The way Craig Hamlin tells it, the story of how Tongan Death Grip hooked up with Germany's P Trash Records isn't particularly dramatic. It doesn't exactly fit any of those band-makes-good cliches. It's not an underdog story, or a fairytale come true.
It is notable, however, in that it's a nice old-fashioned happy music story, in which a local band catches the attention of a high-profile foreign garage label---not by schmoozing or wheedling or bribery, but simply by virtue of being really fucking good.
It began about a year ago, when Gerry Hubley---owner of House Party Records, the label that put out Tongan's insanely good self-titled seven-inch in 2009---began trading songs back and forth with Pete Eichhorn, owner of P Trash Records. The imprint has released records by the legendary Jay Reatard, Mark Sultan's band Mind Controls and Refused frontman Dennis Lyxzén's newest band AC4, among others.
"I sent Pete one Tongan song, and he wrote back, 'Oh shit, can you send me the whole seven-inch?" says Hubley. "He heard it and wanted 100 copies right away."
One hundred copies turned into Hubley nudging Eichhorn to release a Tongan full-length, a sensible next step.
"P Trash is basically a label with this built-in fanbase---people will know the band once the record comes out, and there's an audience of people that will buy the record," Hubley says. "I emailed Pete about a full-length and he was super stoked. So I messaged the band and told them, 'This super-prolific label in Europe wants to put your record out.'"
It was exciting news. The band---Hamlin, Shane Kerr and Mike Belyea--- were equally stoked and quickly got to work, deciding that the record's A-side would be new songs and the B-side would be older material written back when the seven-inch was released. Because Belyea, a Haligonians who now lives in Montreal, is in particularly high demand as a touring drummer---he spends a lot of time on the road with Snailhouse and Jenn Grant ---Hamlin buckled down and churned the LP's new songs out at lightning speed. (Currently, Myles Deck is assuming Belyea's duties on drums.)
"Mike could only come two days before we recorded," he says. "And the label wanted to put things together in a hurry. So I wrote side A in the two weeks before we recorded it. It was kinda nerve-wracking. But P Trash seemed to like the final product--- which is better than them saying 'I don't want to put this out, because these songs are terrible.'"
It's pretty endearing that someone in Tongan Death Grip would be worried about these kinds of things---the thing is, they're really good. They fit. They make sense. And people like them.
The band first came into existence about three years ago. Hamlin had started playing guitar in the Whiskey Kisses and came across a vintage Fender Pro reverb amp from 1979. He loved the way it sounded. "Raw but clean," he says. "I realized I didn't want distortion pedals. I just wanted to turn that amp up really loud."
He started writing songs to fit the punchy sound of the amp. The band started playing shows, but Hamlin says they were on the verge of breaking up due to busy schedules until Hubley offered to release their first single.
"That kept us going for a bit," he says.
Response was good: The first pressing sold out, and in a piece for The Coast, writer Mark Black deemed it one of the top 10 Halifax singles of all time. Now, P Trash is releasing the full-length, and although Hamlin is playing it cool---"I try not to be too excited"---there are three TDG shows on the horizon, starting with the album release Monday June 6 at Reflections, and the buzz is palpable.
Upon hearing Hamlin's observations and listening to a handful of songs, it seems that the LP---titled Chula Vista, and recorded by Hamlin's Nerd Army bandmate James O'Toole---represents a step up in songwriting. The album's title means "beautiful view" in Spanish, and it's also the name of a town in San Diego that's home to one of Hamlin's favourite punk bands, The Powerchords.
"I've always been blown away by their songwriting," he says. "I can't believe more people weren't obsessed with them. Their full-length doesn't fit one mould. It's not a hideously disjointed record or anything---it sounds like different degrees of classic punk, but no song really sounds the same."
Chula Vista also shows traces of these variations in a few different ways. One is the way the album was recorded---side A is intended to be the clean side, while side B is "dirtier than hell," says Hamlin. There are a lot more harmonies this time too, making the songs soar with that extra little bit of sweet levity. Also, the solos will sneak up on you, as evidenced on "57 Street," which zips along with typical TDG verve until it hits the breakdown and closes with a gleefully twangy lick.
"There's big epic guitar solos, giant Guns n' Roses solos, and crazy Buck Owens-type solos that are totally inappropriate in the scheme of punk music," says Hamlin. "Maybe I'm overcompensating for something."
It's a testament to the band's energy that even with this little extra bit of noodling, the songs are still fun as hell---so easy to sing and romp to. Hamlin asserts that the band's live show---tight, even explosive, but with room for the occasional moment of goofery---has not changed. "I want to be in a band where I still have harmonies on the albums but we also have the freedom to fall offstage," he says.
In the hands of P Trash, this album seems poised for good things; when Hamlin speaks of the possibilities, he's half-sincere, half-joking, in the way of someone who has seen a lot and has realistic expectations.
Hubley is more frank. "These guys super-fucking deserve it," he says. "I love their band. I hope this does a lot for them. Everyone who likes garage power-pop shit should hear this band, because they're pretty fucking perfect for what they do."
Alison Lang's favourite guitar solo is in the song "Black Cat" by Janet Jackson. Whatever, it's fuckin' sweet.
Tongan Death Grip LP release, Monday, June 6 at $Rockin4Dollar$, 10:30pm, Reflections Cabaret, 5184 Sackville Street, $3
Saturday, June 18, 3836 Kencrest Avenue w/ The Virals and Make No Gains, all-ages, 7pm, $5
Saturday, June 18, Gus’ Pub, 2605 Agricola Street w/Napalm Raid, Weekend Dads 10pm, $5/$3 if you went to the Kencrest show
posted by JONATHAN BRIGGINS, Oct 27/16
Halifax metal gods release their second EP this Halloween weekend. comments 0
posted by STEPHANIE JOHNS, JONATHAN BRIGGINS, MORGAN MULLIN, LAURA KENINS AND TARA THORNE, Oct 20/16
Read our entire feature here. comments 0
posted by MICHELLE CAMERON, Oct 20/16
Amelia Merhar mixes eroticism with academia on her Academically Stacked tour. comments 0
posted by TARA THORNE, Oct 20/16
Georgas returns to Halifax to perform from her latest, For Evelyn. comments 0
posted by JONATHAN BRIGGINS, Oct 20/16
Caesar locks down the Toronto sound with a multi-genre smoothness. comments 0
posted by JONATHAN BRIGGINS, Oct 20/16
The Toronto producer provides just the right amount of positive vibes. comments 0