The Inbreds – An Oral History of It’s Sydney or the Bush

Image by Catherine Stockhausen
Image by Catherine Stockhausen

Nicholas Friesen @Nicholastronaut  September 21, 2016

In 1996, Kingston-to-Halifax duo The Inbreds, made up of bassist/vocalist Mike O’Neill and drummer Dave Ulrich, released its third full length, the Juno-nominated It’s Sydney or the Bush. More fleshed out than 1994’s Kombinator, the disc featured such classics as “Drag Us Down” and “Reason Why I’m Shy”, and was set to open up big doors for the band stateside before label troubles occurred. What follows is the story of It’s Sydney or the Bush in the band’s own words, on the record’s 20th anniversary (and just in time for the record’s vinyl re-release on Label Obscura). 

Re-releasing Kombinator and Recording Sydney 

Mike O’Neill: We had gone from our first record (1993’s Hilario), we made it on 4-tracks and stuff and did a little bit of studio stuff at the end. Our second record, Kombinator, we made in a studio but it had a 16-track recorder, which probably by recording standards is considered a little bit lo-fi, but it’s what we could afford and we went in and made that album. It’s got a great kind of sound that sounds like using a studio like a bigger 4-track. A lot of that has to do with the choices of (producer) Dave Clark, he made really great records with us and left all sorts of natural things on it. Before someone comes in and plays with us, you can hear them practicing on a piano. I love those records.

Dave Ullrich: We were coming off of Kombinator, which was an unbelievable success, in that it was an indie record where we recorded it ourselves, put it out, made it to number one on college radio and we thought that was pretty much it, you know, drop the microphone and leave. After that, we started getting calls from record companies and getting signed to labels and toured almost around the world with Buffalo Tom and did (summer touring festival) Another Roadside Attraction with the Tragically Hip, made videos, did shows with Super Friendz and Sloan.

So when we signed (a record deal with TAG/Atlantic) they just took our record, Kombinator, and remastered and re-released it. There was no effort on the label’s part, so with It’s Sydney or the Bush, we’ve got a budget and can hire a producer and do like a real record, it was our first chance to step up to the plate. There were some weird pressures there, it’s kind of like the sophomore record, even though it was our third record.

Mike O’Neill: When we signed our deal with TAG/Atlantic we found ourselves in a position where we felt we could really stretch ourselves out and make a record for more money. They even gave us a list of potential engineers and producers.

Dave Ullrich: So we were looking at names like Jim Rondinelli (Sloan, Wilco) and the guy who did the Beck record, so there was some opportunity to have some bigger names involved, and it went back and forth and you’re dealing with the record company, and at one point there was the classic story of some label disruption, and the person we had signed to ended up leaving. So our advocate is gone. We started the recording process around the exact same time we decided to move to Halifax from Kingston. Mike and I, my then girlfriend/current wife, we piled all our stuff into a 25 foot truck and drove it from Kingston to Halifax, and almost within three weeks of arriving we started recording Sydney or the Bush (in April of 1996).

Mike O’Neill: We chose this guy named Lincoln Fong who was the bass player with the Cocteau Twins at the time and also had scored the hit “Pump Up The Volume” (by MARRS).

Dave Ullrich: We picked a studio in downtown Halifax (Idea of East) that was at that point known for where Sloan had done One Chord to Another and the producer that we picked was this guy who was in Jesus and Mary Chain, he wasn’t an original member, he was a replacement bass player, but he was known for engineering some 4AD bands and this is just the one that worked out. He was a good guy, this kind of British character. It wasn’t that different than what we had done before.

Once in a while someone from the record company would actually show up, but at this point the cracks were beginning to show at the label because this (original) person had left and now we had this other person, so it was feeling a little bit unsteady. But it was a chance to spend a little more money and a little more time.

Mike O’Neill: The way I would describe the Inbreds at the time is, a lot of the way we sounded might have been less conscious than people might think. Clark helped us with Kombinator and we had done the best recordings we could on 4-track so we unconsciously had a sort of indie sound, so given the opportunity to record in a fancier place was very appealing. All my favourite records were made in pretty nice studios and I wanted the opportunity to do that. We recorded on a 24-track two-inch, which is kind of industry standard.

Dave Ullrich: Lincoln was so old school. Digital had just come out but he wasn’t doing it that way. When he’d do edits, he’d actually cut the tape with a razor blade which always freaked me out. He’d literally just cut the tape.

Mike O’Neill: There were songs that were built around just guitar parts, there were overdubs of strings, but I would remind people that Kombinator has the same thing, like on “She’s Acting” where I play guitar, Dave plays bass and Dave Clark plays drums. So it wasn’t as though we simply went from bass and drums to overdubbing, it’s just that everything sounded a lot cleaner and more produced. That was my headspace, okay, we’re moving up to making something that we have access to a studio and an engineer with experience, so we’re trying to make the biggest, most exciting record we could.

Dave Ullrich: I’m sure from Mike’s side there was a general pressure on the songwriting side to basically be successful, and one of the ways that Mike manifested it was to really get into more overdubbing than what Kombinator had. You’ll hear it on the record. There’s a bunch of songs that are very fleshed out, Beach Boys harmonies, a lot of that kind of stuff. Trumpets, strings.

Mike O’Neill: After we put out Kombinator we did a lot of touring. We did a six week tour with Buffalo Tom and we toured Europe, so I was trying to finish songs on the road and I didn’t find that very easy because… I don’t know why. I guess you’re waiting around to play a show, you’re sitting in a hotel room, and you’re not really experiencing anything but going to a club and going back to the hotel. I don’t know how people do it, to tell you the truth. It’s probably a contributing factor to the fact that a lot of bands, that after a first successful record they have kind of a less-realized sophomore record.

Dave Ullrich: That record was more than ever Mike coming in and having almost a full idea. The full melody, guitar, drums, bass, whereas with the other stuff we’d be jamming out stuff. It was Mike getting a chance to do the whole shooting match top to bottom. It didn’t make it as fun for me. After all these years he was getting a chance to make the flag fly.

Lennon and McCartney, we talk about these guys being the best songwriters of all time, but the other thing they brought to each other’s songs was ‘the look’, you know? Maybe that’s what I brought to the table. Wouldn’t have to say anything. Just the look. Maybe McCartney, a few times, when he went solo, maybe he could’ve used the look from Lennon, you know?

I think that’s the thing together as long as it was. It was just two guys. The same jokes from grade nine continue, probably to this day.

Mike O’Neill: I think that it’s just very, very difficult and maybe Dave and my situation was different because there was only two of us, but there was pressure. There’s this feeling that you’re tied to this person. Whatever I do in my life is kind of like I have to organize with this person that I spend so much of my time with. When I met PS I Love You, I thought, they seem to have a lot figured out as a two piece. They love each other but they don’t spend all their time together. Dave and I were so sensitive about hurting each other’s feelings that we hung out even when we didn’t want to hang out because we didn’t want to make an unintentional statement of any sort. We just did the best we could. We’re on very good terms again.

Dave Ullrich: So we finished that initial session and it came time to, I think we’d recorded most of the bed tracks and vocals, and Lincoln said, “Why don’t you guys come to England?” Of course, right? We go to this studio called Eel Pie which is owned by Pete Townshend, and really at that point we’re doing overdubs and mixing. Some of my recollections of that were just being there and seeing all the guitars, and everyday the mail would come in this Santa sack, because people from all around the world were just writing to Pete Townshend.

So the record’s done, it’s mastered, it’s coming out, and that’s when things really fell apart with TAG and they basically said to us that they weren’t going to put it out. So we had a finished record, and we were ready to get going.

Our manager at that time also managed Sloan, and Jay Ferguson from Sloan was kind of like our manager through the management company, so there’s already this big Sloan connection and he said, “Why don’t you guys just put this out on Murderecords?” It ended up just getting a Canadian release through Murder (shared with Ullrich’s own PF Records), and it never got an American release, which is unfortunate because this would have been our chance to tour in the states and internationally, but because those wheels fell off there were some mixed feelings at that time. Even still with doing the record with Murder and with the momentum we had at that time, we did a whole bunch of tours with Sloan and others at the time, we put out a couple of videos, we got a Juno nomination at that time as well, so my memories are mixed in terms of the label upheaval but my memories of the record are good.

Touring as a Trio

Mike O’Neill: It sounds like a bit of a joke and maybe it was, with It’s Sydney or the Bush, I thought, “I’m going to have two basses. I’ll play one clean and then overdub some dirty bass. So when we go on tour, we should have two bassists and a drummer, then that bassist would switch off and play guitar.” That’s pretty outrageous – two bassists and a drummer. I think it sounded pretty good but I definitely was insecure.

I remember that the shows, there was Matt Kelly and Dave Cyr, even (O’Neill’s current TUNS bandmate) Matt Murphy played with us on some East Coast shows, but I was kind of a stickler for making them sticking to the parts on the record, and I think that’s a classic mistake that people make when they’re insecure and young and they think they’ve done something very important and perfect. When I think back to it, I had these guitarists who were good and could have contributed something really unique, and I would never force someone to play something the way I played it anymore, but I was young.

Dave Ullrich: Mike and I had been friends since grade nine, so it was weird to have a third guy in the band. Musically, it was what it was. You’d get a chance to hear additional harmonies, and bass and guitar, he’d switch off. What the Inbreds were, then and now, I think it’s probably a bit odd for people to see three on stage instead of two, but that being said in this day and age if you think of the number of two piece bands that exist today and existed then … obviously stuff like Black Keys, they did it very effectively. There’s the touring version of the band that has several people, but they still put the two guys up front. We didn’t do that, we just did the three guys up front. I would envision people might be a little bit thrown off by that.

We did tours with just the two of us, one of them was with Sloan. So Sydney or the Bush is out, this multi-layered album, and Sloan asks if we can do this Western Canadian tour where there wasn’t enough money to play for another guy, and all of us just flew together going across, so that album saw two tours with just the two of us and two tours with the full sound, and I wonder if anyone saw the difference between the two shows, what they thought? There is some video out there, because we did a tour with the Rheostatics where they did their live album, I’ve got some DATs of that, and I put one album out (through Ullrich’s Zunior label) and that’s actually from that tour, so you can actually hear Sydney or the Bush songs done as a two piece as opposed to a three piece, so that’s an interesting spin on that dynamic.

Releasing Sydney 

Mike O’Neill: I’m gonna say the summer of 1996. I don’t know the date. I had one of those can openers that takes the top off of the can, it cuts the side and takes the whole lid off and leaves this lethal edge. I was in a bachelor apartment on South Street in Halifax and I had just received the master of It’s Sydney or the Bush, and I started listening to it for the first time and I was pouring myself a glass of tomato juice. The reason I was into tomato juice at the time was because I was reading a book about Groucho Marx by Charlotte Chandler called Hello, I Must Be Going, and when she was describing Groucho he was always drinking tomato juice. He was also 75 or something, but I was trying to be like Groucho. What I’d done was I’d cut the top off the tomato juice and I was trying to pour it into the glass, but the condensation on the side of the can slid through my hands and I tried to catch it, but it landed on the counter and I put both the part where the thumb meets the part of your hand, I drove both of those thumbs down on the can and I severed a tendon in my left hand, and I injured my right hand and it was pretty bad. So I didn’t finish listening to the record and I went to the emergency room, and for about a month I was unable to play music or do almost anything that required my thumbs, so that was a downer. That’s all to say that it was early summer, because I remember it was the summer and I couldn’t use my thumbs.

The Nation’s Music Station, MuchMusic 

Mike O’Neill: Back then, there was The Wedge. It was a show in primetime, I don’t mean at night, it was just a good time for people to see it. It was targeted at kids coming home from high school or whatever, but that gave people a chance to hear alternative music. We played live on The Wedge twice. That was always scary, because whenever you see one of those performances on YouTube now, there were no monitors. You went into literally an office with computers and people sitting around. It was unnerving. You could hear your instruments but you couldn’t hear your voice, and you knew it was going out to the entire country. But you’re playing in a club to six people and you have monitors so you can hear your own voice when you’re singing. I think those people were probably so filled with nerves that they did fine when they were playing on TV. I’m not talking about when Daniel Lanois plays or somebody really big, I think they bring their own truck of gear. That and Much East, which was Mike Campbell, who still lives here in Halifax. Once we moved out here in ’96 we were on there all the time. That helped a lot.

When “Any Sense of Time” was played on heavy rotation on MuchMusic, that changed everything for us.

Dave Ullrich: MuchMusic, they were great to us, and the people there were always really good to us. The first video we ever did (“Prince’”) was done by my brother Bob Ullrich, we did it for fun and we ended up doing better and better ones. The one that got the most success was “Any Sense of Time” by Evan Bernard who had connections to the Beastie Boys. He was this really cool guy, he really brought a levity to the whole process, that was a really fun video to make.

For me personally, and I think Mike too, I loved it. Mike had done acting and high school theatre stuff, but what I used to do when I was a kid with my brothers was we had a Super 8 camera and we would spend the summer making little movies. When it came time to make the videos with the Inbreds it was an extension of that. It was always fun to come up with the concepts and all the schtick.

There’s one scene in (“Drag Us Down”) where the multiples (of us) are fighting, and they said, we’ve gotta get doubles for you guys. So I remember for me, we just got a couple of my brothers, you never see their faces, just the backs of their heads. But for Mike, they literally went out to a dance club the night before and asked guys if they wanted to be in a video shoot and they paid ‘em 50 bucks or whatever. So it’s my brothers and a couple of these Mike guys from the club, it was so funny.

Following up Sydney with Winning Hearts

Dave Ullrich: Sydney had all these layers and extra sounds, that kinda stuff, then Winning Hearts was, rightly or wrongly, a return to Kombinator. I think the sound is back to a more “indie” sound or something. Mike has always been a Beatles guy and I’m always a Stones guy, and that’s really our essence. We definitely love the same bands, but my tendencies run a little more to the rock and Mike’s a little more pop, or I’m more indie and he’s more into the classic sounds. I think the interplay, album to album, is going between those two dynamics and Winning Hearts was a switch back to that more indie dynamic, and Sydney or the Bush was Mike’s chance to reflect that more pop side.

Edgefest ’98 (AKA the Final Tour) 

Dave Ullrich: (The final tour was) a series of Edgefest dates with Foo Fighters and Green Day, and the very last show was a show on Yonge Street, which was really notable for being around my birthday. We did that tour and we never really told anyone it was gonna be our last tour. As we hit each city, people who were our friends we would say it was gonna be our last tour. So my mother shows up, and she only ever showed up to about three shows that we did, she’s a short little woman, shows up right at the front of the stage with my brother’s wife. As soon as we start playing, the most torrential downpour happened, and everybody on Yonge Street just runs off to the side to find shelter. We played the full set and my mother and my brother’s wife just got drenched, it was the funniest thing playing to my mother.

Final Words

Dave Ullrich: Part of the reason of me getting out of music was that I needed more control over my life. I needed to make money or do what I wanted to do. Towards the end, all these different people would tell you, like around Winning Hearts, “You guys should really do Breakfast Television in Halifax, it would really help your career.” Man, I been doing this for years, you wanna tell me to go on Breakfast Television at 6am? It’s a bunch of people who were hopped up, and I don’t know why they would buy our record or even care. That kinda stuff was pretty endless, particularly toward the end, I felt like I needed to get away from that.

The interesting thing post-Winning Hearts with Mike doing his solo stuff, they probably sound a lot more like Sydney or the Bush than any other Inbreds record, that really multi-layered pop sound.

Mike O’Neill: We certainly didn’t know that we were part of anything that anyone was gonna care about later. Dave and I were in a weird band that didn’t know we were weird. We kind of thought, we’re playing songs and doing the best we can with this format. We moved to Halifax because the bands here were so cool. Wouldn’t it be neat hanging out with these people all the time, and that’s how I ended up in Halifax.

In the years since the end of the Inbreds, Mike O’Neill has released a handful of great solo records, worked in various capacities on the hit series Trailer Park Boys and with its creator, Mike Clattenburg, and currently plays in TUNS.

In 2004, Dave Ullrich founded Zunior, Canada’s first online-only record label. His solo project, Egger, has released one stellar full length and a handful of EPs.

O’Neill and Ullrich have reunited for occasional live shows, including an upcoming gig in Toronto at the Gladstone Hotel on September 29 to celebrate the vinyl editions of the band’s three proper albums. 

Wanna go deeper? Visit the band’s official archive site here

CANROCK CONNECTIONS:

vamps sense

Vampires Cover “Any Sense of Time” by The Inbreds