Twenty years ago, the second biggest musical export to come out of Ottawa — after Alanis Morissette — was a band called the Barstool Prophets.
After building a buzz in Ottawa with their independent first album and cultivating a homegrown following, the Cornwall-Ottawa rock quartet landed a Toronto-based manager and were courted by record companies. Their major-label debut, Crank, came out on Polygram in August 1995. The four original members, joined by a couple special guests, are celebrating the anniversary with a reunion concert at Shenkman Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 28.
The album marked the start of some heady times for the band members, recalled singer-songwriter Graham Greer this week. There were sold-out shows, thousands of albums sold, fans who recognized them in malls, and tours with all the cool Canrock bands of the day, including the Odds, Junkhouse, Our Lady Peace, 54-40, I Mother Earth, Headstones and Watchmen.
“This was back in the days when people bought CDs and went to shows,” says Greer. “And it was a time when it was possible to make a living doing it because the industry supported the machinations that were going on at the ground level. MuchMusic was playing Canadian content and gave you a good breeding ground for a chance at success.”
Still, the band gained a smidgen of notoriety because MuchMusic balked at playing the video for the first single from Crank. The tune was Mankind Man, and there was a dark, moody video to go with it. It’s tame by today’s standards, but back then, its allusions to an anti-authoritarian uprising by teenagers was seen as something parents shouldn’t let their children see.“They used ours as an example of something they can’t play,” says Greer, who’s now the 44-year-old father of two sons. “This was a few years before all the weird dark videos by bands like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. We got on the naughty list right off the bat.”
The second single, Paranoia, fared better, earning plenty of airtime on Canadian radio stations and prompting crowds to explode in a frenzy when they played it live. The energetic song was also featured in the Hollywood movie, Never Talk to Strangers, starring Antonio Banderas and Rebecca Demornay. Two more singles, Little Death and Short and Curlies, kept the momentum going. By the summer of 1996, Crank came out in the United States and the band was showcasing in New York City.
As it turned out, that was the heyday for the band originally founded in the Cornwall area in 1989. Not long after Greer, bassist Glenn Forrester and drummer Bob Tamas moved to Ottawa to attend university, they met Al Morier, a classically trained guitarist. In the beginning, the band called themselves the Wallflowers, but decided to change it when Jakob Dylan’s band, also called Wallflowers, started to get popular. The Prophets’ indie debut CD, Deflowered, produced at Sound of One Hand studios by the inimitable Marty Jones, came out in ‘93.
Jones produced Crank, too, but when it came time for a follow-up, the Prophets headed to Memphis to work with the great Joe Hardy, the guy responsible for producing Tom Cochrane’s smash, Mad Mad World. Unfortunately, things started to unravel around the same time.Thanks to a series of record company mergers, the Prophets found themselves without a champion at their label. By the time the third album, Last of the Big Game Hunters, came out in 1997, they didn’t have a manager either. And although fans were still turning out to the live shows in droves and radio stations were all over the singles, album sales inexplicably dropped off. It was a stressful time.
“That’s when file sharing was taking off,” says Greer. “We were playing bigger and bigger shows, but fewer people were buying the records. Big Game Hunters sold a fraction of what Crank sold, and it was only a two-year difference.“The stress was crazy on the four of us. We had four guys working for us. We had a tour bus. We were firing on all cylinders but it was an expensive endeavour. The fact that we were playing bigger shows but selling fewer records was baffling, and we didn’t have anybody to help us deal with the record company. By then, I was married, I had a kid; there was this whole other pressure to make it work. ”
Morier was the first to throw in his towel. The others soldiered on with a substitute guitarist to fulfill their bookings. Finally, they all decided they needed a break, which stretched into a decade or more. But as they settled into new careers and turned their attention to their families, they kept in touch and eventually played the odd gig or two. A reunion at Mavericks rock club last year went off without a hitch, despite the lack of rehearsal time.
“It was like falling off a bicycle,” says Greer with a laugh. “Easier than riding a bike, and that made us think, ‘Wow, the muscle memory is still there.’ That’s the thing, when the four of us play together, we fall into our roles. It’s like we never missed a step, both musically and socially.”