Anti-folk/rock troubadour, writing life that haunts neon-lit doorways and threadbare rooms. A musical disciple of Howlin' Wolf and Crazy Horse, honing a blend of post-punk folk in bars from Saskatoon to Shanghai, Montreal to Moscow, and Halifax to Helsinki. Fiercely independent and one of the hardest-working Canadian musicians around with over 20 years of Replacements-inspired scrappy club shows notched into his Telecaster.
Alun Piggins has entrenched himself in the business as a fearless self-starter, writing, producing, and engineering releases on his own label, Moldy Floor Records. His international focus has taken him across Canada and the US, China, Russia, Finland, and the UK. And his impassioned songwriting and guitar-shredding performances have won him audiences across all genres. He has shared the stage with artists ranging from Fugazi to Peter Case. Cleaning Women (Finnish avant-garde techno) to Be Good Tanyas. Cat Power to Fred Eaglesmith.
In keeping with this heel-worn pace, "At War with the Elephants," his third solo studio release, is 1 part international border crossing and 1 part homeward journey.
Travelling comes as second nature and butts up to the seedier side of B bars and social disparity. Walking through the slums of Shanghai. Singing Red Army Blues at a house concert in a run-down Russian apartment. Passing a beer-soaked guitar back and forth with Cui Jian (China's godfather of rock) at 5 a.m. after a gig in Beijing.
Channel-surfing live TV war from a basement bar. Snapshots of the underbelly of home and abroad that inform the songs with an incisive fly-on-the-wall perspective. "At War with the Elephants" is the latest release in a solo discography that includes 3 albums and 2 EPs, in addition to 3 albums with '90s thrash/folk band The Morganfields.
Alun has also engineered and produced albums for other artists such as The Rheostatics, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and Stephen Stanley (TLOTL), among others.
When did you do your first gig?
1981 in a pub at The University of Guelph. I was 14 years old. My dad had to chaperone me that night. Our band was called Laissez Faire. We were teenage punk rockers. Somewhere between Crass and The Exploited. Opening up for a ZZ Top tribute band. Our lead singer was the first guy to have a mohawk in Guelph. Maybe even all of Southern Ontario. The week before the gig, the other guys (who were a bit older and better than I was) enlisted the services of another guitar player named Dale. I only knew a couple of chords so we needed someone to fill out the sound. On the way to the show, the singer cut off my late 70's feather shag haircut and I think it was at that point that Dale did some MDA.
I snuck a couple of beers backstage. We went on. Dale was so fucked up that we unplugged him and he wandered out into the crowd. I was nervous as shit and kept fucking up. The crowd hated us. Started shouting "punk rock sucks" and threw beer bottles at us. There were a few fights. On the way home my dad told me that he thought we sucked.
What was your first touring act?
Well, through the 80's I played in a bunch of different bands. Early ones sounded a lot like The Jam. Later ones were kinda REM, Replacements meets Bob Marley. We just got as far as Southern Ontario.
My first real touring band was called Celtic Blue. They were kind of a celtic/punk rock band who were looking for a mandolin player. I wanted to tour so I learned a few chords and joined. It was an awesome time. Early twenties touring Canada in an old school bus. I learned a lot. Saw a lot and had a great time. Even wrote a couple of songs for the band. They broke up under sad circumstances in the early 90's.
You were signed to a major and enjoyed some success with The Morganfields in the early 90's. What was that like?
Yes, it's true I was signed to Watch/MCA with The Morganfields. Even had CDs out in the States and Germany.
The Morganfields was really the first time that I really took the helm. We got signed I think because in the rush to sign Canada's answer to Nirvana, they mistook our thrash/folk thing as being grunge. I always thought that there was a lot more Hendrix, Neil Young and Zeppelin in our stuff than grunge.
We put out three albums. Were briefly video darlings on Much Music. Toured a fuck of a lot. Rolled our van a couple of times. Standard Canadian rock band story I believe.
Again, had a great time. Learned a hell of a lot about making records / how the business works. Realized that I don't really work in the major label world. Kind of a square peg round hole scenario. Wish that I still owned the rights to the records, though.
After The Morganfields, you worked as a recording engineer for a few years. Do you still do that?
I started working at Chemical Sound in Toronto as an intern and then as an engineer in 1997. Wasn't really sure what I wanted to do and I also wanted to learn some recording techniques for my own stuff.
Ended up engineering or assisting on a bunch of great stuff including The Rheostatics, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Sloan and Stephen Stanley (Lowest of the Low) to name a few (or drop a few).
I found persuing engineering work with the mega long hours was great for a time. However, it really did start to get in the way of my own stuff.
I still engineer my CDs in my basement studio, Moldy Floor Studios. And will gladly work on somebody else's if I really like it.
I understand your first bunch of solo tours were on a Greyhound.
After I put Balladesque out I didn't have either a band or a car, so it made sense to bus it. Started by Greyhounding it around Ontario. Then I would fly one way out to Vancouver and either Greyhound it or hitch a ride with other bands back toward Ontario. You meet a lot of um... er... interesting people that way. Runaways, ex-cons, hippies on the way to treeplant and people with bad gas.
Solo or band?
I enjoy both equally for very different reasons. It's very hard to achieve the power of a band when solo (unless you're Peter Case). Yet some nights it feels better to just play quietly.
Both have to feel fresh, though. I love it when the band feels like we're making it up as we go along. Jay and I have been doing a duet lately. Sort of an anti-folk/roots thing called Alun Piggins and the Dogeaters Skiffle Group (featuring Jay Santiago on drums).
Sometimes I'll be sitting at home playing guitar to my son. I'll figure out something like Fortunate Son and we'll end up doing it on stage that night. That's my favourite kinda thing.
Who are your biggest influences?
Biggest musical influences: John Lennon, The Replacements, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Case and Neil Young.
Why does it take so long for you to finish your CDs?
Curse of the independent musician. Trying to balance songwriting, recording, finances and now being a father. However, it's still a fuck of a lot better than sitting around a board room table with a bunch of arseholes who actually think Avril Lavigne is punk rock. Telling you what colour to dye your hair... that was almost a rant.
Best shows you've ever seen?
The Jam, 1981, Concert Hall, Toronto
Peter Case, 2006, The Boathouse, Kitchener
Paul Westerberg, 1993, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Sheep Look Up, 1989, Call The Office, London
Peace Hotel Jazz Band, 2006, Peace Hotel, Shanghai
Coldfairyland, 2006, Beijing
What are you listening to now?
Well, I have my iPod on random shuffle. Hooked up to a 1964 Germade-made, all-tube Nordmende Cabinet Stereo. It sounds absolutely amazing. All day (whilst I look after my son) I hear a steady stream of most of the CDs I own. I get these great iPod moments when Howling Wolf is followed by Motorhead. Which is followed by a Bill Hicks thingy. Then a Bjork tune. A song off of the new Killers CD and then back to Koko Taylor singing Insane Asylum.