Jon Epworth admits he’s a dink onstage. When drumming and singing for The Dean Malenkos, he performs in an eensy-weensy pair of yellow shorts topped with a biker jacket—beer gut hanging low, white skin catching the light at disarming angles. Egged on by Malenkos bandmates Shane Kerr and Craig Hamlin, he habitually heckles the audience from behind his drum stool perch, calling out jeers in affected voices and enacting impromptu skits that usually result in him losing his clothes until, eventually, the entire show dissolves into a three-ring circus.
While this antagonistic approach works in Halifax bars filled with close friends, Epworth may want to rethink the live show for his concurrent solo project, a decidedly more sombre affair than the frenetically melodic and technically astute punk rock offered up by the Malenkos. Plus, the solo project requires him to take leave of his drum set for a guitar and microphone at centre stage, making him more physically susceptible to peeved-off audience members. (He’s still not fully clothed—the little shorts stay intact but get covered with a silk smoking jacket a la Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick.)
During a recent Ontario tour in promotion of his newest solo CD, mm/dd/yy, his attitude nearly cost him a fat lip. “I’m coming to the realization that I just like being a dickhead onstage,” says Epworth, who earned his stage confidence through years of performing with the New Brunswick theatre group, Live Bait. “And I guess I was doing that in Ottawa and someone wanted to beat me up. Half the crowd got up and left. This girl came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I think you guys are really good and you’re good musicians and you’re a good singer. But your personality is really bad and you’re never going to go anywhere because of it.’” “And I said, ‘Well, I’m on tour and you’re not, so whatever.’”
It could be argued that 27-year-old Epworth is a touch hotheaded. He’s cocky and confident too. But the case could also be made that without his highly energetic personality, including his shameless self-promotion—he gives demos to almost everyone he meets—he’d probably be just another dude slugging out creaky demos on his computer and twiddling his thumbs, instead of a staple of the local music scene and a respected musician and recording engineer releasing CDs on labels in California and Toronto.
Since moving to Halifax from Sackville, NB, four years ago, Epworth’s been working his arse off—particularly on his album covers, which often feature his posterior up close and personal. The cover of the Dean Malenkos’ 2002 release, Arse Capades, features Epworth wearing only a maple-leaf embossed g-string and a blue construction hat. Released by San Francisco record label Aggravated Music after Epworth sent them a copy of the band’s previous EP, Seven Minute Abs, the label was enticed by that album’s cover alone—a shirtless and sweaty Epworth crunching sit-ups while smoking a cigarette.
“The boys have decided that it’s their mission to put me on the cover with less and less clothing for each Malenkos album,” says Epworth about Kerr and Hamlin, making one fearful about the artwork on the band’s next CD, in preparatory stages now. “It wasn’t my idea. Originally they wanted to have a picture of me jumping over a hill in a meadow with no clothes on but just a sprig of a leaf, a maple leaf, covering up my genitalia. But at least I got to wear some underwear and a hat. And I just happened to have a mullet at the time.” But it’s Epworth’s musical prowess and unflinching work ethic that have also helped him earn a name for himself within North American punk and hard rock circles, though that name changes according to the project. He uses his birth name when working solo but is more commonly known as Jonny Horseface, or just plain old Horseface. “It’s because of my teeth,” he explains, blaming an old bandmate, Chris McFadden, for the christening. “They are big and awful, kind of like Johnny Rotten’s except with balls.”
After a quick listen to mm/dd/yy, which Epworth describes as “almost adult contemporary,” one can’t help but wonder if his teeth are to blame for invoking the spirit of another toothy rocker—Freddie Mercury. Epworth has a knack for creating layers of complicated vocal harmonies, stacked atop each other in a curious pyramid of sound. Like the bridge in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Oh cool. You’re the first person to say that. I’m a big harmony freak,” says Epworth, who played almost every instrument on the CD, which he recorded at TKO’s skate park and in Kerr’s bedroom over several months. Born into a musical family, he remembers listening to his mother and her sister singing together when he was a kid. “I always had harmonies thrown in my face all the time. It wasn’t long before I became really addicted to that.”
Whether folks know him as Epworth the Punk Rock Drummer with the Great Voice or Epworth the Constant Ham or Epworth the Meticulous Sound Engineer who would Love Nothing More than to Follow in the Footsteps of Daniel Lanois, he’s definitely creating a reputation as one of Halifax’s most innovative talents. And it’s bubbling beyond the scene he’s such a part of—one he calls the Halifax Rock Contingent, made up of bands like The Heelwalkers, Blackout ’77, Dead Red, The McFaddens, The Dirtboys and Contrived. In fact, people have been quick to use the g-word. Joel Plaskett’s a fan and decidedly outside of the hard rock scene. Upon hearing the album, Plaskett says he was “blown away by the ambitiousness of the arrangements and the calibre of musicianship. He’s a great singer and really cool songwriter. Like Stevie Wonder meets Slint meets Queen.” Plaskett was hanging out at Charles Austin and Kevin Lewis’s recording studio, Ultramagnetic, when he first heard the album and says, “At one point, I think the word ‘genius’ was tossed around.”
Though his voice and harmonic arrangements will immediately entice, other aspects of Epworth’s punk-free effort are not so easily digestible. As a disciple in the school of XTC and King Crimson, he leans towards obtuse prog-rock key changes and sometimes sounds like a singer who just discovered the endless fun that can be had with a reverb dial. And his subject matter is overly earnest—even though he claims he wrote most of the lyrics “on the can at work.” In “A Smiling Outstretched Hand” and “Irrefutable Workforce,” he tackles yuppie lifestyle and the grind of working nine-to-five. In “Lord Please Help,” he sings about boys taking guns to school and little girls losing their virginity. Though not immediately catchy, the CD gets better with time.
Ryan Mills runs Antiantenna Records and decided to release mm/dd/yy after hearing one of Epworth’s early solo efforts, The Effing Scoundrel. Like Scoundrel, he initially didn’t like it. “I remember the first song was fantastic. It hit me right away as being something that I could understand,” writes Mills from his Toronto office. “But, every song after that was just weird. I didn’t get it. I was pretty disappointed to be honest—I’m not sure if I ever told Jon this...It just took a few listens to really understand where Jon was going with some of the songs. He’s a genius songwriter, but not nearly obvious enough to write true pop songs most of the time. He hides his genius behind really odd ideas. Like an Easter egg hunt in an old folks home.”
So was mm/dd/yy—which features stellar photo and design work by local art student Paul Hammond of Epworth (at last) fully clothed in a suit and tie—an attempt to circumvent his image as a fun-loving buffoon? Not according to Epworth. “I still act like a total goof onstage. The songs lose a little bit of their serious edge and gain something funnier in the translation.” Take his recent show in Woodstock, ON, where he was backed by drummer Loel Campbell (Contrived, Wintersleep) and Kerr on bass.
“It was for no money and we opened up for the karaoke man in this little Irish pub. It was all mullets and missing teeth and sweatsuits and chains. We were setting up our instruments in a little corner of the bar and we hear ‘Get off the stage. Let the karaoke guy go on.’ I played one song and people were kind of like ‘Yeah, whatever.’ And I don’t know what I was thinking but—and this is another example of me starting to realize that I just want to be a dink onstage—I said, ‘I heard there was a lot of good-looking women in Woodstock but I guess I was wrong.’ And then from that point on, they loved me. They cheered me on and loved all the songs. It turned into one of those special shows.” —Carla Gillis