Late last spring I received a call from Hawksley Workman. Business was picking up, he said, and he needed some help running his publicity. Not being comfortable recommending one publicist over another, I hemmed and hawed and ultimately didn't offer much in the way of assistance. But that's not the point. The point is that after a couple of years of lying low, the phone call signalled that the Hawk was back on the move.
Ten months later, "It seems like it's been a career's worth of training to do what I'm doing now," says Workman, referring to his current projects, the one-man cabaret The God That Comes and the bright new band Mounties. "I feel more equipped to enjoy and maximize these two things. I feel at home."
At this particular moment, he feels like a second glass of wine. Along with Vancouver's Steve Bays (the Hot Hot Heat leader who with Workman and producer-musician Ryan Dahle form the indie-rock super-group Mounties), we're at a Toronto pub chatting about the trio's cracking new Thrash Rock Legacy album and the current firm footing of Workman's curious career.
Workman and Bays are going through some of the same things. Often they finish each others' thoughts or nod in agreement when the other is talking. Mostly they're highly psyched about Mounties and the autonomy that the album's taut, cheerful energy reflects. "We chose to become musicians for the freedom," says the curly-haired Bays, who turned down a substantial amount of money from Warner when Hot Hot Heat decided to make its fourth album (2010's Future Breeds) on its own. "If you stop feeling that freedom, why are you working at such a difficult job?"
Adds Workman: "I flew out to Vancouver to make a couple of pop hooks with these guys. There was nothing meditated, nothing planned. It's made me fall in love with music again, in that boyish, dazzled way."
The music drifting from the speakers overhead is John Mayer's Waiting on the World to Change. But Workman, known to be proactive, prolific and artistically headstrong, has given up on the world's fashions and keeps on moving to his own beat – literally. Known as a singer-guitarist and flamboyant front man, he's the drummer for Mounties. "It's always what I wanted to do anyway," says the 39-year-old Juno-winner and son of a percussionist. He digs the physicality of keeping the band's time and the clarity that the role provides. "It ensures that the brain never has a chance to ruin what's going on among us."
But then, he's always a guy that goes with his gut instinct. "Hawksley's gift is his diversity," says Randy Lennox, president and CEO of Universal Music Canada, Workman's former music home. "Every time I thought I had him down one lane, he'd pull a 180 on me. It's challenging as a marketer, but every turn he makes remains interesting."
After Lennox spotted him at the small Rivoli club in Toronto in 1998, Workman burst upon the Canadian music scene as a quirky, dramatic romantic in the late 1990s, breaking through with (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves in 2001, and scoring even bigger with the gold-selling Lover/Fighter from 2003.
"We swung for the fences with Lover/Fighter," recalls Lennox. "It went gold, and it was his most successful album."
But after that, sales dropped off.
It was Lennox's advice that Workman not release the tuneful Between the Beautifuls and the heavier, wilder Los Manlicious in the same year. They were – in 2008 – but there was also a disagreement between Workman and Universal on which album to release first. The label won out this time, releasing Between the Beautifuls in front of Los Manlicious.
"If they believed in me, I wanted to believe in them," Workman says now, about the to-and-fro of working with a major label. "And you always think you can guard your music, but there's so much pressure when you're trying to get famous. So you make sacrifices."
After Los Manlicious, Workman left Universal to work briefly with an independent, Six Shooter Records. He also has his own label, Isadora, and has managed to produce other artists (Tegan and Sara, the Cash Brothers, Hey Rosetta!, Serena Ryder and Sarah Slean) while putting out his own records inexhaustibly.
The assembly line slowed down after the double-header discs Meat and Milk in 2010. After a break, the pressure was on to get back to work. "Agents and managers were telling me it was time to make a solo record, but working with Mounties and developing The God That Comes was something I needed to do," says Workman. "I needed to take the pressure off of me doing my thing."
The God That Comes is a 2013 collaboration with director Christian Barry for Alberta Theatre Projects. Reviewed favourably in The Globe and Mail as a "fun and feisty" retelling of the ancient Greek tragedy The Bacchae, the one-man cabaret about indulging one's animal instinct provided an opportunity for Workman to get back in touch with his inner glam-rock god.
"The cabaret has me being me again," he said at the time.
Barry witnessed the same thing. "He's come full circle. There's something about getting back to his natural impulses to let loose that his fans recognize as something they fell in love with years ago."
At the turn of the 2000s, London's Time Out magazine called Workman "quite possibly the coolest thing to come out of Canada." He laughs about it now, but not too hard. "I was cool for maybe two minutes," he says, thoughtfully. "But coolness is like a hot-air balloon. We know it takes up a lot of space, but is it really filled with anything?"
Fact is, Workman is too earnest to be cool. Talking about Mounties, he admits to being "boyishly geeked about it," and he's always worn his heart on his sleeve. Says Bays, who is also producing a Workman solo record (Old Cheetah), "It's really easy to have a strategic air of being jaded, but Hawksley just puts that aside, and I just love that."
At that, Workman, who is also producing, co-writing and co-managing the young Canadian rock band the Mohrs, smiles. "You know, I would love to know how it feels to be cool, but I can't help but to puke it all out."
Thrash Rock Legacy: A Review
"Don't need the pressure to show, anything other than good to go." The instantly pleasurable debut album from Mounties is called Thrash Rock Legacy, but the legacy has nothing to do with the successful histories of the band's excellent participants, they being Hawksley Workman and Vancouver's Ryan Dahle (of Limblifter) and Steve Bays (of Hot Hot Heat). No, these guys have jammed up something spanking and new, even if Pretty Respectable waves at the Payolas and If This Dance Catches On staggers like the Strokes. The rock is brash, the hook-craft bristles and the quirkiness is surefooted. The delightful Hall & Oates modernizes that duo, and one doesn't need to be a private eye to sense that these fellows are having the time of their lives. Good to go, you betcha. – Brad Wheeler