An Impossibly In-Depth Interview With the Inbreds, Canada's Greatest Two-Man Band
In case it wasn't clear this is very in-depth.
“This is what happens when you interview bands from the ’90s,” Mike O’Neill says, expressing some of the frustration we felt trying to get this interview off the ground. It took us 15 minutes. Repeated attempts to figure out a three-way phone call with no luck, another fiasco trying to get O’Neill on Skype, and eventually, thankfully, Dave Ullrich set up a conference call that finally does the job. O’Neill and Ullrich are the two members of the Inbreds, the Kingston, Ontario indie rock duo that had an impressive six-year run between 1992 and 1998 before hanging up their bass guitar and drum kit for good. Kinda. O’Neill and Ullrich were a two-piece long before the White Stripes, the Black Keys, Beach House and Japandroids made it a normal band size a decade later. Back in the early 1990s though, the Inbreds were treated as both a curiosity and a mistake. Fans were attracted to their minimal setup, which was considered a novelty. But it didn’t take long to fall for O’Neill’s sharp pop hooks and inimitable distorted bass sound to build a sizeable global fan base. Still, those who were not convinced, never stopped reminding the band that they should add a guitarist or a proper singer (they did later sprinkle some songs with the odd horns, percussion or piano). They were the little band that could and did.
Despite their unique makeup, the Inbreds were also the archetype 1990s band. They believed in DIY, starting their own label Proboscis Funkstone or PF Records, to release their own music: three full-lengths, three early cassettes, one compilation and a few 7”s (including a split with Halifax’s Plumtree for their comic-inspiring song “Scott Pilgrim”). But they also signed that crucial major label deal, which in true indie rock clichés didn’t work out, and then ended up on Sloan’s Murderecords imprint – a rite of passage for many Canadian bands that decade. They earned a Juno nomination and repeatedly topped the Canadian college charts. And they toured everywhere, starting with countless provincial shows and eventually graduating to big tours with Rheostatics, the Tragically Hip and the Hip’s traveling festival, Another Roadside Attraction, Buffalo Tom and Teenage Fanclub. But the Inbreds just weren’t built to last.
The Inbreds broke up just as their biggest opportunity came knocking. During the summer of 1998, they joined Edgefest’s cross-Canada tour, headlined by Green Day and Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl became a fan and offered the Inbreds a spot opening up their next tour. They didn’t take it. Instead, they stuck to the plan and ended the band. O’Neill went on to launch a solo career under his own name, star on Trailer Park Boys and most recently formed Tuns, a Can-indie supergroup with Chris Murphy (Sloan) and Matt Murphy (Super Friendz, Flashing Lights). Ullrich also did the solo thing as Egger and in 2004 launched Zunior, one of the longest-running, online independent digital music retailers. In August, Toronto imprint Label Obscura will reissue the three Inbreds albums on vinyl—1994’s Kombinator and for the first time ever, 1996’s It’s Sydney or the Bush and 1998’s Winning Hearts. Although they are not reuniting, O’Neill and Ullrich will perform one show in Toronto on September 29 as an album re-release party.
Noisey: Everyone calls the Inbreds a Kingston band, but you guys started in Oshawa, correct?
Mike O’Neill: We met when we were 15-years-old in geography class.
Dave Ullrich: Geography or science at O’Neill High School in Oshawa, Ontario.
O’Neill: So right away we started playing music together. It’s not a huge deal or anything, but some people think that we’re not being honest about where we’re from because we didn’t say we were from Oshawa. That’s simply not the case. In my mind, we played together as musicians in Oshawa, but if we’d formed a band that had the kind of life the Inbreds had in Kingston, ON we’d say we were from Oshawa, but instead Dave went to school at Queens University and I followed him. Dave had formed bands and started up a label, and then I started playing with him there. That is where the Inbreds started. It was all of the encouragement we had and all of the venues to play that really got us off the ground. I think being in Kingston was inspiring in every way. Therefore we kind of are from Kingston. We aren’t ashamed of Oshawa or anything like that. We were born there, but we formed the band in Kingston. But you didn’t even ask that question…
Ullrich: We used to jam at my house in Oshawa every Sunday for all of high school. We had a couple of other friends that were part of it too. It was because that I went off to school first, and Mike joined—
O’Neill: I was repeating grade 13 or OAC [laughs]. I had two kicks at OAC! But Dave was very good at school, and was already doing well in his first year. He would send me postcards saying, “Oh man, it’s great here! We’ll play music here, it’s a great place!” He had this plan where I was going to come and play in a band with him. That’s what I recall. Which I was very excited about and ended up doing.
You two won a battle of the bands. Is that how the Inbreds took off?
O’Neill: Yeah, but we would have been the Inbreds even without the battle of the bands. Dave and I were determined to play music, and the battle of the bands is just a funny story that happened on the side. And what’s funny about it is we won an electric guitar.
That is funny. Was it ever used?
O’Neill: Well, I used a guitar to write progressions, and then I would turn them into whatever you want to call the bass playing that I do. But if you want to make a story as a band, it’s a funny twist: “Oh look, they won a guitar!”
Ullrich: One connection that came out of that show would be Jake Gold. He was this dude in Kingston managing the Tragically Hip, who were doing really well. He was one of the judges, and I think somewhere down the line that connection led to some of the things that happened to us later on.
O’Neill: I didn’t remember that.
Jake Gold was a judge on Canadian Idol, right?
Ullrich: He was. I’m not sure I’ve ever talked to him about it, but I remember when things were going well with Kombinator, we got a phone call from their management company asking if we wanted to do a few shows in the States with the Tragically Hip.
O’Neill: Yeah, that was a big deal.
Ullrich: It was almost like a trial run. We did a few shows in these border towns in the U.S. and what came out of that was a good relationship leading to Another Roadside Attraction and all sorts of other things with those guys over the years. They’re all great.
As a duo, you guys were ahead of the time. Did a lot of people ask you when you’d add a guitarist?
O’Neill: Oh yeah, yeah. But more discouraging things than that, like, “You know what you guys need? You need a singer.” And that sucked! I hated hearing that. I would say that I wasn’t easy to get along with back then, and part of the reason why we ended up as a duo was because I don’t think I played well with other people at the time. And people also said, “Yeah man, I got your tape. It’s great to practice guitar over.” I do think that it forced minimalism on the whole thing, which is probably what I really needed. It didn’t take long before I had a lot of other things I wanted to overdub, but in the very beginning, it was so minimal! There was so much space. That was cool. I just don’t think we realized that we were so different at the time. In our minds, we had less stuff to make as much noise as anybody else.
I think being a drums and bass duo definitely helped spread the word about the Inbreds. I remember thinking, “There’s only two of them?” Like you said, the band was unique.
Ullrich: I want to add that it did put a lot of pressure on Mike, particularly live. When it was at its best you would have these shows were all of that fresh energy was being channeled live. There was a lot of room for originality in there. And that has been proven out by a lot of different duos over the last ten years.
O’Neill: On the flipside of that is the insecurity that the thing that makes you different or special is a gimmick and you don’t have the songs. I think I definitely had a chip on my shoulder. The songs were good, we just happened to be making them with a bass and drums. Whereas someone could’ve said, “Oh, you got a break because you have this weird approach.” I kind of think it really was a lightning strike. Dave was always a drummer, a great drummer. He was playing the drums since he was a kid. But I always thought I would be a rhythm guitarist, not write any songs and do a bit of backup singing. And then suddenly, I was the front person, so that did put a lot of pressure on me. It just wasn’t at all what I had in mind when I imagined playing music. But then suddenly one of Dave’s greatest talents is being super organized, keeping things moving and following through on them. So as soon as that band started rolling, there was always something new to do, and we just didn’t stop making music. When I look at these three albums being re-released, the time span is from 1994 to 1997. It was like one album a year. That is not the pace I work at anymore. It just amazes me how much we got done but it doesn’t surprise me because we were disciplined and there were a lot of things flying at us too. Sorry, I went off subject a little there.
Let’s talk about this bidding war you were involved in. There was Sub Pop and TAG, which was an Atlantic affiliate label. What do you remember from that time?
Ullrich: Mike and I put out Kombinator by ourselves. When we played shows we would put our money in a tin can, use that money to pay for studio time, play more shows, put money in the can, buy CDs, put the CDs out… We put them out across Canada, pressed and paid for them ourselves, and it went to #1. We could have just stopped right there. When I look back at it I think that could have been the high point right there. We didn’t realize that was sort of the first wind. As soon as it happened, it opened up this legitimate attention from all over the place. One of them was this person at Sub Pop who would just sit there and look at the Canadian college charts with Eric’s Trip and Hardship Post on it. And they could just pick off a name, order a CD from us—I still have the cheque that says “$10 from Sub Pop.” So they’re talking about us, and other people are sleuthing when they hear Sub Pop has contacted this band called the Inbreds. And the next thing you know the contacts at Sub Pop and TAG are calling us, and they’re both aware of it. So they fly up to see these shows in London, Ontario or the East Coast of Canada. It was so unexpected that it would happen that way.
O’Neill: Can I add some details to that? And this is a really beautiful thing. As I recall, I think that we were doing a tour with the Rheostatics, and we played in Saskatoon, but I think it may have been our own show. Not many people were there. But we made the effort and Dave would always have us show up early so we could go in and do an interview at the university station, which would help us chart. It was about building these relationships with radio stations. I think it was such a smart move. But what happened was, there was this guy in Saskatoon, I think his name was Arnie, and in the early days of the Internet, he wrote a top ten list. Joyce Linehan was surfing the Internet—and this was probably when you could surf to the end of the Internet—and she found this guy’s top ten list and bought up every record on it. She would buy up every top ten list she could find. There probably weren’t many at that time. But we were on this guy’s list and she ordered it from us. So she sent us $10, and that was because Dave loved Fugazi.
On the back of the Dischord records it would say “postage paid $10.” So Sub Pop sent us this cheque, and we lost our minds because it was Sub Pop. [Sub Pop co-founder] Jonathan Poneman got all of these CDs of band he wanted to sign. And what he would do is he’d throw a party where he invited his friends—which included a bunch of A&R people—and he’d play the music and say, “These are all the bands I want to sign.” Now that’s a pretty generous thing to do, because you’d think a label would want to keep that stuff a secret. But that’s not his style, for whatever reason. And at one of those parties, this woman Lisa Gottheil was there, and she wrote down some of the band names and took it to her boss at TAG/Atlantic. I guess what I’m trying to tell you is, it’s this combination of playing shows that you think don’t count, and putting in that extra attention to making shows like that happen. I kind of feel like it’s all worth it. Like, I know there’s South By Southwest, but a million bands go down there and they all have dreams of getting signed, but the reality is when you least expect it, and you’re on the road when you probably shouldn’t be driving, and you play one show in Saskatoon and some kid puts it on his top ten list, it starts this thing. I think that is really neat.
After Kombinator you signed to Murderecords, which seemed like a logical fit for the band.
O’Neill: Well, I want to correct you on that. We were in a situation where we had started to record It’s Sydney or the Bush. TAG had sort of folded as a company, and they had all of these creditors coming after them. We were still owed the budget of finishing our record with TAG. But now we couldn’t get to that budget, so we used the money we had from selling them the rights to Kombinator. And it was going to pay our rent until like 2019 or something. What ended up happening was we paid off the money we owed for making It’s Sydney or the Bush, and around that time our manager Chip Sutherland, who also managed Sloan, suggested we put it out through Murderecords. As you said, it may seem logical but it felt a bit like a failure for us because ever since we moved to Halifax we sort of felt as though we weren’t on the same level as Sloan, according to their fans. But we felt we were their peers, and then suddenly we were this Sloan-influenced band, which was never the case. So to end up on their label kind of felt like we were submitting ourselves to failure because Dave was running his own label, PF Records, which was always our version of Murderecords. It’s just we didn’t have any other bands on it. So that didn’t feel good either.
Ullrich: Yeah. We had our own label and we took it to a logical point, and then the Sub Pop-TAG then happened and it was over, poof! And then the question was do we put it out again on our own? We now lived in Halifax, and so much of the early label success was related to Kingston and its people. We could have put it out on our own label but it didn’t make that much sense. Going with Murder was great because there was an instant connection with some bands we’d already toured with, like Super Friendz. But Mike’s right. That instant Sloan connection didn’t really exist before.
I’ve heard that [Tragically Hip’s] Gord Downie was a bit of a cheerleader for the Inbreds. You did Another Roadside Attraction. Did that mean much coming from Kingston, where the Hip were gods?
Ullrich: The way I remember it was they were playing the hockey rink in town, and the day of the show we got wind from Dave Bookman that it was Gord’s birthday and we put together a brown paper bag with an Inbreds T-shirt and CD, which we gave to Change of Heart. So they got it into the dressing room and gave it to Gord. That night, we ended up doing our song “Prince” with Change of Heart on stage, because they asked us to. I think Gord was watching from the side of the stage. And then the next night they played Toronto and I remember Gord wore the Inbreds shirt for the entire show, and there were photos of him in the paper. He really is a nice guy. His heart is in the right place, as far as Kingston. A mutual friend said he came into Sam the Record Man and bought a copy of Hilario.
O’Neill: They were a huge rock band playing huge venues, but I always find their music is interesting. It’s so promising. They don’t suck. It helps you dream about things. They’re a band that will take you on tour, but they set the bar high for hospitality. I don’t wanna say we ever assumed it would happen, but we would often go to pay our hotel bill, and the clerk would say, “It’s been taken care of.” I remember one time they got champagne for us. The way they rolled it out for some band traveling in a car with them. It was extraordinary. I’ll never forget that. Gord for me is a renaissance man. He writes poetry. He has a weird band on the side. And then he brings a certain weirdness to his own band. He is a true artist. I definitely admire those guys.
So the Inbreds toured with the Hip, but you turned down an offer from Dave Grohl to tour with Foo Fighters? What is the story there?
O’Neill: Dave, if you let me take this opportunity to explain and also apologize. What had happened was in my mind, It’s Sydney or the Bush was not a great experience to anyone. Even though I think the album is very good, it felt like a comedown. We had this period where we didn’t know what to do next. So we made this Winning Hearts record and I was getting married, and also confined by the bass and drums thing. So I felt that it wasn’t as fun or interesting anymore, and we talked about it and realized we had both had enough. But as I recall, we just sort of had one of those fluky, amazing moments doing this EdgeFest tour and found out that Dave Grohl had seen our video on MuchMusic and was saying going things about us, and he was coming and watching us play. And when we played it was really early in the day. We were one of the first bands on, so he was making an effort to come and see us play, and that made us feel really good. So on our last show in Toronto, Dave walked right up to us and said, “I would like you guys to play some shows with us.” And instead of being a team player and saying to Dave Grohl, “Let us discuss it.” I just sort of said, “No, this is our second the last show and then we’re quitting. We’re not playing anymore.” And I just pulled the plug on everything right then and there. I regret that. In my mind it was over, and I didn’t want anything to stop it. I was so used to the idea, and maybe it was a bit of a power trip. So I do feel bad about that. But that’s kind of what happened.
Ullrich: I sure did enjoy having lunch with him that one day, though. I remember he invited us to have lunch, and it was Mike and I, along with Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins, and they’re both having high-end macaroni and cheese. And there were all of these other Canadian bands on the tour who weren’t particularly cool, looking over at us thinking, “Why are those guys sitting with Dave Grohl?”
O’Neill: Oh yeah, there was a lot of that feeling. I mean, Dave Grohl was a very, very big deal even then at that time. It was exciting to have him interested in the band. It was pretty validating. And I feel like we didn’t have that kind of validation in a while. It was the best. And we had the same thing happen with Matthew Sweet. He really liked our music when we played Another Roadside Attraction with him too. And that meant a lot.
You have played some shows since you broke up.
O’Neill: Three or four, I think.
Ullrich: I think it might have been four. Lee’s Palace, seven years after we broke up. We did Lawyna Vawnya in Newfoundland. We did Halifax Pop Explosion. And we did Canadian Music Week.
O’Neill: And Skeleton Park in Kingston.
Ullrich: There you go, we did five. Jeez man, we’ve got to update the gig list.
O’Neill: B.A. Johnston says, “One show is a reunion. Three shows and you’re reformed.”
Let’s talk about the reissues. Where did the idea come from?
Ullrich: Other people have asked before that didn’t sound particularly appealing, but Tim Lidster [Label Obscura] asked in a heartfelt, long-form email. He answered all of the questions correctly. He clearly knows what he’s doing and what the bigger picture is when it comes to putting out vinyl. Basically, it seemed like his heart was in it. So Mike and I chatted about it and it totally made sense. If you’re gonna do something you might as well do it as right as possible, like doing this interview with you, having new liner notes done, proper mastering, all of those kinds of details make a difference. Hopefully, the result is a nice little memento.
O’Neill: They’ll be reissuing the last three records. I kind of think that Hilario has great songs, but I kind of feel like we didn’t get it together until Kombinator and on. So I’m glad it’s just these three records.
Did you know that original copies of Kombinator go for hundreds on sites like Discogs, Musicstack, and eBay?O’Neill: Really? No.
Ullrich: Quick backstory on that vinyl. When we were with TAG there was some kind of short run, and it was great. It was even more obscure back then to do vinyl. But there was a certain amount that we got, literally 50 to 70 copies, which we sold from the stage. And then TAG put them out, but I don’t know if they ever got into stores. I just recall this story about five or ten years after the fact, somebody I know was walking in New York City and some vendor selling street junk had copies of Kombinator on vinyl for a dollar each. It’s funny because I bet most of them are in a landfill now. I don’t know where they are. I think I have two copies of it. O’Neill: I used to have one, and then I don’t know what happened to it. And every once in a while I ask Dave if he has an extra one, he gives one to me, and then I lose it again. I’m terrible at holding onto things.
Cam Lindsay is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.