Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Return of the Subhumans: 'More bombastic' than ever

Subhumans front man Brian (Wimpy) Goble finds a lifetime performing at punk gigs good training for a job as a mental-health worker. Simon Hayter photograph for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 1, 2010


You start a band in Vancouver back in the day.

You debut in front of an anti-Canada Day concert organized by anarchists.

The punk thing is so new that some in the audience still wear flared jeans and are as hirsute as a ZZ Top tribute band. Not you though. You wear torn clothes and a buzz cut.

You give yourselves noms de punk — Wimpy and Dimwit and Useless.

You find yourself pogoing shirtless before maelstroms of sweaty kids.

You hunch and lurch about stage, a howling front man whose lyrics are most easily discernible when the chorus includes the shouting of a common expletive.

You release records whose staccato rhythms mimic a firing squad of AK47s, your buzz-bomb sound best captured by a skid-row graffito reading, “Apocalypso Now!”

Of course it all comes to a screeching halt and the Subhumans split up.

The drummer dies.

The bassist gets caught up in a series of acts of sabotage, each more violent than the last. He gets sentenced to 10 years in jail, gets out in five.

A British anarcho-punk band settles on the same killer band name.

Some others claim to own your recordings, so that somehow you no longer have the rights to your original album, which has long been heralded as a classic of the genre. A court battle looms.

So, what do you do?

“Cheaper to go back into the studio,” said Brian Goble (aka Wimpy, Sunny Boy Roy). “Re-record everything again. Get it right. For me it was a blessing in disguise because I was now able to get these songs out now without musical parts that make me wince.”

The band reformed — Mike (Normal) Graham on guitar, Gerry (Useless) Hannah on bass, Jon Card replacing the late, lamented Ken (Dimwit) Montgomery on drums. They gathered at Hive Studios in Vancouver and, 30 years after making the original recordings, redid such catchy ditties as “Death to the Sickoids,” “Slave to My Dick,” and “Let’s Go Down to Hollywood (and Shoot People).”

Since the original album, released on an independent Vancouver label in 1980, was titled, “Incorrect Thoughts,” this one is called “Same Thoughts, Different Day.”

Punks getting together in middle age to recreate the sounds of their youth has the potential for farce. Happily, the release on San Francisco label Alternative Tentacles is getting favourable reviews. It is “an anthemic, provocative and inspiring update,” according to CHARTattack, the online music magazine.

“Bigger. More bombastic. More powerful. To me it sounds like we wanted it to sound. It really shreds,” Mr. Goble said.

Now, the Subhumans are heading to Ontario and Quebec later this month for a series of club shows. Three years ago, the band drove across this vast land in a van with a U-Haul trailer, spending much of the time nursing a viral ailment. “Just about killed us,” Mr. Goble said. This time, they’re flying, though the punk do-it-yourself ethic still involves coach surfing on dates when a motel is unavailable.

While the Subhumans institute a scorched-earth policy in Eastern Canada, fellow punk peers D.O.A. will be laying waste to vast swaths of Alberta. (Such is the DNA of the West Coast contemporaries that Messrs. Card and Goble both spent time in D.O.A.) The tours follow the well-received release of “Bloodied but Unbowed,” Susanne Tabata’s feature-length documentary on the Vancouver punk and new wave scene.

“I can feel my age for sure,” said the 53-year-old frontman. “But I can still put out a fair amount of energy” on stage.

When not making music, he can be found working as a building manager and mental-health worker at the Roosevelt Hotel in the downtown eastside.

“Keep the place from erupting into anarchy and chaos, y’know,” he said.

“I think touring on a shoestring budget in that kind of environment has given me experience in dealing with crisis situations. With D.O.A., we were the band and we were the bouncers at a lot of our shows. I’ve dealt with a lot of craziness, so it doesn’t surprise me when more craziness rears its ugly head. I have a good idea how to deal with that stuff.”

The class clown in the band is Mr. Hannah, who, after the Subhumans originally broke up, became involved with a group of left-wing activists who adopted an urban guerrilla philosophy. They called themselves Direct Action, though, after a dramatic arrest on a highway north of Vancouver, the media dubbed them the Squamish Five. Mr. Hannah was convicted of conspiring to rob an armoured car. He spent many years after his release working as a snowplow operator. He still writes memorable songs.

“He’s doing what we’re all doing — working hard, paying off the mortgage, planning for retirement, I guess,” Mr. Goble said.

He’s looking forward to hitting the road again at a time in his life when he plays for fun, not fortune.

“We’re not trying to become the next Justin Bieber anymore. There’s no pressure.

“You never know, maybe someday Justin Bieber will cover a Subhumans song.”

Call us weirdos, call us crazies, but it might be more entertaining to have the Subhumans perform one of his hits.

Lock up your beer fridge, here come the Subhumans: (from left) Jon Card, Mike Graham, Gerry Hannah and Brian Goble.