By Kent Davies
Like the musical equivalent of Voltron or maybe a modern day local Wrecking Crew, The Manitobandits are the combination of the mighty genre-busting artists that make up Ultra Mega, Blond(e) Goth and Smoky Tiger. The group features the core backing of Josey Krahn (Ultra Mega), Aaron Johnston (Pop Crimes), Richard Bolton (Reverend Rambler) and Dan Moroz (The Flaming Trolleys) with revolving frontmen; JD Ormond (JD and the Sunshine Band), T.J. Blair (The Magnificent 7s), and Smoky Tiger/Andrew Courtnage/Nij (Youtube). The Manitobandits enthralling live set features darkly humored satirical songs, wistful love ballads, party rock anthems and tributes to Manitoba folk heroes. The powerhouse act recently played to a packed Good Will Social Club in support of their respective album releases. Stylus caught up with the Manitobandits at their secret hideout in south Osborne in the lead up to the big show.
Stylus: There is so much Manitoba history and Winnipeg related stories in your music. What do you think it is about living here that makes it so ripe for storytelling?
Nij (Smoky Tiger): We’re kind of like an Island, because we’re so isolated from every other place. We become a focus point for a particular type of isolated sound.
Josey: These are unique stories (featured on Smoky Tiger’s Great Western Gold) that no one outside of Manitoba has heard, like the story of Cuthbert Grant or Bloody John Krafchenko or the amazing story of the Flying Bandit and one of the biggest gold heists ever right here in the Winnipeg international airport. Nobody has really heard much about these characters outside of Manitoba.
Nij: I wanted to fulfill one of the obligations of an artist and that is to tell stories and represent spirits. I just went looking for stories and I found all these incredible histories of people from Manitoba, some of which I had never heard of. It was the excitement of the stories behind the stories that gave me the obligation to make sure that people need to hear them. My songs are literally about these historical Manitoba characters but Ultra Mega and Blond(e) Goth songs are more outside the regular mainstream view of this place. It’s a view from the people who live here, political views, and more irreverent views.
Josey: There is definitely something about playing together for such a long time that humor plays a big part in what we do. We all have a similar taste in humor and in a lot of ways we’re hyperaware of our surroundings and situations and that let’s us have a good ear for each other’s jokes. That translates into the songs. Jokes make for good stories. Good stories make good songs.
JD: It’s also proven to be a good marketing scheme to pander a bit to the locals with things that they may be into or they know.
Stylus: How long have you all been playing together?
Nij: Joesy and I have been partying together since we were eating acid and listening to Pink Floyd. TJ is the new guy. An alien spacecraft did a fly by and jettisoned him out.
JD: Josey and I grew up in Wolseley and our families were just naturally kind of friends. We were attracted to one another’s sense of outsider irrelevance or irreverence I should say. (Laughs).
Josey: We met Aaron at the very first Rainbow Trout. That was the first time JD played with Smoky Tiger and the first time I played with Ultra Mega.
Stylus: You’ve been party of Rainbow Trout (Music Festival) since the beginning is that kind of like the glue of Manitobandits?
Josey: Some of the best shows we’ve played were at Trout. I loved that first time we played Trout as Blond(e) Goth. I lunged on a monitor for the first time ever. Not ironically, totally from heart.
Nij: For Rainbow Trout, it hasn’t really been up to that pinnacle since 2014. I had heard Blond Goth ten thousand times before but when Dan Moroz came up with his Hulk Hogan outfit with that sax solo – the moment he hit this note I just started weeping. Tears, snot, blood was coming out my ears.
JD: Even before Trout was a thing, Josey, Nij, myself and even TJ a little later were always chilling at the Label Gallery on Portage across from the U of Winnipeg. That was very much a creative hub. That was around the first time Josey and I played out together. I was trying to teach Josey all my personal songs that were very chord heavy, very singer songwriter. Through the genesis of Ultra Mega it’s gone from a signer songwriter thing to sort of a more open like spacey ethereal thing.
Stylus: You’re releasing three albums simultaneously. When did you start recording these?
JD: The album Ultra Mega is releasing now was actually recorded in 2011. Basically the Ultra Mega songs were our first foray into the studio. One of the reasons we did that album was just like it was a teaser for our live show. I’ve been hesitant and that’s the reason why this record has taken so long to come out. I always feel that something is lost in the production process. You lose the nugget that you think was the most valuable part of that song or creating it in the first place. So it becomes hard to put something out that isn’t exactly what you’re about. Some of those songs are ten years old. I wrote some of them when I was 19 years old. Very old stock.
TJ: The Blond(e) Goth album was recorded through various sessions but one of the songs is old enough that there is a Stephen Harper reference. (Laughs) So we felt we just got to get this shit out because we’re losing the timeliness of it.
Aaron: At this point it wouldn’t seem appropriate to just release them individually. By doing a co-release it adds enough entertainment value to make it worthwhile. Once the albums are out there you can’t take it back. It’s taken a while to make that jump.
Stylus: And it’s better to make that plunge with a group like this?
TJ: We can hide behind each other. (Laughs).
Josey: I think for all of us, since we started playing music together we’ve dreamed of having a group like this. As friends, the feeling that we can play each other’s songs and make something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. That feels fuckin’ rad.
JD: I’m so happy to playing these songs. They’re all so out there. Each leader has his own craft and there are similarities but we’re all very different.
TJ: We’re crossing over three separate franchises. I just hope it doesn’t turn into that shitty Freddy vs. Jason movie.
Ultra Mega’s self-titled full length and Smoky Tiger’s Great Western Gold is out now with the Transistor 66 record company. The joint Transistor 66 and Eat Em’ Up Records release of Blond(e) Goth’s self-titled cassette is out for its second run. Get it while you can.