In March of 1997, Moncton band The Monoxides released Galaxy of Stooges, a retro rocker of a record that featured such chant-along classics as “Little Bitta Rosie” and “(Can’t Get) Excited”. The band, made up of guitarist/vocalist Steve Hickox, bassist PJ Dunphy, drummer Ken Kelley, and guitarist Derek Robichaud, would go on to tour with ZZ Top, Headstones, Change of Heart and The Pursuit of Happiness (whose frontman Moe Berg produced Stooges). To mark the 20th anniversary, we called up Ken Kelley to chat about the formation of the band, creating the album, major label woes and much more.
Jaded and Elated: The band was formed by you and Steve, right?
Ken Kelley: We started the group, I wouldn’t say as a joke, but something to do. Steve was 13, I was 12, that would’ve been 1988. It was a few years after that that we met PJ, and through him we met Derek who ended up joining the group the next year.
J&E: Was the idea to become a touring band, did you think of that as a possibility at that age?
KK: Honestly, it was around the time that a lot of people were making waves around Halifax. Sloan got their Geffen deal and Eric’s Trip signed to Sub Pop. While those bands didn’t influence us musically, from an inspiration standpoint of ‘Hey, you don’t have to move to Toronto or Los Angeles to make it in the music business,’ that was huge to us. A band from the East Coast is never gonna get discovered. Sloan and Eric’s Trip showed us that you can let the music speak for itself. We weren’t really gunning for it or anything like that, but we were lucky, we did sign a record deal. 1992-94 was when our eyes opened that there could be bigger possibilities that could come our way.
J&E: So how did signing to a major label become a reality for you guys?
KK: I graduated from high school in 1993 and we would play Halifax bar shows, and my father would wind up tagging along with us as a legal guardian. Everyone’s parents in the band trusted my dad. It’s not like any of us were gonna run amok and get loaded in a bar. In February of 1994 we played a showcase at the East Coast Music Awards for the first time, and that was in Newfoundland. The next month we went to Toronto to showcase at Canadian Music Week. We were lucky that those two showcases went reasonably well. People started calling and asking about the band, it was exciting.
We decided in the summer of ‘94 to mount a tour to Ontario, 10 days or something like that. It was at one of those Toronto shows where a couple people from BMG saw us, and with our friend Jeff Rogers who ran Handsome Boy, a label that had Slowburn and Rusty, and they did a co-venture where our first release would be on Handsome Boy and we would ‘graduate’ to BMG. At the start of 1995 we signed the contract. It was nutty, in retrospect.
J&E: So what was the process like of putting together the Out of the Marsh EP? Did you have a batch of songs and some went to the EP and some to the album?
KK: We had demoed a lot of songs and the bulk of the songs … Out of the Marsh was a collection of demos we remixed but there are some technical flaws, it wasn’t intended to be released. The label convinced us to release them instead of going and re-recording them. Looking at Galaxy, all of those songs were written in the time after Out of the Marsh. What really made the difference for the band was that in 1995 after Marsh came out, we spent a lot of time touring and we grew individually and collectively. I have yet to meet anyone who says touring doesn’t help. You get that laser focus.
J&E: How did Moe Berg wind up producing Galaxy of Stooges?
KK: When it came to Galaxy there were a few names being tossed around, and Moe Berg was a name that kept coming up. We all grew up listening to The Pursuit of Happiness. I listened to a lot of pop music when I was growing up, and Steve listened to a lot of heavy metal. The Pursuit of Happiness were the happy medium everyone could agree on, the rock kids liked them, the pop kids liked them, the metal kids thought they were cool enough. We met with Moe, he’s one of the nicest people in the world, it seemed natural. We outlined for him what we were looking for, to make a classic rock-inspired record, and we recorded Galaxy in the early summer of 1996.
I think probably what helped make Galaxy such a well-rounded album was that we each bring some unique musical influences to the table. Steve started getting into David Bowie back then, ‘(Can’t Get) Excited’ is sort of our tribute to Bowie in a sly, underhanded way. That was actually a song that came about impulsively. Moe came down to New Brunswick in anticipation of going into the studio, and he suggested we write a song, right here right now, and that was what came from it. It stemmed from Steve being immersed in Ziggy Stardust at the time.
J&E: So how did ‘(Can’t Get) Excited’ become the single, was that you guys choosing it or the label?
KK: We had kind of a complicated relationship with our label. Your A&R guy is your cheerleader, and within a month of us having signed to BMG, our A&R guy bailed for RCA, BMG’s parent company in the States. A new regime came in at BMG, and we felt like the adopted kids. We’ve made some amazing friends at the label and we’re still friends with a lot of those people, but there were some parts of the label that didn’t get us or didn’t care to get us. I’m not saying this with any malicious intent. The resources for radio or video basically evaporated after ‘(Can’t Get) Excited’. I’m not bitter, it’s just the way these things work out. It became evident that it was in our best interests not to be with the label within a year of the album coming out.
J&E: But it was still the label that chose the single.
KK: I think in some ways it was our best foot forward, it’s a short and concise song, it’s not even three minutes long. This is a good track because radio can sneak it in. We weren’t even really successful, but it still felt like a victory in some ways.
J&E: It was definitely a victory if a kid in Winnipeg saw it, and it wasn’t just on Sunday nights on MuchEast, it was in regular rotation if I remember correctly.
KK: That was the thing about MuchMusic in those days, it had the power to break a band. We had some big fans at MuchMusic. We did two versions of the video. MuchMusic, when they used to play music videos, used to have meetings every week about what was going in light or heavy rotation. They gave us feedback, they didn’t say it in so many words, but they said the video sucked. Denise Donlon, who was overseeing Much at the time, had seen us live and loved us. I’ve got a funny story that I won’t share about spitting beer on her, but she was just wonderful. (RapidFAX host/videographer) Rebecca Rankin loved the band, too. It took a couple months and BMG re-jigged it without our involvement, we were on tour. For what it’s worth, we didn’t see the second version before it went to air. We were watching TV in Toronto when it came on the air. It never landed in heavy rotation or anything like that.
J&E: The only time I saw the band was opening for ZZ Top alongside Wide Mouth Mason at the Winnipeg Arena. I went with my dad, and I made sure we got there early to see you guys. My dad really liked you, I got him a copy of the CD for Father’s Day. What was touring the record like for you?
KK: Touring was the highlight of all those years. Getting to play for new audiences, we were really lucky. In 1997 we did a tour on our own when Galaxy came out in March, and less than two months later we were back on the road with Rusty and Change of Heart. Less than a month after that we did the ZZ Top tour, and that fall we were on the road with The Pursuit of Happiness and the Headstones. The whole year ended up being a highlight. It didn’t matter to us where we played on the bill, we just wanted to play.
J&E: When you’re doing a set in an arena for an audience that isn’t necessarily your audience, are you switching up the set to try and win a crowd over?
KK: We never tried to be anything we’re not. We played the same live show whether there was a thousand people in the room or five people.
J&E: So I’m not sure if or when the band actually ended, but after Galaxy of Stooges you did release a record in 2000, The Free Release of Energy, and I know you’re still playing together sporadically these days. So what’s been going on for the last 17 years?
KK: In 1998, after we parted ways with BMG, we were looking for a new label deal. Derek had the opportunity to work with Matt Good as a guitar tech for a run of shows. He worked for a week or so and was offered more shows. We were coming home from tours no further ahead than when we left, and it didn’t really matter, it’s not like any of us had mortgages or kids at the time. After touring for three years you’re making $20 a day, you have to wonder why you’re investing all this time in something and not seeing any results. We weren’t expecting to be zillionaires but it was a pause for thought.
Derek went off and worked for Matt Good for almost two years and we kept the band going with a guitarist named Marco (Rocca) who joined full time in 2003. While we were recording Free Release Steve had a conversation with Derek, basically said we really missed him, and he made it home and recorded his guitar parts on The Free Release of Energy.
PJ, our bass player, had his first kid in 2000. Priorities needed to change, and we were all at peace with that. Derek and PJ started a much heavier band called Iron Giant, and ended up touring everywhere. The Monoxides never went away, they just became less of a priority. We stayed quiet but we’d do a show every Christmas here in Moncton, and we did a show in 2009, and we kinda thought that unless we had anything new to bring to the table we should just go away for a bit. We didn’t end up playing together for three years after that, until a wedding of all places in 2012, and have played every year since.
It’s not due to conflicting personalities or anything like that, but just getting the five of us together is like herding cats. There’s seven kids between the five of us, we’ve all got full time jobs, and Derek has been a truck driver since 2010. Doing weeknight practices isn’t a possibility, people want to spend time with their kids on the weekends. We’re hoping now that our kids are getting older we might be able to do that. We’ve got a pile of songs sitting in the vaults for years. I’d love to have a three or four song EP or something, but it would take a lot of money for us to get in the van again (laughs).
I am never happier than when I’m making music with those guys. We’ve been making music together for 25 years. It’ll sound incredibly sappy, but there’s a bond between us that I have in no other aspect of my life, and that makes coming back to the band very special. It’s kind of a double-edged sword when we’re all together because we end up shooting the shit far more than playing.
It’s nice to know that people still care. The music’s out there and is more easy to find than a few years ago.
You can take a listen to Galaxy of Stooges, The Free Release of Energy, and the Hints & Shortcuts live EP on Spotify. Follow the band on Facebook for info on shows and more.