Team GDW recently reached out to Blue Rodeo drummer Glenn Milchem, and are both thrilled and grateful to have an exclusive interview with this renowned musician. Fresh off the end of the “1000 Arms” tour, Glenn was kind enough to answer a few questions about his fondest Blue Rodeo memories, the new album and subsequent tour, and his musical ventures beyond Blue Rodeo.
With 30+ years of professional music on your resume, from whom did you draw inspiration? Who were your original influences, and who inspires you today?
During my career I have drawn most of my inspiration from my peers, my fellow musicians. You can learn only so much from studying and practicing. Most of the applicable knowledge I’ve gained has been from playing and performing live in numerous bands. Some of that knowledge is musical – as in other musicians sharing their knowledge or theory, or turning me on to music that inspires them, or most importantly, how to listen and react to the musicians I’m playing with. Some of that knowledge is practical, like how to make a living playing music, how to put yourself out there in the music community, and how to be an effective member of a band. I’m always being inspired and informed by the other musicians I play with.
I would say probably the original musical influence I had was my dad, who never played an instrument, but was an avid listener (of jazz in particular) and remains passionate about music to this day. I grew up in a house where music was an important part of life and listening to music was a valued leisure activity. I think the reason I gravitated towards drums is my next-door neighbor was about eight or nine years older than me and had an amazing Ludwig drum kit that I was just in awe of. Consequently I became obsessed with drums around the age of eight and that obsession has never gone away.
As you enter your 26th year with Blue Rodeo, are there any particular moments that stand out during this time for you?
As you can imagine, there are many moments that stand out after 25 years in a band like Blue Rodeo. For the sake of brevity, I’ll pick a few random ones that come to mind.
The first is when we played The Canadian Pavilion at Expo in Seville, Spain in 1992, during the first year I was in the band. There was a large man-made pond between the band and the audience, which was made up of about 1000 Canadians. During the show, one or two people had ventured into the pond, only to have security quickly usher them out. Seeing this, Greg Keelor told everybody to get in the pond, and in five seconds there were dozens of people splashing around in it, with security charging in after them and trying to restore order. It was hilarious and showed me how fearless and occasionally reckless Greg could be, which is a vital element of our band. We’re kind of a mainstream band, but at the same time it’s in our DNA to take risks and break rules.
Recording the album “Five Days in July” at Greg’s house was also a watershed moment for me. It was a real bonding experience for the band, all playing and recording together in one room for days on end, and it was an eye-opening and inspiring for me to see how Greg lived, out in the beautiful southern Ontario countryside in an old house crammed with vintage guitars, drums and amps.
Receiving the Governor General’s award for the performing arts in 2014 was a proud moment. Being in a band is usually a precarious proposition at the best of times, and, despite our longevity, Blue Rodeo are no exception. We’ve been on the brink of the whole thing collapsing several times, and have weathered more crises that I can count, both real and imagined. To get that award, along with a couple of others that came around that time, like being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame, was a sweet reckoning after all the years of riding the Rodeo roller coaster.
We really enjoyed the new material on “1000 Arms.” How do you feel when all that planning, writing, rehearsing and recording comes together to create that finished product? How do you decompress afterwards?
To be honest, once we have arrived at the finished product, I’m done with it. I might feel a brief moment of satisfaction that it’s finished, but once it’s mastered and I’ve listened through the whole thing once or twice, I’m unlikely to put it on again unless I have to review a song we might be adding to our live set. I usually don’t enjoy listening to most recordings I’ve played on because I tend to hear the things that I wish I could change, and by then it’s too late. Plus I’ve already heard it enough during the rehearsing and recording process. Every now and then you record something that happens so quickly you forget about it, but usually by the time the thing is finished you’re over it and ready to move on.
I don’t really decompress after recording or tours anymore, I just go home to my family and become re-immersed in that world. After all these years, I now find it fairly easy to flip back and forth between my working life and my home life. Having an understanding partner at home helps a lot.
I revisited your Swallows “Turning Blue” CD this week, and recall that you were once asked to ‘tone down your sound’ for Blue Rodeo. Was this side project a particular musical itch that had to be scratched?
My band The Swallows was definitely a musical itch that needed to be scratched, but it was more an itch to write songs than have an outlet that was less constrained than Blue Rodeo. When I first joined Blue Rodeo, most of the bands I had previously been in were loud rock bands, and my drumming style reflected that. I recently listened to a live recording of us from about six months after I joined the band, and it sounded like the drummer from Megadeth was sitting in. I think me toning down my sound for the band was a necessary adjustment, and helped broaden my scope as a musician.
For me, “Agenda” is one of the standout tracks. How influential was the indie-grunge sound that accompanies this tune, and other album tracks? Was the sound planned or spontaneous?
The sound of that song is probably a reflection of the kind of music I was listening to at that time. I was definitely listening to a lot of indie/grungy type stuff, but that record was largely arranged in the studio, and I pretty much played all the instruments, so I guess you could say it was spontaneously planned. I had to think about what I was doing to do before I did it, but everything was added on one instrument or vocal at a time. I had done some four track cassette demos of some of the songs before I went into the studio, but that was the extent of the pre-production.
We had the privilege of sitting front row when Blue Rodeo visited Ardmore, PA, last autumn. Do you have to approach these smaller, more intimate venues any differently to the larger theaters that you are more accustomed to back home?
We do have to approach smaller venues a bit differently. About 5 or 6 years ago, Greg’s ears became super sensitive to loud volume, a combination of prolonged exposure to loud music and diabetes. He can get bad headaches and loud ringing in his ears. As a result, he stopped playing electric guitar, most of the amps on stage have no speakers in them (the speakers are backstage in isolation boxes and connected to the amps via long cables), and I no longer play with sticks live, using bundled rods in larger venues or the softest brushes I can find in smaller venues like the ones we play in the States. That’s also the reason that I’m set up in the corner as far from him as possible and have a plexiglass sound barrier on one side of my kit.
Congratulations on another successful tour. With such a compressed travel schedule, was there any particular show or city that provided the most memorable experience on this tour?
Massey Hall in Toronto is always special, but the first night that we played there on this tour with The Sadies opening was particularly memorable. I was sitting in one of the dressing rooms with my wife, Monica, and Greg’s girlfriend, Ashley, when Gordon Pinsent came in. This wasn’t too surprising because he’d made a recording (Down and Out in Upalong) with Greg and Travis Good from The Sadies. A little while later someone said Gord Lightfoot was coming down the hall. I turned to Ashley and said “Who’s coming next, Gord Downie?” and she said, “Yeah, Gord Downie’s coming.” It turns out Travis and Jude Coombe from our management had organized the coming of “The Three Gords,” which was a pretty big deal. They mostly hung out in The Sadies’ dressing room, though. That’s kind of where the party was at.
Gord Downie watched the whole show from side stage with his brother, Mike. When we did “Lost Together” in the encore, he and The Sadies came out and sang it with us. He seemed unsure about the words, so he just improvised something towards the end of the organ solo and it was awesome, just a beautiful moment. So special and unexpected. The love in the room was overwhelming.
Team GDW were fortunate to be at the tour finale in Kitchener, ON. Greg, Mike Boguski, and Colin Cripps were all “pranked” during the show. Did the guys set you up in any way?
Our stage manager, Lee Chomiak, who’s also a great drummer, came up during “Lost Together” and took over on drums for the last chorus. When I saw him coming towards me I thought he wanted to play tambourine or something, but when I realized he was intending to take over I just got out of the way. He did a great job. At that point, there was Bazil’s two-year-old daughter on stage and Greg’s girlfriend Ashley with her three legged dog, and The Sadies and the rest of our crew. It was a real free-for-all.
Jimmy Bowskill added a musical depth that disappeared with Bob Egan’s retirement. How does the band transform so quickly with personnel changes like this? Jimmy seemed to pick up the material very quickly – did you have extended rehearsal time, or did he have to adjust on the fly?
Jimmy is an amazing musician with incredible ears and a remarkable understanding of the kind of roots music and rock ‘n’ roll that our sound is based on, especially for someone who is less than half the age of most of the band members. Blue Rodeo is rarely a band that’s eager to rehearse, but we did a couple of rehearsals with Jimmy at our home base, The Woodshed, and a couple of days of pre-production at a soundstage in Toronto and The Community Auditorium in Thunder Bay, which was more than enough to get him up to speed. Much of the time spent was trying out new songs, pruning the arrangements and finalizing the set list, as Jimmy needed little in the way of direction. He has great instincts and naturally knows when to lay out and when to step up, no matter what instrument he’s playing. He plays pedal steel, mandolin, violin and viola with us, and even though he’s not playing guitar – his main instrument – his playing is so strong that it raised the whole band to a new level.
It was certainly enjoyable to see Bazil Donovan given the spotlight for one track during the encore performance, and his cover of “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me” was very much appreciated by the crowd. If you were given a similar opportunity to stand up front and take the lead, is there are particular song/artist that you would cover, and why?
I’d probably do one of my own songs. I don’t know a lot of covers, but I know all my own tunes. Probably “The Critics Agree” from the last Swallows album, “Demystified.” That’s a fun one.
Being a Toronto native, you are exposed to so much new musical talent. Are there any unknown or emerging artists that have grabbed your attention and appreciation right now?
I have young kids and don’t get out much at night to check out bands unless I’m playing, unfortunately, so I haven’t seen nearly as many new Toronto bands as I would like. Some newer T.O. bands I have heard and enjoy are “Badbadnotgood,” who are really tasty young players who made a great hip-hop record with “Ghostface Killah” called ‘Sour Soul,’ and have their own albums out as well (I just saw a video of a “Snoop Dogg” song done with “Badbadnotgood,” so they’re not exactly up and coming anymore, but are kind of huge and still a newish Toronto band I like a lot); “Weaves,” who made an amazing sounding eponymous debut album and are supposed to be great live, but, like I say, I don’t get out so I haven’t seen them. Doug Paisley, who makes beautiful mellow music as on my favourite record of his, ‘Constant Companion,’ and also plays country music at a regular Wednesday matinee at The Cameron House with my buddy, Baz, on bass.
With the album complete and tour wrapped up, what is occupying your creative side right now? Are you working on any other projects at this time?
Now that I’m back home I’m just playing in various local bands, like “The Mercenaries,” an R&B and rock ‘n’ roll cover band; “Mr. Pharmacist,” which is a tribute band to “The Fall,” a cult band from England that have been around since 1976; “Ensign Broderick,” the solo project of Jason Sniderman, keyboard player with “Blue Peter,” Art Bergmann and others; “Change of Heart,” who will be reforming to celebrate the 25th anniversary re-release of ‘Smile,’ a Canadian indie classic I had the good fortune of playing on; blues guitarist/singer/harp player Steve Mariner (“Monkeyjunk”); and whoever else comes along requesting my services.
Team GDW wish to thank Glenn Milchem again for generously donating his time and providing such wonderful, thoughtful answers to our questions. We certainly enjoyed putting this article together, and cannot wait for the next opportunity to see both Glenn and Blue Rodeo again live real soon.
Glenn Milchem portrait credit: Lisa MacIntosh