Flexing Muscles with Tough Age
Scott Wood referees the fight between Tough Age lead singer's inner comic book nerd and his inner music nerd.
Vancouver’s newest kooky garage combo quartet formed from the ashes of other local scene favorites Apollo Ghosts and Korean Gut (among many other bands). Tough Age songs cover everything from typical indie humble-depression "I Waste Too Much Time on Myself" to falling in love with a fictional character "The Heart of Juliet Jones" to local music scene woes "Cocaine Voucher." I caught up with Jarrett from Tough Age just before the band left for SXSW.
Scott Wood: Tough Age was born like a phoenix from the ashes of your previous band Korean Gut. What's one tip to survive a band breakup?
Jarrett: Well, it wasn’t born like a phoenix so much as it dragged its limp body from the ashes and sat down to catch its breath. The most important thing is to take a moment to decide if you really want to play in bands anymore. I don't consider myself a geek of anything, really, because geek to me carries a shame and I am unashamedly a fan of both of those things. I don't think my love of music or comics is entirely separable or comparable. If you do, get on it right away or you’re going to lose momentum. If you don’t, go home and watch a lot of Netflix. Read a book. Don’t play in a band for a bit. Then, when the momentum is all gone, you can decide if it’s worth starting again.
Scott Wood: Jarrett, your day job is working at a comic book store. And you have written about your comic book geekery. Which are you more, a comic book geek or a music geek and why?
Jarrett: I don’t consider myself a geek of anything, really, because geek to me carries a shame and I am unashamedly a fan of both of those things. I don’t think my love of music or comics is entirely separable or comparable—my house is full of graphic novels and records. I think as far as a collector mentality records win out, but only because I never buy expensive back issues, yet have a gigantic 45 collection. It’s a close race though.
Scott Wood: If your inner comic book geek had to fight your inner music geek, who would win? (And how?)
Jarrett: I have to assume the comic book side has learned more about fighting, or at least as much as it needs to beat up a guy sitting cross-legged on the floor putting Sparks records into 5mil plastic sleeves. But the music guy knows more about not being a mental-case shut-in, so if it’s a battle of the wits we’re back at a standstill.
Scott Wood: Comic book movies are the dominant blockbuster genre these days. If you could do a song for a comic book movie soundtrack (real or imagined), which one would you choose and why?
Jarrett: I love film almost as much as comics and music, so putting all three together would be pretty ideal. My dream would be scoring a film adaptation of Paul Hornschemeier’s Mother, Come Home. That, or an animated version of It’s Science! With Dr. Radium (a 1980s comic book series from Slave Labour Graphics). If we’re talking superheroes, I’d appreciate a call when they finally make the Namor movie.
Scott Wood: Does someone need an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure lo-fi and garage-rawk bands to appreciate where Tough Age is coming from? Can you help readers better "appreciate" a Tough Age track?
Jarrett: Nope. Not at all. I don’t even think I’m coming from there. I certainly am not looking sideways at other current bands for inspiration, that can’t lead anywhere good as far as I’m concerned.
I think if you need an encyclopedia to enjoy any art, that art is probably bad. Art that requires a reference point is something I would personally avoid. I don’t even really know how garage-y our sound is, I just try to write pop songs and sometimes maybe post-punk apes and combine them together. I’m not interested in appealing to or playing the same type of music over and over—there’s nothing duller to me than a band that clearly only listens to the exact kind of music they’re making. I don’t approach any art from a place like this-- I just react in my gut. “oh, this is great” or “I hate this” or anywhere in between.
Giving someone a deeper appreciation? I don’t know that I could, really. What could be worse than the author of a piece explaining to you how it’s ‘good’? “No, but listen to this little harmony I wrote!! Isn’t it great?!” The thought chills me. That’s like having your parents tell you how groovy John Cougar Mellencamp is, and I don’t want to be anyone’s John Cougar Mellencamp.
Scott Wood: Sometimes it's hard to stand out in the sea of new neo-garage surf punk bands. What's one way to be successful making this type of music?
Jarrett: Don’t try so hard. And I don’t mean that in a BS ‘oh take it easy’ way. You should bust your ass playing shows, writing shows, recording etc., if you want to be in a band, but don’t try to be any kind of band. I guess the critical opinion is garage is having some sort of resurgence, but people call Thee Oh Sees garage and people call Wavves garage and could you really compare them? I guess you could, but I wouldn’t. For me, garage means 60s bands who were literally in their garages, and bands like The Mummies, Supercharger, Red Cross, The Gruesomes, stuff like that. It doesn’t mean Ty Segall, as much as I like him. No one can plan to stand out, and even if you think you do, you’re probably wrong. No exception granted to myself. Just… make what you want to make. Don’t worry about the rest of it. I only ever had a proper youth crush on two comic characters - Storm from the X-Men when she had a Mohawk, and Jubilee. Storm's cutoff vest probably defined a lot of my life choices. I don’t care if we stand out or fall back behind a curtain, and that’s not for me to decide. The only way to try to do this is by marketing yourself, cultivating a public image, and when you go that route you’ve compromised a lot already.
Scott Wood: Your track "The Heart of Juliet Jones" is about your crush on a comic book character. Can you talk about another comic book crush and why you love this character?
Jarrett: It’s sort of about that. It’s also just something I thought was a great name for a song. I have a long-dormant drone band with my friend Ellis called Star Tropics, and we put out one CD-R, I used some Drake art and we called it The Heart of Juliet Jones. I liked that name, it was very evocative for me, and when I made a 50s throwback song it seemed only fitting. I liked the idea of the two Jones sisters in that strip because they were the opposite sides of a coin—Juliet is demure and pretty typical of what you’d expect and Eve is a badass. The whole crush thing was just a little bit of myth-creating, that I’ve now destroyed.
I only ever had a proper youth crush on two comic characters—Storm from the X-Men when she had a Mohawk, and Jubilee. Storm’s cutoff vest probably defined a lot of my life choices. I just thought Jubilee was awesome; she was a shit-disturber and didn’t let anyone push her around. Wolverine treated her like an equal, so she had to be good, especially when she just shot fireworks out of her fingers.
Scott Wood: I just listened to your track "Cocaine Voucher." Can you explain this song? And what kind of voucher do I get for doing this interview with you? And why?I guess the critical opinion is garage is having some sort of resurgence, but people call Thee Oh Sees garage and people call Wavves garage and could you really compare them?
Jarrett: That song’s about the shittiest parts of playing music in Vancouver. Cocaine Vouchers was a slang term some friends and mine used for money you got paid at shows, because we’d watch our peers put it right up their nose. “Oh man, the show last night was packed, it was crazy” “Oh yeah? How many cocaine vouchers did you get?” That kind of thing. It was written at the height of my cynicism with the local scene, when I sort of thought everything was becoming just about image and drug consumption. Luckily, it recovered a little. A little.
As for this interview, you get a custom coupon book like a child might make for their dad on Father’s Day. “1 Free Car Wash,” “1 Washing the Dishes” and so on. However, much like any proper loving parent, I expect you to never even think about redeeming them.
Scott Wood: Local man-of-many-bands and label-mate Jay Arner produced your debut. Jay also put out his first solo record last year. What's your advice to anyone who decides it is time to take centre stage after being a supporting player for a long time?
Jarrett: Don’t view yourself as a supporting player. Don’t view yourself as centre stage. Don’t put more importance on one over the other. No one is more important than anyone else in a band—you have to be a team! For me, playing with other bands was just as fulfilling to me as fronting my band and playing my own songs. I just like playing music with my friends. If you view it as some step up, you’re doomed to one of several horrible fates-- it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure for band breakups. Believe me.
Scott Wood: Tough Age is heading out on tour this spring/summer. You've said about touring that "Touring makes you better. You’re out playing for people you don’t know. You don’t have the friend cushion. You’re playing for people who are only going to like you based off what you are doing. They don’t care that you had a bad day or how stressful work’s been. They just know what they hear, so you have to sink or swim." Can you talk about a great learning experience you've had on the road (that's made you better)?
Jarrett: We are—we’re touring down to SXSW, followed by an east coast tour in the summer and then an EU tour this fall with our friends in Fist City. Keep moving.
One of my biggest lessons came this summer in Ottawa. We played this amazing space Gabba Hey with great bands, and we were hanging out beforehand with a bunch of friends and all got pretty drunk and off our game. When we played, we were just greeted with 200 people not moving. Not just an absence of clapping, or cheering, but physically standing like a mannequin, arms crossed, silently watching. And I got rattled. I started getting really into my head and wondering why we were going over so badly, and then I was shaken and couldn’t recover. It turned out people really liked us and Ottawa is just colder than Vancouver (well, this is what people tell me but maybe they pitied us), but I learned that I can’t get drunk before playing-- it leads to me being sloppy. I have to keep it clear and not decide for myself how the audience felt about us, just keep playing. Hard lesson.
Scott Wood: Thanks for answering my questions! Can you introduce your favourite Tough Age video?
Jarrett: We only have one video so it is my default my favourite. Rob Feulner did it for us, that guy is amazing and i love it and here it is…
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