It’s a cold October night in Canada, and most of Toronto’s CBC building is empty. There are no people or even chairs to be seen on the majority of the huge expanse of spick-and-span tiled floor. But out of a dimly lit room off to the left, the Glen Gould Studio, loud and enthusiastic cheering can be heard, and it’s surprising the amount of gleeful noise 250 politely seated people can make as they watch three men march onstage with huge smiles on their faces, guitars in their hands.
When people think of indie bands, the image that comes to mind is of twenty-something hipsters, black jackets, nerd glasses, jamming guitarists, a rented basement, and quirky, try-too-hard alterna-art. They don’t often picture a threesome of middle-aged Canadians singing folk tunes to an audience of septuagenarians, their grandbabies, and all the family in between.
The Arrogant Worms are a Canadian folk-rock comedy trio who will celebrate their 20th anniversary as a group next year (2010). Their current (and longest-lasting) line-up consists of Mike McCormick on guitar and vocals, Chris Patterson on bass and vocals, and Trevor Strong, human prop, on vocals.
The band started out playing on the campus and community radio station CFRC in Kingston, Ontario, and return to their roots to tour around Ontario almost every fall. Their songs are an always humorous collection of social satire spoofing different musical genres, often focussing on Canadian culture and identity. Their audience ranges from kids who enjoy their more childish songs (such as the highly audience participatory “Rocks and Trees,” or the inappropriate “Rippy the Gator,” about a child gobbling alligator) to young adults who appreciate their more satirical and thoughtful songs (especially the Canadian-focused ones, such as “The Mountie Song,” “Proud to Be Canadian,” and “Last Saskatchewan Pirate”), and older adults, some of whom have grown up with the Worms, who relate to the songs spoofing parenthood (like “Go to Sleep, Little Leech,” for example), and remember their original radio spots on CBC.
Their very first song to be broadcast, “The Canadian Crisis Song,” includes the very topical, but unfortunately somewhat dated lyrics:
Often on the weekend I’ll jump in my car
I’ll not fill up the tank although I’m going far
And if somebody asks me if I’m going to a bar
I’ll say I’m shopping ‘cross the border in the USA
(Yes it’s just like this, he’s a loyalist)
I’ll only shop at malls that fly our flag
(And he’ll tell Bob Ray that he just won’t pay)
Unless I need my unemployment benefits
(Get a job! Get a job! Get a job!)
The Arrogant Worms are in school textbooks, have been played on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and their song, “Canada’s Really Big,” was one chosen for 49 songs from North of the 49th Parallel, a compendium produced by the CBC as a gift for President Barak Obama. And yet they are still largely unknown to a many Canadians, comfortably low key people, and easily accessible to fans. So accessible, in fact, that they immediately allowed a young journalism student (and long-time fan) to shadow them for a day, to a photo shoot and, later, performance in the Glenn Gould Studio.
“When we started out, we weren’t even really sure we were a music act,” says McCormick at the photo shoot, stretched out leisurely on a seat, feet resting on a nearby couch. “We started out more as a comedy troupe, but when we were told by people ‘If you had a tape of these songs, I would buy it,’ and literally waving a 20 dollar bill…”
“A lot of money back then,” adds Strong, who is sitting, hands on knees, next to him.
“…That was a pretty good incentive.”
The Worms began at Queen’s University. Original members McCormick and Strong met John Whytock and Steve Wood through Queen’s Players, a sort of Canadian Footlights.
“It’s a bunch of students who get together and sing songs and get practice performing,” says Strong. “It’s a great training ground.”
Despite the fledgling bands’ touring schedule, Strong and McCormick both completed degrees at Queens, the former a Bachelor’s in Psychology, and the latter a Master’s in Engineering.
So how, I wonder, did they end up serenading audiences with such songs as “I.B.S.” (it stands for exactly what you think it stands for) and “Baby Poo”?
“You graduate during recessions,” McCormick quips. I guess I’m in luck.
By 1995, when Whytock and Wood left the band on friendly terms to pursue other endeavours, the remaining Worms brought in Patterson, a fellow Queen’s Players alum with a degree in drama, to play bass.
“We’re still breaking him in,” says McCormick.
“Yeah, haven’t taught him the secret handshake yet,” Strong adds.
Nevertheless, the Worms, in many ways, have grown up. All three are married with children, and in their early forties, except Patterson, the youngest at 38.
As the band enters its 20th year, there has been some branching out. Strong has released a book, Get Stupid!, and has several more in the works, while Patterson recently released a kids solo album, called Small Potatoes. McCormick, meanwhile, has made a mix tape for some people.
He’s more concerned with plans for their 20th anniversary. The Worms have a number of projects in the works to celebrate, including a grand tour, a possible TV special, and a “best of” album. They have released 12 albums so far, the most recent being Torpid in 2008.
“We’re not going to push anything new, so there’ll be a lot more space,” says Strong.
They’ve also updated their website, which had been left untouched except for tour dates for many years. The website, which used to be run by a third party, is now mostly headed by Strong, who, according to the others, spent most of 2009 “teaching himself the Internet.” They’ve joined twitter and keep a blog, and Strong releases a podcast every week.
“We realised that the people visiting our website were underserved, and it was totally our fault,” says Patterson.
At the photo shoot today, which is in a smallish, messy, and comfortable room with plenty of old couches and arm chairs of mismatched colours in a downtown Toronto studio, they’re also getting some brand new photos taken.
“Maybe we can just run them really fast for our TV show,” Patterson suggests. McCormick is pleased with this idea. “It’ll be like claymation!”
The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, with Chum.fm playing in the background, and McCormick constantly offering everyone coffee. Patterson, who has the most conventionally good, smooth singing voice of the group, often hums along with the radio.
Strong has a loud laugh, and a loud, clear voice, so even though he talks less than the other two, his presence is known. McCormick is the one the other guys play off, a sort of father figure (not surprising, as he’s also the oldest), but his onstage persona contrasts wildly with his offstage personableness. During performances, he can be manic, and his wild comedy singing voice gives his songs a riotous energy.
Patterson seems like the quiet one because he talks in such a laid back manner, but he’s actually a bit of a spokesperson for the band, “the media guy,” say the other two. He talks slowly, considers his answers, and checks himself in the mirror between every shot, but he doesn’t seem vain or overly self-conscious. After all, McCormick brought the biggest wardrobe to the shoot, and Strong’s long, wavy, possibly highlighted light-brown hair is clearly a point of honour.
McCormick tells me: “We actually have e-mails from kids that say ‘I like how Chris sings. I like Trevor’s hair. Mike scares me.’”
Strong laughs. “Mike’s the one in my nightmares. Chris and Trevor in my dreams.”
And then it’s Patterson’s turn. “Signed ‘Mike’s son.’”
McCormick completes the cycle, commenting: “Those are the moments I realise I’m doing something right.”
The trio are evenly matched, and work and play as a team. They seem to need an audience, a viewer, but it doesn’t really matter who. A very realistic doll would probably work just as well. At this point, they are so comfortable with each other that even their conversations seem loosely choreographed, a dance involving well-timed interrupting, and constant laughter. In my entire day, never more than a minute goes by without one of them cracking up. Later, on stage, the laughs will come fast and furious.
It appears that even after 20 years, they’re still not tired of each other.
“We’re pretending,” McCormick tells me kindly.
“When anyone ever asks us ‘what’s the secret to your longevity,’ most often we say ‘separate hotel rooms,’” Patterson says. I think he’s serious, but it’s hard to tell. McCormick tends to smile at his own jokes, and Strong telegraphs his with a kind of joke voice, but Patterson is very deadpan.
Andrew MacNaughtan, award-winning Canadian photographer, and premier photographer for RUSH, is heading the photo shoot and is enjoying himself immensely.
“They’re cracking jokes the whole time,” he complains teasingly. “Their mouths are only shut when the cameras click.”
The Worms are friendly, and even show interest in my little project. When I tell them it has to be 2000 words, Strong is quick to offer his services.
“Oh, I can do that for you right now. It will be as high quality as our blog. Lots of spelling errors, repetition. Grammatical mistakes.”
Patterson imitates a typical blog entry: “Oh, and also, then we … ate.”
“Pretty fascinating,” Strong brags.
The shoot involves single shots, group shots, prop shots, and a bit of small talk about the set for the show later that day. As each band member performs for the cameras on one side of the room, the remaining members sit leisurely on some old chairs on the other side, and chat.
When lunch time arrives, there is a short discussion on where to eat until McCormick, like a kid at Christmas, shouts “Chippy’s!” (a local Fish and Chip restaurant), and he and Strong burst into an impromptu song.
“Chippy’s, Chippy’s, bag of grease… bag of joy!”
Even while the interview is on pause for face stuffing, the wisecracking continues.
“This is fine dining,” Strong tells me.
McCormick is still excited. “We have plates!”
The next stage of the photo shoot involves trampolines. Strong, as the shortest member, is okay, but when it’s McCormick’s turn, the low ceiling becomes a worry.
“This could end very badly,” says Strong. “He’s going to get a kneecap in the face. He breaks really easily, too. He’s injured all the time.” He thinks for a moment.
“You’re here on a special day.”
They rag on each other equally, though. When Patterson goes to the bathroom, the others start on him.
“We forgot to tell you about Chris’s bulimia,” whispers Strong. “And yes, that’s on the record.”
This sort of comment is not out of the ordinary for Strong, who is constantly double checking himself and his answers, making jokes about on/off the record, and claiming that he loves everyone equally. I have to wonder if a journalist has wronged him terribly in the past.
How, I ask, did journalists get such a bad reputation? The exchange that follows is worthy of transcription.
Patterson: “I blame the media.”
Strong: “They misquote the journalists.”
McCormick: “We should write that one down.”
Strong (in headline voice): “Media Misquotes Journalists!”
Before the night’s performance, the band generally hangs around each other. Patterson, who says he suffers from nerves the most, mumbles lyrics to himself to make sure he doesn’t forget them on stage.
McCormick, who is less concerned, boasts: “I have yet to forget a lyric!” and the room bursts into laughter. “Today.”
The Worms, who have made it a goal for the last little while to release an album every two years, are writing constantly, or at least consistently, until an album release date is set. Then they write on a schedule.
“Strong always writes the most, and throws out the most,” says Patterson.
“Oh yeah, I’m a quantity not quality guy.”
They call their songs “tunes” a lot, denoting a sort of modesty that what they do isn’t serious music. While Strong’s are often elaborations inspired from real life, and Patterson’s are often parodies of other song styles, McCormick’s are pretty direct.
Patterson: “They’re docudramas.”
Strong: “Mike believes that comedy comes from pain.”
McCormick: “Every ailment has been honest.”
He’s referring to such songs as “I Pulled My Groin,” and “Hernia Belt.”
Like Moosebutter or Tout Fishing in America in the states, or Paul and Storm on the internet, the Worms are a bit of a niche band. But like any niche band, those who like them, like them a lot.
“It’s very random,” says Strong. “I think usually in Guelph we have an older crowd. In some places, we’re marketed directly to the universities, so the crowd is much younger.”
The audience tonight is composed of the usual mix. An older couple, who call themselves long-time fans, heard the Worms on the radio about seven years ago.
“I think they’re very clever,” says husband Stephen, during intermission. “They can relate very much to the Canadian sensibility. We don’t like other people to laugh at us, but we love laughing at ourselves.”
One half of a teenaged couple sitting next to them interjects:
His girlfriend is more comprehensive. “The thing I hate about Worms concerts is that about half way through my face starts to hurt.” That’s from smiling, in case it wasn’t clear.
The opening act, Christian guitar instrumentalist Jay Calder, is similarly adulatory.
“They’re funny guys,” he says simply. “They can’t put three or four sentences together without saying something funny, it’s just how they are. They don’t have to work at it.”
After the show, as usual, the Worms sit at a merchandise table to talk to the audience and sign autographs. They are comfortable with their high level of achievement and low level of fame, which affords them a privacy they consider invaluable, as well as a source of income they consider fulfilling.
“I never saw it lasting this long,” McCormick says. “Every few years, you kind of look back and say, ‘wow, it’s been a while.’ But the nice thing especially, being more in the folk scene and in the comedy scene, there’s people older than us who are still at it, and they’re still good.”
Patterson agrees. “It’s a fun job to have. We get to go around and make people laugh. We’ll do it for as long as we can physically take it, I guess. We’re getting older, obviously. I hope we don’t have to play until we drop, but I guess we’re prepared to. Hopefully we won’t drop while we’re playing.”
“Making people happy for a living is not a bad job to have, really.”
As an aside, I would like to thank The Worms for their kindness, helpfulness, and friendliness towards a nervous, unaccomplished aspiring writer. The band were a pleasure to be around, and reading over this article has brought back some great memories, and at least two totally mortifying ones (people say it’s not good to meet your heroes because they might disappoint you, but the only disappointment that day was myself).