Tough Age Talks Alanis Morissette and Surviving the Underground

Feature photo via Facebook / show images by Joel Redekop

Headlining the Megaphono’s Friday night showcase at the House of Targ earlier this month was Vancouver-by-way-of-Toronto bubblegum punks Tough Age. Escaping the noise of the venue, I met with Jarrett Samson (guitar), Penny Clark (bass) and Jesse Locke (drums) in Targ’s parking lot, braving the sub-zero temperatures to talk about their cross-country move, Alanis Morrisette, and Brill Building songwriting.

Ottawa Life: I have to admit, I only realized you were still a band around a year ago, because there was a show back in Vancouver billed as Tough Age’s last.

Jarrett: Last Vancouver show. That was the one with Mudhoney.

What happened? Why did you relocate to Toronto?

Jarrett: Penny and I moved because I was sick of Vancouver, and I had lived there my whole life. Vancouver was rapidly becoming a city I didn’t want to live in, so I moved to the only other city in Canada that I could move to, because I don’t speak French, and I’m not going to move to Halifax. Sorry Halifax. We kept the band going a couple of years with the Vancouver lineup, and it got harder and harder. The cost was a minimum $1500 to start touring or practicing because two of us had to fly out to Vancouver, so we finally relocated. It was also like, “is this a new band?” Do we keep the same name? We essentially kept the same name because I wasn’t done with the older songs, but I feel like it is a totally different band under the same name.

Vancouver’s known as “No Fun City.” Did that play a part in you leaving?

Jarrett: I worked really hard to do what I could to make Vancouver better. For me, I just ran out of steam, and I know a lot of people that are still doing amazing things there. Vancouver has seen a big scene resurgence.

Penny: I wouldn’t say it’s “No Fun City…” I would say it’s “No Work City,” at least for me, anyway. [laughs]

Jarrett: There’s a lot of great bands and labels in Vancouver. And I think a lot of good people move to Vancouver. Penny moved there for school. Very few people actually grow up there in the Vancouver area. Everyone in the scene that I knew were people who had come in. I’ve been there my whole life. I’ve just watched the whole city become expensive and price me out. It was more like it was no fun in all the areas of my life that weren’t music. I think that Vancouver being so anti-art makes the art coming out of Vancouver that much stronger. I still think that it has the best scene in all of Canada.

Have you found it easier to find more of a scene in Toronto?

Jesse: It’s starting to happen. For this band specifically. Toronto has a terrific music scene.

Penny: Once we actually resolved on what the band actually was, it’s been a lot easier.

Jesse: We’re going to record in Montreal next week, so a lot of good energy.

Jarrett: I think that Toronto was hard to get a grip on for me, because there was a lot of legit bar spaces, and what I was passionate about was underground spaces. I felt like [the bar spaces] were inaccessible, but Penny called me on that. So especially since we got over my holdups, it’s been great since then.

Jesse: I think with DIY venues under attack, people are actually banding together more than ever. It’s nice to actually see the community communicating, working together, figuring out solutions.

Penny: I would also like to point out that Ottawa has a terrific scene as well.

Jesse: Yeah, [in Old Ottawa South] specifically, Black Squirrel Books and PDA Projects are two great spaces.

You just released your last music with your old lineup, and you said that you’re viewing yourself as a new band. What kind of turn do you think Tough Age is going to take?

Jarrett: I think I’m just trying to write songs differently, write them for different people. I also think we’re trying to write more collaboratively. I’ve been bringing different things to other people, which I’ve never been good about, and trying to get feedback. The thing I still like about Tough Age is that even when we were considered a garage rock band, we were still weird, adding harsh noise and stuff like that. So I think I’m embracing the outside aspects of what the band was, and pushing more in that direction.

Jesse: We all like a lot of different kinds of music, and they’re all kind of feeding into the band. We all have specific voices and ways of playing.

Leading into the next question: what’s your most shameful music influence?

Jarrett: I’m not ashamed of anything I like! We flat out in the car today had a conversation about what the best Alanis Morrisette song was. I was complimenting “One Hand in My Pocket,” how it was a well-written song, because she subverts rhyming. Every time you think she’s going to rhyme, she flips it.

Jesse: I like to find deep cuts from supposedly shameful artists. There’s good Jefferson Starship songs. There’s Boz Scaggs songs that I like. But I’m not influenced by that, necessarily. I just like to drop a silky cut in the middle of a DJ set.

Jarrett: It was a pinned Tweet for a long time, so it’s common knowledge, but I legitimately like the band Aqua about fifty times more than I like the Cramps. I love Aquarium by Aqua. It’s a perfect pop album, except for the one real dud, whereas the Cramps are all real duds as far as I’m concerned.

Penny: I would like to point out that I don’t like Aqua or the Cramps.

Jarrett: Her one is Alice in Chains. It’s not shameful, but I’m obsessed with bubblegum music. Songs that are just cash grabs. Songs that were written by people that didn’t give a shit about art, people just doing it to make money, just completely devoid of artistry. I wish I could write like that, just sit in an office and write trash, give it a name like “Chocolate Fantasy Wristband Explosion.” But it’s just pop perfection.

You guys released a Christ Knox covers tape last year. He was a cartoonist, had multiple musical projects. Is there an incarnation of him that particularly inspires you?

Jarrett: I think for me [what is most inspiring is] when he started doing this thing Noxious in the last couple years, which he did with this band of younger kids. But it was only after he had a stroke, and he can’t speak anymore, so he just makes punk music with these kids and he sings, but he’s making these guttural noises. He’s just unstoppable.

For the kids back on the West Coast, what’s an Ontario band to get excited about?

Jarret: Oh man, there’s a lot. Lonely Parade. That band rules. New Fries I love. Man-made Hill, who we’re playing with tonight. Those are the three that I’ll say.

Jesse: I really like Plasma Lab from Toronto. They’re a sludgy punk trio. And I wanna second New Fries. And Germaphobes.

Penny: I can’t think of anything that hasn’t already been said. I feel bad about that. [Laughs] I guess Bondar. Blue Angel is really cool too.

Okay, opposite coast: what are some Vancouver bands for people to get hyped about out here?

Jarrett: I really like the band Dumb. Our old bass player has a band called Jock Tears, a really cool garage band. They just opened for the Black Lips the other day.

Penny: Fountain, which are now [based in] Montreal.

Jarrett: Fountain! Fountain is the best band in Canada, I think.

Jesse: I want to give a shoutout to Shearing Pinx, maybe the greatest Vancouver band of all time. We love the Courtneys, too.

Vancouver and Toronto usually see each other as pretentious, thinking that the other is the centre of the universe. Do you sense a tension between the two?

Jesse: People just don’t know what’s going on in the other city. Before I moved to Toronto, I didn’t really know what was going on [there]. And the same with Vancouver. You kind of have to go to those places to hear what’s going on. I don’t think there’s a rivalry; I just don’t think there’s enough connection.