Protest the Hero's 'A Calculated Use of Sound' at 20: How They Got Over Embarrassment and Learned to Love Their Debut EP

Rody Walker discusses Southern Ontario's heavy music scene, Strombo's support, and chugging lemon juice

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Jan 11, 2024

For a musician, revisiting one's early releases can be a double-edged sword. It can reveal intricacies in the work that may have been lost on you, but it can also amplify the growing pains. It can be an exercise in humility — a humbling moment of vulnerability wherein one accepts that they were less experienced and less skilled, but that they nevertheless produced an enduring work that means something to people. Or, it can be an act of excruciating fan service, especially if you can't stand the fact that people actually like it.

This is the conundrum, the crisis, and, ultimately, the celebration that Rody Walker, lead singer of tech-prog-metal luminaries Protest the Hero, experienced while working on the 20th anniversary reissue of the band's debut EP, A Calculated Use of Sound.

Recorded when the band members — Walker, guitarists Luke Hoskin and Tim MacMillar, drummer Moe Carlson, and bassist Arif Mirabdolbaghi — were all in their mid-teens, A Calculated Use of Sound is a scrappy, punky, hook-and-gang-vocal filled affair that barely lasts 25 minutes.

It cuts a blistering, pace, and when it was released in 2003, the album stood out from the myriad boy-centric groups whose members sported swoopy haircuts and screeched about mean girls who broke their hearts. Instead, Protest the Hero passionately screamed, "I DECLARE A WAR!" and chose to be more politically and culturally involved. A Calculated Use of Sound tackled diverse topics such as homophobia, pollution, political apathy, war, disillusionment and conformity with the skill and intelligence of a much older band. They may have been 16 years old, but their maturity and hunger enthusiastically belied their age. 

Protest the Hero formed almost 25 years ago as Happy Go Lucky, and immediately began putting on shows at places like the Chameleon Café in Ajax and the Dungeon in Oshawa. They would book bigger bands and invite scores of teens from various schools, who filled these small venues to the brim. The surprisingly large crowds caught the attention of Mark "London" Spicoluk, head of Underground Operations, who signed the band post haste. Happy Go Lucky changed their name to Protest the Hero for their first official release, Search for the Truth, a two-song single released on Underground Operations in 2002, and the rest is Canadian punk rock (and metal) history.

Protest the Hero's first music video (for Calculated track "These Colours Don't Run") premiered on MuchMusic's The Punk Show, a weekly dose of punk and hardcore hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos. The night it premiered, I went to a friend's house with two of our other friends, where we sat, waiting for this video to come on. When it finally did, we moshed between the couch and the entertainment centre — a celebration that the band we had been obsessing over were on national television

A Calculated Use of Sound is rough, technical and perfect — and now, 20 years later, the album is being released on vinyl for the first time. To celebrate this essential document of 2000s-era Canadian punk, Exclaim! sat down with Walker to discuss the album, the band's origins, the music scene in Southern Ontario in the early 2000s, Underground Operations, George Stroumboulopoulos and nostalgia.

Protest the Hero had such a strong connection to your fan base. What do you think it was about you guys, as people and as a band, that let you open yourselves up in that way, and how were you able to build that connection with fans so quickly and so intensely?

Dude, I don't really know! When I think back on it, there were other bands that people had in high school, they were good bands, and they weren't doing anything that differently than us. But we were always the band that was kind of driving it; we were going out and finding the shows. And if we couldn't get on a show, we would make the show. We would get in contact with other bands, bigger bands like Closet Monster or Boys Night Out, and then tack ourselves on the bill. And then that built us into something a little bit bigger. And we tried to pay it back by putting our friends on bills. I guess we were just a little more committed, and I think [in terms of making a connection with fans], it was just hanging out at the shows even if we weren't playing. We were at the Dungeon every weekend, just meeting people and going to shows and making connections, but it wasn't like we were greasy little industry kids trying to wheel and deal. [Laughs] We just loved the local scene, and it was so much fun watching bands come through and then getting to meet them and learning to like their music. Making that connection was very natural for us, because we were part of the scene. We were one and the same with all those other kids. We were just doing the same thing.

You guys were a big part of that Southern Ontario punk explosion, and you already mentioned Closet Monster and Boys Night Out, but there's also Alexisonfire, Moneen, Grade, Billy Talent, the Flatliners and Silverstein. How did you guys feel about being a part of that scene?

We didn't really know what was going on, right? We had no idea; it was all just a whirlwind. And I think a lot of the bands that you mentioned were way more significant than us in that scene. We got a lot more credit than we deserve, but that might be self-deprecation for the sake of it. We were just so young! Silverstein, Alexis, Boys Night Out — they were older than us, and because we were just little kids functioning on a similar level as those other bands, we got a lot more credit. People would go see us and be like, "What are these children doing?" [Laughs] But it is cool, really cool, to be mentioned in the same breath as bands that I consider integral to developing the Southern Ontario scene that grew far beyond itself. And I'm definitely humbled by that.

I remember when Alexisonfire's "Pulmonary Archery" was played on Much On Demand, and then when your video for "These Colours Don't Run" premiered, we all thought, "Holy shit, all these shows that we've been going to, all these bands that we've been supporting, it's not for nothing! It means something." It just felt like a win for us, too.

It was something that I feel like everybody did together, you know what I mean? The whole scene created that kind of thing and created that opportunity for bands like us and Alexis and Silverstein and Boys Night Out. It was so cool that all those bands were getting time on daytime television. It was a really cool time for Ontario aggressive music.

Before you guys started working on A Calculated Use of Sound, you did the Search for the Truth EP, and then you recorded two songs for the Coles Notes from the Underground sampler for Underground Operations. Were you writing the songs for A Calculated Use of Sound during that same period? Or were you writing for these specific releases?

We were just constantly writing. We wrote those songs for Search for the Truth, recorded them, and we were playing them live, and it was just like, well, you might as well write some more shit! [Laughs] And then we got enough songs together, and Mark Spicoluk [head of Underground Operations] told us it was time to record again, time to get it out there, and so we did that! We went in with Scott Komer, who played in the Pettit Project, which was awesome. Recording [A Calculated Use of Sound] cost us 500 bucks, and it was our first digital recording experience. But it was just a constant progression; we weren't writing for anything specific. I think the first time we sat down and said, "Let's write a record," was Kezia.

Right, and so with A Calculated Use of Sound, you rereleased it right before Kezia, and you added "Soft Targets Dig Softer Graves," which always felt like a way of wrapping up that era of the band, dividing your more punk sound from the progressive metal stuff that came after it. So you were consciously thinking of moving in a different direction at the time.

Yeah. When you're kids, your taste just evolves. We started getting into heavier stuff because some of the bands we were listening to were getting heavier. Propagandhi, who in no small way is a massive influence for us, had released Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes, and it was like, holy shit, this is still punk, but this is also thrash and it's got metal and prog elements and it was hugely influential to us. And then Strung Out were definitely more metallic leaning, which led us to listening to actual heavy metal and some of the modern metalcore stuff that was happening. Unearth's The Oncoming Storm was huge for us. If you listen to the breakdown in "Turn Soonest to the Sea," that's just us trying to be Unearth. So it was a conscious change, but it was also the natural evolution of a teenage mind.

I don't know if you did this for any of the recordings, but I remember at certain shows, you used to chug lemon juice straight from one of those little plastic lemons because you wanted to make your voice higher and raspier.  What was the deal with that? 

I had blown my voice out because I had no training whatsoever, and some doctor told me to drink lemon juice because it was a good thing for my voice. I don't think he meant like that, because I'm sure that amount of acidity in that ultimately is not great for your voice. But yeah, there was a number of years where I would just carry around that yellow little lemon and a bottle of Pepto Bismol. [Laughs]

You've already mentioned Mark Spicoluk a number of times. He got you guys onto Underground Operations, helped you record your first EP and those sampler appearances, and in the "thank you" section of the booklet for A Calculated Use of Sound, you wrote, "Special thanks to London, you've done more for us in two months than anyone has in the past two years." Did you get hooked up with Mark through the scene and from those shows you were putting on? What was your working relationship like with him? Because you were on Underground Operations for a long time. 

For a long time, yeah. We had invited [Closet Monster, Spicoluk's band] out to play one of the Dungeon shows, and we opened for them. And I think we had packed it out again with all of our high school friends. And they showed up and played to probably a bigger audience than they could actually draw at the time. And I guess Spicoluk saw that as a sign and thought that we could bring out a large crowd and that people were interested in what we were doing and that what we were doing was fairly unique. And I think maybe he realized that, under his tutelage, he could sort of round out the jagged edges, and so we took a couple of meetings with him when we were like 14, in weird little coffee shops all around the Durham Region.

He lit a fire under us! As much as we no longer have a relationship with him, at the time, it was awesome. He was really cool, he was in a big band, and they were grownups, and they helped us develop [as a band]. He convinced our parents to let us go on tour to the East Coast when we were still in high school, and he was the first serious person [to take an interest in us]. A man of many ideas. With his help, we grew the band into something bigger than we ever really dreamed of. It was awesome.

I remember we had really just been working together for a year or two, and then he joined Avril Lavigne [as a bass player], and we didn't know what that was! And he was like, "I'm gone. But here's some people to look after you because I'm doing this for all of us." We heard Avril Lavigne before anybody did! And I remember hearing "Complicated" and being like, okay, cool, whatever. And then hearing "Sk8er Boi" and thinking, this is done, dude, nobody's gonna be so stupid that they'll like this shit. And then it exploded, and I realized, "Oh, I know nothing." [Laughs] And then shortly after that, he left Avril for whatever reason, and he came back, and Underground Operations kept rolling. And we worked together for a number of years, and then somewhat amicably parted ways.

Another person that was huge for you guys at the beginning was George Stroumboulopoulos. You thank him in the A Calculated Use of Sound liner notes, and he used to come out to your shows. How did that all come about? 

George was amazing, right from the outset. I don't really know how to thank him enough for what he did. He was so kind to us. He used to have a radio show that was co-hosted by a good friend named Josh Lindley. And I don't know if it was [Josh] who put it in George's ear, or whether George found it himself, or whether it was Mark, but all of a sudden, he was wearing our shirt on TV and playing us on the radio show.

It's weird, because this was happening before [the release of A Calculated Use of Sound]. I think what he was playing on the radio was a song called "Asperity of Sin," which is on Coles Notes from the Underground. And we had written "These Colours Don't Run," but we hadn't recorded it, and George came out to Arif's house, and he had flown in this A&R guy from Roadrunner Records, I think, and we played them a bunch of songs, and they asked us to "play that bombings one again." We played it three or four times in a row.

George was really, really championing us, reaching out to people that he knew to be like, "Yo, you gotta listen to this!" I'm genuinely grateful to George. I remember when he played us on TV, we were sitting around going, like, "What the fuuuuuuck," just really excited about that.

And, you know, it's interesting, you mentioned Alexisonfire [getting played on MuchMusic]. Seeing their stuff on TV was so cool because we all thought, "This opens a door for us." And as selfish as that is, it was really inspiring and exciting to see a band like Alexisonfire, a band that we love, get that opportunity so that others could get that same opportunity. And I'm definitely grateful for that, too.

One thing that set Protest the Hero apart was that, at the time, you were a much more overtly political band. And recently, with your last album, Palimpsest, you did an interview where you said you don't want right-wing conservative people listening to the band. And it's funny because, if they had ever listened to A Calculated Use of Sound, they would already know.

They would already know. [Laughs]

And you had songs about homophobia and class warfare and the environment. Why was it important to be that kind of band, and why was it important to have that kind of message and to consciously take a stand in that way?

We've always felt that it's important to have a message that you're standing by, and, over the years, that message has become a little more subdued, but it's still very important. At that time, we wanted to be as in-your-face with it as possible, because that's what the bands that we really loved were doing. And it's not that we wanted to copy exactly what they were doing; we just found it so much more inspirational to be talking about things that mattered more than our own personal experiences. Because what were our personal experiences — going to the movies on a Friday night? We were suburban kids! I don't know how we had the foresight to know that our bullshit was not important enough to put into music. But we were passionate kids that were inspired by politics. That's the stuff that we were passionate about, and that's the stuff that we still continue to be passionate about. It just seemed important.

It's interesting: since the years of its release, we have been very ashamed of A Calculated Use of Sound. [Laughs] Just because it is juvenile, both in its musical quality and its messaging a little bit, but over the years, I've come a full 180 on it, and I'm really proud of it. I'm proud of the message we put out and the music we put out at such a young age. 

And it was a positive message. It wasn't nihilistic, it wasn't cynical; it was: get up and do something. Look at the problems of the world, don't just be an observer, get involved. And I think that that's a really powerful message. I love a lot of those bands from that time period, but so many of those songs are about girls and feelings and personal experiences. And this was, "I declare a war!" That's the first line on this record! 

And we also had the benefit of Arif writing some of the lyrics on that. And Arif, still to this day, is such a talented writer. He was and is a brilliant mind, and I love the lyrics that he put on that record. I've been going over some of them recently and thinking, "Man, there is relevance here still." I mean, obviously nothing has really fucking changed. [Laughs] With some of the concepts that he was exploring on the record, man, a lot of older people, myself included, don't have complex thoughts like that.

I re-listened to the album recently for this piece, and I was blown away by the content because I forgot how incendiary it is! No subtlety at all. Which was great at the time, because when you're that age, it's awesome. 

I think we owe a lot of that to probably Strike Anywhere. Fucking yell it in their faces.

Scream it, and you'll have 200 kids who have never met you screaming it right back. 

And I still feel like that! That was such a different time, when we were in such a different scene. Now we've spent the past 15, 20 years in the progressive metal scene, but recently, I've found myself going back and listening to Strike Anywhere, just listening to anything that isn't progressive metal, listening to bands that just say what they mean because that's when it means something to me. I find it hard to relate to bands that aren't in-your-face with their messaging, be it political or otherwise.

In terms of the upcoming reissue of A Calculated Use of Sound, what was the inspiration or thought process behind getting into it again? Was it just wanting to celebrate the 20th anniversary and revisit the material? Or to remaster it a bit? Because, compared to Search for the Truth, the original EP version sounds great!

At the start of [2023], we did a little Golden Horseshoe run, just a couple of shows in Ontario, to test out our new lineup. And HK [Matt Huber-Kidby], who's our current drummer, had said that he wanted to revisit and play some Calculated stuff. So we ran through some of it and ended up playing "I Am Dmitri Karamazov and the World Is My Father" on that run. And by the end of it, I was like, "Man, I fucking love that song!" It's so much fun, and so nostalgic and wonderful.

I had conversations with HK, who started as a fan of the band and who listened to that EP growing up, and he said to me, "Dude, I know it's embarrassing or whatever, but it means a lot to me, and it means a lot to other people, and I think you guys should give it another chance." So I took his advice, and I thought about [it] for the first time in a long time, thought about how I feel about it, and I realized I'm not embarrassed of it anymore.

When we moved into Kezia, we thought, "The production [on A Calculated Use of Sound] is shit, everything's different now, let's move on and forget about this." But I want to remember it now. And so HK, who also works at Sheet Happens [a company that prints vinyl records and tab books and is co-owned by Luke Hoskin], helped open a dialogue with the company, and we started talking to Luke, who was feeling very similarly to myself about releasing Calculated Use of Sound. It obviously needed to be remastered because things are very different now, but we didn't go back and touch anything up — we just put a modern twist on the mastering and mixing. I've actually spun it a couple of times, and it sounds better than ever. And so that's the reason why we did it! And these songs will definitely find their way into setlists moving forward. It's too much fun to just forget about.

The reissue looks like you put a lot of thought and effort behind it, and the art is completely new! It almost looks organic, and very different than the original. 

The art was all redone by HK himself. Having him redo the art as both a member of the band and a fan of the band when that came out, it was really cool to see his spin on it. The first time I held [the reissue] in my hands, I was like, holy fuck, man, this is more than it deserves. [Laughs] What Sheet Happens have done with it is fucking beautiful, and I'm really impressed with them. It's so cool to be able to put it on and show my son and be like, I made this when I was really, really young. For me to show that to him and tell him, "You don't have to be that old to make something that will change the course of your life," that's a really cool experience.

As soon as it was announced, I got so intensely excited because there is that overwhelming sense of nostalgia, but I never saw that as a negative thing. Looking back and thinking, "That was a really important time in my life, when music meant so much to me," I think that's a good thing. It's truly a document of a time and a place, and I think it's really cool that you were able to get past that embarrassment and accept it as an important part of your career.

I think what you said about nostalgia and that time in your life when music meant more to you than ever, it rings true for myself as well. And that's part of the reason why I can move past that embarrassment and realize that this means something more to me than just the songs therein. It sort of tells a little tale, which is important to the development of my entire fucking life [laughs].

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