The Guy Who Played Saxophone on “Spadina Bus” Is Running for Mayor of Toronto

By Justin Friesen

Is Toronto really ready to elect a man who has never smoked crack? Maybe. Photos via Justin Friesen.

Toronto’s administration has devolved into lunacy. The mayor smokes crack, drinks and drives, speaks in Jamaican Patois, and has most recently been accused of orchestrating an intricate jailhouse beating, on the day he denied being involved in the murder of an alleged gang member. Naturally, with an election coming up in October, people are looking for a Rob Ford replacement—and fast. Since he’s immune from getting fired,and city council could only strip him of some of his powers, it’s safe to say anyone opposed to Ford’s position as mayor is looking forward to Election Day.

January 2nd was the first day to register as a mayoral candidate, and we’ve already been treated to our fair share of interesting characters who have entered the race. You’ve probably already heard that a man named Al Gore is running, along with Matt Mernagh the man who almost made weed legal in Canada, and there’s also a white supremacist looking to secure about 1% of the vote—but did you know that Juno-award winning jazz saxophonist Richard Underhill is also trying to unseat Rob Ford?

In case you’re not familiar with the musical prowess of one Richard Underhill, he’s a founding member of a Jazz-fusion band called The Shuffle Demons; the group responsible for one of Toronto’s greatest anthems: “Spadina Bus.” If you haven’t checked it out since it was a hit back in 1986, you’re missing out.

A public transit classic.

We sat down with Richard in Kensington Market to talk about his candidacy for mayor, and to figure out whether or not he’s smoked crack.

VICE: First off, thanks for meeting with us, how has your campaign been going since you first announced your candidacy?
Richard: It’s been amazing. I brought in a marching band to city hall. It didn’t quite go as planned. They kicked them out a bit early. It was so cold I didn’t have the throngs of people outside that I wanted to have. But I still thought it was fun. What I really want to do in this campaign is bring arts and culture to people, and use arts and culture to heal the rifts that have been formed—especially during the recent administration. So that’s why I brought the marching band to city hall, you know, I just wanted to signify that things were going to be a little different with my campaign.

Your hit with the Shuffle Demons’ Spadina Bus paid tribute to the glories of riding the TTC. Did the success of that song influence your transit-based platform?
Transit is kind of key, it’s a great equalizer. If people can get to their work or get to socializing easier, maybe they won’t be encouraged to buy a car, which is a big drain on their personal economy. I really think a comprehensive transit plan is huge for people to be able to enjoy the city. I’ve had some ideas, I’ve travelled around the world and when I’m in Berlin, I noticed that, “hey it’s three in the morning and there’s a bus every 15 minutes that goes everywhere.” They have 24-hour full service, it may not be quite full but way better than what we have on the weekends, and I think that’s really important. It’s great to cut down drunk driving and to get bar staff home. So transit is a really big part of what I’m about, I want people to use their automobiles less. I want them to cycle more. It makes for a healthier, greener, nicer place to live.

So you’re advocating for the subway to run until 4AM on weekends?
Yeah I think that’s a great idea, on the weekend, keep subways open till 4AM. Encourage people to leave their cars at home, go out and have a great time, get home on the subway cheaply and safely. It makes sense.

Do you think there is a set of skills to being a professional touring musician that are different than common politician-y professions like lawyers and business people? Artists are known for lateral thinking, which I think more politicians could use.
I think being an artist actually sets you up well for the job as mayor. For an artist, I would think the job as councilor would be a little more difficult, because that’s more about a lot of technical issues around development and things like that. Whereas, the job of mayor is more about setting an agenda, being a conciliator, bringing different people together and getting ideas, presenting a platform that’s very ideas-based and then working with council to get it to work.

I saw a really great article about why Jazz musicians make great leaders, and one asset is the ability to think on your feet and that’s what we do everyday, we come up with what the problem is, like how to solo over this song, and we figure out how to do it. I find that politics can be so argumentative, and we’ve got this British debating style going where we’re trying to score points on the other person and I find that so frustrating. What musicians do is try to work together.

So city hall should be more like a band?
Yeah exactly. It should be more like a band, we have to work and play together. People have different strengths, some people are really great at the numbers and budget and are real fiscal conservatives, and other people have wonderful ideas about the positive future that they want to see.

How do you feel about the other candidates? Like Rob Ford or that neo-Nazi guy?
One thing I would say is that I appreciate the input from other candidates no matter how “off the wall” they are, except maybe theneo-Nazi. I’m really disappointed with the current system that we have where the media or the powers-that-be pick the top five candidates and those people go to the debates. It’s not democracy in my view. As tiresome and difficult as it is to listen to all the people who’ve joined in this discussion, it’s really important.

Have you received any negative press or been discounted so far by folks for not being a “serious” candidate?
Toronto Life came out with their list of fringe candidates and I was in there with the sexual stalker [Dimitri the Lover] and the nazi, and the guy called Al Gore and I actually think it’s funny. Hopefully, because of my connections in the music world and the amount of people who actually know who I am, I’ll be able to breach that barrier, but I think it’s okay for now. I’ve sort of embraced the “fringe” candidate label because I want to do some really great things and then go, “is this what a fringe candidate does? Is this how much a fringe candidate raises, is this the kind of a detailed platform a fringe candidate has?” Just to kind of throw it back in their face. Anyone in the race should be considered to be in the race, and it’s convenient and expedient to just pick the ones that have either had council experience or that have a lot of backing behind them.

Have you ever smoked crack?
I have not ever smoked crack, thank you for asking. It’s weird when the mayor has done more drugs than the Jazz musician… but I’m afraid that’s the case.

Do you know what bumbaclot means?
Oh, you know I’ve heard the term, I know it’s a Jamaican term, but I don’t know…

It’s a dirty word.
You know, my hipness factor has dropped about seven points because I did not know, but I never looked it up…

Fair enough. Finally, can I get confirmation on my information about my transportation to Spadina Station?
You can indeed, because you’ll be on the Sp-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa Spadina Bus. Having said that, I do like the streetcar. It’s faster and easier.

Thanks Richard. 

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