By Spencer Brown
VANCOUVER — Surprisingly, the world’s best baseball punk band, Vancouver’s the Isotopes, has found a great reception to songs about America’s greatest pastime in Canada, while opening for Celtic punk stalwarts The Real McKenzies on a cross-country tour no less. “Every fucking city that has been new on this tour has been great and the crowds have been warm,” gushes frontman Evan October. “They knew the songs and they wanted to talk baseball after the set.” Ottawa has been another tour standout, “It’s huge. People show up to the Ottawa Explosion festival with gloves for our set and honestly we weren’t expecting a reaction like that.” The maple leaf embrace is needed as “in 2013 I was banned from touring the States due to me touring without a visa. It’s a non-criminal charge of ‘attempting to defraud an officer of Homeland Security’ and ironically, the guard’s name was Anibal Sanchez, which is the same name as the pitcher for the Detroit Tigers.” While the bitter pill ban will eventually expire, the major league bummer, according to October, is “the Albuquerque Isotopes, the minor league team we took our name from, do live concerts in their stadium. They asked us to come down and play one and it’s like, ‘Fuuuuuuuuuck off, we can’t be there until 2018.’”
Since their start, the band has proudly sported the punks-with-jock-straps motif. They probably just don’t wash them that often. Much like a cult classic baseball film, there’s been a rotating door of players, problems with authority figures, and well, balls since the band formed in 2006. However, the tone of The Isotopes is more Major League than Moneyball. “I knew I wanted to start a band that would talk about things no one else was talking about,” says October from the highway hum of the van. “I couldn’t sing songs about girls because it was boring. Because it had been done and the people who had done it before me had done it way better than I could. I knew I had to find something up my alley.” Looking back, October decided to combine his love of punk rock with his background of baseball and thus, the Isotopes franchise was born. “I grew up playing baseball. I played in games all over British Columbia. It was my number one thing; I was on the number-one scouted team in B.C., which was the Northshore Twins. That team was where guys I played with came up to the majors. I quit when I was 16 to form a punk band, whereas half the dudes I played with or went to school with got drafted by American schools and ended up getting free college.” However, when asked if band members must share the love, October is quick to clarify priorities. “Baseball is my thing. Some members share my passion sure. That’s not mandatory to be in the band. Not everyone can be into baseball but everyone can be into being in the band. A band that rules is more important than that passion. Just because you’re into baseball, you can’t have that going on at all times.”
Given the Isotopes’ colourful history, it’s no surprise that even the little league days were eventful. “We had a 7-inch out and line-up change before we even played our first show,” confirms October. There’s also been a consistent line-up change with more band members (25) than shows played at one point. “Maybe it’s because our drummers keep dying like in Spinal Tap? In fact, Trevor (Uppercut) slipped in the shower last night and we were worried that was it for him.” Which brings us to the current non-hyperbolic all-star punk rock line-up: Evan October on lead vocals, Joshy Atomic (The Jolts, Fashionism) on lead guitar, Matti Moonshoot on guitar, Shane Grass (Nervous Talk) on bass, Trevor Uppercutz (Nervous Talk) on drums and Rad Jackstrap as Umpire.
For anyone who read that last sentence and thought, “Umpire?” Yes, each and every Isotopes show features a real live umpire making real live calls as part of the band’s ethos. “We like to think we keep entertainment an art and our umpire is our Hype Man. He’s a critical entertainment factor.” Beyond the black and white hype stripes there are the songs themselves. Which sound like a cross between classic Lookout! Records bands and the kind of baseball knowledge found in Havana’s Parque Central. “Every song has to be something that’s made an impact on me,” says October. “We keep it based around stories that aren’t typical baseball success stories. We don’t need to cover Derek Jeter. We keep it punk rock in how we recognize the underdog story in baseball.” On the rare occasion they don’t feature underdogs there are songs like “Hasta La Vista Baby,” which features Blag Dahlia of The Dwarves on vocals; tackling Yankees player A-Rod and his steroid-chugging celebrity-boning antics.
Much like their energetic sets, their first full-length album, Nuclear Strikezone, released by Montreal’s Stomp Records, has been garnering great reviews regardless of whether baseball bores you or blows you away. “Vlad Zak of the Real McKenzies played bass on that record; he hounded Stomp and sent them our demos. Luckily we fit in well as they have some good bands. Their support has revived the band. Ever since I was banned from the States I wanted to get on Stomp as they’re the best label for us to be on. You don’t want to be a band that tours Canada for no fucking reason. It’s been a huge step up for us, a great thing. Especially because I’ve been trying to quit every year since 2009,” chuckles October.
As the saying goes, everyone loves an underdog. So, if being a Vancouver punk band that sings songs about a distinctly American sport, while being banned from touring America itself, finding success doesn’t qualify, I don’t know what does. In the Isotopes’ case, it looks like the worm has turned.
The Isotopes take on the Real McKenzies April 10 at The Cambie (Victoria) and April 11 at the Rickshaw Theatre (Vancouver).BC, British Columbia, Rickshaw Theatre, The Cambie, The Isotopes