Streetheart happy to be back playing
August 19, 2019, 3:47 pm
If you grew up in Canada in the 1970s or 80s, you probably have some memories of Streetheart, whether it’s a memory of seeing one of their concerts or hearing hits like What Kind of Love is This and their version of Under my Thumb on the radio. Streetheart is coming to Esterhazy August 31 to headline Rockin’ The Park. Editor Kevin Weedmark spoke with Streetheart’s Jeff Neill on August 12.
I know you lost Kenny Shields in 2017. Have some of the current band members been there from the beginning?
Ken “Spider” Sinnaeve and Daryl Gutheil are the original founding members of Streetheart. I joined the band in 1981. I replaced John Hanna after he got quite ill in 1980 and my first album with the band was Streetheart, the self-titled record.
What is it like playing together as band that long?
Well, we truly enjoy creating and playing music together. We’re great friends and that friendship really, really helps. Losing Kenny was a pretty tough time for us. Kenny obviously was the voice of Streetheart since the very beginning. That was a very difficult time for us and we took quite a break after that. With somebody that close to you that is that dear of a friend, it is difficult to deal with.
Did you know you were going to continue with the band after Kenny died, or was there some question?
No we didn’t think too much about it. It was a long time later when we started to discuss it. We had so many really wonderful notes and messages from all of the fans all across Canada expressing their condolences, but so many were saying please find a way not to stop, to keep the music going. We felt that one of the best ways to keep the memory of Kenny alive is to continue the legacy of this band in the best way that we can. Playing the songs at the highest level that we possibly can. We are very fortunate that our friend Paul McNair stepped up. We did a tribute for Kenny in August of 2017 at Shaw Park in Winnipeg and had Paul come sing. We had a number of guest singers come up who wanted to sing. It was the best way for them to pay their respects to Kenny, to come up and sing one of the Streetheart songs that basically are woven into the fabric of the tapestry of our fans’ adult lives. We have fans that were basically young people graduating out of university and high school in their teens, twenties who are now 60 years old who have been listening to us all their adult lives. Paul stepped up in such a great way and he sang the songs with so much respect for the legacy of the band and he is a great friend of ours and he seemed like a great choice. We looked at a few other singers but really Paul understands the history of the band so well. He has been a fan of the band since he was a teenager. We were very fortunate to have someone like that who stepped up and did such a great job back then and he was the obvious choice for us going forward.
Are you starting to do some new material?
We have talked about that. Darryl, Spider and I were always very on the forefront of creating the initial ideas of songs for Streetheart. We always wrote as a collective—the four of us Darryl, Spider, myself and Kenny. Usually Darryl, Spider or myself would come up with a raw idea that we would complete. We’ve always enjoyed writing together. We’ve always had really good success writing together so we thought maybe we can continue to do that. We are going to look at that more after the summer. We spent the first half of this year re-establishing, finding out what the general feel was from the fans coming back. The fans have been so supportive of us coming back and playing again and playing all these songs that they all really love. We’ve tried to do everything we can with great respect for the legacy of all the memories of this band going forward and do it with a good measure of class and grace. I think we have been very successful and the fans have been wonderful. They have been so welcoming of Paul, and I can’t thank them enough for that because they’ve made what is a very difficult transition as easy as possible for us.
What is it like getting up there and playing some of those old songs like “Under My Thumb” and “What Kind of Love is This”? When you get up there and play for a crowd who grew up with that back in the 80’s, what kind of reaction do you normally get from the crowd?
The reaction to the shows has been spectacular. Back in 1984 when the band broke up, we had no plan for 2019. Rock and roll was still very young at that point. If you could say it was born somewhere in the mid-50s, that made it less than 30 years old, and now it has had another 40 years to grow. We enjoy playing the songs. They are great songs. We put a lot of work into writing good songs and we so enjoy playing the music. I would say arguably hundreds of years from now, musical historians will look back on the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s as the peak period of rock and pop songwriting. The climate was just right. For our fans, music is a way of life for them. I don’t know whether it is the same way now. Our fans support us. They’re patrons of what we do. They come to the shows. They continue to buy the music. They buy our merchandise. They know this is what we do for a living. They’re our bosses in a way, our fans. As long as they come out and enjoy the music, we will be there to play it for them because we love playing these songs even if there is no audience. Having our friends and fans in front of us and playing songs for them is just a bonus.
What is it like for you to get up there and play the songs? You’ve probably played them hundreds or thousands of times. Is it still fun?
Yes, absolutely, because every time you do it you’re reproducing the song but it always has a slightly different character about it. Just on the day that you play it and seeing the reaction of our fans. That is a real impetus to play well. We’re inspired by our fans. They’re very open about how important our music is to them and we take that very seriously. That means something. We have a responsibility to them. Part of that responsibility I like to think that each member in this band is very disciplined about the way they play and the way they conduct themselves. It is always important for us to give our fans the best quality show that we can every single time we play for them.
What kind of shows have you played this year?
The appetite for the music has never waned with our fans and they’ve continue to support us, but not only us but our colleagues as well, whether that’s Trooper, Lover Boy or April Wine or Tom Cochrane, Kim Mitchell—there are all these great acts across Canada that came from this wonderful time period. We all do a number of festivals across the country, especially during the summer months of course, and it’s kind of this big revolving door of musician colleagues and we see the same guys week in and week out. For example we just played in Kelowna for Rock the Lake. We played in Prince George on Friday for Rock the North. We all play these shows and you can see the line ups are different but there are a lot of similar acts. These people want to see these bands because these are the bands that have the songs that are part of people’s memories and their growing up in their adult lives. The family part is kind of fun running into these people in hotels and airports. We say we’re off to here and crossing over, flying over each other in the summer.
You guys in the different bands all know each other? You are friends with the guys in Trooper?
Oh God yeah. Ray and Smitty have been wonderful. For me personally they’ve been like big brothers to me. I’ve known Ray and Smitty for 40 years and they are just class acts. They are real true rock n roll gentlemen. There are so many friends and fans out there that are like that. I would say the longer we do this the more we become grateful for what we have.
How did this come about with Esterhazy? Did they just contact you folks?
They contacted our agent. He does all the initial ground work always. We keep things tidy. That’s not really our jurisdiction to sort of initiate that kind of conversation. He takes care of that and gets things rolling and once we’ve established what were going to do, then we’ll step in and help out with things like this interview. They’re doing a little bit of an outdoor festival in Esterhazy at the end of August and they contacted our agency and we put the nuts and bolts of the business together and now we’re just looking forward the putting on the show for the 31st. It’s nice. We’ll drive in—it’s about a four-hour drive from Winnipeg. I’m sure it will be a great day. If the weather is good we will have a fabulous evening.
Every kid in high school thinks of what it would like to be in a successful band. What is it really like playing in a band? What’s life like in a Canadian rock band?
I have a little adage—we play for free and get paid to travel. There is work in this and some of it is a grind. There are mornings when you have to get up at four in the morning so you can get yourself ready and catch a 7 am flight to fly somewhere to drive for three hours to go play a show, and you don’t really get to eat properly and you don’t really get sleep and you’re playing your shows and sometimes you’re a little tired and a little ragged, but it’s part of what we do and I just say ‘guys we get paid to travel.’ The performing is just a pleasure. It’s absolutely free, that part. That’s the joy—playing the music and the connection with fans, that hour and half. I think there is a little less sort of partying than there used to be. When I was younger we thought we were invincible. I think we’ve realized that we can’t do that forever. Now it gets harder every year. As time progresses, you know how that works. When you’re young you can sleep for a few hours and drag your back side out of bed and away you go. As you get older you go ‘oh jeez I’ve never felt that before.’ Ultimately in the end, playing the shows, it’s worth all that. It is worth any of that work.
What can you tell me about “Nature’s Way,” the single you put out earlier this year?
It’s a song both Kenny and I like. I was playing it one day in a sound check just kind of mucking with it and Kenny was like “hey you know this song, I love this tune.” We both talked about it and it wasn’t a really popular song and it was a song we both quite loved. I had suggested that we should record it some time. So I started the recording process. I started doing tracks here at home and sent off guitar and percussion tracks to the guys to record parts, to Kenny to do vocals, Darryl, Spider to do bass. This could be a Streetheart song and unfortunately Kenny got quite ill and it kind of got put on the back burner because we were more concerned about trying to keep him healthy and doing shows, and that was a big concern for us, and so we never got to complete it while Kenny was alive. And after he had passed I was working on another project and just hit this sort of creative wall, and then you take a break from it, and I went on to something else, and they pulled it up and started listening to it and I said you know this is pretty good. I did a little bit of work with it and started working with a mix and sent it off to the guys. I sent it off to our friends at Universal Music and they said “We think this is pretty good. We’d like to put this on this new greatest hit package, ‘Life, Legacy Music.’ They got that title from what we were calling this year, Life, Legacy, Music, basically to celebrate the life and legacy of the music of Streetheart. They used that title for the greatest hits record and they said ‘We would like to put this song on this album.’ So kudos to them and thanks to them for putting this on the record and giving people an opportunity to hear Kenny. This is essentially his last vocal performance—the last Streetheart recording with Kenny singing, so we are very fortunate to have that out there.
You are looking forward to playing at Rockin’ the Park in Esterhazy?
Oh yeah. Listen, we’ve had a very busy summer, Kevin. We’ve been travelling all over the place but we’re just so happy to be back playing again and grateful for that opportunity. We have wonderful fans all across Canada. The band was in Esterhazy many, many years ago, and it is just kind of nice to come back, and if the weather is kind to us we will have a wonderful night.