“The rock star dream is pretty much dead at this point,” PKEW PKEW PKEW bassist Emmett O’Reilly admits with a laugh. If there’s a word to describe the emerging Toronto punks, it’s open. Whether that’s on stage hammering out songs about being too broke to get drunk, or in a coffee shop interview speaking candidly on how they afford to pay rent, PKEW PKEW PKEW aren’t exactly keeping any secrets.
And why should they? The band has made a name for themselves off their blunt, honest, and often gut busting punk tunes about the ups and downs of your twenties. Their 2016 self titled record is an honest ode to nostalgia, youthfulness, and alcohol, that at 21 minutes long is as fast as it is fun (which is to say, very). “We just like to keep it light, I guess. We just wanted to write songs about having fun with your friends.”
It’s no secret that musicians don’t make what they used to. The notion of stardom in music – especially rock – is fleeting, left to the few artists with big enough marketing budgets or long enough careers to make waves with each new release. For everyone else, it’s sink or swim based on your live show, and the willingness of your music scene to embrace your sound.
“I guess none of us have ever really expected playing in a punk rock band to pay the bills,” O’Reilly tells me, speaking on the state of the industry. “But the reward of being in a punk rock band is being in a punk rock band. We’re all just so happy to be doing it.” The rest of the band, comprised of Mike Warne (vocals, guitar), Ryan McKinley (guitar, vocals), and Dave Laino (drums, vocals) are likely to tell you the same thing.
Fortunately, the only ones happier that PKEW PKEW PKEW exists than them are their fans in Toronto and abroad. In the six years since forming, the city has accepted the punk quartet with open arms, blemishes and all. With lyrics like “we don’t make much money / that should come as no surprise,” and “we’re all normal dudes / most the time we fight and we lose,” the boys put all their cards on the table, never trying to glamorize or fabricate a thing about themselves.
And it pays off: the beer soaked confessions spouted out in gang vocals hit home with the little guys and long shots in the crowd who are fed up with being screwed over. PKEW PKEW PKEW’s live show is an assembly of underdogs; not an escape from one’s problems, but a head-on collision with them, where every chorus doubles as a battle cry.
Not just for PKEW PKEW PKEW but for any band today, there’s a level of sacrifice required to go all in on music. In 2013, National Post reported that independent musicians in Canada make on average $7,228 a year from playing music, an amount far below that year’s minimum wage. The stats are a bit dated for today, but they work to show that if playing in a band has even been a labour of love, it’s now.
Despite what the tunes about kicking back and ordering pizza would have you believe, there’s rarely rest for the wicked if PKEW PKEW PKEW is to stay afloat. With the same openness found in their songs, Emmett isn’t afraid to admit that the guys work side jobs in the city to help pay for what touring can’t cover. These days they have it worked out with their employers so that they can leave for weeks at a time to tour without penalty, but things weren’t always that way. Hell, at the height of multitasking, Emmett would drive back home in the middle of the night after each show to be on time for his placement at teacher’s college:
“That was a weird time actually because I was doing my practicum, and we were doing this like tour of Ontario…so i’d have to wake up at six in the morning, go to school, teach these kids all day, and then like walk out the door of the school and like directly into the van and drive to the show somewhere. And then come back, get back at like three in the morning, wake up at six, and then do it again all week. It was the weirdest but it was fun.”
That was 2013. Three straight years of never turning down shows and touring Canada and the States found the band signing with Royal Mountain Records, the home of artists like Hollerado, Alvvays, and PKEW PKEW PKEW’s biggest fans, PUP. “We’ve known Stefan [Babcock of PUP] for a long time. He’s been a big champion of the band. Those guys have been so great to us,” Emmett says, with some embarrassment over Babcock’s very public adoration.
Times may have been rough, but the quartet’s dedication to the craft helped them find international praise in 2016, charting on several album of the year lists from writers at Uproxx and AV Club, and receiving coverage on sites like Alternative Press. Next week, after a sendoff show at Toronto’s Smiling Buddha on January 21st, PKEW PKEW PKEW sets off for the States to tour with ska legends Reel Big Fish and punk mainstays Anti-Flag. “We’ve been lucky enough to just be pretty much constantly playing and also meeting a lot of great people.”
Against all odds, PKEW PKEW PKEW continues to make it work by staying brutally honest in their art and accepting that maybe not every band can be living lux. But how about the future? What comes next for a band that prefers to look back at the glory days? “It’s hard to say,” Emmett pauses. “I think our plan has mostly just been to have no plan, and to do what comes naturally, I guess. I think we’re just going to keep writing these songs that we have fun playing together and yeah, I don’t know, maybe some different themes will come out. But we’ll see.”
In an industry as unpredictable as music, maybe not planning ahead is the best course of action. If the rock star dream is a busted van spinning off the road, PKEW PKEW PKEW is steering into the skid with honesty, self-deprecation, and a wicked sense of humour. “We definitely don’t make much money, we aren’t lying about that.” O’Reilly reiterates, with the same self-assured grin he’s been wearing our whole conversation. “But yeah, I mean, we work it out.”
The dream might be dead, but you can’t kill PKEW PKEW PKEW.