Cover

Abrasive in Ajax

This small community, writes JOHN INTINI, is a hotbed of punk rock, with Sum 41 calling it home

January 13 2003
Cover

Abrasive in Ajax

This small community, writes JOHN INTINI, is a hotbed of punk rock, with Sum 41 calling it home

January 13 2003

Abrasive in Ajax

Cover

This small community, writes JOHN INTINI, is a hotbed of punk rock, with Sum 41 calling it home

AT FIRST GLANCE, Ajax, Ont., looks like any other small Canadian town. Clusters of cookie-cutter homes, rows of strip malls and more than a dozen doughnut shops litter the landscape of the bedroom community about 45 km east of Toronto. But in the past couple of years, a side of “the Jax” has emerged that many locals didn’t realize existed. Thanks to the success of a few musical exports—most notably Sum 41—this nondescript place is becoming known as more than just a pit stop for Highway 401 travellers in need of a large double double. Ajax, as strange as it sounds, has become the punk-rock capital of Canada.

Wait a second. Is this town of 76,000 people really the latter-day Canadian equivalent of 1970s London, where the Sex Pistols first spread their message of anarchy? When you ask any member of the bands from Ajax, they laugh at the thought that their hometown is in the vanguard of the current punk resurgence. “Ajaxsucks ass!” says Steve Jocz, 21, Sum 41’s drummer. “It’s boring and has nothing for young people to do.” Glenn “Chico” Dunning, from another Ajax band, Not By Choice, agrees. “Ajax is just a bunch of houses, strip malls and schools with nowhere for bands to play other than their own garages,” says the 25-year-old guitarist. “It’s a place where every kid was in a band at some point in their life and some of us just got lucky.”

Yet the impact of a handful of Ajax natives on the North American music scene has been pretty amazing considering the town’s size. The four, ultra-rowdy members of Sum

41 have spent the last couple of years near the top of the music charts with their blend of punk and high-energy pop. Sum’s 2001 debut release, All Killer no Filler, has sold three million copies and brought the quartet worldwide fame. The band’s recent follow-up, Does This Look Infected?, has already gone platinum since coming out in November. Meanwhile, Sum’s success has helped open the door for fellow pop-punk artists from Ajax. “When Sum 41 broke onto the scene there were suits from record labels at all the local shows in the Durham region,” says Mark “London” Spicoluk, vocalist and bassist with punk band Closet Monster. “The music labels were searching for the next big thing out of Ajax.” So far, Not by Choice (signed with Linus Entertainment) and two members of Avril Lavigne’s back-up band, also from Ajax, have cashed in.

But why Ajax? Alan Cross, host of the nationally syndicated radio documentary The Ongoing History ofNew Music, says the town is a perfect incubator for creativity. “A substantial amount of rock ’n’ roll doesn’t come from big cities,” says Cross, a native of Hamilton. “Ajax is a great example of a place that can be a bit boring for teens who need to find their own fun. Many choose to hack around with guitars in the basement and at parties, and they realize how great it is when all of sudden they’re getting girls and drinking beers all the time. Then, two or three chords and a bit of an attitude later they have a record deal.”

Another explanation is the Chameleon Café. Every weekend during the mid to late

’90s, hundreds of teens gathered at the Chameleon—a converted auto-body garage in the industrial part of town—to watch local bands. “The music scene in the entire Durham region was great for a few years,” says Deryck Whibley, 22, Sum 41’s front man. “It was a healthy competitive environment with about a dozen bands. We all pushed one another to play better music.”

Greig Nori, lead vocalist and guitarist for the band Treble Charger, agrees with Whibley. “The Chameleon was something most other small towns and cities didn’t have,” says Nori, a native of Sault Ste. Marie. “Another important factor was how close these guys were to Toronto. They could go to the concerts of punk bands like Lagwagon and NOFX [both from California]. It al-

lowed them to tap into the punk scene when they were only 12 or 13, which is years before most kids.” Sadly, the Chameleon’s owner decided to shut down the venue two years ago, and now rents out space for bands to practise.

Nori discovered Sum 41 about five years ago after meeting Whibley at a Treble Charger show in Oshawa. Now Sum 41’s manager, Nori took the four guys under his care and provided studio time for them to record their first few tracks. Last spring, he turned to Ajax again when he was asked to put together a gritty backing band for soon-to-be-superstar Lavigne. “The first

thing I did was ask a couple of guys from Ajax that I met through Sum 41,” he says. “One thing that set the guys from Ajax apart was that they were writing their own songs from a really early age. Most highschool bands just play local clubs and cover whatever bands they’re into. These guys would do covers but also mix in a lot of their own stuff. Their maturity as artists at such a young age was incredible.”

Initially, three of the four musicians in Lavigne’s band ended up coming from Ajax. One of the guys Nori picked was Spicoluk. His band, Closet Monster, had just finished recording its second, self-produced fulllength album, Killed the Radio Star, and Spicoluk was short on cash, so he took the gig. He ended up spending six months with Lav-

igne before deciding he needed to get back to his band. “I felt like I was a tool being used by the system, and I needed to do my own stuff,” says Spicoluk, 23. “It was also a type of music that wasn’t really my style.”

Closet Monster prides itself on staying true to its punk roots. “I love when the screaming girls pile up to the front of the stage expecting to hear a band like Sum 41,” smirks Spicoluk. “It really shocks them when we thrash around, scream our heads off and try to twist their little minds.” In fact, many of the other bands find it funny that they’re even labelled punk. While Sum 41 and Not by Choice smash around on stage like normal punk bands, they play a much softer brand of punk. “We’re the real punk band out of Ajax,” says Spicoluk, who is living back home with his mother and sister. “A lot of the other stuff is pop or mall-punk. We’re the only band that really has something to say. And screaming girls can really ruin the vibe of a good show.”

While some might think it a bit misguided, Spicoluk’s passion is undeniable. He has been playing punk music since he was 15, and the most important thing for him has always been live performance. Closet Monster proved that in the two months leading up to Christmas by playing 40 shows in small clubs and bars in Southwestern Ontario and Eastern Canada. “Punk beats you up,” says Spicoluk, who travels with his bandmates in an old, rundown van. “You have fun and you love it but you realize that you haven’t made enough money to pay rent. But then you have to realize that’s not the point. It’s about spreading the message.” Part of this quest includes Underground Operations, a punk music label Spicoluk created for bands to work together. “There is a real brotherhood in the punk community,” he says, “and I just felt this was a way to help the scene develop.”

By some accounts, the music scene in Ajax is in trouble. Two full years into the postChameleon era, Nori—who says he was never entirely convinced the town was a punk capital anyway—says he doesn’t think current Ajax bands “have the same chemistry. It really comes down to finding a group of friends who share a lot of the same values, memories and goals,” he adds. “It’s hard to know why, but for a short period of time something really meshed with a bunch of guys in Ajax and it led to some really incredible music.” füll