Pup and the Flatliners revisit Southern Ontario’s ska past

December 8, 2014

You had to be there—for a brief, five(ish)-year period in the mid-2000s, the Greater Toronto music scene was absolutely littered in pork pie hats.

It’s hard to imagine it today, but the ska scene—which, while rooted primarily in the Big Bop on Queen St. West—extended outside of Toronto to neighbouring Newmarket, Oshawa, and Richmond Hill, and was absolutely massive. Fruitful, too: It laid a lot of the groundwork for some bands we still know and love today. One such band is the Flatliners, who formed in high school back in 2002 but since evolved into some of punk rock’s most formidable songwriters.

The Flatliners, as ska remembers them

On Friday, they’ll share the stage with Pup, whose roots followed a surprisingly similar trajectory.

A young Steve Sladkowski sings for Fresh Produce. Nestor Chumak, Pup’s bassist, plays guitar behind him.

Prior to Pup they were Topanga, but long before that, Steve, Nestor and Zach were in a ska band called Fresh Produce. Stefan, Pup’s singer, was one of the many members in the once bustling ska troupe Stop, Drop and Skank.

And while both the Flatliners and the members of Pup represented different ends of the GTA ska scene, what brought them together more than ten years ago still stands true today.

“A scene is a scene,” explained Pup guitarist Steve Sladkowski. “Everyone was still there, drinking in the back alley at the Reverb, getting so drunk that they would have to call their parents because they were puking up vodka.”

That held true in Richmond Hill, too, where the Flatliners formed as 13 and 14 year olds.

“Our parents would drive us up to Newmarket, and then we’d party and drink 40s,” said singer Chris Cresswell. “Then our parents would pick us up afterwards. I think our parents always knew, but they never said anything.”

Now old enough to drink without the aide of their parents, though maybe just as irresponsibly, we asked Cresswell and Sladkowski to take us through some of the iconic bands they remember from the inimitable ska scene that feels so far gone.

Hebrew School Dropouts

“I just kind of fell into [ska]. We all did,” said Sladkowski. “But I remember having those gigs with the Hebrew School Dropouts.”

“You were like ‘Wow, shit,’ our band is opening for the Hebrew School Dropouts. It’s just funny where you end up meeting people,” he continues. “The drummer from Hebrew School Dropouts is Lewis Spring, he’s the drummer in the Little Black Dress now, I ended up studying guitar with his dad while I was in university. It’s funny how small that world is.”

Stop, Drop and Skank

“Weren’t some of those Pup guys in Stop, Drop in Skank?” asked Chris Cresswell. The answer: Yes. While Steve Sladkowski, Nestor Chumak and Zach Mykula all played in Fresh Produce, singer Stefan Babcock was definitely in Stop, Drop and Skank.

“They were the band getting a lot of the opening slots for the out of town ska bands,” said Sladkowski. “They were kind of the kings in a lot of ways. They opened for like Mustard Plug, maybe the [Planet] Smashers once.”

One Size Fits Most

“They had a great horn section. Great, great horn section,” Sladkowksi remembers. “That was the same thing I remember about Action League Now! A lot of great horn players came out of that world.”

He may remember their trumpets and trombones but we’ll never forget their bassist, who was originally their drummer, rocked shiny shirts, played a 5-string and sometimes ripped massive guitar solos just for the hell of it.

The Johnstones

“I can’t remember if they were a 416 or a suburban band, but they were kind of next level…,” Sladkowski says. To wit, they were some of Ajax’s finest—sorry, Sum 41.

“When you saw them, you were like ‘I can’t believe that there’s a band this good that plays around locally that’s kind of doing our thing.'”

The Heatskores

Cresswell says the Newmarket ska scene loomed large in his—and the Flatliners’—musical development. His favourite band from that scene? The Aurora-bred Heatskores, a four-piece, horns-free outfit who put ska, hardcore, and garage-rock in a blender. “Of the 905 scene, the Heatskores were always my favourite,” he says. “They just blew the fucking roof off whenever we saw them. We were so obsessed with those guys, they were playing crack rock steady kind of stuff, and they were kind of Dead Kennedys-ish, too.

“Their singer, Eddy [Earwig], would always seem to have blood on his face for some unknown reason. We saw this show where they played every song they’d ever written—so like, 100-plus songs—and their guitarist, Buddy Disease, got a crazy shock around song 99 or something. They weren’t necessarily doomed from the start, but they were always followed around by chaos.”

As an intro to the Newmarket scene, check “New Newmarket Blues” here.

Five Across the Eye

Cresswell also credits Richmond Hill’s Five Across the Eye—a ska-punk band who, like the Flatliners, had members at Alexander Mackenzie high school—as a huge inspiration. Though Five Across the Eye were a few years older than the Flatliners, Cresswell says they struck up an immediate kinship with the band. “I remember emailing Nathan [Kim, singer] once from their website, being like, ‘I wanna buy some shirts and some pins,'” says Cresswell. “And he was like, ‘I know you! You’re Andrew’s brother. I’ll just bring it to school tomorrow.’ I love that band so much, and still do—I have that stuff in my collection.”

In Cresswell’s words, Five Across the Eye and the Flatliners shared a similar love “gnarly, loud, sketchy ska-punk.” In other words, if you dug the Flats’ debut, Destroy to Create, you’d likely enjoy Five Across the Eye, too. “Those guys are still good friends, which is rad,” he adds. “They’re a tough one to describe, because all of their songs are kind of unique melding of ska-punk. It was perfect skateboarding music.”

The Makeshift Heroes

The Makeshift Heroes were less of a punk band, more of a ska band—and, in fact, the seven-piece band added jazz and reggae touches to the mix, too. Cresswell remembers the Makeshift Heroes’ top-notch musicianships. “Whenever we’d play with them, we’d be so bummed if we played after them,” he says, “because they were such great musicians.”

Its members are still involved in Toronto’s music scene, too—after the Makeshift Heroes, members went on to form indie act Dinosaur Bones. “I don’t know if they want me telling people they were in a ska band, but they were,” says Cresswell. “And they were so incredible live. they just played traditional ska—we were gnarly and loud, but their music was [about] beautiful horn arrangements.”

Suzy Jacuzzi and the Hot Tubs

The most astounding thing Cresswell remembers about Suzy Jacuzzi and the Hot Tubs? It wasn’t their wonderful band name (“it’s the most ska name without actually having the word ‘ska’ in their name,” he laughs). Rather, it was the similarities between their singer, Rob, and Operation Ivy wordsmith Jesse Michaels.

“In the Toronto scene we came up in—it would’ve been from around 2002 to 2006—they were the closest thing to Op Ivy,” says Cresswell. “It sounds like a big deal, but it’s true. It’s not like they were ripping off Op Ivy, but Rob’s vocal delivery was so similar to Jesse Michaels. Nick, who was in the band, still lives in Toronto, and he came on tour with the Flatliners a bunch. I don’t see them as much as I’d like to, but whenever I do, I’m reminded of those glory days.”

Suburban Underdog

When Cresswell was 11 or 12, he (along with Flats guitarist Scott Brigham) attended music camp—essentially, a band camp with electric guitars. There, they met a punk who opened their eyes: He listened to Falling Sickness and Dead Kennedys, and a few years later, started a Newmarket act called Suburban Underdog. “Jeff [of Suburban Underdog] was an eye-opening guy, and I don’t think he even realized the wisdom he’d drop on us,” he says. “He’s an incredibly inspirational guy, and one of the reasons we started a band.

“It was cool to see Jeff start a band with all these rad songs. Suburban Underdog were an interesting mix of ska-punk. It was like, Suicide Machines or Op Ivy or Falling Sickness, but there was a really heavy element to it—it wasn’t metal, but it was dark.”

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