In February 2001, within weeks of one another, I had my first encounters with two rock ‘n’ roll bands that would change the way we heard rock ‘n’ roll over the decade and beyond. The first was the Strokes, who I saw open a sold-out Guided By Voices show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom in a symbolic changing of the guard between the ’90s lo-fi pioneers and a new, more style-savvy generation of indie-rock kids. The second was a band I caught back home in Toronto, at a long-defunct second-floor club called Ted’s Wrecking Yard, where, on a sleepy Sunday night, I and maybe a hundred other unsuspecting souls got indoctrinated into the church of the Constantines.
Now, to some, it may seem absurd to put these two bands on the same pedestal. The Strokes were the kind of once-in-a-generation phenomenon that got plastered on music magazine covers all over the world (back when there were music magazine covers to plaster). They were the sort of band that not only transformed the way rock groups sounded for years to come, but also made people change the way they dress and cut their hair. They’ve sold millions of records, been canonized in oral histories, and now, with their first-ever Grammy win, have officially entered their elder-statesmen years. Even if you’ve never actually listened to the Strokes, you’re familiar with the world they created — they’re the reason why the guitarist in every pop star‘s backing band is wearing blazers and sneakers, and why boy bands started wearing skinny jeans and leather.
The Constantines, by contrast, were the anti-Strokes — clean-cut lads in standard-issue T-shirts and jeans, not a hit-songwriter-father or private-school education to their name. Where Julian Casablancas’ lack of stage banter projected an aloof rock-star cool, the Constantines just seemed shy and even a little uncomfortable at times. Their career stats are respectable, if hardly the stuff of Strokes-level legend: They put out a couple of records on Sub Pop, opened a cross-Canada tour for the Foo Fighters, earned a solid batting average of 80 on Metacritic, and got name-dropped on an episode of One Tree Hill (though, alas, it was hardly a watershed Seth Cohen/Death Cab pop-cultural event). The Cons were always a little too wired, too frazzled, and too self-effacing to ever fit in with the Strokes-led rock renaissance of the early 2000s; after releasing four albums, they quietly drifted into a semi-permanent hiatus at decade’s end.
But you could argue that the Constantines’ impact on indie rock has been no less profound. And if that seems like an overreach, then just ask Arcade Fire, or Japandroids, or the Hold Steady, or Feist, or PUP, or Metz, or the Gaslight Anthem, or the Dirty Nil — all of whom have testified to the Constantines’ life-changing powers. And the cult of the Cons has also infiltrated mainstream Canadian rock radio, thanks to chart-topping bands/mega-fans like City And Colour, Arkells, and July Talk. Because once those quiet, unassuming boys plugged in and let ‘er rip, they treated every show like a do-or-die mission to defibrillate the corpse of rock ‘n’ roll back to life — not to restore its fashionability, but to restoke its revolutionary potential and, as singer/guitarist Bry Webb liked to say at the time, “give voice to the voiceless.”
On first approach, the Constatines didn’t seem like harbingers of a new era so much as the hangover of an old one. Webb, fellow singer/guitarist Steven Lambke, bassist Dallas Wehrle, and drummer Doug MacGregor formed the group in 1999 in Guelph, a college town that’s sort of like the Olympia to Toronto’s Seattle, and a crucial node on the Southern Ontario DIY house-show circuit. Raised on a steady diet of Fugazi and Touch & Go, the early Constantines bore all the staccato shocks and angular intricacies of a ‘90s post-hardcore outfit, while Webb wielded a hoarse-throat howl that could make Blake Schwarzenbach wince in vicarious pain.
But by the time they started playing Toronto regularly, they were already evolving into something else. Partway through that Ted’s Wrecking Yard show, they dropped a reverentially low-key cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” — which, unlike today, was not something an indie-rock band would do for cool points back in 2001. Back then, the Boss was a rock-star relic, an earnest, eager-to-please showman who represented the complete antithesis of indie-rock’s kill-yr-idols ethos; in the era of Kid A and peak post-rock, the notion of a guitar-strapping savior seemed almost comically antiquated. And yet, the Cons made that unlikely cover choice seem perfectly logical, revealing that Webb’s sandpapered voice could convey tenderness as easily as tension.
These days, of course, Springsteen is regarded as an unimpeachable icon whose influence on indie rock looms as large as Joy Division or Sonic Youth. Artists like the War on Drugs, Angel Olsen, Titus Andronicus, U.S. Girls, Downtown Boys, and so many more have all keyed into the fact that the Boss’ working-class heroism has always aligned more closely with the ideals of punk than stadium rock (lest we forget his direct ties to the CBGB scene). And while the Constantines may not be solely responsible for this renewed conversation surrounding Springsteen’s legacy, they certainly were among the first in the chat. The band’s self-titled debut, released 20 years ago this weekend, captures the group in a thrilling game of tug-of-war, countering post-hardcore’s apocalyptic aggression with Springsteen’s survivalist poetry, their chain wallets balanced by a beaten-up ballcap in the ass-pocket. In a word: Brugazi.
Constantines was initially released in a small handmade run on Three Gut Records, an upstart label run by two women in Guelph — Lisa Moran and Tyler Clark Burke — to put out records by local home-recording hero Jim Guthrie and punk promoter Aaron Riches’ new Palace Brotheresque crew Royal City (whose ranks also included Guthrie and, for a brief spell, a pre-fame Feist). By 2001, the label had relocated to Toronto, and effectively brought the rest of the Guelph scene with them, becoming the locus of a cross-pollinating DIY community that also included Joel Gibb’s self-branded “gay folk church music” ensemble the Hidden Cameras (featuring Three Gut artist Gentleman Reg) and the embryonic, ambient iteration of Broken Social Scene. As a noisy rock outfit, the Constantines were a bit of the odd band out amid this coterie of delicate music makers, but the inclusive spirit and wounded sensitivity embedded in their songs made them a rallying point for this new Toronto wave.
As a small-town operation working in the shadow of Toronto’s major-label music-biz machinery, Three Gut had to get extra-crafty with their promotional strategies, by hosting wild alien-themed warehouse parties-cum-art installations and pinning mystery envelopes with show invites on clotheslines at strategic locations around the downtown core. The original packaging for Constantines — designed by Wehrle, the group’s resident visual artist — was emblematic of the label’s homespun yet boldly irreverent aesthetic. The album came in a red construction-paper case, with the band’s name stamped on a piece of cardboard that displayed through an open window on the front. (Sub Pop’s 2004 reissue of the record substitutes in a photo of a dismantled version, viewable above.) However, the obvious care that went into the design was undermined by the contents: The CD was housed in a paper sleeve cut with two tiny holes an inch apart, through which was threaded an actual quick-strike matchstick — a none-too-subtle suggestion that the most delicate packages can contain the most volatile contents.
On the album’s opener, “Arizona,” the band put that match to immediate use, by burning down what it refers to as “the great gospel jest called rock ‘n’ roll” and throwing its failed promises onto the fire. The song was inspired by the story of Danny Rapp, whose band Danny & The Juniors contributed “At The Hop” and “Rock And Roll Is Here to Stay” to the late-’50s jukebox canon. In 1983, with his hitmaking career long in the rearview, Rapp checked into a motel in Quartzsite, Arizona and shot himself in the head. After “Arizona” flares up, flames out, and rallies for one final offensive, the Cons shout: “We want the death of rock ‘n’ roll!” But really, it’s less an execution order than a tough-love intervention, calling out the institutions that treat music and its creators as commodities, leaving them to die broke, alone, and forgotten.
A few tracks later, on “Some Party,” the Cons are effectively plotting to overthrow the music industry from the inside. Recounting his actual experience crashing an EMI-hosted Juno Awards after-party, Webb vows, “Tonight we milk the stiffs/ Storm the Bastille, raid the throne/ Mock the swine who’ll rot in heaven/ Swinging on the velvet ropes.” But it’s a manifesto that comes appended with a punchline, as Webb acknowledges that he and his would-be insurrectionists are just “some punks getting some kicks at some party.” (The joke got even funnier in 2002, when this album earned the band a Juno nomination for Best Alternative Album.)
“Some Party” offers an early indication that the Constantines aren’t just a group of angry young men railing about how the system sucks. There’s a humility and humor mixed in with the vitriol, and a pragmatic belief that building a better world requires making the most out of what you’ve got. And if you don’t have everything you need, then just steal it. On the immortal “Young Offenders,” Webb repurposes an old Rod Stewart lyric — “Young hearts be free tonight/ Time is an on your side” — into a generational battle cry, before downshifting the song into a grungy gospel lurch where he repeats the old Marvin Gaye mantra “Can I get a witness?!” like a preacher who’s been set on fire. The album eventually hits its explosive peak with the marauding “Steal This Sound,” where Webb issues his most pointed call to action: “It’s time we steal these pennies back from the fountain!”
But for all its revolutionary rhetoric, Constantines isn’t an explicitly political record; none of its songs betray any sort of ripped-from-the-headlines topicality. The album is more a testament to the eternal power of protest, an expression of frustration that more people aren’t expressing their frustration. The band came of age in the ’90s during the reign of conservative Ontario premier Mike Harris, whose heartless austerity politics gutted education funding, transit, healthcare, public housing, and social services for the province’s most vulnerable. But, as Webb observed in a 2001 interview, “People my age weren’t as unified a generation as that in the ’60s or the punk generation.” That disillusionment courses through “The Long Distance Four,” where Webb invokes the Paris riots of ’68 to lament the apathy he was sensing among his own cohort: “My generation is a ghost town,” he sings, before adding, “For those stuck between the wars/ It’s boredom beyond measure.” (Or, as another, aforementioned group put it less subtly a few years later: sleeping in is giving in.)
But after bounding between the white-knuckled paranoia of “Seven A.M.” (one of Lambke’s two lead-vocal turns) and the Nebraska-bound acoustic reverie “St. You,” the Constantines find a way to channel all the fire in their veins and the love in their hearts into the album’s closer, “Little Instruments.” It’s a triumphant anthem for those who never seem to win, and a slow, quiet song about the thrill of playing loud and fast. “We’ve got an amplifier,” Webb sings, with all the stunned, self-amazement of Keanu in The Matrix after he loads up on kung-fu. It’s a simple, obvious statement that’s nonetheless loaded with strength and significance — like the matchstick included in the album packaging, it’s a reminder that the most basic tools can produce profound changes.
In “Little Instruments,” we hear the grace and humility that would become more defining features of the Constantines as they added keyboardist Will Kidman and traded up to Sub Pop for 2003’s Torontopian classic Shine A Light and 2005’s simmered-down Tournament Of Hearts, before bowing out in the Crazy Horse haze of 2008’s Kensington Heights. The past decade has seen periodic reunion shows and even rumblings of new material, but the Constantines don’t appear to be in any hurry to get back to working full-time.
While MacGregor has been touring arenas and festivals as City And Colour’s drummer in recent years, other members of the band have been exercising the Cons’ community-minded principles on a more grassroots level. In between a couple of mellow, folk-leaning solo releases, Webb has served as the Operations Coordinator at the University of Guelph’s campus radio station, CFRU, and program director at Mohawk College’s 101.5 The Hawk in Hamilton, Ontario (a fitting fate for someone who has the Replacements’ “Left Of The Dial” maxim tattooed on his right forearm). Lambke, meanwhile, has built his label, You’ve Changed Records, into a Canadian institution that’s committed to showcasing the multiplicity of voices in the the country’s indiesphere, including art-folk visionary the Weather Station, queer bubblegrunge pranksters Partner, roots-rock activist Fiver, and Indigenous avant-pop poet Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. The Constantines may never fully get the due — or docuseries — they deserve, but the fires they sparked in young hearts 20 years ago are still burning bright.