Published Mar 27, 2011Emerging from the barely fertilized ground of Montreal punk in the early 1980s, the Asexuals brought together a group of high school friends dead set on doing something original in their nearby hometown of Beaconsfield. Inspired by the music, ethic, and aesthetic of the first wave of punk in Montreal and defiant bands like the 222s, the band were equally drawn to the urgency of the speedier mutations emerging from the United States. As a result, the Asexuals quickly developed a style of melodic hardcore that endeared them to audiences across North America when they fled Quebec for years of endless coast to coast touring as soon as their parents would let them. Within five years, they had toured with bands like Hüsker Dü and Youth Brigade, beefed with Tim Yohannon and Maximumrocknroll because he couldn't grasp the irony of their early single, "Contra Rebels," and helped establish Montreal as a necessary tour stop for any punk or hardcore band headed to the Northeast. When vocalist and guitarist John Kastner split in 1987 to form the Doughboys, it was the beginning of the end for the band, and while they continued to play until 1997, they never quite achieved the artistic highs of their '80s output. In October of 2010, the band reunited the original line-up to play Pop Montreal, and have since played a few shows around Ontario and Quebec. We caught up with Kastner and guitarist Sean Friesen before their second show in Toronto as part of the 20th anniversary celebrations for the Bovine Sex Club.
What's it like to play Asexuals sets in 2011?
John Kastner: It's kind of like a high school reunion. People are very enthusiastic. It tends to be a lot of people who used to be in the punk rock scene, but haven't seen each other in a long time. So not only are they excited to see us play, they're excited to see all their friends together in one room.
Sean Friesen: It's just a fun vibe. People are happy to be hanging out together again.
Do you feel like there's a significant number of people who didn't get a chance to see you guys play back in the day?
Kastner: There are a lot of people who bought our records but never got to see us play, for sure.
Is that interesting for guys? I imagine the first time you play in a band, you're not thinking, "This is going to be fun to do in another 25 years."
Kastner: It's great fun for us. It comes very naturally. We all grew up playing music together.
Friesen: It's a weird perspective, to be playing music as grown-ups that you wrote when you were in your teens.
Kastner: Early teens! Some of those songs I wrote when I was 14. It's funny.
Are there any songs that really made you feel strange to go back and play?
Kastner: We built a set list of songs we feel comfortable with. And we also do some covers that we used to play back in the day. There were two songs that we talked about playing that we ended up deciding not to play. At this point, we could play anything, but we're trying to be picky.
What were the two songs?
Friesen: "Three Chord Speed" and "Death from Above."
Kastner: Paul, our drummer, couldn't play them. They're too fast. And [bassist] T.J.'s hand gets hurt. He's a jazz guy now.
So is it physically tiring to play songs you wrote as teenagers?
Kastner: It depends on the crowd. If everyone's having fun and they're excited, you just go into that mode and you can do it.
Friesen: It's high energy music, and if the crowd's into it, it's easy.
Kastner: But like any show, if the crowd's just staring at you, you don't have a chance.
Tonight you're playing with the Ugly, Groovy Religion —
Kastner: And last night was with Stark Naked and the Fleshtones.
So if you guys could make another band reunite to play with —
Kastner and Friesen: Teenage Head.
Kastner: Teenage Head was a huge band for us. Poor Frankie, he's gone, but that would be it. They were so important to us as kids. That, and the first Forgotten Rebels record. "The fish…" That song!
Bomb the boats and feed — "
Kastner: "Their fucking flesh to the fish." Those were our favourite bands, as far as punk went. We were into Iggy and stuff, too.
Friesen: I'd also love to play with Deja Voodoo. They were on their own wavelength. No one else did that.
Kastner: Until the White Stripes.
I feel like that's what so cool about a lot of early Canadian punk-type music. People were isolated so weirder stuff happened. That Forgotten Rebels record is such a strange, mean, sarcastic record.
Kastner: Montreal especially. Toronto had a lot more clubs to play, there was stuff going on. There was nothing in Montreal. There were two clubs to play. That's why the Asexuals toured so much. Once you played those two clubs, you couldn't play again for a few months. Toronto, you at least had ten clubs you could play. So Toronto bands didn't get out of town as much as Montreal bands, because if you wanted to play, you had to get the hell out of there.
You didn't want to just play the Hotel Nelson?
Friesen: You had to be a big band to play the Hotel Nelson.
Kastner: We saw the U.K. Subs there, Lou Reed played there. We played at Cargo. We would play a lot of shows in church basements that we would put together. All ages shows, in a hall.
Friesen: And they'd always be for some cause. Like Rock Against Reagan. And there would be no lights. Or a dangling light bulb.
Kastner: Fugazi style.
Friesen: That's where we played with Hüsker Dü. In a church basement. On the Zen Arcade tour.
Kastner: It was quite the show. Bob Mould's parents came to that show. His mom used to live in Vermont, and she listened to CBC with Brent Bambury. And he used to play Hüsker Dü, the Asexuals, the Nils. So his mom would write letters to the radio station and when bands would show up there would be letters from Bob Mould's mom.
Are there other bands that, when you look back on the touring career of the Asexuals, you're really amazed that you played with?
Friesen: I loved playing with 999. I thought they were amazing.
Kastner: We played with Lord of the New Church, and we were all huge Dead Boys fans so playing with Stiv Bators was amazing. A lot of the British '70s punk bands we played with were always exciting. It was different back then because there was no video, no radio, and all you had was the record to stare at. So when you got to see those bands live, and see that they were real people, it was a crazy experience.
Friesen: You only knew them from their record jackets, and when you saw them playing, it would be so rad.
And you guys had that unique experience because you were touring of seeing these people. I imagine there weren't a lot of kids in Montreal at that time that did.
Kastner: We were the Montreal band that got out. We wanted to play. So we got Maximumrocknroll and we just started booking tours on our own. We did everything ourselves, right down to the first single. We went, we recorded it, we photocopied the sleeve, cut them all ourselves, and put them in plastic bags.
When you think of the way kids starting a band right now have easy access to MySpace, and a million ways of getting in touch with people to book a tour, do you wish that you had that? Or are you grateful that you had the experiences you guys had?
Friesen: It wouldn't have been the same. I feel like it was more special.
Kastner: When we put out our first record, nobody had records. None of the Montreal bands, none of the Toronto bands, and we had a record. No one could believe it.
Friesen: People had 45s, maybe. Or a song on a compilation. But a full-length record was like, "Whoa." And our second record was recorded on 24-track, had a full-colour sleeve, and it was just like, "What the fuck."
Kastner: It's different now. Everything comes at you in 3D now. You hear a band, and you can download their song for free, and you can go online and watch all their videos. I used to go downtown and buy records. Some you'd like, some you didn't. You'd open it up and smell that vinyl. You'd stare at the record all day. It's a different experience.
So at that time, you guys were the really ambitious band from Montreal.
Kastner: We just wanted to play and get the hell out of there. We toured the States before any of the other bands went to Toronto.
Friesen: Our second tour was two and a half months.
Kastner: We weren't even 18. I can't believe our parents let us do that.
Were you scared? Excited?
Kastner: I couldn't wait to get away from home.
Friesen: Our girlfriends were not happy.
Kastner: But we didn't give a shit. It didn't matter how broke we were. And we had some crazy experiences. From skinheads, to Nazis, we saw some crazy shit back then.
Friesen: It's funny how much I forgot. We were driving to London the other day, and I couldn't believe all the stuff I had forgotten.
Kastner: Do you remember on our first tour when we had that group of skinheads following us around Florida? We played this show in Gainesville, and there's 150 punk rock kids moshing, having fun, and then all these skinheads came in and beat everyone up until they all ran out of the club. We were on stage playing for eight skinheads. Everyone, even the bartender, ran out of the bar. So we just played for these eight skinheads.
What about you, Sean? What blew you mind the most that you hadn't remembered?
Friesen: We were lost somewhere in the States, and T.J. and Paul got arrested and put in a line-up because they looked like some guy that had just robbed a store. We're just teenagers, and you don't think about it, but now you think, what if the witness had said Paul was the guy? What would we have done?
Kastner: Remember the bikers in Detroit? The first time we ever played in Detroit was at this place called the Hungry Brain. It had just opened, and it was in the south side of Detroit, and it smelled like shit because it was right by a place where they were making perfume out of dead animals. We showed up at the venue the night before, and I slept in the van to protect the gear while everyone else slept inside. This biker gang, the Iron Coffins, had their clubhouse next door. They didn't know what these punk kids were doing, so at four in the morning they busted in, picked up the first dude they saw, who was our manager, put a gun to his head, turned on the lights and said, "Who the fuck are you guys?" I was sleeping in the van, and I opened up my eyes to this 300 pound biker right in my face saying, "Get up, motherfucker." They brought us into their clubhouse, locked the door, and just wanted to know who the fuck we were. Thankfully, the promoter's girlfriend had really big boobs. Over the bar, they had this bra and a sign that said, "If you can fill this bra, you get a free bottle of Jack Daniel's." So she did it, and we ended up doing all these shots at five, six in the morning. And then they let us out. And the next night, they all came to the show. Probably 30 bikers. So there were 200 punk kids, and they all spread when these bikers showed up, and they just stared at us.
Friesen: When you're in that clubhouse, and the bombproof door closes…
Kastner: The next tour we did, we played at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles for six thousand people. We were 17. We had played for a few hundred people before that, maybe. There's a Flipside video of it you can find online. We're playing so fast because we're so scared shitless.
If the Asexuals in 2011 could offer one piece of advice to the 17-year-old version of the Asexuals, what would it be?
Kastner: Don't wait around for anybody. Just fucking do it. Don't worry about selling out. Once you leave the garage, you're either selling or you ain't. Don't buy into any of that bullshit. Just play.
Friesen: And try not to do too many drugs.