Craig Northey – Odds’ Nest Turns 20

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Nicholas Friesen @Nicholastronaut February 8, 2016

Craig Northey isn’t in the habit of looking back, but he isn’t opposed to it, either. As a founding member of Odds, the Vancouver power pop quartet that began in ’87 and took a hiatus from ’98-2007, he’s released five proper albums (one platinum, two gold) and a collection of EPs. He’s also written hits with Steven Page, scored TV (Young Drunk Punk, Hiccups) and movies (Brain Candy, Dog Park), and put out a pair of records as Stripper’s Union with the Hip’s Rob Baker and Simon Kendall from Doug & the Slugs. But it’s the Odds, fleshed out by drummer Pat Steward, bassist Doug Elliott and new-ish guitarist Murray Atkinson, that keeps that good weird feeling alive.

“Everything with us starts with a joke,” Northey says of the band’s reunion, over the phone from his home in BC. “We have an idea for something we’re gonna do and we laugh about it and go one step further until it’s absurd. When we stopped playing together, the four of us, in ’98 or so, the three of us (Steward and Elliott) kept going and working on projects that were sort of horizontally related.”

Whether it was film scores or another band (be it Sharkskin or the Craig Northey Power Trio) the gang (minus Steven Drake, who now makes his way as a recording engineer) was always working on something, and occasionally throwing an old Odds tune into the mix. When the trio started putting new material together at a “Wednesday night music club,” some famous friends caught wind.

“The Barenaked Ladies had this concept where they wanted to do this cruise thing and invite their chums and have a floating music festival of their curation. We got invited because they heard we were writing again.”

To do the Odds songs justice, a second guitarist was required. Enter Murray Atkinson, scorer of video games and associate of such acts as Christa Couture, Ridley Bent, Chin Injecti and Hot Action Cop.

“A lot of (Odds’ material) relies on the counterpoint interplay between the guitar parts and creating one large mass out of two things. As soon as you meet Murray though, you know he was born to be in this band.”

When the band returned, it was New Odds, and the record was 2008’s Cheerleader, a festival of 14 re-energized pop killers (including Corner Gas credit closer “My Happy Place”). “The name thing was just working out politics over time, but it started with a joke – the New Originals from Spinal Tap. We did that on the cruise as a gag. Barenaked Ladies asked (for a name), they printed it, and so we stuck with it for a while. Then we realized nobody got the joke.”

Following up Cheerleader has been a collection of EPs, 2009’s Noise Trade and the 2013-14 trilogy of The Most Beautiful Place on Earth, Game Face On and Party Party Party.

“We just started recording again after Cheerleader, and eventually we had a double album which we thought we’d do as a gatefold. We really are fond of this new age of people making vinyl albums and selling them from the stage, because that seems like where we started. But we’ve got managers around us that help us make decisions, and they said ‘in this day and age, instead of giving away 19 songs, it’s more about breaking up the content.’ So we acquiesced and broke it up into EPs. Really it is an album that we’ll cull down and put out some vinyl sometime, it had a title and everything, but this gives us a chance to pick out some cool artwork and do it three times and have some fun.”

A longtime collaborator of Kids in the Hall, Northey notes his relationship with the comedy legends is as strong as ever, having recently worked with Bruce McCulloch to score his sitcom, Young Drunk Punk. Sharing a credit with composer Jim McGraw, Northey helps revisit a Calgary of the ’80s through McCulloch’s unique lens.

“It’s such a miracle that show, really,” he says. “To do a period show for not a lot of dough is crazy. Try to conjure all those elements again in Calgary, in a town that changes so quickly like that, it’s hard to even find that stuff. It’s really cool what’s happened and I’m hoping it comes back (for a second season).”

Going back to the old days, I remind Northey that Nest, the band’s last before its break (and final with Drake) celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2016. He notes that he really only goes back to the old stuff to teach it to Atkinson, but that he really can’t escape such hits as “Heterosexual Man” and “Eat My Brain,” still staples of CanRock radio today.

“I think you can divorce yourself from the context a little bit when you go so many years down the road and you change as a person,” Northey says. “I also think at this point in the game there’s a significant anniversary on any given day. It’s 25 years since you did something, so you don’t think about it happening to you at some point. We did have one kind of anniversary tour but then it just seemed a little jumpy after that. It is what it is, we’re not the Stones.”

Nest is an important disc though, at least for this writer, as it was one of the first “alternative” records I purchased after switching over from classic rock cassettes at age 13. Perplexed by the odd artwork and wondering what kind of producer was simply named “Nigel the Cat,” I mostly dug the videos, especially for the infectious lead single, “Someone Who’s Cool,” which was the band’s first Canadian #1.

“‘Someone Who’s Cool’ was written for the (aborted) Friends 2 soundtrack. The first one was such a big album, they asked us to write something that somehow related to the show. I wrote that and brought it to the guys and everyone did their traditional tweaks to it. And then at Elektra Records, Sylvia Rhone said, ‘No, don’t give it to that soundtrack, that’s a hit, you’re going to put that on your own record, so get working on that record, we’re keeping it.’

“We had gone out and played it in quite a few places, and no one had ever heard the song before, and the reaction was great. We at least had one in the bag, so we started with that idea when we went in, which was kind of exciting to already have something that you knew was pretty good, but had already caused a big problem.”

Northey notes that he didn’t write the song about a particular Friend, as he had never actually seen the show.

“I knew what Friends was, it was a cultural phenomenon, but I didn’t really know what it was about. When I finally watched an episode I thought, ‘Oh, it’s about people being uncomfortable with themselves and not being in control of their impulses,’ so I just went with that basic theme.”

The video, directed by Curtis Wehrfritz, wound up in heavy rotation on Much Music, it features Odds in a series of stop motion and split frame edits, a process that took hours to execute.

“It was really gruelling and hard work but it was pretty cool,” Northey says. “I would by lying on the bed and they would be changing the walls for one shot that lasted a second. It was crazy!”

Knowing they had a hit in “Cool,” Northey set to work writing a few more in that vein. When it came time to hit the studio, not everyone was as ready as he was.

“When we did Nest, there was a concerted effort, maybe even a statement, that we just relax and make music that makes people happy and that we want to listen to,” he says. “I don’t think Steven was as prepared to make it as we wanted him to be. He didn’t have any lyrics or any songs ready for the time we wanted to start. I am a traditional homework guy, I’m on it all the time, in terms of Type A, so I had a bunch of material. When we went in, he had all kinds of cool things that were important but weren’t formed as whole songs, so we went in that way with a bunch of things that were formed and not formed. It was difficult but fun, because there were those open perimeters. By the time it was done, we were exhausted.”

It wasn’t just Nest that was a tough birth, though.

“I think all records are difficult,” he says. “We did a couple (DIY) albums before we did Neopolitan, which is really our first album. They were cassette-only releases that we sold from the stage. You spend all this time together as a band writing as much as you can, building a culture within your band, traveling and coming up with schemes about how to get recognized. So we did all that stuff and jumped through all those label hoops and finally had an album out, and that one is a long time in the making, and it’s always a little bit weird and a little self conscious.”

Northey mentions that the second record is the hardest to make, as you’re often out on the road promoting the first one, all while losing touch with people in your life and living out of pocket.

“The one that kind of ‘broke us’ was the third one, Good Weird Feeling. There’s the perfect storm of possibilities where we made an album where there was some accessible music on it, but we weren’t necessarily the type of band that was happening at that time.”

Tours with the Tragically Hip and Barenaked Ladies helped, but going up against Bush and the Spice Girls meant that Odds still weren’t what was “cool” on radio in the mid-90s. Northey doesn’t mention exactly what happened, but he left the band, which then called it a day in ’98.

“In the old days, at the time of Nest, it was fighting for time to be away from each other,” he says. “Whenever we have an Odds gig now, I always get excited a few days before. It’s such a privilege to have been doing what I’m doing for so long and to be doing it with the people I’m doing it with. Who needs Thanksgiving, I feel this way all the time.”

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