Canadian pop punk legends Junior Battles finally made it across the water to play a two and half week run through Europe. Sam, who shares vocal and guitar duties with Erin, was kind enough to hang out for a chat amongst the beer kegs at the rather splendid New River Studios in London before their one and only UK show. Thanks to fishouttawater for use of the picture from the show. Check out the interview below.
DS: So, your first time in Europe…
Sam: Yeah we have never been to Europe.
DS: You don’t get out of Canada very often?
Sam: Well we used to tour the States a lot, especially when we put out Idle Ages and when we put out Rally, we were much more active as a touring band. Canada is very big and the cities that you can play in, where you’re gonna have a good show, are far away from each other. We very quickly decided we were going to focus on the States and so we played Fest a lot, we played cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia a lot – cities that were close. But Europe is fucking far man! It took a while to get here but this has always been a goal for the band. We haven’t been super active for the last couple of years and at some point you realize that it’s probably not going to happen. Then by the grace of some punk god, The Run Up reached out to us and asked if we wanted to do this tour with them which was sort of anchored by Booze Cruise in Hamburg and then El Topo Goes Frigo, this festival in the middle of fucking nowhere in Belgium. So we had these two festival shows, we’ve been here for a little over two weeks, we go home tomorrow and it’s been fucking sick.
DS: You hear nightmare stories of bands having issues at the US border when going from Canada to the States to play shows. Did you ever experience any issues?
Sam: We always went fully legal. We know people who tried to cross illegally who got banned from travelling to the States for a decade. None of us could afford that on a personal level or on a professional level. We live in Toronto which is a few hours from America. America has tonnes of problems and is very fucked up but it’s also pretty tight sometimes. So it was very important for us not to risk being banned from going to New York or Chicago because we wanted to go and play a fucking punk show so we got visas and did everything above board. It’s expensive which is the reason why we stopped doing it. You keep going and keep doing it, renew our visas and musician’s union membership and if you’re a band that’s a little bit more popular than us then it’s just the price of doing business. But for us, this band is a hobby and tour is kind of vacation and if the vacation is costing you a shit tonne of fucking money you maybe wanna go on a different vacation…like Europe!
DS: You mentioned some of the places you played in Europe, I saw you played a secret show in Munich…
Sam: Yeah so we played at a practice space in Munich which was one of the most fun and insane shows of the whole tour. We got there a little early, went to this proper Munich beer hall that’s been there a million fucking years and had thousands of people there and our whole experience was great. We played with this band Little Teeth who were fucking sick, it was just like a really really cool night were everyone was just there to see the band and just party. Especially when you’re a band our size, we played a couple of shows on this tour in bigger rooms which is great but when thirty people show up in a bigger room it’s fine but it’s not super rad. But Munich was perfect because everyone was jammed in this room and then we had the most extensive dance party of the tour which has been a bit of a fixture. One of the guys just started dj-ing and we were just killing our voices singing along to all the Taylor Swift and Wheatus songs we could handle. It was fucking sick.
DS: And how was Booze Cruise?
Sam: Booze Cruise in Hamburg usually takes places in the summer when I guess it’s more pleasant to be out on the river and this was the first year they were doing a winter edition. Nothington headlined the first night and they did the boat cruise in fucking December, it was cold as fuck. We weren’t there, we were playing somewhere else that night. They did the one boat cruise and the rest were club shows. There were two club shows. Worriers were playing the next night after we were there and that was the biggest show of the tour. It was so fucking fun, the people who run that festival are amazing, the guys in Nothington are insanely nice and they are on this final run so that was their last Hamburg show. It was such a great opportunity, we’ve never been to Europe, never been to Germany, never been to Hamburg…and the Reeperbahn is fucking insane! We had a really good night and then a really bad morning.
DS: You played quite a few dates in Germany. Was that because the promoter there was particularly active or…
Sam: I think Germany is just really fucking good for punk bands. We’d heard from so many of our friends who’ve come over here that Europe is so different from North America. North America, it’s like you’re imposing on people when you fucking show up. In Europe and Germany in particular there’s this tremendous gratitude from the people who are putting on the show and who are doing us a favour. They are helping us out by giving us a show to play and somewhere to sleep but the whole attitude is completely different. We played an hour away from Booze Cruise and normally if you play an hour away from Fest in Gainesville or Pouzza Fest in Montreal those shows would be dead because everyone just goes to the festival show. But here, we’re playing small towns that I haven’t fucking heard of and the shows were insane. Like in Saarbrucken, never heard of Saarbrucken in my entire fucking life and we played in this restaurant and you couldn’t get in when The Run Up were playing. There were too many people in there and you couldn’t get the door open. From everything we hear from people you can do a whole tour just in Germany and every show is going to be exciting, you’re going to get fed well and people are going to be really pumped that you’re there. It was definitely a surprise to us when we first looked at what the itinerary was for the tour and we saw how many German dates there were and towns I’d never heard of. I can’t recommend it enough, everyone should start a punk band and tour Germany for sure.
DS: And you nearly didn’t make it to London…
Sam: Yeah, we have had the worst fucking luck of our lives, I think of any band’s existence, on this tour. We were supposed to play London two and a half weeks ago, we got on our plane to fly out the night before on a red eye, the flight sits on the tarmac for about four hours and then they tell us the anti-skid brake system isn’t functioning so we have to get on another plane. They get everyone off the plane and immediately cancel the flight. It was a total fucking con job. So at that point it was about 1 am, we were supposed to leave around 10 pm or whatever, and so we were all on our phones trying to figure out if there was another way to get to London. This was a really meaningful show for us, we have never played in the UK, this was the only UK show on the tour, I personally have never even been to London. We were really excited, we have friends here and it didn’t happen – we couldn’t get out in time. We got on a rescheduled flight the next day.
DS: So did you fly into London then leave for Belgium straight away?
Sam: Yeah, we flew into London then drove To Belgium. It ended up being the longest forty-eight hours of my life. We spent eight hours in an airport and at the end of it I went home. It fucking sucked. But thankfully Hassan who was promoting the show was able to get this venue booked which was great, it seems really fucking cool and everyone here is amazing. We got here way later than we thought but we didn’t miss a single fucking show.
DS: Have you had a chance to see the sights?
Sam: No, we literally drove here and set up so after the show I’m just going to wander around at night until I can’t fucking stand and maybe go look at a tower or something…look at the big clock.
DS: Well I think they’re repairing that at the moment…
Sam: Fuck, well of course that’s just our fucking luck. But it gets so much worse though because The Run Up’s van died when we were in Cologne so they had to get a rental van. Then after two shows we were told that their van was fixed, so they drove back with the rental van, swapped it out for their repaired van which had absolutely not been fixed. We ended up driving their “fixed” van into Strasbourg, France, while it was billowing smoke from the hood and then back to get another rental (so that was the third van) and piling everything into the van so we got to the show in Lausanne. Then that van had to be returned to Strasbourg before this show, so Harry, the drummer for The Run Up, returned it and then was supposed to fly out of Strasbourg to London to make the show but his flight got delayed, missed his connection and didn’t make his flight here. So Harry from The Run Up is not here at the show, Glen who is filling in for our drummer is playing drums for them and I might play a couple songs as well. The Run Up just bought a brand new van and this venue owner in Liege last night went to move it without anyone’s permission and literally smashed the front of the van. So van four of the tour got smashed up by a venue owner in Belgium last night. It has been un-fucking-believable, but it’s an adventure man.
DS: So how come your drummer didn’t make the tour?
Sam: Our drummer Joel has a beautiful baby boy. Unfortunately he’s a professional nerd and is completing his PhD, so he was able to do the first half of the tour then he flew home and our good friend Glen, who sings in a band called Attention!, jumped in to play drums. He’s been helping us out and he’s been amazing. His band toured Europe before and hopefully they’ll be back again, they’re an insanely sick punk rock band from Toronto.
DS: Junior Battles was formed partly thanks to a Jaws musical. What’s the story there?
Sam: When I was in college I wrote a musical version of Jaws for a school project and Erin who plays guitar and sings in Junior Battles – we sort of knew each other – ended up being in the musical. It was a three hander, no budget fringe musical that we did in Toronto and also off Broadway in New York and it basically paid for my last year of college. It’s called Giant Killer Shark the Musical, the soundtrack is still online and there are some photos of it. That is where Erin and I really found our groove in terms of harmonising with each other and we learned how our voices complimented each other through that process.
DS: I read that after Idle Ages came out there was an idea that you might stop doing the band…
Sam: We put out Idle Ages and we thought “let’s fucking go for it.” We were going to tour a lot and fuck up our lives, destroy our bank accounts, wreck our livers and our brains and see what happened. Then it never really took off, which happens you know? We are really lucky because we have people who really love our band and are insanely fucking cool to want to do things like talk to me on a pile off kegs in a place that I’ve never been in my entire fucking life. We are outrageously fortunate and honoured that anybody gives a shit about what we do. But it never reached a critical mass, we have friends where it has done that and it’s fucking sick and that’s what we thought we wanted. We decided to chill for a second and figure out what we want out of this band and we ended up putting together the songs that comprised Rally. That’s also what happened when we put out the split with this great band Bong Mountain from Grand Rapids a couple of years ago. It was the same thing, we were just hanging out and just wanted to write more songs. We’re past the point of really trying to fucking make it and now it’s just about enjoying hanging out and playing music with each other and wherever that takes us. We are fortunate that over the past couple weeks it’s taken us around Europe.
DS: Are we likely to see a new album any time soon?
Sam: Erin and I have both been writing a lot, the process of putting this tour together and coming out and having the tremendous privilege of playing songs that we wrote ten years ago in Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, France…it’s very inspiring. We’ve had a couple of sessions with just the two of us fucking around. Every year it gets tougher, people’s lives get real but it’s important to maintain a creative outlet. I can’t say what is going to come from that process but it’s not like the band is going anywhere. Something will happen, I have no idea what it will look like. We’re certainly flying home tomorrow feeling really energised by this whole experience, despite the fact that we are extremely depleted of all of our actual energy.
DS: Speaking of creative outlets, you have some unique music videos, do the ideas for those come from someone in the band?
Sam: We all kind of work in creative fields, expect for Joel who is a dork.
DS: In what field is he a dork in?
Sam: He’s getting his PHD in jars.
Sam: Yeah, like the things you put food in. He loves them so much that he is spending all of his life studying them.
DS: I thought it was like an acronym…
Sam: No, no, no – actual jars! The rest of us work in music or film and television. It’s sort of an obvious extension of the band as a creative outlet to then wanna make a weird thing. Justin made the Bunk video, I made the Basements video and then a really good friend of ours, Chris Nash, made the Living in the Future of Feelings / With Honours video. He is like a fucking genius weirdo, he most recently did the Z entry for the ABCs of Death Volume 2 which is this horror anthology series. He’s an insane talent, amazing with practical effects and a pal who reached out and asked to make a video. We had nothing to do with that video, he’d just like send us a cut of like dudes fucking squeezing ooze out of their bellies and shooting worms with guns and we were very fucking stoked.
DS: Ok so generic Canadian question # 1. Cannabis has recently been legalised over there, have you noticed any immediate impacted on society, do you think it’s a good thing?
Sam: I think it’s a great thing, I think we all think it’s a great thing. Because we knew it was coming, there have been grey market cannabis stores everywhere. Where I live in Toronto all these coffee shops shut down and turned into weed stores so you could just walk down the street and buy some gummies and a pre-roll. Legalisation, if anything, has actually put a pause on that because where we’re from you have to order it from a website which is super weird because your ordering bongs from the government – they sell bongs, they sell genital spray and they sell pre-rolled joints. I think prohibition is a massive failure, legal weed is tight and we’re very happy it’s happening and there’s a lot of benefits from the taxation. I think it’s very important to have amnesty for drug crimes as those convictions tend to disproportionately affect a different group of people who are not me. You know, I’ve never had a fucking problem so I think it’s really really important that the immediate next step is that we address those issues as it’s a massive fucking problem in our country. Otherwise, on a practical level I am proud of the fact we are the second country to legalise recreational cannabis on a federal level and hopefully it paves the way for more progressive cannabis legalisation around the world.
DS: Second generic Canadian question. The Tragically Hip, did you have a viewing party for their final show?
Sam: Yeah dude, that’s an interesting one. Personally, I watched the final show in a big exhibition area, outdoor, big screen, I was there with my wife and a couple of friends. Justin who plays bass in Junior Battles, he was up at his family cottage, he went to a bar to watch the final show. There’s actually a film about that entire tour that I co-produced as well so there’s a lot of connections there where we feel connected to the Tragically Hip. We’ve been listening to them in the van. It’s very funny because a couple of years ago I was getting tattooed in Atlanta and the guy was like “my sister’s cousin-in-law or whatever plays in this band The Tragically Hip – do you know them?” And this guy hasn’t got a clue who they are because he’s in fucking Atlanta. There’s something so Canadian about them and it’s impossible to explain to other people because there is nothing like it. To give some context the band has been emblematic of Canadian identity for decades, the singer quite tragically developed terminal brain cancer, announced it and then they did this final tour. Their final show was in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario which is a fairly small town and it was broadcast on the CBC which is our national broadcaster. It was on the radio, it was streaming on YouTube, it was on television and twenty-two million people watched it and we’re a nation of about thirty-three million people – so two thirds of Canada watched the final show of this band. There’s nothing like it, when people say “is it kind of like Bruce Springsteen, is it kind of like REM” – in a way yes but if Bruce Springsteen announced he was dying and played a final show, two thirds of America are not watching the final Bruce Springsteen show. I hope that the Lord never takes Bruce Springsteen but…it was a monumental moment and it was something very Canadian and it will never happen again.
DS: Well that’s kind of nice that as a nation you have something that everyone can relate to and care about…
Sam: It crosses generations and transcends everything, it truly does. I think we’re really lucky to have had that and really lucky as a country to have had that moment to say goodbye to this fucking band. I think the film about it is very beautiful because it’s so utterly unique…it’s impossible to explain.
DS: The singer made a film about the native population of Canada didn’t he?
Sam: Yeah, that’s the other thing that’s so amazing. Canada is a country built on a genocide, we don’t get taught it in schools but we’re a colonial nation that went in a decimated our indigenous people and we’re only just starting to come to terms with that as a nation. Gord Downie, the singer of the band who passed away, his final year was completely dedicated to a project called The Secret Path. Which was about a story of a young boy called Chanie Wenjack who was taken from his family and put into a residential school which was this sort of hideous disgusting system in Canada where kids were just ripped out of their communities, put in these schools – they were abused, they were beat up, they weren’t allowed to speak their language and we just tried to kill an entire people this way. So Chanie Wenjack left the school and tried to walk home and died and so there is now the Downie Wenjack Fund which is Gord Downie’s posthumous charitable legacy piece. Because Gord Downie was a handsome, talented white guy, he was able to use this platform as the singer of a very popular bar rock band to literally say “we are not the country we think we are”. At his final show he didn’t talk much but he did make a point to address our prime minister Justin Trudeau, who was at the show, to encourage him to deal with this issue. Those were his final words, his final message to people was all about that and I think that’s really going to be the thing that cements his legacy – it already has – as an important Canadian.
DS: Finally, any bands you can recommend who may not be on our radar?
Sam: The fucking Run Up man, I just can’t say enough about these guys. They’ve lent us their gear, we’re in their cars, they have been without a doubt the kindest people we have ever toured with and they are, on top of that, a sick fucking band.