When it's suggested to Mark Gane that "checkered" may be the best word to describe the career of Martha and the Muffins, the band he and long-time collaborator, now-wife Martha Johnson formed more than 30 years ago, Gane shakes his head and laughs. "Well," he says, "that's the polite way of putting it."
Certainly the Toronto ensemble has had its ups and downs, side trips and stalemates since a guitar-driven slice of sax-spiced, organ-flavoured Nuevo Wuevo by Gane called Echo Beach lifted it to prominence in 1980.
Yet for all the caroming and careening − through media indifference and their own ambivalence, bad management and no management, shady record deals and no deals, genre shifts and personnel changes (in its early years there were two Marthas, Johnson and Ladly, and as many as four or five Muffins, including Gane's brother Tim on drums) − Gane and Johnson have persisted. In their consistently inconsistent way, they've created an estimable body of brainy pop-craft that for all its stylistic tips o' the hat (to Talking Heads, Roxy Music, Chic, David Bowie and the Beatles) remains distinctively Muffins-esque.
Tomorrow, the duo releases its eighth album, a 12-track, self-produced effort called Delicate − the first full-length, all-originals Martha and the Muffins disc in 18 years.
That Delicate exists at all is something of a miracle. The group's penultimate recording, Modern Lullaby, while artistically satisfying, was a commercial disaster that resulted in a crisis of confidence and a failure of nerve. Of course, the Martha and the Muffins saga has been about flirting with failure and playing improbable odds virtually from the get-go.
As Gane observed recently in the comfortable three-storey semi-detached home/recording studio/ rehearsal space he shares with Johnson and daughter Eve, 17, "nobody in 1978 or '79 thought it was going to last. It was all supposed to be over in a couple of years ─ if that."
Even the name, a riposte to the in-your-face monikers favoured by punk and New Wave acts of the era (remember Nazi Dog and the Viletones?), was deemed a place-holder until someone dreamed up something better.
Gane (pale, wispy, short) and Johnson (bigger, solid, responsible-looking) are fiftysomethings now. Back then they were twentysomething "musical primitivists with interesting ideas," she a medical receptionist, he a painting student at the Ontario College of Art, both on the prowl on Queen Street West.
As for Echo Beach, "well, it was the third song I'd ever written in my life," Gane noted with another laugh, "and the chorus only happens at the end. How weird is that?"
Weirdly wonderful, it seems, since its three-minute, 32-second evocation of the dreams and wishes of a bored office clerk/"romantic fool" wowed and wooed listeners everywhere. Or as everywhere as you can get without including the United States.
Gane and Johnson have written more and, frankly, better songs since. In 1984, Black Stations/White Stations took M + M (as they renamed themselves, briefly and to much confusion) to No. 2 on Billboard's dance chart.
But 29 years after winning single-of-the-year honours at the Junos, it's Echo Beach that continues to (yes) echo across the universe ─ in cover versions, samples and eighties hits compilations. Five years ago, CBC Radio ranked it the 35th greatest song in Canadian pop history, just behind Hank Snow's I'm Movin' On and ahead of Safety Dance by Men without Hats. Two years ago, it was the name of a soap opera on Britain's ITV, complete with a re-recorded version of the song as title theme. There's even an iris called Echo Beach. And an Irish racehorse.
As the song's 30th anniversary looms, Gane and Johnson are planning a commemoration, its form as yet undetermined. A new interpretation? A limited-edition something-or-other? A quirky documentary? More immediately pressing, though, is the release of Delicate and two live Toronto dates ─ their first in five years ─ in support of the CD, which has been in the works, on and off, since 2005. At least one of its songs, Even in the Rain, can trace its origin to the mid-1980s
"A lot of stuff made it a very difficult album to make in some respects," Gane noted, including the death of his mother and the loss of a close family friend. "Also, there were some health issues that we can't really talk about right now." Yet through it all, "the music kept the project going."
The omens seem good. They now have a manager (Graham Stairs of Popguru Sound and Vision) and a publicist (Vancouver's Killbeat Music) whom they like, and they're slowly but steadily releasing their back catalogue, to much acclaim. The booklet for the new CD includes the admonitions "Stop Remembering" and "Start Forgetting" which, for Johnson, represent a call to both the band and listeners to "turn another page. ... Judge us on what we're doing now, not on what we did or didn't do before."
Gane admitted "there does seem to be momentum building." But he's careful not to set his hopes too high. "Either it'll go or it won't." Besides, as Johnson remarked, "it's always been about creativity and songwriting, not fame or adulation." Whatever happens, Gane observed with a chuckle, "we're gonna rock till we die."
Martha and the Muffins play Toronto's Music Gallery, 197 John St., Feb. 5 and 6 at 8 p.m.