Stephane Major, Ted Johnson and Neil Stephenson were sitting at Major’s kitchen table inside his South Surrey home.
Joking about wives and the new Apple TV that Major was having installed, the middle-aged trio could have been relaxing after a moderately successful golf game. But they are a little more rock than that.
Major, Johnson and Stephenson make up three-quarters of The Retrogrades, a cover band that’s now turning toward original songwriting.
The band started three years ago, when Johnson (lead vocals), Stephenson (drums) and Brad Bauman (guitar) jammed together during a yearly education conference in Whistler.
Johnson is Delta School District’s director of learning services, equity and success; Stephenson the district’s director of learning services, curriculum instruction and assessment, and Bauman assistant district superintendent.
“We work together … and we all have high-stress jobs, so (it helps) to have that connection outside of work and to have that fun together,” Stephenson said.
Their first experience was “just for fun, just kind of sing-along stuff,” Stephenson said. “It went well.”
So well, in fact, that the trio decided they needed a bass player to round out their sound. Through a friend-of-a-friend, they found Major, a renovation contractor in South Surrey. Together, the four men formed The Retrogrades.
“We struggled with a name for a long time,” Stephenson said. “Stephane’s wife though came up with it. The ‘retro’ thing, because we’re old and playing old music, and the ‘grades’ just kind of fit.”
At first, the band played music they wanted to hear: Aerosmith and Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and Led Zeppelin.
“We were a little bit more rock when we start,” Major said, his Québécois accent peeking through his words. “Now we change a little bit, but the original was a little more on the rock side.”
“We’re trying to find that fine line of stuff people like and will dance to, but we can still look ourselves in the mirror,” Stephenson said. “We don’t want to be a wedding band, but we want to be a fun, danceable rock band.”
Rock is what they do best — sometimes in stereotypical fashion.
This past summer, the Retrogrades had the cops called on a backyard party they played in Sunshine Hills. Apparently there were 15 calls from neighbours, and they got shut down around 11:30 p.m.
“We were pretty proud of that though,” Johnson said, “getting shut down by the police.”
But mostly, their rock roots come through in the music they play and the songs they now write.
“We’re always pushing it,” Johnson said. “We’re pushing the limits a little bit sometimes — sometimes too much. Neil, he’s the pusher as far as new songs and new ways of doing things. And then…”
“I’m the choker guy,” Major said, finishing Johnson’s sentence.
“He’s not the choker, he’s our disciplinarian,” Johnson explained. “He’s way more disciplined. Instead of doing 90 songs, let’s do 60 songs really well.”
The originals are “the next level” for the band, who already have a solid repertoire of songs from more than 40 artists.
“I think when you start to get into the original side of things, it shows a creativity from district leadership,” Stephenson said.
“Because that’s what we want kids to do,” he continued. “We all have a passion for the kids that we work with, that they are finding ways to express themselves and finding healthy, fun, meaningful, purposeful hobbies in their lives.
“And I think that’s something we can model a little bit in our roles in the district.”
Right now, the band is in the process of writing and practicing a few original songs.
“I’m writing a kick-ass one right now,” Johnson said. “It’s just a wall of guitars … We might not be able to mimic it live exactly, but I look at Queens of the Stone Age and they’re just a big wall of sound.”
So far, the band hasn’t played any of their original tunes for the public. But they’ll be giving it a shot at The Delta Lion Pub on Feb. 23, when they put on a performance after the biennial District Day conference for the Delta School District.
“There’s no end goal here,” Johnson said. “My dreams … of being in an original [band] are somewhat still alive, but that’s only because I see people who aren’t as good as us. And I go, ‘Why can’t we be that?’
“As far as us going anywhere,” he continued, “the end game is just to continue to have fun. If the fun stops, then we stop.”