30 Years of Love Junk with The Pursuit of Happiness

Photo courtesy of TPOH

Some things in life you just don’t forget. That first time you saw Star Wars, for instance. There he was heading into the second flick of a drive-in double feature with droopy kid eyes now instantly widened… mesmerized.  Lightsabers! Vader! The Force! The back seat of the family car was now the gateway to a galaxy far, far away. Or that first kiss. Her name was June. Those five seconds of bliss tasted like pink lemonade and Doritos. 

Right up there with such life changing milestones, for me, is some guy screaming, screaming, screaming in a leather jacket! Check that. Actually, to be more precious, some guy screaming in a leather jacket and glasses that was also searching through an Ontario garbage dump with a shovel. While I’m sure most people’s life altering experiences include a lot less landfill, the leather-clad man was Moe Berg, his band was The Pursuit of Happiness and the video in which he dug through what appeared to be a lot of cardboard was “Hard to Laugh”, a cut from their first album Love Junk

It was 30 years ago, 1988, I was ten, but I remember it like it was 40 second ago. There I was at 12am up wayyyy past my bedtime, finger on the record button of our VCR remote waiting…waiting…waiting…to just hammer it down when the tune I’d only caught the end of earlier cycled back into the MuchMusic rotation stream. You see, kids, there was no YouTube insta-gratification back then. I’d been waiting all night to hear that tune again, those squealing guitars, those lyrics that shouted:

“People always ask you why you're so serious / 'Cause your woman's got a body that would make most men delirious / Yeah, she's got a body, of that you're painfully aware / 'Cause every time you see it, you want to pull out your hair”

Everyone has a band that catapulted them into their own music-discovering trajectory. You know what I’m talking about? Something that launched you away from tunes by the Minipops and Chipmunks and far beyond whatever your parents were listening to (read: a whole lotta’ ABBA and the soundtrack to Grease). For me, that group was TPOH.

About five seconds after she woke up the morning after I recorded “Hard to Laugh” off Much, I was begging my mother for the fifteen bucks I needed to snag me a Love Junk cassette from Music World. This album was the Grail! I didn’t know that it was currently soaring out of the park with a hit indie-groups like TPOH only dream of smacking first time at bat. I didn’t know they were Canadian. Hell, I didn’t even known any other tunes after “Hard to Laugh”. I just knew that this rocked and I wanted more of it!

I’d only learn more about the band later. In the days pre-internet, all you had were the music mags and Erica Ehm interviews to glean your knowledge from. I would find out that, after a move from Edmonton to Toronto, Berg and drummer Dave Gilby would meet bassist Johnny Sinclair and the Amabile sisters (Tamara and Natasha), both crucial to creating a TPOH sound Beavis and Butt-Head once called “college music”. Maybe, B&B, but whatever you wanted to name it, I think my kid-self was mainly drawn to those backing vocals and pumping rhythms that set the group apart from some of the other things I was hearing on Much at the time. “I’m An Adult Now” brought the most mainstream attention to the group but I playing and rewinding cuts like “She’s So Young”, “Killed by Love” and “Consciousness Raising as a Social Tool” at full pin on my first stereo…only turning down Love Junk for a second or two when Berg dropped an F-bomb in “Looking for Girls”. I mean, hey, I had a mom upstairs, you know!

Curse words and all, this music was a revelation to me and that tape whirled until it broke. We were a few years away from my diving headlong into a Canuck music explosion when bands like The Tea Party, I Mother Earth and Our Lady Peace began rocking the airwaves with some Big, Shiny Tunes. TPOH, alas, may have just missed riding that big wave they arguably helped launch. After some line-up changes that included members like Kris Abbott joining the band and the Amabile sisters and Leslie Stanwhyck leaving it, TPOH went their separate ways shattering my life-goal of seeing them live.

In the decades since, Love Junk and other TPOH albums like The Downward Road and One Sided Story have become more than just spins I turn to when I want to get all nostalgic. The albums and the band were the beginning strands of my music-lovin’ DNA, Love Junk the first album I bought with my own hard-begged for cash. I did always hold a little flickering light inside for a reunion so I could see them perform. Wouldn’t you know it, patience would be rewarded when, in 2014, the band got back together for a show in Toronto. Would this be the start of a new tour? Well, not quite. It would take a bit of time, but this show would be followed last year with a string of concerts at the famed Horseshoe Tavern. Maybe, just maybe, we’d seem them in Ottawa!

When Westfest organizers dropped the tease of a coming huge concert announcement for the 2018 festival, my only response was: “Please, let it be The Pursuit of Happiness!”

Scratch one off the bucket list, folks, because TPOH hits the Westfest stage Saturday, June 9th! Back in Ottawa for their first performance in decades, this is going to be a can’t miss gig for those looking for a huge heapin’ slice of classic Canuck rock. Then there’s us long-time fans who once entertained the idea of tattooing their logo on their bicep. After all, some of us, adults now ourselves, have waited our whole life to see TPOH rock the house! Yeah, this is gonna’ be good.

Ahead of the Westfest gig, TPOH’s Berg and Abbott shared some stories with me about the early days of the band and what these reunion shows have meant for them as we looked back on 30 years of Love Junk.   

Ottawa Life: So it’s been 30 years since the band’s debut album…30 years since Love Junk first gave us classic tunes like “I’m An Adult Now”. What do you think about when you pause to take that in?

Moe Berg: It’s great to think that the record has held up over such a long time. I think partly because we weren’t following any trends when we recorded it and also, Todd Rundgren, who produced it, wasn’t using the ‘sound of the times’ and had his own sonic perception that was different from what many producers were doing at that time.

What do you feel has changed most about you, if anything, from the man you were when you wrote the tunes for Love Junk?

Moe Berg: Some of the songs were definitely written by a young man but some of them almost felt like they were channelled to me from my older self. Certainly “I’m An Adult Now” and “She’s So Young” almost feel more true to me now than they did when I wrote them. I think living a life gives you a more balanced view of the world and that’s a good thing but rock and roll needs a bit of youthful exuberance to really be effective and I think I had more of that then, obviously.

I was ten when I discovered the album and it’s the one I say was my first foray into music that didn’t belong to my parents. Can you share a memory or two about putting the album together with the band?

Moe Berg: In some ways, it was a long time coming. I had written these songs and we’d been playing them for a couple of years before we went into the studio. So we were very well rehearsed when we went to record with Todd. Kris often describes the recording process as a ‘live performance for Todd in his studio’ and it was a bit like that. We had a lot of fun recording and just hanging out in Woodstock, New York immersing ourselves in the process.

Kris Abbott: There are so many and they all come back in a great amount of detail. We were really prime and just off of the road so well-rehearsed but still really living like kids in a struggling rock band. Everything about recording with Todd was like a dream. We had a huge cottage mansion on his property, with a little walk up a hill to his cabin studio. Then we just played live off the floor in a circle in the main room of the cabin. It was like playing a personal show for Todd and somehow it all just went down on tape.

One moment I think everyone in the band will agree was memorable was recording “Consciousness Raising As a Social Tool”. After one take Todd asked us who we wanted to sound like, Grateful Dead or ELO? I can't remember who the second choice was but it was the other side of the spectrum. When we all laughed and said Grateful Dead, Todd replied "Well then you have just recorded the first track of your album". It was all about the vibe and it was magical and intense. The whole album went down like that and was done in ten days. The sessions were intensely fun and life outside the sessions also as intensely fun.

What do you feel you most learned working with Todd Rundgren?

Moe Berg: I learned a lot from working with Todd, not just about songs and recording but about how the music business worked. But Todd is a conceptualist and that’s a really great quality in a producer. He made sure the songs all worked together in a loose theme. I think he’s really good at visualizing what the final product will be. He’s a very good judge of material and made sure that only the very best songs ended up on the record.

“I’m an Adult Now” quickly shot the band up the Canadian charts. Why do you feel that was the tune on the album that broke out?

Moe Berg: “I’m An Adult Now” was, in many ways, just another song to us. I certainly didn’t have any idea it would have the impact that it did. It incorporated a lot of styles, sort of a punk attitude with a rock/alternative sound and almost a hip-hop vocal delivery over a 12 bar musical structure. I think the lyrics were both funny and serious at the same time and there really wasn’t much like it.

I know musicians probably don’t go back and listen to their own albums as much as us fans do but, 30 years on down the road, what do you think about Love Junk these days and how it has held up?

Kris Abbott: I really love the album and it still makes me proud. We play the songs exactly like that 30 years later so what does that say? I think the fact that we were part punk and part metal but ultimately playing crafted pop music made for a really unique experience and album. Add to the list that we were a band of girls and guys with a super androgynous lead singer not really playing by any commercial rules also made for a rock record that would be different than anything of that time.

Moe Berg: Yes, I don’t listen to the record much unless I’m trying to learn one of the songs for a gig. (laughs) But I’m still happy with it, nothing on it makes me cringe. Like I said, I think Todd made sure that wouldn’t happen. He made sure the material was the best it could be and gave it a timeless sound.

I have found a lot of the signature TPOH sound stemmed from some kick ass female backing vocals. You know, like Leonard Cohen only much more rocking! What gave you the idea to feature female vocalists so prominently?

Moe Berg: I grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of music but I always loved vocal harmonies. I loved the Beach Boys and power pop bands like The Raspberries and Badfinger and Todd Rundgren’s recordings. But I also liked punk rock and harder forms of music so the trick was to see if we could use that musical backdrop with the vocal harmonies. The vocal harmonies also tended to be high so I felt the female vocalists would have an easier time singing them. I think it also brought an interesting image and chemistry to the band, having the male/female mix.

While many bands take a little time to gain some steam after their first release, Love Junk was a firecracker right out of the gate. How did you find adapting to the success of the band here in Canada after that first release?

Kris Abbott: As Love Junk took off I remember a few weeks of a planned tour turned into several months. It just kept adding on and on, the crowds getting bigger and bigger. Strangely enough, though, not a lot changed other than some of the typical privacy fame thing but then there was no social media so it was a very different time then. We had this 'real life' thing about us. It kept each other in check and we stayed very real and approachable with our fans and personal lives. No one could even attempt to act like a rock star because everyone was so real in the band that star behaviour would be so unwelcome.
Moe Berg: It was gratifying to have the success we had with Love Junk. It had been set up by our independent release of “I’m An Adult Now” and the video that accompanied it. So we had already achieved some success in Canada that spilled into the States. So there was a bit of anticipation already there when the album dropped.

Kris, you came in at this peak. What were some of the highlights for you in those first few years being a member of TPOH?

Kris Abbott: Love Junk happened to grab on in popularity really fast, especially in the U.S.A with college radio. It was topping the charts so we literally went from slugging it out in vans across Canada to tour buses, celebrity dinners, rock and roll fantasy experiences. Touring with The Eurythmics in Europe was especially amazing. I remember the first time hearing Annie Lennox warming up her vocals in the dressing room beside us. We all opened our eyes at the same time we heard that voice.
I knew there were some line-up changes and issues with your label after Love Junk. How would you describe that time for the band?

Moe Berg: Recording and touring behind Love Junk was a blast. We had the time of our lives, recording and then traveling the world playing our music. We toured almost nonstop for over a year. But Johnny and Leslie really started to become more interested in the music they were writing and performing together. They did the whole tour and then went into the studio to record the follow up, One-Sided Story with us and Todd Rundgren but by the time it was to be released I think they very naturally felt they needed to concentrate fully on what they were doing outside of the band. We replaced them with Susan Muramets and, on bass, Brad Barker who has stayed with the band ever since and become one of my dearest friends. So it all worked out for everyone involved.

Speaking of follow up, The Downward Road is one of my favourite albums ever but, flying off the high of Love Junk, it didn’t take off as much. I really feel it didn’t get plugged as much at the time. Do you feel it was a victim of too much success with Love Junk and radio/Much still wanting to play cuts from the first album?

Moe Berg: After our first two albums, most of the team at our label, Chrysalis Records, left. So we followed the president of the company to his new job at Mercury Records in New York. Then he lost that job so we were kind of in no man’s land with the label with no one championing our cause. So The Downward Road didn’t have a lot of support at the label.

It did find some interesting airplay, though. Kind of a quirky question, but what did you think of Beavis and Butt-Heads treatment of the “Cigarette Dangles” video? I mean, had to be pretty cool to be featured on one of the biggest shows of the time?

Moe Berg: I thought the Beavis and Butt-head thing was amazing. We were thrilled when we saw it and it’s still a claim to fame for me.

Now, I’ve read that the band never officially disbanded but there was a pretty long break. What filled up your life after that first run with the band ended?

Moe Berg: After we released our fifth record, The Wonderful World Of, I became very disillusioned with the music industry. The band had felt like we were hitting a wall and it was time to take a break. I released a solo album but didn’t get any label support for it so I switched gears and started writing fiction. I had a book of my short stories published and got more into producing other artists. I really fell in love with that, it was an opportunity to still be creative and be in the studio without being a part of the rat race of the business. So that’s what I spent my time doing and still do. I should say that the band has played the odd show here and there, every few years, and actually did a week of shows when EMI release a best of record several years ago.

Kris, while you did go on to record and play live outside of TPOH in forming Kris+Dee, was there anything you really missed in playing with the band?

Kris Abbott: Live shows with TPOH are always really fun and naturally TPOH has an energy. As long as we can physically live up to the energy required we all say let's never say no.

That said, did you find it difficult initially after the band went their separate ways?

Kris Abbott: Definitely it was a difficult time. You spend so many years living in a group of people with a focus and an identity comes along with that. It is partly your own but also part that you own with others. I actually put my guitar in the case for almost 3 years and went to college. It took all my energy to do what I call re-integrate into society and to do that I had to divorce myself from the guitar I had carried on my body literally every day for many, many years. Who am I if I am not that? I was never going to play again, then I met my current wife and musical partner Dee McNeil and am so grateful that she wouldn't allow me leave it in the case. I am happy now playing music and really look forward to playing with TPOH when the shows come up.

Moe, I read that after TPOH you took up DJ’ing?

Moe Berg: I only DJ causally, most of my time is taken up producing.

Can you tell me what were the events that helped facilitate the recent run of reunion shows?

Moe Berg: We are doing the show in Ottawa and some other shows this summer in anticipation of a release of a deluxe edition of Love Junk. Universal records is releasing the original record and an extra disc of bonus tracks, rarities and live versions as a deluxe vinyl edition.

How did you approach the other band members about getting back together?

Kris Abbott: We have played a few shows over the past few years like when we got the Life Time Achievement Award or were inducted into the Indie Music Hall of Fame. We always check in with each other to say if something comes up with the right fit, are we still interested. So, yeah, emails turn up every once in a while about gigs but when Love Junk was turning 30 a lot of people started to say we should do shows and something about it. So here we are! Love Junk is 30, a beautiful re-release package is in the works and we are out doing select shows!

Moe Berg: We’re all in contact all the time, we are still very close friends. So it didn’t take much to get everyone on board for this.

Kris, how would you describe yours and the bands relationship with Moe over the years and into these reunion shows?

Kris Abbott: We have always gotten along and I love him. We are really different in many ways but still keep in touch and don't need a constant friendship to be friends. When we get on stage together, something happens and there is a chemistry and connection that lives there in that moment in that place. It’s like seeing an old friend for real on and off stage.

What was it like for you fronting TPOH again, Moe, after that time apart? Was it one of those situations that felt like you hadn’t had the time away or was it hard to get back into it?

Moe Berg: The band often says that playing a show is like being shot out of a cannon. It all just comes back to you and all the energy we had playing back in the day still seems to be in reserve when we get on stage.

What about you, Kris? Did you find it easy slipping back into the group and performing with them again?

Kris Abbott: Hands down like (stepping into) old slippers. Memory muscle is amazing! There is only one way to play TPOH which is very full on and we still do it.

What have you most enjoyed about these reunion shows?

Moe Berg: What I enjoy the most is being with the band again, the camaraderie and seeing the fans again.

As somebody who never got to see the band perform live, I have to admit TPOH is a bucket list band for a live performance in my books. I’m sure a lot of us fans in Ottawa are looking forward to the coming Westfest gig. What can we expect from TPOH 2018 when the band hits the stage next week?

Moe Berg: Well we won’t be reinventing the wheel. We will be playing the hits and trying to make sure everyone has a good time. It will be great to see all our friends in Ottawa.