Stuck On Planet Earth: Sprawling Out With Singles
How a seemingly unknown rock band from the suburbs took the CBC R-30 Countdown by storm and beat out Canadian indie rock darlings Arcade Fire in the process.
The members of Stuck On Planet Earth sit huddled around a small lunch table inside a local bakery in Vaughan, Ontario. The aromas of espresso and fresh bread fill the room. As people filter through the doorway, gusts of frigid air trailing behind them, the boys begin to tell me about what it’s like being a rock band from this particular suburb.
A predominantly Italian Canadian neighbourhood, there is a certain stigma associated with Vaughan. Having self-dubbed itself “the city above Toronto,” it’s no surprise that this affluent suburb has garnered itself quite the reputation over the years. A place where sports cars line the driveways of most local homes and children rock designer sweat socks, it’s a very interesting take on the classic idea of keeping up with the Jones’.
“It’s definitely not a place that many band’s openly admit to being from,” says bassist Al Capo. Built on the backs of Italian immigrants who primarily amassed their fortunes in the construction industry during the 1970s, many came here to retire in the early 90s. While it has since become a sprawling family community, looking around, there are the obvious stereotypes: greasy old dudes wearing imported leather dress shoes and gold crucifixes’ around their necks, young, over-privileged daughters with designer handbags and daddy’s credit card. It’s all here, but despite outside perceptions, these guys don’t quite seem to fit.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’ve all been very lucky to grow-up here,” says Capo, “but I think it can be easy to feel like an outsider anywhere you live.” As teenagers, all three members of SOPE (an acronym they commonly go by) were into punk rock and grunge, something that contrasted pretty harshly against the backdrop of the neighbourhood.
“When we were growing up, kids were defined by the music they listened to,” says guitarist Adam Bianchi. “There were the guys who were really into dance music and then there were the guys that were into gangster rap, which was pretty big at the time. For us as a couple of kids who were discovering bands like Nirvana, The Clash and even Killing Joke for the first time, that automatically pushed us to the fringes; nobody cared what we were up to.”
Last summer, when the boys from SOPE played to 20,000 people at The Rogers Centre after being hand picked by the CFL to represent the Toronto Argonauts in the Rock The Grey Cup Contest, people finally started to take notice. Despite having narrowly lost that contest, they bounced back mere months later to take the CBC R-30 Countdown by storm. Their latest single “Fast Forward,” which shot to the number 1 spot, topped the charts for 8 straight weeks (the maximum the station allows) beating out Canadian indie rock darlings like Arcade Fire, The Pack A.D. and July Talk, in the process. The song also topped the charts on Sirius XM’s The Verge.
“We were all pretty surprised when we started charting on the CBC,” says Bianchi. “Sound wise, we’ve explored a song like “Fast Forward” before, so it wasn’t completely new to us, but there was something about that particular track that just seemed to resonate with people this time around.”
After securing the top spot, the comments began to come in. People wanted to know who the hell these guys were and where they came from, and rightfully so. These days, it’s hard enough for bands with record deals to cut through the noise and infiltrate our headspace, so it’s surprising when a band you’ve never heard of comes out of the gates that strong. But, like many bands that seemingly pop up into public consciousness over night, they’ve been laying the groundwork in total obscurity for years. Seven years to be exact.
Back at home in Vaughan, everything happens inside the confines of their somewhat notorious rehearsal space, “The Shop”. I’m told it’s something like a clubhouse where beyond the music, their friends come to congregate for frequent parties and girls have been known to spend the night. As we each make our way there, our cars trailing one behind the other in a single file fashion, I follow them into an industrial area slightly south of where we met.
They call it “The Shop” because the space they inhabit is located in the upstairs offices of an auto repair shop owned by Adam’s family. As a new immigrant to the country, Adam’s grandfather built the business from scratch in the 1970s.
Upon entering, the room immediately resonates; the walls are still covered in original wood paneling. Spotlights, which were recently installed, burn hot as hell onto the tops of our heads as we stand directly beneath them in the centre of the room. They tell me that both the furniture and their gear are an assortment of shit they’ve collected over the years, but it’s an impressive set up nonetheless. Although he doesn’t say much, drummer Andrew Testa, muses about a time when, short on cash and unable to afford professional equipment, the SOPE boys had no choice but to “pimp him out” to a friend’s cover band so that they could use his gear to rehearse.
Taped to the walls are old tour posters, photos of friends and a vast map of the world. A wooden rooster sits perched on top of a speaker cabinet while two white-erase boards that vaguely outline lyrics, soon to be recorded, hang heavy next to a vertical plaque of a naked woman’s profile.
What makes these guys so intriguing is that for the past year now, they’ve strictly opted to record singles. No EPs. No full-length albums. While their approach seems much more inline with what one might expect from a Hip-Hop artist today, they have established a system that not only looks fresh on a rock band, it works within their means.
“There was a time a few years back, where we were working with our producer, Fil Bucchino, and getting ready to go into the studio to record another EP,” says Bianchi. “Up until that point that’s what we were accustomed to doing because that’s what bands did. We finally had to turn to each other and say: ‘we just can’t afford to do this in this particular way right now, but how can we do it differently?’”
So, they took a step back and took a hard look at what kind of approach made the most sense financially for a band in their position but also for a band in general today. “We landed on the singles idea,” explains Testa, “because a) we don’t have to commit to the process of a full-length recording and b) because we have found from experience, that people often only focus in on the single leaving the other songs to fall by the waste side. Releasing one song at a time, allows us to give each one the attention it deserves.”
On the floor next to Andrew’s feet, there is a box containing every single pair of drumsticks that he has every broken. As he stands back toward me, he fiddles with the controls on their mixing board, which is so old it needs time to warm up before they can rehearse.
While waiting, we all move to an unfinished room next door where a ragged vinyl couch, sunburst orange, rests lopsided on the cold, concrete floor. We sit. Ahead of me at arms reach, cigarette butts overflow from an ashtray onto two coffee tables that have been pushed together. In my peripherals, dozens of cardboard boxes, which clearly contain accounting information that reaches as far back as 1994, are stacked to the ceiling. A thin veil of smoke settles visibly in the air, and a big, dusty television, which I’m told is a new addition to the space, stands like a giant in front of the room’s only window.
This place clearly has a presence. And, while it might not seem like much, it’s the heart and soul of this band. "The shop is pretty much our safe haven,” says Capo. “It facilitates our creativity and has given us a place to hone our skills as musicians. The Shop is definitely the cement that holds this band together. Without it, there would be no SOPE."
As I start to slip inward between the slanted couch pillows, I look around the room and think these guys just get it. These are strange fucking times we live in, and if you want to survive you’ve got to work hard and get great; there’s just no way around it.
“I think we all learned pretty early on that there are very few people who are interested and willing to help you get where you want to go,” says Bianchi. “We are lucky to have a very tight knit team of people around us who really understand this band’s vision. In this industry, it’s really easy to second guess yourself, but there’s just no right or wrong way to do it anymore so we keep our heads down and we keep going.”
Juliette Jagger is a rock and roll journalist living in Toronto. She is on Twitter.