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December 8, 2006

Tight-knit Nylons never wear thin

Chronicle - Herald (Canada):

Here today, gone tomorrow: pop groups come and go. They are as impermanent as the weather, unless, like The Nylons, they know how to make old music sound fresh. One of the worldís best known and most honoured a capella vocal quartets, originators of a classic version of Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps Tonight (originally popularized by Pete Seeger and the Weavers), they have been active for 28 years. Of 13 recordings from The Nylons (1982) to Play On (2002), seven went gold, six platinum.

Tenor Claude Morrison is the only member left of the original four actors who got together in the back of a Toronto delicatessen in 1978 to sing a few tunes after their shows. Since then they have become an international byword for a capella singing. Over those years, Morrison has worked with 11 different singers. "Itís psychically exhausting to get a new member into the group," Morrison admitted over the phone between shows at the Winnipeg Casino on the weekend. But, he added, newest member, bass Tyron Gabriel, has been a quick study, learning all the tunes, the harmonies and the choreography in a few months after he joined in 2005.

Although record producers like David Foster and especially Adam Messenger over the years have helped arrange the close harmonies, jazzy riffs and percussive vocals which define the Nylons style, some tunes they arrange together. Itís a fairly straightforward process, Morrison said. It helps that Morrison, tenor Garth Mosbaugh, baritone Gavin Hope and Gabriel are all qualified musicians. The Nylons bring their A Wish For You Christmas show into Casino Nova Scotiaís Schooner Showroom on Saturday night at 8 p.m. They will sing a "mixed bag" of original, traditional, not-yet-recorded songs and novelties like the Chipmunk Song (Christmas Donít Be Late).

Keeping the music fresh is a preoccupation with Morrison. "The essence is still the vocal harmonies," he said. "We donít want to make the same record over and over. We donít consciously think of harmonies. We follow an organic process. We want to be really loose, within a very tight format. "Our attitude to the show is unstructured," Morrison said. "There is a plan, of course, but weíre not afraid to digress from it."

Lately they have come up with a new idea, which, considering the polished character of their arrangements, sounds risky: taking requests. "We ask the audience what they want to hear. Sometimes they will ask for a song we donít know. Somebody will start singing and we will see what we come up with. Itís flying without a net. We just fell into it ó but it works." Yet itís not that easy for anybody to come up with a song, certainly a pop song from í50s to the í90s, that the Nylons havenít heard of.

Just this year they released Sterling, a 25-year retrospective album of 23 tunes from all the way back to 1979, including previously unreleased tracks, rehearsal tracks and two new bonus tracks (Secret Part of Me and Eliís Coming). The CD is a model of how to retain a group identity through four decades of changes in pop music styles. Swinging, rocking, even rapping ó the sound is always instantly recognizable as The Nylons.

"Weíre not very conscious of stylistic changes," Morrison said. "Itís a jazzier era now, but essentially itís always going to sound like The Nylons. Like Blue Rodeo and Great Big Sea we have a distinctive sound." Keeping the show fresh is also a matter of technique. "We were all theatre people at the beginning. We employ the technique of the actor to keep it fresh ó we donít phone it in."

Fatigue, however, especially on the road, is a constant reminder to the singers of how dependent they are on their voices. "We never worry about the level of activity," he said. "But you have to make sure you get your rest. If you put too much strain on the voice youíre drawing not on the interest but on the principal." "And you have to drink a lot of water. Itís dry as heck here in Winnipeg," he added. Technically The Nylons know they can rely on their soundman and on their tried and tested Shure SM58 cordless microphones. As for fatigue, humour is a powerful antidote. Most of all, though, they just love to sing. And somebody is always singing, whether at sound check, or in the car, Morrison said.

Even as a kid, Morrison loved singing. His biggest influence was The Mamas & The Papas. He listened to the records, knew all the words to all the tunes, and sang Mama Cass Elliotís parts over and over again. Motown was another big influence. One of the first "wells" The Nylons went to was the Motown vault. The music of the í50s even influenced them ó with tongue firmly in cheek ó to name themselves after a fabric, like The Orlons, The Chiffons, The Argyles ó all pop vocal groups.

"I love the music, love singing, love doing shows," Morrison said. "Travel can wear you down, but when you hit the stage itís spontaneous. Sometimes it feels like we donít take anything seriously. We always have a good time."

Posted by acapnews at December 8, 2006 11:28 PM