Whether intentionally or not, the Rheostatics have become inextricable from their Canadian identity. With a flair for the surreal and an artistic passion with rare sincerity, the Rheos are warriors for milder winter, cheap(er) beer, and the death of salesmen everywhere.
The band is slated to perform an impressive five shows at this year's High Performance Rodeo, each themed around one of their past albums. Martin Tielli, the band's co-vocalist, guitarist and dobo-ist--to name a few--is looking forward to the performances.
"It's great to do a bunch of shows together in the same place," he explains. "We do it every year in Toronto and we've done it in Vancouver. It's fun to have a theme every night. It's fun to pull out songs that haven't been played in a long time, even if they're a bit rough."
Their live shows are famous for creating memorable experiences. The band is able to transport listeners into the heart of their unique but definitively Canadian presence.
"The only modus operandi we ever had was 'sing what you know' I suppose," comments Tielli. "What we know is where we are. So we sing about Ontario and our trips across the country. The prairies are the highlight... It's the sort of remoteness, and the huge sky. That's something you don't see in Ontario."
After forming in Etobicoke, Ontario in 1980, the band's lineup eventually settled with Tielli, drummer Dave Clark, guitarist Dave Bidini, and bassist Tim Vesely. Their early releases Melville, Whale Music and Introducing Happiness brought them across the country with a repertoire of songs ranging from radio-appreciated pop to the genuinely eclectic. Despite losing Clark in 1994, the Rheos have rolled on and are rapidly filling their shoes as "icons and iconoclasts" of Canadian culture.
Their most recent album, 2067, emerged as one of the best albums of last year. One of the album's most memorable tracks is "The Tarleks," whose video features Frank Bonner as his character from the '80s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Tarlek, the station's sleazy salesman, was renowned for impossibly ugly suits, matching white leather belt and shoes, and his relentless efforts to lay Loni Anderson's character Jennifer.
"My only regret is that we should have got him to sing some lines," says Tielli. "He heard the song, and tested it on his kids. They said 'dad, this is cool, so do it.'"
Lines like "they were everyone's uncle and everyone's friend/we were pulling their fingers all night long" rue the relentless seep of uninteresting salesmen into every aspect of life.
"Everyone's a salesman. And they don't even know it," Tielli remarks. "They'll die a long slow miserable death soon enough, I hope. Until the late '80s there was a societal feeling that hawksters and people peddling products were something that should be kept in its place. Now you can advertise in public parks and inside schools. But you can't smoke anywhere. It just can't sustain itself, and it's really boring."
Tirades against salesmen, laments on smoking laws and WKRP makes for an eccentric mix. Due to this, casual observers might find Tielli's inspirations surprising. One of his earliest inspirations came from a few Neil Young tracks discovered in a collection of his aunt's records.
"I had no idea who he was," Tielli recalls. "No one at my school knew him. I went to a really Italian high school. They were into disco. They were into disco long after disco was popular. No kid my age knew who the hell Neil Young was. I thought I was onto something real special, but when I found the Rheostatics, they all knew stoners who were into Neil, so he was terribly uncool to them."
In addition to being inspired by Young, the Rheos have other connections to musical Canadians. Having performed with musicians from Jane Siberry to the Tragically Hip and infamously playing the Maple Leaf Gardens with the Hip's lead singer Gordon Downie.
"We got to play Maple Leaf Gardens just before it shut down," Tielli recalls. "For two nights for pete's sake. That was just a dream come true. And they paid us better than most big bands pay their opening act, but my current favourite is playing with the Buttless Chaps."
Now the stuff of legend, the Rheostatics were recently asked to join Stompin' Tom as his backup band.
"He called us up with two weeks notice, and we were in the studio making a record," Tielli reminisces. "The contract was amazing. One member of the backup group had to stay up and drink with Tom every night until five. We met the boys he did get for that tour, afterwards. They looked tired."
Aside from performing with the Rheostatics and pursuing a solo career both onstage and as a painter, Tielli has also appeared a recent Canadian film. Titled Black Widow, the film is a noir-inspired piece of popular folklore wherein Tielli's wife, played by musician Sarah Slean, shoots Tielli, cuts him up, and sticks him in a furnace.
"It's excellent," comments Tielli. "For some reason, acting being shot is real easy. Makin' out, not so easy. It was a heavily choreographed, crammed event."
It can be hard to leave the house in winter, but if there was ever time to have fun without being ashamed of your Sorels/toque/mukluks, it's at a Rheostatics show.