Tough Age strip to their rhythmic skeletons on new album ‘Shame’

Interview with newest Tough Age member Jesse Locke

Photo by Colin Medley

Last Friday, October 20th, Tough Age released their new album Shame on Mint Records. Although Shame is their third album, it’s their first full-length featuring drummer Jesse Locke alongside founding members Jarrett Samson and Penny Clark.

Locke is the latest addition to the band, but he largely got to know Samson and Clark when his former group The Ketamines played a handful of Western Canadian dates with Tough Age in the summer of 2013. Late the following year, Samson and Clark moved to Toronto, and after trying to operate two versions of the band – one from their former home of Vancouver and one in Toronto – they downsized to a trio with Locke as a permanent member. 

Even before recording Shame, Locke had toured as part of Tough Age. Over the course of shows all over Canada and as far as Tokyo, the trio developed not only the songs that became Shame but a “really good rapport” too. “Interpersonally, we get along incredibly well, almost like the drama-free band,” Locke says. “We’ve spent literally hundreds of hours together, in a car, on the stage, in the jam-space.”

Samson and Clark founded Tough Age in 2012, and she and Locke have played together in several bands including the soon-to-be-defunct Century Palm. So as for challenges, Locke says, “If anything, it was just getting used to having one less instrument.” That and Penny primarily switching from guitar to bass.

Perhaps most significantly though, Clark has been writing songs in Tough Age and leading vocals on several of the band’s tracks: “Ghost” and “Me in Glue” on Shame and “Guess Not” and “Not That Bad” on a seven-inch EP they released earlier this year. She also sang in The Drearies of whom Locke and Samson were huge fans. “We’ve been really trying to integrate that into the band…. I love Penny’s songs. Me and Jarrett just want her to write more and more, and a lot of people are responding to the songs in the same way.”

Characteristic of Tough Age, Shame’s songs feature a lot of thrust. But they’re not as grown over in fuzz, and there’s not as much happening simultaneously all the time; all the musical parts, through whatever distortion, often collide in surges. On “Unclean” for example, Samson lets his chords ring out while Locke and Clark keep the song cruising, but then Samson jumps back in with more frantic bursts of guitar. Surging loud-quiet dynamics are things the band has been working on, “just really letting every instrument and every person’s contribution to the song speak for itself a little more rather than sort of the barrage wall of sound we’ve done in the past…” Accustomed to this “wall of sound” in many other bands Locke has been in, he says, “It’s pretty refreshing to me, actually, to strip it down like this.”

On Shame, Tough Age took particular inspiration from “bands that did a lot with a little” like the Minutemen, The Clean, and the Urinals. “It’s been kind of a process of… seeing how much we can do as a trio, realizing we don’t always need a fourth member or a second guitar… stripping songs down to their rhythmic skeleton and then just letting bass guitar and drums all really come to the forefront at the same time.”

Although Tough Age tried many new things on Shame, Locke leading vocals isn’t on the horizon. “Oh, god. I mean, I wish. I’m kind of a terrible singer. My range is somewhere in between like Devo and Lou Reed and David Byrne, just like the flattest of the flat. I have sang and played drums in shitty punk bands in the past, but no, I don’t think there are plans for Tough Age.” He laughs. “Who knows? I’m not counting anything off the table. But I’m just letting Jarrett take the lead.”

Something else that’s not on the horizon but he wouldn’t pass up: a cameo on a certain television series. Mint has long been a go-to source for Vancouver set decorators in need of music posters, so Tough Age have appeared in shows including The Walking Dead, Larry the Cable Guy, and most recently Riverdale. This was a special one for all three members who grew up reading Archie comics. “[T]o see your poster above Archie’s bed in this new, gritty Riverdale reboot was hilarious. We loved it. It’s like the funniest thing in the world. And then we all started watching the show sort of as a joke just because the poster was in it and then naturally all got hooked on the soap opera of the show, and it’s kinda gone beyond even being a guilty pleasure.” Even more special, the poster was custom made by the show’s request, basically a replica of Tough Age’s first album cover, unique to the Archie universe. 

Which other television character’s bedroom would Locke like the band to end up in? “If Twin Peaks ever comes back again, if there’s like a season four, and we get a special glimpse at Special Agent Dale Cooper’s quarters in the FBI, he could have a Tough Age poster in there. That’d be pretty cool.” Although he’s not sure Samson or Clark like Twin Peaks, he’s a big fan, “so I would push for us to play the Roadhouse if it ever came up.”

Along with a new album, Tough Age also launched their own label VF/FN (Very Fine Fine) last August. So far, they’ve only released one LP, by Victoria post-punks Fountain. “Fountain has been one of our favourite bands for the last few years…. And we always wanted to put out their two tapes on an LP. We just wanted that release to exist, for us to own it, and for people to be able to own that.” Locke and Samson are also cassette enthusiasts (they run a tape label called Planet of the Tapes), but, Locke maintains, “an LP is one step up. It’s the format that music that amazing deserves to be in.”

VF/FN won’t pump out music though. “We don’t really have plans for a second release at the moment, but I’m sure it’ll be something just like Fountain, like a band that we all love and just need to make it happen, need for it to exist in the world.” Furthermore, Tough Age don’t plan to drum up hype around their label’s releases. “We want to just put these records out and just spread the word on our own. We’re not gonna play the premiere game. We’re not gonna play the publicity game…. They’re smaller run releases…. You can just get them from us and then probably one record store in every city.” Given VF/FN’s streamlined operation, there’s no specific division of labour. “We’re all doing it all.”

Shame is available now at Mint Records, Bandcamp, and iTunes.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu