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The GMOs are still playing and staying true to their roots (9 photos)

In this Arts and Culture feature we chat with members of Guelph rock'n'rollers the GMOs and what has kept them going after 20 years

It was 20 years ago today, as the Beatles would say, with the looming uncertainty of Y2K creeping ever closer, that agricultural educator Owen Roberts and marketing strategist Len Kahn planted a rock and roll seed that would take root and grow into the GMOs.

“It was 1999, remember when the world was going to end,” said Roberts. “Len gave me a call and said, ‘Listen, if the world is going to go down let’s get together and have a really big jam session before it does’.”

Kahn pulled out all the stops and threw a party like it was 1999 and the end of the world as we know it.

“He rented the clubhouse at Victoria West and invited friends and friends of friends and we had about 200 people there,” said Roberts. “We called it a pre-millennium bash. We didn’t think it was going to go anywhere, we just wanted to get together and jam.”

Spoiler alert, the world didn’t end, and the new millennium began on a high and harmonious note for Kahn and Roberts whose musical chemistry fuelled a collaboration that would endure through a number of lineups and incarnations over the next two decades.

“Len and I are the only original members and our new bass player is Joey Sabljic who used to be one of my students here,” said Roberts. “Joey plays bass and some guitar and I play guitar and some bass and Len plays drums.”

The new lineup is the leanest to date but no less dynamic.

“We haven’t always been a trio,” said Roberts. “That was a big change for me because the chording is different. Your leads are different. The bass player has to hold things down more, especially when you are a dance band. It’s a lot of thinking but that is why we rehearse. Think during rehearsal and feel it during the show.”

They are still doing what feels good to them and that’s what gets their fans on the dance floor.

“We bill ourselves as a rock and roll dance band,” said Roberts. “That’s a pretty accurate description.”

The GMOs are celebrating their 20th anniversary with a party on Saturday Nov. 16 at the Brass Taps in the University Centre at the University of Guelph.

“It’s our anniversary and the 20th anniversary of Better Farming magazine,” said Roberts. “It’s a joint event with them and the proceeds are going to Community Living Guelph Wellington. We quite often have a charitable cause for our gigs.”

The agricultural connections run deep throughout the band’s history. Roberts is an adjunct professor in the Department of Animal Biosciences and the research communications director at the University of Guelph. Kahn is the founder and CEO of Kahntact, a Guelph-based marketing and advertising company.

“We met when Len worked at Ginty Jocius and Associates across from the Wooly as an account executive and that is ag too,” said Roberts. “He heard I was a musician and said, ‘I want to get back into it. How about getting together to jam’.”

Kahn invited Roberts to his home for a jam session.

“Owen is a really talented guitarist and singer who knows over 2,000 songs from memory” said Kahn. “We hosted a music night at our house and Owen popped over with his song-writing partner Lonnie Aarssen. We hit it off immediately, and shorty afterwards The GMOs were born.”

Kahn and Roberts were already veteran musicians by the time they joined forces.

“When I was 12 my buddy Lonnie said we should start a band,” Roberts recalled. “I said I don’t really play anything, and he said play bass because nobody else wants to. That’s how I got through university, playing bass in a country band. I played in a disco band too. Bass players were always in demand.”

Kahn had a high school rock band as well.

“It was called Shock,” said Kahn. “I had always dreamed about playing in a rock and roll band, writing and playing live. It started in Oshawa in 1978 and ingloriously disbanded in 1980. I stopped playing for about 15 years for no real reason – just moving around and stuff.”

They invited some friends to join the group and it was Peter Hannam, the father of bandmate Rob Hannam, who came up with the name.

“We were having a drink with him one time and Peter said, ‘What about the GMOs, the Genetically Modified Orchestra?’ Roberts recalled. “That name resonates in Guelph.”

They became a popular act in the university pub scene

“That’s how we sharpened and got our chops down, playing for these guys at their pubs,” said Roberts. “Being on campus, one thing leads to another. People hear you and so now we play during conferences here. A lot of time the conferences will have a pub night.”

Early members included Rob MacLean and Doug Larson who played on their 2004, self-titled EP and Kahn produced an album of GMO songs in 2017 called Friends of Len with guest musicians Brent Rowan, Adam Bowman and Andrew McPherson. Proceeds from record sales went to autism research.

Newest member Joey Sabljic has been playing music since he was five years old and enjoys being part of the GMO story.

“I am the lukewarm water between Len and Owen,” he joked. ”Owen is a pretty intense guy when it comes to all matters of rock and roll and pushes us a long and it keeps a certain standard. Len has that ideal drummer personality. He is very jokey and laid back. He is kind of our Ringo. He is a fiercely intelligent guy with a wicked, deadly sense of humour.”

It is the joy of making music that keeps them going.

“The best thing about the GMOs is the fun aspect of it because the pure joy of rehearsing and playing music for family, friends and fans, gets to shine though,” said Kahn. “It’s been a hell of a 20-year ride for me.”