Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
It is not every day that a media release prompts a double take. But the release about The Polka Dogs certainly caught my eye. After an epic 25-year hiatus, the beloved Toronto band has just released a new album The Bee and is on a Southern Ontario tour, with all 5 original members. Big news. Huge, double-take-worthy news!
My reaction must have been equally big because my husband stopped what he was doing to check in. On hearing that The Polka Dogs were back together, his immediate response was, “oh wow”, followed by, “Why are they called The Polka Dogs? Do they play polka?” Valid questions, those. When he asked, “what kind of music do they play,” I had to think hard about how to answer.
The Polka Dogs began as The Polka Dots. According to Toronto theatre lore, the band began as a theatre pit band in 1989 for an outdoor spectacle animating the history of Kensington Market. Following a short run at The Cameron Public House, the group reformed as The Polka Dogs and thrived as a live band in the late 80s and early 90s, performing regularly at local venues. They toured Canada and Europe, and collaborated across various disciplines, like the dance piece Sleeping Dogs Lie and the Martha Ross musical Ratbag, produced by Theatre Columbus and Canadian Stage Company in 1993. They also had successful music series, The Entertainers, on CBC. And then, The Polka Dogs… stopped.
A quarter century later, the band has resurfaced with their signature sound and all five of its founding members: Tom Walsh on trombone, Tiina Kiik on accordion, Colin Couch on tuba, John Millard on banjo and vocals, and Ambrose Pottie on drums.
So what is The Polka Dog sound? And how to describe it? Despite having an accordion, they do not play polka. But they are influenced by polka. And a whole lot of other genres, besides. What distinguishes The Polka Dogs is a intergeneric indistinguishability. A smorgasbord of unlikely instruments melding musical styles, seasoned with John Millard’s distinctive vocals. The result is an eclectic genre all its own. Melodies traverse unexpected directions and are compulsively listenable, evoking different moods (often in the same song) that are equally hard to name.
So I tried to describe The Polka Dogs to my husband in adjectives like “bold” and “evocative”, “experimental” and “quirky”. And then I played the title track and let the music describe itself.
Yes, I pored over that press release…and then brought all my curiosity to John Millard himself.
SesayArts: This seems like an obvious question, but I’d really like to know…Why such a long hiatus? And did you mean for the break to be a hiatus, with the intention of resuming one day?
JM: There were a number of contributing factors to the dissolution of the band in 1993. I had just become a father, which was taking up time. I was also making a more stable living composing soundtracks for film and theatre. The band’s trombonist, Tom Walsh had moved to Montreal and seemed to be heading in another direction. We had no management or agency willing to work with us, and it was difficult to keep the project rolling.
I’m not sure, but I think we all would have liked it to start up again. It wasn’t until Tom moved back to Toronto a few years ago that we seriously considered it.
SesayArts: When did you start having thoughts about recording and touring as The Polka Dogs again? How easy was it to gather all the band members, and who’s most excited to be back?
JM: When we found ourselves within reasonable geographical proximity to each other, Arraymusic offered us our first gig and a bunch of offers came in. We started gigging little clubs to build repertoire. After we had established the new repertoire, we realized that in order to progress any further on the group’s trajectory, we needed to have a cd. With the help of the Toronto Arts Council, an enthusiastic recording studio and an investment from the band, we created The Bee. It is a wonderful document of where we are as players, and we are thrilled to be sharing it with the world!
Like us, our audience is now much older and more widely dispersed. Recording and touring is how we will reach them.
I think we are all pretty chuffed about the project being mobile. It was a unanimous decision to reform.
SesayArts: Why is this a good time to release a new Polka Dogs’ album and tour Ontario, in your view? And what would you like new audiences and fans to know about the album?
JM: The album has some sharp edges. The sound is rooted in familiar genres yet unusual in its overall effect. Folk, jazz, pop, cabaret, cinema… They are all sounds we have heard yet never in this context. The musical styles draw the listener in with comfortable forms, then juxtapose them against surprising lyrics and song forms.
The songs are reflections on youth, poverty, despair, emptiness, death, faith, creativity, loneliness, gender, nostalgia, property and love. The musical forms cover art songs, bluegrass ballads, pop songs, troubadour, country, jazz ballad and pit-band underscoring. It is a perfect collection for mature listeners that draws on popular song forms of the last 150 years.
With the advent of the internet, the entire lineage of popular music that has shaped our listening habits is now available to the curious listener. The Polka Dogs’ repertoire refers to much of this, and many types of listeners will find The Bee both a challenging and satisfying listening experience.
Too egg heady? It’s Fun! It’s Sad! It’s Romantic! It’s Frightening!
SesayArts: I remember hearing your songs on the air when I worked at CIUT-FM, so the press release for your album and tour caught my eye right away. What is the most surprising comment you’ve heard about The Polka Dogs being back and touring?
JM: Good question.
People have said “Wow!” + “Yippee!” + “Really?” + “I’m so glad you are all still alive!” = generally a positive response.
SesayArts: I won’t ask you what you’ve been doing in the 25-year interim. I’m sure you’ll tell me that you haven’t got enough time. Instead, let me ask you this: what does 25 years away from your band made you think about?
JM: I think about all our personal journeys and how they have led us back to each other and this sound. There are so many memories from the late 80’s and early 90’s. Much of the negative stuff is gone, and we have all faced many of the demons we were up against. It is a joy to be playing music with these people!
SesayArts: The final word is yours. What would you like to add that I haven’t asked?
JM: Thank you for your thoughtful questions. It has been a pleasure collecting these responses.
News You Can Use
What: The Bee, the new album by The Polka Dogs: John Millard (banjo and vocals), Tom Walsh (trombone), Tiina Kiik (accordion), Colin Couch (tuba), Ambrose Pottie (drums)
When and Where:
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya