Sad to say that I can’t, in all honesty, claim Todd Serious as having been a friend. But I liked and admired him, and drew great inspiration from his lyrics.
After being totally taken with his band, the Rebel Spell, when they opened for the Furies and DOA at Richards on Richards, on February 10, 2007, I saw them whenever I could—maybe a dozen times?—and interviewed Serious on at least four occasions: for Razorcake, in 2008, portions of which have since been cannibalized to appear in the Dutch online hardcore fanzine Out of Step, and three times for the Straight, for one or two Music Notes and an online-only article (“The Rebel Spell Want Your Money”).
Finally I netted the band a Local Motion last October, for their new studio album, Last Run. Despite all the now ominous-seeming echoes of mortality that crop up both in the lyrics to that album, and in my interview, never did I imagine that it would be my final conversation of any length with Todd Serious, or that the record release for that show, at 333, would be the last time I would see him. (He told me there that the Straight feature made him “wince the least” of anything that had been written about him).
Read with hindsight, heavy, heartbreaking weirdness abounds in this interview. We talk about the lyrics to the song “Hopeless”, for example (“It hurts to be here, but I can’t leave”). We talk about Todd’s beliefs about an afterlife (there is none). We talk about the seeming finality of the title of the album, which will indeed likely turn out to be the band’s final one, after all—unless, of course, they have lots of outtakes and live recordings. We can hope.
Plus it’s not every day that you end up with your final real talk with someone on tape. A personal detail that makes it even weirder for me is that Todd died on my 47th birthday, on March 7.
He was climbing mountains at the time. I was watching TV.
This is the (slightly edited) text of our talk, which took place October 6, 2014, over Skype. Todd—who, like Meat Loaf in Fight Club, has gained a name in death, as some guy I never knew named Todd Jenkins—was sitting in his living room in Lillooet, wearing a Sea Shepherd hoodie. As I recall, the photos of the band with the heavy machinery were either taken that day, or the next, when suddenly they realized they had no publicity photos for the article. Everyone was up in Lillooet, though, and Todd knew a place they could go to before they lost the light.
My condolences to the Jenkins family; to Todd’s bandmates Erin, Elliot, and Travis, and former drummer Stepha, and her daughter Isis; and to anyone else who was ever inspired by Todd Serious. There’s a crowdsourcing campaign afoot to cover Todd’s funeral expenses and erect a plaque in his memory, which you can read about here. I’m told that there are also plans to stage a big tribute show to him in a month or so at the WISE Hall, though details have not been ironed out at present.
One final note: apologies are due to Todd’s friend and collaborator, Jeff Andrew—a remarkable singer-songwriter in his own right, on the Vancouver folk scene. I had thought I would cheat a bit and find a previous interview with Todd where we talked about their collaboration on Last Run, "The Tsilhqot’in War”, but I can’t find the tape and Todd and I didn’t get into that song this time out, because we’d just talked about it a few weeks previous.
So you’re up in Lillooet right now?
Why are you up in Lillooet, what are you doing up there?
(Deadpan) Nobody knows.
(Laughs). No, like, I mean, do you have a dayjob? I don’t even know what you do.
No. (Pause). My partner is from here, and we moved up here, I don’t know, almost two years ago. It was just a change. It’s small and it’s dry, so it’s totally the opposite of Vancouver.
I was in Lillooet for awhile. I did some treeplanting up there.
Yeah, I know. An unlikely job, for me. But I know there are a lot of First Nations people up there. Are you involved with the community?
No. It’s pretty tense up here, actually. It’s the city versus a lot of local bands. There was a new water plant put in this summer, but then they figured out it was actually on Native land—like, reserve land, even. Even by the government’s silly rules it was illegal. There was some weird stuff over that, weird racist stuff. They had their ceremonial fire going every day for months and months, outside the construction site, but they’d only run it during the day. And twice, during the night, somebody went down and put ammunition in the firepit. Somebody was actually hit by one of those shells.
One of the protestors?
Yeah. There was a bunch of tension around that. I follow it and verbally support them and I’m constantly arguing with people around town discussing that, but in other ways I don’t really know how I can be involved in it.
Sure. I wondered about one of the songs. Like, I don’t know what “I Heard You Singing” is about, but I wondered if there was some sort of First Nations thing there. Like, hearing singing through the trees…
Have you seen the LP?
Ohh! That’s not in what I was sent. I haven’t seen that. What’s going on there?
It’s really crazy, it’s super-detailed, all these kind of bars are made up of cages, containing others… it’s interesting. I’m sure you’ll get one.
It’s an elder looking through prison bars?
Yeah, and there’s cells made of other cells.
It’s kind of Escher-like. Whose art is that?
It’s Oliver Rivas, the same friend of ours who did some of the It’s a Beautiful Future stuff. He’s done a lot of things for us over the years. That image used for Europe over there on the wall (he points to a poster on the wall of his fairly Spartan home, showing people in gas masks). It’s pretty hard to see I guess. It’s that three-headed weirdness we use for stuff. We’d wanted to use that for the It’s a Beautiful Future LP cover.
Anyhow, coming back to Lillooet—what’s the appeal?
It’s just better! I just... I guess when I was a kid, being a skateboarder, rain was like, the worst enemy you could have. That just shut you down. And now I’m a climber, and rain is still a terrible thing! I guess that’s kind of the appeal. It’s sunny here all year, it’s really nice.
Is there rock climbing in the area?
Not really. That’s the only factor where it’s like, “why am I here,” because there’s lots of ice climbing here, and there is lots of rock here, but there’s not many people to climb with. So I’ve been working on that. We do have a nice indoor climbing wall, at the place I was working at last year, so last winter that was kind of my scene. I worked, and I had two hours off in the middle of the day and then I could go climb, that kind of thing. It was a good deal, it worked out perfectly for me. I didn’t have to go outside unless I wanted to, which was good, because it’s a cold winter here.
But I did several Vancouver winters kinda living in my bus, and you just get tired of it.
I know, it’s gross. But it can’t be convenient for being in a band, either, being in Lillooet. You’re kind of removed.
It’s not really super-convenient, but there’s one thing, though. Elliot and Erin are up here right now—Travis lives here also, right?—and there is the inconvenience that they had to drive up here. But we don’t have to pay to jam, either. We can use my house, which costs me nothing, and if we go to jam there [in Vancouver], it’s, like, $75 a jam. So rehearsals to get ready to tour would cost us $600. It’s kind of crazy.
Your house costs you nothing?
I mean, including my utilities, I pay $300 a month.
So. It’s just easy livin’.
$300 for a house and jam space! And they’re kind of stuck there, as well, so there are no distractions. Now I get it.
Yeah. When we were living further out before, we lived 35 klicks outside Lillooet, and that was our mountain lair, man. There was nothing else to do at all. Well, there’s lots to do, but especially in the winter, you’re kind of snowbound, there are no distractions.
Nothing to do with the interview, but I just saw a film at the VIFF that you should take a look at called All the Time in the World. Which is about a family of the five that go totally off the grid in the Yukon and live in a cabin, with no cellphone, no internet, not TV. It’s a documentary, shot by the Mom. It’s pretty remarkable.
I’ll write it on my list here.
Anyhow. Let’s get to the album. It’s a pretty depressing album, at first blush.
(Brightly) Well, thanks! (Laughs, faux-proud) Nailed it!
Last Run is a really ominous title. I always hate it when bands I like name albums in such a way that it suggests it might be their last one. All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt, like. I know the song “Last Run” is not about that.
No, the song’s not about that. The concept is not about that. If anything I knew this tour was probably going to be the last run for that bus we’ve been running for so many years. So that’s a little personal note in there, I think. But you can immediately extrapolate it to a bigger picture, and that’s kind of where one gets to, if you think about this stuff too much. Like, we don’t have a lot of time left with this particular arrangement. It’s going to be a big messy change soon.
Like when fossil fuels run out?
Now we’re gonna get into this big doomsday talk…
We see these little economic failings, like the US falling to its knees momentarily, but these are just the symptoms that are building. I think we’re going to have a real big one, that’s going to go global, and when everybody has the same economic problems at the same time, they’re not going to be able to help each other back up, pick each other back up. The run that’s humanity’s been on, this one’s going to come to a close. And I’m not talking necessarily within ten years or something, I’m just saying, like, in sort of astronomical time it’s going to be a blink of an eye.
“Last Run” started out being about the wolf culls in Northern Alberta and things like that. And I got into it and I realized they were doing the same thing with the seals, that’s why I threw them into the chorus as well. Blaming them for the collapse of fish stocks? It’s just absurd. And then I started putting it all together, and I went into this giant rant about all these doomsday devices that are all comin’ at us.
Do you have a survivalist streak in you? Sometimes I’ve thought that I should start stocking up on water and canned goods and stuff.
Do you see that coming in your lifetime?
I do. I kind of see that coming later enough in my life that I may not be able to physically do anything like bug out. So... and you know, it’s funny, because there have been some conversations here about that. Like, where would we go?
It’s weird, I used to have that conversation with my friends when I was 13. When the atom bomb drops, what do we do? Like, we’ve grown up our entire lives in the shadow of that question.
We were just collecting firewood yesterday, and this billionaire from the States moved up here in the Cold War era, he picked this spot, just outside of town here, as the ultimate safe spot from nuclear attack and fallout. It’s a massive mansion he built up there, including a humongous shop with top end machining equipment, the best of everything. It’s just sitting up there like a museum or something, because he just dropped dead at his desk one day. But he built the craziest place up there for a nuclear attack. Now, for me, I’m thinking that might not be what’s coming our way, right, so it’s not even on my radar as a place to go to. It would only be good in case of a nuclear attack. It might not be so good in case of, what’s the word, a chemical attack or a super virus—what’s the word?
A biological weapon?
Yeah! I don’t know where that word went. Anyhow, the place is there. Apparently it’s really nice. But I’ve definitely had that conversation in the last week. I think everyone would like to believe they have the skills they need to survive, but I don’t think that most of us do.
No. How old are you now?
How are you changing as you get older? This album seems like there’s a little more despair in it. Like, you’re losing... I don’t know if you’re losing your idealism, it’s still an idealistic album, but it seems to be costing you more.
Yeah. Yeah. (Chuckles). I don’t know. I wrote about that on Days of Rage, “Sit with Me Anger,” that was kind of that song, about how as you get older, you start to think about things more, you start to see all the nuances. It’s not so black and white anymore, and you can’t just split good and bad. And I’m finding that more and more difficult, and that does kind of equal despair.
Are you losing any belief in what the band does? Do you still believe... did you read that quote from Alex Cox that I sent, about how punk was supposed to be a revolutionary movement, but for him, the revolution never materialized, so it stopped being worth anything? It was just another musical style, so who cares about it if it doesn’t lead anywhere. And that was a long time ago that he came to that conclusion.
Right, but is he still interested in those ideals that drew him in…? I mean, obviously we can’t ask him that question, but that was my question. I’m still interested in those ideals. Those are still my ideals. So whether the movement… It must have been amazing to see that stuff (ie., first generation LA hardcore, which Cox witnessed firsthand) going on in the early 1980’s, the numbers of people that were interested. That would have been inspiring, and you can see how once that faded how you become disillusioned. But I never saw that. I was just interested in the ideals. And so now I’m just… I’m still trying to live them or make them fit into my life. I still kinda see the band... it’s a hobby or whatever, but it’s a way that I can communicate with more people, other than by just walking around talking, or whatever. Other people do that in different ways, with different art forms they might be competent in. I guess you can say that even about non-fiction: it’s a voice that people can use. This [ie, being in a band] is one means I just happen to have access to. It’s a way to talk to more people.
Still, the phrase about “the distractions of your silly scene,” I assume you were talking about the punk scene?
No! I’m talking about distractions. I’m talking about my silly scene, or yes there’s a punk scene, but there’s also the film nerd scene you’re into, or these different things that are all kind of distractions from some really serious shit that’s going on all around us. But we get caught up in social politics, and whose record is coming out next week. That’s the silly scene I’m talking about. We’re all involved in different silly scenes. We’re prioritizing some really fun stuff.
Entertaining ourselves to death, yeah. So can we come back to “I Heard You Singing?” What is that about? I still don’t know.
Um. That song started with a riff that Erin wrote. And I was like, that’s cool, and she was like, “no it’s not!” And I said, “let’s just kind of work with this riff, it’s got that droning kind of thing.” And anyway, we worked it up for a long time, and the lyrical theme of it, it’s almost like, walking out into the woods, and walking out into the mountains, and realizing that... hearing that, I guess the primitivist ideal of going out and living like this family you were talking about earlier, leaving everything and going to live in the hills. And hearing that call, and just being too scared to take it. It’s right there. It’s right here. I can walk out, but I’m not brave enough. And in a way that would be the ultimate realization of a lot of the ideals I hold.
So it’s not inspired by anything in particular. It’s a fictionalization of an idea, a metaphor—there’s no particular river you were walking by or singing you heard?
No. No. I’ve definitely felt that pull, and I know why I haven’t gone, and that’s that voice. Yeah. That’s the siren song idea, I think.
Yeah. Have you been at, like, any First Nations ceremonies or whatnot? I was at a longhouse somewhere in BC, I don’t even know where, for a naming ceremony. I knew a guy named Jim Walker who was a Lakota who... he’s a controversial figure, but he’s pretty passionate, and he had me smudging with sage and things like this. And I was thinking of “Not a Prayer.” It’s funny—we’ll come back to the Native stuff, but when I was listening to the album, prepping, I was scared to read the lyrics to “Not a Prayer,” because, like, the album’s called Last Run, the first song is called “Hopeless,” and it was like, “fuck, I don’t want to know what he’s singing about, this is already depressing, one album title and one song in! What could “Not a Prayer” be? But then it turns out it’s about religion.
But anyhow: I was wondering if you have any more respect for First Nations spirituality than Christianity, or if you participate in ritual, if you sweat, or…?
No, I don’t. I think there’s some utility in religion, even, in faith and things like that, for people. But on a personal level, when people start to expect their religious beliefs—just their beliefs, their prayers—to change the world, I can’t help but throw my hands up. Like, you’re wasting your time, your energy, if you care enough about something to put energy into it, why don’t you put energy into it? Instead of praying.
Yeah. The saddest thing I’ve read about First Nations history is the so-called Ghost Dance, where they’re dancing, hoping it will get rid of the white men. Good luck with that!
Yeah, I can see that. (Chuckles). On the other hand, that was all you could do at that point, too, when you’re overwhelmed so badly. That sort of catharsis—there’s something to be had there. But I’m not aiming at anyone in particular there, I just feel like a lot of people’s energy is being co-opted by religion, and just squandered, taken away from them.
Are you completely an atheist? Do you define yourself as one?
Yeah. As far as everything I can figure, there’s no God. I’m not absolutely sure of that, but I’m an atheist, sure.
You don’t have a mystical side, a spiritual side, when you’re out in the forest, there’s no sort of pagan thing that comes into play? I mean, I could see it. I wouldn’t hold it against you.
No, no, really—I don’t think so. I mean, I try to appreciate things on a personal level, and I certainly get something psychologically from being outside and in the wilderness. I love it. But it in no way points to the existence of a god to me.
Fair enough. How do you write your lyrics? Is there usually a song that you’re writing your words to, or…?
There’s a little bit of both. I’m always keeping ideas, a sentence or a phrase or something, or in the case of “Not a Prayer,” I was like, dammit, that could be a chorus, but I need to play with it, because it’s kind of an old cliché, right? Not having a chance. I’m like, how can I twist that a little to make it interesting? So I’ll have these sentences or ideas and then I’ll hear a riff or something and I’ll try them out, see what comes together. But I don’t ever have an idea for the melody of the words until I’ve heard the actual guitar riff.
So Erin is the start of a song, usually?
We’re all pretty involved in writing a song. The chord structures, anyway. So a few of them [on this album] are mine, at least one is Travis. Travis also contributed other riffs to some of the other songs. It’s a pretty collaborative process, and we all contribute some of the chord structures, anyway. We kind of call it the “Erin filter.” We have all these chords and we put it through the Erin filter, and it comes out something else, but it’s better than what I would’ve done, and it has the element that I want. So it works well that way.
She sounds awesome on the album. Working with Jesse Gander has really made her guitar sound fantastic.
Jesse’s kind of known for that, for guitar sound. And right from the start, we used the same amp. We’ve used Erin’s amp, that Marshall, on every record we’ve done. Jesse tried out... he’s got so many amps in there, and that was his pick in the end, for the primary tone, was that Marshall. It was weird watching him work. He was really fast with the guitar stuff—just nailed it right away, and I couldn’t tell you why, or how that worked.
I hate to say it, but what seems to suffer a little is your vocals. I had a harder time figuring out on this album what you were singing than on any past album. It used to be, Doug Naugler, he really seemed to bring your voice and choruses right to the front of the song. Sometimes at the expense of the music, because Erin’s guitar—I listen to It’s a Beautiful Future, trying to hear, “is there more than one guitar part? What’s going on?” And I can’t really pick things out so clearly, compared to this album. I thought maybe it was because she’s kind of shy or something. But it’s just the production, it turns out, because now Jesse brings the guitar to the fore, and I can hear every detail, every lick, but suddenly I don’t understand the words unless I sit down with the lyric sheet!
I’ve had opposite comments from parents and things, like Travis’ parents, “oh, man, we can understand all the words!” They’re not that used to that, because all the bands Travis has been in, they couldn’t understand the words. But it’s a different engineer, different approach. Jesse really is good at guitars, he just makes guitars sound great. Those are mix choices, where things are going to sit in the end… I’m happier overall with the way this record sounds, but I would be inclined to agree with you that the vocal clarity was probably better, I wouldn’t say on It’s a Beautiful Future, but on Four Songs About Freedom, for sure. We used a different microphone, this time. We used an SM7 for most of the other records, this time I can’t even remember what it was. It was a fancier jobby. So they’re just different choices there I guess.
It’s still a great record, it was just a big change. Do you have hopes for the album? How many copies are you getting pressed?
We pressed a thousand records and a thousand CDs, because that’s the most economical thing to do. With a jump from 500 CDs and records to a thousand, the price jump is pretty minimal. The big cost is setup, so you might as well do a thousand. You’re not paying much more. But that’s just usually what we start with.
It sounds like you might be trying to reach a wider audience. The album sounds like a more commercial product. I don’t mean that in a bad way!
No that’s okay. It’s definitely, again—we go to an engineer and work with guys who are good at what they do, because I can’t do that job, you know what I mean? So you do lose the creative control over what the record is going to sound like. You can suggest things and nudge them in different directions or work with them, but ultimately they’re still in control of the sound of the record.
I’m happy to reach any audience that wants to listen, though. I kind of have been saying lately, punk’s not dead: genre is. We’ve been playing festivals and things like that, the last couple of summers, and playing in places I never would have expected. And people were just crazy for it, really diverse crowds. People have all come through now an underground music scene of some kind, they’ve dabbled in punk and metal and the electronic music scene and people are just starting to care less, generally. Maybe it’s because we’re all kinda adults now, but as we get older, I think genre matters less, I just like the music, and I think a lot of people feel the same way.
Sure, sure. When you say you played some festivals that are unusual?
We did Arts Wells festival last year. We did a festival up north; it was definitely more of a punk crowd up there, but they’re bringing in good acts of a bunch of different varieties. We’re playing a few shows with Drum and Bell Tower, who I wanted to talk to you about, actually.(Todd would occasionally plug artists he liked to me, so they would get press, like the Fight United and Jeff Andrew). They’re basically kind of a one-man band, Floyd-influenced. Definitely not a punk band! He’s owned two punk albums, he’s said, he owned Propagandhi’s Today’s Empire Is Tomorrow’s Ashes, and then he got Days of Rage. And those were his two punk albums before he started hanging out with us. Anyways… Just a mash-up of genres is a good thing. I think it’s time for people to get over it.
I think so too, although, there’s less of it visible on this album, in a way! On the last couple albums, there have been bits of reggae, European folk coming through, or the Billy Bragg song (actually Leon Rosselson). This seems like it’s more of a punk album than the last couple!
Maybe. I have to look at the track listing… Hm. Yeah, I don’t know why. We’ve always done whatever. Whatever we’re working on, that’s what we do.
Let’s talk about (former drummer) Stepha for a bit. She’s up in Lillooet too, right?
She and Travis are a couple, they have a kid?
It’s Stepha’s kid but Travis has been there for years now.
I wondered if “Grass Rat” was written about Stepha’s kid.
It’s specifically about Isis, yes.
Can I mention that?
Yeah, I don’t mind, it’s kind of right out there, it’s in the song. I don’t drop her name or anything but it’s right there, a bunch of little inside things. It is a very personal song, but it is a public thing, so by all means.
Is she still officially a member of the band?
Well, she sings on this album. “All This Costs” is Stepha, our duet. So I don’t know what that means; I guess she kind of speaks like she isn’t, but I’m not going to let her [indistinguishable, but something about not letting her devalue her contribution].
And Elliot and Travis are solid, as full on members now?
Elliot seems great. He sounds fuckin’ fantastic. He fits perfectly.
Those two together are really something else, they’re a fantastic rhythm section.
Anything else we should talk about? Talking about it being a really personal album, do you feel more vulnerable? You seem to be putting your fragilities out there.
Yeah, like you were saying, talking about “Hopeless,” it’s definitely laying it right out there at the start of the record, and “Grass Rat,” that’s really personal for me, me and Stepha writing lyrics for that, just crying and laughing. It was really fun. And then, like, “I Heard You Singing” is putting my own fears out there, my own cowardice, if you will, because I can talk about my ideals, but when you really get pushed right to it, how far can you go, how far are you actually willing to live outside of the big comfy society that you and I are in, anyway. Yeah. I’m just not answering your question very directly. It is a more personal album. But at the same time, I’m not writin’ about heartache yet or anything (laughs) so…
But these are the things that are in my brain.
There is a bit of heartache in it, though, like, the lyric in “Hopeless,” “It hurts to be here,” you’re talking about being onstage, right?
Uh, no, I’m talking about here in society, I guess, in the human thrall. It hurts to be here, but I can’t leave. And that’s the sort of thing you hear in “I Heard You Singing.” I’m too scared to leave, but I kind of don’t want to be here. (Adopts an ironic tone) It’s a heck of a conundrum.
So ideally, what would you want to do? What, ideally, would your life look like, if there were no fear holding you back?
(Long silence). Wow, I wish I had a perfect answer for that. I could make something up! It just feels so far from happening, it’s like wishing for a billion dollars, like that thing you did when you were a kid, if I had a billion dollars…
(Slapping the desk for emphasis, as his answer comes to him). I would like to live in a just world. That is all.