MonkeyJunk has mastered 10 years in the swamp

MonkeyJunk: Tony D, Steve Marriner and Matt Sobb.

When Steve Marriner was a precocious 13 year old he was already playing the harmonica well enough to get up on stage and sit in with older professional musicians.

He was hanging about the scene in Ottawa then which in those days pretty much meant, in his world, The Rainbow Bistro on the Byward Market and Irene’s in the Glebe.

“I was just starting to get around the scene a little but I was very young obviously so I couldn’t get into the bars. But a few places would let me in if my dad would hang around with me. One of them was The Rainbow and the other was Irene’s.”

In the summer of ’98, Tony Diteodoro was playing every Tuesday night at The Rainbow.

“Someone told me, I think it was the guitar player Scott Doubt, that I should go check out Tony D. So one night I did.

It was an important moment for Marriner and as it turned out for Tony D. “I lived what he played.”

That 13 year old made an impression and Tony D got Marriner up on stage.

“And so every Tuesday for the rest of that summer I sat in with Tony. We would play the same three or four songs. He was very patient with me and he would give me an opportunity to be up on stage. That’s where we first met. We became friends and he was always a big mentor over the years.

“He would always invite me up to play or hire me for gigs here and there. He didn’t always work with a harp player but there were a couple of things he would hire me for.”

This story is going somewhere of course, but there’s another side that needs explaining, before we get to the bigger picture.

“Matt Sobb and I met that same summer. He was playing drums with his brother Marty Sobb and the Mob. They were playing in Wakefield and my family’s cottage is not far from there. We were driving up to the cottage and I spotted a big sign for Marty Sobb and the Mob I was like ‘We gotta go’.

“My parents took me. I met Matt and Marty and they got me up to play. We became fast friends also.”

Matt and Steve would work together in different situations in the blues scene over the next few years. They also played pick-up hockey together every Wednesday night.

By 2005, Steve Marriner was a full-time musician. He toured with Harry Manx in 2005. He put out a record in 2007 and it was pretty successful. He started doing his own gigs and would often work with Tony D.

Marriner also got a regular Sunday night solo gig at Irene’s but by March 2008, he was looking for someone to play with in those shows.

“Tony and I had been playing lots still. I had just bought a baritone guitar and we were jamming at his house.” It was cooking and the two thought they should do something with two guitars and no bass. But they needed a drummer.

Steve suggested Matt, who was already playing with Tony D’s band and all three of them turned up at Irene’s to see what would happen. That was 10 years ago.

The experiment has become one of the most successful bands this city has produced. MonkeyJunk (the name comes from an old Son House line) has celebrated their 10th anniversary with a JUNO award for their album Time To Roll. They are a fixture on the Stony Plain record label and popular regulars on the road. They have also won 20 Maple Blues Awards, two Canadian Independent Music Awards and a Blues Music Award (USA). They won their first JUNO in 2012.

“A lot of life has happened in 10 years but as far as this band goes, it has flown by,” Marriner said. “When you live your life looking at calendars and planning months ahead the … next thing you know, 10 years has passed.”

It wasn’t supposed to end up in a band, Marriner said. It was just supposed to be a fun gig. “I didn’t expect it would take on the momentum that it did.” But after a month of Sundays, the show was packed all the time.

“Somebody asked, ‘Have you guys got a record?’ We thought maybe we should go into the studio and see what happens. We recorded four songs in one session and we said, ‘This sounds pretty good, we should probably keep going’.”

So they did. The next thing they knew they had a CD, then a tour.

“It all came together organically without much planning or thought. We were reacting to one another and the situation. The next thing you know it had a life of its own and we were getting bookings all over the country.”

A year later they were in Memphis, Tennessee rocking the International Blues Challenge.

At some point, they realized they had better get more organized and take it seriously. One of the first steps was joining Stony Plain.

“In the context of blues music in Canada, Stony Plain is very important. Pretty much all best Canadian artists have been on that label. Downchild is on it. Dutch Mason has a record on it. Holger (Petersen)’s catalogue is so large.

“There is so much history there with bands I have been listening to since I started playing. It was a pretty big deal for us.”

The label actually courted the band. They bumped into Petersen at a Maple Blues Awards ceremony and he inquired about plans for a second record.

“We said that it was almost done and then we would see if anyone wanted to put it out.”

“He said, ‘Would you keep us in mind?’ Holger came back with best deal; he was the most enthusiastic about the project and we went with him.” And they have stayed with him ever since.

MonkeyJunk is an interesting mix of musical generations.

Tony D was born in 1962 and has been playing professionally since the early 80s. He has led bands and played as a sideman. He’s toured all over the world.

Matt Sobb, who is a recent winner of a Maple Blues award for his work, is about 45 and Steve is 33.

Marriner started young. “I was maybe in the first grade when I saw Michael J. Fox playing Johnny B. Goode in Back to the Future. I really got into that. I learned who Chuck Berry was and then I found out that I liked a lot of his music.”

And the journey went from there to other ’50s greats such as Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash.

At age 10 he caught another trail.

“I saw The Blues Brothers movie. Before that I had never really heard the Chicago Blues and I recognized it as something unique.”

He realized early on that if you listened closely enough you could follow the trail from Robert Johnson and Son House to Muddy Waters to Buddy Guy to Jimi Hendrix who exploded the world, as Marriner puts it.

The harmonica was first thing he ever played.

He started by taking lessons from a local musician who would also let him sit in on stage with his band. The 12 year old Marriner had learned two songs: Sonny Boy Williamson’s Bring It On Home… and Junior Wells’ version of Shake Like A Willow Tree.

When he started in the 1990s, Ottawa was a good blues town. That’s ebbed over the years, Marriner believes but that’s not really a problem for MonkeyJunk.

They aren’t a traditional blues band. In fact they call their blend of music Swamp Roots Rock.

“We are writing our own songs which are very much based on blues music but not exclusively. We are incorporating a lot of other influences. Everyone wants to call us a blues band but that’s not entirely accurate,” he said.

“Some shows have more of a rhythm and blues vibe. Some shows do lean towards traditional blues, but toher days it’s all out rock and roll. That’s why we say swamp. It makes me think of a melting pot, a gurgling up of different music.”

Right now the band is touring and getting ready for a home town gig at the National Arts Centre on Thursday.

Touring hard is a feature of the work but they have tried to make the cycle of tour/record/tour again a little more coherent. They have faced burnout in the past, Marriner says. He was hit hard by it in 2014 when a relationship ended on his second day of a European tour.

He also has had a side gig with Colin James for the past couple of years.

“He was one of my heroes growing up. It’s really good for all of us to have our hands in different projects,” he says.

NAC Presents MonkeyJunk
Where: Azrieli Studio
When: May 3 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.