Did they take the Spadina Bus up here? Probably not -but Toronto-based fusion legends The Shuffle Demons made it up to Muskoka nonetheless to bring their unique blend of music and performance to an eager crowd as part of Huntsville’s Nuit Blanche North last weekend.
If you’re unfamiliar with the jazz-rap-bop-funk ensemble, they’re most famously known for their 1984 surprise-hit, Spadina bus (which can be viewed below). With nearly 30 years as a band, The Shuffle Demons have toured the world, dropped eight full-length albums and secured a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for the most people simultaneously playing saxophone.
The band’s unique sound and audience-centric take on live performance has proven fruitful and anchored the band as a truly original and Canadian experience not to be missed.
Huntsville Today caught up with one of the group’s founding members, Richard Underhill, to chat a bit about how the band has progressed and changed over the years and how they connected with Nuit Blanche North.
Huntsville Today: How did the Shuffle Demons come to be in the first place?
Richard Underhill: I was going to university and staying in the house of one of our first members, Mike Murley. I ended up busking on the street a lot to help pay my way through music school. Mike decided to come out one night and he had such a great time that he invited a couple of his friends, who happen to be drummers Stitch Wynston and Dave Parker, and it just started right then.
When we went out that first time we had such a great time and people loved it and we just kept doing it, busking and busking and eventually that turned into some indoor shows and then we busked around Europe in the summer of 1985 and when we came back we made our first album and the rest is history.
HT: Where did the name, The Shuffle Demons, come from?
RU: I had a song I’d written in a York University composition class and it was this nice, sort of ballad that I then destroyed with another song called the shuffle monster… Someone asked what our name was one day and I just blurted out ‘the shuffle demons’ and it just kind of stuck.
HT: How did you become involved in our small-town Nuit Blanche North?
RU: We got the call from the organizers and they said that they were interested and we were more than happy to be part of it. We played at Nuit Blanche in Guelph a few years ago and that went really well, so we were excited about the idea of coming up and playing your festival as well.
HT: You have a unique sound and set of influences that doesn’t pin down one genre or type of performance, where did that idea come from and how do you marry those styles so eloquently?
RU: That’s kind of always been one of our main selling points and our main attraction – no one really knows how to pigeon-hole us. That can be great but it can also be difficult because they don’t know where do book us sometimes. It really came together from playing on the streets. We were all fans of jazz and studying music at York University, so we had that jazz background as a starting point.
We also knew that to get a crowd on the street it was a good idea to play The Flintstones theme or the Hockey Night in Canada theme or Hawaii 5-0 so some popular stuff that people knew that would help us draw a crowd on the street. Also, because it was 1984 when we started and it was the beginning of rap and people were starting to become aware of that. We were out there not with two turn-tables and a microphone but three saxophones and a drum kit. We would break down to hand-claps with a drum kit and do some rapping, so that’s how the whole rapping part became part of what we did. It was all very organic to this kind of crazy mix of styles we pulled together. I think the one thing that’s very constant is that we’re doing this with two saxophones, acoustic bass and drums and that’s something that people don’t get to hear that often – no guitar, no piano – performing it raw and in that way it makes it more interesting I think.
“There’s nothing worse for me than playing on a stage that’s way above the people and you don’t really get a chance to connect with them, we like to go in and mix it up with audience a bit before climbing up on that stage.” – Richard Underhill
HT: With almost 30 years as a band, how have you evolved and changed?
RU: I think we’ve evolved as songwriters. We’ve gotten a lot of musical influence from all of our touring, there’s some Indian references we’ve done and some African influences… We’ve also evolved as players, we’re better now than we were then. We try to maintain the same youthful energy that we had 25 to 30 years ago but with a little more technical facility and new musical influences. I think it’s a really cool show.
If you missed the Shuffle Demons, or just liked what you heard, you can check out their website here.