Grade Back to Basics

Grade Back to Basics
In late July, Grade were the grand prize in a MuchMusic contest. The nation's music station brought the band to a viewer's house where they co-hosted The Wedge, a weekly hour-long celebration of fringe music. Now while it's not unusual for bands to be MuchMusic prizes — you know, backstage with the Backstreet Boys, dinner with Destiny's Child, shopping with Britney Spears — it is not the kind of thing you'd expect from a hardcore punk band.

It's just another example of the ways Grade has confounded, angered and divided the often holier-than-thou hardcore community. The Burlington, Ontario-based quintet's refusal to play by the conventions of the scene that spawned them has made them pariahs, outcasts and anomalies. And if not solely for political and professional reasons, then because of the fact that they dare to infuse their screaming punk fury with anthemic sing-along emo melodies and conventional pop song structure — apparently a big no-no for a hardcore band.

"We've always encountered that and never really cared about it," vocalist Kyle Bishop says. "Most of the shit happens locally in the Toronto scene. We have all these kids saying, 'Fuck Grade, they're a bunch sell-outs, they suck...' and these kids don't know shit. They don't realise we been around for almost eight years busting our balls to help keep the hardcore and punk scene alive. If they have a problem with it then what the hell do I care? Don't buy my records, somebody else will. It doesn't bother me. Everyone's going to have an opinion no matter what, and if it's a stupid uneducated one, that's their problem. Who isn't considered a sell out? Every kid is going to say that their favourite band or a band they like is a sell out because they gain some sort of success. Any band has that problem and why would we be any different?"

The irony in Grade's case, is the backlash began when they signed to Victory Records (the breeding ground for some the best and best-known hardcore bands on the planet) for the release of their 1999 Under the Radar disc. For reasons that defy logic, leaving a small indie label (Second Nature) and signing to a larger indie label was offensive to some.
But Bishop, bassist Matt Jones, guitarists Shawn Magill and Brad Casarin and the most recent recruit, drummer Charles Moniz gave up caring what others think a long time ago. "I don't care and I don't think the band cares," Bishop offers. "If you pay attention to all the things people say on message boards or in interviews and reviews you're going to drive yourself crazy. We're doing this because we like playing the music, we're not doing this because we want to show ourselves off. That's why we do different music from anyone else because we do what we want to do and we don't care what anyone else thinks."
Ewan Exall, a long-time hardcore and punk promoter now working with Toronto's Against the Grain concerts, has witnessed first hand the backlash against Grade since he first started booking them on shows in 1994. "People do talk trash and there have been a lot of naysayers along the way, but fuck 'em," Exall says. "I never really grasped what the playa-hater mentality was until I saw it reflected in how people treated those guys when they stared to become successful."
But now Grade is having the last laugh. Just when it looked like they were poised to become rock superstars, they are preparing to throw fans for a loop with their third full-length disc, Headfirst Straight to Hell. The record marks a return to the angrier, more metallic sound of their earlier material; something that hasn't really been heard since the brilliant Separate the Magnets EP.

"It's definitely along the lines of Separate the Magnets but it's way more aggressive," says Bishop. "It has a lot more duelling guitars and metal riffs and interesting things going on, but it retains the melodies that we have on Under the Radar — it's just not as poppy as some of the songs on there.

"At the time [of writing Under the Radar] our influences were a lot different. We were listening to a lot of poppier bands and that comes through in the music. This time around with Brad and Charles in the band, they both love metal as much as the rest of us and once we all started listening to cooler metal stuff, we started writing. It wasn't a conscious decision to make a heavier record, it just kind of happened and we were really happy that it did. At our live shows, 99 percent of the songs we play are the hard songs. We played one mellow song once because the kids like it, but generally the whole set is an aggressive, blood spitting set so why shouldn't our whole record be like that? It kind of sucks to ignore half the songs on a record because you're not really into them. We wanted to write a set of songs we were fully into and we want to play every single one of them every night."

That anger, perhaps in reaction to the negativity that's been heaped on the band, can be heard in not only the music and Bishop's voice, which is much more raw and angry sounding, but in the words as well. "Musically we were going in this direction and I wanted to parallel that as much as I could with the lyrics," he says. "I wasn't really mad at people or the world or anything, it was more like I was mad at ideas."

One such idea was that there were expectations that Grade was supposed to become exactly what the naysayers accused them of becoming but clearly weren't. "I was really mad about the fact that we were supposed to be this big pop sensation with hit singles," admits Bishop. "We didn't want to go out of our way to write a Blink 182 song, we wanted to be who we wanted to be."

The new record's shift in direction can probably be attributed to a couple of things — the loss of founding guitar player Greg Taylor, a key songwriter for a long time, and the addition of Casarin in his place. Taylor, who after years of trying to play in two successful bands, decided to devote himself to the other one, the rootsy pop-punk quartet Jersey. (See sidebar.)

"Greg was definitely going in a different direction and that's why he's in Jersey," Bishop says. "They have that sound and it was definitely reflected on the last record. When Under the Radar came about he wasn't doing as much as he used to. He wrote the majority of the songs on the earlier records but on Under the Radar we were all writing songs so he wasn't really a dominant songwriter. He was so focused on Jersey at that time that it was almost a relief he made a choice. It was a little weird. We like Greg and we love Jersey and we're all friends, but it was a good move because his head was in a different space. He wanted to go more rock and roll and we wanted to go more metal and I think it was a perfect time for him to leave."

Taylor agrees; there came a point in 1999 when neither his head nor his heart were in the band. "There were a lot of factors," Taylor recalls. "It was hard to make the decision. I'd been thinking about it for about two years. One of the main things was at the time my mom was really sick and she needed a lot of attention. And between the two bands I was on tour a lot. It wasn't really fair to either band. I'd go on tour then come home for a week and then I'd go on tour with the other band. Some tours had to be cancelled for either band because something else was booked and there was no time for practising."

There was also the issue of writer's block. While his attentions were elsewhere, Taylor was having a hard time focusing on the Grade sound. "I think the height of Grade was Separate the Magnets," he says. "I wrote a huge chunk of that record. I was having a hard time writing in a particular style and I couldn't naturally do it. I think ‘Conceptualizing Theories in Motion' was the best song I ever wrote for Grade. It became the standard and every song had to be as good as that one and I just couldn't do it."

Leaving Grade was made tougher by the fact they were reaching new levels of success with international tour offers and a record that was selling relatively well. "That was a huge thing weighing on my mind," he admits. "For the first month or two after I was like, ‘Shit, maybe I made the wrong decision.' But as more time passed it's probably the best decision I ever made."

For Grade's sound, though, Taylor's influence is lasting. Being the pop yin to Bishop's hardcore yang has given the band one of the most distinct sounds in punk. While other bands have tried to fuse those disparate influences, none have done it with the consistency of Grade. The impact of their successful fusion can be heard in any number of bands from American bands like Boy Sets Fire, Drowningman and Thursday to European outfits like Waterdown. But does the band recognise the impact they've had on the scene? Do they see themselves as leaders of a new movement?

"I'd seem really pompous if I said yes... and I'm going to say yes," states Bishop. "It's not like we're doing anything different. It's not like Hüsker Dü didn't do it or even the Pixies, but we have definitely taken it to a total extreme. I think that we are one of the first bands that made really heavy music and really poppy music and really emotional music and tied it all together. I think a lot of people have been influenced.

"I don't want to be a dick about it but we definitely have influenced a lot of people and I'm pretty happy about that. I'm extremely happy that even if people don't like us as a band they like what we're doing. I think that's pretty cool."

That versatility has led to them sharing stages with an eclectic array of bands over the years. "One day we play with can play with the Promise Ring and Jimmy Eat World and the next day we play with Disembodied, it doesn't matter it seems both kinds crowds like us," Bishop notes. "The emo-pop punk kids can get into it because it's upbeat and punky. They get turned off at first by the screaming but then they realise there's a lot of melodies and then they hear the breakdowns and big singing choruses and they're like, 'oh cool.' The metal kids are kind of the same way. They like all the aggressiveness."

According to Ewan Exall, who has booked them on any number of non-traditional punk shows, that is one of the charms of Grade. "Grade have changed a lot," he says. "When they started they were very much an E-chord chug kind of band and they mutated into more of a melodic hardcore band with a heavy emo influence to almost a power pop band and now back to a more metal influence. They listen to everything from the Boo Radleys to Van Halen to Integrity and it all shows up in places even if it's only for a couple of bars. They're melodic enough to play with a band like Fugazi but at the same time they can play these ridiculous hardcore shows or tour with a band like the Voodoo Glow Skulls and not seem out of place. The kids [at punk shows] are far less closed minded than they're given credit for and if you look into the audience when Grade plays there's hardcore kids that have been there since the start and there are 14-year-old girls."

With their first ever tour of Japan in the offing, dates on this year's Warped tour and another jaunt around Europe planned, Grade's plan of global domination appears to be right on schedule. But what about their home and native land?

"We trying to figure out something good for Canada," says Bishop. "We've only done two relatively small tours in Canada. We've gone across the country but we want to focus on Canada for once. It's difficult to do that but we've kind of been ignoring it over the years but if we're starting to get more support maybe we should do more."