Mark Rendell

Best of EDGE: Strange Range Music: The Welder’s Daughter Story

A night two-stepping at the Gold Range to Canada's hardest-working band is a quintessential Yellowknife experience. We go behind the music.

EDGE is taking some holiday time, from December 20 to January 4. While we’re off we’ll be re-running some of our favourite stories from the year, and some hits from deep in our archives. Here’s a look at the rich backstory of some Yellowknife musical icons:

“Because I’m all about that bass, ‘bout that bass no treble,” purrs Karen Novak. She’s standing behind her double-deck keyboards and in front of the large purple Welder’s Daughter banner that lines the back of the stage. On the dance floor, an old guy with a mustache and a belly grinds with a woman who looks like she could be a host on The View. As the woman twirls, her magnificent pouf of dyed-blonde hair bounds and her short black dress flares sassily through the crowd.

Welcome to Friday night at the Gold Range, where Welder’s Daughter holds court and Yellowknife’s most diverse crowd comes to boogie. There’s Hank Williams for the Stetson-toting two-steppers and Eminem for the fresh-from-the-BK bros.

“I think I danced my ass off,” yells a woman as a song finishes and the dance floor empties.

It’s the much-loved cover band’s second-last Friday at the Range before they take off to Inuvik for the summer, so they’re pulling out all the stops. Karen is centre-stage, belting it out like a ‘80s rock diva. To her left, her husband and the band’s guitar player, Attila Novak is ripping solos in a dragon-patterned shirt, leather vest and do-rag ensemble that gives him a certain Mortal Kombat air. Heavily bearded bassist Tom Benke stands on her right in a trench coat and cowboy shirt, while drummer Csaba Mezofi – the most “normal” looking of the lot – holds it down in the middle.

Cover bands are a dime a dozen these days, and every city’s got their Eagles-playing sweethearts. But coming off an eight-month, six-shows-a-week contract at the Range, Welder’s Daughter is something special; there aren’t many 50-somethings with only a single release to their name making a living playing music in Canada.

And they’re certainly an eccentric crew: a classically trained organist who was told she couldn’t sing; a Hungarian speed-metal star and former pro-soccer player; a guy with high-functioning autism and a penchant for filmmaking; and another Hungarian, who speaks broken English and whose visa is running out at the end of the summer.

It’s partially the band’s business acumen and partially the special relationship they have with the Range, where they’ve been playing for 13 years, that’s allowed them to become “the hardest-working band in the country.”

“As far as the cover scene goes, we’re the top of the pile,” says Karen. “A lot of people are jealous we’re living the dream.”

***

The band’s introduction to the NWT, in April 2003, was not auspicious. Their white clunker of a van – cracked windshield, antifreeze leaking into the car under the passengers’ feet – broke down in no-man’s-land between the “Welcome to Alberta” and “Northwest Territories 60th parallel” signs.

When they tried crossing the Mackenzie (in those pre-bridge days) to get to their gig in Yellowknife, the ice was mid-break-up, so they could neither drive nor catch the ferry. The tour diverted to Hay River for a week, followed by five weeks playing the Pine Crest Hotel in Fort Smith and a jaunt up to Whitehorse.

“We didn’t even know what a two-step was. When we went to Whitehorse it was like, ‘Ok, we got to figure out what a two-step is, they want a two-step, is there a certain pattern?’” remembers Karen. “‘We’ll just play songs and when someone starts two-stepping, that’s got to be it.’”

Of course, the first song people started two-stepping to was “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd.

“So there goes that theory. As my dad used to say, if you’re good, you can two-step to anything.”

When the band finally reached Yellowknife in late July, they weren’t sure what they were getting into. On the road, they’d heard horror stories from other touring bands: at the Range, you better play lots of country, old country, or you’re going to be dodging beer bottles.

“We heard there was all these fights that were going to go on, and they’re not going to like me because I’m a blonde white woman.”

But things started on an upbeat note. During sound check, the Range’s manager, Sam Yurkiw, liked what he heard and tacked an extra week onto their three-week contract. That night, the crowd shared Sam’s enthusiasm. Despite warnings of Johnny Cash or bust, a rendition of Cher’s “Believe” had the dance floor packed and hollering for more. “We were immediately accepted,” says Karen. “We were told we were like a breath of fresh air.”

They didn’t even get their first dance-floor fight until the last night in town.

“There was sea of people fighting in the bar, and it was like ‘Finally!’” says Karen with a laugh.

“I guess they were sad to see us go,” says Tom.

***

To many of us, Welder’s Daughter is as Yellowknife as Bush Pilot’s Monument, and a night two-stepping to them at the Range is a quintessential civic experience. But in truth, while they’ve been coming here for over a decade, they’ve only called Yellowknife home since 2010. Before that they were on the road most of the year, and frequently under a different name than Welder’s Daughter.

The band started back in 1997 as the Karen Single Band, playing ‘90s hard rock originals written by Novak. She’d been playing organ since she was six, growing up in Edmonton, and in bands since she was 19, but this was her first time as front woman.

“I was told my whole life I couldn’t sing. My own mother said, ‘Karen, don’t sing.’”

Attila joined that same year, bringing serious guitar chops and a bit of Euro-glamour sparkle. He’d risen to countercultural fame as a teenager in Hungary playing speed metal under the communist government’s nose. After fleeing Hungary on the pretense of bringing his girlfriend’s English Setters to a dog show in Nuremberg, he’d also done a stint as professional soccer player for a third-division team in West Germany.

The band got their first regular gig at a club in Langley where the manager, a self-proclaimed psychic, divined their bright future as a band. A year later they quit their day jobs and began touring Western Canada.

“We had this big ugly grey bus that we bought from another band. There was one big bed so we all just laid down and took turns driving,” says Karen. “We’d drive into town and we’d stop and knock on doors: ‘Can we get a gig?’ We were desperate and hungry and ambitious, and wanted to get out there and get whatever work we could.”

From early on, Karen and Attila, who started dating about six months into their first tour, had been padding their set with covers; it was easier to get paid playing other people’s music. But when the indoor smoking bans came in around 2000, the number of bars booking rock bands dropped precipitously.

“The country bars still had five or six nights,” remembers Atilla. “So I told Karen, ‘it’s still live entertainment, just a different style.’ And there was this big argument.

“She was like ‘Well, I’m the Millennium Metal Queen!’ [a title some Vancouver promoters had given her in 1999].

“And I said, ‘No, we are professional musicians, our personal taste of music doesn’t mean anything. If we play in Top 40 or rock bands, we play two nights. If we play country it’s five nights. We are professional musicians and we shall succeed no matter what style you toss at us. If we have to play jazz, we’ll play jazz.’”

They continued to pepper their sets with originals and even recorded an original album in 2000. But to stay afloat, they rebranded the Karen Single Band to suit a variety of opportunities and niches: as ‘Ear Candy,’ a Top 40 cover band; ‘Cover Girl,’ a tribute band to female rock stars; ‘Groovin’ Sea’ a cruise ship band; and ‘Welder’s Daughter,’ their country band – named in tribute to Karen’s dad who was, well, a welder. “One band, five different band names, five different promo packages, and whoever accepts us, we’ll just go. It was a survival,” says Karen.

Their first real gig as Welder’s Daughter came in 2002, shortly after Tom joined the band. They’d just returned to Vancouver after an 18-month tour when their manager called them.

“Attila, how’s your country stuff?”

“We just started.”

“Well there’s a bar in Prince George just fired a country band and they don’t have a band for the week.”

Attila called the rest of the band: “Ok guys, pack up we’re leaving immediately.”

They downloaded a bunch of country hits to listen to on the drive. Tom, sat in the back and charted the music as they wound their way north.

***

Welder’s Family Album: a Look Back at the Band’s Many Incarnations

Ear Candy: Karen and the gang’s top 40 project

The Myspace days, with one of the group’s 40 drummers: Karen Single Band

Hair metal: Attila and Karen in their glory days

Prepare to rock: “Wide Open” – from the band’s “Millenium Metal Queen” period

***

After Friday’s show ends, at 2:00 a.m., Tom and Csaba head up to their rooms in the storied heart of the Gold Range Hotel. The whole band used to live here, though Karen and Attila moved to a nearby apartment three years ago with their nine-year-old son Endre.

“He was created here, he’s a Gold Range baby,” says Karen with a laugh. “The owner at that time was Richard Yurkiw, and we blamed him because there were no TVs in the room.”

The hotel is very much at the centre of the Welder’s Daughter story; it’s not only where they play music, it’s their home and their living room; the staff is their extended family.

The first thing you notice as you walk up the broad wooden staircase to the second floor is the strong smell of cigarettes. The second thing: the “no smoking” sign. The carpet in the hallway is brown and threadbare, with paint stains from a botched reno running along the edges. There are two main bathrooms on the second floor (and some ensuites); the one that locks is reserved for Tom and Csaba, the other, which remains perpetually unlocked is used by other hotel residents. In the band bathroom, there are cigarette stains on the bathtub and water stains down the walls.

“It ain’t much, but it’s home. We have our own soap in here,” says Tom with characteristic sunniness. “It’s a high school dorm, or college dorm, pretty much.”

Tom’s room is small. His bed takes up most of the floor space. Two sequined Elvis costumes hang by the door and the room’s plastic shelves are crammed with boxes, computer equipment and a boxy old TV. Tom has filmed every show the band has played for the past 12 years, so there’s a stack of DVDs on the shelf beside his camera. There’s no kitchen for hotel tenants, so Tom heats up food from his mini fridge using a microwave and a hot plate.

“I did a whole Thanksgiving dinner for 12 people one time with my hotplate,” says Karen, of her time living in the Range. “We did the turkey in a toaster oven. I think I’m going to write a recipe book on how to cook on hot plates.”

If the accommodations these days are bit tatty, at least they’re better than they once were. During an early residence, Tom had to buy a padlock for his lockless door, and in 2007 the band arrived to an almost empty room with nothing but a dirty mattress on the floor.

It’s also, perhaps, a little less sketchy than the days of yore. “I felt very comfortable having my son here, letting him wander the hallways,” says Karen.

Still, there’s little doubt the Range has seen a fair share of sleaze. During their first visit in 2003, Tom documented on film the graffiti all over their room left by previous bands. Written on the bottom of one of the drawers:

“The Cardinal Rule: Three weeks at the Range

Day 1: Wow nice Monday crowd, awesome response.

Day 4: We don’t remember anything, this Yellowknife Weed is great!

Day 5: We got our guitars a PlayStation, some CDs and a CD player, and Rice-a-Roni stolen from this room tonight (I swear to god).

Day 6: The coke dealer next door returned everything except the PlayStation.

Day 8: Some guy told us we don’t play enough country and D.C. Malone  (our guitar player) got so drunk he fell up the stairs. I know this sounds unpossible, but he did it.

Day 9: We had a party and a seventeen year old girl came… oh we’re bad!!!”

The last entry is written on the bottom of a separate drawer. Next to it is a Gideon’s Bible.

“This is Yellowknife from the inside out,” says Karen in the film.

***

Over the years the Gold Range contracts kept getting longer. By 2010 Welder’s Daughter was spending most of the year in Yellowknife, with summers as the house band at Inuvik’s Mad Trapper.

The band’s success has a lot to do with the Range, but also with Karen and Attila’s partnership, in both marriage and business. They form the core of the band and hire musicians on contract. Though Tom’s been with them since 2002, they’ve run through 40 drummers, one who was a former Gold Range bouncer. Another ran off with one of the Range’s waitresses. They’ll be on the hunt once again come September when Csaba heads home to Hungary after three years with the band.

“We have had a few more drummers than Spinal Tap,” says Attila.

To offset their income from gigging, Karen and Atilla run a booking agency and a gear-rental business on the side. She wouldn’t say how much they make all told, but with $100,000 dollars worth of instruments, lighting and gear, they’re not your average starving artists.

They also run an unusually tight ship, with gigs booked two years in advance, and contingency plans should things change suddenly: “I’ve got plan B and plan C already planned if this place closes down; because we’ve kind of put all our eggs in this basket, we’re working on other things that could possibly be a direction we could go.”

The possibility of the Range closing down is nigh unthinkable, and the Range without Welder’s Daughter? Well, it would be a different scene. Over the years, Karen has seen the Range’s clientele change: there’s the usual Strange Rangers, for sure, but more young people are coming in, more white-collar workers.

“We changed the crowd, whether for better or for worse,” she says.

It’s around 1:50 a.m., Saturday morning, when the bartenders do last call.

“You had fun tonight?” Karen asks the crowd, still thronging on the dance floor after “I Gotta Feeling.” “We’ll see you tomorrow.”

People cry for one more song: “Stairway to Heaven,” “Celine Dion,” and the perennial favourite, always shouted from the back of the bar, “George Jones!”

“I don’t feel like going home just yet,” says Karen, breaking into “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift.

“Yellowknife picked us,” she tells me afterwards with a grin.