1. Bikes and Backstory
So I’m waiting downstairs at Neptoon Records, next to a female mannequin decked out in leathers and a wolf mask, and I’m gearing up to ask Vicious Cycles Motorcycle Club frontman Billy Bones about the band’s general tough guy image. It’s something that runs throughout their catalogue. Their 2014 long play, Bad News Travels Fast—with cover art of the band on motorcycles, travelling in a pack—boasts cocky rockabilly-inflected punk anthems like “You Ain’t So Tuff,” which seems to challenge any takers in the audience to a scrap.
Their previous LP, 2011’s The Strange and Terrible Saga of… the Vicious Cycles has a biker fistfight on the cover, and songs with titles like “Destroy” and “Born Wild.” Their stage presentation follows suit: leading the band, Bones looks like he’s walked out of the first chapter of Last Exit to Brooklyn: he seems a classic 50’s brawler, with slickly styled hair, leather jacket, and motorcycle boots. You’d be unsurprised if he had a switchblade in his boot and brass knuckles in his pocket.
So just how tough IS this band, anyway?
The question is amply answered when Bones shows up to the interview with his young son, J.J., who proceeds to run roughshod over his Dad for the first 20 minutes of the conversation. He weighs in on the Clash and the Ramones (“I have almost all the Clash records, because I steal Dad’s,” he says). He says his Dad’s motorcycles are cool when he gets to ride on them, and boring when he has to watch Bones work on them. He likes answering things with “no,” and if you give him an either/or question, he’ll tend to either dodge it with “both” or refuse the question with a “boring.” He refuses to go upstairs and look at records, so his Dad can do an interview, until Bones threatens to take away his soda pop privileges.
J.J. periodically looks over at me and asks his Dad why I’m laughing.
“His name is J.J., and the two J’s are for Joey Joe—Strummer and Ramone,” Bones explains at one point. He turns back to J.J., who is exploring Neptoon’s vinyl overstock. “Is that why you like the Clash and the Ramones so much?”
“Why do you like Stiff Little Fingers so much? Just because they’re a good band?”
“No, because I met him,” J.J. replies. “And I have three of their records—no, four records.”
“No, those are mostly mine,” his Dad gently reminds him.
“I have the small one!” (Bones later explains that he got his son backstage at the Stiff Little Fingers’ recent Commodore show to get some swag signed, including, apparently, a 45.)
Bones, with the help of J.J., has quickly undermined any shred of tough-guy-image his band had before the interview started, and he seems to be enjoying my surprise. “If you ask us a couple of questions, you’ll figure out, no one in our band is very cool. Cool’s not that important. We try to pretend while we’re onstage, because no one wants to see a band that’s not very cool, but…”
As for “You Ain’t So Tuff,” Bones gestures at his son. “I wrote it about that guy!” His voice gets gentler when addressing J.J. “Do you know that song’s about you?”
“Because of my muscles?”
“No, because sometimes you’re difficult.”
“No, because sometimes being a Dad is hard, and...,” turning to me, he continues, “I wrote it meaning that everybody’s got stuff that’s tough, and I kinda hoped people could hear that song and, whatever Is tough for them, they could holler that song at it. That’s what was in my head. But, ”he changes tacks, “I wrote that song, but when I introduce it, if we’re in a room and there’s a bunch of skinheads, I’ll pick one of the other members and say, ‘This is a song Rob over there wrote, it’s for all the skinheads in the room, and it’s called, ‘You Ain’t So Tuff!’”
Rob is Rob “Beardo” Wright, the bassist for the Vicious Cycles MC; lest any Nomeansno fans get confused, no, he is not that Rob Wright. Along with Bones, he’s one of the Vicious Cycles MC’s founding members, though (“Reverend”) Norman “Motorcycho” Anderson was the real reason the band came together 10 years ago, even though he couldn’t play a lick of music at the time.
“Norman’s ridden motorcycles since the early ‘70’s,” Bones explains. “He’s got a bike that he bought new in, like, 1976, and he’s the guy that got me into bikes, like, 20 years ago. Everybody in the band likes bikes, but between me and Norman—he’s got 20 motorcycles; I’ve got, I’m not sure, maybe eight, or something?” (You can practically see a thought bubble over his head where he’s factoring out the ones that are mostly parts and scrap). “A couple of newer guys don’t come from a motorcycle background, but they’re rockers.”
Like Ben Frith, for instance? Son of Rob Frith, the former Black Sabbath drum tech and member of Thee Manipulators is the current drummer for the Vicious Cycles. He’s the reason we’re using Neptoon for the interview in the first place. I see Ben often enough on the bus that I doubt very much that he’s got a bike.
“Actually, Ben’s girl, Melissa has a Honda CB350. So to me that’s close enough; Ben’s got a bike. But we basically made this band as an excuse to hang out with Norman. And we thought songs about motorcycles would be hilarious.”
Anderson’s lack of musicality meant the band started him off on a light-triggered Theremin for beginners, which eventually evolved into his present Theremin/ keyboard setup.
This is all news to me, though I knew bikes were a part of the picture, obviously. I’d seen the Vicious Cycles at an early gig, where they drove their bikes into the old Cobalt, during an opening slot for the Rebel Spell. It might have been May 23, 2008; I was talking with wendythirteen at the bar, paying no mind to the openers, when suddenly there were revving motorcycles in the place. What the hell?
“I love that we can do that,” Bones says, grinning. “It depends on the kind of club, but we really like to ride into a show. Like at Antisocial, the skateboard shop down the street, I think there’s still a burnout in the middle of the shop from when we played there once, and while we’re playing, there’s people in the club with their bikes, and I’m basically singing into this guy doing a burnout with the back end of his bike fishtailing in front of me, and if his tire catches and his bike launches…”
Bones laughs and leaves the possible disaster unstated. “But that’s the stuff that I really love, that’s the whole point of us having a motorcycle band, that we can do these stupid things. I’m not excited about the old school ‘let’s get messed up and fight each other’ thing, I just really like to have fun.”
This all fits with Bones’ philosophy that both punk rock and motorcycles should be a bit, well, dangerous. “Punk rock has to be dangerous, or else it’s not punk rock, so anytime our band plays, I want there to be a moment of ‘oh, that was dangerous.’”
But sometimes, he confesses, they have to settle for, “that was stupid, we shouldn’t have done that.”
For instance? Well, there’s the time the Vicious Cycles almost burned down the Palomino, in Calgary. Understand that the band has a propensity for low-budget pyrotechnics, like putting a pool of lighter fluid onstage and having Motorcycho do a burnout on it in his minibike.
“The ideal”—if the stage isn’t too beer-soaked—“is that he shoots liquid fire all over the place. But it’s just lighter fluid,” Bones assures readers. “It doesn’t burn really hot and it goes out right away.”
Anderson also sometimes likes to set his Theremin on fire, during a noisier passage in “I Don’t Get No Kicks (Till I’m in Fifth).”
“So that’s happening, one night at the Palomino,” Bones relates, “and I looked over, and there’s this pool of fire in front of his keyboard, and the bottle of lighter fluid is sitting in the pool of fire, and there’s, like, a wick on it.
“It could have gone poorly,” he adds a bit sheepishly. “So we kicked the lighter fluid out of the way. Nick [Thomas the band’s lead guitarist, also of the Evaporators and Tranzmitors] comes over to me, to help stomp out this fire, and at that point, I could see the fire was gonna go out, so I’m looking at Nick, yelling, ‘start the song!’ So there was this ridiculous moment where we’re almost burning down the Palomino, but Nick’s just together enough to start the next song in the middle of it, and - I love that about punk rock; I love that the whole thing falls apart, and there’s this moment of, ‘well that was kind of dangerous.’”
He thinks for a second and adds, “but I wouldn’t want anybody to get hurt.”
It’s actually amusing that Nick Thomas is in the band, since one of the Vicious Cycles’ past live shows was to do a Mods Versus Rockers-themed battle of the bands with the Tranzmitors. Of course—as anyone has seen Quadrophenia knows—the historical rivalry between mods and rockers led to actual violence, back in 1960’s England. However the Mods Versus Rockers shows have been nothing but fun.
“We’re friends with all the mods, and we respect the way they do bikes, and whatever. We maybe don’t have the kind of money to put into our clothes the way they do”—you can hear Bones’ leather jacket creaking in the recorder as he says this—“but it’s fun to play off of it, to pretend that that’s still a deal. And Nick is a phenomenal guitar player. He was in the Smugglers and the Tranzmitors, who are both bands that I love.”
Then the Vicious Cycles’ longtime guitar player, Skinny Tim, told the band he was leaving.
“It felt like we were holdin’ him back a bit, he loved hoppin’ trains and running around with zero responsibility, and we were like, ‘we got a show coming up in two months on the island.’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know, I was kinda hoping to be lost in the middle of America on the train at that time.’ And he was getting married, and just wanted to step back. So we were looking around for guitar players, and Nick was my first pick. And the first time I talked to him about it, he was too busy, he had too many bands going on. Then I was standing next to him, watching the Sonics [a band both the Tranzmitors and Vicious Cycles have opened for] play, and I think Nardwuar had just had some medical stuff come up. So the Evaporators weren’t playing much, and the Tranzmitors weren’t playing much, so just running into him again and, obviously, having the same love for the Sonics… I don’t know if it helped him, but… “
2. Not Cool
Those who understand the lore of bikes—who don’t, unlike me, need Billy Bones to explain to them that “M.C.” stands for “Motorcycle Club”—will understand that even in their motorcycle-themed songs, the Vicious Cycles frequently undercut their own image. Some of that is obvious, like the line in “Bad News Travels Fast,” where Bones sings, “my bike broke down and I’m sleepin’ in the ditch,” which, he makes clear, is a lyric drawn from life (“I’ve got a terrible reputation for bikes that don’t run very well,” he quips. “All those lines—‘I’m sitting on the bus like I’m some kind of jerk’—came to me because my bike was broken down”).
But some of it is less obvious. Take “10 Mil Wrench,” say. To the uninitiated, a wrench is a wrench, an icon of tool-ready manhood. But there’s some nuance missing from that reading.
“The funny thing about a 10 mil wrench, and the bikes that I like, is that, for our image, we should be on ‘60’s choppers that are Harleys, tough-guy American bikes. But I love small Japanese bikes, from the 1970s. So the Japanese bikes need wrenches in millimeters, and American bikes use wrenches that are in inches. So me singing that song is a little bit of shtick; it’s true, because a Honda needs 10 mils, and I almost always keep one on me, because my bikes break; but needing a 10 mil wrench is not cool.”
Poking fun at image-consciousness sometimes takes in the Vicious Cycles’ audience, as well. In “Good Times,” Bones sings, “Do you got the right clothes to wear?/All the kiddies gonna stop and stare?/Is Little Richie gonna cut your hair?/Well, I don’t know and I don’t care.”
As Bones puts it, “the song is about how much being cool is not very important.”
By the way, that’s local axeman Rich Hope—Evil Doers frontman by night, Belmont Barbershop master barber by day—to whom Bones is referring, right?
“I love, love, love that you knew who I was talking about,” Bones says, smiling. When he wrote the lyric, “I started thinking about all the coolest things in the world, and to me, one of the coolest things in my life is when I get to go and sit and get my hair cut by Rich Hope. I love it. But before we put that song out, I had to talk to him first: ‘I’m writing this song where I’m saying, ‘Little Richie’—and I mean you, I’m calling you Little Richie—is going to cut your hair, and I’m saying I don’t care about that.’ And he’s just a cool guy, he does not care, he was happy to just get name-dropped like that. But Little Richie is Rich Hope, and he’s like, a total pal.”
The Vicious Cycles share an interesting deal with Hope, it turns out. Both the Evil Doers and the Vicious Cycles have a clothing sponsorship with Brixton clothing.
“It’s been five or six years now where they just say, here’s the catalogue, order up some clothes for your band. They’ve been super generous. And in all that time, they’ve never asked us for anything, and I always want to figure out a way to be appreciative. They’re from California, and we went to see them at the company, and they were just, like… they give us stuff because they love rock ’n’ roll. They named their company Brixton because they love the Clash, and they’ve been super good to us. I can’t imagine it being altruism, but they’ve never asked for anything; they’ve been supportive and nothing but supportive. So I’ll go on my social media and say, ‘I’m going to shill for them.”
At the time of the interview, Bones’ pants, his wallet, and Brando hat are all from Brixton (He takes the hat off to show me; it’s similar to the hat Marlon Brando wears in The Wild One, but it’s starting to show wear. “It’s trashed now, but it’s still my favourite hat.” Later on, when the interview is done, I go home and check my own favourite hat, a green pork pie that I paid $80 for; it is also made by Brixton).
3. Road Stories
The Vicious Cycles M.C.’s November 4th 10th anniversary show will be held at the SBC Cabaret, and fittingly enough—considering the first time I saw the band, almost 10 years ago, on a bill with the Rebel Spell—they’ll be sharing the bill with one of the bands from the Rebel Spell’s diaspora: Alien Boys, featuring guitarist Wretched Erin. “We’re lucky. In Vancouver, in the punk rock scene, there are women as good as, or better than, the men in bands.” [Note: all four Alien Boys are girls]. “They’re our pals, and we’ve consciously asked them, said we would love you guys to be on this bill. A bill with diversity is good for everybody, but they’re not on the bill because they’re ladies, they’re on the bill because they’re a great band.”
The other band that night will be the Territories, who also have a backstory. “They’re from Calgary, and they’re from this band called Knucklehead, who have been going in Calgary for almost 20 years; they’re one of the really great punk bands from Calgary, and a lot of people like them here. It’s the same lineup with one member change, basically. They have their first record coming out soon. Hopefully enough of the word has gone out that this is sort of their new band.”
Crazy coincidences start to mount: if indeed the time I saw the Vicious Cycles ride into the Cobalt was May 23, 2008, one of the other bands on the bill that night was Knucklehead.
As for the location of the 10th anniversary show, Bones is concerned that the show be “super-inclusive,” and is particularly sensitive to the possibility that ladies who might want to come, otherwise, might be nervous venturing into the stretch of East Hastings at night.
“I’m a big ugly guy, I don’t have to think through that stuff, but if you’re a lady and want to go there and you don’t have someone to take you, then you have to really think twice about whether you go to a show in that part of town or not.” When we spoke, Bones was planning to put a phone number on the show’s Facebook event page for a chivalric old-school gesture: “if you’re coming to the club, when you get off the bus, give us a call and we’ll come get you.“
Over their 10-year history, Bones recounts, the Vicious Cycles M.C. have toured as far south as Cuba and Tijuana.
“In Tijuana, we walked across the border with guitars, no amps, and there’s a table there with guards, and machine guns, or whatever, and you can walk through ‘nothing to declare’ or ‘something to declare,’ and we just walked through ‘nothing to declare’ without ever talking to anybody. We just walked into this other country. It was really cool.”
Meanwhile, “in Cuba, they treat you like you’re Elvis or something. At the time, we were something like the fourth band to tour Cuba, because you have to pay your whole way there, and it’s more fun to make money on tour, or at least break even. But Cuba was amazing—it was super weird and super fun, like, the cops would be making out with their girlfriends on the corner.”
Every show in Cuba was “rockin’,” with lots of people, Bones tells the Straight. “Except for the last show, for whatever reason, there wasn’t that many people. We were like, whatever, it’s our last night here, and—we’ve played lots of duds of shows; we know how to play to each other and feed off each other. But we’re getting onstage to go play, and we heard a rumble outside, and we go outside, and the Cuban chapter of the Latin American Motorcycle Association shows up. 30 guys on 1950’s Harleys pull up and take up the whole lot…”
He’s pretty pleased with how that night worked out, and, he explains, loves seeing a lineup of bikes outside one of their shows. And it’s an asset to the band having “pals in different motorcycle clubs down the west coast,” he explains.
“It’s a niche. You could be the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world, and nobody will care. Like, it’s a hard slog. But you can be a pretty good rock ’n’ roll band, but you’ve got this niche about motorcycles, so you can go into any town and play, and people who like bikes will come out.” The band has played the Abbotsford Motorcycle show, locally, or will contact clubs during tours, he says. “We’ll get ahold of them and say, ‘can we throw a party at your clubhouse,’ and some of those have worked out great. It’s kind of a cheat, because we can go into any town and someone who is into motorcycles and punk rock will be there, and have brought their pals out.”
Of course, not everyone cares equally. “Your One Percenter clubs”—outlaw clubs—“I’m sure those guys are great guys, but some of them don’t really care about what we’re doing, we’re not their scene.”
There are some old-school chopper guys, the Night Fighters, locally, who are the band’s buddies, but clubs the Vicious Cycles Motorcycle Club find the most solidarity with, bike-wise, are café racer clubs like the Cretins, in Seattle, or the Sang Froid in Portland, or Filth Mode, locally, who are more into dirt bikes.
“And these clubs will be like 15, 20, 100 guys, but it’s regular guys who like bikes and ride bikes together, not so much of the other activities that you might associate with motorcycle clubs. And lately, there’s tons of ladies that run motorcycle clubs, like (dirt bike club) Dirty Moto and the Majestic Unicorns, and that’s fun too.”
Talk turns to the band’s hopes of someday touring further afield, like Spain or Japan, where Bones figures “the rockers are.” He’s had some direct experience of Japanese rockers, in that the Vicious Cycles have opened for Guitar Wolf (“one of the top-shelf bands for me,” he says). My own happy association with Japan, I tell him, was seeing a kid in a pork pie hat excitedly skankin’ his way up front when Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros kicked into “Pressure Drop” at the Akasaka Blitz in Tokyo. Seeing that kid’s palpable excitement remains one of the happiest memories of my concert-going life.
“I saw the Mescaleros in Seattle,” Bones returns, “And it was a religious experience for me. And then the next night it was the Cramps. I didn’t even know that the Cramps were playing, and we’d spent our rent money to go see Joe Strummer. And then we found out the Cramps were playing, so we spent our money to get home on it. Other than those two nights, I never saw Joe Strummer or Lux Interior, and those decisions… I always think, if I have to make a decision right now, and I’ve only got fifty bucks, I am going to spend that 50 bucks on whatever it has to be spent on. Because fifty bucks comes and goes, but the experiences, those you’ve only got one shot at.”
The Vicious Cycles M.C. plays the SBC Cabaret on Saturday (November 4).