Surf-inflected Canadian noisemongers Fist City get angry on their excellent new album Everything Is A Mess – we caught up with guitarist Evan van Reekum to talk politics, punk and riding waves in landlocked towns
To put it bluntly, we’re fucked. This much is obvious. Just look around you – here in the UK we’re still reeling from the victory of a slender Conservative majority vote, with spending cuts and further austerity measures high on their agenda, contrary to received wisdom with regards to reviving an ailing economy. Then there’s the US, where communities are still in turmoil after racial tension and police brutality spilled over into riots and murder. And that’s just two of the most privileged western countries – think we’ve got it bad? You should see what’s happening in Iraq and Syria right now. ‘Fucked’ is the only reasonable summation.
And what’s our cultural response to this? Well, nothing. Musicians with genuine political ripostes have either been ridiculed by a right-wing-dominated media or remain hidden in the underground, preaching to the converted, away from anything resembling a significant platform. As for mainstream pop… well, one of the UK’s biggest bands recently announced they were gonna freak out the squares by dropping their folksy-common-man gimmickry in favour of… bog-standard guitar-based balladry. More songs about relationships and stuff. The bland leading the bland; a cacophony of musical effluent; a self-conscious, say-nothing artistic black hole.
The fires haven’t all burned out, however. Take Fist City: a riotous surf-punk band from Canada’s province of Alberta, and on new album Everything Is A Mess, they’re seriously pissed off. “When we wrote the album, the Ferguson riots were in full effect. Now it’s happening in Baltimore,” says songwriter and guitarist Evan van Reekum from his home in Lethbridge. “This record has a lot to do with police brutality in the United States, and very unjust murders. It’s a huge issue. It’s terrible what’s happening down there. The body count is just huge.”
"We all grew up being underdogs in various ways" – Evan van Reekum
You can hear their righteous response in the furious clatter of recent single Fuck Cops; a post-hardcore garage sprawl powered by sheets of ravaged guitar and a powerhouse rumble from drummer Ryan Grieve. It’s worth remembering that punk has always been a voice for the disenfranchised – when you’re on the bottom rung, you've got to shout upwards. It’s all part of this band’s raison d'être, as Evan explains: “We all grew up being underdogs in various ways, being bullied. Keir and Britney [Griffiths, siblings and Fist City vocalist and bassist, respectively] grew up as black kids in a community full of right-wing religious people. It was pretty brutal for them growing up, though they wouldn’t want me to make them out as victims.”
The band’s last album – 2013’s It’s 1983 Grow Up – dealt with similar themes of disaffection, but songs like Never Bored felt more like kids acting out than responding to adverse circumstances. Was there a conscious thematic shift with this record?
“Yeah, I guess we wanted to start taking things a lot more seriously. We’d talked about being a lot more outspoken on issues of bigotry – here it’s not uncommon to walk down the street and have someone drive by in a truck and yell ‘faggot’ at you. Growing up, our lives were full of that. ‘Hipster art fag, blah blah blah.’ I just don’t understand those viewpoints at all.”
“But we started writing the record, and the situation in Ferguson was progressing and we were becoming more and more angry. There’d be videos of police killing people with their handguns – I’ve seen videos of people with both hands being held against a car, and still being shot multiple times. It’s just an abuse of power that was wholly disappointing, so as we were writing the record we became more and more tense and frustrated.”
Lyrical content isn’t the only thing that’s changed since writing the last record either. Moustachioed frontman Kier was still known as Kirsten until a few short years ago – his gender transition from female to male was still relatively recent even when recording It’s 1983. This time around he’s audibly much more comfortable with the changes that such a dramatic life choice will inevitably bring. Clearly cautious in representing his friend’s personal life, Evan is nonetheless forthcoming in terms of how this affects the Fist City narrative (spoiler: it doesn’t really).
“Kier is the rock of the band,” he say, warmly. “He’s always been the person that’s kept it together; the person that any one of us could go talk to at any time. I don’t think we’ll ever lose that. It’s a weird thing for me to talk about on his behalf, but if it has changed the band at all, it’s been positive because we’re all happier that he’s happier.”
By way of contrast, The Skinny notes that Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace became a spokesperson for trans issues after revealing her gender dysphoria in a starkly public manner. Kier, whose transition began in markedly quieter circumstances, is more reticent to raise the subject. Evan nods.
“For sure. I think that Kier is very wary of being outspoken about it. Last year Kier was approached to write a blog post for a trans activist’s website and he declined, because it’s very much his own journey. I think that’s his humble attitude towards it, he doesn’t really wanna be the centre of attention, you know? He definitely won’t start a conversation about it, but he’s open to talking about it. It’s a strange limelight. Within the group, we never ask questions. It’s just the way it is; this sort of fantastic thing that happened. We’re all pretty grateful that it has.”
Conversation returns to the music itself, and the seeming incongruity of surf sounds emerging from landlocked areas like Fist City’s hometowns of Lethbridge and Calgary. Sure, bands as varied as The Beach Boys and Man or Astro-Man? have dabbled in (and even defined) some of the genre’s signature tricks without so much as picking up a board. So what is it about those evocatively twanging guitars that captures the imagination of dry-shoed suburban types? Evan laughs.
“There is a hilarious irony that we just plain can’t surf. But with that kind of music it’s easy to be punk and badass, and still be interesting and fun. It’s where those two things meet. You can be loud and aggressive and angry, but still make people dance and have a good time.”
Do Fist City define themselves as a punk band?
“The definition is so blurred,” he replies. “I know what people think punk is, as far as pop culture is concerned – like these really terrible mall-punk bands or whatever. When I was working at a record store, this kid pointed at a Hüsker Dü record and said, ‘That’s not real punk’. Then he pointed at Rancid and was like, ‘That’s real punk’. I was so flabbergasted by that. But now that the definition of punk has changed and is changing so much, I think we’d rather just be a band.
“If punk still means living in a squat and getting wasted or being totally straight-edge, we do not live that lifestyle any more. We definitely like the subversive values associated with punk traditionally, but personally, when I’m at home on my computer, I think, ‘Wow, I’m the least punk person ever’. I fly fish and I collect records!”
Indeed, Evan fills his time much more efficiently than stereotypical views of punk rockers would have you believe: “I work a lot, kind of a workaholic I guess. I have two DJ gigs per week, and I work at the record store two days a week, I have another full time job doing marketing… I’m always busy. I don’t feel there’s any other way.”
And what of DIY – is that still central to the band’s identity?
“That depends. All of a sudden we have an agent in Europe, and a press person, so I guess technically no. In Canada we book all of our own shows, we do all of our own press, but a lot of DIY bands would probably be pretty pissed if we did identify as DIY. We still make our own videos and that kind of stuff, but just out of necessity. We’re just trying to go with the flow, I guess, and not get in anybody’s way, you know?”
So where does this leave Everything Is A Mess?
“Good question. I want people to enjoy it, I want people to get it. I guess I want to follow it up with something good, and just tour a lot… I would love this band to be in a place where we could comfortably do our own thing and live the way we want to live without it being a battle all the time.” He pauses once more, perhaps reflecting on the mess, the anger and Fist City’s struggle for self-assertion in a world that keeps trying to shout down voices like theirs. “I guess we’re trying to achieve a level of success where we don’t feel like underdogs any more.”