INTERVIEW – Sam Sutherland
I got the chance to chat with author, journalist, musician, and MTV News Canada host and producer Sam Sutherland to learn more about his book Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk. This Friday, Sam will be hitting Hamilton while on his road trip across Ontario and Quebec to promote it.
About the book:
Perfect Youth is the story of the birth of Canadian punk, a transformative cultural force that reared its head across the country at the end of the 1970s. Bands like D.O.A., the Subhumans, the Viletones, and Teenage Head — alongside lesser-known regional acts from all over Canada — reshaped a dull musical landscape, injecting new energy and new sounds into halls, bars, and record stores from Victoria to St. John’s.
Reaching beyond the realm of standard band biographies, Sutherland unearths the detailed historical context of how the advent of punk reshaped the culture of cities across Canada, speeding along the creation of alternative means of cultural production, consumption, and distribution.Plus at least one story about a cop, a mailbag, and a bowie knife. – via Perfect Youth
Conversation with author Sam Sutherland and George Pettit (Alexisonfire) and live music from Arson
Friday March 29th
The Casbah, 306 King Street West
Official event page
Check out my conversation with Sam:
What was the first punk band you were into or first album that really got you into the genre?
I was a super cool kid from the suburbs growing up in the ‘90s, and my first exposure to anything tangentially punk was, naturally, Blink 182’s Dude Ranch. It didn’t take long to dig a bit deeper, but I’d be lying if I faked anything cooler. It’s why I’m not inclined to shit too hard on contemporary bands. Everyone has to start somewhere. No one is born with an Amebix record under their arm.
When did you first start the project and what was the initial inspiration?
This started when I was still in college. It stemmed from reading music – and particularly punk – histories voraciously but noticing pretty quickly that Canada was unrepresented. Outside of Have Not Been the Same, a crucial book about the independent music explosion of ’85 to ’95, there just wasn’t much written about all the amazing bands that had spent years defining a sound in this country. I wanted to read a Canadian version of American Hardcore or England’s Dreaming, and I had enough ego to assume that I should be the one to write it, probably because I am a jerk.
It must have been a daunting task to take this on. How did you keep your perspective while writing?
It was a pretty colossal undertaking. All in all, it ate about five years of my life. But I honestly believe the story of punk in Canada is an important one, no less important than New York or London or Southern California. It’s easy to stay motivated when you feel in your guts that what you’re doing matters, even on a very micro level.
Did you have any surreal moments when meeting and interviewing some of these musicians that you grew up listening to?
Absolutely. There are so many wonderful people and, you know, colourful characters in the annals of punk history. One of my favourite moments was a very Hamilton one – I spent all afternoon hanging out with Chris Houston, of the Forgotten Rebels and a full-on Hammer institution, listening to these crazy stories about the city, his career, and all these rare recordings he has of projects he’s done with folks like Mary Margaret O’Hara. Then he offered to tour me around the city’s punk landmarks, and then he insisted on treating me to dinner at his favourite Italian restaurant before we went to see Teenage Head play. Pretty good day.
A lot of material has been documented about the American and British punk movements – does Canadian punk music often get overlooked or underappreciated? Is Canada’s punk history cut off or separate from other punk movements? Why is that?
It does, for two reasons. One, Canada has only recently put on its Big Boy Pants on the world cultural stage. For a long time, everyone, Canadians included, had a built-in assumption that Canadian art was somehow inferior to American or English art, whether it was literature, film, or music. Two, the music industry in this country was not fully developed in the ‘70s while punk was exploding all over the world. The result is a lack of great recordings, which become pretty essential as time marches on. It’s hard to convince people of the value of something they can’t experience firsthand.
Geographically, you explored what was going on in the culture across Canada. Was there a specific province or city whose punk scene was new to you or surprising? Was there a big divide between locations or were you able to link common threads?
Finding out that there was a punk band in Newfoundland in 1977 was pretty great, but then I realized there were two, and my brain melted. When you think about how isolated that part of the country would have been at that time, it’s pretty wild. That ended up being the defining characteristic of a lot of these bands and scenes – they were so isolated that the music they produced couldn’t have been created anywhere else. In the States, even the Dead Boys, who were from Cleveland, had as good of a chance as the Ramones of getting a major label record deal. In Canada, a band from Toronto or Montreal could barely dream of that kind of a shot, and it’s embedded in the weird, defiantly non-commercial choices they made as bands.
Speaking of Hamilton connections, Teenage Head are from Hamilton and are one of the bands you look at as being part of the birth of Canadian punk. They’re also one of those rare bands who stand the test of time and are still going. Can you give a quick description of their impact on Canadian punk music?
Teenage Head are the best. And they started in 1975, so their timeline matches the Ramones. They get called “Canada’s Ramones” a lot and it’s not really accurate – Johnny loved Teenage Head. It’s amazing that these high school kids were possessed by the same instinct as a bunch of weirdos from Queens, to strip bloated, arena-shit rock and roll back to its basics. And play it loud. Their impact nationally was immeasurable, as they became the first homegrown punk band that many people saw. And once you saw a band from Hamilton doing something you thought only bands from New York could do, it freed you and your friends to realize you could do whatever the hell you wanted. It’s a story that I heard repeated innumerable times while conducting interviews for the book. Plus “Picture My Face” is one of the best first wave punk singles, period.
Any interesting tidbits from your interactions with members of the Teenage Head?
I had a bit of a tough time with the Teenage Head guys. I think they’re very protective of their legacy, as they should be, and felt a lot of their story had already been told by Liz Worth’s great oral history of punk in Toronto and Hamilton, Treat Me Like Dirt. The best stuff I got from Gord Lewis was actually at a show at This Ain’t Hollywood, celebrating their late vocalist, Frankie Venom. He was playing old Head songs, plus all the songs that influenced him and Frankie, telling stories about the two of them between each one. It was a pretty incredible night.
I just saw one of my favourite artists, Kate Nash, at Horseshoe Tavern (fittingly, since the venue is an important site in Canada’s punk history and features in your book. For a Canadian punk connection, she covered Cub’s “My Chinchilla”!
But Kate got me thinking about how the punk genre is male-dominated – what has the scene been like for Canadian female punk musicians? They must have run up against the same challenges as females in other punk movements. I read that in the book you explore Canadian female punk musicians as well as the queercore scene. What did you discover there?
Punk opened up rock and roll to a lot of people. The music was supposed to be simple. It could be sloppy. And that meant the barriers to access for people whose parents hadn’t seen fit to throw them into guitar lessons at age 8 could join right in and be just as active and important as some ELO keyboard virtuoso. And lyrically, punk tended to eschew the “songs about my dick” trope that was so popular in most contemporary rock. The problems arose when bands like the B-Girls or the Curse started to break out of the punk scene and butted up against the still-churning misogyny of the music industry. Where they had been equals inside this new, open scene, the rest of the world was still kind of a shitpile.
To bring things to the present – you’ve teamed up with some Canadian musicians on your book tour. Damian Abraham of Fucked Up was with you at the book’s launch (at the Horseshoe, awesome!) and George Pettit of Alexisonfire will be with you this Friday at The Casbah. Both are important figures in the more recent legacy of punk rock. What Canadian punk bands are you excited about right now? How do you feel about the current state of the genre?
I think the genre is doing great. Punk is so ubiquitous at this point, I don’t know what it would take to affect its health – there are always going to be some cool weirdo kids somewhere making some fucking crazy racket. I was really excited to see how much excitement White Lung was generating at SXSW this year – they’re part of a weird moment that seems to be happening in Vancouver right now with bands like Nü Sensae and Peace. METZ is another great example – they’re direct sonic descendants of a very Canadian strain of post-hardcore, bands like Kittens and Shallow North Dakota, and they’re blowing shit up right now.
Favourite place to eat in Hamilton: Mex-I-Can!
Favourite breakfast food: Eggs and bacon.
If you were an alcoholic beverage, what would you be? Fresh marg.
Your go-to karaoke song: Silence
If you could speak flawlessly with any other accent, what would it be? East coast.
Favourite word: Atavistic.
Favourite concert/live performance you’ve seen: The final Grade show at the Opera House in 2006.
What is on your playlist right now: Disfear. So much Disfear. And “Bugatti.”
If you could detour to anywhere in the world right now, where would you go? Anywhere above freezing.
Favourite mode of transportation: Feet.
What’s one thing on your bucket list: Win a fight.
My thanks to Sam for taking the time to chat. I look forward to reading the book and hearing more stories this Friday at The Casbah!