DIY YYJ: A look at Victoria, BC’s perpetually weirdo underground punk scene

There's something fucked up about the Victoria, British Columbia's underground punk scene. And we're not talking fucked up, like broken, but fucked up, like weird, and cool, and different.

Sep 12 2014, 4:05pm

Six Brew Bantha playing in a basement

There's something fucked up about the Victoria, British Columbia’s underground punk scene. And we're not talking fucked up, like broken, but fucked up, like weird and cool and different. It could be the isolated location of Vancouver Island (you have to take a ferry or plane to get there) and the fact that Victoria musicians just have a bit more freedom to be weirdos, but the do-it-yourself punk scene in British Columbia’s capital is, how shall we say, fucked up? And it’s always been that way.

In Victoria it’s not uncommon to see grindcore bands play with indie rock bands, posi-core bands play with crusty D-beat bands, noise bands play with garage-punk bands, psych-rock bands play with pop-punk bands, and every other possible subgenre combination. Gigs take place pretty much anywhere you can set up a PA system and squeeze a bunch of punks in. Bands and promoters in Victoria work together to support each other, and you don't see the shitty cliques and competitiveness that most major North American cities have.

It could be the city’s size (just over 350,000 in the Greater Victoria region) that dictates that everyone in the local punk scene work together, blending influences and styles along the way. But there’s also the question of the original 80s punk bands like Nomeansno, The Neos, and the Dayglo Abortions being kinda wacko to begin with, which led to 90s weirdos like Mexican Power Authority, Third World Planet, Goatboy, Soy (Jesus, how about Let’s Put the X in Sex?), and countless others, then on down the line to the equally strange Victoria punk bands of today: bands like three-piece grind wrecking crew Six Brew Bantha.

Six Brew Bantha

“I think there’s less of a gauge for what is cool in Victoria,” offers Six Brew Bantha drummer Tyler Akis, who grew up in the local punk scene. “In a big city people can push shit aside, because there’s elite scenes and there are more niches, but in Victoria you kind of get what you get, and if people want to take a bunch of different styles and combine them into one, people aren’t going to be so judgmental, and they might even take it for what it is.”

Akis and his roommates have been doing shows in their basement, putting together DIY house gigs that include everything from the brutal, chaotic grindcore of his own band (not to mention his two other bands, Dummy Pops, a raw pop-punk band, and crusty hardcore band Kraxxa) to indie rock, noise, and punk bands. As Akis often says, the basement scene at their house, and Victoria’s scene in general, is “chill.”

“People here are more patient, and they understand what some of these bands are trying to do,” he says. “In our own band, we take a lot of different influences and put it into one sound, and maybe that’s something accidental just by living here. Maybe it’s something in the water, who knows?”

Tyler Forslund (a.k.a. Ty Stranglehold) distinctly remembers going to his first punk house show in Victoria. He was working at a gas station at the time and, like all good Canadian punks, had some Propagandhi playing on the ghetto blaster behind the counter. “These guys came into my work one night and said, ‘Oh, rad! You’re listening to Propagandhi! My friends are playing a house show down the street tomorrow night. You should come!’ It ended up being just two blocks from my house,” says Forslund, “so I grabbed a six-pack of beer and walked up to this house where I didn’t know anyone and those guys ended up being my best friends.”

That was 20 years ago. To this day, Forslund plays in punk bands, including two cover bands, the Poison Idea tribute Fatal Erection, and the Angry Samoans holiday-themed tribute Angry Snowmans. He still promotes and attends DIY punk shows and is one of the many fixtures in Victoria’s punk scene. “That’s another thing about Victoria,” he jokes, “it seems like the punkers here don’t give up either; there are a lot of old people in bands.”

Forslund grew up in the small town of Vernon, BC and got into skateboarding and punk rock when he was 13. When he moved to Victoria at the age of 20 he was blown away by Victoria’s infamous all-over-the-place all-ages show lineups. Back then, it wouldn’t be uncommon for punk, metal, indie, hardcore and ska bands to play on the same bill, or even more likely, bands that sounded like a wonderfully bungled shit-mix of at least three of those styles.

“It took me a bit to get used to,” admits Forslund, “because in the small town I came from the metal dudes despised the punk rockers and the skateboarders, to the point where we’d be getting in fights and they’d chase you down the street, and I got to Victoria and realized, ‘Wow, all of these different scenes are coexisting on a respectful level,’ where people might not necessarily be into another band’s tunes, but they were a local bands doing there thing, so they respected each other for that.”

Not much has changed in the two decades since Forslund hit town and played his own part in creating scene unity in Victoria. Punk houses, community halls, warehouse and gallery spaces, and retail-store basements are still routinely being taken over by punks, metalheads and hardcore kids looking to do their own thing outside of the mainstream live music scene.

Render Useless Photo Jay Siska

“There’s always been an alternative, and I’m sitting in my bedroom right now looking at two houses to the right of our house that have both done shows in the past,” says Akis. “The house two doors down used to be The Boneyard and did indie rock shows, and those were really great; they’d always start way too late and they’d always be really fun and small. And the house right next to ours, a bunch of hardcore guys used to live there, and they did hardcore and punk shows. And then in the parking lot across from our backyard, there’s the Norway House, a big hall where we did metal and grind shows. So, right there, there’s just three all-ages spaces right in my neighborhood which are no longer with us, but one point over the past few years were important places for shows.” Perhaps it’s what Akis calls that “easy Vancouver Island living,” but according to a guy who’s currently doing a huge part in bringing together Victoria’s punk scene, the city is perpetually hell-bent on celebrating weirdness and creativity.

“Maybe there’s a freedom here for trial and error?” laughs Akis. “But, no, seriously, if you have an idea here, it’s a little easier to try something new. I’m not trying to say there’s groundbreaking shit going on here or anything, but it’s easier to make your ideas a reality in Victoria. And I know you can do that in every city, but if your band sucks people aren’t going to be super harsh here. You’re going to have time to grow musically, and, like everything else, if you want to get good at something, you need time, and sometimes you have more opportunity to grow as musicians here.”

Started five years ago, Six Brew Bantha now have a table full of vinyl releases to show for themselves, including their recently released full-length, Intravenously Commodified. The grindcore three-piece have done international tours and played countless DIY shows, becoming one of Victoria’s most well-known punk/metal exports. “We were not good when we started and we’ve had a long time to perfect our craft, so to speak,” says Akis. “Open Relationship is another band like that. They just broke up, but it started as an idea by two people and immediately it became a reality, and that’s awesome to see. Sometimes things here pop up out of nowhere and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, this is so good! This is insane that this band just started and they’re already this amazing.’ And then sometimes it’s like, ‘This band sucked so badly when they started and now they’re incredible.’”

Every punk scene has its heyday. And although it could be argued that Victoria’s punk heyday may still be on the horizon, most old-schoolers in the scene agree that the mid-to-late 90s were when local punk was at its height of popularity. One guy who was instrumental to that era was Paul Block, nicknamed “The Voice of Reason” by the local scene at the time for his thoughtful between-song speeches with what was arguably the best all-around hardcore/punk/emo band to come out of Victoria that decade: Render Useless.

Block, who also played in such bands as Hoofrarump, The Uniks, and Benchwarmer, and booked some of the biggest hardcore shows in Victoria through the 90s, says the scene was growing so fast at the time that house shows became almost impossible to do because too many people would show up and things would get uncontrollable. “Although there was a lot of crossover between scenes, there very distinct scenes within that,” explains Block. “The hardcore scene was probably 300 strong, the drunk punk scene was 150 strong at least, there was the metal scene, the hip-hop scene, the indie rock scene, and many times those groups would come together, or spread apart, depending on the styles of music and their behavior.”

Block came over from Vancouver in the early 90s to attend the University of Victoria. Growing up in a big city, he found the scene there rigid, too caught up in status and unwelcoming in a lot of ways, so when he stumbled upon the Victoria DIY scene at a local skate shop called Fine Grind, and political punk band Section 46, led by another Victoria scene fixture named Tony Goluza, were practicing in the basement, he knew he would fit in just fine.

Tony Goluza plays Burnside Communty Centre with band, Hudson Mack Photo Kinzie Photography

“In Vancouver, it was all about getting someone to put out your record for you. When I came to Victoria, no one was worried about that. It was like, ‘We’re making a cassette!’ and I was getting a cassette put in my hands for three bucks whenever I went to a show,” remembers Block. “So every band was making their own tape and putting it out themselves. I still have a milk crate full of cassettes from bands in Victoria. And that was encouraging. You don’t need anything else; just make a tape with three songs on it, then everyone who comes to your show will already know your three songs and sing them with you. And bands were supported like that, right from when they started. That whole notion of DIY was huge in Victoria.”

Like all cities, there were the diehard musicians in the scene who would routinely jump from one likeminded punk, hardcore or metal band to another (Goluza, for one, played in at least eight bands who to the less-discerning ear sounded pretty much identical, including long-running punk band AK-47), but Victoria also had prominent members of its scene who would make a concerted effort to throw us punk curveballs. Take Steve McBean, now known for his work in Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops, whose Victoria bands through the 80s and 90s were all over the map and tough to keep track of unless you were really paying attention (Mission of Christ: crossover thrash metal; Jerk Ward: fast-punk; Red Tide: surfy punk/hardcore; Onionhouse: emo; Gus: noisey, prog-tinged hardcore).

Dave Wenger and Ache Hour Credo Photo Sarah Kramer

Or how about the arty, weirdo musical genius, Dave Wenger? Wenger, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident while walking home in the middle of a wintery Montreal night in 2006, was a prominent figure in the 80s and 90s underground Victoria punk scene. First, he fronted a high-school thrash metal band called Moral Decay, then went on to the ska-tinged fast-punk of M Blanket, then the sprawling emo hardcore sounds of Ache Hour Credo and Breakwater, and finally got as close to settling in as he ever could with Daddy’s Hands, a punk rock re-imagining of the most demented moments of the Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart catalog, with horns, spastic vocals and even stranger lyrics.

Oh, and then there was Wenger’s longtime solo project, Charter Cruise, in which he donned a makeshift disguise and used a noise machine, along with his piercing screeches and caterwauls, to frighten and delight anyone brave enough to listen. In an obituary for The Globe and Mail, writer Martin Patriquin wrote, “Dave Wenger’s music came forth from his innards in bursts, freaking out audiences and influencing peers with buckshot doses of intricate, guttural noise.”

Could a guy like Wenger, screaming about his “Scabby Corsage” and letting us in on Garden City lyrical gems like “a succubus, a vampire, black-hole in a flesh coat” and “what say we fuck on the stairs?” have possibly come out of any punk scene other than Victoria’s?

“Certainly, the DIY scene here was open to having any style of music,” laughs Block, who remembers the creativity fondly. “I mean, look at a guy like Dave Wenger, putting nylons over his head and playing noise machines in the 90s, and at the same time you have a punk band like Shutdown playing. Most places that I’ve been would not have those two worlds cross over.”

Flash forward to September, 2012 and Andy Andersson has just opened his Cavity Curiosity Shop upstairs from the already established punk rock record store Talk’s Cheap in downtown Victoria. The punk scene is now fully recovering from several years of relative inactivity from around 2006, and Cavity is a perfect meeting place for punks. Andersson, who was born and raised in Victoria, has since taken over both floors of the shop, holding punk/grind/noise/darkwave/etc. shows upstairs in a spot he’s christened The Grid. He also works the door at Logan’s Pub, Victoria’s independent live music bastion, also known as the Tavern of the Damned. For the past two decades, Logan’s has been the constant 19+ venue for a punk scene that’s rarely needed it as an option. With a frontlines view of Victoria’s underground music scene, Andersson believes the reason why the city sees such an intertwining of punk subgenres and cooperative DIY shows is because, in such a small and isolated city, it’s basically a necessity.

Cavity Victoria Photo Sara Hembree

“Anyone who’s ever been in the Victoria scene realizes that if we don’t support each other, you only get so much of a turnout at the shows,” says Andersson, “so that exposes people to different genres of music.” Like the glory days of Victoria punk demo tapes being passed around at shows, Andersson says local bands still release an impressive amount of music on vinyl, CD and, yes, cassette, which he’s proud to carry in his shop.

One label in particular, Shake! Records, has put out over 60 releases to date, mostly on tape, including those by local garage and punk bands Durban Poison, Line Traps and Psychosomatic Itch. Put the Shake! catalog together with other indie releases by the likes of indie-punks Open Relationship, grind maniacs Bungus, college-rock nerds Pinner, and disturbo noise rockers Nearly Dead, and it makes for an impressive and unique local music section at Cavity.

“A lot of people are into experimental music here, so a lot of bands goof around with different kinds of sounds,” says Andersson. “Younger kids come into the shop and see that all of these local bands are putting stuff out, they get exposed to new bands, and the DIY shows here are pretty accessible and generally really fun, so it gets them excited about the scene.”

Perhaps a punk bedrock of celebrated weirdness has been laid down in Victoria. Some say it started with two brothers in their parent’s basement in the late 70s-early 80s, combining jazz, prog and punk rock (Nomeansno), others believe that same era’s band with a need to play faster than any band ever had before (The Neos) is what set the tone for the next 30-plus years of crazed punk rock.

“The Neos and Nomeansno are huge influences when it comes to Victoria and those are bands that you can name check to people in the outside world and those are ours; those bands are our hometown heroes. And they’re weirdos,” laughs Forslund. “But I think about this sometimes, and there’s this weird, insular Vancouver Island thing where we are cut off, so we’re left to our own devices, and something about that comes out a little off-kilter and strange. And we’ve got our straight-up punk bands or our political hardcore bands, but there’s still this odd slant that’s underlying sometimes, or maybe it’s right out front. But bands from here are different and it’s noticeable.”

One thing becomes quite evident; there always was and always will be welcoming room for more South Vancouver Island punk bands to try their own version of something that will probably never be defined: the Victoria sound. Allow the Voice of Reason to explain: “I’m going to shoot from the hip on this one, and certainly I’m more disconnected from the scene than I used to be, but when I toured North America with Render Useless, within some cities the competition between bands was fierce,” says Block. “It was a one-up type of thing, and I never ever felt a sense of competition with any of the bands in Victoria. In some places, bands haven’t been given the opportunity to play shows or be fostered, where I find in Victoria it’s the opposite. If there’s a new band, they’re sometimes more celebrated and supported and given an opportunity than an established band. It’s like, ‘Hey, these guys are giving it a shot; let’s get behind them. Let’s help them out.’”

Forslund agrees: “I’ve never lived in a bigger city, but I’ve played shows in places like Vancouver where I see the scene disjointed and with these little pockets of scenes, like a city too big to have one giant community. Victoria is the right size and you’re not going to have people who only go to shows in certain neighbourhoods because that’s ridiculous; everything’s within 15 minutes of each other. So everyone bands together.” And Andersson: “Everyone here is really welcoming and they come up and talk to you, and ask how you’re doing. It’s just the right size that everyone knows each other a bit more and you’re not just another set of eyeballs at a show. People tend to form cliques and don’t communicate as much when it’s a bigger city. Here, it’s so small that you go to a house show and everyone wants to stand up front and get thrown into it; and it feels like you’re in the someone’s bedroom.”

And, yes, also Akis: “Everyone’s friends with everybody. We all know each other and no one really hates each other, so there’s no trash talking. Everyone just wants people to do well. And because of the size of Victoria, no one’s really a rock star here. The guy who played guitar in The Neos shops at my grocery store all the time, and I always see him, and I’m like, ‘I don’t think you’re aware of how many people you’ve influenced all over the world.’” So here we are, in Victoria, BC, and everyone in the punk scene is on the same page again, just like they always were. Group fucking hug; let’s mosh that skuzzy basement show like it’s 1994 (or 2014)!

Jason Schreurs is a writer living in British Columbia. He's on Twitter - @jasonschreurs