Sunday, August 19, 2018

Don't You Listen?: A Profile of Tona Walt Ohama (Part 2)

Sometimes Try Too Hard: 1960-1986

April 24, 1985. The up-and-coming stars of Canadian music — Darkroom! Pukka Orchestra! Luba! — had gathered at the Toronto Convention Centre for the fifth annual fan-voted CASBY (formerly U-Know) Awards, launched by Toronto radio station CFNY to celebrate independent and ‘alternative’ artists.

The 1985 ceremony was the first to be broadcast nationally on CBC-TV and organizers pulled out all the stops. David Letterman musical director Paul Shaffer and Rough Trade singer Carole Pope were paired as unlikely (and hilariously incompatible) hosts, while the presenters and performers were also an eclectic mix: Eugene Levy, Martin Short and Dave Thomas of SCTV, Images in Vogue, Jane Siberry, The Spoons, Long John Baldry, Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs and The Band’s Richard Manuel, who would be dead within the year. 

Also attending the music industry schmoozefest that night: Tona Ohama, who was nominated for best independent recording artist (losing to Ontario’s Direktive 17 in the televised category. See video below starting at 5:00). 

He was sitting behind rock legend Ronnie Hawkins in the audience. As the ceremony closed and everyone gathered onstage to sing charity single Tears Are Not Enough,Ohama recalls CFNY deejay Liz Janik trying to nudge the reclusive artist into the spotlight.

“Liz tried to drag me up onstage to join the group sing-along. I wouldn’t go,” Ohama says. “And I watched the other artists, like Gowan and the Parachute Club, who were like posing for the photographers and doing their thing like models and I’m thinking: ‘I’m never going to do that. It’s not me.’ ” 

“It was a pose-fest,” confirms Marcenko, who attended as a member of k.d. lang’s band, “and that’s not who he was, although I remember him being gracious. Walt just didn’t buy into that whole scene. He was most himself and most at home when he was with computers and his keyboard and composing.” 

In retrospect, the 1985 CASBY ceremony was both the culmination of Ohama’s successes to date but also the beginning of an end. The first phase of Ohama’s recording career was drawing to a close, much faster than anyone could have imagined.

• • •

The Ohama family potato farm also
made Tona Goldentop potato chips.
“I remember being four and singing Beatles songs,” says Ohama, born Jan. 16, 1960, a baby brother to three record-loving, teenaged sisters. They lived on a 2,000-acre potato farm and packing plant in Rainier, 35 km southwest of Brooks, population next to nothing. 

The family operation, established in 1942, supplied potatoes and Tona Goldentop potato chips to stores across Canada and into the U.S. By the mid-’60s, patriarch Tona Sr. was crowned the Potato King of the World by the industry; his lucrative business enabled the Ohama children to follow their passions that, in the early ’60s, included celebrating Beatlemania in real time. 

“We had Beatles bubblegum cards and Beatles dolls. Every new album was an event for (my sisters) and an event for me,” says Ohama. 

Tell me about the farm.
It was like a small town. It was bigger than Rainier. Besides our big house, there were about eight other houses and many large trailers. At the peak, we probably had 50 people, many with families, working for us.

What did these people do for fun?
Every payday, there’d be a huge party. Sometimes my job was to go over and get people to come to work the day after. I dreaded that. I was just a kid.

You must have picked up some farming skills growing up.
I know about carburetors, timing belts and I know how to change the tires on a big tractor. I can thread pipes, weld enough to get by, work an acetylene torch and use a chain breaker. These are not normal music skills.

Tona Ohama Sr. on his
Rainier potato farm.
Was there music in your home?
We had a huge record collection. My dad had country music, Hawaiian music, dance music. We had dance parties in the house for the Safeway buyers and managers. The dancefloor was downstairs but the house was wired with speakers and the turntable was upstairs in the main living room. At those parties, my job was to take requests downstairs and run upstairs to change the records.

When did you start having your own records?
Ten or 12. I was listening to so much music. Frank Zappa’s Weasel Ripped My Flesh, the whole Woodstock thing, Beatles, Rolling Stones.

Did you want to play music?
No, not at all.

You didn’t have the impulse …
To play? I couldn’t play. I had no interest in playing. I wanted to listen to music. Any band that I really connected with, whether it was Elton John or Alice Cooper or Led Zeppelin, I was never gonna see them in concert, never gonna see them on TV, never gonna read about them. Not where I lived. Never ever. The only connection was that album. That album cover, that album, that’s all I knew about that artist. So that’s why the album is so important to me. I love listening to music but I had no desire to play it.

You bought your first synthesizer from a small keyboard shop in Edmonton in 1975. Impulse buy?
I walked in, it was plugged in, it just made this sound and I went holy. I want that. And I bought it. I had about $1,000 in the bank — which is a lot of money in 1975 — that had been sitting in my account growing all my life. And I spent the whole thing on this synthesizer. I wrote them a cheque and they shipped it to me on the bus.

Did your parents approve?
I couldn’t tell you. Japanese family. It’s hard to read.

Did you have any musical training at this point?
No training but my mom and dad had an organ in the house. So I decided to play it. It was one of those Yamaha things with the automatic rhythms. I played with that, so that was my training. In high school, I took piano lessons for four months and … not interested (laughs).

In 1976, you sold your ARP Axxe for an upgraded model, the ARP Odyssey. Did that signal you were getting more serious about music?
I wanted to play rock music at that point. I’d take the synth over to house parties in Rainier, kids would come over, smoke weed and listen to me make these weird sounds. That’s all I could do with it. Then I joined a bar band (Merlin) and we started doing covers. We were playing in Calgary, Cochrane, Canmore, Maple Creek (Sask).

Walt Ohama performing in cover band Merlin.
What did you cover?
Stuff like Yes, Genesis, Kansas. Not your normal top-40 pop music. When we were doing that, people were demanding that we play the Bee Gees. They wanted Saturday Night Fever and we were playing Afterglow by Genesis and Roundabout by Yes.

After graduating in 1981 with your Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from the University of Calgary, rather than pursuing a career in architecture, you tried to form another band.
I wanted to make a band like Styx, or I wanted to do Rush with synthesizers. When (1985 Rush album) Power Windows came out, I thought that’s what I had wanted to do. I had my bass player, I had my drummer and we were a good trio. We were auditioning guitarists in Calgary every day; then, after months, he walked in the door and it clicked like that. It was amazing. I felt this is really special. We were going to be like something that Canada has never heard, maybe America.

The excitement didn’t last long.
No, that afternoon, my dad had drove up to Calgary and knocked on our door. He’s crying. I never saw my dad cry before in his life. He said, “Son, I need help on the farm. Can you come run the place for the summer and get us going?” His main manager quit to work for the competition and my dad had bought this automatic bag-tying machine that nobody could figure out. He was deserted basically. He needed someone to get that factory working and up and running by mid-July in order to ship potatoes for the summer.

Was saying no an option?
Not in my family. My drummer said, “I would have told him to fuck off.”

How did you feel?
I’m 21 and I’m just angry. I’m angry I have to help my father. I’m angry I have to help my family. I’m angry the band is not going to work. I’m just an angry, angry kid. My only thought was to get through this, do a year, get the factory running, hire somebody to replace me, and then put my band back together and go. 

• • •

Former Ultravox frontman John Foxx's first
solo album, Metamatic. This 1980 record
literally changed Ohama's life.
Fate had other plans. That summer, his former bassist Bruce Toll visited Ohama on the farm and brought with him a stack of new electronic music releases, including Metamatic, the first solo album by former Ultravox frontman John Foxx. “He played it,” Ohama says, “and I went: ‘That’s what I want to do. I’m not going to do the band thing. I’m going to do that!’ ” 

Ohama spent the next several months juggling farm duties with building a studio in the family home. 

“I moved into the basement and that was my bedroom,” he recalls. “(My dad) had no idea what I was doing. ‘As long as he’s running the business, we don’t care.’ That’s how it is. You don’t talk. It’s a Japanese family. You just start. I had to learn everything. Compressors. Equalizers. All self-taught. I needed a drum machine and that’s when things clicked. I got the drum machine and then I went, ‘OK, now I can do what John Foxx is doing.’ ”

Tona Ohama's studio in the basement of his parents' home
on the family's potato farm in Rainier, Alberta.
The first complete song he recorded, Dischordant Concensus (sic), opens his debut cassette album, Midnite News. It was followed a year later by a second cassette album, Ohama (but nowadays he refers to it as the White Album). These two releases contain some of his best-loved songs, many of which he would re-record (often in significantly different form) on future albums. Only 100 copies were made of the first cassette, 50 of the second, and Ohama erased the masters as soon as the tapes were manufactured.

“I can remember the actual feeling of taking that master and running the bulk eraser over it and going, ‘That’s it. It’s done,’ ” he says. “I was young and I thought, if you make a limited edition print, you break the rock, you don’t make more prints. So that’s what I decided to do.”

There were no highfalutin artistic reasons behind his next decision to make the jump to vinyl. He did it to impress a girl — future wife Mia Blackwell — who he met at the Pumphouse Theatre in 1983.

“She was from Toronto; big into clubs,” says Ohama, who fell in love with the dancer instantly, even though she already had a boyfriend: Avery Tanner, a deejay at Toronto new wave nightspot Klub Domino.

“I’m trying to impress her, showing her my tape,” he says. “She’s like: ‘If you don’t do vinyl, you’re not a real artist.’ And that was it. So then I did vinyl.”

Within days, Ohama organized the pressing of his debut seven-inch single. He chose what he considered the best song from his second cassette, Julie is a TV Set, for the A-side, backed by another White Album track, TV

Doug Wong, whose company facilitated the 1,000-unit pressing, remembers Ohama’s instructions about the single’s ‘picture’ sleeve. 

Cover of Julie is a TV Set 7-inch, 1983.

“People would come in and print full-colour covers or they’d want pictures of themselves or something like that,” Wong says. “Tona came in and said, ‘I want my name and that’s it. The front cover is going to be blank.’ I said, ‘You don’t want your picture on it?’ ‘Nope. Just my name.’ I thought that was quite neat. It did make it stand out from the other things we had done. You see stuff like that and you realize this guy is not like everybody else.”

A re-recorded version of Julie is a TV Set would appear, in arguably definitive form, on Ohama’s first 12-inch release, the four-track Midnite News EP, released April 1984. Seven months later, Ohama released his first full-length LP, I Fear What I Might Hear, a creative and commercial triumph. He reworked five more tracks from his initial cassettes, added three new songs, and audaciously sequenced them into two side-long song cycles. 

“I was really proud of it,” says Ohama. “I knew I had an album that sounded really close to what I was aiming for the first time. Where Do You Call Home is the first song on Side B; Of Whales the first song on Side A (see video below). Those are meant to be radio songs and they were. They got played and they worked beautifully. I knew when I sent it out, there was going to be an audience for it. I could just feel it.”

He was right. I Fear What I Might Hear grabbed the attention of Liz Janik and her husband Peter Goodwin, who together hosted the CFNY independent music program Streets of Ontario. For the next two years, they would champion Ohama’s music, playing his songs on their show, writing about him in their column for Music Express magazine and lobbying for the CASBY nomination. 

There was other media interest, including a segment on the nationally syndicated New Music TV program (see video below) and exposure on Brave New Waves and Night Lines, two national CBC Radio programs that launched that same year. 

“Ohama stood out on multiple levels,” Janik remembers. “You had something that was very creative, you had something that was fresh, you had something that was original, you had an artist who was intriguing, to say the very least. When you look at some of his lyrics, he’s more about poetry in some ways.”

Adds Goodwin: “When we got stuff from him, there was always a personal letter, there was tons of information, there was always something else that was quirky. He had always figured out a hook, a way of making his work and he himself stand out from the pack. Right from the get-go, he really impressed me with that.”

The initial 1,000 copies were quickly sold, and two more pressings of 2,000 copies each were needed to keep up with demand. 

“It took off, that album,” Ohama says. “This is how brave I was. I went to New York City, I took a box of records, go into (famed New York City record store) Bleecker Bob’s and Bleecker Bob (Plotnik) remembered me from April with the Midnite News EP. ‘Oh, hey, it’s the Eskimo guy from Canada!’ He said, ‘What do you got?’ ‘This is I Fear What I Might Hear.’ He said, ‘I’ll take 10,’ and he paid me, not on consignment. He said, ‘Ah, they’ll sell, don’t worry. I can tell by just looking at the cover.’ So Bleecker Bob was selling my stuff in New York. 

“The next day, I went to (trend-setting New York City nightclub) Danceteria at 4 in the afternoon and walked in to see if my record could get played there. A deejay there put it on, listened to it and said, ‘This is really good; totally not going to get played in this club. It’s not the right type of music.’ … Still, pretty nervy for a kid to do that.”

• • •

Following the CASBYs, his career ascendant, Ohama’s next projects involved something he mostly avoided as a solo artist: collaboration. (Despite occasionally crediting outside musicians on his records, wonderfully named players such as Oot Myers and Eric D. Hoffaby don’t exist.)

First, Ohama agreed to have Avery Tanner come to the potato farm and produce a dance single aimed at clubs like Danceteria and Klub Domino. Tanner was looking to follow in the footsteps of Arthur Baker and apply his knowledge as a club deejay to record production.

Ohama's 1986 single, Midway,
produced by Avery Tanner.
Over several days in late 1985, Tanner, Ohama and Marcenko worked on Midway, a song that addressed Japanese internment and resettlement in Canada during the Second World War. It was the first and last time Ohama would allow an outside producer to shape his music.

AT: “I totally believed in (Ohama’s) marketability. At that time, in the early ’80s, all kinds of unusual music was breaking. There wasn’t a formula at that time… Ohama played me the demo. I tried to make it more of a new wave dance song; a track that I would play.”

TO: “(Tanner) had been looking for electronic acts to produce. He did Psyche’s Thundershowers (In Ivory Towers). Then he wanted to produce a single for me. So I said yeah.”

AT: “Not criticizing (Ohama) but he wasn’t used to giving up a little bit of the control for collaboration sake. It was more frustrating for him than it was for me in terms of artistic issues.”

TO: “(Tanner) was a little inexperienced, I felt. Dennis played bass on that and (Tanner) would come in, saying things like, ‘Got to put compression on that.’ I was listening to it; ‘No, that doesn’t need compression.’ And Dennis is looking at me, saying, ‘Just tell him you put the compression on. Just pretend.’ ”

DM: “I was trying to be a peacemaker. Maybe we were just humouring (Tanner). I knew that Walt was in charge anyway.”

AT: “The song pretty much came out the way I had intended. I played it (in the club) but I didn’t really get other deejays playing it.”

TO: “(Tanner) said things like, ‘If you change this part here, and do it this way, it’ll be more popular in the clubs and then you’ll sell more records and you can do what you want.’ And I just looked at him and said: ‘You’re in my studio. I’m doing what I want now. What are you talking about?’ After that experience, I didn’t want to work with producers anymore.”

Ohama was back in the producer’s chair for his next collaboration; this one with Calgary singer-songwriter Dania.

Tona Ohama with Dania, 1986.
“She was complaining that it’s so hard to make a record,” recalls Ohama. “I said: ‘Let’s just do one. You send me your songs, I’ll do an arrangement, you come sing them, and the album will come out. That’s how hard it is.’ I just did it to show her, really.”

Initially, Ohama thought they’d operate “like Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox (of Eurythmics). She’s the voice and I am doing all the technical stuff; that seems to be a thing that works.”

But, according to Ohama, this collaboration didn’t work the way he had hoped and, to this day, he remains disappointed with their one album, 1986’s Love Only Lasts Awhile. Of the nine tracks, five were breathtaking Dania originals, haunting and European (presaging Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man by a couple years).

Tellingly, of the four Ohama originals, two were previously released.

“We could have made it less cobbled together if we had taken the time,” Ohama says. “Dania was so stubborn. I would say, as a producer, ‘this line here, you could sing that better.’ She would say, ‘No, not doing it.’ I would say, ‘But this is a record; it will stand for all time.’ And she would say, ‘I’m doing one take and that’s it.’ I couldn’t force her to sing.

“My part took hours and hours. Programming a thing like Lonely Heart Dance? That took a long, long time to do all those little things. Her part? The length of the song.

“I had to put it out to prove her wrong – that it’s easy to put a record out. Then it came out. I didn’t even design the cover. I bought the art off of Ulrike (Voll), and then I sent it to the pressing plant and said: ‘You guys design the cover. I’m tired.’ ”

After playing a session for The Funeral Factory’s debut EP, Living with Ghosts, Ohama put a stop to his recording career. There would be no turning back. In 1989, his potato farm studio flooded and he lost everything, including photos, master tapes and equipment. By this point, the farm was struggling financially. It closed in 1992, a half-century after Tona Sr. established it.

Today, Tanner fondly recalls his days spent on the farm, and draws parallels between the Rainier landscape and Ohama’s music.

“On the one hand, it’s very peaceful and very beautiful and calming,” he says. “But on the other hand, it’s sort of eerie. And surreal.” 

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