Peter Van Helvoort, lead singer of Toronto band Teenage Kicks, has had a rough week.
“Do you even feel like talking about the band right now?” I ask.
“I’m always happy to talk about the band, about what I love,” he replies. To be fair, he has had a few days to digest a pretty hefty blow.
During Canadian Music Week earlier this year, Teenage Kicks, who had just released their second EP Be On My Side, garnered attention for their energetic live shows and were hailed as a band to watch. Six months later, in mid-September, Van Helvoort posted this message on the band’s tumblr: “As of yesterday my brother and best friend Jeff [Van Helvoort, bass] decided he needs to leave our band. Today Patrick [Marchent, guitar] decided that he can also no longer continue in the band.”
The group was just days away from signing a record deal and had been getting love from both the blogosphere and music reviewers. So what happened?
“We got all these opportunities and every single one kind of turned into a lie, or faded, or people were just full of shit,” Van Helvoort tells me. “We started doing things to make other people happy and the band stopped being happy in the time in between.
“It got to the point where we realized you can’t ignore [the fact] that the music industry is full of these people.”
Van Helvoort’s harsh words are not reserved exclusively for the music industry. He also critiques himself with a remarkably brutal honesty.
“Jeff quit and I didn’t stop him because I understood why he quit,” he notes. “Sometimes I think it’s weakness that I stay in the band because it’s what I’m used to, it’s what I’m comfortable with and that’s why Jeff left. He’s been doing it for so long and wants to do something different.”
Teenage Kicks, although defined by a sound and mentality that are thoroughly informed by past decades of classic rock, is a band that takes full advantage of modern media. They are active bloggers on wordpress and tumblr, keep their Facebook page updated, and have started the “Teenage Kicks Singles” Club featuring exclusively online mp3 releases. Many bands use these digital platforms to present a carefully crafted image of themselves. But Van Helvoort is strikingly candid about both what he can do as a musician and where his limitations lie.
“I’m not a naturally talented musician or songwriter,” he admits. “It’s clearly something I had to work at and practice, practice, practice.” So Teenage Kicks added guitarist Christian Turner to the band last year.
“I didn’t want to feel like shit anymore because I couldn’t play a show and feel good,” Van Helvoort says. “He’s such a phenomenal guitar player that I think he takes the band to another level.”
It is exactly this mentality that makes Teenage Kicks more classic rock than indie cool: the attitude towards musicianship as a craft and the idea that every band member contributes whatever it is that they do best. It’s an old-school approach to music that harkens back to such names as Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. And as Van Helvoort tells me, his contribution to the band is song-writing.
“When I write a song there’s not a lot of questions,” he says. “It’s not an easy task, but I know how I work. I understand song-writing more than I understand anything else in life, it’s just the one thing I do the best.”
Apart from writing and singing (the latter of which he says he doesn’t care for, and would gladly allow another band member to take over if they sang better), Van Helvoort produced Be On My Side, the follow-up to last year’s Rational Anthems. Just like Rational Anthems, Be On My Side is full of well-tailored rock songs that are unapologetically stadium material.
But the band’s second EP sounds more polished, perhaps “too clean,” in Van Helvoort’s own words. With a lot of material to choose from, Teenage Kicks intentionally went with a more pop sound for Be On My Side, deciding to keep the rougher, darker, deeper pieces for the full length that should have been out by now.
Before the remaining three members of Teenage Kicks (Van Helvoort, Turner and drummer Cameron Brunt) can focus on finishing their debut album, they are going to have to find replacements for Jeff Van Helvoort and Marchant, who will play their last show with Teenage Kicks at Lee’s Palace on October 5.
“Finding people will be tough because we are five very close friends,” Van Helvoort says. “In the last six months we kind of got closer with all the bullshit we dealt with. We had band practice last night and it was the best band practice we had in a long time. We still practice three times a week, we still talk to each other, no one is mad at anyone.
“It’s very strange.”
Fortunately — and unusually for a rock band — Teenage Kicks shows no signs of being brought down by oversized egos. The band named itself after a song by The Undertones. Perhaps now that Teenage Kicks is once again going through a formative period, the remaining band members should once again look to their namesake for guidance; one of The Undertones’ songs is called “It’s Going to Happen.”