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Condo: not just your average maniac

By Joel Bernstein, December 1997

You can tell there's something different about Ray Condo and His Ricochets just from reading the press material accompanying their second album.

Instead of the usual "This album is the greatest gift to humankind since the invention of the wheel," there's the more understated "Condo is a live act first and a recording band second."

The modesty doesn't get overwhelming, though. It continues "so an album captures them differently than their stage shows, but "Door To Door Maniac" comes damned close."

Still, as long as they brought it up themselves, the question has to be asked.

Can Ray Condo be fully appreciated by those who haven't seen him live? "People do like these records," says the man himself, "but then they go 'whoa, much better live!'"

"Real music is live," Condo continues. "Recordings are only documents. I think of our recordings as demo tapes. We haven't had the time or money to cultivate our sound like the big boys do."

Asked if time and money might not just make the band sound too slick, Condo says "I hear that. But I'd like to try. You can whip up a party atmosphere."

Ray Condo and His Ricochets provide a very different sound, though it's not quite as different as it was a few years ago. Recently, they toured for two weeks with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, whose album "Hot" lived up to its name on the pop charts.

While Condo's band is branded "country" and the Zippers are "rock," the reality is they're not all that different.

"We're both drawing on the same roots," says Condo, "We like to get back to the Thirties and Forties."

Of his own band, Condo says, "We've been at it for over 15 years. We were more rockabilly, but now we're also drawing from swing and jazz. It's been a natural evolution for us."

Condo describes the band's current sound as "Hank Williams having a drink with Billie Holiday, and Bob Wills is the bartender. We're filed as country, but Western Swing is a more appropriate label."

"We've gotten an excellent response from (the Zippers') fans. They're a wonderful band, and they're treating us very well. We don't feel like a warm-up band, we feel like a guest."

Condo laments the difficulty of reaching the young "rock" crowd. "I wish we got more college radio play. We're pigeonholed as country, and it does hurt us. When we show up, younger audiences go 'Look at those old guys in the hats.' But we do surprise them. We're fun. We've got energy."

His real name is Trombley ("the French-Canadian Smith") says Condo, who insists, despite what you may read elsewhere, that he's a native of Ottawa, not Montreal.

It was, however, in the latter city that he took his new surname. "We were sitting around one night getting drunk. I'd been living out of cardboard boxes. The name seemed appropriate for a homeless guy. And in Canada, we had a lot of billboards for condominiums. It was a way to get cheap advertising."

For years, Condo (who gives his age as "in the forties") fronted The Hardrock Goners (a name inspired by legendary fifties artist Hardrock Gunter).

Eventually, that band dissolved and merged with the Five Star Hillbillies, a band led by steel guitarist Jimmy Roy. The name "Ricochets" was picked out by Roy. "It represents that we bounce around a lot."

When the band recorded its first album, apparently they weren't bouncing around quite enough. The album was originally released only in Canada, on a small Vancouver label.

Jeff Richardson, who runs the San Francisco-based label Joaquin (specializing in issuing or reissuing obscure Western Swing recordings), wanted to take over the album, but he insisted on a few changes.

"Jeff thought it was a little too mellow. We added half a dozen tunes (while removing others) to make it more upbeat. The original is still around in Canada."

The resulting U.S. version of "Swing Brother Swing" could never be accused of being too mellow.Even more unique than The Ricochets sound is their repertoire. Almost everything the band does is a cover (unlike Squirrel Nut Zippers, who write new material based on the old sounds).

But they are covers that 99.9 percent of the band's audience will have never heard. They're songs so old and obscure that some bands might actually lay claim to having written them, just as many rock bands in the Sixties "wrote" old blues songs.

"All covers make us very unique. Everyone is forced into the singer-songwriter thing because the industry wants publishing rights. Not everyone is Hank Williams or Bob Dylan, but they're forced to be. It's really ruined the scene. I have no big desire to write. We do write maybe 20 percent. We reinterpret everything."

"There is such a great book of material, such a wealth of neglected songs. Why not recycle some excellent material that came out of a real time and place before the corporations took over? People ought to play Western Swing more. It is one of the great chapters of the American book, and no one has read it. You go to a Jazz Festival anywhere in the world, and you'll get Blues, Dixieland, even Reggae - but no Western Swing."

Condo does happily note that many young music listeners are looking backward. "It's exciting to feel the new wave of Neo-American. Even surf music - its day was so brief, and now it's become a whole new source."

One thing Condo keeps emphasizing is how "fresh" his band's sound is.

But if lots of other bands jump on the bandwagon, wouldn't that destroy the freshness?

"I'm not worried about it," Condo insists. "We've got a good angle that should transcend the trend. There's nobody else that can touch on as much variety as we do. The other Neo-American bands are pretty much locked into their sound, their little genre. That could save our ass in the long run."

Condo adds, "We are the musician's band. Everyone we've played with has been infected by us. I'm real proud of that. We're inspired by American culture, and we're inspiring back as well."

The band has been just about everywhere. "There are a few places we haven't done, like Florida. We started in Europe, that's where we built the name up. I had a name in Canada, but that's barely on the (musical) map. It didn't mean anything until we went to Europe. In Canada, you can drive a thousand miles to play for 12 people. The economics are very tough. Most artists in Canada give up by age 27."

Condo is not planning to give up, although he's aware that "We're not going to get rich. We're having fun. I don't want to get rich. I just want a raise. I want to be respected like any other tradesman. I don't believe in rock stars with all that hype."

But he's not one of those guys who insists he'll be playing music until he drops. "I've got some good years in me yet. But I've got a background in the visual arts. I like drawing and painting. I wouldn't mind retiring to the easel."