When Steve Adamyk was a kid, growing up in downtown Ottawa, he frequented a record store called Birdman Sound. The boy hung out at the Bank Street shop with his friends, while owner John Westhaver enlightened him about garage-rock bands like New Bomb Turks and The Makers.
It was like a mentorship for the youngster, a budding music lover, and something that would go on to shape the direction of what ultimately became his career as longtime fixture in the music scene of Canada’s capital. To be sure, there was one album in particular that really ignited the flame for Adamyk: Bakesale by Sebadoh.
“I think I was 12 or 13 years old,” he remembers, recalling the 1994 Sub Pop record. “That was pretty much the door opener, there.”
It also helped that at his high school, Glebe, the cool kids were the ones into skateboarding and music. Coming of age — an emotional calamity as it is — without too much judgment in regards to his developing interests was hugely integral to Adamyk’s formative years, both as a musician and as a young man.
“If I hadn’t had those experiences,” he insists, “I don’t think I would’ve kept going with the same vigilance that I’ve been taking care of things with for the last 15, 20 years now.”
Right now, Adamyk is sitting at home in Ottawa, not far from where his rock roots first sprouted, on the cusp of what promises to be another busy summer. His band, Steve Adamyk Band, for which he fronts and plays guitar, is about to release its fifth full-length album, Graceland. It’s the latest offering in the impressive anthology of material that the group has regularly churned out since first forming in late 2009.
Adamyk calls it some of the punk band’s most varied work yet, specifically in regards to its fluctuating tempos and the collaborative nature of the songs. Many of these were written with drummer Dave Forcier, whose critical ear and drive to try new things, the guitarist maintains, has been paramount to SAB.
Good songwriting, however, has always been one of the group’s most defining characteristics. In fact, it was Adamyk’s knack for putting pen to paper that started the band in the first place. After the dissolution of Sedatives and Million Dollar Marxists — two other punk groups Adamyk played with in the noughties — he found himself with a slew of songs he had written and recorded without an outlet for them to call home. It was the first time he’d ever really been in the absence of a creative release and he was, admittedly, terrified that he didn’t have somewhere to channel his energy.
Then, friend and Sedatives bandmate Dave Williams proposed they play the songs live.
“At first, I was really sort of humbled about the whole thing,” Adamyk says. “I didn’t really want to. I didn’t really think anyone would want to hear my songs, I didn’t really think any of my friends would be interested helping me out or backing me up. If they were, I felt it would maybe be a burden to them. I just didn’t want it to be a thing that I was going to have to, you know, force upon people. So, I kind of just let it move naturally and Dave suggested doing it with me a little more seriously.”
Steve Adamyk Band released two singles in Europe before their first live performance; a heaping handful of seven inches, a self-titled debut, and relentless touring around the world (including gigs at SXSW) followed suit in succession. Over six years later, things still have yet to slow down.
And, like SAB’s lightning speed pace, Adamyk’s creativity continues to propel forward. “I’ve never really had a problem coming up with songs,” he says, adding that, on the contrary, he sometimes has to take a step back from giving too much too soon. It comes from a subconscious need to keep going at a fear of not having the inspiration return.
“But I’m the kind of guy that writes songs largely around a melody that I have in my head or a lyric that I have in my head randomly — I’ll mould the song around that,” he continues. “There’s no real rhyme or reason to it. I just have a voice recorder on my iPhone that is just full of just garbage, like, me singing to myself in the toilet stall of my work, so I don’t forget things later, you know what I mean? I’ve been pretty fortunate where I haven’t really had to, other than to take a break here and there intentionally, I haven’t really had the opposite take place yet, thankfully.”
Probably the most recurring theme in Adamyk’s music is heartbreak. He’s always been a bit of a hopeless romantic — it’s something that’s influenced his writing from when he was growing up until now, even though he’s happily married. Much of his subject matter is also political, though intentionally vague and approached in a satirical manner that glimpses upon topics without deliberately or forcefully discussing them. But, with all that in mind, Adamyk maintains that sometimes songs are just stupid songs and the simple ones might resonate just as well as those that have depth.
“It’s really easy to write a punk song, but it’s incredibly difficult to craft a good punk song,” he explains. Whether you’re talking about partying or politics, it’s all too easy to come across as contrived or cliché. “It’s really difficult to straddle that line between, you know, taking your lyrics and your themes very seriously while, at the same time, crafting it so it flows off the tongue nicely or is perceived properly, because that’s the problem with the music that we play — it can be a joke easily or it can be too serious to the point where that’s also a joke. It’s actually kind of complex and I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet, but there’s very few that have.”
On Graceland, SAB’s “trash-pop” is as tightly-wound as ever, leaning deeply into the furious traditions of ’70s punk and the unpolished aesthetics of ’90s garage, while strong pop sensibilities add warmth to the rougher textures. Topics like struggling with anxiety are addressed, specifically through the murky fuzz of the track “High Mile,” where Adamyk references the moodiness of Australian post-punks Total Control.
Probably his favourite song on the record is the last one, “She’s On My Mind (Heyday)” — originally a rough demo that ended up getting shelved. When the band revisited it, Adamyk was concerned that they weren’t going to be able to improve it. The opposite turned out to be true. The track is stunning, starting off with a bright driving riff that steers into retro harmonies and concise instrumentation before pummelling into a bratty whirlwind of noise.
“I’m fiercely critical of my songwriting and I cringe a lot listening to it, especially my own voice, just like everybody else does,” Adamyk laughs, “but that song, specifically, I listen to it and I’m like, ‘wow, I’m actually – I think I’m okay with that.’”
The album, which includes vocal contributions from Colleen Green and Mike Krol, also features two new full-time members to SAB’s fluid lineup — Max Desharnais and Sébastien Godin from Montreal power-pop punk outfit Sonic Avenues. The bands and often touring buddies have known each other for years, and developed a deep friendship after promoters introduced them in the late 2000s.
Adamyk is a “colossal” fan of Sonic Avenues, praising the group for being “leagues beyond than what they’re being recognized for.” They’re good guys, too — Desharnais (who played on 2014’s Dial Tone) and Godin were the first to offer to step in permanently after a couple of players bowed out of SAB (amicably, due to time constraints and family commitments) and the bandmates are so close, Adamyk even stayed with them while recording Graceland in Montreal.
“There’s definitely a serious connection between Ottawa and Montreal and a couple dozen people that all kind of have the same sort of ideology and same interests,” Adamyk says. “They’re the greatest guys in the world, I couldn’t ask for better people to be involved with. They’re funny, they’re easygoing, they’re incredibly talented — I could go on for days.”
When Adamyk speaks about his work, one thing is made abundantly clear: there is an overwhelming amount of love that goes into it. After all, the Steve Adamyk Band is a project that was formed from the necessity to create — the need to express what resides in the deep corners of the soul — and it would be impossible not to have heart poured in. But, from their respect for both the craft and the genre to their unwavering appreciation for each other, the band truly operates with, in all sense of the word, joy. Despite loud guitar and feverish shouts, it is the boldest statement that they make.
“We can’t tone down our enthusiasm,” Adamyk says. “We’re a pretty boisterous bunch, but I think it’s a good thing, ultimately.”
And really, at the end of the day, it all goes back to a kid from Ottawa who just liked to hang out at his local record shop.
Steve Adamyk Band release Graceland on July 29 via Dirtnap Records.