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Reinventing the blues with MonkeyJunk

By Jill Krajewski on March 29, 2012

It’s about time MonkeyJunk got a Juno nomination.

The Ottawa trio have nine Maple Blues Awards, a Canadian Independent Music Award, were only the second Canadian artist to win a Blues Music Award, and placed third at the International Blues Challenge in 2009 — all in four years. Titles aside, frontman Steve Marriner, lead guitarist Tony D (last name Diteodoro) and drummer Matt Sobb don’t call themselves a blues band. “We don’t play strictly blues, rock-and-roll or funk,” says Marriner, who sings and plays guitar, keyboards and harmonica. “We play whatever we want. It’s three guys endeavouring to make as much sound as possible.”

They definitely fulfilled that mission during their sound check at La Salle Odyssée, a 852-seat theatre in Gatineau. Rehearsing their fan favourite, “I Wanna Put a Tiger in Your Tank,” Marriner wailed away on a harmonica connected to an amplifier, distorting the traditionally-acoustic instrument. Diteodoro played a rapid-fire riff as Sobb pounded the drums with one hand and shook a maraca with the other. “We love traditional blues, but for MonkeyJunk it’s not what we do,” Sobb says. “Blues will wither and die without evolution.”

The trio grew up in Ottawa in different eras — Marriner, Sobb and Diteodoro are 27, 39 and 49 respectively — but they all fell for the blues in their teens. The Blues Brothers inspired Marriner to learn the harmonica and Sobb and Diteodoro credit their record-collecting brothers.

“At that age, this light goes off in your head,” Diteodoro says. “There’s a whole culture in blues. It’s not a commodity, it’s people’s lives.”

Marriner met Diteodoro and Sobb at local blues joint The Rainbow Bistro in 1998, becoming occasional bandmates and friends.

In 2008, Marriner recruited Diteodoro and Sobb to join his Sunday shows at Irene’s Pub for what was supposed to be just a weekend band named after blues slang for tomfoolery. Their attitude changed after one month of playing and a go at recording. “The first show had 20 people,” Sobb recalls. “By the fourth, the place had over 100. That and our first recording session made us realize it was more than a side project.” Six months later, MonkeyJunk were nominated for their first Blues Music Award without releasing any records. The band have worked hard ever since to spread their name.

Marty Sobb, an audio engineer and Matt’s brother, mixed MonkeyJunk’s first album Tiger in Your Tank in 2009 and watched sessions for last year’s follow-up To Behold. Sobb remembers the trio could spend ten hours on a song in one session to see their ideas to fruition. “They never say no,” Sobb says. “They put the extra mile in to get the song written, the record recorded or the show played.”

MonkeyJunk travels to unpaid artist showcases as far as France to get attention from industry members and club owners. They still book local shows, move their equipment and drive to gigs in Marriner’s blue GMC Safari van.

“We must be addicted,” Marriner jokes. “How many people would drive 12 hours to play one hour of music then drive back?”

Stony Plain Records president Holger Petersen got into MonkeyJunk soon after they formed and signed them for their second album. Petersen says MonkeyJunk’s innovation got his attention. “It’s the freshness of what they bring. All the band members are committed musically to what they do.” That freshness comes from their decision to not have a bass player, emulating traditional acts like Chicago blues artist Little Walter. “Starting out, we toyed with how we were going to play to make us sound big without bass,” Diteodoro remembers.

At the Gatineau theatre, Marriner tuned down his guitar to hit lower notes while Sobb heartily pounded the kick drum. Diteodoro cranked up his amplifier loud enough that his pulsating notes could compete with a heartbeat.

“If someone told us ‘you’re ruining blues,’ we’d laugh them off,” Sobb says. “We’re in this to make our music.”

While the Juno Award nomination for blues album of the year for To Behold has MonkeyJunk in a happy daze, they also take it as a sign to step up their game. After the Junos, they’ll tour France, play three American festivals and release their third album this summer or fall.

Even with the extra pressure, Marriner says hitting the stage reminds them why they first got into music. “When you’re playing in front of a packed house of people and they’re going crazy for you, that’s better than any high.”