Since 1984, P.J. Burton has been the face — and voice — of the Chocolate Bunnies From Hell, a larger-than-life rock band that, in its heyday, opened for the likes of Goddo and Teenage Head, turned up regularly on MuchMusic and recorded with Juno-nominated producer Arnold Lanni (Our Lady Peace, Frozen Ghost).
With all that and more on his resumé, we asked Burton, a high school English teacher by day, how his group’s latest achievement ranks on a list of life accomplishments.
In mid-September, Burton & Co., dressed in matching black suits, as is their wont, played a 35th anniversary gig at the Royal Albert along with Monuments Galore, another homegrown troupe that created its own share of buzz in the mid- to late-’80s. Towards the end of the Bunnies’ hour-long set, right around the time they were tearing through their rendition of the Gerry Rafferty chestnut Baker Street, Burton noticed a commotion near the bar, where people in line were throwing their arms up in disgust.
It turned out the Albert, since closed, ran out of beer not once, not twice, but three times during the night, says Burton, seated in a Fort Garry watering hole, sporting a dark, cable knit cardigan sweater overtop a black Chocolate Bunnies From Hell T-shirt.
"That room used to be really good to us, we always had a ton of fun there, but did a crowd of ours ever drink the place dry before? Ha, that’s a new one, even for us," he remarks, taking a swig from a bottle of Labatt 50.
On Sunday night, the Chocolate Bunnies From Hell will attempt to drive beer sales yet again, this time at the Orbit Room, 2077 Pembina Hwy. Burton, in his 60s, laughs when the obvious question is posed: isn’t there something he’d rather be doing on a long weekend — Watch football? Read a book? Mark papers? — than get up in front of a sweaty crowd and belt out tunes he first performed live more than half a lifetime ago?
"The thing is, it’s such fun — sheer joy, really — to have people show up to watch us play and sing... ‘at my age,’" he says with a wink, venturing that his current lineup, which includes Blair De Pape, formerly of Streetheart, on bass, Doug Wilson (Rockalypso) on saxophone and Allyson Krawec — "the best singer in the band, by a mile" — on keyboards and vocals, is probably the most talented fluffle of Bunnies he’s ever worked with.
"Every so often somebody will wonder why I’m still doing this, but at the end of the day, music is my passion, never to be mistaken for a hobby; no, no, no. It’s not as much something I want to do as something I absolutely must do."
It’s hard to determine when Burton, a cut-up if ever there was one, is pulling your leg and when he’s not. For instance, we’re pretty sure he doesn’t really send his cat Naomi to the liquor store to pick up a bottle or two for the weekend, "now that she’s old enough to drive." Also, we’re fairly certain his parents weren’t so destitute that his proper name "was repossessed," the reason he offers for switching from Patrick James to P.J., in his teens.
That said, here’s what we do know for certain: Burton, born in Winnipeg, moved to Dauphin at the age of 12 after his father, a railway employee, was transferred. Dauphin is where he fell in love with music. It’s also where he joined his first band, a prog-rock outfit largely inspired by Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.
After graduating from Dauphin Collegiate Technical Institute in 1970, he relocated to Edmonton, where he bounced around from job to job for five years, all the while playing in one bar band or another. He was 24 when he enrolled at the University of Alberta to study education; 26 when he formed the Smarties, a punk rock group that made a name for itself when Burton, the lead singer, carted a chainsaw and a mannequin onstage — feel free to guess what occurred next — during a particularly noteworthy performance.
In 1981, Burton returned to Winnipeg to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Winnipeg. When he wasn’t assisting in a classroom or studying for exams, he was performing as a solo artist, a phase that eventually led to a self-titled album, P. J. Burton, released on Vera Cruz Records. In 1984, when that project failed to dent the charts, he decided it was high time to form a band befitting a moniker he’d conjured up, years prior.
"In ‘77 or ‘78, I was stepping out of the Riviera Hotel in Edmonton at about eight in the morning when I spotted a patch of freshly poured cement," he says. "All of a sudden, the name Chocolate Bunnies From Hell entered my brain and I wrote it down in the cement, so as not to forget it. So yes, before we ever played a note, our name was already carved in stone."
For a while, there was speculation the Chocolate Bunnies From Hell would be at the forefront of what was being branded "the second Winnipeg Music Wave." While that bit of hype failed to materialize, the group, encouraged at one point to rename themselves the Hell Bunnies, "the most idiotic, moronic, dumb thing" Burton could have ever imagined, definitely had some moments in the sun.
Take for example their debut single, Pumpin’ for Jill, a cover of an Iggy Pop tune that remains a much-coveted 45 among Winnipeg record aficionados; also, in 2005, they contributed a track, No Time, to Guess Who’s Home, a well-received tribute album toasting fellow Winnipeggers the Guess Who. Then there was the evening they invited a bawdy, burlesque entertainer who answered to Shirley U. Jeste to participate in their shenanigans, a set of circumstances that led to… oh, why don’t we just let Burton tell the story?
"At the time we were using a backdrop of ripped cheesecloth, which resembled scary spider webs," he explains. "Shirley’s act featured these fiery batons and at one point, while she was doing her thing behind me, our guitarist kicked me in the Spandex. I thought, ‘Hmm, he’s never done that before, I must be developing some stage presence.’ Except when I turned around to join the fun, I realized one of Shirley’s batons had touched the webbing, and the whole thing went off like a hyperactive fuse. Luckily, the quick-thinking audience surged forward and put us out with their drinks."
Lately, Burton has been spending much of his spare time holed up at Paintbox Recording, a music studio operated by Lloyd Peterson, whom readers may recall from his time with ‘80s power-pop quartet, the Cheer. In September, Burton released Chocolate Bunnies From Hell: EP Part One, a four-track CD containing two original numbers, I Blame You and Run With Me, plus reworked versions of two of the band’s longtime crowd-pleasers, the aforementioned Pumpin’ for Jill and Homicide, originally done by the English punk act, 999.
"You’ll see in the liner notes I wrote, ‘Stand by for parts two and three, followed by parts four to 127,’ and that’s not even a joke," Burton says, turning the CD package, featuring a shot of the current, seven-member lineup on the cover, over in his hand. "I’ve been recording and stockpiling material with Lloyd for about five years, so this is just the first, little offering."
Besides followup CDs, Burton, whose 29-year-old daughter Danie got to see her father in action for the first time ever when she attended the show at the Albert, also intends to "tour" with Monuments Galore for as long as audiences are willing to turn out to see them. Besides this weekend’s date at the Orbit Room, the two groups plan to play the Royal George in Transcona and, fingers crossed, the Park Theatre in the spring. He’d also love to take the show on the road, preferably to his old stomping grounds in Dauphin, where he promises they’d be "nice, cute little bunnies, none of that ‘from hell’ stuff."
In closing, Burton leans forward and states, "I’ll happily answer that question," when asked if he ever stays up at night, wondering what might have been if he’d devoted his full attention to rock ‘n’ roll back in the day, instead of reporting to class bright and early every morning to teach Shakespeare to grades 10, 11 and 12 students.
"I have no regrets whatsoever, because I’m one of those rare people who truly, honestly loves his job. I love the division I’m in (Seven Oaks), I enjoy the people I work with and I get a real kick out of my students, every last one of them."
About the students — are they aware of his extracurricular activity?
"Some are, most aren’t, mainly because it’s not something I advertise," he says, noting he parks his eyeliner pencil when he’s teaching, except for Casual Fridays, "when I show up in my bondage costume... kidding."
"Though every once in a while, one of them will tell me their mom or dad used to go see me at the Zoo (formerly at the Osborne Village Inn). To which I reply, ‘Tell ‘em hi for me and we should get together for a beer.’"
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.