By Christine Leonard
CALGARY — Notably featured as one of the “23 Bands Who Shaped Punk” in Alternative Press music magazine in 2008, Canadian hardcore/emo group Grade wasn’t exactly on anyone’s radar when they fired off their first demo in the early ‘90s. A better-known split EP appeared in ‘94. By ‘95 the impetuous Burlington-based outfit had dropped their first full-length release, the appropriately titled …And Such Is Progress. Soon the band that had cut their teeth grinding out small-time gigs and sleeping in a van began to reap the rewards of their efforts. It didn’t hurt that playing local shows around lead-singer Kyle Bishop’s suburban home base included frequent forays into Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Rochester and Syracuse. Introducing those markets to the unique flavours of Canadian melodic hardcore music gave Grade access to a broader range of listeners and earned the bellicose Bishop a reputation for decimating his voice and his onlookers.
”When we started out in the ‘90s there was no Internet that existed for us,” begins Bishop. “It was far more difficult to get a show. Everything we accomplished was built on word of mouth and luck. In that regard, you could say we took the hard path. Because it was the only path! But it was also a lot of fun! We connected with people on a far deeper level. As time went on we did things differently, but we were still very resistant to sort of moving into an easy path. Somewhere in my punk rock brain I thought that was how it should be.”
Bishop’s determination to equal the musical intensity of his band mates with his hyper-lyrical unrest has always held undeniable appeal for hardcore fans on both sides of the border. His heavy but heartfelt melodic punk overtures bespeak a moody decade that was ultimately encapsulated on their praise-worthy EP Separate the Magnets in 1996. Grade continued to gain momentum, turning heads on tour while opening for Fugazi, Jimmy Eat World and Hot Water Music. Meanwhile, they jumped from Second Nature Recordings to Victory Records in 1999.
“The atmosphere at that time was almost rehash of ‘80s,” Bishop relates. “The way I see it, the punk attitude always been there. It has nothing to do with 1975 or 1977. Punk was there in sound of 1950s rock and the blues of the ‘60s. Even Wagner was looking for a way to translate teen angst. The scene has always been there in different forms.”
Regardless of the acceptance and celebration punk and its offshoots were enjoying at that time, swimming upstream alongside a school of Warp Tour-calibre sound-a-likes began to feel like work for the black sheep of the Burlington underground. As Bishop grew weary of acid-etched emo rock he began to seek out new outlets for his artistic urges. His take-charge attitude had given him a difficult reputation, not to mention a resume of chummed-up bands churning in his wake. Grappling with notable and notorious acts such as The Black Maria, The Swarm, Acrid and Eat Me proved to be an experience was fraught with peril. Bishop quit music after his experience with The Black Maria, telling No Echo, “they made me loathe music and made me quit what I had been doing since 1990.”
When Bishop returned to making music he did it with a renewed sense of appreciation for the nine to five paradigm and the determination required to pursue one’s passions while struggling to pay the rent.
“We all have regular-guy jobs these days and it sucks,” he says. “I always said I was never gonna work just to have a job. I did my best until my early 30s. I have no excuse. One thing about earning a living is that it becomes a form of entrapment. When individuals shelve their artistic side and the thing they should be doing is replaced by things they have to do. I admire those people who are willing to suddenly give up everything and take off for some unknown destination. I find that kind of attitude very liberating, like I could just leave to live in Belize.”
Remarkably productive despite their desires to escape to some tropical paradise, Grade had five studio LPs to their credit when they broke up in 2002. For several years prior the band had been rife with acrimony, their line-up had endured multiple tumultuous changes and alluring side-projects beckoned. In light of this state of organic decay, it came as little surprise when, with the exception of a couple of one-off reunions appearances, the members of Grade gradually drifted apart.
Years passed and the past looked rosier. In 2011, Grade came together to produce At Both Ends EP and a split album with the band Bane. Shortly thereafter, a local promoter booked them to perform at his retirement party. The positive response was enough to encourage the Grade-uates to relapse back to their jamming and songwriting ways. Picking up his old habit along with bassist Matt Jones, drummer Matt Richmond and guitarists Shawn Magill and Greg Taylor, Bishop released a tantalizing two-song 7-inch on Dine Alone Records dubbed Collapsed Lungs and hinted that Grade intends to issue additional two-song EPs in the future.
“What’s surprising to me is that people are still interested in Grade 10, 12, 13 years after we broke up,” says Bishop.
“It’s been such long time, it’s weird being the front guy in a band again. I don’t think in terms of ‘then’ versus ‘now’ as a band, but I believe that we’re far better musicians. After 20 to 25 years we’re just as energetic and full of piss and vinegar as we were when we started, except now we have the total liberty to not give a shit. Guess what? I don’t always sing in tune! Sometimes I fall on stage and look stupid! I’m no longer caught up in being professional. We don’t care anymore. It doesn’t matter! These days I’m all about getting out there and, with any luck, having some fun. There’s so much more freedom to do what we want to do when things don’t revolve around the pressure to be perfect.”
Catch Grade on February 27 at the Nite Owl in Calgary, or in Edmonton at the Pawn Shop on February 28.