Canadian journalist and musician Sam Sutherland has just released his first book, Perfect Youth, an in-depth look at the history of first-wave punk in Canada. We took a moment to sit down with Sam to talk about his experience writing the book and what we can take away from Canada's early punk scene (even if you live in America!).
Perfect Youth can be purchased here.
It says in the book's intro that this all started as a project for a class at Ryerson in 2006. Did you ever get that paper in?
I did, but it was a fucking mess. Quite literally just a dozen or so interviews transcribed in their entirety with little to no context between them. I was lucky that my advisors actually believed me when I said I was trying to accomplish something that was a little bigger than a final project at school, and because I was pretty good up until that point, they let me roll with it.
So you had the idea of writing the book at that time. What made you decide to go for first-wave. It's an obvious starting point, but not the most accessible period, nor the most popular. Or is just as obvious as you start with the first wave…
That was the hole that existed. If you're into punk, it's natural to start digging deeper. If you're my age, you start with a tape copy of Dookie when you're in middle school, then you see a Blink-182 music video, and then you keep going from there. So you trace Blink to the Descendents. You trace the Descendents to Black Flag. You keep going. And between books like England's Dreaming, American Hardcore, and Please Kill Me, you can learn everything you'd ever want to know about the origin of punk and hardcore in the U.S. and the U.K. But if you're from Canada, there's nothing. At least, when I was in college, there was absolutely nothing. You have a great book, Have Not Been the Same, which chronicles the evolution of Canadian indie rock from '85 to '95, but punk is just lurking in the shadows of that book. If you want to learn about the Pointed Sticks, Subhumans, Viletones, Diodes… There's nothing. So the book starts with the first wave because it has to.
It's interesting, though, that many of the musicians you talked to had documented their own experiences. Either having written books, or Mark Gaudet making a documentary when Purple Knight were getting started. While it must have been helpful, did you find it strange how many had done so?
A lot of them have, but many more haven't. The Gaudet documentary is great because it's mostly directed by his grandmother. Joe Keithley of D.O.A. has two books, and John Armstrong of the Modernettes wrote a memoir that is being made into a movie starring Jay Baruchel. I think for a lot of folks, this was a really crucial moment in their lives, and that's worth documenting. Imagine if all the rage and excitement of your teenage years were also an integral part of the evolution of your national culture. Punks in Canada can lay claim to that. All I can lay claim to is being in a band that sort of sounded like Dashboard Confessional. Not the same.
One thing I find interesting with first wave punk, and anything, is that it's more removed from its influences than acts in the genre that follow. In your chapter about Discharge, someone in the band said that they were playing what they wanted to hear because nobody else was doing it. Of course, that was the case with punk in the US and the UK as well, but did you see anything uniquely Canadian in how that happened in Canada, being a country with its population spread out so far, and touring being so difficult?
Absolutely. That's kind of the point. A lot of people dismiss early punk bands from Canada because they assume that they were just late-to-the-party Ramones knock-offs. Some of them were, sure, but so were a lot of bands in New York and L.A. There was this general feeling of cultural dissatisfaction at that time, and it reached critical mass towards the mid to late '70s. That's where punk comes from. It's an atavistic approach to rock and roll -- taking it away from ELP and back into Sun Records. But, like, angrier. Way angrier.
Canada is unique because it was so isolated. Even in big cities like Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, there was little hope of having Seymour Stein sit down and sign you to Sire Records. Bands in New York had a shred of hope when it came to mainstream success -- bands in Moncton didn't. And so those bands would make weirder decisions. They would play weirder notes and dress in weirder clothes. They were reacting to the cultural void that produced nothing of meaning to them.
Paul Robinson of the Diodes had a line that stood out to me in the book when he says, and I'm paraphrasing, "The right people liked us." You don't hear that kind of phrase being tossed around in punk too often, at least not to the press, but how important do you think it was for these early Canadian punk bands to know that, at least in hindsight, if they weren't selling records, they made it to the right sets of ears from time to time?
For a lot of these bands, that's all they have to justify the years they poured into this indefinable thing. With a band like the Diodes in particular, they were part of a scene in Toronto that would be mentioned in the same breath as London and New York. Until everyone started putting out LPs, these scenes were an an equal playing field. Except today, the Clash and the Ramones are mainstream cultural touchstones, and "Tired of Waking Up Tired" by the Diodes is just one of the best rock and roll songs ever written that no one knows. Except it appears in Hard Core Logo, it gets namechecked by Bob Mould and Dave Grohl. The Viletones were covered by Nirvana and Bad Brains, and Duff McKagan from Guns N Roses cites the Vancouver scene as crucial to his teenage discovery of punk in Seattle. So even if you're not hearing these songs at, like, Raptors games, they're still woven into the cultural fabric of the whole continent.
Right, even though people might not ever notice
No. But they still play Teenage Head at Blue Jays games on Canada Day. So we have that.
The word "Weidro" appears quite often in the book to describe people, which could be expected, but in one instance it appeared alongside "tough guy". Do you think the idea of being both authentically tough and a weirdo has anything inherently Canadian to it? The Ramones and the Clash weren't tough. And the Sex Pistols might have looked the part, but we all know how that was created.
I think Canadian culture at that time had an inherent fun house mirror quality to it, like a distortion of the American mainstream struggling to assimilate with its own distinct history. There are loads of tough guy weirdos in the book, the kind of dudes who wouldn't think twice about leading a gang in beating down someone for having the wrong length of hair, but who would also take a shit in a bucket on stage at a biker rally just because.
Which band member surprised you the most with what they're doing now?
Learning about the folks who made full left turns into careers as lawyers or real estate moguls was always fun. For every destitute basement interview you'd get to talk to someone on the 62nd floor of a Bay Street office tower. It's great to see how some people were able to take the attitude they adopted in their teens and translate it into, say, being a fully kick-ass entertainment lawyer or a political strategist. Warren Kinsella, who played in an early Calgarian punk band called the Hot Nasties, was a lot of fun. He'll load you up on equal stories about prison riots and the transition between the Chr√?¬©tien and Martin governments.
As an active member in Canada's punk scene today, and having toured across the country and the States, do you see any real connections to the bands covered in this book, in a tangible way?
Yes, in the sense that my band is every bit as important and groundbreaking as the Subhumans. Thank you for asking and noticing.
Also, yes in this way -- D.O.A. were crucial to building the DIY continental touring route that Black Flag gets all the credit for. Bands like mine wouldn't be able to do what we do without the foundation built by those guys. Canada was this dull, cultural inhospitable place. We wouldn't have Queen Street West in Toronto without the Dishes. I live here, my bands plays here, I eat and I drink here. But there was nothing, literally nothing, until the Dishes started their residency at the Beverly Tavern. And it spreads out from their like a horrifying punk virus.
It's funny that you can trace thing like that back to a particular instance.
You probably can in most cities. In Regina, there was literally nowhere you could play original rock music until this band the Extroverts started having shows in a Hungarian restaurant. It became a permanent live music venue that only shuttered this September.
It just takes a few nerds.
For our American readers who might dismiss this book as a niche area of interest, what would you say to them to get them to read it?
Shut up, Americans. It's not always about you.
Less rudely, I would say that the book isn't just about punk and isn't just about Canada. It's about the way that urban centres influence and shape the development of creativity and about the unique ways that alternative culture develops in isolation.
And it's about drugs and fucking Debbie Harry behind CBGB and about people drinking your blood like you're a god.
Thanks for your time. I really enjoyed reading it. I went in thinking "Bah, I know everything about Canadian punk√Ę‚?¨¬Ě…I didn't.
Precisely. Mostly, I just think the first wave of Canadian punk had some amazing bands that go largely unrecognized and uncredited. So if you've read We Got the Neutron Bomb and Why Be Something That You're Not and Our Band Could Be Your Life and you think you know everything, you don't know shit. Buy my book.