ian Tyson and Corb Lund.

In a recent chaotic gang interview over Canadian cigarettes and Chinese beer – excepting McDonald, who’s been sober for 20 years, and Loree, who’s been smoke-free for one year – the Jr. Gone Wild members talked about their past and future. The present will take care of itself.

Alt country before alt country was cool

Jr. Gone Wild GigCity EdmontonJr. Gone Wild was one of the first local examples of a country band drawn from punk rock roots. They traveled the same circles as Edmonton punk legends SNFU. They had the same friends, listened to the same records. They even shared a bill at the Polish Hall back in the day. McDonald recalls, “The place was filled with SNFU fans. The punks thought it was really funny: Our hokey fucking country thing. So they started dancing – but they did it for our whole freakin’ set. I remember noting, OK, they’re making fun of us, but they’re still there and they’re having a good time. That’s when I started thinking, hmm, we should pursue this a little more.”

They were maybe too far ahead if their time. Jr. Gone Wild broke up in 1995 at the zenith of the Nickelbackization of grunge rock which drowned out all else. The band allegedly suffered from a “dwindling fanbase, dismal album sales, and losing their recording contract.” And then: “Their last show was poorly attended by only a few friends and they quickly faded into obscurity.” Saddest Wikipedia entry ever.

Bad timing. Because there soon emerged a new breed of country band, the kind of country band that would never get played on CISN Country FM and who would only wear cowboys hats ironically: Bands like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt, the whole “No Depression” thing, referring to magazine that exclusively covered this sort of thing. They called it “alt-country.”

McDonald says now, “Yeah, it’d be nice to get a piece of that. Alt country’s pretty big now and we helped people like Old Reliable and Corb Lund.”

Dove Brown has nothing but praise for their old friend Corb Lund – an alt-country guy who used to play in a punk band called the Smalls: “Huge talent, hard working guy, more work ethic than almost any other musician I’ve met.” On the punk-country nexus, Brown adds, “I think the thing that links the punk thing and the better side of country, certainly, is just the honesty. It’s more honest than what the kids get off pop radio, that’s for sure. There’s so much fabricated music out there, and when they hear honest music, they relate to it right away.”

McDonald says, “And now the kids with their banjos and shit and they don’t even know how to fucking play them. Mumford and Sons and all the clones of Mumford and Sons, Lumineers, fucking Bon Iver and that shit …”

It’s not hard to get this singer going on just about any topic related to music. He’s since become a partner in the independent record store Permanent Records off Whyte Avenue, and as with all the other band members, has played in a number of other bands over the years. None of them ever drew as much attention as Jr. Gone Wild.

“I’ve spent 15 years playing the Edmonton underground to 10 people – my wife, my mom and a couple of friends,” McDonald says. “I’d rather play to more than 10 people.”

There will be more than 10 people at Friday’s gig. The support is out there. As Frank Klemen says, “Fans knew that this day would come.” More offers are coming in. A documentary is being shot. “Less Art More Pop” will soon be available on CD. No new songs – “yet.” On the future, McDonald says, “This is living proof: Never say never. I said never a lot. Look at me now.”