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Interview: John Westhaver (Birdman Sound, The Band Whose Name Is A Symbol)

Brett Savage, John and dave Cambridge in Birdman Sound 2018

As I am evolving in my writings and diving deeper in the world of psychedelic rock and instrumental jammery, I could not ignore a powerful force emanating from Canada’s capitol city of Ottawa. It is where John Westhaver keeps is world renowned Birdman Sound record store, and where his improvisational jam unit The Band Whose Name Is A Symbol is based for years now. I needed to know more about this psychedelic institute and its stories. Their gigs with legendary CAN vocalist Damo Suzuki for instance, and a lot more. Please take your time, and dive into this piece of living psych history with me….

How are you? Can you introduce yourself and you multiple endeavors?

All good here in Canada, just getting used to winter setting upon us once again!  My name is John Westhaver and an old alias “Johnnie Feck” pops up once in awhile. Since the late 1970’s I’ve been selling records in 4 different establishments including Birdman Sound since 1991as a physical shop.  I was a radio show host at 3 different community radio stations starting in 1980 and spent 35 years at CKCU-FM here in Ottawa as programmer of numerous shows as well as a paid position as music director and program director in the late 80’s.  I have booked and promoted 100’s of shows over the past 40 years and been in 7 working bands with a vast catalog of releases.  Currently the drummer in The Band Whose Name Is A Symbol and running Birdman Sound III.

2018 session recording “Ensemble III” session with Brett savage (Daed Sea Apes) and Dave Cambridge (Cardinal fuzz) both on guitar.

What can you tell me about your musical background?

I guess some of that got covered within the first question.  I would add, that my late mother and an older cousin really nurtured my interest in music in the late 1960’s and I was off to the races then with records and an utter obsession regarding music. I sung in an all male boys choir as a pre-teen and had my first drum set up around the same time.

What does a regular day in your life look like? What role does music play?

Well for 29 years I ran Birdman Sound out of a location in the downtown core of Ottawa (Canada’s Capitol). I’ve always lived in the country outside the city so did a round trip 72 km. drive,  6 days a week.  Rehearsing with bands, putting on shows, and doing radio all happened within the city, so at the end of everyday it was a journey to get home.  Of course during each day it was non-stop music in the shop and then whatever was going down on whatever evening…lots of music!

What do people often forget when they think about owning a record store?

That it’s not as simple or fruitful often as some think it must be.  The reality is that the majority of people that come into a shop, often don’t have a clue about much other than the very obvious.  Most humans don’t have the propensity for being very “deep” about most things actually.  Lack of exposure, lack of solid historical influences as a youngster and lack of thirst of knowledge are pretty standard.  Curiosity is integral to learning and sadly people get stuck early in life it seems.  We live in a society where it’s much easier to fall into line and become spoon fed.  Not sure how anyone thinks that that’s a good thing?  There are days in a shop where you have little to no sales as you have little to no customers.  That happens and it’s total shit.

Cool shot at an album release show in 2015

Where do you live and how does it affect your musical doings?

As I said since the late 80s I’ve lived in the countryside in two different places. Nature has been abundant in both.  My wife and I are into dogs, cats, gardening and cooking.  All that rural goodness keeps me grounded. In whatever band I’ve played in or whatever music related thing I’ve ever had on, at the end of it all I could get out the agro and knew that solitude and recovery was gonna happen at the end of the day once returning to the crib!

Tell me about your band The Band Whose Name Is A Symbol, when did you start it, who’s in it, what has been your aim and how are you doing at the moment?

TBWNIS was born 15 years ago by myself and Mark McIntyre after we both came off a 5 year stint as a power trio called Four ‘N’ Giv’r.  We gigged a bunch, sharing the stage with Lost Sounds, Bellrays, Dirtbombs, Plastic Crimewave Sound, King Khan & The Shrines, Simply Saucer and loads more.  Released 2 albums and folded.  Mark and I wanted to do a heavier more improve oriented jam psych kinda’ thing and TBWNIS was born.  We got our longtime friends from othere groups to join; Bill Guerrero on guitar and Nathaniel Hurlow also on guitar.  We operated as a 4 piece for a couple of years before adding Jason Vaughan and Dave Reford into the operation.  Over the next few years we continued to add members and play gigs and self release many LPs.  We became more of a collective.  Some band members left the regular thing but would return on occasion to record or even play the odd live show.  All of our music is born out of improvisation.  Some of that became “pieces” that lent themselves to be repeated but just because you heard “Sour Kraut” on our record never meant that it would sound the same when played live, or, would be the same live the next time.  Sometimes it was 7 minutes long, sometimes it was 15 minutes long. That’s how we rolled. A few times we played live with up to 9 members.   The pandemic coupled with me closing the downtown record shop (where tbwnis rehearsed) changed a lot for us.  The current group consists of myself, Bill, Nathaniel, Jason and Dave as mentioned earlier.  Scott Thompson has been with us for the past 5-6 years now, so we are a 6 piece currently.   We have played 5 LIVE shows since covid recorded and released a few albums of course and don’t have a rehearsal space at all.  All our live sets have been fully improvised.  At this very moment this is how we are working.

Can you tell me about your fondest memories with the band?

There are many actually as we always have so much fun!  I’d have to say a show in a very small venue back in 2017 when myself and Christopher Laramee (Shooting Guns/Wasted Cathedral) paid for a plane ticket to fly Dave Cambridge of Cardinal Fuzz over for the weekend !  The show was on a Sunday evening and The Band Whose Name Is A Symbol and Shooting Guns, blew the roof off the sucka’ with The Cardinal in the house!  Amazing!  Also LOVED the next summer 2018 when both Dave Cambridge and Brett Savage (Dead Sea Apes) flew over for Ottawa Psychfest I and we made a record together, fully improvised, called “Ensemble III”.

2014 with Damo Suzuki at House Of Targ

What can you tell me about your time with Damo Suzuki?

We did 3 performances with Damo between March 23rd , 2012 and May 25th, 2014.  We prepared ourselves for the honor of backing him on the first outing by rehearsing based on what might happen to throw at him.  We met up at the club and hung out for a few hours until soundcheck, chatting and so forth.  He was very quiet in general and despite me asking him politely a few historically accurate questions regarding his career, Damo clearly was in the here and now and didn’t really want to talk about history!  Fine by me.  We hit the stage to a packed house, he started and we jammed, throwing out all we were prepared for.  The whole thing; near 3 hours, was recorded luckily live to cassette and myself and Bill edited it into fitting on a single LP and we released it the next year.

Damo’s second trip was like seeing an old friend and he was genuinely happy to be playing with us again!  We hung out for awhile in Birdman Sound, shooting the shit and he was quite interested in looking at my records.  I showed him a huge stack of CAN , solo LPs and related records, he seemed impressed and I got him to sign my Tago Mago LP and one of his solo records.  He was staying with JasonVaughan;  our synth man,  about 100 yards from the gig space Pressed Café,  so was very convenient.  Jason took him shopping for blue jeans after the Birdman visit and they showed up for soundcheck with Damo offering us all shots of whiskey he had purchased earlier in the day.  We played a wicked set that night which sadly was only captured piece meal on video in two separate segments by a friend who happened to be working on a piece for an online mag about TBWNIS. This show was extremely self fulfilling and Damo said he LOVED it as well, which was a huge high for us!!!  The 3rd show was at a much bigger venue in 2014 at House Of Targ and was also a ripping and very “heavy” show to a large appreciative crowd.  A friend captured most of the audio and video on a hand held.  Again Damo was in great spirits and had a great time. That show may be found on our bandcamp site and remains only in the online digital world.   In 2020 there was a plan to do a 4th show here with him as we were asked to be the band but of course everything got fucked by the pandemic !  TBWNIS LOVE Damo and CAN and they are a definite influence regarding what we do!

What is your take on making improvisational music? What is the ultimate jam?

I’ve played in loads of structured bands and enjoy the aspect of that.  In BELD, Exploding Meet and TBWNIS it was or is all based on improvisation, it’s just a load more fun.  The creativity that happens can often be just “WOW”!  When that happens, there is nothing better, I love spontaneity!   The ultimate jam is when clearly the whole group involved, are feeling happy and high and feeding off one another.  Whether or not in front of a crowd or by themselves and they everyone is in the zone,  then that’s the jam, hands down.

Who are your favorite current other artists and record labels at the moment?

Current Artists : Acid Mothers Temple, Circle, Sula Bassana (everything), Dead Sea Apes, Carlton Melton, Sendelica, Oresund Space Collective…

Labels: Cardinal Fuzz, El Paraiso, Sulatron, Feeding Tube, International Anthem Recording Company, Bad Afro, Adansonia, Clostridium, Weird Beard, Rocket Recordings, Blue Fog, Noiseagonymayhem, Bam Balam, Long Hair…

What is your top 5 of psychedelic records of all time?

United States of America – S/T

Fifty Foot Hose – Cauldron

Christmas – Heritage

Hawkwind – Space Ritual

Miles Davis – Dark Magus

What should the Weirdo Shrine reader do after reading this interview?

Eat pizza or cheeseburgers & fries, drink beer and listen to RECORDS !

2018, opening for Yawning Man

Check out John’s musical outlets here:


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