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Stereo Freeze 8.20

August 20, 2010

Rockets Red Glare, in conversation and onstage – Sappyfest 2010:

Saturday, July 31st, was a full day at this year’s Sappyfest, and topping it all off was a performance by the recently-reunited Rockets Red Glare. Two thirds of the band had already been onstage with other bands before their headline set late that night, and, between performances, I was able to catch up with guitarist/vocalist Evan Clarke and bassist Jeremy Strachan to chat about their return.

They were “a little too cocksure” about playing again, says Jeremy. “I was like ‘it’s fine, we’ll remember it’,” he says, but then admits that wasn’t the case when it came time to actually play their old songs again. The three members of Rockets Red Glare – not present for this interview was drummer Gus Weinkauf, whose other band, Etaoin Shrdlu, had just come off stage – have been split up geographically for a few years now, so the logistics involved in their recent reunion shows have been complicated.

Photo by Trip Lewis

The band began rehearsing almost half a year in advance for their first reunion performance, at Wavelength 500, this passed February in Toronto. Living in separate cities meant they had to get started early. “We practiced on Christmas Eve…it was the only time we were all in Toronto,” says Evan.

When asked if reforming was ever on their plate before Wavelength 500, they answer no. All three members went on to graduate studies after they stopped playing together in 2003, and all three are currently pursuing PhDs. While they’ve all played music with various groups since, Rockets Red Glare was the last full-time engagement of that sort for each. “It was a very intense 4 years that the band was in existence, and it occupied a good chunk of our time and energy to keep it moving along,” Jeremy says. Since then, they’ve pursued other things.

Photo by Trip Lewis

So what sort of response have they returned to? It has to be kept in mind that Rockets Red Glare were a touring band operating in the changing climate of the early 2000s: the early days of both the internet as medium for music, and Canada’s recent musical upgrowth. That meant touring the wilderness, playing in weird, half-empty rooms to blank stares in towns big and small. What’s more, they had next to no significant media coverage during their initial run, but, now, in much of the media surrounding the band’s reunion, they’re being touted as “legendary” and “influential.” Not that those adjectives are inappropriate, of course, but one gets the sense that, despite the adjectives being used, many people still haven’t caught up to the band. So, are they playing to new ears, or just to familiar ones? Hard to gauge, really, but Jeremy admits that he’s “been surprised by the amount of people” who remember the band and were excited for their return. “At the time it felt vaguely sisyphean,” says Evan, recollecting on their initial period. “For whatever reason, I felt compelled to keep doing it, but I never really felt like ‘man, we’re making headway…we’re planting roots in the soil of Canadian music’.” When asked about said roots, and the band’s influence, they humbly state that they don’t really know how far their music has traveled in the time they’ve been gone.

They get glimpses of it, though. An example: fans in Hamilton recently had the band play at a wedding. “There were people in the front row singing along,” says Jeremy. “Yeah,” says Evan, adding another example: “and there was this kid I had in a class that I was a TA for, and he was just like, ‘man, you were my TA that whole semester and I was listening to Rockets, but I had no idea…’.” “It’s sort of these random things like that,” Jeremy adds. “I was buying a coffee a few months ago and this guy who was serving me was just staring at me and he said ‘do you play in a band?’ and I was like, ‘…yyyeah’ and he was just like… ‘were you in Rockets Red Glare? You guys were my favourite band in high school!’ Every so often things like that pop up and they’re really touching, you know?”

Skip ahead now to their Sappyfest set. They take the stage at Uncle Larry’s and are introduced quite aptly as the band who made the most articulate statement of contemporary hardcore. They then demonstrate what the introduction attributed to them. Real talk: I went to Sappyfest to see this set. The festival was overpriced and full of ridiculous hipsters, but it was worth it.

Photo by Trip Lewis

The band did their thing for a good while and it was awesome. At one point during the set, a guy behind me proclaimed loudly to his friend: “I’m kinda thinkin’ they’re the greatest band on Earth.” To which the friend replied: “I’m kinda thinkin’ you’re right.” The thought that many in the crowd had never seen (nor heard, even) the band before was good, and watching them play those songs again, after eight years of absorbing every note of the records, was a wonderful thing. These guys had to re-learn their own stuff in order to perform it again, though, surely their motivations and inspirations have changed since they wrote these songs almost a decade ago? I asked them if they had any desire to edit or change the material, to which they responded that there is only one slight change made in one song [a small pause added in “Go Away Salt”?]. I also asked them if any new ideas have come out of their reformation. “We haven’t [come up with any new songs], but I actually suggested that would be good because we’ve been playing the set, and it’s fun, but, I think it would be interesting to try and update. See what works and what doesn’t,” says Jeremy. “I have some stuff I’ve written over the years, and I always imagined I’d find people to play it with, but it seems impossible,” says Evan. “Ultimately I realised it was written to be played with Jer and Gus.” The guys hinted a couple of times during our talk at possibly re-uniting for something more long-term, but those are thoughts for another time… The next move for Rockets Red Glare: Halifax Pop Explosion this October.

“I think there’s a certain group of people of a certain age who we made some kind of lasting impression on. But there’s a ton of other people who still have no clue,” says Jeremy, which illustrates that these shows are important beyond the nostalgia. Sure, it’s awesome that the band is back together doing these shows, but in some cases they’re playing to people who didn’t know they ever existed. 2010 is a different stage in the development of Canadian music, and this band has lost none of their relevance thereto during their absence. They’re as important now as they were in the early 2000s, and, maybe it’s idealistic, but, if they were to start playing again regularly, who knows, there could be opportunities and audiences that just didn’t exist in their first run.

Whatever comes of their reunion, it’s been a significant event, and, for me personally, it was great to see them play again after such a long time simply accepting that they were done and gone, not to return. But, maybe some new listeners have found inspiration like those of us who encountered this band in the early 2000s did, and, who knows, maybe the band will step back onto the scene with some new stuff and it’ll start all over again.

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