On May 20, Darius Minwalla, drummer for the Posies and longtime fixture of the local music community, died suddenly at his home in Vancouver, BC. Two days later, news of his death hit Seattle music like an earthquake. The simile isn't meant to overstate the magnitude of loss felt by those who knew and loved him—significant though it was—but to convey the disorientation that prevailed in the days that followed. Did that really happen? Can it really be true that this sweet, optimistic guy with the infectious smile is gone? At 39? Did you feel that?
A lot of people did, and those feelings were and are complicated by the fact that the cause of death has still not been determined; autopsy reports often take weeks, even months to complete. So the grief remains, compounded by unresolved questions and small, unexpected reminders that arrive like aftershocks. One such jolt came from a listing in this week's music calendar. Thursday, June 4: Hugh Cornwell at the Funhouse. Darius had been Cornwell's touring drummer for the past couple of years. This was to be the first show of a West Coast tour. Had events not taken this unthinkable turn, Darius would be playing in Seattle this very week.
Cornwell is a veteran artist with an impressive pedigree. He was a founding member of the legendary Stranglers (yes, that's his lead vocal on "Peaches"), a band that arose from the original UK explosion of 1977 and kept right on playing throughout the prolonged British midwinter of Margaret Thatcher's 1980s, outlasting punk contemporaries, like the Clash, and the more blatantly commercial bands that came up in their wake, like the Police. Cornwell left the group in 1990 and embarked on a solo career with a sideline in writing novels and screenplays, appearing in films and TV, and generally leaving a trail of interesting work behind him (even as an ersatz version of the Stranglers continues to play the international punk-nostalgia circuit). His most recent album, Totem & Taboo, was recorded by Steve Albini and released in 2013.
Since his band was the last one Darius played in—they completed a short Japanese tour just three weeks ago—and considering the sobering coincidence of the upcoming Funhouse booking, it seemed only right to ask Cornwell about their experiences together and how he was dealing with the loss, both emotionally and practically. He graciously obliged, speaking by phone from his home in London, a few days before flying to Seattle to start the tour.
How did Darius come to be the drummer in your band?
About five years ago, the Posies recorded an album [Blood/Candy, 2010] in Spain, near Cadiz. I know the owner of the studio, and it was suggested that I come in and sing on one of the tracks ["Plastic Paperbacks"], so I did that, and they loved what I did. So subsequently, when they came over to Europe to tour with this album, they invited me to come on and play with them onstage in Paris and London. And I said that would be great. They also learned a couple of songs from my album Hooverdam as well, and we had great fun. The Paris show was notable because we all went to a bistro afterward, and Darius's bag was stolen. His passport, his computer, his wallet, his credit cards, his phone—just everything was in that bag. And the next day they were due to play in London. I went back to my hotel not knowing if the tour was going to continue or not. The next day, he went to the American consulate, and of course they said it would take six weeks for them to issue him a new passport. But unknown to everyone else, or to me anyway, Darius's mother is English. She lives in Portsmouth. So he toddled along to the British consulate, and they gave him a new UK passport in two hours, and the London gig went on with no trouble.
So basically the ultimate tour nightmare and a perfect happy ending all in the space of less than 24 hours.
Exactly. I really got on well with him right away. He was such a lovely, lovely guy—magnetic personality, very helpful, very positive, and a great drummer. We got to talking about touring America. Clem Burke had been playing drums for me at that time, and I'd been very lucky that he hadn't had any Blondie commitments, 'cause as soon as one comes up, he ain't gonna be available. I asked Darius if he'd be interested should that situation arise, and he very enthusiastically said he would. So we kept in touch over the next two or three years, and then the moment happened. Clem had an overlapping Blondie tour, and Darius was free. That was 2013. We had a fabulous time. And though we didn't spend a lot of time together, when you're on a tour bus with someone, you really get to know each other. It's very intense. And then we just did a tour of Japan two weeks ago. I was bloody playing with him onstage two weeks ago. It's such a shock. It's still sinking in that he ain't gonna be around anymore. It's quite stunning. To everybody.
Did anything seem unusual about him while you were in Japan? Was he playing well?
His playing was fantastic! He'd done his prep, and he was match-ready. He'd mentioned that he'd had a bad fall in Vancouver last year and broken a couple of ribs, but he seemed to have recovered. I was fully expecting to go out and have a blast with him next week.
You haven't had much time to find a replacement for these US shows. Was there ever a question of canceling or postponing?
Well, I mean, I had to think about it long and hard, because it really was such a shock. I talked about it with my manager, and with Steve Fishman, who plays bass with me, and collectively we thought that Darius was so energetic and positive that we realized that he wouldn't want us to cancel. He'd want us to go out and play the shows. He was so supportive and inclusive. With that in mind, we asked around and managed to find a guy called Seve [Sheldon, from the Portland band the Wild Ones]. I'm going to go out a few days early and do some work with him.
You've been a rock musician for a long time, and I can only assume this isn't the first time you've had to deal with this kind of loss, both professionally and personally. How does it affect your attitude going into a tour?
I mean, I was the last person to play with him. It's really weird. The Posies hadn't played together since last October, I think. I've had a few tearful moments when I've been alone. He really was like part of my family in a funny sort of way. I mean, I didn't really know him for very long, but he'd just become part of my family. I used to call him Doctor D, and he used to call me The Professor, you know? We had nicknames for each other. He fit in perfectly with us. It was amazing. And we had the Rush treatment late at night on the bus, heading off to a new town... (Luckily, he also loved the Who, which was great for me.) But you know, we got close in a funny sort of way. I'm gonna dedicate a song to him wherever we go. When we hit the stage, I'm gonna be playing my heart out for him. He's not forgotten.
There's a lot of stuff I'd love to ask you about your career, but it's really hard not to keep talking about Darius, partly because the loss is so fresh, but also because I can't tell you how many conversations I've had in the past week with Seattle people who talk about him much the same way you've been doing—that sense of not having spent much time with him, but still feeling like you really knew him turns out to be a huge part of his legacy.
I'll tell you what: He really included people. This became clear to me when we went around America touring, because he really knew a lot of people. He had great friends, and he wanted me to know them, and them to know me. He brought people together. That's a really, really lovely quality. Not everybody has it.