The day I arrive at Martin Howell’s group home to interview him, it’s election day in the United States. The polls are open, and people are being interviewed on CNN about who they’re voting for. Howell, better known as acoustic punk pioneer JohNNy SiZZle, turns the volume on the TV down. It’s fitting, since the latest release from SiZZle (and first on his own label, Awkward Reasons Inc) is his least political release yet. Titled Recovery, it’s another personal epic in a career spanning 25 years.
Recorded over the last year with the help of longtime collaborators Ryan Forsythe and Emily Granger, Recovery is 16 tracks of hilarious, heartfelt and honest music that reflects SiZZle’s life as someone living with schizophrenia (specifically, schizoidaffective disorder).
“It’s not a story, it’s nothing to hype me up in front of music fans who might be interested in me, it’s the real deal,” he says over coffee. “I’ve been feeling in the last four years since I’ve put out a release (2012’s Home Sweet Home) that I’m really getting better. A lot of it is me living in a support home since winter of 2011.
“They say that once you have schizophrenia you’ve got it for life and you’re not going to do anything, and I wanted to prove to myself that I am gonna do something and this is the start of it, by putting out an album.”
After having worked with various people at various labels over the years, including ex-Crash Test Dummy Ben Darvill at Husky Records and (full disclosure) this writer during the existence of The No Label Collective, SiZZle felt that it was important to his mental health to start his own imprint.
“The reason why I called it Awkward Reasons is because I’ve been on record labels before, and they don’t understand that I don’t understand things well and I don’t retain information very well,” SiZZle says. “I’ve got pretty low expectations for the record label, but the main expectation is that it will have me doing things and get me out of the house, perhaps even accomplishing things.”
It’s that accomplishment that SiZZle says is important to his day-to-day life.
“I went to a psychiatrist (recently) and they told me that I’m not getting better, that my schizophrenia is not getting better,” he says. “I’ve noticed that living in a group home that it’s easy to say, what the fuck, I’ll do nothing. I’d rather be doing something and be making nothing than be doing nothing.”
In addition to releasing his own acoustic punk and casiocore recordings, SiZZle hopes to put a spotlight on other outsider acts from across the country.
“These would be small run, but this will keep me going out to the post office to send away to radio stations, and it will keep me going out to the local record stores and anything else that deals with running a small record label.”
While SiZZle’s last album came out four years ago, 2014 saw the release of Lover or a Psycho, the first (and only) record under his given name, Martin R. Howell.
“I think something was fooling with my head,” he says with a laugh. “I had two girlfriends in a row who were both attracted to JohNNy SiZZle. One was attracted to the JohNNy SiZZle of the 2000s and one was attracted to the JohNNy SiZZle of the 1990s, when I had a local cable access television show (JohNNy SiZZle’s Entertainment Watch on Shaw TV) and I was just beginning to do my songwriting. I think it really screwed with my head that I had these two girlfriends right after each other, and they’re more in love with the idea of JohNNy SiZZle than being with Martin Howell the person. It was worth the money for me to put out a small release of songs. It was an album that was brand new songs that I’d just wrote and past songs from various stages of my songwriting life.”
That songwriting life is a scattered and sordid one. From honing his guitar playing while busking on Winnipeg’s streets to working at Vancouver’s Cobalt Cabaret in drag, SiZZle’s exact discography is difficult to pin down, especially since he’s not always keen on revisiting it.
“I prefer not to listen to my older stuff. Not that I’m some great virtuoso on the guitar or anything like that, but I think my guitar playing was brutal in the 1990s,” he deadpans. “There are times when my singing is right ballsy and I’ll listen to it and I’ll go, wow, that young man was very angry. I don’t know if I can get the angry back up. If I had a 30 date tour, I’m not sure I could go a month or more of getting that pissed off on stage anymore. That was once in a lifetime, you can’t go back. If people enjoyed it, enjoy it for the time it was. The good news is that I can take those old songs, when I have the energy for it, and the drive and focus, I can sing ‘em better and play them better.”
SiZZle notes that his life (musical or otherwise) might have been different if his trips downtown to buy records and comics were only shopping trips. After meeting up with a group of street kids, he went home and grabbed his dad’s rarely used guitar.
“I just didn’t like asking for change,” he says of his decision to busk. “I didn’t like the way people looked at me. They still give you a bit of a look when you’re a street performer, but I could busk and deal with that. I could make a little bit of money to go and see the punk shows at the Royal Albert, Wellingtons, the West End Cultural Centre. Back then, you could see a hell of a good band for only three dollars. A band like NOFX or Green Day, you’re only paying three dollars to walk in there.”
His time at the Albert (a notorious Winnipeg venue) which he spoke to filmmaker Randy Frykas about in the documentary A Call to Arms: The Story of the Royal Albert, involved a few key moments missing from the final film. SiZZle notes that Frykas turned the camera off a few times during their interview.
“I mentioned (the Albert) was my place to go to get acid and marijuana,” SiZZle says. “It was regular for you to go to the Albert and be sitting across the table from a real live prostitute, but Randy would cut off the interview anytime I mentioned anything to do with crime, or fights between punk rockers and Nazi skinheads. He would shut off the camera and say it was not getting out there. The story he wanted to tell was that the Royal Albert was the stronghold of PC power punk music and it wasn’t at all.”
SiZZle says that Propagandhi’s story also goes much deeper than what was portrayed in the film. Having opened for and interviewed the band numerous times in the early ’90s, SiZZle speaks from the heart.
“(The film’s) story was that Propagandhi played the Royal Albert and the local scene immediately fell for them, they knew they had a good one on their hands, bam, like that,” SiZZle says. “The real story is that Propagandhi started playing their shows, and I can remember meeting Chris (Hannah) and Jord (Samolesky) at the front counter of the Royal Albert in September of 1990. Their band just started playing local shows, they were first opener for most shows. Little by little they got better and better.
“Something happened to them in the summer of 1992. They went off and did a tour of California where they smashed their van into a moose – yes, a moose – and it needed major repairs and they spent two weeks in San Francisco connected with Fat Wreck Chords and Lookout Records. So there was that time for Fat Mike to see them. I don’t think they really knew what was in their future when they got back to Winnipeg, but it seemed like when they got back from California that the game was raised. It just seemed like they were a different band. Chris sang better, both John (K Samson) and Chris played better. Jord’s always been good, but it just seems like everything’s better. But that took two and a half years.”
(JohNNy SiZZle interviewed by Nardwuar at Vancouver’s Cobalt Cabaret on MuchMusic.)
SiZZle also notes that upon his mid-2000s return from Vancouver, the Winnipeg punk scene was less than welcoming.
“I am a bisexual man. I’ve felt like I could be open about that with the Winnipeg punk scene when I came back here in 2005. Well I found that wasn’t the case,” he says. “I found there was a good contingent of boneheads who would bully me and were rather homophobic with me, and it made me not feel comfortable going to punk shows in this city. Because of that I’ve started to have this attitude that I’m going for entertainment purposes only. I don’t want to get to know any of you.”
It’s those experiences that have fueled the content of Recovery’s standout track, “I’m No Legend” – a callout to all the people who claim to truly “know” him. He’s also quick to mention that there hasn’t always been credit where credit is due when it comes to who brought acoustic punk to Canada.
“I’m noticing a lot of acoustic punk is getting out there right now, and that no one’s gonna give my due that I started it in this country,” he says. “I don’t know anyone in Canada that did acoustic folk punk in 1992. The posters that I’ll see, they’ll come across like this is a new music genre, but I know this is not the case at all. I had kind of a scene going for myself when I lived in Ontario and Quebec in the mid-1990s. There was a whole anti-folk scene going on in New York City which I would regularly play shows down there and check out that scene.”
SiZZle’s reach is pretty far, and he still gets people from all over the world getting in touch about reissuing older material, something he’s considered doing through Awkward Reasons Inc, likely as a double disc compilation which would split his “filthy minded” songs and his love songs.
“I’ve played gigs where the fact that I do both kinds of songwriting has really helped me out from having a bad night to being a really good night,” he says with a laugh. “There have been times where it doesn’t seem like a crowd who likes their language really rough, or some times where it seems like everyone’s a real bruiser and oh, the GWAR concert across the street just let out. Here’s a song about bestiality, how about it!”