Choke In Sickness and In Health
Published Mar 01, 2005You've heard it before. Hell, you've probably even read it in this very magazine: being in a band is akin to a marriage albeit of the polygamous variety that would make Mormon founder Joseph Smith proud. Sadly, though, few bands ever make it past the honeymoon of a first record before calling it quits.
In the punk world, where the affianced are generally younger and more idealistic, and where the fantasy often outweighs the maturity necessary to keep it together in good times and in bad, divorce rates are even higher. That makes Edmonton tech-punk practitioners Choke quite a rarity. They have managed to maintain the bond of musical matrimony for a stat-defying, odds-beating 11 years in the original line-up. They are, for better or worse, a case study in the kind of perseverance, compromise and understanding that is the key to any successful relationship.
"You've heard that being in a band is like being married to three other people and you can imagine what that takes," offers bassist Clay Shea. "Communication and understanding are key." Adds guitarist Jack Jaggard: "I don't think you could get four guys in a band who understand each other as much as we do." Since 1994, the quartet, which also includes vocalist/guitarist Shawn Moncrief and drummer Stefan Levasseur, have been thrashing it out first as a snot-nosed pop-punk band and in later years as one of the finest technically progressive punk bands on the planet.
The courtship began in the early 90s when four long-haired high schoolers from suburbs on opposite sides of Edmonton came together. They had no idea what it would become after all, the four weren't exactly inspired by the same music. There was consistency in fast and loud, but Jaggard was more into Pantera while the others were into punk and grunge. Shea and Levasseur were living in Stony Plain, on the city's west side, and were sort of known to each other through "bad" high school bands. Jaggard and Moncrief, meanwhile, were living and jamming in an east side area known as Sherwood Park.
It wasn't until Moncrief moved to Stony Plain that things started to take shape. Shea's band needed a singer and Moncrief was recruited. After a failed attempt at getting that project off the ground, Jaggard, who had kept in touch with Moncrief, arrived on the scene. A sceptical Levasseur agreed to join as the drummer despite his apprehension based on having witnessed the disaster that was Shea's previous project. "Due to his opinion of my old band," Shea recalls with a laugh, "it took some convincing to get him out." It was a relationship that barely made it past the engagement.
For Better or Worse
The early days for Choke were turbulent ones to say the least. "For us the toughest time was the first year and a half, where we were learning how to work together," Shea says. "We've come to an incredible understanding and a good relationship."
Recalls Jaggard: "Originally I didn't want Clay because we were already butting heads. He's hot-headed and so am I."
But Jaggard concedes that understanding and acceptance are what has kept the band together. And of course the common desire to make music. "If any band can make it past the first two years, they will realise that you have to drop all your inhibitions and just accept that you're different people even though you think so much alike because you have the common goal," he says. "We still have differences and those can create a ton of tension, especially when you're on the road and you're down and out and eating pb&j and things aren't looking so good. But in the back of your mind you have to think We're all in the exact same situation and we're all in it for the same reason, let's cut the crap and not add to the tension and understand each other for who we are and why we're here and that's to play music.' Being able to push those differences aside and appreciate each other for who we are and what we're doing. That's what kept us strong."
It certainly wasn't advancing a political agenda. "There was definitely a period where we were getting into activism," says Shea. "We are all fairly well educated but it was never a conscious decision, it just never seemed to find a place."
Especially with Moncrief, the least politically minded. "It seemed not real if we were having him sing these political songs," Shea notes. "It's not very authentic."
And even job-wise there's little in the way of ties that bind. Jaggard works as an administrator in the psychiatric ward of an Edmonton hospital, Shea is a recovering pizza delivery guy now working as an overnight supervisor at a youth home, Levasseur stocks shelves in a shoe store and Moncrief is a general labourer. Music is what unites them, and whatever comes out and sounds good to them is Choke music. Which explains why, over the course of five full-length releases, they have gone from thrashing out like an old Southern California melodic hardcore band to seamlessly incorporating spacey prog-metal that has kept them from making the same record twice.
Their debut, the now out-of-print and never to be re-released Lotion, was what the band now considers a high school demo tape. The sound was raw and the songs were crude at best, reflecting a group that had barely found its footing.
They followed about a year later with the slightly more refined Give'er, their first record for the label they still call home, Winnipeg upstart imprint Smallman Records, which has since go on to become home to Moneen and has branched into a successful management company. It was on that record the band's cohesion began to show, hinting at something other than just melodic hardcore. Needless To Say, released in 1998, was the turning point. Still playing fast as hell, the band's complicated side was starting to show with more jagged, odd-metered elements creeping in.
In 1999 came Foreword, a record Shea jokingly refers to as the "career killer." Its ten tracks were a chaotic racket that barely resembled songs in the conventional sense. Technically challenging, it cemented the band's reputation as bold musical innovators. It was almost three years before they came back with There's A Story to This Moral, on which they once again changed direction, striking a balance between the chaos of Foreword and the more traditional melodic punk of Needless to Say.
Now, another three years later, their sixth disc, Slow Fade or: How I Learned to Question Infinity, finds the band experimenting with much slower tempos, dynamic shifts and guitar sounds more reminiscent of Pink Floyd or the Police than Pennywise. It's a sound that is not uncommon in punk circles, with bands like Cave In, Alexisonfire and Coheed and Cambria pushing the envelope and making elements of prog-rock acceptable.
It's a sound they briefly dabbled with on the song "Fallout Leader," the last track written for There's A Story to this Moral. It only made sense that they continue on from that point. "On that song we were messing with pedals," Jaggard says. "I remember back in the Needless to Say and Foreward days, I said I'd never get any pedals. All I'd need was my distortion sound. But leading into this record we took the approach that we wanted more atmospheric sounds, not purposely, but it we thought it was cool and we should roll with it. It's a different vibe, a different thing going on with the effects. It adds the ability to do more stuff. Basically it was us wanting to create something new but not go overboard with pedals and make it sound like we just got a bunch of new stuff."
Adds Shea: "We've always had a love of dynamics but we found a way to work with them appropriately within our music. This record is probably the most accurate representation of our influences. I think in a lot of ways the fact that all our records have been different is a good thing for us. I don't imagine fans of the band are picking up the new record thinking, Oh jeez, I hope it sounds just like the last record.' People are going into it with an open mind. I'm sure there will be people who don't like and wonder why we aren't doing what we did before. We really tried to look at it as a record, and that's why you get songs fading into each other and the end of one riff being the beginning of the next one. Right from the start we wanted to make one piece of music in 12 bursts. There are a lot of bands writing concept albums and we didn't want to jump to that degree. It's not one story tied into another, but all the songs follow the same theme; they all have to do with us getting older, with us having put over a decade into this band.
"If we weren't keeping it moving forward and progressing and trying to grow every time we make a new record and not just regurgitate the same thing, I don't think we'd have the same interest in the band we still have after 11 years. It keeps it fresh and exciting for us. The biggest thing the records have in common is that they all represent where we were at that point in time."
But with 11 years behind them and little advancement in terms of cracking the expansive U.S. market, they have hit another stumbling block. Although they have Stateside distribution through Lookout Records, without a label actually pushing them, touring has been the only way for them to build any kind of following. But for a band that has toiled at almost the same level for a decade, the disappointment is evident. It ended up becoming the major theme on Slow Fade.
"At the end of touring for the last record we had to sit back and ask, What are we doing?'" says Shea. "We toured the States hard and had a fair amount of disappointments from it. Things that we thought were going to happen, things in the U.S. that would have stepped things up a bit and that we'd worked really hard for. But at the end of it we were left thinking we're really lucky to be in the situation we are. The whole new record is about coming to terms with the fact that these are the best days of our lives and it's going to come to an end someday and let's enjoy the time that we have."
Shea says expectations of perhaps a licensing deal with an American label exist. Smallman bands Moneen and Comeback Kid have U.S. deals with Vagrant and Victory respectively. And with a sound that can easily bridge the divide between melodic punk and mainstream rock, if ever there was a chance at attracting broader attention, Slow Fade is it. In their home and native land things are already looking up. Warner Music will be handling distribution under the terms of a deal signed with Smallman in late January. But given what they've already been through, if that big break doesn't come, that's okay too.
Till Death Do Us Part
The fact that Choke survived for 11 years is one thing. That they've done it in their hometown of Edmonton, a city that while having produced some great bands, isn't widely known for its independent music scene, is another altogether.
But Shea says the apparent isolation is not as detrimental as it may appear. If anything, the opposite may be true. "I think the fact that we're out in redneck Alberta is one of the things that keeps the music and arts community so much stronger," he offers. "When there's so much opposition to those types of things I think people tend to unite a little more and back each other. The music scene is very all over the place and that's what makes it so strong. There's a lot of crossover support from scene to scene. The hardcore and punk scenes are the strongest but you'll see people at a country show a few nights after you see them at the hardcore show. Everyone is quite supportive and respectful of each other."
That goes for internally as well. Last winter when they were offered a spot on the Frostbite tour, they headed off without Jaggard in tow. Having already blown out his knee, he was suffering from leg and groin injuries suffered in the name of rock'n'roll. Not wanting the band to miss out on the opportunity, he suggested they call in the services of Boys Night Out drummer Brian Southall, who apparently wields a mean axe as well. They flew him from Detroit out to Edmonton where he learned Jack's guitar parts and within a few weeks was on the road across Canada using Jack's gear.
Despite the "infidelity," there would not be a Choke without the original members. "That's written in stone pretty much," says Jaggard. "It just wouldn't be the same band. That applies to the way our music has changed too. It wouldn't have changed the way it has without all of us. The writing is always Choke and we hold it close to our heart that this is what we are. If anyone else were to come in as a full-time member, we've always said we're done. It's not Choke. It's not the four of us from the beginning that have shared all the ups and downs. We'd say, Let's leave it at that, let's appreciate what we had and move on.' It's never ever come to that but we've always talked about it. We're going to eventually have to slow down and that's what this new record deals with: the realisation that we've had an awesome time doing this and we're coming on 30 years old and we're still working crappy jobs and not really making any money playing music but that's never been our sole purpose. Even once we have other careers and this is kind of on the backburner, we will still jam and write music and do whatever we want to do because that's always been our thing."
Living Out a Wicked Fantasy
To the casual listener, Choke seems like a pretty serious band. Their songs are meticulously structured, their lyrics poetic and their stage demeanour introverted and intense. But appearances can be deceiving. Two years ago, the four Choke-sters and a couple of friends from out of town put together a Spinal Tap-esque faux-glam metal act called Wicked Fantasy for a benefit show in Edmonton.
Ridiculously decked out in de rigueur metal garb, the band, which took its name from Choke guitarist Jack Jaggard's first band, teased the audience with such hair-metal anthems as Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher," Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and Mötley Crüe's "Live Wire."
"It was such a blast," Jaggard sheepishly admits. "We played a bunch of '80s metal covers, we had the spandex and the metal wigs. It was hilarious, we had road clothes and trucker hats and we all had fake names."
Jaggard was Jerry Streets, fellow Choke-sters personas were Clay Shea as Bryce Duckerson, Shawn Moncrief as Rex Vest and Stefan Levasseur as Stevie Styles. Choke friends in on the gag were Shaun Hammermeister as Hammer Lee Walker and Sonny Best as Richie Bibbins. They were such a hit they ended up taking the show on the road to other Alberta venues. No word on whether they plan on dusting of the joke again anytime soon.
In the annals of Canadian music, Edmonton is not exactly known for producing well-known rock bands (unless you count kd lang). But that doesn't mean the scene is dormant. The city's contribution to this country's indie scene is significant. A sampling of some bands that have come out of E-town over the past three decades illustrates that Alberta's capital has more to offer than a place for Ralph Klein to spend his work days.
Jerry Jerry and the Sons of Rhythm Orchestra (1980-?): A rock'n'roll rebel from the get-go, Jerry Woods was a fixture on the blossoming Edmonton scene in the late 70s and early 80s when bands like Moe Berg's scrappy pre-Pursuit of Happiness outfit Modern Minds were rocking the house. Although Jerry moved to Montreal in 1987 and became more closely associated with that scene, he remained an Edmontonian through and through, returning to his hometown after a 13-year absence. He's still gigging periodically and despite just a handful of releases in 20-plus years, it appears he may be around to stay. As he told hometown alternative weekly See Magazine on the eve of a gig last September: "I'll keep doing it until I keel over. And if people stop coming, I imagine we'll just do it in a basement somewhere."
SNFU (1982-present): Although this pioneering punk band has since relocated the West coast, Mr. Chi Pig and company got their start and made their mark in Edmonton. Having had their ups and downs with record companies and personnel changes, they've managed to endure for 20 years, releasing nine seven-word-titled albums for a bunch of different labels. Their most recent offering, In the Meantime and In Between Time, finds them back in fine form, demonstrating why they are such an undeniably important part of the melodic punk movement.
Jr. Gone Wild (1983-1995): Formed by Jerry Jerry pal Mike McDonald after the demise of the Malibu Kens, JGW were significant for being one of the first bands to really bring country twang to the punk kids on a national scale. They released six albums and toured North America before breaking up in 1995.
The Smalls (1990-2001): About the only Edmonton band to give Choke a run for their money in the longevity department, this grunge/punk band released four albums with the original line-up before calling it quits. Their hard rocking sound and indie attitude made them one of the country's most consistently entertaining live club acts in the 1990s. But fatigue and the frustration of being a bar band for a decade got the better of them and they amicably parted ways in 2001.
Wednesday Night Heroes (1997-present): With GBH, the Exploited and Rancid as their chief inspirations, this band of young crusty punks have become one of the darlings of the local scene. With two releases on New York-based Longshot Records and a dedication to touring, they've done much to raise the profile of the Edmonton scene.