Junior Battles

Toronto's Junior Battles sort of just popped up out of nowhere. In less than two years time, the band has gone from being a group of guys who pronounce common words in funny ways, to being one of the most recognizable bands in the punk scene. Punknews Contributor Zac Hobbs (of Campaign) caught up with Sam Sutherland just after the Fest 10 to test his knowledge of Canadian geography and to talk about Junior Battles, the positive aspects of Paper + Plastick, Canadian punk and the book Sutherland is writing about the subject.

I’m really interested in sort of the 2 minute history of Junior Battles. Because, when we first met, you had me faxing contracts for a DIY punk show to you, and then less than two years later you guys are having one of the best performances at Fest 10. Where did you guys come from, and I guess, what have you guys been doing for the past two years?
I guess the sort of miniature version of the bands inception is just that we have all known each other and played together in different bands and different configurations, and it kind of reached this point with the last band we had done was sort of…serious? You know, we were really making an earnest attempt to do something with this band, and we had invested money in like, shirts, and several copies of our EP and stuff. And it just died on the grill. So Junior Battles kind of came out of this desire to just have a really good time and have an excuse to hang out, and just play fast and fun music that was what we had grown up listening to. And, so what has kind of happened over the past couple years, and over the last two years especially, is that you kind of realize if you stay being in a band that only wants to get drink tickets, and like, hang out with your friends, that actually gets super boring once you’ve done that for about a year. Because you’re like, "Why are we playing a show with a fucking jam band from Nova Scotia on a Tuesday night? Like, I don’t think I’m having any fun right now, this is weird." And when the point of your whole bands existence is to have fun, you kind of have to, I guess strike out into the world and sort of find these new things to do. So, it’s sort of been this quest for "what next?", and to keep challenging ourselves at and still having a good time. So I mean, you and I first met when I was getting you to fax me contracts for a fucking DIY show, like, 6 months ahead of the show.

That ended up having about 5 people be there.
Yeah, totally! But aren’t you glad we had a contract? [Laughing]

Yeah, absolutely. You guys definitely did not screw me over, you held up your end of the contract.
Exactly! But so, what happened there is we had done some touring in Canada, and we were like, "ok, cool, well we really wanna go down and tour the states…," but we are all adults and not sixteen year old kids that can afford to fuck around at the border. So we knew we had to cross legitimately, and that meant getting paper work done. And at that time, I didn’t really understand that I could write your name and say that you had sent me a contract, so I made you fax me a fucking contract. And it has sort of just gone since then. Like, we’ve had visa’s for the last two years since we learned how to do it, and that just means that more than a lot of our friends locally, we’re able to just go down into the states, because there is just so much more going on in concentrated pockets in the states.

We’ve put a lot of time into this band at this point, we’ve all kind of stalled on growing up, and sort of stalled on getting grown up jobs in order to be able to take off and spend two weeks just losing money. And sort of the shitty crown at the end of all of that is being able to play something like that Fest show that you talked about. That was the most insane show I’ve ever played in my fucking life, and it really kind of legitimizes all of the other really dumb decisions you’ve made, or all the times you’ve made people you don’t know fax you stuff. And that’s sort of been it…it’s just been sort of finding what’s new and what’s going to be like, fun, in the next year.

Totally. So you mention touring Canada and wanting to get down to the US, so something I guess I am pretty interested in…is there a vast difference from touring Canada versus touring the US? Like, I’ve toured the US and I’ve toured Europe and the differences are substantial. So would you say touring Canada is easier than touring the US, or vice-versa?
Touring Canada is much, much harder. Because, outside of southern Ontario where we are from, the drives are really long and in a lot of cases, really dangerous at different times of the year. Where we are, I can drive an hour and we can play Guelph, and you know Guelph has its own really awesome thing going on, you drive another hour and you can play Kitchener and Waterloo, and that has its own thing going on. You can drive another hour and go to London, and that is amazing, and that’s sort of it. You can’t go east, because it takes you four hours to get to Ottawa, and we have some great friends in Ottawa, but we’ve never played a good show there. Six hours to Montreal, six hours to the next good show if you drive east, and then after you play London to the west, you can play Windsor, but again, we have great friends in Windsor - never really played a good show there. And then from there, you’re talking like nine hours to Thunder Bay, and from Thunder Bay you’re talking 12 to 14 hours to Winnipeg, from there you’re talking 10 hours to Calgary, and the drives are sort of insurmountably huge.

So unless your opening up for NOFX and you are making money, it’s kind of hard to do it as a band at the level that you and I are at. It’s just not supportive of the same DIY scene, purely because of the economics of it. It’s fucking impossible to have a band play for five people like we sometimes do in The States, but have them make it not from, you know, Tallahassee to Orlando, but to have them make it from Calgary to Winnipeg. So that kind of creates a totally different scene. Southern Ontario is really fortunate because you have these cities close together so you can kind of do a weekend, but touring the States is infinitely easier, and just completely different. I’m sure it’s as different as America and Europe, in a lot of ways, honestly.

So in regards to "scenes" in different cities, do you feel that punk scenes are kind of universal? You’ve played tons of places all over the US and seen how the punk scenes kind of exist here, so compared to Toronto, do you think the punk scene is more of a community than places in the US? Or do you think the punk scene is pretty universal wherever you go?
I mean, I honestly do believe that there are pretty substantial differences, and a lot of it has to do with that touring circuit. There are not as many bands on what I would consider this "punk plain," where, you know you have bands like say, us, or O’Pioneers!!! being a little bit bigger, or New Bruises, or Restorations, or those kinds of bands. Because, those are the kinds of bands that are able to exist and tour within these little pockets and kind of develop a fan base in those areas, in a way that you can’t in Canada. So the end result is a much closer community and a much more connected community, at least across the eastern seaboard in the United States.

In Canada, we were the first ones of our peers and our friends to get visas and to be able to go down into the States and tour. Since then, we’ve had friends that have gotten visas, and obviously we have friends that are in more popular bands that have them for their like, real-ass bands. But in terms of bands at our sort of level, it’s kind of inherently impossible to approach it with any seriousness. It has to be a fucking hobby, or else you’ll have to be willing to invest all this time and money in visas to be able to go anywhere where people are going to enjoy what you’re doing. And the end result of that is you have bands that are really really not serious, and then you have super super serious careerist bands. So, the middle ground between us and Cancer Bats isn’t very big. Like, there are not a lot of bands inside of that spectrum and I think in the states you have a much wider, sort of punk spectrum of people who are just wasted all the time, and people who are making a living.

Absolutely, I’ve actually been noticing a shift in the scene, where it seems like you don’t even have to try and be a careerist kind of band. For example my band. I love playing in my band, but we just sort of hang out in the southeast, play shows in the southeast and do what we can in the southeast, and it works for a while, but I feel like the social media and digital culture is sort of shifting everything to where you don’t even have to tour the US to get known as a band. It’s just sort of crazy how you can go to get your band recognized, and how the punk scene sort of exists today.
It is sort of crazy, and it’s like, with any culture, it has just moved online. And it’s not a bad thing, because it means there are super cool things happening in really isolated places because of it. And I also think that it kind of shrinks the world in the sense that, it’s awesome that there are probably kids who otherwise would have felt extremely alienated living in Boise, who now, because the punk scene lives in such a serious way through the internet, can become a part of something in a very real way that they would’ve had to maybe move away 20 years ago to kind of participate in in an active way. And at the same time, at our Fest show, there were all these fucking people from England…and we’ve never been to England! Like, we haven’t done the ground work that you are suppose to do to have people who are English know the words to your songs. And that is just insane. But at the same time, I recognize that there is a negative aspect to it too, which is just like it did use to be that you worked, and you worked fucking hard. And your reward was that if you were lucky people would connect with what you are doing. And now, the playing field is a lot more level, but at the same time it doesn’t reward having a work ethic the way that it use to.

No, totally. But, on my end, no complaints, you know?
[Laughing] Me neither man. Again, fucking, people form England, come on. One thing I will say, at least about us, is that I do feel when we played that show at the Fest, and it was awesome, I did have this sense of, "we worked for this." We’ve done these tours and we’ve played for no one, and it’s not like we deserve people giving a shit about us, but it is really fucking satisfying to look at people being into your band and feel like you know where that came from. It’s not a mystery to you. It’s like, this is our third Fest, we’ve toured the states this many times and put a lot of time into just being able to be down here, like, legally, and not as aliens. It’s almost more satisfying that way when you can look at it and be like, "fucking, I did this. I worked for this, this is amazing, and I’m glad I put all of this time into this fucking stupid thing."

[laughing] Totally dude. Makes it seem sort of worth it. Sort of a change in subject here, but I just interviewed Eric from O’Pioneers!!! about the life and times of his band. And he basically said that if it wasn’t for Junior Battles making him come up to Toronto and keep doing O’Pioneers!!! with you guys, then he would have broken up the band a long time ago. I thought that was pretty cool, because I remember watching you guys play together at the time and thinking it was the best I had heard O’Pioneers!!! sound in a long time. Do you think the experience of being on tour with Eric, being both O’Pioneers!!! and Junior Battles, was that beneficial on your end, or just something you did because you liked O’Pioneers!!!? Was it a calculated move to not only play with Eric, but you know, get your band exposed through his band?
Super calculated. Really well orchestrated business maneuvering on our part, and I’m glad it was effective. I think there was great synergy and vertical integration between our two businesses, and I feel great about all that we accomplished together.

[Laughing] Awesome, glad to hear it
Yeah, seriously though, I think that’s super cool. I will say this, I think that the version of Pioneers!!! that’s going out and doing this last tour right now with all the New Bruises guys and Cam from Senders is like, personally, my favorite version of the band. We watched them play at the Tampa pre-Fest show, and Aaron (the other guitar player in Junior Battles) and I were just sitting there watching them and I leaned over after two songs and asked, "were we this fucking good?" and he was like, "No, no we weren’t."

But yeah, in terms of doing the thing with Eric, it was more just like that we had played with him a handful of times and we all really got along. Eric is one of those guys that…it bums me out that he lives so far away because he is honestly one of my closest friends. And I think that getting to play together was this cool fucking thing that we couldn’t believe that he said yes to. So for us, it was just sort of about throwing something out there, like saying "Junior Battles has done all these things for us, its gotten us like, free drinks and a chance to go hang out with our friends in Montreal, so why not try and create this cool new experience and see if this guy wants to do this thing together?" And the fact that he was into it was amazing, and I’m so proud of the stuff that we did together.

I’m actually bummed you said how great of a guy Eric was, because it kind of spoils my next question of "How much do you really hate Eric Solomon?"
[laughing] well here’s the thing, he’s a great dude, but I fucking hate him at the same time.

Me too dude. Love him to death, but, he’s kinda just the worst kind of best dude.
There’s no two ways about it. He also won’t drive at night, because he says he can’t see or something. Which is insane, because he also doesn’t drink. So obviously when you think you’re gonna be in a band with someone who doesn’t drink, and you’re like, "I will never have to DD again," and then that person is like, "Oh, I can’t see at night," you’re just like, "You’re lying to me. I know you’re lying to me."

He’s the worst best dude.
But in all seriousness, it was just a real pleasure to play with Eric. I’m really proud of everything we did in that band.

Also, Junior Battles released a new record this year. So how did you guys get hooked up with Paper + Plastick? Has it been a good experience for you? I know some bands have kind of openly spoke out against the label recently, but you guys seem to have had a pretty good relationship with them so far.
We’ve had a great relationship with Vinnie. I mean, to be honest, I think you’d have to be willfully tuning things out to not hear some of the stuff people have said about him. And some of those people are people that we care about and trust. But at the same time, our experience has been really, really positive. The thing about Vinnie is that he has, more than anyone in my life outside of my parents, invested more in my band and my creativity than anyone. Vinnie listened to our band and invested his own money in it. Like, he invested in the recording of the record, he invested in putting out a fucking gatefold vinyl and artwork for that record. He let us put a record that he had paid for to record and press on gatefold vinyl for free as a pay what you can download! When the CDs came in a couple of days before the scheduled release date, they were over-nighted to us in Toledo, OH, so we had CDs the day we were suppose to have them. And I think that it’s so popular to shit-talk Paper + Plastick, especially on Punknews, and in the comments of this interview there will be people shit talking Paper + Plastick. I mean, the first comment is going to be "Right, but, you know, fuck Paper + Plastick…also they sound like Fall Out Boy." And I just think there is a little bit of bandwagon jumping on people wanting to talk shit on the label. Not that I don’t think that there are people with criticisms of how things have been dealt with in the past and whatever, but I just think when we went to the warehouse at Fest and looked at our vinyl, I just thought, "This is fucking crazy." Like, we’re not a popular band. I know people think we sound like Fall Out Boy, but we don’t sound enough like Fall Out Boy. Like, we’re not going to make anybody rich, and Vinnie knows it, and he’s still a really good supportive guy. And I sort of feel like people don’t say that enough about him. And I think there are people who have not been entirely grateful for the opportunities he has provided because he has done something else that pissed them off. And none of that is for me to judge, but I can’t say enough good stuff about working with the label and working with him.

I mean, like you said, I get frustrated at the band-wagoners, but it’s like, a record might be late, but at least you have a record, you know? Who was going to put out that record beforehand? And you can’t deny that everything that label has put out has looked fucking incredible. I mean, I have my own personal opinions about the label, but every piece of vinyl I own from them looks fucking awesome.
And that’s the thing, I know that you have an opinion and I know that a lot of our friends have an opinion, but I just think he’s a fucking good dude. I really do. And when you are a band from Toronto and you are at a show in Gainesville and there are kids from England singing along with your set, that is something that we owe to Paper + Plastic 100%.

Well speaking of, I guess we should talk about Idle Ages a little bit. The more I keep listening to the record, the more I keep finding and building this motif of "morose nostalgia." Where you guys are singing a lot about things in the past and how you are getting older and relating yourself to the past and trying to figure out if you are happier now than when you were, you know, Seventeen and Sober. Is that kind of accurate? Is there a lyrical theme to Idle Ages?
Yeah man, 100%. That’s kind of, exactly what the entire record is about. When we started working on the record we didn’t want to set any boundaries. But it became pretty obvious after we had put together the first couple of songs that both Aaron and myself were writing about really similar themes. Like, for him it was a lot of him being super unhappy in his job that he was maintaining so that we could do this band…which is really funny when you think about the idea of sort of fucking up your normal life to be in a band that plays in Atlanta in front of five people. And that’s the weird headspace that he was in, he’s a super creative guy and he does all this other stuff and he’s coming home at the end of the day exhausted from working the bullshit pay-his-rent-pay-his-student-loans kind of job and trying to figure out what is going to make him happy. And for me, it was a lot of trying to reconcile all these different paths you can take. Like, I work effectively in the music industry, which is something I only came to terms with a year and a half ago despite having the same job for like 6 years. There are sort of weird things that come up when you work really closely with the thing that you love. You can never really tell if you are losing sight of what made you fall in love with that thing in the first place. Like, if the reason you fell in love with punk is because it rejected dominant culture and mainstream culture, then if you work for a magazine and you help provide the editorial that sales car advertisements…are you just buying into this machinery that you thought you were rejecting in high school when you decided that you were going to start a zine? Where are you able to draw these lines in your life between what you wanted the world to be like, how the world is, and the way that you are willing to conduct yourself inside that horrifying sphere of adult living?

And that’s kind of the crux of where most of the record comes from. It’s saying when, you know, you were fifteen and kind of fell in love with punk rock, it was because it sort of promised this ideal world where the people who beat you up coming home from school didn’t matter. Where your disagreements with your teachers didn’t matter. Where you sort of being just a fucking loser didn’t matter. And also where all the things that you thought were stupid really were stupid. And then you grow up and you kind of have to reconcile this black and white "punk" and "not punk" view of the world with this really fucking dark shade of grey that is actually a lot more realistic. And that is sort of the core kind of theme of the record, at least for me and where I was kind of coming from.

Yeah, you know, I’m about to be 27, I’m getting married in less than a year, so, I’m always kind of struggling with this idea of "old punx," and how the 15 year old version of myself would hate to know that I quit touring so I could get a real job and have a salary. And that’s what I really like about the record. But, anyway. One of the big reasons I wanted to talk to you is because I know you have been working on a book about Canadian Punk, which I think is really fucking cool. It seems like most books about punk sort of start with the Sex Pistols and end at Nirvana for some reason. It’s like every book describes punk as, "studded belts, heroin, and dying at a young age." So is your book more of an oral history of what was happening, or what exactly are you talking about in this book?
Yeah, the book, which I am pretty sure is going to be called Perfect Youth, is something that I have been working on for the past five years or so. And it’s just about the birth of punk in Canada, right from Victoria, which is the furthest fucking west you can go, all the way to St Johns, Newfoundland, which is the eastern most part of the country. Its not an oral history, it’s a narrative with quotes - I’ve done over 150 interviews at this point for it - and its just about the first punk bands in all these different cities. There’s so, so many great bands that no one has heard of because they weren’t Television or they weren’t the MC5. It’s something as a person growing up a fan of punk in Toronto, you kind of get into something and you trace it backwards. For me, it was getting into Blink-182 when your in the eight grade, and then you get into the Descendants and Bad Religion, and then you go from that and get into all the Dischord stuff, and you sort of unfold this weird punk diagram, this punk map, and you are able to trace these different relationships. The problem is, is that you can’t do that in Canada. There’s very little documentation…only in the last year or so did a women by the name of Liz Worth put out an Oral History of punk in Toronto and the surrounding area. It’s a fantastic book called Treat Me Like Dirt, and that is brand new. Up until now, there has been nothing, and that is sort of what I have been working on for 5 fucking years now.

Is there an end in sight? Do you have any idea when it might be out?
It’s coming out Fall 2012. I’m wrapping up the final draft of it right now, it’s coming out with a publisher called ECW Press, which is a medium-sized publisher based out of Canada, and they have distribution, as I believe anyway, all over the world. So yeah, it’ll be out then. I’ve just been wrapping it up at this point…like as soon I finish talking to you I’m gonna go back to fucking drinking and writing, basically.

So when you say it’s a linear narrative, would a guy from Atlanta, who doesn’t know any of these bands, would this be something I would be interested in? I mean I know the answer to this is, "yes you should definitely read this book," but - -
And yes, you most definitely should read this, Zac!

So if I don’t know anything about these Canadian bands, I could read it and find a bunch of cool fucking bands from the 70’s and 80’s that I never knew existed.
Yeah, that’s kind of the idea, that I’m trying to make the book interesting to not only people who are Canadian Punk Fetishes, but just to the kind of people who will pick up a book about any kind of musical evolution just to educate themselves. Like, I have piles of fucking books about music that I never really listen to. I think there are people and music fans that are just sort curious about these different genres and different evolutions that they’ve never heard about. Especially in Canada, there were a lot of bands that actually had influence in The States, or influence on English bands that have kind of been lost to time, just because they never really had the machinery behind them that American and English bands had. There’s a band from Toronto called The Viletones that plays a big part in the book, and one of their songs was covered by Nirvana, and their big single is called "Screaming Fist," and there is a reference to that in Neuromancer by William Gibson. You know a lot of these bands had tremendous influence. Like, DOA from Vancouver were the fist band to use "hardcore" in the name of their record when they put out Hardcore 81 in 1981. So it’s kind of shining some light on this thing that not a lot of people talk about, and people are kind of forgetting about it 30 years on since the initial explosion of punk. So, the hope is to create a book that kind of puts these things into context that someone like you, from Atlanta, could be like "well, I’ve never heard of 90% of these bands, but I’m curious what was the fucking deal." And hopefully in the book, it’s like "well, Zac, here’s the fucking deal: shit ruled." And I can assure people that the language used in the book is much more intelligent than that.

Well sort of in that vein, since you are writing a book about "punk," what kind of defines the word "punk" to you and the punk scene? Is it an aesthetic thing? Or is it a lifestyle thing? Like, I consider Junior Battles a punk band, but I’ve never seen you decked out in studded belts with blue hair.
Well, I mean, we do dress in studded belts and blue hair when we are in Canada, because that is sort of the customer here.

I fucking knew it man!
Yeah, see when you have seen us we are in our "America Punk" clothes. We look through the liner notes of our No Idea Records CDs, and we’ve seen that you people have these stressface tattoos and these beards, so we prepare accordingly. So when we get home, we fucking shave and throw on our fucking Doc’s and our bondage pants, put some Manic Panic in our hair and get really punked out.

But seriously, I guess for me, and it has changed a lot since I have grown up, but I like to sort of think about the purest expression of punk, and the initial explosion back in ’75 before it was commoditized and before the English made it this fucking cartoon, which is that punk is a thing that stands in opposition to dominant culture. And that’s why The Talking Heads are a punk band and Television are a punk band along with The Ramones, who came to define how punk sounded. Look at something like the Fest. What are there, like, 300 bands at Fest? So, you have 200 bands that sound like Hot Water Music, and then you have all this other shit, and I think that it is all in the approach. You can be a bluegrass band and play at a punk festival if your attitude is such that you are standing in opposition to the things that are fucked up in the world. And the things that you know in your heart to not be right, but that are presented in this They Live, John Carpenter style of way. Like, "nothing is fucking wrong." But it’s sort of the opposite of that, when you put on the glasses in They Live, and being able to sort out what is bullshit, and who is an alien sent to destroy the human race. And I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Nah man. I mean, it does in a way.
Yeah, ok, so basically in summary, "punk is like having the magic glasses in They Live," is the most succinct version of that incoherent rambling answer that I just gave you.

[laughing] No, I think that was awesome. I think that’s a good way to wrap it up.
[laughing] Is it though?

Totally. We’ll lob you out of here on a softball: What’s new for Junior Battles for the rest of the year and beyond?
Oh, thank god. Thank you for letting me get out of here looking halfway smart. I think over the next couple of months we are just doing a couple of weekends. We have to fix our van…it has a hole in the body, so it is super cold. And also, our drummer Joel drove it into the awning of an underground parking garage, and now it leaks. So, now it leaks, and it’s super cold, and is essentially just a fucking sad death trap. So, we’re getting a new van and doing a bunch of stuff locally, doing the sort of whole Southern Ontario circuit over the winter. And in January and February we’re thinking of going back down and doing some shows in Philadelphia and New York State that we had to cancel, because our deathtrap of a van broke down. Besides that, I think we want to try and write another five songs, so it’ll just be sitting down in a room together trying to write some weird ass follow up material, and then touring as much as we can and getting Idle Ages in front of as many people as possible. We’re not the type of band that has the money to make people hear it, so we have to get in our cold, wet, sad deathtrap of a van and try and convince people to give a shit about it. And that’s what we’re going to do.