25 and still alive: Behind the scenes with Shanneyganock, N.L.'s favourite musical pirates
Why retire? Musicians Chris Andrews and Mark Hiscock still love the stage
In a dank room with a dirt floor, two of Newfoundland and Labrador's biggest musical stars wait to take the stage. It's about as far from glamorous as it gets.
On this August night, however, Chris Andrews and Mark Hiscock are right at home.
"This our 18th time headlining George Street Festival tonight," said Andrews. "We're sort of used to this room, so why change now?"
The room is underneath the weather-beaten stage on George Street, where Andrews estimates that Shanneyganock have performed in front of some 200,000 people over the years.
This year, the band that Andrews and Hiscock started when they were young men is turning 25. A silver anniversary is rare in a business where most bands burn out from touring, fall apart from squabbling, or simply get tired of the rock and roll life.
Not these guys. After more than two decades of bringing music from Newfoundland and Labrador to the world, Andrews and Hiscock are still passionate about Shanneyganock — and still love the sound of a roaring crowd.
"There's times when you think, 'Jeez, how did we manage to get this far?'" said Hiscock. "And then there's other times you look out, when you're playing in front of the crowd like tonight, and you go, 'This is the reason we've done it.' We do it for the fans."
Greatest hits album? Not yet
In a far more comfortable room, in Andrew's house in Logy Bay, most of the band members sit back with their instruments way down, and jam on some new tunes.
A new album is in the wings, said Hiscock. It's a process that starts with 20 to 30 songs that get winnowed down to about a dozen.
With the volume turned down, the sound is more subdued than their rollicking live shows. But all the classic Shanneyganock elements are still there: a firm foothold in traditional music from Hiscock's accordion, a rock and roll sheen from Andrews' gruff baritone. Their contrasting musical styles are mirrored in their appearances; one short, one tall, Hickcock well groomed, Andrews sporting a pirate's mane like Jack Sparrow with a guitar.
Together as Shanneyganock, they've released 14 albums in 25 years. But Andrews says that if you want to stay in the game, you always need another one.
"It's a reason to tour," he said. "It's a reason to go back to places. Instead of [just] going back, we're coming back with new music. Because you can only go back so many times doing the same thing. You wanna change it up."
After 25 years, the album that's often expected of a band with their stature is the one that Andrews and Hiscock don't want to make. At least, not yet.
"Everybody wants us to do a greatest hits album," said Andrews. "And in our opinion, greatest hits albums are for bands that don't play anymore."
"Or are about to give it up." added Hiscock.
"And we're not there!" said Andrews, emphatically.
Watch performances and behind-the-scenes interviews in Shanneyganock: 25 and Still Alive
Brought together by a double booking
Before they were Shanneyganock, Andrews and Hiscock were each performing as solo acts in the Irish bars that then formed the backbone of the St. John's music scene.
"We'd been listening to each other. We were always regulars at the pub besides playing," recalled Hiscock.
"Chris was a lot of the Irish, the Ryan's Fancy, Sons of Erin, that stuff. Whereas my stage performance was a lot of accordion — Harry Hibbs, Dick Nolan, Simani, all that stuff."
The first time they shared a stage — at Erin's Pub, on Water Street in downtown St. John's — was by accident. The owner, Ralph O'Brien, had double-booked the night.
"Ralph said, 'I'm not sending either of you home,'" Hiscock said. "'Two of you guys, get up on stage and see how it works out.'"
Oh, it worked out.
Andrews, though, wasn't sold right away on a permanent thing.
"I do remember thinking, 'He's really good, but I don't like the same type of music he does,'" he said.
"But I think after we did it once or twice, I realized that this is a good blend that people could enjoy. When you take a small niche, that's traditional music, and you open it up a little bit again, well that's more people you can get to."
Waiting in the wings
Back on George Street, as the opening act hits their final note, the members of Shanneyganock crowd onto the wings of the stage. A few lucky fans mingle about, asking for selfies. Hiscock arranges his accordions, and tunes an old banjo.
When I started playing the accordion, I always asked myself, 'Is this where I would be, where I am now?' And it is.- Mark Hiscock
The announcer calls the band name, and the band is ready to rock.
They march out like a championship team taking the field — with confidence and enthusiasm, no trembles and no hesitation. They're greeted by a near-deafening roar of the thousands of fans waiting for them.
Drummer Brad Tuck taps a quick four-count, and Shanneyganock launches into a raucous rendition of a traditional reel. Hiscock's accordion carries the melody through the rocking arrangement of a song that may have been composed before guitars could be plugged in.
The crowd, primed by pop songs and country ballads from the opening bands, leap up and down and cheer with abandon, losing themselves in the ancient melody.
"When I started playing the accordion, I always asked myself, 'Is this where I would be, where I am now?' And it is." Hiscock said.
"I always dreamed of being the musician up on stage in front of the George Street crowd — or in front of somebody, anywhere around the world. And we've made it happen."
As they celebrate their 25th birthday, Shanneyganock plan to keep making it happen.
But even as Andrews dances on stage, leading the fans in a singalong with the band's best-known hits, he knows the music will have to stop some day.
"I think 50 years in this band would be long enough," Andrews said.
"Year 51, I'm out."