A Conversation With: TEENAGE KICKS
As you may or may not know, Teenage Kicks is losing two of its members. Jeff Van Helvoort, bassist and brother to lead vocalist Pete Van Helvoort, has decided to leave the band, and as a result, Patrick Merchant (guitar) is also following suit. Whether you’re a musician or not, anyone can relate to the sadness that comes with losing a team member, ‘a partner in crime’. In this particular case, this rock outfit has lost their stride just as they were on the cusp of reaping the benefits of all their hard work, and as a result are left stagnant in the dust of its fleeing members.
Yes, I’m being dramatic, but I assure you, it’s not far from the truth.
However, what’s inspiring about this whole situation is Pete’s dedication to his passion, and his level headedness and desire to just keep on trucking. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him last week. His demeanor was respectably lamentful, but he also had an admirable self-awareness about him that fans should take comfort in. We discussed his reactions, as well as fans reactions to the changes with the band, and his overall views on the state of rock music today.
You guys have a huge show coming up on the 5th. Are you excited?
Absolutely, we’ve always wanted to play Lee’s Palace. We’ve played the Horseshoe a couple times so it’s nice to sort of take the next step up.
Pretty solid line-up too!
Yeah, it’s great – every band is just a little bit different which is nice.
I’m just going to talk about the elephant in the room – When Jeff told you he was quitting the band, what was going through your head?
Less than you’d think. He’s done it before. So much stuff has happened in the last year that I didn’t even try to convince him otherwise. I also knew that he was giving it about 6 months to see if any forward motion happened because we had been sitting stagnant for so long. So we all knew something was on the horizon, we just didn’t know it was going to be this soon. I was kind of just like, ‘that’s cool. I understand.’ I didn’t yell at him. I wasn’t angry – I mean, I was a little at a couple of things, but I want him to be happy. He’s my brother, I love him.
How about when Patrick decided to leave?
When his parents heard that Jeff quit, they told him that they would pay for him to go to school, and he said OK. The way Pat looks at it is, he likes being in a band, but he doesn’t need to be in a band. Whereas with me, I have a hard time separating my identity from the band. I post my inner thoughts on our Twitter page, and it’s my thoughts that are on our blog. I don’t even have my own Facebook account. Generally speaking, my friends won’t see me unless it’s at a show that we play. It’s kind of a weird way of being. I know it is.
Do you think you’ll continue on with Teenage Kicks without them?
My initial thought was I didn’t want to do it. Replacing two people is such a hard task. But then I thought, I kind of owe it to the rest of the guys. Cam and I didn’t really get along when we first started playing together, but now, Cam is by far the most loyal person in the band. And Christian is really hard working. So, I didn’t think it would be fair of me to take that away from them. It’s not my band, it’s our band. I want to at least give it a try and find new members. I owe that to the guys, especially Cam.
How has it been trying to find replacements?
It’s hard. We’ve tried a couple of people. It’s an interesting process. I don’t want to give too much away, but we’re all very close so our standards are all very similar and very high. I normally only play with people that I know.
You mentioned that Jeff has quit twice before. Do you think there’s a chance he’d come back?
I’m not going to let him come back this time. It’s just not worth it. I want him to be happy, but I can’t keep dealing with this, it’s ridiculous. The last time he quit it wasn’t his fault, he had problems with his hands, but we had a replacement come in, a guy named Chance who actually plays in a band called Sonic Avenue a punk band out in Montreal. He was taking a bus down here from Montreal every weekend just to help us out. He did it for like a month and a half every single weekend. He learned the songs, learned all the back-up vocals, it was great. He was actually going to be our bass player as we moved on, but Jeff was like, ‘My hands are better, and I want to be back in the band.’ So we had to tell Chance that he couldn’t, and it really took a toll on our friendship. It was super unfair to him. I can’t do that to someone else again. [Jeff] is my brother, he writes songs too, and he’s really great with it. So we can move forward and that takes a lot off my shoulders. We talked about it, and he’s going to keep writing songs and if there’s things that we like we’ll keep using them even though he’s not in the band.
So all and all it’s amicable?
Yeah. Well, for the most part. All and all I’d like it if Jeff and Pat could stay in the band, especially since everything has been all well and good. Good practices. We played a show on Saturday which was total shit but we didn’t fight. Considering all that happened you’d think we would be a little meaner at each other, or at the very least just short with each other. But, it’s still been fun.
You mentioned in your blog that you feel that music should be an organic thing. Then you made reference to both The Sheepdogs and Walk Off The Earth who found fame in more unconventional ways. In your opinion, do you feel that this is what the norm for success in the industry is evolving into?
Absolutely. The biggest selling artists, generally speaking, are those who were on American Idol or things like videos going viral, that “Gangnam Style” video for example. There’s a lot of nameless, faceless music out there that makes you feel good on the spot. It’s that instant gratification that people are looking for that’s making that popular. I don’t believe our band is fit for that. Maybe live we are, but I think that our music is something you have to really listen to a couple of times to really get it. Not that it’s over your head or anything. I think that the problem with our band is I’m writing rock music but I’m doing it in a way that I won’t compromise with it. I’m not trying to do anything complicated, or overly poetic. I’m different. I don’t do things normally, not like my peers do. Not saying that I’m the guy that no one understands, not like that, I’m thinking it’s more like I’m a bit of a strange person. The sentiments I write into my songs aren’t necessarily what everyone feels. I put so much of myself into the music and the lyrics that we are not a conventional rock band. We refuse to do the whole dog and pony show. I don’t want to sound like the bands I listened to when I was growing up, I want to do something different. In this musical society though people seem to enjoy being reminded of what they liked. There’s a lot of eighties worship going on. Which is fine, I mean everything goes through phases. That’s the thing you have to think about with rock music; look at how big The Black Keys are. There is no other rock band that is as big as them right now. Kings of Leon were The Black Keys two years ago. We’re talking about a style of music that seems to be able to only have one huge band at any given time. There are dozens of famous DJs, countless top 40 artists, more than one rap star. It really is an isolated stereotype. There are a lot of rules to rock music.
To quote something you said in that same blog; you said, that you were ‘frustrated with leaving your band in the hands of people that you barely knew.’ What advice would you offer to anyone who may be faced with a similar opportunity?
Originally, we did everything ourselves. We recorded our own stuff, we made our own album sleeves, designed everything, made our own website, we booked our own shows. Everything. We were from out of town, but we still managed to get people out to shows within 6 months of our start in Toronto. And we’re not exactly a social band. Under our own control we were doing just fine for ourselves. But then we kind of wussed out and thought that we didn’t want to go on tour and eat shit for so long. So we said let’s get this big agent and this big manager from a big label and let’s do it big from the start. And it shot us in the foot. There’s a young band that I’ve recently recorded, I won’t name them, who are faced with the same opportunity, and I told them don’t do it. You’re essentially paying people to pay other people to come to shows. There are so many young bands, and not that many opportunities. So there are scenarios where you’re essentially buying your way onto a tour. I just think that every band should do it on their own for as long as they can. I think the best thing a band can do for themselves is build their business on their own. If there is one person in the band with a clear vision of what everyone wants, everyone can work towards getting it. That’s the biggest thing. If I could do it all over again I wouldn’t have gone with that manager, with that agent, I would have kept doing it on our own until our business was worth something and we could do whatever the fuck we wanted.
What are some of the reactions from fans or people in the musical community with regards to the changes happening with the band?
Good and bad. We got a couple cold calls from people in the industry who are “important people” who said, ‘Read your blog. You should come into the office so we can talk.’ Which is cool I guess, makes me feel like I’ve got an OK outlook on everything. There are bands though who are like, ‘you’re being a baby. If you really loved music you just have to keep doing it.’ Which I partially agree with. I didn’t write that blog so people can feel sorry for me. I wrote it because that’s how I was feeling. So it was nice to get emails from people that want to play in the band or from people who were hoping that I would just keep going. Again, in the same respect, that’s not why I wrote what I did. If we had lost two people after we had this tour planned and had a record to release in like 3 weeks, I feel like that would have been a little less devastating because at least there was something in the future. Right now, as it stands, we have no plans. For the next 6 months we have no plans. Someone referred to my song writing as ‘Writing Songs in a Vacuum” because I’ve been writing songs in the last 6 or 7 months with no goal. I’ve just been piling songs upon songs with nowhere to go with them. But, we’ll see how things progress.
What’s the one album that has impacted your life the most?
It’s between two: I listened to a lot of classic rock growing up. That’s all my dad listened to. And then when I was in high school, I was obsessed with pop punk. Stuff like New Found Glory, and bands like that. I had totally written off The Beatles – I remember my dad playing me something off Sgt. Peppers and saying this is the same band that did ‘Love Me Do’ and I was convinced it wasn’t the same band. But my dad was like, ‘It is! You’d be surprised what they did in the span of 10 years.’ So I had the Beatles ‘One’ album when I was a kid, I only listened to ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Hold Your Hand.’ I wouldn’t even touch the older stuff. I feel sad to admit that. But when I was 18 I started going to Rotate This about 4 times a year and would spend $400-$500 each time. In one trip I got ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Music for Big Pink’ and ‘The White Album’. Any of those have had an impact. ‘Abbey Road’ too, or ‘Let It Be’. But, I’m going to say that ‘Let It Be’ showed me what a band could do in a room together.