Uncharted is our showcase of independent artists we think you should hear. This week, Hamilton punks WTCHS explain how they shrugged their way into a multi-headed DIY art collective and a record deal.
Hamilton hiss and noise darlings WTCHS jam in the basement of an old baby store. I heard a rumour once that beside their room, there's a boarded up tunnel — their own private catacombs — that runs blocks under the city, somewhere beneath nearby Gage Park. When I meet up with singer/guitarist Jag to talk WTCHS, he says he doesn't know a thing about it. I think he's putting me on. God knows what these heathens do down there.
Over the last three years, the scuzz-loving four-piece has carved out a dank, musty cave of their very own in Canadian music. Not that they're total loners (they're kind of the gothy younger sisters of Each Other and Odonis Odonis), but they've done an incredible amount of the shovel work themselves. Jag and singer/ guitarist Matt Junkin, WTCHS' twin frontmen, started Perdu as an umbrella under which they could release their own records, throw their own shows, and distribute a cool zine to boot. And that thoroughly DIY ethic has got them everywhere. For their upcoming EP It's Not A Cross, It's A Curse, Out of Sound will be handling the vinyl and Sonic Unyon will take care of the digital release — as always, they'll do the cassettes themselves.
Jag doesn't have a phone, so we do the chat all old-fashioned like, in the corporeal. He uses the words "obsessive" a lot — "goal-oriented" a few times, too. He's gotta be at least 10 years older than you think he is. What's his secret? What kind of black art do they do in that basement? He keeps mum on it, but we do get to talking on Perdu, WTCHS' all purpose, DIY, singing, dancing thingamajig, starting guitar at age 27, and joining up with a Hamilton institution. Then, they were sweet enough to drop off "Top Prize," a new cut off their upcoming. Kindness is powerful sorcery.
It's Not A Cross, It's A Curse is out April 4 on Sonic Unyon/Out of Sound/Perdu. Listen to the premiere of "Top Prize" below.
I’d heard that you first picked up a guitar when you were 27. That’s weird. Tell me about that.
Jag: For 16 years of my life, I was a national class athlete.
Really? What’d you play?
I was a runner. I was in the States on a scholarship. I trained at national high performance centres in Toronto and Victoria, did Louisiana Tech for two years, University of Alabama at Birmingham for one. I was an 800- and 1500-metre runner for 16 years.
What ended that?
I don’t know notes, I don’t know chords, I just make it up. You just make your own world, you create your own thing, you know? Sometimes it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
So that's when you decided to live? To catch up on those 16 years?
Yeah, I mean I’d gotten drunk and stuff… but I made a conscious decision one time while I was sitting in a tree smoking a joint with my buddy that I was going to buy a guitar. It took me about three years, sitting in my room, jamming by myself, and one day it just clicked: Oh, this could make a song. And then I got into weirdo bands just making sounds and textures. That’s how that element came to me.
If that’s the kind of stuff you’re interested in, who were your heroes when you started on the guitar?
Well, that’s when Napster was popular, so my whole world opened up. I could find everything. I found bands like Tristan Psionic, Blonde Redhead, that whole Pedro the Lion indie rock scene. It was like, "Where’d all this music come from?" Sea and Cake, Mogwai — it was mind blowing. I just tried to make the kinds of sounds and noises that I heard. I still don’t know what A, B, C, D is; it’s just hand patterns, man. But that’s what I did. How bad do you want something, right? It was my dream to be in a band, and now I’m lucky to be signed to Sonic Unyon. I was always trying to get signed by a label or get associated with that kinda thing. And now I want more.
Is that the reason to sign with Sonic Unyon? It has a bigger reach than what Perdu can do by itself.
Yeah, but also I’m from Hamilton now, man. Hamilton is home.
I get it. It’s a part of the city’s history. It’s kind of an institution.
Tell me a little bit about the history and the idea behind Perdu? It looks like you’re kind of a fingers-in-every-pie creative outlet right now.
Junkin wanted to do a zine, that’s how it started. He was like I want to start making a zine and I thought let’s tie this all in together and start putting out records and tapes for people and treating it like a multipurpose thing. And then, I started to put on shows under that moniker, too.
Had you seen this done before? Was there something that you modeled it on?
Not at all.
Why’d it make sense to do a zine and a record label together? That seems like a real throwback idea.
It’s just like the way I play guitar — I don’t know notes, I don’t know chords, I just make it up. You just make your own world, you create your own thing, you know? Junkin was always doing art. He’s always drawing or making up posters or doing cover art for friends around town. It made sense. It was like: "how do you build this?" So we put out some tapes. And then you start looking into putting out records and some of the stuff becomes more economical to do.
Then I was helping people get shows and I thought, why not just start putting on shows as opposed to giving all this work that I’ve done to another promoter? It was never preconceived. It just happened…. And now Perdu’s got an NXNE showcase [he hints that bygone Hamilton math heroes The Inflation Kills will reunite to headline]. It’s like you’re curating an art show, that’s what Perdu is. I think that’s what every label is.
So having this kind of collective, where you’re interested in photography, Junk’s a great artist, it seems like you guys have had tight control over the videos you release and the poster work and, really, all of your output…
Is that something that’s important to you? I mean, WTCHS has this whole packaged aesthetic, it almost reminds me of Psychic TV.
I think we’ve had that vision since day one — it’s to keep it dark and mysterious, to throw more visuals than anything else. We wanted to present Junkin’s art. In the beginning, it was about, "let’s get people to see this awesome shit." We’ve always wanted to keep it visual, keep that style. Sometimes people pick up on it. They say, "I want to play a Perdu show, I want to be on a poster."
In a way it seems like WTCHS is as much a rock band as it is a vehicle for a bunch of other cool art.
That’s exactly it. I’m a crazy obsessive person; this is all I want to fucking do, this is all I want to talk about. Sometimes, when we weren’t playing as much or people had other things going on in their lives, it was like, okay, well I’ve got all these other things to do [he points at a pile of unfolded WTCHS cassette inserts sitting on the table]. And it’s still related, it still helps WTCHS. I just have to always be doing something. It’s awesome — Junk is like "I need this, I need that," and he’ll just whip something up. Sometimes it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. Nothing is contrived. It’s whatever comes out, that spontaneous thing. It’s just what we like doing. "This is what is and here you go," you know?