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Thursday, January 18, 2024

P-Fork

 

This week it was announced that Conde-Nast was laying off half the full time staff of Pitchfork, a website they acquired in 2015, and merging it with GQ, whatever that means. Like imagine working as a journalist writing about outsider music and getting your walking papers from fucking Anna Wintour.

 The last real job I had was from 2003 to 2006, at a place in Toronto called Karma Co-op, which was a grocery co-op that started as a small basement operation in the 1970s, where some friends started ordering vegetables in bulk to save money and inviting friends and neighbors to buy from them.  When I got there, it was a fully fledged member-run co-op with a lovely store front tucked away like a coach house inside of a block of tony houses in the Annex neighborhood of Toronto, where infamous nimby Margaret Atwood lives.  My first forays into the Annex had been as an 18 year old, taking the streetcar downtown from my parents house in Long Branch, to see shows or work shifts at Who's Emma (the anarchist book/record store in Kensington Market that I've talked about 1000s of times) or go to Full Blast to buy records with Damian.  Chris Colohan and Lisa Mclean lived at 148 Barton, just a few blocks west of Karma, and we'd usually end up at that house ("1-4-Hate") to talk shit or make food or whatever.  Lisa was a member at Karma so sometimes I'd tag along to look at kale or fill up the container of raw peanut butter, that kind of thing.

I was doing a weekly shift at Who's Emma with Ryan Gavel, so I sort of knew what a co-op was - this very loose business model where the entire place seemed to run on volunteer labour, but Karma was different - it was more formalized, more professional, and the people who shopped there weren't crust punks or anarchist, they were families who lived in the neighborhood that brought their kids to the store and cared if something was produced in Israel or had GMOs in it, and all did 'work shifts' as co-op members, doing the easy stuff the staff didn't do like refilling the giant containers of oats, and sweeping, and shit like that.

In those years I was spending most of my time along the little stretch of Bloor Street between Spadina and Bathurst.  From like 2000 and 2004 until I started working at Karma I had little jobs at 1) The market at Markham and Bloor, setting up the produce and spending hours alone in the tiny basement being the guy that puts saran wrap over like pieces of cantaloupe 2) working at Suckers Candy doing absolutely nothing 3) working at the big Metro grocery store 4) working at another off-shoot organic food store and 5) working the 10pm-3am shift at the Pita-Pit, serving shawarma to drunk guys coming out of the Brunswick House after last call.

I got a 'real' job when I was 22 or 23 once the first Whole Foods opened in Toronto, and I did that for a year, leaving every single shift with a backpack full of organic produce, and usually a bunch of sushi I had traded a bunch of mangos for.  I would have done this job forever, but I found out from Lisa that Karma was hiring, and I came over and started working there.

My boss was Michael Armstrong, who had been in bigger Toronto bands like Change of Heart and King Cobb Steelie, and who had started a family so had left music behind, but was still in an alternative modality, working a real guy job at the food co-op.  He quickly became a sort of mentor to me. Our shifts started at 7am, setting up the produce fridge - making sure everything that went out was trimmed, checked for blemishes, shit like that. We made fast friends because I was basically the young version of him - a kid about to embark on a trip into trying to make it in music - a trip he was on the other end of. The store opened at 11, which gave us three hours to take our time through the work, talk shit about the customers, and listen to music.

At 22 or 23 or whatever age I was, I felt as though I had heard every punk record ever made. Me and Damian had exhausted the well, heard every Killed By Death Comp, we'd spent the better part of 10 years together trying to get to the bottom of the obsession. Fucked Up had done our first few 7"s and were starting to become a more real thing, doing more tours, planning for an album, things like that. I had pivoted to collecting soul 45s, and trying to wrap my head around the fact that there were different kinds of music.

Michael was a more album-oriented guy, and would bring in CDs to listen to over the speakers, shit like Stereolab, Air, Spiritualized, a lot of Funk and Disco.  King Cobb Steelie (he played percussion) was groovier than anything I listened to - the percussion in my music sounded mostly like a race - they'd worked with real producers, guys like Bill Laswell. It all went over my head but I was enjoying it. I'd be making these northern soul CDs of songs I'd downloaded from Kazaa - reading about rare records on forums and in magazines, and leaving my computer running over night to let the rarer shit download.

There was a computer in the staff room, and we'd both be using it until the customers showed up - I booked all of the first Fucked Up tours on that computer, including a five week tour of Europe, our first, and a full six week tour of the states - both before we had full albums out.  He would check this site Pitchfork, which covered indie music, focusing on these daily acerbic long form reviews.  After a while I'd start checking the site myself, trying to catch up, categorizing this whole other world of music by the numbered review score they got for their releases.

In 2004 that big Arcade Fire record came out and it got a 9.7 on Pitchfork, which to my by now felt the same as if they'd gotten the cover of Time Magazine, or like a breaking news chiron on CNN.  Paul, another guy who worked at Karma, knew the band from being diy people in Montreal, so it felt a bit closer.  Michael had seen them play at this little club in town called The Rivoli (where we'd recorded for a live album a decade later).  Karma felt like ground zero now for this seismic event in music history.  We all gossiped about the bidding war to sign them, all of that shit.  

Soon Pitchfork was all you ever heard about in music. Those numbered scores with the little decimals contextualized an entire generation of music.  As has been written about endlessly, careers would be made or broken on those scores.  Before we put out an album, Fucked Up wasn't a full time band, and we weren't in any way a part of mainstream or indie music - we still designed our own covers, made our own posters, we didn't have booking agents, and I had all the money (including coins) we made from shows in a tupperware container that I kept under my bed for the first five years we were a band.

From 2001 to 2005 we did a lot of touring all over the world, we wrote a lot of songs, and we put out a steady stream of 7" singles. I resisted putting out an LP for years, because it felt like a sell-out to what we were doing. My ideas came out song by song. I had an idea for "Police" so that was the record, with a bside that was disconnected to the work.  Putting out an entire albums worth of ideas felt strange.  It needed a big swing.

In like 2005 I got an email from Paul Sommerstein, this punk guy who'd gone to shows in New York at the tail end of the 80s and through the 90s, and had become a lawyer for that class of bands who don't know what the fuck they're doing, but are getting popular enough that they need someone to help them interact with a bigger world.  He said he'd seen us a bunch at the little clubs we'd play in town, and that if we ever needed help getting a deal he'd like to help. I wasn't sure what that meant, but it was starting to seem like time to start thinking about an album.

We were using an hourly rental place to practice at this point, going in maybe once a week to either rehearse for a show, or writing songs. Our last thing before the first album was the "Litany" 7", which did really well, and had four songs instead of two, so that essentially felt like a full-length to us. Can you imagine trying to write a 70 minute album in a hourly rehearsal place, once a week for like two hours at a time? On little amps that didn't ever work properly. I threw one across the room once in that space because it wouldn't turn on.

In 2005 I was working full time at Karma, I was trying to finish my University degree, and we were touring a lot, playing probably 60 or 70 shows a year, it was madnesss. And we were practicing enough to come up with whatever it was, fifteen new songs for an album. Paul emailed to say a few labels were interested, Jade Tree being the most prominent.  I listened to those first two Lifetime albums more times than I can count, and the purple Damnation AD LP, but I didn't know what else they put out, but it felt off. They offered us 10 grand for an album, which was the same thing as one billion dollars to us, so we all sat down in a stairwell inside our practice space to look over the 100 page contract they'd mailed to us (in the mail).

Paul was positive, and he knew the guys who ran the label from way back, and they'd got guys working there who were in bands, so it seemed friendly enough.  We booked two weeks with Jon Drew (who'd recorded the Police 7" for us) at Signal To Noise Studios on Spadina, and went to work on Hidden World, this loose assemblage of songs we'd thrown together at the space, that some how coalesced into a real full length over the few weeks we spent at the studio. We went overtime, of course, and me and Damian both spend a lot of time on the phone with Tim, trying to get them to send more money so we could pay the studio.

We got Jaybo to paint the cover, a guy we knew from doing a few insane shows in Pittsfield Mass, and off we went.  Some time in 2006, I got to work one morning and checked Pitchfork on the office computer and saw the cover of Hidden World on the screen, with like, a long and considered review of the music, the themes, all of it.  It felt extremely intimate to look at your work being examined in such a way, not just because we were used to punk reviews, which were more on the level, more insular.  This review talked about how the guitars felt, it tried to contextualize our album into the greater world of what was happening in music.  We made the album as our tribute to our own genesis as musicians - wombed inside this hidden world of punk and hardcore, this like, shadow community that exists as it's own thing - we were still using fake names on our albums at this point - but here was this review on the front page of world music. 

Pitchfork through the 00s became this other kind of shadow itself - this thing that was so ubiquitous in music that you wouldn't even want to acknowledge it by name, but you knew was in everyone's head. It was like air. You'd have guys in bands talking about how Pitchfork was their home page on their laptop. You'd hear about the only way to get a good review was to be booked by Windish (or vice versa) because they were the same company.  You'd try and think of ways to get on there, to get a good review, your dreams, schemes for your band all relied on these clandestine white guys from Chicago who wrote reviews.  That site was like an electric current running through all of music - it powered the entire house, but if you tried to touch it you'd get zapped.  There came an entire generation of this indie music, replete with claps, fuzzy hair, vintage button up shirts, red-faced desperate vocals - like, designed to try and get an 8.4 score. By the late 2000s, Pitchfork was a genre of music.

I grew up reading. I wasn't allowed to watch more than a half hour of TV a day until I was 15 or 16.  My mom took us to the library almost every day, and I mostly read books. When I was a teenage, I had a subscription to Spin Magazine, as well as Metal Hammer.  I had a job working as a locker room attendant at a swimming pool when I was 16, which meant sitting alone in a changing room for twelve hours a day - I read every word of every issue of Heartattack over one summer, as well as any copy of MRR I could get my (ink stained) hands on.  Me and Damian would pore over scans of Change Zine, Hardware, Slash - last year I gave him my zine collection, which filled up like four milk crates.

There was something missing from punk and hardcore writing, something that really had never grown into it's own form. You'd learn about scenes, communities, what shows were like - you read about what punks were like, how fast an album was, you'd learn about the ethics of punk, about the community - but the writing never allowed for the music itself to be taken seriously.  We put out Year of the Pig in 2007, what we felt like was a moving, serious examination of abuse against women in Canada, and Martin from Crudos thrashed it in MRR because it was too long and slow.

Punk journalism offered you a window into a lifestyle, but it was lacking in giving credit or examination to the massive musical influence underground music has had on mainstream culture. So many of the innovations of rock music since the 70s have been because of punk. So many of successful musicians from the last thirty or forty years, are musicians because they went to punk or hardcore shows in their town as kids.  Talk to Damian if you want the receipts. 

Really quickly after Hidden World came out, we started to feel the pull of this larger world (get it?).  We knew that we were leaving punk, this close knit global community that we'd been birth from. I imagined us in this tiny boat, setting sail from the world we'd grew up in, setting sail to who knows where, just hoping that there would be land on the other side of whatever this great ocean was, like how all those guys do at the end of Lords of the Rings.

In 2007 we played a show at Europa, an upstairs club in Greenpoint. Damian went record shopping with Jay and Fat Rich, and didnt get back to the club until the rest of us had been set up and standing on stage with our shit for almost ten minutes. The show was great, packed, sweaty, wild - we had three or four years solid of shows like that. Maybe 250-300 people - perfect. We met these guys wearing nice sweaters and real shoes after the gig, who said they were from Matador Records, and that they loved the band.  In my head now, they're standing in a dark corner of this insane club, using umbrellas to protect their vibes from the wild detritus of the show. We exchanged numbers maybe. I didn't have a phone yet.

Black Lips had signed to Vice in that time period, and there was this wave of punk that had been emerging into the mainstream - us, Mika Miko, No Age, Jay Reatard - coming from nothing, getting good notices, good reviews, playing increasingly large and wild shows. It was this little post-indie movement of a slightly different kind of energy. We made some friends at Vice, because they had these deep Canadian roots, they threw parties, it made sense. In 2007 if there was a line up in any city on earth, it was going to a Vice Party. They started a label to try and capitalize and crystalize this own little movement they'd started. You have to say now that Pitchfork should have just started a record label?

Anyways, we were hot. For like a full year in 2007 and 2008 there was this bidding war between Vice and Matador to sign us, as well as a few other bands.  I was living in a house with some friends behind the 7-11 on Bloor Street near High Park, trying to come up with ideas for another album. I had gotten the title from this book about mycelia I'd seen at Robarts Library (I was STILL in University, almost seven years later, trying to finish the thing) - "The Chemistry of Common Life" - my attempt at summarizing a greater moment, by going deeper into weirdness and obscurity. I had maybe a little tape machine that could record sound, but I didn't have an amp at my house, so I'd play little riffs from my eletric guitar acoustically into this tape machine, so I wouldn't forget the riffs. I worked out the "Son the Father" riff that way, over a few weeks of fumbling my fingers over the notes. 

In the summer of 2007 we'd decided as a band to go 'full time' and quit our day jobs and try and do as much touring as we could.  We still didn't have a booking agent in North America. Sandy was the only one of us who had a real office job, so the rest of us weren't giving up much.  I'd get up in the morning, check my email, look at Pitchfork, talk to Paul about if Matador or Vice made more sense, read, fuck around on the guitar, go to the record store. After a few months of this, we had enough music to make another album.

We booked this place Halla with drew, because Signal to Noise had closed - it was in a tiny warehouse on the east end of Toronto. We booked two weeks to lay down the beds. All five of us did most of those sessions together, all cramped into this place in the winter. We ended up with bed tracks, but also a lot more work to do. Finishing the album ended up taking about a year - we'd go on tour, come back, I'd book smaller studios to work on overdubs, editing. So many guitars, so many amps. I'd check my email, there would be another contract from Paul, bigger numbers, more pages.

We signed with Matador because it felt like a more real record label, even though none of us had any kind of history with that kind of music. Pavement? We were writing our most unhinged album of our career. Vice seemed like a more maleable thing, and we needed like, someone to help us focus.  Matador also put up more money.  We handed in the album and I got my ex Mimi to take the cover photo, she was in New York working at Pace Gallery, and had time on her hands in midtown to take photos. It took months of re-shoots to get that cover, because I was coming up with all the album concepts as we were going, and I kept making her go back to shoot more layers. It's a perfect cover, to her credit.

We went on an endless tour around then, maybe five trips over to UK and EU in one year. The album came out in the fall of 2008. In the UK, we'd stay at Bens Aunt's house in Bristol if our show that night was within like a 90 minute drive of Bristol, so we wouldn't have to pay for a hotel that night.  I'd sleep upstairs in this little kids room (the kid would be with his dad in another house) on the floor because everyone else would snore. I woke up one morning in that room, looked around at like the kids toys, the rocking horses or whatever. I opened up my laptop, one of those space-age chunky white ones and looked at Pitchfork. 

The album got an 8.8, a rave. I went downstairs for breakfast. It's trite to say, but that was a turning point in our career, that morning. The score infected the room - we all knew that we couldn't barely address it, but we all knew what it meant, we had to. Looking back you could say that one review is why we still have a career.  We knew everything about bands, but not much about how to be in one.  We knew everything there was to know about music, but we weren't musicians. We made that album by luck, I can say now looking back 15 years later. It just poured out of us. We barely knew what we had made - but they knew.

Now, I organize my life into when Fucked Up albums came out. 2006 - Hidden World, I know what guy I was around then. Two years later, Chemistry. We just did the band non-stop in those years. Fucked Up, this band that formed in the basement of an anarchist book store in Canada, we played every festival in the world over the next few years. Leeds, Reading, Glastonbury, Coachella, whatever. So much of it was lost on us, because our mecca was still like, Antiknock, CBGBs. That weird poorly dressed with the swear word for a name, they made it.  At Glastonbury we played the John Peel stage in front of like fifteen thousand kids, we knew the whole time that barely any of them had any clue what or who we were. But we destroyed that show.  We no doubt stayed at Bens Aunts house that night to save a hundred bucks on hotels. Damians face was on the cover of the NME, of SPIN. Are you kidding me.

In 2011 was David, which also got another rave.  I wrote the guitar line for Queen of Hearts in 2004 on a broken guitar with locked tuning in the basement of my little rental on Davenport, after I got home from Karma. It was supposed to be one of our Christmas 7"'s. Things would just happen, by accident. Despite us, our weirdness, our deficiencies, our unseriousness,  things grew and gave us this life.

We kept going. We made our albums from the weirdest and most impractical ideas that we could come up with, and somehow stayed inside the current. It only caught up to us ten years later. We tried for the first time to make a respectable album in Glass Boys, in 2014. We tried to reflect what we saw in music, instead of just showing what oddities were inside of us.

That album wasn't even bad, and the review wasn't bad, but it wasn't a rave, and it unwound us from the current. It was clear that we were being detached from whatever ship we'd become affixed to. It truly did set us back as musicians, in our career. It took a few years of brooding just to think of what we could do as a follow up. We played less shows, we got booked on smaller weirder festivals, less people came. We lost a lot of our confidence. Truly, we were ending up in where we should have been the whole time - in a modest place, with a small group of people who loved the weird shit we did. When you create music, you can physically feel when you're being left behind by whatever is going on. It's rare that you get to hold on as long as we did to that zeitgiest, or whatever you want to call it. Glass Boys was our last record for Matador, after almost ten years of costing them way too much money than we were good for.

I'll always make music. Fucked Up will always be a band. Looking back I can feel glad that such a fucking left turn happened to us, that let us sneak into the Hidden World of mainstream music for so long.  

Thank you Pitchfork writers for taking our music seriously before we did. Your words changed my life. 

We live now in this way where there are more words than ever, but they mean less than ever. Now I just go on twitter all day and watch people fight, words are weapons to argue, to make your brand, whatever. Words are commerce, they are coercive. They want more from you than they offer.  So much of what I read and hear feels like they just exist to try and sell me something.

 I wish the site had spent the last ten years trying to find more strange bands like ours instead of trying to carve and indie feeling into corporate music.  Someone said it feels like the end of an era, for this chapter of music to have the finality that will come with the end of Pitchfork as the force it is, and that feels right.  We all get our time in the sun, lets remember what it feels like.






6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Learning you were a produce guy at some point in your pay the bills career feels cool. Up until this last May, I worked produce for Whole Foods and transferred all over the states with it. Very chill job that felt cool to connect with people over food. Bags full of free food also allowed me to eat well beyond my means for years.

That back room cut fruit area is where I turned a lot of coworkers on to FU and in turn got opened up to the dead/phish/jambands, other hardcore bands, band members making their own thing, los tigres del norte, etc. Sharing music with your coworkers as you set up the wet rack for the morning or create a huge 100 pound batch of guac was a perk of the job.

I appreciated this reflection of pitchfork and how it affected you. Really glad you’ve started writing here again.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lmao: "where infamous nimby Margaret Atwood lives"

Thanks for starting to write here again, these posts are great.

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliantly written and wonderfully reflective piece of writing.

It hits a somber note towards the end, so I have to say that DYD is an absolute masterpiece. Again, it got a good review, but it's not the kind of album that can be assessed so quickly after listening to it. Over the last 5-6 years I've listened to it so much and I still get heaps from it. A great album to ride a bike to by the way

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incredible piece of writing.

Only thing I want to say is that over the last 10 years I feel like they've done a good job of both - the reviews section would have a thoughtful dissection of a mainstream R&B record right next to a review of weird underground Americana DIY stuff next to a review of a dub-techno album from overseas etc etc.

It's a loss, for sure. FU forever.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Samuel said...

Was weirdly thrilled as a proud Bristolian to learn of this city's small part in Fucked Up folklore. As for Pitchfork, I've seen quite a few posts from people in various underground scenes saying things along the line of good riddance, but for me it was always a place that was attempting to expand everyone's musical vocabulary: it tried to bring things like black metal, hip hop and queer techno, and latterly reggaeton and hyperpop and the like, to what was likely a very white, very indie-focused readership, for which it should be commended IMO.

11:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to discover your writing, Ian. This is A+ and it makes me feel truly nostalgic for a time that now feels further away than ever. Looking forward to seeing you next month.

7:51 PM  

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