Gerry Alvarez

After seeing the legendary band The Gruesomes play a live show in Montreal recently, after what’s been like decades, it left me feeling totally ecstatified!  The show was so simply amazing!  They garage-rocked the house down! And prior to the show I pulled out all the Gruesomes CDs I had (courtesy of Ricochet Sound) and started reminiscing and feeling utterly head over heals.  I was also listening again to The Gerry Alvarez Odyssey – Candy Prankster CD remembering how special  it is! In fact a few days after The Gruesomes show and wearing out their CDs from constant rotation, I decided that in order to give The Gerry Alvarez Odyssey a proper listening to I had to put away The Gruesomes for the time being.  Sad but true. And believe me, was I ever blown away, I mean I couldn’t fully appreciate it until I saw it as a separate entity.  I was absolutely enthralled.  I felt a  connection to the songs and  I decided to see if Gerry was up for an interview and he was.  We met and Gerry was super nice and funny,  and so I was happy to hang with him for a bit and ask him these questions.

So I find there is a lot of eastern religious or Buddhist references in most of your lyrics, and also in the imagery of the artwork…. Does this come from your actual personal ideas, beliefs, or experiences?

Yes, yes it does.  I’ve been into meditation since my early twenties. Spirituality I think is a very strong artistic energy that I’ve always been interested in, and have read books on Buddhism and meditation. And artists that I really admire as well have also been influenced by eastern philosophies so because of them I was influenced as well.

Which artists have inspired you?

George Harrison, he was big in eastern philosophy and many other artists. When I was young it kind of piqued my interest and then I just got involved into it on my own. I think in order for art to last for a long time it has to be spiritual, it can’t be just sexual or just material. If you want it to be listened to in 500 or 1000 years it has to be more profound. Leonard Cohen, he  is  spiritual,  is into Buddhism, and he’s an ordained monk. Nobody knows that, not many people know that, they think he’s just Jewish. He’s just open minded, I like that, and I like to study things, and to learn and use that as an influence in lyrics and music.  I grew up with punk rock music and rock’n’roll, and I got into psychedelic rock. But you know I’m not a teenager anymore, my lyrics just evolve by themselves, I didn’t force it, it just happens.  I do still write songs sometimes about relationships but sometimes I’m on another level. And to inspire others as well to get into it.

Do you follow any practices that involve meditation or visiting Buddhist or Zen temples?

Well I don’t have much opportunity to do that but I used to go to Buddhist temple in Toronto and study meditation, I had a monk teacher. I’d love to go to Asia or South America and see temples.

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What books would you recommend?

I’m into Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth, it’s a great book. I also like all of Leonard Cohen’s interviews, I’m thinking of that right now because I’m being interviewed (laughs).

Also, I get a feeling of deep relaxation and balance from certain songs that have that hypnotic trance like rhythm, sort of what you might experience from listening to chakra healing music.  Is this effect intentional?

Yes, it is, I listen to that a lot. I like frequency music too as well, 528 MHz, it’s like relaxing sounds at the frequency of 528. It’s really cool. Once you get into that, it’s nice, it’s very relaxing and spiritual. It’s a mathematical equation from nature, all the cells reproduce themselves using that mathematical process, formula, and that’s the tone, 528. It’s the tone that makes you feel positive, and it’s healing, and I find that that music is influential for my music as well. You mentioned liking the song “Heaven” before, it’s kind of like that music – transcendental. Yeah, that’s an influence.

Are you working on writing new songs?

I’m always fiddling with new songs, I just write down ideas all the time, and then I’ll see what happens, no plans on a record yet but I do think about it.  Right now I’m painting, I’m doing canvases.

Right, I wanted to ask you about that..

Sure, nowadays I do acrylic paintings on canvas, they’re very 50s and 60s beatnik-y kind of influence and they are again very primal and mythological kind of stuff, psychedelic-y in a way too, It’s hard to describe, I enjoy it. I went to art school.

Right so you are an artist, and practice art?

Yes, Then I became an art director in advertising, a graphic designer, so it’s all part of the same baggage.

Do you have a large collection of your own art that you’ve done over the years?

Well, I have sketch books, and prints, I’ve got a few canvases, but now I’m really focused on creating a series.

Are you going to have an exhibition? Where will you do that?

Yes, I don’t know yet, I am just going to accumulate the work and then I will find a gallery or something in Montreal. I’ve been to a lot of galleries and art shows in Toronto and Montreal. I’ve always been into that. I enjoy it. We’ll see what happens. There’s no money in music too so (laughs), it’s all fun making a record and playing in a band, but it costs, you don’t make much.

How big are your canvases?

They’re 30×40 inches, something like that.

There is a theme running through them?

Yeah, they all have that same style, mid-century modernistic.  I love Picasso, huge influence, he’s Spanish. He’s my guy.

It’s figurative then, not just abstract?

It’s abstract figurative.

You said you may not be putting out a record soon, but do you plan on playing any shows?

Well with the Gruesomes, we just did a couple of Gruesomes show, and we might do more shows, but as the Odyssey no because it’s kind of hard to play in two bands at the same time, so I kind of tend to focus on one at a time, one thing, one project at a time.

So right now you are more in Gruesomes mode.

Gruesome mode, yeah, I’ve turned into a Gruesome again (laughter).

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When was the last time you played before this last time that you played?

It was in 2008, at a festival in Montreal.

Is it fun, getting back together?

Yes, it was fantastic. We’ve played together for so long, for so many years, that we’ve developed deep grooves that we can easily get back on. We know each other so well and the songs so well, it’s easy to get back on it. It’s fun for us, well for me.

Is the new material similar to the last two in terms of the psychedelic rock sound?

Yeah, more or less, it’s hard to say cause you just do it and see how it’s going to come out after.

What are your musical instruments, effects and pedals you use to make The Gerry Alvarez Odyssey sound?

I play a fender telecaster, and I use a Vox amp, which is a 60s quintessential amp, the Kinks used, and the Beatles and the Who, that’s got a beautiful sound. I used to use a distortion peddle but I don’t use it anymore, I like the natural distortion of the amplifier, of the Vox amp. I didn’t use one in the 80s and 90s because they didn’t make any reissues, they were original 60s amps and they were old and banged up and they were rare and expensive so I used to use Fender all the time. For peddles, in the Odyssey I use backwards peddles for a backwards sound, makes like a backwards effect, and I use a sitar effect as well, to get a buzzy sound, so you can play a sitar through your guitar (laughs). I also use a tremolo on my Vox, and that’s about it.

In certain songs, like the Trail, that has a sort of noodling fluid thing going on in it…

Yeah, it kind of has a delay kind of thing. I don’t know the names of these things, I just screw around and get the sound and don’t know what it is but it sounds cool.

Can you talk about the difference in production between Candy Prankster and Omega Tea Time?

Well the first one is more layered. I really was into making a record that was really psychedelic, full of effects, just want to paint imagery and landscapes and go crazy and make long songs that are very trippy. On the second album I sort of gone back to my roots, more stripped down. I’d been on a trip to Liverpool in England and really got back into my early Beatles fandom, my punk rock roots. I’d made a more stripped down power poppy kind of record, still with some psychedelic flavor to it, and spiritual flavor. But it’s more stripped down and shorter songs, tighter. Production is cleaner, you know it’s hard to make the same record twice. I don’t want to make the same thing twice but if you try it’s hard cause it’s like trying to make the same exact cake twice. It’s impossible.

Are there any songs on either of your records that you’ve written that stand out for you as more meaningful than others – in terms of when you were writing them and what influenced you?

That’s a good one cause they are all like your little kids, it’s hard to pick one more than the other ones. I kinda like Cosmic Weaving at the moment, from Omega Tea Time, because it’s very cosmic, it’s heavy, and it has some personal meaning to it as well. It’s got Who influences, Beatles influences, the kind of stuff I enjoy, I always liked. It’s the kind of song I always want to do and I’m very proud of it. Yeah that’s a good one.

Can you talk about how the cover art of Omega Tea Time came about? The collage of images and concept?

Oh yeah I did that, I’m into collage art. I published a book of illustrations and poems and songs and lyrics with drawings and collages to sell at shows.  I did a lot of collages on the computer,  I did a silkscreen from one of my collages and then I did one for the cover. So it uses a lot of imagery that I like.

Did the images come from books?

Books, anywhere online, I just screw around with it and make my own art out of it.

Do you have the original framed up somewhere?

Uh, yeah I have a silkscreen that’s sort of based on it. I took that silkscreen and then I tweaked it for the album cover. I have the original. I love travel as well. I work for a travel agency that I do graphic design for and I learnt a lot about itinerary and cultures from around the world, and I started my own travel blog, Mythic Journeys Travel. I get the information from all over the internet, and I am working on a book for that, I love travel and culture so that cover reflects a bit that vibe.

How do you feel about people downloading your songs on ITunes or listening to it on Spotify? Do you think that they are missing out on actually owning a copy of the CD?

Yeah, it used to bug me. The thing is I sort of gave up on all of that, I used to care. I used to get hurt when I’d see people on those download softwares but there’s nothing you can do anymore. It’s a free for all. It’s busted, broken, it’s done. It’s like water, it’s done. Who cares anymore? I’m not going to make myself sick worrying about it. No, I did it for fun and I hope people enjoy it and it gets around.

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But the sound quality is not the same, right?

A CD is much better. It depends what kind of recording you got, and what kind of song you got, what format, but CDs I think are better.

Oh and another thing, the big influence on me that I didn’t mention before for the Odyssey is Stanley Kubrick. I can go on and on about Stanley Kubrick. And the Odyssey is from 2001 Space Odyssey. For me it’s the new bible for the 3rd millennium. The new Odyssey, from Homer, from the 3rd Millennium, because 2001 is the first year of the 3rd millennium, it’s the new age. The opening sequence is by  Strauss called Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is also a book by Nietzsche with the same name, on the ascension of man to superman. Just the intro, it’s ascending climax, the attention to detail to everything, how far ahead that movie is.  It was done in ’68. Every time I eat while watching my iPad I think of that movie, they were doing that, eating while reading their iPad on the table. 50 years ago. Because it’s the new bible and Odyssey for the new millennium that means that in 1000 years that movie will still be good and watched.  I always tried to be at that level, it’s an inspiration. So it’s kind of like my Odyssey, the records, my experience.

Is the Odyssey available on vinyl?

No, but we are planning on doing a greatest hits on vinyl.

Tell me more about the book you put out?

The illustrated book of songs, poems and stories, it came out with Candy Prankster to sell at shows.

How many did you make of those?

I don’t know I got it published online, maybe about 20 or so. But I can print those whenever I want. I started working on a new one that includes the lyrics for Omega Tea Time and stuff, new art…

Does the CD have the lyrics in it?

No, that’s why you have to get the book (laughing).  It’s nice to have swag for shows too so I did that one specifically to sell for the record/CD., and it’s got poems, just whatever – scribblings, so I’m working on a new one, and it’s taking a while, it’ll come out someday, long term projects.

What in your music collection is the least psychedelic or garage sounding?

In my records? Ok, well let’s see…uh it’s a good question (laughter), well I have movie soundtracks, like zombie movies, and sci-fi Logan’s Run soundtrack. But I like this band called Zombi. I listen to that kind of stuff, soundtrack-y kind of music, like Goblin.

From Dawn of the Dead?

Yes, that’s right. I’m just throwing that out there, I mean that doesn’t sound psychedelic, I have a Johnny Cash record. Leonard Cohen doesn’t sound very psychedelic or garage sounding.

Do you have a lot of records?

Vinyls? No I have a small collection, I used to have a lot, now it’s dwindled.

You got rid of stuff?

Just through the ages, moving here and there, I got rid of stuff, cause it takes a lot of room, but I am trying to get my old collection back.  I’ve given records to friends years ago and I’m trying to get them back.

The same ones?

(laughs) Ha yeah the same ones.

You lent them?

Yeah, lent them, I don’t know what I did.

Are they going to give them back to you?

Well, yeah (laughs).

You’re hoping.

Well a friend of mine already started giving some back.

That’s a good friend.

But I’m not trying to build a huge collection anymore, I enjoy listening to either CDs, vinyls, whatever… It’s all over the place now. I don’t have the energy to really go for collecting. I used to collect but not anymore.  I have so much on the computer so why bother spending money on the vinyl version if I have it on the computer.

So you download it?

Well I pay for it, but no I really haven’t downloaded much music, it’s just CDs that I copied over. I still have a good CD collection, but who buys CDs anymore.

Well I buys CDs, or went to this used record store recently and they had a lot of great CDs. They were like 5 bucks each.

Oh nice, it’s a good price.

Yeah, Cheap Thrills.

Oh, it’s around? I used to buy records there in the 80’s.

They have a lot of records there.

Do you remember Dutcheys?


Oh you do? Wow.

Yeah I bought my first record there, I’m sure.

Yeah that was a great place.

It was.

Those were the days!

So what music do you put on if you want to get psyched for a show or event?

I like Tom Jones (laughs). I have this record since I was a kid, Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas, it’s bursting with energy and I enjoy singing along with it. It’s really really something. It’s great.  I mean I don’t collect his music or records, it’s just that particular record live at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, in the mid-60s. It’s fantastic, incredible. It really really gives you a lot of energy.

So what’s one of the best shows you ever went to?

We opened up for the Fuzztones in Quebec City in the late 80’s and there was a balcony, and after we played John Davis and I went to the balcony and watched the Fuzztones. Rudi Protrudi was incredible, really the best show ever, it was amazing. Really something, yeah.  What a performer that guy, memorable. I think we were on the sweet spot too, the sound, the visuals, the seating, just a big difference, get the sweet spot, bang! We were right on the edge of the balcony and you could hear perfect and it wasn’t a balcony really high up, it was kind of a low balcony too. In Quebec City, I don’t remember the club.

Any advice you would give to the kids today who are starting out as musicians?

Well, part of me would say don’t do it (laughs), do it if you really really have a real meaning of life feeling about it. So if it’s everything to you, then yeah, do it. Go for it, but don’t put all your eggs in that basket, just be careful, it’s not easy, not an easy life, especially nowadays.

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Are there any newer bands that you know or like?

Garage bands? Any bands? Well you know online you get to see so many bands, on Facebook, you have new bands just playing clubs. There’s a band from Seville, Spain, called the Smoggers, great garage sound. New bands, I see so many online,

Do you listen to them online?

Yes, on Facebook and Youtube. I will like their page and they post their stuff, their music and their videos or whatever, clips of their shows.  A lot of people I like are my friends, are musicians in bands and post a lot of music stuff that their into, that they are playing and doing like the Montreal band, The High Dials from Montreal, they used to be on Ricochet Sound. They were a mod band before called the Datsons but then they became The High Dials, but their first two albums as The High Dials are phenomenal. Some of the best stuff to come out of Montreal. I don’t know much about their later stuff, their current stuff is more 80s sounding and another band that came out of that is called The Elephant Stone, that’s a good psychedelic, more laid back, more groove, trance-y, lounge-y kind of stuff.

You mentioned some shows might be in the future for the Gruesomes, like in Mexico maybe? And you mentioned some festival too… I imagine you played in Europe also back in the day…Would you consider touring again?

Yeah, we got offers, We were offered to play in Mexico and a festival in Montreal so we will see how it goes. We’ve toured Europe, yes, the thing is it costs a lot of money to go over there and nobody’s forked it over yet (laughs). I don’t want to pay for it. We are open for anything. We were supposed to do a tour in 2008 but I think the big crash that happened kind of cancelled the tour, people just didn’t have money in Europe after that. Nobody wants to pay for bands. Sometimes I don’t mind punking it out but if it’s for a whole tour and not making any money and punking it out at the same time, no, I can’t do that.

Any chance you guys would start writing songs again, as the Gruesomes?

Not really, no.(laughs). No not with the Gruesomes, no.

No chance in hell? Just playing the old stuff, which is great!

No, not really. Yeah, we thought of maybe doing a record of cover songs, but it’s too much time and money for what its worth for what we get back from it.

Who’s the “band leader” of the Gruesomes? Like the main organizer.

John Davis. He works at Concordia. He’s been working at the Concordia music department at Loyola campus for over 20-30 years.  He’s a stage manager, in the music department. So he organizes all the bands that come in and all the stage handling and all that. He’s the guy, he takes care of our stage managing.

So he’s the one who organizes the shows, and calls the clubs and is like hey ok, be there. And you are like ok.

Yeah, well we have a bit of our input if we want to or not. Well I handle the online, the Facebook page, so people contact me through that and then I talk to John.  I guess I’m more PR than the other guys. I’m more the advertising guy, I’m the one who does most of the posters, the albums, the CDs.

Between you and Bobby, how did you decide who was going to sing what song?

Well it depends on the style of the song, if the song is a more trippy more smooth song, I do it, if it’s a more growler song, it would be Bobby, or who wrote it.

Whose house is on the cover of Tyrants of Teen Trash?

I don’t know, somebody who lives on Cote St-Luc (Montreal).

So you just stood in front of a random house?

Yeah, Bobby had got permission and then we posed there.

Did you guys meet in high school?

John and Bob did, they’re friends from Westmount high, or something like that. I knew Bob and John from the clubs hanging out, downtown Montreal hanging out back in the early eighties. The Mod scene, the Montreal Mod scene. I bought a guitar and was looking to jam with different musicians. Somebody told me, “John, Eric and Bob got instruments, are starting a band” I said “oh, I’ll try it out.” I showed them how to play their first chords for the first songs, and we had different names. I don’t remember who came up with the Gruesomes, was it Eric Davis or Bobby, I don’t remember, and it took off from there. We became really popular really fast because we had a schtick, a style, we had a look, we had  the sound, we did what we wanted, it was stuff that was easy to play. We were all really into it. I remember when I was still really young and I heard The Count Five doing Psychotic Reaction and I was playing air guitar like crazy, and I said I could do this crap easy. And so there you go, that’s how it started, in garage music, in punk garage, yeah it started from there.

Anything else you want to talk about?

I don’t know.  We could have been way bigger, I think. The Gruesomes could have been way bigger.

Maybe if you started later when garage became more mainstream?

Yeah, I think we played in the 80’s underground scene that never really got really mainstream till much later. We had really burned ourselves out touring Canada many many times. Canada is not like England, you know, all these British bands they toured, it’s nothing. Canada is enormous. It kills bands. I wanted to tour Europe, and the States and it wasn’t going on, it wasn’t taking off enough..

Have you toured in the States?

Yeah, we toured all along the east coast, but it just wasn’t the right time for that. I think we could have been as big as the Cramps or the Ramones (laughs!)

How did your relationship with Ricochet Sound happen?

Ray, he was a fan, he contacted us, he had a record store back in the day. He wanted to re-release our stuff. We released our vinyl records at the end of vinyls, in the 80s CDs were coming out, and we’re releasing vinyls, and our music started first coming out on Cd’s in the 2000s. “Cave In” was our first CD in 2000. So we were way behind in producing digital music, and so not only did we miss the vinyl thing we missed the CD thing too. By the time we started releasing all the original stuff on CDs, the first three CDs came out in 2003, on Ricochet, thanks to Ricochet Sound our stuff was released finally on CD. So we were way behind, so bad luck there too. We could have had more impact if our CDs were released way earlier. During the whole 90s we had no CDs out there. And that was the peak of it. And vinyls were dead back then, and that was all we had, was just vinyls. So it was poor management.  I mean OG was great, they released our stuff, we were thankful for the release, but there wasn’t much in promotion or anything so it kind of spudded away. We gave it our all but it just died off. And then we got back together in 1999 to make Cave In, and I’m glad we did that, that was our best record and finally we ended on a good note. So that was great, I’m happy about that one.

Anything else you want to talk about?

So whenever anyone interviews me for the Odyssey, the last question is always “When are the Gruesomes coming back?!” (laughs). I used to say I don’t know, maybe, never, I don’t know but you never know. You really never know.

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By Samia