Woody Whelan is the owner of Mag Wheel Records, one of Canada’s best known and most prolific small independent labels. Mag Wheel, which is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, and which recently put out its 35th release, is often defined as being a Montreal label, but that is an only partially accurate description. Whelan, who lived there for eight years, and who now works as a freelance music promoter, moved to Toronto two years ago. Mag Wheel was also initially formed in Boston when Whelan and his then partner, Dave Sweetapple, released in January 1993 ‘Take This Ride’, a 7” solo single by Ken Chambers, the frontman with local melodic punk outfit, Moving Targets.

“Dave and I were both into labels like Sub Pop and Amphetamine Reptile” reflects Whelan, talking to Pennyblackmusic. “We both occasionally bought Muscle Car‘ Magazines and toyed with calling the label Hemi, but just about at that time we were putting our first release out we found out there was actually a band called Hemi. We were thinking about what to call the label and then one day one of us said “Why not just call it Mag Wheel ?” and it stuck. We just thought it was a cool name, not that the label has anything to do with monster cars or anything like that.”

For Mag Wheel’s second release In April 1993, Whelan and Sweetapple, who both come originally from Newfoundland, released 'Spaceshot', a 7” single by another Boston punk outfit, Smackmelon. They then followed this in June ‘93 with ‘Sugarcane’, a third 7” by Hardship Post, a Newfoundland group, who would go on in 1995 to release an album, ‘Somebody Spoke’, on Sub Pop .

Whelan, who was still living in Newfoundland, moved to Boston in June 1993, hoping that he and Sweetapple could develop the label further, but, running into immigration problems, was forced to return to Canada in December of that year. With much of their initial impetus having been lost as a result, the pair agreed to amicably dissolve the partnership. Sweetapple would go on to form another label, Wabana, while Whelan, who had set up base in Montreal, and who had started to work for the local large independent label Cargo Music, decided to soldier on with Mag Wheel alone.

“The town I grew up in in Newfoundland was really small” he recalls. “But luckily we had CBC Canada, which is the equivalent of BBC national radio, and they have this really great show called ‘Brave New Waves’. You get to hear a lot of good music on that. That was where I first heard bands like the Nils, Genetic Control, the Asexuals and Deja Voodoo, and first became interested in the Montreal music scene. Montreal for me and for the people that I hung around with then was for a time in the early and mid eighties like the Mecca for the world.”

Over the course of the next few years, Whelan would release both 7” singles and CD albums on Mag Wheel by groups from across Canada and the United States such as sHEAVY (Newfoundland) ; Resin Scraper and Punchbuggy (both Ottawa) ; Spoon (Austin, Texas) ; Juno (Illinois) : Haywood (New York) ; New Sweet Breath (Seattle) and Stuntman (Idaho).

As he became increasingly involved in the Montreal scene, he began also to release recordings on a regular basis by bands from the local community including Mr Coffeenerves , Fearless Freep, Sackville and Tricky Woo.

Mag Wheel’s biggest success to date came in 1997 when Whelan put out ‘Green Fields in Daylight’, a 28 track retrospective by the Montreal pop-punk group, the Nils. Whelan five years on still gets regular e-mails about ‘Green Fields in Daylight’ and the album was recently given a British release after being licensed to the Bedfordshire-based label, Boss Tuneage.

The Nils was formed by 12 year old Alex Soria (vocals and guitars) with his older brother Carlos (guitars) in 1978, and, combining together in their sound jagged punk chords with breezy, breakneck-played power pop melodies, they were a seminal influence on both Husker Du and the Replacements.

Always popular in their native Canada, they, however, never quite got the breaks of the other two acts. After releasing various singles, EPs and compilation tracks on a variety of largely local labels, they signed a deal with Rock Hotel, a large-sized independent New York label, in 1986. A self-titled debut album, which came out in 1987, was, however, poorly produced, and lacked the passion and fire of the Nils’ earlier work. The Soria brothers had also both become addicted to heroin, and when Rock Hotel went bust in 1988, the group folded. The brothers would make various half-hearted attempts at reforming the band, but, although they recorded new material, they never released anything else and finally broke up permanently in 1994.

Whelan first became involved with the Nils when he met Alex Soria, the group’s principal songwriter, at a party shortly after his arrival from Boston. In 1995, he put out on Mag Wheel his first Nils release, a limited to 330 copies re-release of an early record, the four song ‘Paisley’ EP, all of which has been left without covers in a box in the Sorias’ family home. He then began work on ‘Green Fields in Daylight’ in the Autumn of 1996. ‘ Green Fields in Daylight’ is the definitive Nils release, featuring all the band’s singles, EPs and compilation tracks, and also various radio and live recordings.

“ When I did the Nils thing, I couldn’t believe that noone had wanted to do something similar” says Whelan. “There were a lot of labels that could have approached Alex and done the same thing, but noone did, because they were scared of the reputation of the Nils and of the consequences. People from other labels and groups kept telling me “Don’t deal with that band. You’re going to get burned. They’re just a bunch of drug addicts.” I heard nothing but bad things. I found working with them fine though. I never really had a problem.”

“When that record came out” Whelan adds “A lot of those same people and more came up to me and shook my hand and hugged me and said “Thank you ! It means a lot to have this record here in my house, to hear it all again and to be able to relive my past.” There was just a complete turn around. Of all the records that I have done, it is the one that still means the most to me.”

Carlos Soria has continued unfortunately to battle against drug addiction, but Whelan has carried on promoting the Nils’ cause, releasing again in 1997 a Nils tribute album ‘Scratches and Needles’, which featured largely bands from the Montreal scene. He has also helped to revitalise the career of the now cleaned-up Alex Soria, and in 1999, again to much acclaim, put out ‘Mala Leche’, a six track mini album by Alex’s then band Chino. That album, which is sung part in the Sorias’ native Spanish, and which adds a mandolin and organ to a mix of energetic Nils style guitars, was also recently released in Britain after being licensed again to Boss Tuneage.

“When I first heard the Nils,those songs just blew me away.” he says, explaining the lasting appeal to him of Alex Soria’s music and the reason for his continued involvement with it. “I became a fan of a lot of those bands that I used to hear on ‘Brave New Waves’ such as the Moving Targets and the Replacements and Husker Du and Soul Asylum, but for me the Nils were always ahead of the rest. I believe that two of the best songwriters in the world are Paul Westerberg, and Alex Soria. It’s just too bad that circumstances didn’t result in Alex putting out as many records as the Replacements or Paul Westerberg.”

Perhaps inevitably, because of its association with the Nils and Chino, Mag Wheel is often described as being a punk label. This is an image, however, which Whelan, who says that he has to simply “like a band and to believe in a band” to want to release a record by them, is quick to disassociate Mag Wheel from.

“People have sometimes tagged Mag Wheel as a punk label” he reflects.’And I have had a couple of artists like Sackville (Montreal alt country group-Ed) worried about being on Mag Wheel because they thought that it was a punk label.There are labels out there which will stick to just one sound, but if you look at my two biggest influences at the time I started putting out 45s’, Sub Pop and Amphetamine Reptile, those labels never really stuck to a certain style. They would always put out odds and ends of different things in term of garage rock, or country, or anything else. I have never really been been into definitions , and would like to think that Mag Wheel is doing something similar.”

“I like punk, but I like garage rock as well and stuff like Tricky Woo. I like a lot of alternative country. Mag Wheel did a split 7” single with Sackville and the Handsome Family a few years ago. It did a metal 7” thing with sHEAVY too, who sounded like Black Sabbath and were friends of mine from Newfoundland, and which sold well.”

“I hate to use the word alternative, but, if I had to say that Mag Wheel was any particular style, I guess that I would say that it is a good alternative rock label.”

Whelan intends to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Mag Wheel by putting out a string of new releases. First up, there will be releases by two emo groups, the Firebird Band (Chicago) and Rydell (Margate, England) . Both bands are also signed to the San Diego label, Headhunter, and Whelan first became aware of them as a result of his friendship with Gubby Szvoboda, a former Cargo Music employee, and now the Head of Promotion there. The Firebird Band release will be an eight song album, while the Rydell recording, Magwheel’s first release by a British band, will be a split seven song mini album with Elemae, a band from New Jersey.

As well as that, as a testament to his years in Montreal, Whelan will also be releasing towards the end of the year a Montreal bands compilation, ‘Space Age Air Raid’. He sees ‘Space Age Air Raid’ as a natural successor to ‘Primitive Air Raid’, a vinyl only released influential Montreal bands compendium from 1984, which featured one of the first ever recordings of the Nils, and tracks from which used to be played regularly on the ‘Brave New Waves’ show when Whelan was growing up.

“ I came up with the idea years and years ago in my head” he enthuses. “I was originally going to try to release it as as a parody of ‘Primitive Air Raid’ and as a double 7”, but I have now decided to do it on CD. For me it’s sort of snapshot of what Montreal has meant to me and what it has meant to Mag Wheel, and there is going to be a lot of good bands on there. Chino do a great track. It’s kind of a retrospective of Montreal from 1995 to 2000.”

Chino unfortunately broke up in November of last year, but Alex Soria has written several new songs and Whelan, once Alex has decided where he is going next with his career, hopes to release these, whether it as a solo album , or as a Chino record in a new line-up, or in a reformed Nils.

Finally Whelan also hopes to release eventually a second Nils retrospective, ‘Green Fields in Twilight’, which will feature both the Soria brothers’ lost recordings from 1989 to 1994 and an alternate recording of one of their early EPs from 1985 'Sell Out Young', and which he will again supplement with radio and live recordings.

“I’m just so glad that I was able to bring those records out” Whelan says, in conclusion when asked if he can believe how far Mag Wheel has gone in the last ten years. “I’m very happy I got to work with all those bands such as Spoon, Juno and Stuntman. I’m ecstatic I got to work with Chino and the Nils. Whenever I get a little down with life, I just pull out certain Mag Wheel releases. Even just looking at that Nils record, and thinking that I actually got it, and that hopefully it has made a difference and that people will check it out, makes me happy. I have to pinch myself sometimes when I look at some of the bands that I have been able to work with.”

With a catalogue as strong and as extensive as Mag Wheel’s , noone could possibly blame him for that.

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