Throwback Thursday: Growing Up Punk in Ottawa
By Matthew Gilmour
As an overly polite, 13-year-old, third-culture kid who had just spent his puberty in Singapore, I knew nothing about punk. I returned to Canada to spend my Grade 8 year at an urban priority school, where the teaching was poor and half the students were too. All of us lacked discipline, we had a lacklustre attitude and a grating sense of humour to prove it. I remember boarding the school bus with matching red shoes and a red baseball cap, oversized pants, a diminished disposition, and good manners that did not fit my image. Those good manners would serve me well later in some circumstances but certainly not on the vicious playground of this school, where “no fucks were given” and the middle finger was given regularly. Nevertheless, I blended in and immersed myself quickly. That year, I gained an enormous cultural competency, namely because I learned about three things: The Simpsons, slang, and punk rock.
I made a lot of friends that year but one such friend was particularly unique. Jimmy and I played hockey together and attended the same Christian youth group. We were, however, both interested in something more subversive–playing loud music for other people. We both had the same guitar teacher, who taught us jazz theory and modality before he taught us “Yankee Doodle.”
We had terrible equipment but Jimmy had an adventuresome and entrepreneurial spirit. He also had something that was just as valuable: an older friend in a local punk band called The Cobras. Later that year, we performed our first set with them at a show we had organized ourselves, for an audience of seven, in the basement of our local church. The Cobras all had leather jackets with dyed jet black hair, and had snuck in whisky in McDonalds cups. Performing for them without any approval from our families made us feel grown up, important, and like a bunch of badasses. We were clearly anything but.
However, playing our own punk compositions and being part of something was exhilarating as all hell and we were proud of it. Later in life, we would learn that being part of something meant belonging to a community.
At age 14, we would eventually record a single with a member of The Riptides. We had it released on a compilation, alongside other regional and local punk rock heroes. We then recorded a split CD with one of our favourite bands, Take One For The Team and sold out our CD release show with them at SAW Gallery. SAW frequently had all-ages shows where we could play with touring out-of-town favourites or local ringers that were looking to have fun and garner an audience. Things moved quickly for us, and we learned that there was an entire community of underaged kids just like us, who had all formed bands like ours, and who performed at SAW Gallery on a regular basis, exactly like we did. Those kids are still friends of ours today. Many of those friends are part of our local creative community. Some of them have pursued careers in photography, film, fashion, food & wine, and other facets of our local industry. It’s also safe to say that when I frequent amazing restaurants or bars in this city, I almost always run into friends working there that I know from that period in my life. In those instances, we can quote our favourite songs and sometimes each others’ songs verbatim. This is partly because we know each other well but mainly because we learned how to belong, how to be strong, and how to be supportive of each other.
I switched schools again the following year. This time to a gifted school that was more inclusive and pluralistic. It was also the kind of place where someone in Grade 9 would have a repertoire of Edgar Allan Poe jokes, so you can imagine how cultured some of those kids were.
To go with a new learning environment, we found new opportunities to play independently organized shows. The range of venues where a young person could perform expanded and diversified, along with our friends and social interests. I began performing or attending shows and concerts at neighbourhood community centres, Babylon Nightclub, and Bumpers (now The Works in The Glebe). My friends Martin and Adam introduced me to subculture, and I began to consume culture from local and independent sources. At the age of 16, the lens of punk introduced me to the concepts of activism and advocacy, media literacy, independent media, civic justice, animal rights, sustainability, and sober, straight-edge culture. As my understanding of the world became more complex, so too did the music I created.
Buried Inside at Club Saw in Ottawa – December 17th, 2004. Photo: Junked Camera
We began to play music influenced by artists that were much older than us. We adopted the tastes and turbulent behaviour of others for the same reason that we had started playing music in the first place. Being creative was incredibly fulfilling. Punk was awfully exhilarating. It felt important–that we belonged to a culture that was bigger than us. The grandeur of performing for local heroes, and having local heroes become peers was humbling and gratifying. We respected each others’ art, and by nature respected each other. I began performing at house parties with university students and full-blown adults, and shared both smiles and the stage with local acts like Buried Inside (affiliated with Invisible Cinema), Robot Kill City (Male Nurse), and Van Johnson (members of Big Dick).
Matt Gilmour slaying it as the guitarist of We The Accused at Club Saw in Ottawa – December 17th, 2004. Photo: Junked Camera
It was also around this time that I met my best friend Alex Maltby, who arrived at my high school from Belleville in Grade 11. I invited him to sit with my group of friends on his first day. He had been playing music in Belleville for quite some time, and from my understanding, was already a staple in the all-ages music community there. Upon arriving in Ottawa, he began collaborating with friends to form acts like This Soft Light, Coast, and Fire Heats Water. He recorded my math-hardcore band We, the Accused and played bass in my math-rock band The Curviture. Members of Coast and Fire Heats Water also played in HAMILTON. Through some act of unintentional interconnectedness, we all became bound together, and cooperatively and collaboratively brought each others’ vision to fruition. We actualized each others’ art. We contributed to our community.
Without an inkling of doubt, the music community and punk subculture have had a huge influence on my life. They have given me rare life experiences, changed my consumptive patterns, fostered my creative interests, effectively been a determinant in my identity, and allowed me to connect with many more people and ideas than I would have normally. For those reasons, I am deeply grateful and indebted to my friends, many of whom I still see and smile with today.
I am also even more grateful to the people who saw passion, potential, or part of themselves in my art. It is through their voices, all singing in unison, that I found my own.