Skeezy mall-punk band The Used made headlines recently with the story that they were banned from Canada for the next decade. According to singer Bert McCracken, this was the result of misdemeanors such as trespassing that took place around 2001-2003, although they were strip-searched in the past for having weed on their tour bus. To get some commentary, I called up Stephen O’Shea from B.C.’s You Say Party and Real Boys, who previously landed a five-year ban of his own from the U.S.
First off, can you share the story of getting banned?
It was the summer of 2006, and You Say Party was touring with Thunderbirds Are Now. We went to the border here in Vancouver, but didn’t have work permits, which I think was our biggest mistake. There was proof in our van that we were actually touring, so we got caught.
What was the proof?
We had a tour itinerary in a big book. Our guitar player Derek, in his slacker wisdom, was like, “This thing is terrible! We should throw it out the window!” But we decided that we would need it later. It had tour contacts, show payments, and everything we’d been doing. We’d been on the road for eight weeks at that point and were exhausted and not thinking clearly.
How long did it take them to find it?
The guy didn’t even need to search our van for 10 seconds. He found the book and said, “You guys need to come in and sit down. You’re all in a lot of trouble.” That was the first hour of them interrogating us and searching the van, then they took three more hours to interview us. The process of kicking us out of the country took a long time, with lots of paperwork and lots of fingerprints. It was miserable.
So you guys all got banned?
We officially announced it was the whole band, but it was actually only me. I did all the talking that day, so I wasn’t allowed to enter the States for five years, which is a long, long time.
Were you able to get the ban lifted before 2011, when it was set to expire?
I managed to pay for an extra piece of paper that let me back in early, but I had to craft a beautiful story about how I was a humanitarian. It basically said this one little lie was the mistake of my life, and incongruent with everything else. I had previously worked with at-risk youth, and now, for my day job, I help people with developmental disabilities, so it was pretty easy to put the story together. But I had to get character references from people saying, “He’s a good guy!” They say proving rehabilitation from lying is more difficult than getting rehabilitation from drugs.
On that topic, how do you feel about The Used being banned from Canada?
I read a bit into the background of it, and they’ve also announced that the band has been banned for 10 years. The guards don’t really care about bands per se, but they do care about the individuals in those bands crossing over international borders. There’s kind of a relaxed attitude we have as Canadians about going back and forth, and I think Americans might have it as well. It’s a pretty big deal that people get to cross it, but we’re just like, “Eh, it’s the border. No big deal.”
What kind of attitude should people have?
Everyone that I’ve ever played with in a band has made sure their records are clean and that they don’t have any run-ins with the police. If they have had things like that, they’ve gotten them cleaned up, and I think that should go for everyone who’s crossing the border. If you have a record, you’re going to get hassled. The guards aren’t the easiest people to speak to, and they can choose to ban you.
Is it as simple as them having a bad day or a bad interaction with someone?
When I was given my ban, they basically just ticked a little box that said five years. Below that was 10, 25 and never again. Those are your choices and they just tick the box when you’re standing there. It’s their discretion, depending on your attitude or the reason. I know that, when they find marijuana on a bus, whether it’s a big amount or a small amount, they can choose to look the other way sometimes. But if you’re a musician or even a rock star, they have to answer to the letter of the law.
The Used are now planning a “Fuck Canada” tour where they play border cities and promise that all Canadians will get in free with their passports.
That’s actually a pretty a cool idea. [Laughs] I had a lot of rage for border guards for a few years, and when I came back to the border, I found it really difficult to deal with them. They were really intimidating, frustrating, and not very friendly. The funny part is that this thing that happened to me is never going to end. I got back in, and got a waiver for a year that cost me so much money. It was in the thousands of dollars because I had an immigration lawyer walk me through it. I also got a permit to get back in early that cost around $600, and then the waiver expired. That happened back in May, and I don’t have the money to pay it year after year.
So at the moment, even though the ban was lifted, you’re not going to the U.S.?
I’m stuck not being able to get in again. The ban of five years was lifted, but I now need a waiver that continues to excuse the inadmissibility. That’s what they call it. Maybe, at some point, I’ll qualify for a five-year waiver instead of a one-year, but right now I can’t afford it. No California vacations for me.
In your experience, are border guards any harder or easier on the U.S. side versus the Canadian side?
They’re both really mean. I think the Americans are tougher in their process, and obviously they want to stop any terrorists from getting inside of their country. But I’ve found that in Canada, it’s not harder to get back in, but there’s a pretty bizarre attitude. They’re really stern, and maybe it’s like a pissing contest where they feel they have to act as mad as American border guards. Maybe they just hate the fact that they don’t get to carry guns like the American guards do.
There are lots of cases of rappers like 50 Cent and The Game being denied access into Canada as well.
The border guards have a process with the right permits, and to them, being an artist is no different than being a plumber or a carpenter. You need to have the right work visas, and they need to be in the right order. The trade unions for musicians do their best to petition the government to make the process easier, but unfortunately, it’s not a very good system. In the European Union, they don’t have borders in the same way. You can go from country to country, and once you’re in, you’re in. I know a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of a North American Union, but just to have access to touring down there without struggling to cross this border, I would welcome it in a weird way.
What advice would you give a musician trying to cross over?
Get your permits. They’re not that hard to get; that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned. Join your local musicians' union. They’ll get you the proper permits for the American Federation of Music. It’s not as expensive as you think—a couple hundred bucks per band member—and they can be good for up to a year. It’s totally worth it, because standing on the opposite side of being banned for five years is terrible. Don’t try to sneak across. It’s not worth it, and border guards are getting better at finding out what we’re doing.
I’ve heard of people not posting tour dates online for that reason.
You’re not as invisible as you think you are on the Internet. The guards have computers in front of them, and if you use Facebook, you’re easy to find. It’s easy to see that you played in a band five years ago, and that you’re still a musician. I know people who use fake names online and think they can get away with it, but I worry about them.