(By David ‘Sunshine’ LaMay, Staff Writer, RiffRelevant.com)
It only took me about 27 years, but I finally discovered the manic musical genius that is Forbidden Dimension. Nobody combines punk, metal, surf, 60’s garage, and much more like this trio.
How I managed to miss them is beyond me, but I did. Well, kinda. You see, founder Tommy Bagley (aka Jackson Phibes) also happens to be one cool-ass illustrator. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he provided art for more than a few indie releases sitting on my shelf.
So now that I have the full picture, and know Mr. Bagley is a man of many facets, I thought it high-time to pick the wildly imaginative brain of this most righteous cat. Off we go…
Dave/Riff Relevant: This is such a wicked opportunity you’ve given me; thank you for taking the time for a bit of (grave) digging!
Dave/Riff Relevant: Through our previous chats, it’s clear that you acknowledge Forbidden Dimension as an underground entity. As old and predictable as my asking may be, how about giving up the history of Forbidden Dimension for the folks about there?
Tommy: So, FD started up in 1988, originally as a horrorock-oriented side project. At the time (throughout my college years), I was in a band called Color Me Psycho, which we had started in 1985. We were kinda 60s garage rock with other weird influences (Damned, Stranglers, Alice Cooper, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Neil Diamond, KISS, BÖC… etc.). The other guys in CMP had been in the Sturgeons and Riot .303, which were both early days Calgary punk bands.
I had bought the Sturgeons 45 back when I was 15 (1980), so it was a blast being in a band with these guys who were my older brother’s age. I was the youngster of the group. I’d bring in my tunes and everybody would kind of have their way with them, so it was a very mutant strain of 60s punk, with definite other elements rearing their ugly heads. Pretty much the same model as the music in Forbidden Dimension, although the FD tunes were stripped down to a simpler form when I started it. Stuff just always seems to morph back into the more baroque CMP template!
Anyway, Color Me Psycho had attained a bit of local notoriety, played out-of-town a few times, released a few cassettes etc., but it started to feel like everybody was ready to move on to different projects during that last year. I was into the idea of doing an artsy fartsy, yet straight-ahead, hard-charging solo project with a drum machine and two fuzz guitars.
I was really into the sound of the French band Metal Urbain, but kinda mashing it up with EC horror/50s sci-fi stuff lyrically ala Misfits/Cramps, and adding distorted effects to the singing, like the psychedelic sci-fi art punk band Chrome. I made a tape, and the guy who was Color Me Psycho’s manager wanted to release it as a 7″ on his own label, along with the final CMP offering, which would be our farewell LP.
I came up with “Forbidden Dimension” for a name, mashing up the old sci-fi radio show Dimension X with Forbidden Planet. Later I also saw the term in the Lovecraft story “Horror at Red Hook” (I think?). I’ve always thought the name was kinda long and cumbersome, but I just stuck with it for some reason. Brand recognition!
After CMP split in the fall of ’88, I started up FD as a three-piece power-trio thing, so we could do proper live shows. I’ve kept it going now for almost 30 years, various friends coming and going as the rhythm section. The current drummer, P.T. Bonham, has been in the line-up now since 2006, but he’d been involved at various times dating back to the beginning.
Also, he was in Color Me Psycho (under a different name) with me, as well as other various projects, so I’ve been playing with him since 1985! We’re like an old married couple, and now his wife, Virginia Dentata, is in the line-up, so the whole band is like two overlapping married couples.
A way more detailed version of the whole history of the band (signed to Cargo Records throughout the ’90s for three albums, a mess of singles and compilation appearances, breaking up in ’98, re-starting as a solo project and back to a full lineup ca. 2005, etc.) is included in last year’s ‘Every Twisted Tree Watches As You Pass‘ compilation on Sounds Escaping.
Dave/Riff Relevant: You just put your seventh and latest record ‘It’s A Morbid, Morbid, Morbid World!’ out a mere four months back. I think it’s your most aggressive record to date, and still, as always, quite eclectic. Would you share some details on it – Recording process, mindset, thoughts on the completed release, etc.?
Tommy: OK! Personally, I don’t think it’s quite as aggressive sounding as ‘Golden Age of Lasers’ (2011), which had a really abrasive drum sound and super loud, compressed vocals, but it was really fun to make. We tried to get a way more live-off-the-floor sound with the recording guy, Lorrie Matheson. We were originally going to release it as a vinyl thing, but the cost was stupid and it’s really cheap and easy to make CDs these days without having to go into debt, so we went that route.
I wanted to have lots of artwork by all the band and my family members throughout the packaging, so I think it turned out pretty much exactly the way I had in mind. Most of the songs were written specifically for the project, although a couple of the numbers have riffs that existed in the embryonic state, dating back to the ‘Cool Sound Outta Hell’/’Lasers‘ era (7-10 years ago), but they all came together in a nice finished state when we needed them. It pays to take the time!
The big difference this time was having Virginia Dentata being really dedicated to playing cool bass riffs, which adds a great layer of heaviness and bit of complexity to everything, even the slower more spooky intro stuff like “Werewolf Bongo Party“. I had been playing for a couple of years ca. 2010-12 in a semi-acoustic dark-folk band called the Agnostic-Phibes Rhythm & Blood Conspiracy (Campfire Tales 2011). The other guitarist, Bob Keelaghan, is a master. I learned a lot of interesting things from him, so stuff like the weird gypsy scales on a song like “Blood-Drained Peasants” is a direct result of playing with that band.
Also, my late dad’s jazz albums continue to influence me with sort of jazzy solos ala Mancini (which also goes back to Cool Sound Outta Hell). A local writer once said we sounded like garage rock with baroque heavy metal bits, and I think that’s been continued as well on the current recording.
Dave/Riff Relevant: I can’t be sure, but it seems like over a three decade run, FD has seen its share of varying lineups. Tell us about that and your most current co-conspirators, as they seem to be pretty interesting characters in their own right.
Tommy: P.T. Bonham, as I’ve mentioned, is a long-time collaborator. Having him in the band (and bassist H.P. Lovesauce, over the previous couple of albums) keeps me from being too horror-nerdy with the approach, as he’s a funny guy and we kinda both feed off each other’s droll shit. Keeps the stuff fun.
Bassist Virginia Dentata actually used to go out with one of the old Cargo-era bass players, so she has been a two-time band wife! When it came time to change out the lineup, she was already on the premises and stepped in without a hitch. She’s got more formal musical education than anybody else, so she actually sat down and tabbed out all the bass lines for about 60 numbers. We were ready to go really quickly after she joined. She’s got a droll sense of humour as well, so it just keeps getting funnier and funnier. Before FD, she’d been in Calgary bands like Pussy Monster and the Ex-Boyfriends, dating back to the early 90s.
Speaking of the 90s, throughout the Cargo era, the main drummer was a guy named Carl Pagan, but he bailed for personal reasons when the Cargo label shut down and the prospect of more albums seemed mighty slim. We kinda had a revolving door of bass players throughout that whole period, most of whom were slumming guitar players (including Bloody Holly on Widow’s Walk, also known as Graham Evans who was the bass player for Huevos Rancheros). Virginia’s first instrument is bass, so she seems super happy twanging on the four strings. Plus she’s gruesome and terrifying.
Dave/Riff Relevant: As a lifelong horror / sci-fi fan myself, it’s pretty obvious you share the same unbridled admiration for the genre(s), especially the older films. Pick your five or so most beloved films from these categories, and maybe a line or two about why exactly they are so important to you.
Tommy: The big ones for me as a little kid were Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and King Kong. Both had extensive coverage in Famous Monsters of Filmland, which I would try to get every month, and both were on TV quite a bit. I loved seeing Lugosi, Chaney and Glenn Strange (my mom’s favourite Frankenstein – she used to go see all the 40s monster movies at the kiddie matinees).
I especially loved the animation at the beginning of A&C Meet Frankenstein. I used to try and draw the Wolfman with more of an upright wolf look (which they didn’t really do in movies until The Howling!). I remember seeing and loving Bride and Son of Frankenstein, as well, around the same time. I knew Karloff was godlike compared to Strange, but they were all excellent in my slim book. All that stuff had a timeless fairy tale feel to it. I still watch King Kong at Christmas every year for some reason.
Another treasure trove of movies I was interested in at the time and knew I would love (although most of which I wouldn’t see for another 20 years) was the entertainment section in the Toronto Star (and then the Calgary Herald after we moved back here). I’d cut out ads for gruesome stuff like Deranged, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, The Blood Splattered Bride, Paul Naschy werewolf movies, Jean Rollin sexy vampire flicks. All the good stuff!
I remember seeing a poster outside a theatre in Toronto’s Younge Street area for Horror on Snape Island, which had a lady’s severed head rolling down the stairs of a creepy lighthouse, leaving a trail of blood. That image stayed with me for ages.
Years later, when my pals and I were going into Grade 9, we were all into Heavy Metal magazine, and that’s around when Alien came out, so that was a big one for me. It had the designs by Giger and Moebius (as well as Ron Cobb, who I knew from Famous Monsters), so it was an age-defining classic.
Shortly thereafter, Fangoria mag started up and I discovered classic junk horror through its pages, stuff like T.V. Mikels and H.G. Lewis. Also, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre book talked about some cool old movies I’d never seen, like Night of the Hunter. I discovered a ton of that old cultish / classic stuff right around then (many through the old Dr. Cyclops column in Fango): Curse of the Demon, Carnival of Souls, Spider Baby, Witchcraft Through the Ages, Mad Monster Party, etc.
The 80s Encyclopedia of Horror Movies by Phil Hardy (who also did the old 70s Encyclopedia of Rock books, that my dad had bought for me in Grade 6!) was an eye-opener. Through its pages, I got into Coffin Joe and the Baby Cart / Shogun Assassin movies. So much great cult-iness!
Dave/Riff Relevant: Let’s segue from your music portion of offerings to the other mainstay of your creative endeavors, Illustrations. While you have authored every cover of FD’s catalog, your renderings have been used all over by varying resources. I dig what you do so much. I’d love to know (as would our readers) about how you started, the influences, and just who / what has taken your visualized wild style to help pull in interest.
Tommy: I started off when I was probably about 3 or 4, drawing dinosaurs, spacemen, knights, Indians (wasn’t into cowboys as much), the usual little kid stuff. I figured out how to draw Frankenstein around then (actually from the Munsters – there’s an episode where Herman is missing and they get a police artist to draw him from Lilly’s description, and it’s a self-portrait by Fred Gwynne!).
Around the time I discovered Famous Monsters, my brother was buying Mad and I realized Jack Davis drew for Mad AND he drew that cool six-foot Frankenstein poster. Also, I was interested in his work in Tales From The Crypt, which they advertised in back of FM. That stuff just seemed so much cooler than the Grimm’s Ghost Stories and Dark Shadows comics.
Some of the weird artists in the DC books of the day (House of Mystery, etc.) seemed really cool, as well. Shortly thereafter, I got into the black and white horror comics of the 70s (from Warren, Skywald, even the Marvel monster books). When Star Wars hit, a lot of those mags got really lame (or had gone out of business), but you could still get collections of Gahan Wilson cartoons, which were the craziest of all. Major influence.
Around that time, my mom bought me a book called Terror! edited by Peter Haining, that was a history of horror pulp illustration. Through it, I discovered moldy-oldie people like Margaret Brundage, Virgil Finlay, Matt Fox and Lee Brown Coye (my favourite). Then came the aforementioned Heavy Metal magazine with Moebius, Druillet, Voss, Corben (who I knew from the Warren books), all that good stuff.
Right around that time I was starting to get interested in playing rock n roll, so some of that French comic art was as big an influence as KISS and punk on my musical direction. Also, you could go downtown to head shops and still get 60s / early 70s underground comix like Checkered Demon, Zap, Vaughn Bode, Skull and Slow Death.
I went to art school in the 80s and learned a few basic things about reproduction of artwork and some design stuff, but most of my knowledge of illustration was still coming from looking at things like old paperback covers by guys like Richard powers and old animation design (UPA and 50s Warner Bros.). That stuff was a big influence when I started doing paying work for bands and magazines.
Dave/Riff Relevant: I can almost guarantee people who quickly scan your music and song titles will come up with immediate Misfits comparisons, which to me is a huge, huge mistake. Do you agree, disagree, or maybe something in-between?
Tommy: I did buy Walk Among Us in Grade 11, when it was released and thought it was the tits. It came out almost at the exact same time as Number of the Beast, so it was weird seeing two albums with the similar “666” quote on the back in the same month!
I was into anything that was remotely horror-oriented, so I was also into The Damned and The Cramps obviously, and TSOL’s Dance With Me was big around the same time. There was another band called The Screaming Dead from England, which I thought was just as cool as the Misfits. Musically though, the Damned were the height of excellence! Best guitaring and singing, funny songs, weird, gloomy British atmosphere throughout. They were my favourites.
The Cramps had probably bigger influence on me for opening up the gateway to older styles of music. I knew about 60s garage rock from Lenny Kaye‘s Nuggets album, and I recognized that some of The Cramps stuff was coming from the same planet, along with all the rockabilly.
The Misfits, on the other hand, were considered a hardcore band, which I wasn’t really into. They were an anomaly, due to their use of melody in the singing, which was pretty unheard of in that genre at the time. They also just looked so cool, unlike anything else around. Definitely one of many influences on me as a teenager, and on the first FD 45.
I was also taking a huge horror influence from Roky Erickson and the Aliens, and like I said, the techno-weirdness of Chrome and Metal Urbain. There was also a Canadian one-man band guy called Nash the Slash (R.I.P.) who used drum machines, fuzz boxes and macabre imagery. He was an inspiration, as well.
Dave/Riff Relevant: Mario Bava or Dario Argento?
Tommy: Can’t top Suspiria! Love Black Sunday and Sabbath though, too. Bava’s more of a gothic master of the period piece stuff. Also, plenty of babes. Argento’s movies have a bit the edge though, thanks to Goblin!
Dave/Riff Relevant: You have been given the ability to travel back in time, but only to do the following two things: Make a movie cameo and guest appear on a record. What are the choices and in what capacity would you be participating?
Tommy: A bit part as a crazy hermit on Route 66 would be cool, and a fuzz guitar break on a vintage Nancy Sinatra side…
Dave/Riff Relevant: Ramones- ‘Rocket To Russia” or The Seeds- ‘A Web Of Sound’?
Tommy: A Web of Sound!
Dave/Riff Relevant: One evening while walking your dog through a wooded area, you happen across a ray-gun, clearly not of human design. Back home, you test the weapon, and it causes the complete cellular dissipation of its target, leaving no trace of the victim or evidence of your dastardly act. What “musicians” would you like to use this bad boy on?
Tommy: The problem for me would be worrying about if they themselves have dogs that would miss them, no matter how shitty their musical output! However, pet-moral questions aside, if I could maybe use the time machine from the earlier question and put the zap on Supertramp… or maybe skip the time machine and zap those modern sensitive bro-voice, ballad guys they play on current pop radio, like James Arthur! Thick, beefy voice dudes being overly sensitive. Gak!
Dave/Riff Relevant: Is there any form of established music scene in Calgary? How often do you end up playing in your home base as compared to out-of-town shows?
Tommy: Lots of music in Calgary. Always a couple of decent venues going. We try to play here about once a month or so. We just played the Calgary Folk Festival, which was a pretty big deal for us. We just did our regular thing and people seemed to enjoy it.
Not a lot of out-of-town work apart from some trips to Edmonton n’ stuff. We’re doing some eastern prairie cities as well as MASIF festival in British Columbia in September. Last year, we did two trips to the States to play at the Midnite Monster Hop in NYC and then the Dr. Gangrene Horror Hootenanny in Nashville for the second time. We tend to lay low and work on new material and I work on art projects during the snowy months.
Dave/Riff Relevant: So, some soul out there hears your tunes, sees your art, and even has a look at band photos. Given those parameters, what is there about Tommy Bagley that would surprise people to know?
Tommy: I’m a homebody who works with children and I have two grown-up sons? They’re also weird.
Dave/RiffRelevant: What does the foreseeable future hold for Forbidden Dimension? Any devious plans in the works?
Tommy: We’re saving up to go back in and record some stuff for our 30th Anniversary release next year! Gonna be a weird one.
Dave/Riff Relevant: Well, I suppose it’s time to ride off into the sunset. Thank you so much for partaking in this madness. The floor is now yours to add any last thoughts.
Tommy: Nope, we’re all good! Thanks for axin’ the good questions! Watch for our weird 30th anniversary release, probably around Halloween next year…