On Sunday, October 4th, I met with Colin Lichti, lead singer and writer for Toronto punk band Hostage Life, to discuss the songs off their most recent album, Centre of the Universe, (available for free download from juiceboxRecordingCo.) Though Lichti’s blog offers detailed essays and motivation for every lyric he writes, I was more interested in teasing out the connecting thread between songs, and having a few beers with a pretty down to earth and opinionated guy.
In a moment of hubris or, an often comically disappointing faith in technology, the iPhone I was recording the interview on crashed. This portion of the interview was meant to give interviewing background to a serious philosophical discussion about COTU‘s place in the vast halls of critical writing. But hey. As Lichti says in the opening statements of the essay for “Bonfires,” the first track on COTU, “One need only take a look at the monuments of staggering size that blot the globe, or between the pages of the millions of philosophical and literary tracts that we’ve written about ourselves, to get a sense of how truly great we think Homo Sapiens are.” And, truth be told, I just kind of assumed the phone would work without me worrying about it. What emerges from the remaining interview, presented sic with all the hums and haws, is the first twenty minutes of a discussion of drugs, religion and families, and how nothing can ever be taken as-is.
It’s the Cadillac Lounge, mid-afternoon. A band is setting up. Dave (D) speaks with a mid-tone voice, a slight lisp and talks with his hands. Colin (C) has a higher, raspier voice, leans in to hear what you have to say, and tilts his head back a lot.
D Let’s go song by song, so I have a bit of background, I read “Bonfires,” and I know “White Jesus” backwards. What about “Shake Baby Shake?”
C “Shake Baby Shake” is just: I do a lot of drugs, and I don’t think I’m a bad person for doing drugs.
C And Possessing them, even selling them—well, selling them shouldn’t be a crime, right off the bat—but drug prohibition creates an environment where the actual seller of said drugs lives a brutal and violent lifestyle quite often. I mean, of course as you go up the chain in drug potency that gets a little more intense—not a lot of weed dealers shoot each other in the head. But when you have guys doing small grow ops where they make 1.5 M dollars a year growing this weed I mean someone’s going to come in and take it, and they’re going to shoot that fucking guy. Drug prohibition creates crime, it doesn’t stop the crime, it creates it.
D You think, ah, taxable weed and that kinda thing, is a good idea?
C Absolutely! And I mean by no means do I think people should really be doing meth. It’s a fucking horrible drug that’s gonna destroy your brain. I’ve never done meth, I’ve done a lot of other drugs I shouldn’t have done; and that’s the other thing. Anti-drug propaganda is such bullshit! You know you’re told: the first time you smoke cocaine, or snort cocaine…
D (gravely) You could die.
C You’ll be addicted to it.
D That too, yeah.
C You’ll be addicted to it. And I’ve done it quite a bit, and I’m not anywhere near addicted to it. It made me hate it. It is a shitty drug. It sucks.
D Okay. So, what’s the “dozen years” line?
C That is an actual factual error. It’s the idea of going to jail for 12 years for possession. Which doesn’t really happen. Very, very rarely does that send you to jail. The point of view of that song is two junkies having their house raided.
C A lot of the… I read an interview with a guy from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health a year ago and he was talking about how the new Tory anti-drug laws, (and I can’t quote the actual bill, so forgive me), they’re talking about how they were trying to make it more geared towards treatment instead of punishment, but having mandatory sentences for dealers and for traffickers. And that sounds great. But the guy at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is saying that people don’t understand that in order to sustain their habit a lot of actual junkies are dealing. That’s how you make your money to do drugs: you end up couriering drugs for people or you end up selling them. That’s a common thing on the street level for drug addicts to actually be selling drugs as well. So there are mandatory sentences for them for their sin of selling drugs and their sin of doing drugs.
D And then trying to fix them as well.
C Yeah, there’s not a lot of sympathy or empathy there. Guys are, I mean, people will debate this ‘til the end of time, but I do think that chemical dependency on a drug is a disease. Many of these people are jailed because of their disease and they’re marginalized already because of the illegality of the actual thing they’ve fallen into, the lifestyle, the actual disease.
D Well I mean I need a coffee in the morning and what if it gets to that?
D It’s the same…
C Four weeks of not smoking, buddy and I’m ready to kill somebody.
C And that’s something that was specifically made—designed—for me to be addicted to. And that’s 100% legal.
C Ridiculous. So there’s the contradictions, the silliness of it. How street crime goes up when drug prohibition is in. Look at the ‘30’s! In Chicago! That’s proof enough that if you take away alcohol from people they’re going to start fucking shooting the fuck out of each other and trying to sell it.
C Yeah, so that’s what “Shake”’s about, “Shake” is the idea that drug prohibition will never ever ever work. The essay will explain that more, about how they found guys—mummified remains of guys—2700 year old remains. It happened last year actually, a guy had 2 pounds of marijuana in his sarcophagus or whatever. In his grave. It was a South American guy. They figured that that civilization of people used it for hemp or rope, and that’s the only reason this civilization grew marijuana. But the weed they found in this mummified tomb, or grave rather, was psychoactive. So it was weed to get you high. So people have been smoking pot for, that’s 5000 fucking years.
C And alcohol in ancient Egypt.
D Oh yeah.
C In the Andes mountains they’ve done tests on the remains of mummies and their hands and hair and found that they were totally taking halucinogens. And like frequently, not just like one time. Those guys were taking mushrooms and peyote and mescaline frequently. Quite often. I guess it’s the sheer arrogance of the idea that we can stop people from doing drugs. It’s ludicrous! Never. It’s been with us for as long as we’ve been writing.
D So is it with us permanently then, you think?
C Oh for sure. It’s not for good or bad, it’s just a thing we do.
D Is it in all of us, or just those people that are chemically dependent?
C I don’t know. I think we have a natural curiosity to get high. Getting high is fun. People love to drink, people love to smoke cigarettes. I don’t know. I’m not so concerned with the why, I just like the: “this seems to be how it’s going, buddy.” And the idea that, “well, we can stamp it out.” The self-righteous crusades and these laws so we could do more damage than good.
D Um, so what’s next. “Ratlines,” I think.
C That’s pretty simple. I read an article about how post-World War II, this guy named Bishop Hudal, he was from the Vatican underneath one of the guys that wanted to be a Pope. Pope Somebody. (laughs) My facts do not stick. Back to the drugs.
D It’s… A pope.
C Yeah, a pope. He helped Nazi war criminals escape. From the Nuremberg trials specifically. And it’s been [tip-toey high voice] preeetty much proven that… the Vatican knew about it. The Vatican as an entity or an institution wasn’t like: “Okay, lets help the Nazis escape,” but there were guys working within it… Bishop Draganovi….ck… I can’t even pronounce it. He was helping guys from the European fascist regimes during World War II, just, [tip-toey high voice again] helping Nazi war criminals escape. Helping them get out of it.
D But what are the ratlines. Is that the underground railroad term?
C That is what the term is. They escaped on ratlines. And these guys were like, you know, Klaus Barbie, the Butcher, Klaus Barbie. Mengela, who fucking injected little babies with fuckin’ blue food dye in their eyeballs. And I have, you know, heaps of problems with the…
D The Nazis.
C The Catholic church!
D Pardon me; I know that!
C And the Nazis, of course. [Laughing] Everybody’s got heaps of problems with the Nazis. I just thought it was an interesting story. I read about it as a footnote in a Christopher Hitchens book, he just mentioned it, “And of course the Vatican’s role in the Nazi ratlines,” and I was like, “What the fuck is a ratline?” So I read up on it, I read up on it on the “internet,” so…
D No it’s… they tested Wikipedia against the Encyclopedia Britannica and it was 90% accurate. That’s pretty good. I have nothing against the internet.
C Ha. I do and I don’t. Every now and then.
D I have nothing against the internet as a source of information.
C Okay, fair enough.
D I have a lot of problems with YouTube comments. I think the greatest proliferation of garbage is on YouTube right now. I think.
C Yes and no. I think it’s a bit of a wake-up. YouTube’s pretty good but I wasn’t aware that there were so many racists in the world. Like I had no idea dude. I mean people are racist. At work I can’t watch things with sound, so I just watch YouTube videos of guys fighting. I watch “Forty man Fight in the Park.” And it’s like some park in an inner city where all these African-American guys are beating the piss out of each other, right. First comment is like: [in a very stupid voice] “More like, fight at the zoo.” And then next comment’s like, [dumber sounding voice, slight lisp this time]: “Look at all those monkeys.” Right, then white guy, white guy, racist, racist, then the one black guy who comes in to refute them, his comment is: “Fuck y’all mothafuckers, you can’t fuck with Black people.” Oh geez.
D No ones really winnin’ anyone’s favour there.
C What were we talking about?
D It’s okay. This is fun. “Ratlines.”
C Yeah “Ratlines” is just written from the point of view of a Nazi escaping on a ratline.
D You’re very much about the, well not necessarily the favourable perspective in any of these things.
D You’re very much about writing the not-favourable-perspective in any of these things, like from the junkie’s point of view, or the Nazi’s point of view.
C Yeah, yeah, well the first song, “Bonfires,” is from the fundamentalist’s point of view. It’s interesting then, because with Marilyn’s Vitamins, everything was from my point of view. And then it was just like: “Racism’s bad. Gun control is necessary. Hey. Hey.”
D And that’s punk rock.
C Yeah, and that’s so boring. It’s so boring and self-righteous.
D Does anyone ever confuse you for a sympathizer or an asshole, someone from the other perspective?
C Nah, but people always get things fucked up. Everyone always thought that “Fuck I Hope You’re Not Pregnant” off Walking Papers was supposed to be a sad song, not actually about two people who realize they want to have a kid and can’t afford it. That’s supposed to be happy. And people always think that. Guys will come up to me and be like, [stupid voice], “Dude, I tried to talk my girlfriend into getting a fuckin’ abortion and shit,” and I’d say “I think you’re missing the point here.”
D What’s more the point, then?
C The point is that people are taking it from this jock standpoint like I’m in some quaking fear because my girlfriend is pregnant.
D And that I’ll have to support her and all that shit.
C Yeah, that is not the point. The point is that we as a couple can not support it.
D Can’t do it.
C Can’t do it, it’s just the sadness of our economic state.
D It’s an economic song.
C It’s a love song about economics!
C But a lot of people didn’t get that, they were like [stupid voice, southern accent mildly]: “Aw buddy, I feel that fear too.” And of course, everyone’s feeling that fear.
D It’s that you’re still with someone and that’s the shitty part.
C It’s a little, I would hope, little more layered than that. Not just [stupid voice] “Shit it sucks when your girlfriend’s pregnant!”
D “Nuclear” is more or a Walking Papers tune, in that its all about business…
C No, no, no. “Nuclear” is about my parent’s divorce, dude.
C Yeah, for sure.
D Alright, lay it on me. Because I’m listening to it, and I’m just… and even as you said that I can start to split it apart, but it sounds like a bit of a “Sons of Hostage Life” with the job dissatisfaction.
C Yeah, no I’m just using in all three verses business terms to explain or describe how everyone in that particular scenario feels about their family: It’s not something I wanna do, it’s something I hafta do. My parents stayed together because they had me and my brother, and they both wanted out.
D Stay together for the kids, yeah.
C They fuckin’ hate each other. I want out as well. Like “I want out of this fucking job,” but I’m born into it. I have to deal with you fucking people hating each other every fuckin’ day and fighting? And then also that that just plays into the myth of the nuclear family.
D Of course.
C And which also, in a very roundabout way leads into “Purple Hands” and the notion that, you know, heterosexuals don’t have to be the only people getting married. The definition of marriage can be redefined.
D We’ve redefined a lot of things.
D But not that. Absolutely not. That makes a lot of sense, because I’m waiting for this kind of job-anger-explosion like “going nuclear” when I’m listening to it but that makes way more sense now. Whats after that? “Ghosts [full song title: “Ghosts of the Upper Paleolithic”]
D I’ve listened to your record about seven or eight times by the way.
D Let’s get it out of the way, I love it. It’s punk without, you know, PUNK!
C He he he.
D It’s got the balls to do it quiet, and I like that. It’s very intense, and like Pat [Mathers, rhythm guitarist] explained, there’s no kickers, like “Hostage Life’s Legally Distinct Cola Commercial” or anything like that. There’s nothing that just melts ya face.
C Yeah we didn’t want to do anything like that, because that always felt gimmicky and silly when we did stuff like that.
D Well I mean they’re good tunes. “The Last Superman” is a great song.
C Yeah yeah, I just feel like “Pepsi Commercial” specifically always seemed really gimmicky and kinda silly to me. I mean, I liked it. I loved when we wrote it. It’s fun.
D And you love shouting to people.
C Yeah, but musically I don’t feel like that anymore.
D Because Walking Papers, even though I love it, it is very up and down. But you picked the sound I loved off of my favourite songs, like Cancer and Carbon Heart Radio, that’s the sound.
C A little less distortion.
D And it sounds, I mean, the fact that your vocals are equalized.
C Yeah it’s weird, I got some problems with the vocal equalization.
[There’s some dropping of the microphone here.]
D Sonically I didn’t know if “White Jesus” was like my… I mean, thematically for the record, which we’ll talk about later, I’m just giving you my personal feedback, because I sent [my review] to Pat and Shamus [Mathers, bassist], and they haven’t talked to me since, so I’m worried that I angered them. But I didn’t know if “White Jesus” fit in with “Bonfires,” right afterwards, but thematically it works wonderfully. And the more I listen to it, the more I’m getting used to it.
C We actually wondered if we were going to put “White Jesus” on it, as the second song. We debated it right before it went to master. One of the arguments was “I fucking took the time to redo the lyrics twice because we went in and did touch-ups after on the vocals twice.”
D So it better go on there?
C It should probably go on there. At the same time, it’s still 36 minutes with 12 songs so taking off one song would still make it like 34 minutes, which is good length for a long play.
D It’s good, that’s pretty standard for nowadays.
C It’s funny that you should say that because that was up in the air. I know [drummer Paul] Miller wanted to cut it, and me and Hai [Vu, lead guitarist] were like, nah, I don’t really want to. We invested it, we always thought of the album of having it on it. And it was always track two. It’s been track two for like the past year. We wrote “Bonfires” like three and a half years ago.
D [to server] Um…
C Food wise I’m not going to get anything. Probably more beer in a bit.
D Yeah well get some more beer in a bit. It’s a good album, I recommended it to a few friends.
C Thanks, buddy!
D It’s very subtle. I like that.
C Yeah we’re up and down with feedback so far. Some people say it’s lackin’ balls. Some people say its meh…
D You know what, it’s got the balls though, it just doesn’t have the loud. That’s the thing. You ever heard of a band called Consonant?
C No I haven’t.
D You know Mission of Burma?
D Clint Cowley, the Bassist / Singer of that band made like this outlet band for a bunch of his songs in 2002 called Consonant. And there’s only one record as far as I can tell, but I likened it to that. Because Mission of Burma, while they are a quieter band they do have a lot of toughness to their music, right? But Consonant is like this album with a steady volume, like a steady intensity from beginning to end. And on first listen you can’t discern song from song, but they’re great songs. And it doesn’t have the balls but it’s got this power to it. That was my first reaction to Centre of the Universe.
C Cheers man cheers.
Part two coming soon, to be featured in November’s issue of Darling Magazine, right around the same time Centre of the Universe vinyls are available for purchase. Again, download the album for free here and see what all this fuss is about.Tags: interview, music, non-fiction