From the Streets of Toronto: Richard Underhill of the Shuffle Demons

Since their surprising Top 40 hit “Spadina Bus” in 1986, the Shuffle Demons have thrilled audiences all over the world with their quirky and original style - musically and otherwise. The Demons are a Juno nominated act and winners of five CASBY Awards; they've played jazz, folk, world and rock festivals across North America and Europe during 15 tours between 1986 and 1997. This is a group that has thousands of gigs under its belt, and it shows.

The Shuffle Demons’ sound is a funky fusion of hard bop, jazz and rap bolstered with exotic costumes and improvised performances. It’s a high-energy high-wire act that uses over-the-top stage antics to capture the imagination of its audience. The Demons began as humble street performers in downtown Toronto, but nearly 30 years in the business has secured the act’s a-list legacy.

I spoke with founder and saxophonist Richard Underhill prior to the Shuffle Demons' anticipated performance on June 20.

TDJ: You started out as a Toronto street performer - how has this origin influenced your music?

Underhill: Well the Shuffle Demons came about as a street band. I was playing on the streets to put myself through University and then my roommate Mike Murley decided to accompany me one day. We made some money and we thought that was great so he got his best friend and a drummer to come out and basically the Shuffle Demons were born. For the first couple years of the band’s life we were performing on the street; we went to Europe and performed for three months on the streets there. What the street really did was allow us to try and capture the imagination of whoever it was walking by and get them to be interested in the music. It gave a real vibrancy to the music and it really gave us an appreciation for putting on a show not just playing some songs. I think that’s really been maintained throughout our career and its part of what makes us a little bit different.

TDJ: What was it like performing in ’84 at Yonge and Bloor?

Underhill: It was pretty fun, I mean it certainly wasn’t as developed as it is now but it was a gas. I remember one spring, you know that first day of spring when everyone kind of went wild, tonnes of people dancing and a couple street guys performing…two cute girls were dancing and they kind of pretended like they were going to take off their clothes, but instead they took off the clothes of the guy, it was just a gas. It was just this really fun thing that happened out there. An anything goes kind of vibe is something that we strive to do in our performances. We do a part of the show when we [play] ‘Spadina Bus’ where we do a walk through the crowd, and that’s where we try to create that anything goes thing where we stand on the base of telephone poles or on benches or chairs or whatever, just really get in there with the folks and bring the music to them.

TDJ: Do you think the dynamic of street performing has changed since then?

Underhill: I’m inspired actually by what’s happened. I think we use to see the one person out there with a guitar, and maybe a singer, it’s really got more exciting in the street performing world and I think that’s good because it’s always been a big part of Europe and it’s taken a while for it to get to Canada and to become more dynamic.

TDJ: As the band evolved and introduced shuffle rapture to new audiences, how was it met at first?

Underhill: I do remember one thing at the University of Kitchener-Waterloo. The music students hired us to come and play because it was really exciting for a lot of music students who were maybe playing music that wasn’t that exciting, to see these guys in crazy clothes just going for it, and rapping and playing crazy saxophone, it was really inspiring for those people. I just remember it was the first time I heard people cheering and booing all at the same time. It took a moment for people to kind of get what we were doing but because of the outlandish stage performances we always tended to win people over.

TDJ: So I have to ask, what inspires the band’s exotic wardrobe?

Underhill: When we were in Europe in 1985 we were busking in Paris in a really great artistic spot and this guy from Gambia came by and said he knew tailors. He said “hey, you guys need some clothes come with me.” So we went to the tailor shop and had an incredibly hot African meal and he fitted us in the sort of traditional African clothes which is something really cool and different for us that gave us a totally different look from anyone out there. It was kind of also inspired by Sun Ra. He was a musician who covered all kinds of different styles of music from swing on up to free jazz but always with real flare and costumes and performance art. But this guy, Jimmy his name was, really kind of put us on a track towards more of a crazy performance arts thing.

TDJ: You talked a little bit about ‘Spadina Bus’ - how did the band react to its sudden rise in popularity with this massive MuchMusic hit?

Underhill: Yeah it was cool because MuchMusic was in its infancy so they were looking for Canadian talent and we actually had been busking on the street and people from CityTV got a shot of us for their City TV Everywhere spots. So we went in to try and get the tape because we thought we could use that for promo and they just said hey we love you guys, you know in our spare time we could help you make this video, so they were really instrumental. The team in their off hours really helped us get it out there and I guess because it was something that was kind of done by folks in house, it really got played a lot. It was amazing - I remember doing a tour back in 1986 and all of a sudden crowds started getting bigger and people started coming out and we started to be really successful. We were a little bit shocked by it. It ramped up the work level a lot but it was fun to ride while it was happening.

TDJ: The band broke up for a bit in ’97 and got back together in 2004 right? What encouraged you to get back together?

Underhill: Yeah well we toured and toured and toured and we sort of stayed at the same level. I mean it was fantastic because we got to see Europe. We did about 15 tours of Europe because I had been living in England for a while so I used that as a home base to kind of explore the possibilities for performing in Europe. We did tonnes of festivals and it was great but we started to burn out a little bit and because we weren’t really making any more [music] it was just kind of like oh we’re going to go drive around Europe again for another month and you know it’s going to be fun but are we really going anywhere. People started peeling off and doing their own things and I respected that so we just kind of put it to bed. But I thought for the 20th anniversary we really had to do something and it was also kind of right for festivals so we booked a really great festival tour and we did this thing where we broke the world record for the most saxophone players playing a song which was really, really fun. We played the "Hockey Night in Canada" theme at Yonge-Dundas Square and got 900 sax players out - that really kick started our career again. We kind of saw it as a class publicity stunt. But it turned out to be this really fantastic day… It was a really cool way to kick start the tour and just to kind of let people know that we were back, we weren’t fooling around, and bring it up a notch.

TDJ: What was it like producing a new album after 17 years? [‘Clusterfunk’ in 2012]

Underhill: We put a lot of pressure on ourselves because we wanted it to be good. That’s kind of where the pressure was because we didn’t want to put out something we weren't proud of. So we had a lot of talks back and forth in the band, should we go this way, should we go that way and it took us weeks to figure out even the order of things and all that stuff but we all brought in a bunch of new tunes that we wrote and I think those tunes were quite strong that we put on there. You know after all that work we ended up being really happy with the results so it’s good - hard work actually does pay off.

TDJ: Listening to some of your solo stuff and then some by the Shuffle Demons and I found them quite different - how do you manage to stay so versatile?

Underhill: As a working musician in Toronto and in Canada, you end up playing with a lot of different people and that really is what I find inspiring. The Shuffle Demons are a thing and I wanted my own work to be a little different. My stuff’s a little more mainstream you might say than Shuffle Demons, but it's funky and it still allows me to explore some interesting tonalities and try to make songs that are really catchy but also push the boundaries a little bit. I think the overall form, or the overall artistic vision is similar but the way that I go about it is a little bit different - a little bit more suitable for playing on the radio. I just feel really lucky to have a career in music in Canada - it’s not an easy thing.

TDJ: What can audiences expect from you on June 20 when you perform?

Underhill: Well we’re going to do a bunch of new songs from that album ‘Clusterfunk,’ - time to do a new one I guess but we’re still enjoying playing those! We’ll do some of our usual antics, we’ll be walking through the crowd and creating a stir, kicking the corners and having some fun. Just generally good time music but some really great playing - I mean I'm so lucky that I get to play with Kelly Jefferson, fantastic sax player, Perry White, another fantastic sax player, Stich Wynston, amazing drummer and on this show Mark Rogers on bass (for George Koller). It’ll be a great time.

Interview has been condensed & edited.

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