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Time for a Change : Cowboy Junkies Team With a New Producer to Lay Down a New Album on a New Label

May 10, 1996|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Because he has both a younger sister and brother in his band, it's not surprising that Cowboy Junkies guitarist Michael Timmins frequently gets asked whether their parents were also musicians. They weren't.

But what is surprising, considering the soft musical textures and soothing, whispery tones of the Canadian quartet, is hearing Timmins describe what inspired him to take up rock 'n' roll.

"I think what turned me on initially was the punk explosion of the late '70s . . . the sudden realization that you didn't have to be Mick Jagger, you could be a Johnny Rotten," Timmins said by phone from a stop in Calgary, Alberta, on a tour that brings the band to the Coach House on Saturday. "You didn't have to go to music school, you could pick up a guitar and form a band. That's basically what [bassist] Alan [Anton] and I did."

That band wasn't the Cowboy Junkies, but a British-sounding, harder-edged group called Hunger Project, formed in Toronto in 1980. Five years later, Timmins and Anton formed Cowboy Junkies. The group has released six albums with combined sales of more than 3 million copies, including the new Geffen Records debut, "Lay It Down."

Besides ending its long association with RCA, the Junkies--which also feature singer Margo Timmins and drummer Peter Timmins--made other changes as well.

Capturing both the grit and lilt of the band's signature style, "Lay It Down" found the band using an outside producer (John Keane) for the first time and focuses on Timmins' guitar work to underscore newly stripped-down instrumentation.

Were all the changes by design?

"We've always mixed things up a bit for every record by adding different elements, whether it's using guest musicians or altering the mood and feel," said Timmins, who produced all the group's albums before "Lay It Down."

"Change for us is good," he said, "because it allows different aspects of the band to come out."

*

Last June, the Junkies went to Athens, Ga., to begin work on the new record. Searching for an environment that might add something inspirational to the recording process, they found it in the hot, slower-paced lifestyle of the small college town, which included the cozy home studio of Keane (R.E.M., Indigo Girls), who shares production credits for "Lay It Down" with Michael Timmins.

"I think the most important change on the new record was working with John," Timmins said. "In addition to bringing in his own ideas, he knew what we wanted and was able to open up our sound a bit by things like doubling up guitars, suggesting certain amp settings and working feedback into songs properly. Since he was able to capture the proper tone and nature of the instruments so easily, it really allowed us to relax, which in turn freed us to focus on the music."

Timmins also spoke excitedly about switching to Geffen.

"From a business point of view, the move has been huge," he said. "It's been a real lift for us in terms of promoting and selling the album. After the 'Pale Sun, (Crescent Moon)' LP [in 1993], we felt our relationship with RCA was coming to an end. . . . There was no excitement at the label, no fresh ideas on how to market and sell the band.

"Things hadn't gotten nasty yet, so we approached them and said, 'Let's look at this honestly--we think it would be better for both sides if we split up here.' And they were quite happy to do it."

That uplifting vibe has danced its way onto "Lay It Down," on which Timmins not only plays both hushed and howling guitars but wrote a trunkload of intriguing numbers to boot. Critically praised for sketches that range from broad to vividly defined, Timmins specializes in drawing characters facing major decisions in their lives.

Exemplifying his best work, the album-closing "Now I Know" brings a sense of emotional closure to the collection.

"It is an epilogue. It was actually the last song I wrote before we went down to record," said the 37-year-old musician, who cites Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young among his songwriting influences. "It's about this character who made a tough decision, and now he's at a real low point in his life experiencing the results of that choice."

*

Timmins may pen the songs, but it's the interpretations by sister Margo that give them their crystalline voice.

"Obviously, Margo's a big part of our success," he said with the respect of a proud, older brother. "She can take and interpret each song through her own feelings and experiences, even if it's written from a neutral or male perspective. And I think her pretty voice brings balance to my grittier guitar playing and our generally dark rhythms."

In concert, Margo brings more levity to the table with her wonderfully dry sense of humor. Whether sharing family snapshots or making light of battles on the road, she can be funny and charming, even though she's still somewhat shy.

"The atmosphere of our music is pretty heavy and serious, so it's nice that our sense of humor comes out on stage," Timmins said. "We really don't go around brooding all the time. We want to make the audience feel at home and relaxed. They can laugh and scream and yell. . . . You're supposed to have fun, it's not some kind of holy event."

* The Cowboy Junkies play Saturday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 7 and 9:30 p.m. $27.50-$29.50 (714) 496-8930.

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