BestFan blogger Mallory Chate had the chance to chat with the boys of Teenage Kicks this week. Read the full interview below!
Mallory: First off, why don’t you guys tell me how the band’s transformed through the years?
Jeff van Helvoort: Sure, we started as a band called Ulysses and the Siren. Peter and another guy were playing with these two brothers from Hamilton. Peter asked me and my friend to join the band, and he kicked out the brothers. Then we lost our guitarist and our drummer, and got a new drummer, got a new guitarist, moved to Toronto, started Teenage Kicks. So we were that band for, how long before Christian joined?
Peter van Helvoort: Year and a half. There’s probably an easier way to describe it. Lots of people have quit.
J: Yeah, I guess.
P: We went from four to five. Now, people keep saying we’re a duo, but we hire drummers. So, we’re a three piece at this current point in time.
J: It would be really funny if we were a duo, though.
P: You might say we’re the most versatile band in the history of rock and roll, because we play the same songs but with varying members and different groups of people.
M: So with all that struggle, have you guys ever thought about giving up?
J: Oh, all the time.
P: I’m particularly bad. I’m very pessimistic. It’s weird. Our dad is very blue collar and he sings. He’s the reason that both Jeff and I ever started playing music, but he’s never written a song in his life and he’s got a beautiful voice. I just have a hard time struggling with wanting to have a regular life and normal things and settling down and wanting to be an artist. It’s never about money with me, I don’t care. I live off of such a small amount of money, but there’s a desire for respect. That’s really important. You get to a point where you keep doing the same thing, and we try and tell people this, that you maybe don’t want to do it anymore. It gets too hard or you’re tired of eating shit all the time. I don’t mean like fast food, but always having it “rain on you”. You can’t be that way, this is about love. You have to do it if you love it.
It’s like, my parents loved each other, but they stopped liking each other and they got a divorce. That’s okay, and it’s okay for people to start small businesses that they believe in, that they wanted to start their whole lives, then in two years those businesses fail. That’s okay, but bands just pour money and money into things and have people who will tell you to keep doing it for the love of the music, but then they won’t even bother to go and buy your music. They’ll go and download it. It’s this weird double standard, and that’s why we’ve wanted to call it quits. Not ‘cause we’re like, “Give us your money, or feel sorry for us”, or anything like that. You can only stand so much.
J: There are also so many bands. It’s like why should you support us instead of a band who loves it just as much?
P: At the end of the day, if you really love music, really truly love music, then it shouldn’t matter how many people you do it in front of. I really love music and I should be, not unlike my father, I should be able to have a regular job and do it in my rec room from time to time when the mood strikes. I think it’s dealing with those two worlds kind of clashing against each other.
M: So when did you guys actually start playing music? You said you started playing at a young age, how early?
P: I was strumming around on my dad’s guitar when I was in grade five or six, but I didn’t really learn… I started writing songs in grade 9, and before that I had tablature paper. I would literally tab out songs that I never played, I would just write notes. I would like to say that was a genius symphonic kind of thing, like Beethoven, but it wasn’t; it was probably terrible. Probably went back and it was tablature without notation, so no notes, no time.
J: I think I started, probably seriously, when I was 13. I distinctly remember Peter taking guitar lessons out of school when he was in grade 8 and I had started taking them as well, so I was in grade 5. I left my guitar there, and my parents were like, “Well, obviously you don’t care much about this’ and I was like ‘Yeah, you know what? I don’t.” Then I started playing again when I was a little bit older.
M: With all that experience with music, how do you think it’s affected your new album, Spoils of Youth?
P: Well, a lot of the stuff that we grew up listening to, that my dad put on, it was all good music. That’s subjective, but it was like Counting Crows, and we grew up on a lot of mid-90’s stuff. That’s darker, song writing is really strong, but it was at a time when it was post grunge, so there was a lot of artists on the radio, that 10 years before wouldn’t have been on the radio. It was a good golden period between ’93 and 2000 when there was a lot of solid song-writing going on. So, that’s influenced us and having a father who was always just playing songs on acoustic, and singing them.
J: It’s embedded in our brain what a good song should be.
P: Or more so, for me, the route of a song. In the beginning of it, which is just chords and melody, I think that’s the most important thing with our band is that everything is built up from chords and a melody.
M: You guys talk about honesty, and you’re not about selling out, which comes across in your music. What do you want people to actually take from your music?
P: I think I’ve had this problem over the last few years where I’ve isolated my own struggles and been like, ‘I’m the only one that feels this way’. I think when I was doing this record; a lot of people felt the way I do. I’m particularly stressed out about the state that the world is in, and the environment. Everyday more and more environment restrictions are being taken away in Canada to conveniently allow for a pipeline to go across the country. Everything about the world we’re growing up in, as adults, just effect’s my psyche and my mood and emotions so much on a daily basis. I think it affects a lot of other people, and I think the record goes away from the whole “escapist” mentality of what a lot of modern music is, especially dance music. Yeah, it makes you feel good for the moment, but I don’t think it’s dealing with the bigger problem. I don’t think our record has a grand meaning. It’s not about the environment, it’s not about politics, it’s about dealing with how you’re feeling. Not drinking to forget it, not partying and dancing to make you feel good. It’s about dealing and addressing the problems you have on a day-to-day basis.
A friend of ours, we played this show in Toronto a few months ago, and after the show he’s like “Come to my house, I want to talk to you”. He told me that watching our band was depressing, because he said no one wants to go see Teenage Kicks and have you be real with people. Everyone wants to go see Teenage Kicks and have a good time. I think that’s bullshit because rock music doesn’t always have to be about escapism. Our band is about reality. I think you can come and see Teenage Kicks if you want, I hate to say, three chords and the truth, but if you want to know how I’m feeling that’s what you’re gonna get. There’s never a time in this band when Jeff and I are not telling people how we actually feel. If one night we don’t want to make you escape your problems, maybe you need to deal with one of your problems.
M: In that sense, performing wise, is it ever difficult to perform when you’re dealing with your own emotions?
P: No, no, no. I never go up and sulk on stage, it’s not like that. The passion is always there, but it’s just like what is the interaction going to be like between songs? That varies, but there’s never ever, ever been a time, no matter if it’s 5 people or 5000 people, that I won’t give my all. That’s important to me.
M: Do you guys have a sound you’d describe for yourselves? I was listening to the record, and all the songs are different. There’s no solid form to all of them.
P: I really idolize bands that do a lot of different things and have it be cohesive. That’s always been a goal. I don’t like that a lot of records are like the same song ten times over.
J: I don’t think we’ve ever been afraid to do a certain kind of song. Other than a dance song, we’ve never done a dance song.
P: I don’t want to be pigeon holed, and I’m very opinionated about jumping on trends. You can guarantee that if something is on the radio, we’re not going to do it. We had one song, a Christmas song, and I thought it would be funny to do “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. We intentionally made it sound like The Black Keys, because they were super big on the radio at the time. It was after “Brother” but that blues rock stuff was on the radio at the time. The guy from our label was like, “I don’t think you should release that song, I think you should put your own lyrics over it.” That’s the way the music industry is, and that’s not what Jeff and I want to be a part of.
M: Where do you see yourself in the future?
P: Probably not being in a band. That’s what I mean when I say the struggle between normal life and being in a band. It’s hard to make money in this business. I have no problem with the fact that there is a music business, because everything else is a business too, but I have to feel good about it. I think in the end game, when you don’t play nice with everyone and you’re not playing ball…
J: It hurts you.
P: Yeah, it hurts you. It means that there is no game. You’re sitting on the bench. Jeff and I have accepted that. It’s more important that Jeff and I to do something we can be proud of than to make a bunch of money and do something we don’t believe in.
J: Best case scenario, if you get a single on the radio, and you don’t like that single, then 10 or 15 years down the road you’re going to look back and be like, ‘Wow. That was my musical career.’ Instead, we’ve put out a record that we’re very, very proud of all the way through.
P: You might feel different if you had a mansion. I always wondered that, if I was rich and could do whatever I wanted would I be, “Fuck yeah, I’ll put a dance beat in! Who cares?” At this current point in time I’m like, no!
M: What tracks are you most excited for people to hear? What are you most proud of?
P: I like “Your Shadow” a lot. Generally speaking, I like songs that don’t sound like our band. I think Jeff’s like that too. When we made the record, there was another guy, Keegan, in the band and I like other people’s songs, because they’re not my own. I would be really happy to have a band that isn’t playing my songs, that I’m not in control of. It’s fun to listen to other people’s songs. “Your Shadow” I like,] because it doesn’t sound like anything we’ve ever done before. It was based upon chords and a melody, but you’d never be able to tell just by listening to it. What about you?
J: I really like “Time Is Not A River”. I think that’s the one song that really stands out for me. We wrote it only 3 weeks before we went down to make the record. When we figured out we had to re-make the record, the label was like, “Okay. You have eight hours to go to a studio and do one song,” and that was the song that we chose. I think because we didn’t have a chance to think about it, just go in and record it. I just really think that song captured that vibe.
M: Last question, what has been the highlight of your music career? What’s inspired you?
P: Inspired or been the most enjoyable? My inspiration has never been anything positive. It’s just things being crappy. It sounds so depressing, but it’s not meant to be. Life is life, you know what I mean? Any time I’m happy I don’t feel like writing a song. We went to California – the 15-year-old version of myself would have never believed 13 years later he’d be in California making music. So that was amazing. The first time I got to see the fruits of writing songs. What about you?
J: Yeah, same thing. It was an incredible experience. It was awesome. That was the biggest bummer about not being able to keep that record was it did feel good to just go down and play. The guy’s house we were recording in was pretty cool, it was just a good vibe. That was the biggest bummer, not being able to keep those performances where we we’re like “Wow, this is amazing. We’re in California making a record.”