On Oct. 17, the Teenage Kicks performed at the Pub Down Under in Saint John as a part of their 12-show east coast tour. Teenage Kicks, a rock band consisting of brothers Peter and Jeff van Helvoort, originates from Toronto, Ontario..
I had a chance to talk with Peter van Helvoort before the show via telephone. Peter discussed the band, of course, as well as the touring experience, family, frustrations with the recording of their albums , the creative process and his hopes for the future.
Peter and I began our conversation on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon. Calling from Fredericton, where the Teenage Kicks had performed the night before, Peter exchanged pleasantries before we got into the nitty gritty of the interview.
Jacob: Teenage Kicks as a band is determined to avoid clichés and fads in order to produce songs with a higher quality and honesty. Has the refusal to follow mainstream trends made it difficult to get your music out there?
Peter: “Yes, and you would think as a rock band that that would never be the case, as rock is supposed to be this universal style of music. But at this point in time in, what people are consuming rock is not too high on the list, you have the black keys and the foo fighters. But there’s not really too many young rock bands that are representing late 90’s-2000’s period of time where there was a lot of rock music on the radio. It kind of seemed as bands sort of did what they wanted and people wanted to listen to that type of music. There was a lot of great Canadian bands on the radio at that point in time too but nowadays to be a rock band on the radio you have to fit into this nostalgia thing or on the other end which I think is still exciting you kind of more like July talk or a Wilco or a National where its rock music but its not the same as before. We’re still more of the stadium rock mentality but we try to be stadium rock without the costumes and without playing into a lot of the stuff that people are aware of what these bands play into. There’s a calculation in rock music as there is in the same extent as there is in pop music that I just never agreed with I could never imagine someone like Kirk Cobain kind of playing that game so I never played it myself. “
Jacob: Spoils of Youth came out last April. Why is such an honest human feeling so crucial to Spoils of Youth as an album?
Peter: “Well I don’t know, probably because I almost went crazy making it. The process of making that album was super difficult, we lost a bunch of people making the record and we made it twice. We went to California to make the album, we had this guy that we all trusted and thought highly of, he made the record and it wasn’t very good. I don’t want to think of it of being a personal vendetta or anything like that but the record sounded so bad that you almost feel like you were duped; do you know what I mean? So that record he had, had to be like that. It was just so much of myself in it and my music has always been like that. I have a hard time with separating my music from myself and from my lyrics while some people have an easier time with that than others. I don’t know it just has to be like that because the only way to finish it was to be like this is for me because at that point in time we were so positive that it was going to be a massive failure that the only reason to finish it was because you needed to it because you needed closure. There’s literally nothing that could have gone right in that scenario, every turn something broke or was lost or had to be re done it was a very very very lengthy process. “
Jacob: So would you call making spoils of youth the most difficult thing you’ve ever had to do as a musician as a person how was the total experience of making that album?
Peter: “It was awful I mean I’m proud of the record now but I can’t go back and look at it and say it was worth it. And the irony of that is before we made the record everything was going so well. We were talking to the producer at the label and explained that “you don’t always make a great record if things are easy” and how “we’ll be fine we’ve been practicing these songs for like two years now”. I ended up producing the album so I had a pretty good understanding of what I wanted out of the songs. However it just ended up being quite the opposite and it may have produced a better record. In the long term I think it really affected my mentality about being in a band, I still haven’t been really ready to approach new music yet. We still don’t really have a band, its still Jeff and I and we hire people part time at this point in time. We haven’t really accepted making new music yet I’ve been writing things buts its weird, it literary has had a lasting affect on how I feel about being in a band.”
Jacob: From our research, it shows that there have been four past members.
Peter: “Yeah, we’ve previously had four other actual members. Recently we’ve had seven drummers in the last seven months, and we’ve had another additional two guitar players in terms of people we’ve been paying to come out on the road with us to play second guitar. We’ve had a number of people.”
Jacob: Seven drummers, that’s crazy! Do you guys hire/fire drummers until you get a certain one that you like?
Peter: “Oh no! It hasn’t been firing at all, that makes it sound crazy!”
Peter: “We’ve been finding people, but we haven’t been able to find one person who does everything. We keep having people who are like “I can do this, but I can’t do this” so every tour that we’ve done has been like this. We were just on road in the states and we’re on the road out east tomorrow and then we were on the road for a months and a half with the Atari’s’ in November and all three tours have completely different lineups. Another reason we cant make new music is that we’re always relearning a new set we every time we get home from a tour. We relearn the set again with someone new, its crazy. Its really the most uninviting situation ever in making music and being creative.”
Jacob: How have you guys progressed from your first album shook our bones up until spoils of youth and anything you can tell us about the process of releasing in 2010 and then in 2014?
Peter: “I just keep on writing songs I mean a lot of the songs on spoils of youth are old but were just never released. We have a huge back catalogue of unheard songs, we just start working on something and if it feels good to the people that were playing with we go with it. I’m always writing stuff, even when we’re not working on a song. I think I have like 15 new songs since we put the record out and I have a back catalogue of about 100 songs that have never been released. So there’s a lot of music but it all finds a way of staying unique and it all sounds like its written by the same person. I hate repeating myself I could never write a record of the same thing 10 times so that’s always been a big deal for me.”
Jacob: Creatively when you and your brother make music does each of you have your own unique writing process or do you two mesh song writing?
Peter: “We write separately, Jeff writes his own songs as well and I think Jeff music writing style is very similar to mine in the way he writes his songs because he’s had the opportunity to grow up watching me write songs. So I think we’re pretty similar but we’re kind separate from each other. We write a song show one another what we have, the process of sitting in the basement with the whole band trying to put the song together has been generally been a group process but the actual writing of the songs as almost always been a singular thing.”
Jacob: Are there any challenges and benefits in playing in the same band as your brother?
Peter: “As for challenges we are pretty close we don’t fight a lot. We’ve always been close although there were a couple years throughout high school because were 3 years apart when we weren’t on the same page as one another. But we’re quite close now, so really the only challenges we face are that we are so used to playing with each other that we are not challenging one another enough. We’ve been playing together for pretty much 10 years non-stop together so we’ve come to the conclusion that if this band no longer exists in the future that the next musical thing we’d do would not be with one another.”
Jacob: Did you and your brother have any idols growing up?
Peter: “My dad plays and my father has an amazing voice. We spent a weekend with our father at a cottage this summer, which has become a yearly father son retreat and his voice is to me mind blowing. He’s so good but he never wrote a song and my inspiration was to write my own music. In terms of people outside of my father it’s the 90’s people Michaels Tait, Billy Corgan, Eddie veder etc. I gravitated towards that since I was 5 or 6 years old. I listened to a lot of the edge, they played a lot of really great music at that time.”
Jacob: How has being born and raised in Toronto shaped your development as a band over the early years?
Peter: “The band sounded pretty much the same in Guelph, we just changed our name as we moved to Toronto. We lived on the outskirts on Toronto in a borough because our rent is really cheap and we practice and record in our house which we wouldn’t really have the opportunity to afford downtown so its affected us in the sense that there is a lot of great bands here so it challenges us to get better. And everyone is kind of fighting for the top 2 spots so I think you end up with a little bit of help in the competition because it makes everyone else better. Either wise I don’t write songs about the city, I don’t feel like id be writing songs if I was in Kelowna BC my songs have usually been emotionally driven rather that location driven.”
Jacob: Speaking of BC and Toronto, how has touring affected you as a musician? What can you learn from touring about yourself, the band, and the business as a whole?
Peter: “I started late. I was 30, and I just really started last march and it was interesting because my personality is that I’m pretty introverted. I don’t like to drink, I don’t like to party, and I’m not crazy about staying up late. When we started, we were kind of an all-ages band ten years ago, and the shows were always finished by 11p.m. which was great. Nowadays if you get home before 4 a.m. you’re lucky. I work at like three different bars doing sound in Toronto so it was interesting. It was like do I really want to do this? I really like playing music like that’s my favorite thing in the whole world, there’s not a second that goes by everyday where I don’t think about it. But the act of waiting and driving and waiting and driving and waiting and driving is crazy! You can bring million books with you but you’re always bored senseless so that was interesting. Touring has also made me appreciate Canada more. We visited the US and I always had this dream ever since I was a kid of living in the states and paying music there instead of being in Canada. Then when we got there it was weird to see some of these Midwest Michigan places and see kind of how bad things are getting there in terms of the economy and the way people have to live. It made me really appreciate Canada quite a bit. Just to be able to have that experience is something that if I wasn’t in a band I probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to drive across America and see that type of stuff it made me kind of gain perspective.”
Jacob: Is there anything special about playing in Saint John, or anything memorable about your last time performing here?
Peter: “We played at Peppers Pub with Wildlife two years ago. It’s beautiful there. I left the venue and kept walking up those hills, it kind of felt like I was stuck in the past but in a good way. I love the east coast. It’s beautiful, definitely my favorite part about being in a band is seeing these cities. I wish we had more time in each of them. I love architecture, but I love the ocean especially! Every time there’s a body of water where we play it’s kind of the first thing everybody wants to do, whether it’s a lake, river or an ocean.”
Jacob: Where do you see yourself and the band five years from now? What are your goals and what are you going to do to get there?
Peter: “I honestly don’t know. Obviously I want to keep on playing music. If not rock and roll and I’ve been thinking more and more of that on a daily basis. I’ve been thinking more of the environment and the future, more than I’ve been thinking about music in the future lately. Something I’ve been talking about a lot is taking a little bit of time off from the band and doing something that is beneficial, and more helpful to the greater good than writing songs. I’ll always be writing songs though, I’m just not sure if it will be with this band or another band. I’ve been with a lot of bands over the years and I’ve been doing it at the same level for all these years. I’ve been doing it at the same gusto as when I was 16, so I’m sure ill be doing the same when I’m 40.”
After speaking with Peter, it was clear to see that there are no smoke and mirrors when it comes to the Teenage Kicks, just as he’d said during the interview.
Van Helvoort has an incredibly unique sense of self, and his introspectiveness is not just reserved for his music. Peter prefers not to party and is someone who does not compromise his art form. With a world-class work ethic, Peter is a role model for musicians and non-musicians alike.
If you were unable to see the Teenage Kicks in concert at the Pub Down Under, or are interested in their music, be sure to look them up on facebook and tumblr, as well as on their website teenagekicksteenagekicks.bandcamp.com.