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For punk rockers who have been plying their trade for any length of time, there is a risk that youthful rage will eventually harden into something resembling grumpiness.
Darren Ollinger, lead vocalist of Calgary five-piece act Julius Sumner Miller, admits the initial inspiration for a few songs found on the band’s fifth album, Nobody Cares, came at a “weird time.” That would, of course, be the pandemic. Since few acts could tour or play live during that period, many used the time to woodshed and come up with a bumper crop of new material. But it was also a weird time in other ways.
“You’re writing songs when you’re not able to live the life you once were,” says Ollinger. “So there’s a lot of commentary on watching other people fail in social media aspects. There are a few songs that really speak to that: People who you once thought were your friends are like ‘You’re not a good human being.’ You’re losing these relationships due to their stir-crazy, right-leaning thoughts or conspiracy thoughts. It’s like, why is this happening?”
So it’s understandable that some of the songs that came out of this weird moment in time — including the raging opener 5th Bar, the 44-second finger-lift Nobody Cares and pummelling Rage is a Perfectly Valid Response — maintain a somewhat sour flavour, even if they do boast the act’s trademark catchy hooks. But they realized early on that this wouldn’t sustain an entire album.
“I was like ‘I can’t do 13 songs about this,’ ” Ollinger says. “. . . so let’s cover Bryan Adams.”
A punk band covering Bryan Adams is improbable enough, but Julius Sumner Miller opted to take a spin with Adams’ melodic if somewhat treacly 1983 ballad Heaven, turning it into a chugging rocker. It’s just one of the surprises on Nobody Cares, a 13-song album the band recorded at OCL Studios outside of Calgary. It was the same locale where Julius Sumner Miller recorded their 2021 album Try It Out during the first wave of the pandemic. As with that album, Nobody Cares was recorded during a five-day residency at the popular studio.
It’s not that the other eight songs on the record are particularly light-hearted. But songs like The G Killer, Four Floaters and Basic Needs cover traditional punk lyrical tenets such as malaise, restlessness and hypocrisy with craft and occasional flashes of humour. One of the stand-out tracks, Speaking of Cults, begins with a children’s choir. Children’s choirs in rock songs don’t need a dark backstory to be creepy, but this clip has one just the same. Ollinger says it’s an actual recording, found on YouTube, of a choir from the Peoples Temple. That was the cult led by American preacher Jim Jones, who orchestrated a mass murder-suicide at his Jonestown compound in Guyana that claimed by lives of more than people.
It sounds heavy, but the song itself is more of a tongue-in-cheek commentary on being in a band, Ollinger says.
“It’s like ‘speaking of cults, do you want to come be a fan of our band?” he says. “It’s just a play on fandom, I guess. It’s like ‘Get on board, this is going to be hilariously fun entertaining ride. We take all followers.’ Being in a band, especially being a frontman in a band, is kind of like starting your own cult and cultivating people to believe in what you do. Nothing sinister though.’ ”
Julius Sumner Miller is likely to attract more congregants or cultists through their wildly energetic live shows. The band will play Modern Love on Friday. The venue is the old home of Broken City, which hosted Julius Sumner Miller on a regular basis over the past decade. In fact, the band played the venue’s final show just over a year ago.
“I think we are predominantly a live band, first and foremost,” Ollinger says. “If you see us live, you’ll know exactly what’s up because we bring the entertainment. We are not just five people standing there playing our instruments. It’s rowdy, it’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s exciting. So people want to be part of it. Because that’s how we’re built, that generally bleeds into our writing.”
Formed by Ollinger and guitarists Richard MacFarlane and Sean Hamilton in 2013, the band named itself after the American physicist and children’s show personality who is most famous for appearing on the Mickey Mouse Club and for playing the Professor on The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. The band’s longevity may have something to do with its somewhat casual approach to careerism.
“If you’re busy, go be busy with life,” he says. “We’re not going to break up. We’ll just wait a couple of weeks and then start jamming again and remember how fun it is. We’re just trying to stay active enough: book a show every couple of months or a weekend out of town. It forces you to stay active.”
Ollinger grew up in Winnipeg but moved to Calgary for his high school years. He says he was a typical outsider growing up and discovered punk as an outlet in the early 1990s, immersing himself initially in Calgary’s all-ages punk-rock scene.
He says his relationship with the genre has not changed all that much despite encroaching maturity. If anything, raging against the machine tends to become a little more finely tuned as the years go by.
“Now I know why I hate the government,” Ollinger says. “I was mad at society when I was 17 because some band told me to be. But now it kind of makes sense. I just fell into it. It’s a very standard story of how you find punk-rock as a lot of people do: you’re just looking for something to be included with. I tried everything. I think I was just bad at being a kid. I couldn’t figure out friends, I couldn’t figure out whatever. I went to a punk-rock show and I thought ‘This is cool.’ I just kept going to them. It was neat because I was seeing a lot of misfits, especially in the ’80s and ’90s when it was very an outcast type of situation. Now it’s acceptable. It’s always been inviting, but it’s not as menacing anymore. My mom is not as scared of it as she once was.”
Nobody Cares is now available on streaming services. Julius Sumner Miller plays Modern Love with Downway, Bring on the Storm and Arts Major on Nov. 3. Doors open at 5 p.m.