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Then and now: Martha and the Muffins on 40 years of making music

The Juno winners discuss going from the mainstream pop machine to making music on their own terms.

The Juno winners discuss going from the mainstream pop machine to making music on their own terms

'I think we were always pushing and pulling ourselves between pop sensibilities — which we love, obviously — and the more experimental stuff which we love, too.' (Dimo Safari)

Martha and the Muffins went from an emerging Toronto new-wave band to chart-topping Virgin Records signees seemingly overnight, all on the currency of one infectious guitar riff and a song that perfectly plugged into the ennui of a nine-to-five life in 1980.

It was a fortunate, tumultuous shift for a band that was still figuring out what it wanted to be. Ontario College of Art students Mark Gane and David Millar formed the band in 1977, with Martha Johnson recruited to sing and play keyboards shortly after. The original lineup also included Carl Finkle and Gane's brother, Tim, on drums.

Released on debut album Metro Music, mainstream pop hit "Echo Beach" forever changed where the often experimental band was headed. The song won a Juno for single of the year in 1980, was certified gold and charted globally. It led to the band's record deal with Virgin Records subsidiary Dindisc, and another life in the U.K.

"I think we were always pushing and pulling ourselves between pop sensibilities — which we love, obviously — and the more experimental stuff which we love, too," explains Gane, of the band's trajectory post-Metro Music. "So it's an odd kind of mix and sometimes clashy, too. But sometimes you get great results out of it as well." 

Many albums followed, and 1981's This is the Ice Age marked the beginning of a three-album relationship with a certain Hamilton-based producer named Daniel Lanois, long before his was a household name — Lanois' sister, Jocelyne, was a bassist in Martha and the Muffins for a few years.

"We could tell right away that he was in the same creative place that we were," remembers Johnson. "You know, he would like to experiment, gave us all kinds of freedom and nothing was too bizarre for him to try."

In the mid-'90s, things would shift again for the band, which at that point counted Johnson and Gane as sole members. Johnson released a children's album in 1995, three years after their daughter was born, and it garnered her a second — and quite unexpected — Juno Award. The aughts would bring about another major life change: in 2000, Johnson was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which meant she could no longer perform. (At the time of this interview, Johnson and Gane were writing a song to raise money for Rock Steady, a non-contact boxing group created specifically for people with Parkinson's.)

Forty-two years after forming the band, Johnson and Ganes spoke with CBC Music over the phone about their whirlwind start, what success meant to them and how they're still making music on their own terms after all these years.

Editor's note: interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

I want to go back to the beginning, to 1979 and "Echo Beach." Could tell me about the process of writing that? I know it wasn't yesterday.

Gane: No, it wasn't.

Johnson: Mark wrote the song. It was the third song he brought into the band to play in the early days, and what were you inspired by, Mark?

Gane: Well, let's see, the general germ of the song happened about three years earlier when I had a summer job at a wallpaper factory ... sometimes the wallpaper factory would ruin vast rolls of wallpaper on these giant presses. So they'd take the wallpaper off and it would be my job to sort what was good on it from the bad. Which was kind of a mindless job [laughs] to say the least.

But at the same time, it allowed me to think about where I'd rather be. So that's where the basic idea came from. And I guess it came back a few years later or I was thinking, you know, more in a universal sense and that people have a place where they always want to go back to when their day-to-day lives aren't necessarily that exciting for one reason or another. So that was part of it. And the second verse was inspired by a trip down to Lake Ontario one summer's night, looking back at the city.

And Martha, when did you hear the song?

Johnson: Well, when Mark brought it into our rehearsal studio, the band had only been together a couple of months or something. And ... we were still auditioning members at that point. But I remember him bringing [it] in, I think everybody sort of recognized it had something about it that was infectious and, you know, we were all happy that he brought it in. He always dictated to me exactly how I had to sing things; he was very particular about his writing at that time. He's a bit more flexible now [laughs].

Gane: I was very possessive at that time.

What were your instructions at that time?

Johnson: Oh, I always had to sing the notes he wanted, I couldn't vary at all. So that was in keeping with the times, too. You know, there's a bit of robotic-ness and there's a lot of people doing music who had never done music before and had never been on a stage before. So it was all very — it sounds like you would improvise because you don't know, but it had some rules to it as well sometimes.

And Mark, what has made you more flexible over time?

Gane: Hopefully wisdom that, you know, you reach a certain age and you realize you don't know nearly as much as you thought you did when you were a 20-you-know-something brat [laughs].

Johnson: And other people have a lot of good ideas, too.

I guess it's hard to know this in the beginning, but did you expect that song to do what it did?

Johnson: No [laughs]. Definitely not.

Gane: No, but on the other hand I remember we had some pretty early tapes from places like the Beverley Tavern in Toronto in the very, very, very early Queen Street West scene and we played several shows there on and off and we do have a live tape of it where I believe I'd broken a string. So I'm going OK, I'm trying to put a new string on and I finally get it. But there isn't really enough time to tune it that well so the riff starts and it's so out of tune. But in spite of that everybody is screaming for it [laughs]. So even in 1978, you know, in a little tiny club on Queen Street it seemed as though people got really excited about it. And of course after we signed with Virgin Records U.K. and you had that experience of seeing this giant pop machine, we go into action in London. It was quite inspiring to be part of that.

What was that transition like, to go from being in your own little bubble, then being thrown into that giant pop machine quite quickly?

Johnson: [Laughs] It was hard to swallow and harder to get used to in many respects. People always assume that people are really happy to be famous and to be recognized and all that. I mean, it all has a good aspect but it ... had a divisive nature and some people really got swallowed up by this. And other people hated the fact that it changed the expectations of our band because we were actually quite experimental and that song was, as good as it is, quite straight compared to a lot of the stuff that we did. So we were afraid that it was gonna change who we were and some people thought we should change and others thought we shouldn't. And some, like me in the middle, thought we should compromise and keep trying to write hit pop songs but also do what we did as well.

Gane: And in some sense we were like babes in the woods. We were very naive. We had no idea how the music industry worked and there was no rock school or university classes on the music business so —

Johnson: — or websites [laughs].

Gane: Or websites or anything [laughs]. So we got dumped from our little Queen Street West scene into the epicentre of London's punk and new wave. You know, we were hanging out with Richard Branson and we're doing this and we're doing that and it was quite amazing but, for me, quite overwhelming at the time, too. Like, I remember they had assembled all of the music press at some restaurant one night. And I walked to the door with some people in the band and our producer, Mike Howlett, and I said, "You know, I don't want to go in there." I don't even remember why I didn't want to go in there now but I just didn't want to; there was a lot of pressure.

Johnson: It happens very suddenly 'cause one minute we're just, as you say, this little band on Queen Street, the next day we're getting — well they were telegrams back then [laughs] — saying that we were No. 10 on the charts and we watched it climb every week.

What was it like to win the Juno for that song specifically?

Johnson: It was great, it was very unexpected and you probably know that we tied with Anne Murray [laughs], which was a bit disappointing in a way, she'd had lots of them already. We would have liked to have had it on our own but that's the way it worked…. It was a surprise and to win was great.... But people did tell me it's not going to change your life [laughs]. It's funny, people said, "You know you won a Juno and you're famous for a moment, you get all this press and everything" but you know it does have a little bit of a cachet with it I suppose.

I mean, you had a lot of other things changing, too.

Johnson: Yeah, yeah it was, but it meant a lot to us.

When all of this was happening, did you feel pressured for a particular type of success after everything took off?

Johnson: Yeah definitely ... our record company was actually a subsidiary of Virgin, called Dindisc, and the woman who ran it ... had in her mind exactly what we were supposed to do and what we were supposed to look like and we definitely had to resist that and it caused the band as it was known on the "Echo Beach" record to break up.

Gane: But you know, we didn't really have any idea of what to expect. We signed this deal and all of a sudden you realize at some point, OK, so these people have given us money to make records and now they think they're going to call the shots and half of the band were from art college. And we had just spent three to five years training to — we had inherent ideas about what music should be like ... and they had their own ideas about what a band should be or what a performance should be and all of a sudden you had these record executives telling you what to do. And I remember [record executives] going [puts on British accent], "Well we don't hear another 'Echo Beach'" and in my head I thought, "Well I'm not going to write another 'Echo Beach.'"

And what steered you to make the children's album Songs From the Treehouse?

Johnson: Well, we had a daughter [and] I actually thought about it when I was pregnant and thought, you know, I listen to some children's music and I thought some of it's quite good but a lot of it was pretty bad, and really bad production. And I thought I could do better than this. And so I started writing some songs and writing lyrics and I was really preparing for being a mother and parent. And I was so into it because it was my first child — well my only child as it turned out — that I just started thinking about it and doing it.

Gane: And we also brought to that kids' record a lot of the same things that we brought to the other projects as well, like we used a lot of field recordings on the star one —

Johnson: — "Shooting Stars." 

Gane: Ah, "Shooting Stars." We went out and taped at a friend's parents' farm. We played the dock at night with mallets; you can hear all the crickets in the band. So that became the bed track for that song. That was the drum track and we did a lot of things like that, where we used sounds and went into the park and recorded the wind blowing and stuff like that.

Johnson: And we recorded our daughter when she was two making all her words that were gobbledygook [laughs]. We couldn't understand it but she was expressing herself in a song called "My Little Sister." So we really got into it and ... [it was the] first thing we'd done without any record company or business. We just did it for the pleasure of doing it — and it did so well and then won the Juno. It was a real surprise.

How was that, winning the Juno for this completely different project that you had put together?

Johnson: It was very rewarding on so many levels. And it was funny because when we won the Juno for "Echo Beach," we did the whole usual thing — you know, you party and you probably drank too much that night and got home really late, and that was how we celebrated. But when we won the Songs From the Treehouse children's album of the year, our daughter was with her grandparents. We came back to their place and we all celebrated with a cup of tea [laughs] and went to bed early. That was quite a different thing. Have to have a bit more balance now in our lives, in between the two things.

Johnson: We'd been very creative through the time between "Echo Beach" and the children's album. But a lot of it hadn't been recognized by the industry. It had been critically acclaimed in many parts of the world but it was a struggle, you know, financially and just getting people to fund these things. So this was very satisfying on that level.

I know I'm skipping ahead quite a bit but what does life look like for both of you right now?

Johnson: Well we're both still very creative and doing things and I'm doing things in a limited way because I can't perform anymore as I was diagnosed with Parkinson's back in 2000, so I've been living with that for, or it's been living with me for 18 years now. And it's a degenerative disease but I've always adapted to my situation. You know, we adapted to our situation by doing Songs from the Treehouse. And now I'm adapting, as I was saying, working on writing songs with other young — well mostly young, not all young — but artists, singer-songwriters mostly. Like Ghost Caravan, and I wrote some stuff with Wilderness of Manitoba … it doesn't happen often so I've been working a lot with my own songs and just storing them up and developing them and trying to decide what I'm going to do with them.

And Mark, is there anything else you wanted to add for what you have been up to?

Gane: Well, I've been saying to everybody around me for about, it's probably 15 to 20 years now that I'm going to do some solo album and they're probably totally sick of me.

Johnson: You don't say it much anymore but you're just doing it.

Gane: So this year I went, "Oh my God, you know, I better get on this." So I do have two solo projects in mind. One is more like a normal song album with a theme but the other one is an instrumental based on common plant names like "love lies bleeding" or "sweet rocket" or "creeping Charlie" and I'm trying to imagine what those musical atmospheres would sound like ... so that's the second project but I'm also doing a lot of improvised music, which I've been doing since I was about 18 or 19.

Johnson: Coming up with the idea was easy, executing it is hard.

Gane: Yeah, that's true.

Johnson: I have lots of ideas that never come to fruition.

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