Clear head full heart can’t lose

Aram Arslanian talks straight-edge hardcore and growing up in Calgary

To anyone following modern hardcore — especially of the West Coast variety — Aram Arslanian should be a household name. After all the Vancouver singer-guitarist has been an essential cog in some of the best most urgent and forward-thinking hardcore the world’s witnessed: He cut his teeth in Champion sang in Betrayed moonlighted in the ever-vital First Step and now plays in Keep It Clear and True Identity (both of which are playing this weekend’s Garbage Daze festival); he also founded React a straight-edge imprint that’s been home to integral acts like Get The Most Mindset and Caught in a Crowd.

But while Arslanian’s brand of PMA — inspired by melodic hardcore acts like Chain of Strength and Turning Point often touting the ups of drug-free living and veganism — has influenced bands coast to coast his story quite shockingly begins in Calgary. We caught up with him to talk about legendary local personalities seeing the Ramones at the High River Rodeo Grounds and the time Integrity’s Dwid Hellion tried to use the affable positivist as hired muscle. Yes that really happened.

You grew up in Calgary. What was it like growing up here?

It was awesome. The name Aram Arslanian isn’t a super common name anywhere but especially not in Calgary in the ’70s ’80s or ’90s. We were the immigrant family in [Willow Park] and we got all sorts of flak for it; people were not very open to different cultures at the time. So we really had to find our own place to fit as we were pushed away by people in their schools and in their neighbourhoods. But the really cool thing — and I’m really thankful for this — was the place I found: the punk and skateboarding scene in Calgary.

You don’t think of there being a big skateboard scene in Calgary because it’s snowing most of the year and when it’s not there’s gravel everywhere. You had this really small window of time to skate but during that time we’d make the most of it. We’d tear up the city and through skateboarding I got into punk rock. That’s really where I felt I had a place to belong. I had a voice. I wasn’t just the outcast anymore. I wasn’t this kid with a weird name. I was a part of something.

Did you discover straight-edge in Calgary?

I did. I went to St. Bonaventure in junior high but I got kicked out for getting into so many fights. So I went to St. Augusta which wasn’t an inner-city school but a school closer to the core. There were lots of different kids there; there were other immigrants so I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. And I met some kids there that were really into punk rock. I met this one kid Matt and his brother Toby and they had all these 7 Seconds and Agnostic Front records and that’s where we got into punk.

I started listening to punk when I was in Grade 8 and it was a huge rebellious thing at the time. By Grade 9 we started going to shows and got into bands like DRI and Youth of Today but we were also into local bands like Beyond Possession and Six Feet Under. We knew about straight-edge but we were never straight-edge — we were crazy kids.

I actually didn’t get into straight-edge until I was 20 or 21. I got into it because of two things: First all the guys who I grew up with as soon as we got old enough to go to bars they stopped going to shows and it really upset me because punk was the home I found. It really rubbed me the wrong way going to some crappy bar sitting at the same place every weekend seeing the same people — all of a sudden that was cooler than going to see different bands from all over the place.

The second thing was as I got older I started to have lots of problems with alcohol. I was really angry when I was young so alcohol and I didn’t mix well. And as I got older it started to become a real problem for me. So I quit drinking and straight-edge was the logical next step for me. And here we are 17 years later.

Let’s talk about the Calgary bands you played in. You sang in Consumer Identity with Flemish Eye owner Ian Russell and you were also in local bands like All Rights Reserved and First Class Champs.

All Rights Reserved was part of a little group of bands. There was an incredible band called Road Crew Orange and if you can ever find those demos get them. They were outstanding and the singer now plays in a band called Paint the Damage. Then there was a band called Why? and the three of us were super tight.

It was a great time in music. The whole grunge thing was big — independent music was really really big. And our shows were great. We played the Black Lounge at the university [a lot] and this is when you could still smoke there. The local shows were huge — 50 kids at a show was considered small. It wasn’t weird at all to have bands from B.C. or Edmonton headlining and there’d be 200 kids there.

All Rights Reserved came up with that [scene] and initially we were really inspired by bands like 7 Seconds. We wanted to sound like them but we sucked [laughs]. So we did our best — I played bass in that band. It was me Jeff [Caissie] and this guy Matt played guitar. We did that and we did three demos: The first one was like a poor man’s 7 Seconds the second demo was when we got into more West Coast hardcore — especially the stuff that was going on in Southern California and Seattle. We got into bands like Undertow. And by the third demo we were a much better band. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were a great band but for the time for our age for our skill level we were pretty good.

After All Rights Reserved there was First Class Champs. The music was really awful but it was the first time I ever sang and played guitar. The lyrics were corny too — it was just really young really PC stuff which is interesting because we were super into Agnostic Front and Judge but we also loved these Ebullition bands. It was absurdly political correct and it was terrible. I cringe when I think about it.

Consumer Identity were the first truly great musicians I played with. They were just mind-blowing and they upped my game significantly. Shortly after [the band broke up] I moved to Vancouver and the rest is history.

Beyond your bands what were some of the dominant record stores and venues when you lived here?

Well huge props to [Sloth Records owner] Dave Muir who was always up to something. But let me pull it back a little. There was a place called The Record Store when I was young and going in there was insane. You’d go in as a kid learning about punk it was incredible. This was before the Internet — the way you learned through things was through Thrasher or reading the thank-you lists of all your favourite bands.

Then you’d go out and buy those records. I’d go to Recordland with this huge list and [Beyond Possession’s] Ron Hadley used to work there. I’d be just a little kid in there and I was freaking out. After that there was Sloth and Melodiya.

What kind of shows rolled through Calgary at the time?

Let me tell you one thing. Are you aware of Highwood and InFest? Imagine: As a high school kid I got to see the Ramones Bad Brains Dead Milkmen…. And Dave Muir was behind InFest I believe. That was crazy. My friend Darren tried to pull off the dreads of one of the guys from Bad Brains… he wanted to smoke it or something crazy like that. [Laughs.]

I got to see the Ramones as some little kid in this cow pasture outside of Okotoks. And those festivals drew legitimate weirdos — there were the punk and hardcore kids and we were a tight crew but I remember being there and being like “Whoa this is a freak show.”

There were all these crazy bands [coming to town] and it didn’t feel real to us. If you look at a Cro Mags or a Sick Of It All record it looked like those dudes would jump through brick walls or fought their way through an army of skinheads to just show up to play shows…. So those festivals made [hardcore] more real to me. It inspired me to think “Hey maybe I can do this at a much bigger level.”

Are you surprised that fests like Garbage Daze are carrying on the torch then?

I’m not surprised. In hardcore it’s the kids that make it happen. It doesn’t need promotion companies or the foundations and systems that most music needs to exist. Literally something like Garbage Daze was probably a bunch of friends sitting around being like “Hey wouldn’t it be cool if we did this fest?”

Beyond hardcore you’re a senior consultant for a firm that’s all about leadership development. Do you apply any lessons — or an ethos — you learned from hardcore to your professional life?

Oh totally. One hundred per cent. I go all around the world working with some of the top professionals developing their leadership. It’s been an incredible ride. For 10 years I was a drug and alcohol mental health counsellor and at the same time I was playing in punk bands. All of those things come together for this job and all of my clients know that I’ve had a long history with punk that I’m heavily tattooed and you’d be surprised — there’s many people who are serious business leaders who have a very cool musical background with a deep love and appreciation of music.

There’s instincts you get from being in the punk scene. You get to know people in a really authentic way and that’s really important with my work.

You’ve been in Champion Betrayed the First Step and now Keep It Clear and True Identity. What did you take from each project?

Champion was the coolest thing. We grew up together and we didn’t set out to be a successful band [laughs]. When I joined I thought they were horrible…. None of us had a ton of experience being in touring bands so at that time we were like “Wouldn’t it be cool if we put out a 7-inch?”

But we saw each other through university degrees getting married getting divorced… all of these things happened in the span of the band. It was an incredible experience plus I got to see the world. It was also the first time where I did something that I fully committed to: It was a full leap of faith we quit our jobs and it was something that was well-received. What it did for my self-esteem my belief in what I could do my ability to create things that mattered to people — it was huge to me.

For Betrayed [Carry On and Terror’s] Todd Jones just hit me up one day and was like “Let’s do a band.” The EP came together so easily and it just blew up. They were the band that got the quickest recognition and I toured Europe a bunch of times… I can’t even think of one Betrayed show where I wasn’t like “Wow. That was one of the funnest things I’ve ever done.” It was my first successful shot at being a singer and it taught me a lot about writing lyrics that matter to me.

First Step was fantastic because they were someone else’s band. I joined my favourite band! It was like if you loved Judas Priest then got to join them but didn’t have the pressure. I just went along for the ride. Keep it Clear is the same thing but it’s really [frontman Andrew Patillo]’s vision we’re bringing to life.

How about True Identity? You’re playing your first show during Garbage Daze.

Me and Jim [Hesketh singer of Champion] are doing True Identity and it’s a real focus of mine. True Identity sounds like Youth of Today; that’s the whole goal — to capture the urgency and desperation they had. We live in a desperate time: There’s shortages of work shortages of resources all sorts of things. If you walk down the street in Vancouver the homelessness problem is outrageous. We wanted to capture that things are desperate: Don’t just look at your iPhone and be like “Well everything is fine.”

Then I’m doing another band with Matt Pike [of Some Kind of Hate and the Kenmore Agency booking company] and my friend Marc [Jackson] who used to be in Throwdown and Jared [Carman Down to Nothing ex-Trapped Under Ice]. The band doesn’t have a name yet but it sounds like Judge. Both bands have half records written — it’s going great.

Why did you decide to step down from React? You handed it off to Evan Wivell from Mindset — what direction do you think he had for the label?

I’m not the kind of person that does thing half-assed. When I do something I do it. With React it became unintentionally big. I put out the Get The Most demo and it sold out in days. Then we did the Right Idea record and that sold out quickly too. Then we put out the Mindset record and it was a big change because they were the first band that said “We want to tour.”

When they said that to me I thought “Well [React] isn’t just a hobby it’s a real thing.” Fast forward a few years later we started doing a yearly showcase in California I had a staff we had a space for the label in Seattle. It was amazing how it grew and how people got into the label. But I have a professional career a relationship and friends and there’s no way I could do it all.

I have no interest in trying to live off of music because for me — and this is not for anyone else — it kind of takes away the purity of what you’re doing. Punk or hardcore for me isn’t about a living so I do whatever I want. If you’re trying to make a living off of it you always have to think “Is this going to sell?”

I didn’t want to do that. It got to the point where it was unmanageable: I couldn’t work full-time I was doing my masters and trying live a life. It got to be too much but there was too much value in the label just to close it down. React is a message-driven label — it isn’t about putting out corny records — and it’s about substance putting out bands and records that matter. It’s about culminating a community a vibe.

By the time I got to the peak of the label we’d done that. The records built off each other and the people associated with the label I respected deeply. So instead of shutting it down it transitioned to Evan who has built the label up to new heights. He has the energy of being someone who’s earlier in the [hardcore] cycle. He’s bringing in lots of new bands and I couldn’t be happier with it.

A rumour I heard: Dwid Hellion from Integrity called you on tour when you were with Champion and asked you to break into someone’s house to steal a camera. Did that actually happen?

[Laughs] That totally happened! All right: I’ll give you the whole scoop. Dwid and I got to messaging when people used a lot of instant messengers like AIM. I was geeking out — I still really love early Integrity — and it was like “Whoa here’s this bizarro dude post-Psywarfare post-Integrity 2000 post-him taking photos looking like a rave DJ.”

So I’m losing my mind chatting with him and he was like “Dude I love Champion it’s amazing!” My mind is exploding at this point. I thought he was going to be like “Yo I’ll cut off your ear” but instead he was like “You’re the coolest!”

At one point he said “Are you attached to living in Vancouver and being in Champion? Because we’re going to kick out our guitar player and I want you to move to Cleveland and join Integrity. Move here and live with me.”

Think about that: living with Dwid in Cleveland. I was a young guy but I’m no fool. My eyes were glazing over and I’m seeing myself going in two directions: One was the Aram that stays in the Pacific Northwest and playing Champion and the other was the Aram that moves to Cleveland to live in Dwid’s basement. So what happens to that second Aram who goes down that path? I’m envisioning working in some crappy place wearing wristbands a lot and growing out my hair [laughs].

So I declined because I didn’t want to be evil opposite-universe Aram. Afterwards he asked Champion to go to Europe with Integrity and we turned it down because the timing was wrong. After that I was talking to Dwid all the time. We were boys!

When we played Posi Numbers I hung out with Dwid and [One Life Crew’s] Chubby Fresh. After that I come back home and Dwid tells me ‘I need your help with something. I need you to go to Spanaway.”

Do you know where that is? It’s some small-ass town an hour and a half further south of Tacoma. It’s far away from where I live in Vancouver. Seaweed has a record called Spanaway; it’s nowhereseville.

Anyhow he was like “I need you to go there. Some girl I bought a camera off her and she never sent it to me. I want you to go there and get my camera. Go get it by any means necessary.”

I was like “God Dwid from Integrity is asking me to strong-arm someone from Spanaway!” He wants me to cross an international border drive four hours and strong-arm someone who may or may not have sold him a camera. For a moment I thought about it being like “Whoa wouldn’t that be a crazy story?”

I declined but he was really persistent. Finally he got me to call her. And I will never forget this call. The answering machine was like “Yo yo yo! It’s Charrrlieeee! Drop me a messssage!” And I left a message being all [in the squarest voice] “Excuse me my name is Aram and I’m friends with Dwid… Dwid Hellion. And I’m supposed to pick up this camera from you.” I can just imagine this person who must’ve been like “What a nerd! Who’s this nerd Dwid’s sending to strong-arm me?”

After that I was like “Dwid I’m not doing this. It’s gone too far.” The next time I saw him we were playing Belgium with Slapshot and he showed up dressed like a poet — he was wearing what you’d imagine a European poet wearing — with a black turtleneck black super-tight pants black pointy shoes moussed hair and he was smoking a cigarette. And I was like “Dude what happened to you?”

My involvement with Dwid was the best. I wish all the best to him. I can’t believe all this happened in my life. I grew up in Willow Park Alberta and Dwid from Integrity asked me to strong-arm a woman in Spanaway.

That’s quite the accomplishment. Do you have anything else to add?

Yes! The one thing I think is important no matter what you’re into — punk metal whatever — is [to understand] that these scenes are message driven. For me the most important message one that I’ve been most impacted by is veganism and vegetarianism. Human beings have immense power and animals are defenceless. They’re subject to our whims. If you have as much power as we have the greatest thing you can do is offer mercy to the innocent which are animals. So I encourage everyone to consider a vegetarian or vegan diet. Straightedge is certainly important to me but veganism just trounces that a hundredfold.

I truly think the most beautiful thing we can do as human beings is offer mercy to others.