June 11, 2010
Tobin Bawinkel is a tall man.
A very, very tall man.
While at first glance Tobin
and his bandmates (including two equally tall brothers and a couple of
burly looking Celts) look like a bunch of dudes you wouldn't want to mess
with, the members of Flatfoot 56 are in reality awesome guys both on and
off-stage. The South side Chicago-based Celtic punk outfit has been tearing
up stages since 2000 and recently released their third full-length LP Black
Thorn on Old Shoe Records
in the USA and Stomp Records
in Canada. The STOMP deal also set Flatfoot up with their first-ever
Canadian tour. I caught up with the band in the City of Champions, Edmonton,
Alberta, just days after their hometown Chicago
Blackhawks won pro hockey's greatest prize, the illustrious Stanley
Cup. I sat down with Tobin Bawinkel and Brandon Good in the parking
lot behind Edmonton's #1 punk/alternative club New
City Compound on a balmy June evening...
"Today was the three million person ticker tape parade in Chicago... our number one place to be right now would be at home, but the second good place to be is in Canada, where hockey is actually appreciated. And most people did like the Blackhawks over Phillie [Flyers]." When I relate that without a Canadian team in the finals, most of my co- workers were in fact cheering on the Hawks, mandolin player Brandon Good jumps in. "That's funny, we went to a show and mentioned the Blackhawks and got booed." Was that in Vancouver (BC?) "Yeah, that was in Vancouver. It was just BOOO. Awww come on."
Identical exits for the Vancouver Canucks hockey club at the hands of Flatfoot's beloved Blackhawks two years straight has been a bitter pill for the BC fans to swallow, but the better team won. Tobin can relate. "That's what we said last year against Detroit [Red Wings]. It's hard to lose to Detroit though, man, but this year we ended up taking it so!"
Vancouver offered a second surprise to Good & Bawinkel, however, one a bit darker than the hurt pride of passionate hockey fans. "We were blown away by Vancouver. We pulled into the worst street in Canada, we were told. We played on Hastings [Downtown Lower East Side]."
BRANDON: They said it was gonna be rough, and usually when we hear that... my backyard's worse than most 'rough' places.'
TOBIN: We're like, we're from Chicago, we know 'rough.' But this was legit.
Despite experiencing the dirty little secret Vancouver tried so desperately to hide from the world during the 2010 Olympic Games, the coast city was a pretty good experience for Flatfoot. "It was really cool, as well," Tobin told me. "We had some friends of ours, Billy Bones from an old Christian punk band from back in the day, the Blackjacks. They came out and hung with us. We all grew up listening to his band so hanging out was really cool." Brandon had a different favorite experience in the first half of the jaunt north of the border. "You know what, Cortez Island was a blast. It's tiny and everybody is awesome. It's an entire community of people coming out and having fun, it's not just younger kids. There was like a 90 year old guy there..."
TOBIN: He looked like Moses.
BRANDON: He had a big old white beard and he's dancing around, just having a blast. That's really rewarding. We got to and have fun with an entire community of people and watch them all have a blast. That was really awesome.
Speaking of awesome, I had to ask Brandon, the maniacal big guy with seemingly limitless amounts of on-stage energy: WHY ARE YOU SO AWESOME? "You know it's funny, I've always been a bit spry. Before [the Project 86 tour in spring 2010] I actually lost about 60 pounds. I was even bigger before and still bouncing around like a complete fool but I just enjoy what I do. Give all the glory to God, He made me this way, he gave me the energy and bounciness. It's just fun. That's me doing what I was meant to do and having a blast doing it."
The band's newest LP, Black Thorn, is not only their first release since 2007's Jungle of the Midwest Sea, it may also be their most mature and focused effort to date. Just don't confuse 'maturity' with 'going soft.' Flatfoot have lost none of their edge; the album is chock full of charging, rowdy punk rock with Celtic sensibility, mandolin and bagpipes present and accounted for. Black Thorn marks the first real push the band has had in the Canadian market, and it's all thanks to their Stomp labelmates http://www.myspace.com/thebrains The Brains. Tobin explains: "We did two shows in February, one in Toronto [Ontario] and in Montreal [Quebec]. We met The Brains for the first time in Toronto. Our label was like, 'hey, The Brains do pretty good in Canada and we'd like to send you out with them. Give you kind of a foothold and get you a good vibe of what Canada is really like.' So this is our first 'get all the way across the country experience.' It's been cool." True to their roots, Flatfoot has worked hard every single day of the tour.
BRANDON: We had one day off because the venue we were supposed to be playing at had some difficulties. That was actually our first night off in three weeks.
TOBIN: We toured down to Texas before we came up here. So Texas to San Diego... San Diego all the way up to Vancouver, heading [east] towards Montreal and that'll be our last show [of the tour]
Flatfoot did get a chance to check out Edmonton's most famous landmark, however: the sprawling, Guinness-Record holding West Edmonton Mall. They even found their own CD there.
BRANDON: We just went into HMV today in the mall today, and they had like seven copies of the new record.
TOBIN: Stomp is a pretty good label. That mall is absurd... with the wave pool? It's awesome.
BRANDON: I wanted to swim with the sea lions.
Over the past year Flatfoot has undergone some line-up changes. "Our piper Josh [Robieson] had just got married in August and was finishing up his last semester for school after a two and a half year hiatus from touring full time. Kinda decided it would be kinda impossible to tour without his wife. That's an understandable thing, especially with as much touring as we're doing this year. So he decided it would be best for him to part ways with us. We totally agreed with him and love him to death. It's kind of a hard thing because we've been with him for nine years."
TOBIN: "When he left, we approached Eric [McMahon] and Brandon, who had been filling in for Josh on days when he couldn't play. These guys are both old friends of ours, Brandon... we played his garage back in the day, he's played in bands with us we've been playing on same bills with for years. Eric's an old roadie, we have an old old song called Johnny Rumble that's been written about him. So there's a lot of history that these guys bring with them they join the band. It was really nice to have 'em along. It's been cool, a lot of fun."
I had more questions about the new album, which Tobin and Brandon were more than happy to answer. They recorded the LP with... "Johnny Rieaux, he's been the bass player for a band called the Street Dogs in the States, also played with a band called the Bruisers and played bass for Mike Ness from Social Distortion. So he's a really good guy, we met him through touring with the Dogs about two years ago and he said hey I just want to throw it out there, your next record if you're looking for somebody to produce it I'd love to. We were like, man, let's do it, that'd be sweet. Obviously it really paid off, the dude has a punk rock rap sheet that's through the roof." Brandon disagrees. "He has a Musical rap sheet..." "He grew up touring with a lot of different bands, just kinda grew up in punk rock, and he's got a lot of recording experience as well."
Was it a challenging recording experience? "It was different. We've never done pre-production before. We did about a week of [pre- production]. You play the songs over and over and over again and put slight recordings to them. You basically pick and choose and listen to it and hem and haw over a lot of it, and the producer says try this different, try that, let's see what we can do with this. And it's tedious but it really hones that song into being something that can be more effective than our past stuff. it was challenging but with more travail comes a better piece of music." Do you feel you made the album you wanted to make? "Absolutely. Black Thorn comes out on the ten year anniversary of Flatfoot. It really taps into a lot of different aspects of hanging in there and really putting your head down and fighting through times that don't seem so successful, and times that don't seem so prosperous. But knowing that you've got a calling, and you gotta do something, and that you've been given a great platform and a great place to be is a real encouragement. The whole album really talks a lot about encouraging people to stick in there and remember the gifts you've been given and don't misuse them, but use them to the best and fullest. It's also a general recognition of people that have been important to us. There's a song called ‘Courage’ we just put a video out for. I think it gets put across really well, remembering people who've made an impact in our life."
TOBIN: We all kinda grew up in a neighborhood where there are old veterans, it's all working class South side Chicago. People that have worked their entire life in factories and basically worked two full time jobs just to support their family and be able to survive. The basic mission in our area is just to make enough money to get a nicer home, so your kids can go to a private school and not the public schools, and just make your life better and do it at any rate. So you work your butt off doing it. ['Courage'] is just kind of an ode to those people who are working class and just really in travail. A lot of people in our church at home are all like that. On top of it, the second World War vets all in the neighborhood who I grew up working for... The guys who have been kinda forgotten in a lot of ways. The only people who remember what they did are the guys at the VFW down the street. A lot of kids don't really pay any attention to them. We wanted to bring acknowledgment to those guys and give credit where credit is due.
BRANDON: The song makes me think a lot about my dad, who always worked crazy jobs. He's been a trucker forever. [Growing up] I saw him once a week, maybe. Just to make enough money to almost make ends meet. On the other hand, having my mom work as well. My grandpa owned a tree farm most of her life and most of mine and just seeing how he worked, breaking his back for a dime just to be sure that the family gets fed and has everything that they need. For me, I know 'Courage' helps me to continue going and helps me to continue to do things because of the example that I'm reminded of, the example of my folks and my family.
What are your favorite songs on the new album? Favorite songs to play live off of it?
TOBIN: My favorite song to play live in the new album... I would venture to say 'Smoke Blower.' I don't have to sing it, for one, so I can have more fun on stage.
BRANDON: My favorite one, we don't play it much live... it's called 'Hothead.' It's the last song on the new record. It's hard, fast and really... I can related to it a lot because I've gone through times in my life where I was the character being described in it. Just being real hot tempered and aggro for the sake of being aggro.
TOBIN: He's Scottish!
BRANDON: I'm German more...
TOBIN: German, Scottish, all the rough people.
BRANDON: If I had to pick, man, to play live right now... 'Hourglass' is really fun. It's got that really ethnic, really Egyptian like vibe. I feel like I should be hanging out in the desert. Really fun.
BRANDON: It's not there anymore, they shut it down.
TOBIN: Yeah, they shut it down. I think it was fifty-seven arrests a few years ago. A lot of underage drinking and stuff.
But being working class isn't all that makes the Flatfoot engine go. The other driving force behind the band is their faith. As Tobin explains, while all the band members are of the Christian faith, they aren't out to shove it in people's faces. "It's a conscious decision. My favorite quote, and it comes from the guy from the Violent Burning (I believe), is that 'the world doesn't need more Christian bands, it needs more Christians in bands.' The concept behind that is, I think there's a lot of things,in the States, haven't noticed it as much in Canada... Jesus isn't a political movement. He's not a musical style. He is somebody that calls people to stand up and claim being followers of Christ but it's not a genre of music to be sold. Our old label [the now-defunct Flicker Records] was owned by Sony Records. And Flicker was great, they were cool and stuff ,but it wasn't owned by Christians, it was owned by a major corp. When we signed to them they weren't, they were a small indie owned by Audio Adrenaline. Those dudes were awesome, their hearts were great. But the label is no longer there, it was ingested by Provident [Label Group]."
TOBIN: We play a lot in the punk scene and it's a scene that desperately needs to see Christians actually walk it. Not shun them, but actually walk it in front of them, to be an example. And honestly, I grew up in the church so I'm kinda like this person that... I love the body of Christ, it will always be my heart, will always be my family so I will defend the church, I will defend Christians to my dying day. I love the body. But at the same time we've done a lot of things that are really rough. I've found that a lot of the punk scene in the States, most of 'em come from church and most of 'em have been told what to do and not shown what to do and how to do it; not shown how to have a good relationship with Jesus and that's the most important part. And that's where we stand, we're a band that wants to be relevant to the listener that picks our CD up. I think by saying 'hey, we're a Christian punk band' it alienates probably about 70% of our fan base and the other 40%... um... 30%. WE HAVE 100% FAN BASE. I guess I'm just not interested in making soccer moms feel good, I'm more interested in having kids challenged by music.
BRANDON: What's that quote? 'Be a witness for Christ, with your words if you need to.' Being part of a band and being a Christian is not about cramming anything down anybody's throat. It's about loving people where they're at. Jesus didn't go out to people and hold them down and yell in their face until they converted.
TOBIN: That being said, I grew up watching bands that claimed to be Christian bands that completely didn't live it. That destroys my whole desire to ... we strive to live it and we don't throw it in people's faces, but that's what we are. They know that that's where we stand because anybody who would seek it out and look into lyrics would say 'there's something here.'
"Our new record was produced by a guy who's not a Christian at all. [Johnny Rieaux] has struggles with the church in general--beaten by nuns as a kid. So he's not too stoked by the whole Christianity thing. All he's really seen is being beaten by a bunch of old ladies that hate their lives, and that's not a good example of a Christian life. Not that all nuns are like that, okay? So he asked a lot of questions with the lyrics. He was like 'hey, what does this mean? I don't understand this.' And I like that, because I want you to be able to understand what we're talking about. I don't want to use Christian-ese. In a lot of ways I grew up in the punk scene in Chicago, but I was a Christian most of my life. Our rap sheet in Chicago goes real far back, going to shows and being part of the scene. We're not a bunch of guys that said 'hey let's go minister to the punk scene!' We're very much a part of it. But at the same time for us to be fake, for us to not wanna be open about who we are is not punk rock at all. Whether the punk scene likes it or not, we're not going to be fake."
The collective life experience of Flatfoot 56 and their stance regarding faith/music gives them a unique perspective on the culture clash. They're not worried about being associated with the church, even as they play more and more in the so-called 'general market.' "We do play churches. It's getting less and less, we're on all secular labels now. Their desires are for us to be out on tour with secular bands a lot. We did that tour with Project 86 [spring 2010] and that was our first Christian tour ... actually, we've toured with Christian bands but never ALL Christian bands. It was interesting. And even on that tour I think we only played two churches."
Tobin continues. "We're all over the place. I do realize that there's a lot of Christian kids that can't handle a lot of the environments that we play in most of the time and I do know that we have songs that will challenge [Christians] as well, so we play both sides. Actually there are a lot of secular punk bands that play churches too, because they throw shows. Or Christian owned venues... I've seen some of the most anti-Christian bands play Christian-owned venues. It's pretty funny."
So the question is, what is the response to Flatfoot like when they play these kinds punk clubs and go on tours in the punk/alternative scenes? "The ones in the past have been awesome. These crowds just wanna go crazy and honestly being a bunch of Christian guys, there's a lot of people [in the punk scene] that don't like us at all, because of where we stand on things. Because of that we have to make sure we’re just as capable as the next band, if not better, because we're up against a wall immediately. As soon as people see the show they’re just like... I can get down with this, okay, cool."
TOBIN: The people have responded to us very, very well. We've always been really blessed. The punk scene in general has always been really open to us. There's a lot of believers at the show tonight, which is really rad considering we're playing with psychobilly bands which are very zombie, horror movie-esque oriented. It's been cool to tour with these bands.
BRANDON: I love fast, ANGRY music.
TOBIN: That's why we gave him the smallest, tiniest, happiest sounding instrument possible. Challenge his pride and his aggro.
BRANDON: I still write aggro music with it! You can't keep it out!
Thanking Flatfoot for the generous donation of their time, I had to ask just one last question. I had to know. I needed to know.
Had Montreal's The Brains introduced Flatfoot 56 to the uniquely French-Canadian concoction of french fries, gravy and cheese curds known as poutine?
TOBIN: We got Poutine in Quebec in February and drove home and... Our van never smelled the same. I liked it. We're always about experiencing original food.
BRANDON: It's so heavy!
TOBIN: We're probably gonna do it again.
BRANDON: I don't know if I can do it again.
TOBIN: Well I will!
BRANDON: You can have mine.
Ryan Ro is a (very) part-time music journalist. He recently relocated to Edmonton, Alberta after a four and a half year stint on the west coast, and loves poutine. Read more of his writing at http://www.RNSrobot.com and at the Phantom Tollbooth.