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I played in a popular Canadian band and all I got was a song on Big Shiny Tunes

November 25, 2015

Life on the road with Mariana’s Trench and a pre-megastar Carly Rae Jepsen in 2009.

Montreal, QC
Oct 21st, 2009
9:00 a.m.

The rear door slams shut on a dented, sputtering Ford Econoline van that was once a pleasant maroon colour. Inside are several hundred pounds worth of musical equipment: guitars, drums, keyboards, amplifiers. Along with five 20-something musicians, three crew members, and enough of their personal effects to last them throughout the upcoming arduous drive across Canada (and the as-of-yet undetermined period of international travel and touring that was coming immediately afterwards). Everyone is still a little dazed. It had been a late night, a packed venue, screaming hometown fans, autograph lines, a not-insignificant amount of alcohol-fueled silliness that had lasted until early in the morning. The sheer enormity of what they are about to undertake begins to dawn on them. This was the kind of adventure they had imagined for themselves when making the foolhardy decision to try to take music seriously in the first place, years before. Montreal begins to recede into the background and the 401 stretches ahead endlessly, mirroring their futures. They have no idea where they are going to end up, they just know in which direction they are headed. Forward.

As I sit down and write this stuff a little over six years later, I can’t help but feel like these memories aren’t mine. That they belong to someone else. Did all this really happen to me? Smartphones and digital photography were prevalent at that time, but not quite ubiquitous yet. I didn’t get a camera-equipped smartphone until 2010, so according to my personal records, it’s really not clear what exactly I was up to before then. Like I sprang into existence fully-formed at the beginning of the current decade.

Nevertheless, a quick googling confirms that, yes, this experience was not some kind of quarter-life crisis malaise-induced fever dream that emerged unbidden from my subconscious, but an actual series of events that occurred. Not that knowing this makes it any easier to write about. The endless 401 mirrored their futures. Seriously? What an unbelievably corny cliché. Yet this was legitimately what was going on with me as I set out from Montreal with my band, The Mission District, on our cross-country Canadian tour with The New Cities, Mariana’s Trench, and a pre-megastar Carly Rae Jepsen in October of 2009.

When you’re a musician, or any artist for that matter, you spend a lot of time thinking about what life would be like if your immature pipe dreams of success and acclaim ever really come true. It’s a necessity, really. If you don’t think you can one day bring your art to as many people as possible (and reap the personal rewards in the process), what’s the point of doing it in the first place? But no matter how much thinking you do, nothing prepares you for the realization that your moment may have actually arrived, and your wildest, most irresponsible dreams are close to being made manifest. One minute you’re an overeducated, underemployed manchild with delusions of grandeur. The next, you’re taking the first hesitant steps on an epic quest, a mythic adventurer straight out of a fantasy novel. Tolkien with Tim Horton’s. “On a steel horse I ride.” Sing it, Jon. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the tour wasn’t actually the beginning of anything, it was the end. Turns out my dreams of international stardom were just dreams, after all. What was I saying about delusions of grandeur?

I was born in Montreal but grew up in Brockville, Ontario; ostensibly a fairly boring, mid-sized retirement community on the bank of the St. Lawrence, pretty much smack dab in the middle of Montreal and Toronto. Not exactly what you’d call a cultural hub. But in the mid-to-late ’90s, thanks to the dedication of a few intrepid local music nerds and DIY promoters, Brockville was home to a weirdly thriving indie/hardcore/punk music scene. Every weekend, in the dingy basement of a church near where I went to high school, hundreds of angsty teenagers would slam into each other at high velocity to eardrum-shattering metal or pop punk from a variety of local heroes and some surprisingly big touring acts. Once I walked into that scene for the first time, it took about 10 seconds for wide-eyed, sensitive, somewhat-sheltered, 16-year-old me to be hooked forever.

I moved back to Montreal in 2003, going to classes but singularly devoted to taking my music career, which until that point had consisted mostly of a few fizzled out garage bands, to the next level. I joined a pop punk band that was starting to gain some traction in a Johnny-on-the-spot situation when their previous guitar player left the band in dramatic fashion in the middle of a US tour. The band had potential but this was just as the great mid-2000s Montreal indie rock renaissance was entering into full swing; soon enough we grew disillusioned with what we were doing and wanted to start fresh with a new project that was more in line with the artistic mood of the city and would better reflect the Plateau/Mile End bohemian artist lifestyle most of us were living.

We started The Mission District in a tiny jamspace in St. Henri and began relentlessly playing the local circuit of small to medium-sized Montreal venues in the epicentre of the booming indie music movement. We were constantly driving back and forth from Montreal to Toronto, building ourselves up, growing more comfortable performing, playing industry showcases. The ritualistic grind of any band that hopes to amount to anything in this part of the country. The successes started trickling in. We began working with a grizzled industry vet manager, got a booking agent, signed a production deal to record an EP, got onto some bigger shows in Montreal and Toronto. We were picking up steam, and as we slowly started to drift into a more radio-friendly, synth-based pop sound we started to have actual buzz. Perez Hilton called us Hot Sweaty Boys (which, in 2007, was a really huge deal).

In one truly insane weeklong stretch we made a memorable appearance on MTV Canada and then immediately afterwards packed into our trusty van (which was still in semi-decent shape at that point) and drove from Toronto straight to Austin, Texas and SXSW. Following an incredibly unlikely series of events, we ended up with an offer from a UK indie imprint. Austin is funny like that. I also ingested so much beer, Texas BBQ, and Mexican food that I had an incredibly painful gout flareup on the 20+ hour drive back to Montreal. Oh, the glamorous rockstar lifestyle! This (the record deal, not my struggle with high levels of uric acid in my bloodstream), led to several UK tours and a surreal recording session in the English countryside with Keane producer Andy Greene. Eventually our ascent was getting too obvious to ignore in our home country, so we signed a Canadian deal directly before our first, and only, national tour in October 2009.

The first thing you learn when touring across the country: Canada is astoundingly huge. No matter how many times you fly to the West coast, it doesn’t really compare to that feeling you get leaving Toronto behind you like it’s the last outpost of civilization before entering a mysterious, barren, sparsely-populated expanse from some kind of post apocalyptic novel (this is, of course, just a metaphor; I don’t actually think the people who live in this area of the country are potentially dangerous mutants. Maybe Sudbury.). After successful shows in Toronto and Kitchener got the tour properly underway on a positive note, we aimed the Econoline towards Winnipeg, 2,222 km away. We were no strangers to long drives. We had done the Toronto to Austin round trip, after all. But it’s extra intimidating when that massive long haul is not the trip in and of itself, but merely the first leg in a much longer marathon.

Astoundingly, I was the only person in our band who could legally drive, as my compatriots were all pampered city folk that had never had a need to get a license, and all conveniently seemed to be unable to make the logistics work out when it came to stepping up and helping out their long-suffering guitar playing chauffeur (sorry guys, it’s the truth). Fortunately we had reached the level of professionalism that we had a tour manager; a stoic, chain-smoking, driving machine named Wade. Of all the disparate assortment of oddball characters I encountered during this period, Wade remains the most mysterious figure to me. I don’t remember what his last name is, maybe I never knew. If someone were to tell me that he was actually a Tyler Durden-esque figment of my imagination, I’d be surprised, but I also wouldn’t be shocked. Whatever his origins, Wade kept us on schedule as we slowly made our way along that gigantic arc across the Georgian Bay and Lake Superior. We played an off-tour show at a dive bar in North Bay to nobody, just to break up the monotony. Overall the drive out of Ontario took us around three full days.

There’s not a ton of specific details still surviving in my mind about this leg of the trip. Another thing about you quickly learn about touring in a rock band is that just because you happen to be physically traveling doesn’t mean you are actually visiting anywhere. Especially driving across Canada, at any given moment you can probably look out the window and see scenes of profound pastoral beauty; we’ve got plenty of them, but what lives on in your mind’s eye is the cramped interior of a van and that never-ending road stretching ahead of you into infinity. It’s a difficult environment to maintain your sanity in. No matter how close you are with the people you’re with, after the third day the vehicle transforms into a mobile Overlook Hotel, this inescapable tiny prison where everyone’s fears and anxieties begin bubbling to the surface and the completely harmless quirks of your closest friends begin to transform into unforgivable offences. Not to say there weren’t legitimate issues at play, everyone had a different idea of what we wanted the band to sound like, or what we thought the best approach should be to performing, or writing, or marketing, or merchandising.

A rock band is a tremendously delicate thing as you have multiple grown adults, usually sensitive artist types, entering into a high-stakes business relationship and a creative partnership that requires clearly defined boundaries, direction, and open lines of honest, straightforward communication (again, these are people who are only able to express their innermost feelings through song). I felt like we had abandoned our initial idea of being a cool indie band that skewed towards an older crowd, but it was hard to argue with the fact that we seemed to become more and more successful the more we drifted into mainstream pop territory. It helped to be able to take a break from each other when the chance arose. We had one day off in Calgary where some of the guys took a day trip to beautiful Lake Louise and I opted to lounge around my hotel room and actually get a decent night’s sleep. But what ended up happening was I watched the original Paranormal Activity with our drummer, Mike, and became so incredibly terrified that I barely slept and felt like I had PTSD for several days afterwards. Lesson learned.

The shows on the tour were uniformly terrific. Mariana’s Trench were steady, solid performers that commanded a really impressive, insanely dedicated fanbase in every city who responded enthusiastically to our particular brand of pop music. They were essentially where we wanted to be in a few years’ time, and may well have had things not gone horrifically awry shortly afterwards. I’m not sure they were thrilled that we were on the tour to begin with—my understanding was that they had essentially been forced to put us on the bill when our booking agent told them we were massive stars in the UK and we’d be able to return the favour with a tour there later on down the road. This, of course, never ended up happening. Sorry guys. In any case, they were professional about it, seemed like good dudes and we appreciated the opportunity no matter what politics had gone into making it happen.

The New Cities were friends of ours from Montreal doing a similar style of music and I guess, in hindsight, we were probably in direct competition with, but it never really felt that way because we got along so well and always had a great time playing together. Touring with another band is a very unique and potent bonding experience, as not only are you sharing a prolonged, completely insane experience together and constantly hanging out surrounded by free booze and food, but you don’t really have to deal with any of the same interpersonal conflicts that come with being trapped in a tiny, moving steel box together for weeks or months at a time.

The one person on the tour who would go on to reach the greatest heights was Carly Rae Jepsen, who was at that point still in the process of making a name for herself, building off her recognition from Canadian Idol as a country-leaning pop artist. I had never actually watched Canadian Idol, and as per usual I had paid very little attention to the precise details of what was going on, so in my one extended conversation with her I most likely came across as a pretentious dunce as I inquired about what her background was and how she ended up on the tour. I also struck up a decent tour-bro camaraderie with her guitar player, Tavish. It was incredibly bizarre when “Call Me Maybe” dropped like an atomic bomb on pop radio a few years later and she achieved that all-too-illusive Canadian recording artist dream of crossing over south of the border. I’m happy for her, she seemed very nice. Same with Tavish, who I noticed got a writing credit on the single as well. Get those royalties, Tavish.

We bounced across the country in this fashion until our final stop of the tour in Edmonton, in the West Edmonton Mall. I was disappointed we weren’t able to make the final stop and fully complete the Canadian tour rite of passage by passing over the Rockies and hitting Vancouver or making the long trip back to Montreal, but we had a UK tour scheduled to start. We hopped on a red-eye to jolly old England and Wade and Joe (our incredibly selfless friend from New Jersey who was on the tour in a guitar tech/driver/confidante/psychologist capacity) made the long journey back East by themselves. All 3,628 km of it. I imagine there’s probably some funny stories about that strange cross-Canada drive as well.

Joe met up with us across the pond a few days later with the New Cities, who were joining us on tour there after they finished up with Trench in Canada. We spent a month crisscrossing the United Kingdom several times, experiencing a whole slew of new adventures along the way, culminating in an absolutely wild, sold-out headlining show at King Tut’s in Glasgow at the end of November. We then flew back to Canada, jumped onto an Ontario tour with Faber Drive for an additional few weeks, and finally ended our whirlwind three months with a nationally-broadcast performance in Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, on New Year’s Eve, in front of 30,000 people. Not a bad way to close out the decade. As we got back on the 401 the next day, finally pointed back home, we heard our single and a snippet from a radio interview David and I had done on Virgin Radio. Returned to my customary seat behind the wheel, I heard my voice coming from the speakers in the van, and smiled. I sounded hopeful. And I was. Who wouldn’t have been, after that stretch of success? As far as I was concerned, this was only the beginning.

The weird and depressing thing about reaching your personal peak in whatever your chosen field is that most times you don’t even know you’ve reached it when you’re actually there. I thought mine was still in the distance, somewhere at the end of that mythical highway, but it turns out I was actually on a direct course back to sea level. I won’t get too into the minutiae of what happened next. You may have heard something about this, but the traditional music industry hasn’t really been doing so well over the last few years. We felt we were on pretty sturdy ground based on the response we had been getting and the meteoric rise we were experiencing (we were even on Big Shiny Tunes, for God’s sake). But ‘sturdy ground’ in the music business in 2010 was actually about as sturdy as the sandy Martian ridge that crumbles under Arnold Schwarzenegger’s feet in the beginning of Total Recall. Right before his eyeballs are sucked out of his face.

Our cool UK indie imprint was bought out entirely by Virgin Records, we got lost in the major label shuffle, and after years of pumping money and resources into building us into a successful act, it all ended as simply as someone pressing ‘delete’ on a spreadsheet somewhere. The unscheduled several-month hiatus was all I needed for my minor insecurities over the band and our future to become daily obsessions. I stopped having fun. Finally, I met someone who was able to, miraculously, see the hidden potential within the absolute car wreck that my personal life and professional career had become, and just like that, I moved out of the filthy, cluttered room I was inhabiting in our home studio near St. Laurent and away from the rockstar life forever.

On a dime, my haphazard, dusk to dawn, nomadic artist lifestyle gave way to a new world of being a devoted partner, stepfather to a five-year-old kid, and professional 9-5er. It’s almost as if my universe jumped from one cliché to another, only now it resembled the plot to a TGIF sitcom. And it is awesome. I have no regrets whatsoever about my brush with music biz success. My son’s going to be born in about a month, and I’ll leave the crazy future adventures to him. In hindsight, that Canadian tour of 2009 was the best possible note to go out on. Thinking back, I see that highway extending into the distance like a giant asphalt sword, cleaving my past in half. Separating one year from another, one decade from another, one life from another. If I ever need to get a small taste of that unique feeling of driving down a mythical road towards the rock ‘n’ roll promised land, I just have to close my eyes and think of that tour, when nothing seemed impossible.

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