by Sheldon Birnie
“A funny thing has happened on the way to the stage,” says Winnipeg’s JohNNy SiZZle as we chat in the Stylus office (“It’s not as glamorous as I imagined it,” says SiZZle). “They could still see that I’m very influenced by underground hardcore punk, but I think that underground hardcore punk has seeped so much into the mainstream culture, that it’s not like ten or 20 years ago where I had to make a full explanation of myself, of what I’m doing with an acoustic guitar. They can clearly get it, that ‘Oh, acoustic guitar playing heavy hardcore punk. I get it.’”
This newfound understanding of SiZZle’s “outsider music,” is certainly welcome, but SiZZle himself is still puzzled by it, as he prepares to release Home Sweet Home, his first album in over eight years with the help of the No Label Collective.
SiZZle has been an infamous figure in Winnipeg’s underground music scene for over 20 years. Inspired by punk and hardcore music of the late 1980s, SiZZle, who performs his brand of acoustic punk solo, first attempted to put a band together in 1991.
“I realized then and there after about three of them that I don’t have the personality traits to keep a band together,” SiZZle admits. Choosing instead to play aggressive, hardcore music on a nylon string classical guitar, SiZZle got his start performing open stages at the Blue Note Cafe on Main Street in Winnipeg in 1992. “Even though I’m acoustic, I still didn’t want to be a folk singer. I still want to play punk and hardcore…I sometimes feel like a bluesman. I just don’t know how to play guitar.”
Since then, SiZZle has spent time in New York and Vancouver, has battled addiction, lived on the streets, been diagnosed with schizophrenic psychosis and Asperger’s syndrome. In the end, he’s always found music to be a positive and therapeutic release.
“I’ve been doing this for plus 20 years now,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I haven’t gotten anywhere, really. Sometimes I feel like that people easily forget me just as much as I easily forget my own songs.”
Indeed, SiZZle has written hundreds of songs over the years, many of which have (luckily) been captured on CD, as JohNNy will readily admit that he has forgotten many of his earlier works.
“People who follow my music, I guess they slowly realize that if they really like the song that I did some years ago, it’s quite possible that if they ask for it again, four or five years later, that I’ve completely forgotten. I’m not being an asshole for not playing it. I’ve completely forgotten about it, because I’m not thinking about it anymore.”
“12 years ago I was playing shows where I would play an hour and a half, two hours a night,” explains SiZZle. “I don’t think I remember any of those songs.”
At that time, SiZZle was living in Vancouver, playing shows at punk bars like the Cobalt and making a name for himself in the city’s underground community. It was at that time that SiZZle began to suspect that he was not entirely well.
“I always got a sense from close friends that something wasn’t quite right,” he admits. “I was showing erratic signs in Vancouver, so I wasn’t really enjoying myself.”
When his mother became ill, he decided to return to Winnipeg to spend more time with her. At the same time, he was diagnosed with “severe mental illness” and began treatment. However, it was at this point that SiZZle began losing interest in music.
“I tried to have at least one gig a year,” says SiZZle. “It’d be very hard for me to get that one show a year. I don’t know really why…”
After working a series of jobs, including janitor, hotel keeper, SiZZle saved up some money and bought an open ended ticket on the Greyhound.
“I went on what I would like to call a search for America.”
On that search, he made an inspiring visit to the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
“I went late in the day, they were about to close in about 30 minutes,” he explains. “I went down this one hallway in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and at the end of this hallway was a quote from Jimi Hendrix. It said, like, right up on the wall it said something to the effect of ‘The songs are in your head. They’re only in your head. It’s up to you to put them out. No one else will put them out for you. It’s all on you.’ At that point, it was like right, the museum was just closing at that point when I got out of the museum and I sat on the grass in the little park that they have outside of the Hall of Fame, I thought that I’ve got to get together all the songs that I have written, or that I can remember, and put out a CD.”
Fast forward a few years, and now SiZZle is performing regularly again, and set to release his first collection of material in over eight years.
“It’s going to be really strange,” muses SiZZle. “Putting this CD out. I think people still, some people still remember me, but at the same time there’s a lot of who have never heard of me before, too. It will be odd. It’ll be kind of like saying, ‘Hi, how are you again? Hi, I’ve never met you before!’”
At over 40 years of age and a veteran of the underground, JohNNy SiZZle is still a punk rocker at heart.
“I have one song called ‘Dale Hawerchuk Drunk in a Strip Bar,’” says SiZZle. “[And another] song called ‘Kick Cindy Klassen in the Face’ … I’m trying to make a classic Canadian punk song. Do I mean harm to Cindy Klassen? No, no I don’t. I think she’s fine just the way she is!”
“I’m quite a bit of a tree shaker still,” he explains with a mischievous smile. “I’m still trying to shake peoples’ apples out of their tree.”
Check out JohNNy SiZZle’s CD release party at the Rose N Bee Pub on Saturday October 6 to get your hands on a copy of Home Sweet Home. SiZZle is also host of the all-night radio variety show, Winnipeg Arena’s On Fire, on CKUW 95.9FM Mondays from Midnight until 6am.