Without Edmonton punks SNFU, the Canadian hardcore punk scene may never have existed. Sure, there were plenty of Canadian punk bands before them- DOA and Subhumans, for example, but SNFU were the forerunners of hardcore punk in Canada. With his new biography about the band, SNFU: What No One Else Wanted To Say, Chris Walter gives readers an insight into the band's members, and their trials and tribulations to become one of the seminal hardcore punk bands.
Chris Walter took some time out of his tour in support of his new book to answer some questions about the growth of the punk rock scee in Edmonton in the 1980's, the writing process, and the punk rock life.
Your new book, SNFU: What No One Else Wanted To Say is your third band biography. What do you like or dislike about writing band biographies?
Fiction is much easier to write because I don’t have to deal with facts. Fiction is fun, and I can allow my imagination to do all the work. Books generally develop organically without any plan or serious effort. Biographies are much more work, assembled with hundreds of hours of taped interviews. Subjects are not always available when it is convenient for me, and I have to call them when I can, even if it’s in another time zone and past my bedtime. I still enjoy writing, and I love finding out what really happened with the bands that influenced me so strongly. All three biographies have been joyful at times and bleak and depressing in others. I become emotionally attached to the story, and it’s like being on a roller coaster. My legs are shaky and my head is reeling long before the books are actually finished.
Your book is really thorough, chronicling the members of SNFU from childhood on. How long did it take for you to acquire all of the material used to write your book?
I work at a gruelling pace, generally at least ten hours a day, but less on weekends when I spend time with my family. I wrote, edited, and assembled the entire book in just less than a year. Kids, do NOT try this at home. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
What appealed to you about writing about SNFU in particular?
Punk rock has always been a major part of my life, and who better to write about than SNFU? I’ve known some of the members for thirty years, so I didn’t exactly pull their name out of a hat. SNFU have been around for so long in one form or another, and have endured so much in that time, that they truly deserve the “legend” status afforded them.
You talk about the early Edmonton punk scene as one that was slow to start, but then exploded. Do you think that the Edmonton early punk scene was very different from the punk scenes emerging in other Canadian cities?
For mid-sized Canadian cities, yes. Winnipeg, for example, already had a fairly large punk scene in the late 70s, but it really exploded in 1980 when hardcore punk drifted in from Vancouver and the States. DOA went through Edmonton as early as ’79 but, strangely, hardcore didn’t really start to catch on until SNFU and Down Syndrome emerged in 1983. The scene at Spartan Men’s Club was the epicentre of that scene, and it burned brightly even as hardcore began to die elsewhere. Even Calgary had a bigger hardcore scene in the early 80s, and Edmonton only caught up because of SNFU.
I noticed that you mention a Chris Walter who played in the band Pissed & Broke with Jimmy Schmitz. Was this you, and is this how you were introduced to punk rock?
Yes, that was me, but Pissed and Broke was my second or third punk band. None of us could play, including Jimmy. I kept hearing about punk rock in 1977, but when a friend got Never Mind the Bollocks (by The Sex Pistols) for a joke Christmas present in 1978, I fell in love with it. Although my friends and I were already listening to the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop, I didn’t cut off my hair and start dressing punk until late ’79. You have to understand that Winnipeggers were not open to people who dressed differently, and early punks were always running and fighting, often on the same day. Life was a constant battle, and I combatted the fear with plenty of liquor and drugs.
These were the days before any band could post up some songs on Youtube and find a following. You mention many publications and TV shows that wanted to cover SNFU, but how difficult was it for a band to get press coverage at the time?
The press in Edmonton was surprising supportive, especially when SNFU began to attract international attention. Even the Edmonton Journal, the mainstream newspaper, was quick to jump onboard and do stories on them. Many Americans had never heard of Edmonton until SNFU came along, and I think Edmontonians appreciated the publicity. Despite the fact that Chi Pig was a gay punk rocker, Edmontonians were proud of SNFU and have always supported them. The original members are still hometown heroes.
How difficult was it for a band to get attention from potential fans? How did people hear about these shows, or how to find these rare demos?
The hardcore punk scene had its own grapevine, and information got around by word of mouth and through punk fanzines. I started a ‘zine called Pages of Rage in 1982, which gave me my first taste of creative writing. I liked it a lot, and always meant to start writing again, but I didn’t have an outlet for writing after the ‘zine folded. There was no Internet, but the punks were connected and no one ever missed a show. Bands handed out demos at shows, but because of the trouble and expense of recording, only a few of the top bands actually made singles or albums. Pity.
I found it interesting how you paint these kids as kids who found their calling with punk rock. Do you really think it was their calling? Do you think that any of the guys of SNFU would have been able to bypass the punk scene and get "normal" jobs, like their parents wanted?
Most members of SNFU actually did grow up and find careers. I have friends from the old scene who are doctors, business owners, chefs, private contractors, and all sorts of things. However, the time they spent on tour with their punk bands is still the most satisfying thing they ever did in their lives, and certainly the most fun. They are proud of who they are and what they did, and it is something that no one can ever take away from them. For better or worse, that scene shaped us into the people we are today, and very few of us regret any part of it.
A lot of punks lived in relative poverty, and at one point you even mention that exposure doesn't pay for guitar strings. Did the members of SNFU think that they could really make a living off punk rock?
It’s a form of insanity from which many punk bands suffer. At times, they actually DO make enough to support themselves, but not on a regular basis. They always dream that their next album will be huge, especially when label mates suddenly become popular. Later, even after being dropped from a label, they still hope they might get a new deal and cut a hit album. Sometimes that happens, but most musicians would have better luck winning the lottery. They keep going even when they know that they will never make enough to pay the rent because they love playing live. They live for that hour and fifteen minutes onstage every night.
The punk scene you describe sounds so little like what exists as a punk scene now. If you had fallen asleep in the time that SNFU were getting big, and only woke up now, would you even be able to recognize what is passing as punk rock today?
The corporate version of punk rock would certainly repulse me, but I might still hear a band I loved and be inspired to start my own. The thing about punk rock is that kids can always pick up a guitar and start bands without being real musicians. Some will learn how to play and some won’t, but the thrill of standing behind a roaring Marshall stack will always be there. The DIY ethic of punk rock lives on, even if the scene nowadays smells like Sid Vicious’s underwear at times. And he’s been dead since ’79.
What's next for you after this book?
I’ve started a new fiction novel, which doesn’t seem like work at all. I’ll be busy touring to support the SNFU book until mid-September, but I’ll be finished the fiction novel by January or February at the latest. Then I’ll start another music bio and the cycle will begin all over again. In a way, I’m like the punk bands who hope that they will strike it big someday, even though they know that the art form they have chosen is unlikely to take them there. I manage to stay afloat without taking a real job, but I won’t be buying a house in Vancouver any time soon. Like may favourite bands, I love what I do, even if the money isn’t there. No regrets.