Good news for Martha and The Muffins fans: the Toronto-based duo of Martha Johnson and Mark Gane is planning to release an album of new music in 2022.
But their forthcoming compilation, “Marthology — In And Outtakes,” out Nov. 5, isn’t it.
“Basically, it’s early stuff, demos, ultimate versions of songs and things that were of limited release,” says Gane. “So, it’s a compendium of stuff that people probably haven’t heard or maybe a limited number in some cases were heard.”
And the reason they’re releasing it now is to serve as an appetizer for next year’s main course.
“We’re working on the new material and it’s half done,” explains Johnson. “It’s taken longer than we thought it would, so our manager suggested that we put this album out as a stock-up measure to hopefully reach fans and new listeners.”
“Marthology — In And Outtakes” offers 13 tracks of demos, alternate versions and further extrapolations of the band’s first and biggest hit, “Echo Beach.”
The opening track, “On A Silent Summer Evening,” includes a familiar incorporated “Echo Beach” guitar riff in its melodic arrangement, but there’s also a more relaxed version of the 40-year-old hit that took the world by storm and made Martha and The Muffins the “it” band for part of the early ’80s.
Gane says “On A Silent Summer Evening” came about a result of a German fan who started a dub label in honour of “Echo Beach.”
“His name is Nic Beverungen and he’s been a fan for years,” Gane clarifies. “He has what I can only describe as an obsession with that song and he approached us at that time — he wanted to do a tribute album based solely on ‘Echo Beach’ with remix and dub versions …We said, ‘oh, that’s cool’ and we thought we should contribute something ourselves.
“So, we took the lyrics of ‘Echo Beach’ and removed all the references to the title, boiled down the lyrics and reconfigured them. We got this ‘dubby’ version … It seemed like a fitting start to this compilation.”
The more leisurely version of “Echo Beach,” meanwhile, was inspired by Tim Van Der Kill’s 2005 take on the song. “It was a really slowed down, dreamy, echoey-kind of song of times gone by. We really liked it and we took that approach,” says Johnson, who with Gane had assembled a band for a rare gig at the Music Gallery and entered the studio with that configuration to capture the moment.
Although Martha and The Muffins released eight studio albums commencing with a pair in 1980 — “Metro Music” and “Trance and Dance” — and also scored more hits like “Women Around The World at Work,” “Swimming” and “Black Stations/White Stations,” it’s “Echo Beach” that made the biggest impact, hitting Top 10 not only here, but in Australia and the U.K.
“In a way, it was a curse to have that song be so big,” Gane admits. “We’ve done several albums since and a lot of that songwriting, from my point of view, is more interesting, although I don’t diminish ‘Echo Beach’ at all. We never became rich but we also never had to get day jobs … Would I do it again? Here we are in the older parts of our lives and we’re still doing it and we’re still doing what we like to do and we’re pretty much doing it on our own terms. And we have a very loyal fan base that likes what we do.
“But it would have been great if more people had heard what we’d done. It pegged us.”
Johnson says she also has no regrets, thought the band’s career is studded with business disappointments that at one point caused the duo to walk away from the business.
“It’s been a very interesting life, a very interesting path,” says Johnson. “There was always some division in the early bands whether to go commercial or go completely weird and we’ve struck a midway point that was interesting creatively, if not putting us in the Top 10.
“We found our audience and I’ve enjoyed my ride through this. Now, at this stage in my life, it’s nice to still be creative and still feel that I have something to say, and that people are still listening to some degree.”
The band also formed a relationship with Grammy-winning producer Daniel Lanois on 1981’s “This Is the Ice Age,” after his sister Jocelyne joined the band on bass.
“That was a real groundbreaker for us, for sure,” says Gane. “She actually introduced us to Dan and his brother Bob and she said, ‘they have a studio in Hamilton.’ We went, oh, OK.’
“We thought it was a little room, you know?” Martha interjects. “It was Grant Avenue — a great studio.”
One artist that Gane and Johnson frequently ran into there was a now-big name who was just beginning to explore ambient music.
“When we were working on ‘Ice Age,’ either Bob or Dan came into the studio and said, ‘There’s this guy coming in named Brian Eno and we’re a bit worried that the cheque is going to bounce,’” Gane recalls. Because they didn’t know who he was.”
“Mark was a huge fan,” said Martha.
“My jaw dropped and I said, ‘you mean, Brian Eno from Roxy Music and all these weird pop albums? He’s coming to Hamilton?’” Gane explains.
“They didn’t come out of that background and they formed what would obviously become a fantastic relationship … But we reassured them that the cheque was going to be OK.” If it had indeed bounced, “our credibility would have gone out the window.”
The Martha and the Muffins story began, in a way, 45 years ago this weekend. The band, which included Carl Finkle on bass and Mark’s brother Tim on drums, was hired to play an Ontario College of Art Halloween dance.
“That was the earliest configuration,” Gane recalls. “David Millar, the guy who asked me to start a band, was still in the band.”
Johnson recalls that she and Gane “were terrified — and not because it was Halloween.” Their first gig included Beatles and Chris Spedding covers, as well as a few Millar originals.
“We were all fledgling songwriters at that point, “ Johnson says. “We weren’t serious at all. I don’t think any of us thought it would last more than a few months. It was just fun to do at that point. Some people play chess, we put a band together.”
Gane also said that to put things in perspective, that was the mood of the Queen St. West creative scene in the late ’70s, early ’80s. “There were all sorts of bands being formed and broken up and reformed around OCA and there was a whole Thornhill contingent that had moved downtown. As Martha says, we probably all thought it was going to last a couple years.”
When Martha and The Muffins got signed to Virgin and before they relocated to England to record “Metro Music” with producer Mike Howett, Johnson says she was still contemplating her future.
“Mark helped me get a job at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) and I remember having to make a decision whether to further my career there or stay with the band and make our first record. I think I made the right choice.”
After 1986’s “The World Is A Ball” — one of three albums the duo released as M+M — the longer releases became more infrequent. Johnson gave birth to their daughter and in 1993, she released an album of children’s songs called “Songs From The Tree House” which won a Juno Award. Gane focused on scoring music for film and TV and designing gardens.
Gane also said that radio airplay royalties also kept them going “for the most part.”
“We didn’t get rich from it, but it kept us going most of the time. There was a period before the internet took off where it was getting a bit dodgy financially and basically the internet saved us, as we were one of the first Canadian bands to have a website.
“It put the fan/band control in our hands.”
In terms of the new material, Johnson says it will be “more experimental, more out there.”
Some of that reasoning has to do with Johnson suffering from Parkinson’s disease, which prevents her from performing in front of an audience.
“The last time I performed, it was a real struggle and I didn’t feel I was up for it,” says Johnson. “I wouldn’t perform at a level that I think would be acceptable. Whenever the stress level goes up, my symptoms get much worse and it affects my singing.
“But I’m still very creative and doing a lot of writing and collaborating with other people.”
Gane says Johnson is still “experimenting with new vocal approaches … We have our home studio, not super elaborate, but we’ve done TV shows on it. You work within your limitations, so we have various workarounds we’ve developed when we’re doing her vocals because her drugs give her an up-and-down cycle so we have to be mindful when she’s up. We try different vocal techniques.”
Johnson says that on an unreleased song called “I’m Not Myself,” she uses the technique of trying to sound like Louis Armstrong.
“I’m doing textural things rather than try to hit the notes. My style is more adaptive.”