This week on The Trip podcast: Vodka soda with one of the world’s top Freddie Mercury cover singers.
Alright, let’s check the backstory. When I was 15 years old, desperate to leave home forever, full of anger and academic exhaustion and moments of excess or straight-up self-harm, I thought: Europe. Had to find some way to get to Europe. And I was broke, and my father was too, and so it had to be on a scholarship. But who among the European nations was so unloved that they would pay angry American teenagers to come be exchange students? Germany, it turns out. Of course, moving from California to live under the low, dark skies of extreme northeast Germany, while not speaking a word of German, failed, in predictable ways, to fix my life.
But then, as it does for so many teenagers, music happened. I met a kid named Rainer who lived on his own and drank scotch neat and played in a blues rock band with professional musicians, and I was hooked. I joined the band as a saxophone player and occasional hype man. We toured modestly through towns like Ludwigslust and Stralsund and drank prodigiously and I was finally saved. Even as I drifted back to California and stumbled in and out of my own career as a musician, I stayed connected. At some point in the late 90’s, some of that circle of German musicians were starting to make some good money out of Dresden with a Queen cover band called MerQury. They needed a new singer and they thought they had one, a guy they only knew from television clips. He had ridiculous vocal range. He stalked the stage like Freddie. He even had a touch of that famous overbite. He was living in Los Angeles, but he was from Montreal and Rainer’s brother sent me his phone number. As the North American in our crew, had to call him up, suss him out and somehow convince him to move, as I had done myself, from California to Eastern Germany.
It worked. Somehow, it worked. Twenty years later, the band has survived and thrived and ridden a wave of immense and undying love for Queen’s music across Europe to a good living and many, many great nights. And now Johnny Zatylny, one of the top Freddie Mercury cover singers on the planet, is appearing back in his hometown of Montreal, along with that old friend of mine Rainer, to headline a fundraiser, and I got him to sit across the table from me, drinking Tito’s and soda and singing and talking about growing up dreaming of rock stardom in Anglophone Montreal.
I don’t understand the paths that life takes. There was never a plan, and if there had been, Germany or crunching blues rock guitar wouldn’t have been on it. But I know this: when you find good people, you stay connected. Those friendships, bathed perhaps in a bit of vodka and a little nostalgia, will always defeat time and distance.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Johnny. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.
Johnny Zatylny: Check it one, two.
Thornburgh: We need more.
Zatylny: Johnny Z from Montreal.
Thornburgh: We need more.
Zatylny: We need to rock.
Thornburgh: That is Johnny Z.
Zatylny: I get French and German mixed up when I get here.
Thornburgh: Is this what you’ve gotten from 20 years in Germany?
Zatylny: Yeah. I arrive here at Montreal and I’ll speak people in French and I would answer them in German. What did I just say? They were looking at me like you know. I’m like, “Well, I just spoke French. What’s wrong with you guys?”
Thornburgh: Alright, let’s have a sip of this and then you can tell me what we’re drinking and why.
Zatylny: Right on. So we’re drinking Tito’s Vodka with some a club soda. Reason being it’s less sugar, a little bit healthier, traveling a lot. You want to keep fit, you want to stay healthy. And as you get older you just want to be prepared for my rock and roll shows.
Thornburgh: And your old diet of bottomless chocolate banana banshees and strawberry daiquiris.
Zatylny: You’ve got to find a balance.
Thornburgh: Fair enough. Tito’s is even, as you had pointed out, gluten free. It’s a little healthier.
Zatylny: Yeah, a little healthier. You wake up not so sore, but it’s sugars I think that kill you.
Thornburgh: It is. So anything that can keep us in the game a little bit longer? Gets you ready for your show.
Zatylny: I’m all for it.
Growing up, playing hockey and I mean, young kids, we had to get escorted out of arenas because of the French-English rivalry
Thornburgh: Tell me a little bit about growing up in Montreal as Johnny Zatylny.
Zatylny: Well, I felt fortunate growing up here. We were born in a small town called Greenfield Park, which was on the South shore of Montreal. It was Anglophone community growing up. It still is mostly Anglophone is living there. But we just had a great childhood, a lot of sports activities, great group of people growing up.
Thornburgh: And what was your parents’ background? They were not French Canadian?
Zatylny: No, my grandfather came in from Poland and my mother’s side, Newfoundland, and they came together here in this small district called Point St Charles just South of the city of Montreal. So my parents met there and then they moved to this South shore after marriage.
Thornburgh: And what years were these?
Zatylny: 1960s was the early years of Greenfield Park.
Thornburgh: What was it like being in an Anglophone community?
Zatylny: This was a challenge sometimes because we had a few districts where it was mostly Anglophone, but then we’re surrounded by a lot of the French culture, French population. So especially sporting events, growing up, playing hockey and I mean, young kids, we had to get escorted out of arenas because of the French-English rivalry. It was crazy. I’m telling you, this was like we’d escorts at 10, 11 years old.
Thornburgh: Wow, because otherwise the other kids were just going to try to kick your ass.
Zatylny: It wasn’t just the kids. It was the families. It was the parents who was mad. They’re yelling at us and we’re like, “You know what we just want to play hockey.”
Thornburgh: That’s crazy. And also I guess, unlike Alberta, which is far away from French-Canada, you guys are Anglophones, you are like right here in their spiritual homeland.
Zatylny: Exactly. And it was different back then. The culture is more passionate back then. It’s changing as the years go on, but back there it was very passionate.
Thornburgh: How did your parents navigate that? Was it a problem for them on some level? Or Professionally they were okay?
Zatylny: No. They were good. It was all good. It’s just we had situations where they would come around… and mostly in sporting events.
Thornburgh: And as an Anglophone community, did you guys learn French? I mean, you’re back here speaking German today.
Zatylny: Definitely, yeah. Well, I’m getting mixed up now.
Thornburgh: So you would have been a part of kind of French-Canadian.
Zatylny: Yeah. We had to go to school now, we had to learn our French. We had definitely. Being a Quebecois you have to learn your French, it’s part of living in Quebec.
Thornburgh: As an Anglophone dude who grew up here, do you describe yourself as Quebecois or do you say Canadian first?
Zatylny: Both. I’m proud to be Quebecois, proud to be Canadian. So it’s both.
Thornburgh: What was your first experience with music?
Zatylny: Well, I remember growing up, starting high school when I really got into it. I was not great academic student. I remember just sitting in the room and like waiting until the classes. And then one day somebody came in the class said, “We’re going to have a surprise for you today. So we want everybody to meet at the auditorium for two o’clock.” So we were like, “Okay, what’s going to happen?” Not knowing what it could be.
Thornburgh: But anything would be better than your classroom right?
Johnny Zatylny: Yes. I was just dying to get out. So I remember sitting there and then all of a sudden the curtains opened and this guy comes screaming down with this guitar, and I was just mesmerized, I’m like, “What is this?” And it was a band from California called Free Fare. And they toured all the high schools in North America. And so when I saw that, I was just blown away and I was sitting there and I remember after it was all done, I got up from my chair and walked out of the theater, thinking, “Now I know what I’m going to do with my life.” That was it.
Thornburgh: That was it.
Zatylny: That was the defining moment right there. I saw that show and that was it. I had a mission.
Thornburgh: Boy you must’ve become an even worse student after that. Like, “Now I’ve been touched by rock and roll.”
I’m not really sure what I’m doing here, but I have friends who would like me to ask you if you will move to Germany and sing Queens songs for the rest of your life
Thornburgh: Well let’s go into that band, MerQury. So as I’ve hinted at, I had a—I call it an abortive musical career. It got stopped before it could do serious damage to me or the people in my life. But, there was a time where I was playing music and it started really in Germany when I’d gone out there as a teenager, and in an improbable way started playing a rhythm and blues with a bunch of East Germans who have remained friends for life, and many of them kind of went on and kept working on their own music and became these great professional working musicians.
About 20 years ago now, one of them called me up from Dresden and had said that he wanted me to talk to this Canadian, about a band. And I knew the band MerQury before. Ebi was the a singer, who recently passed away—rest in peace Ebi. At that moment they were ready to move on from him and they were getting bigger, and Queen was already so popular in Germany, and they were ready to step their game up. It was a very big move for them, because I was probably the last North American they’d ever played music with, or at least some of the people in the band, who would move on to MerQury.
Zatylny: You called me. I remember sitting in my loft in Los Angeles. You called me and I remember speaking to you and I was like, “Well, I don’t know about going to Germany. It’s quite far.”
Thornburgh: It’s real fucking far.
Zatylny: “It’s like… I don’t know man. It’s like…” I was against it at the beginning. I was like, I just finished the show and I said, “There’s a lot of opportunity here, why would I go to Germany?”
Zatylny: The interesting thing was there was so many people in my circle they were saying, “Give it a shot, go, go man. Just give it a shot. If you don’t like it, you can come back.”
Thornburgh: That is true. They were never gonna lock you in the dungeon and just make you sing the hits, but you have such… and it was so strange because I think at that point I had already left music entirely. And when I was working at TIME magazine, and was in my mid-to-late-20s. This was a very odd errand for me to run. And I don’t know if you had caught a hint of that, I’m just like, “I’m not really sure what I’m doing here, but I have friends and they don’t speak great English and they would like me to ask you if you will move to Germany, and sing Queens songs for the rest of your life.”
I loved it and I love talking to you, and especially just feeling like I could be helpful to these guys whom I idolize as musicians. That’s not a phone call that one forgets on my side.
Zatylny: I remember the first show we played in a place called Finsterwalde, just outside of Dresden, but hours outside of Dresden. And we played in this castle, and I remember singing, Who Wants to Live Forever in a castle? I’m thinking, “This is pretty cool. This is pretty cool.” It just took on from there, and now it’s 20 years later.