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The History of Canadian New Wave

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The History of Canadian New Wave
Steve Marlow



            It's difficult to talk about new wave music without first talking about punk music. It's inevitable since the two influenced each other and grew up side by side at times.

            Most music fans know the stories of future stars attending Sex Pistols concerts then going on to form their own bands. Joy Division, The Smiths, The Cure and Depeche Mode can all claim that pedigree. In New York, you'd often see The Ramones (punk), Blondie (new wave) and The Talking Heads (post-punk) playing on the stage at CBGB's on the same night.

            New wave music was a bit hard to define. Any underground music that didn't sound like punk was called new wave. New wave was typically a power pop sound with heavy use of electronics, but roots rock, pub rock, ska, reggae, jazz fusion and even blues ended up being lumped into the new wave movement. Many punk fans actually hated new wave, seeing it as a sell out from punk's confrontational, anti-establishment stance. But, new wave brought the punk ethic of short, punchy songs to the mainstream and paved the way for punk itself to break through into the public consciousness much later.

            As the 80s came around, new wave began to move into the mainstream and bands became staples on commercial radio. Blondie was the first new wave band to hit #1 on the American Top 40 singles charts, and other American bands like The Cars and The Knack started to crop up on radio. The British took to new wave with a passion and sparked a “second British invasion” with bands like Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, The Human League, ABC, The Cure, The Pet Shop Boys and New Order showing up on the American charts. New wave bands were often one-hit-wonders though, showing up for one huge and popular single, then disappearing off the public's radar.


            New wave in Canada started much the same as it did in the UK and the USA, with a grassroots push by a few bands spurring many other bands to try to make their own music. Many people who saw the Sex Pistols or the Ramones live said to themselves, “I can do that! I will do that!”. In Canada, the revolution didn't start in Toronto or Montreal, like you'd expect with most other musical movements in Canada. It happened in Vancouver.

            Before we get into the Vancouver scene, stop for a moment and reflect on what Canadian music looked like at the time. There was little in the way of Canadian produced music because all the major record labels in the world were in the States or in the UK. Independently produced music, as we know is today, was almost unheard of. To make a record, you needed the backing of a record label to have any chance of success, and record label reps didn't come up into Canada very often. By the mid 70s, you could count the number of truly successful Canadian bands on one hand, and those who were successful needed to travel to the States to become successful. Canadian radio was only just discovering its identity and often took its cues from American radio, acting as a carbon copy of what they were doing. Canadian Content laws were only just being established, so there wasn't even much of a chance for a Canadian band to get play on a Canadian radio station. A truly homegrown Canadian band was rare in the extreme.

            In Vancouver, that was about to change, thanks to the tireless efforts of Joe “Shithead” Keithley and his band DOA. Every punk band, every little band in the Vancouver scene and in British Columbia, every teenager that picks up a guitar or drumsticks and tries rock and roll for the first time, owes a huge debt of gratitude to DOA and Joe Keithley. Without DOA, there would be no Canadian underground scene. Without DOA, there would be no punk rock and no new wave in Canada. Without DOA, there would be no small record labels willing to take a chance on Canadian talent. And, like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, hundreds of musicians saw DOA play a rundown Vancouver club, or a small hall in a small Canadian town as the band relentlessly toured Canada and said, “I can do that!”

            DOA started as The Skulls in the late 70s in Vancouver and quickly garnered attention from the States. The band is considered one of the founders of the “hardcore” punk sound, along with seminal punk acts like Black Flag and The Dead Kennedys (singer Jello Biafra formed a long time friendship with Joe Keithley). The band released their first album, Something Better Change, on the tiny Friends Records in 1980 and their best know album, Hardcore '81, a year afterwards. Their arrival onto the American punk scene sparked the Vancouver scene into action and Vancouver became ground zero for Canada's emergence into independent music. Vancouver quickly became a stop for every major punk band in the USA, with DOA often serving as the opening act.

            With DOA at the forefront, Vancouver began producing dozens of excellent punk bands, including The Subhumans, The Action, The Spores, The Dishrags (one of Canada's first all women bands), The Young Canadians (featuring a young Art Bergmann) and others. Many of these bands showed up to produce a couple of songs, or an album, then disappeared. Through DOA's ongoing dedication to the scene; though, many of the recordings of these bands have been preserved and released through Keithley's own record label, Sudden Death Records, which continues to this day to archive the Vancouver scene.

            Vancouver's scene was chronicled in 1979 with a compilation called Vancouver Complication (which has since been re-released by Sudden Death) and featured one of the first performances by one of the most important Canadian new wave bands, The Pointed Sticks. The Pointed Sticks were only around for about four years, between 1978 to 1981, but became the first Canadian band signed to the legendary Stiff Records in the UK, home to new wave giants Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, DEVO, Ian Dury, Lene Lovich and many others. Stiff Records folded before they were able to release anything by the band, but their success spurred the Vancouver scene even more. The Pointed Sticks only released one album, Perfect Youth, but their influence on the scene was undeniable. The band recently reunited in 2006 and are releasing a new album on Northern Electric Records in 2009. Perfect Youth and a compilation called Waiting for the Real Thing have been re-released by Sudden Death.

            Out of The Pointed Sticks' success came many other bands that went on to bigger commercial success. The Payola$, fronted by Paul Hyde and Bob Rock, released several albums during the 80s and are best known for the haunting single “Eyes of a Stranger”. The band never seemed to break out of Canada, but Hyde and Rock became mainstays on the Canadian scene. They teamed together as the band Rock and Hyde in the 80s, playing more radio friendly rock, and garnered a couple of Top 40 hits. Bob Rock became a highly sought after producer, working with bands like Metallica, Cher, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi. Paul Hyde became a producer and a successful solo artist as well. The Payola$ reformed and put out an EP in 2006.

            Vancouver was a proving ground for early synth-pop experiments, with Images in Vogue and Strange Advance as the biggest names. Strange Advance formed in 1980 and produced 3 albums over the next 8 years. They're best known for the singles “World Away”, “We Run” and “World Becomes Electric”. Like many bands in Canada, their success didn't expand much beyond Canada's borders, but their singles were mainstays on the early days of Cancon radio in Canada.

            Images in Vogue was probably one of the most successful new wave bands in Canada, judging simply by what the band members have done since they formed. They formed in 1981 and produced two albums over the next ten years, and a large number of singles and 12” records, and were very popular in club dance play. They're best known for the single “Lust for Love”. Guitarist Don Gordon went on to form the influential industrial act Numb, who released two albums for the important industrial label Metropolis Records. Percussionist Kevin Crompton left the band in 1986, changed his name to cEvin Key and formed Skinny Puppy, one of the most influencial industral bands in the world. We'll return to Key's influence in a little while...

            While not part of the group of musicians that formed the core of the Vancouver new wave and punk scene, Doug and the Slugs, fronted by the late Doug Bennett, were often lumped in with them. Doug and the Slugs mixed rootsy pop with new wave and a ska-tinged horn section  They stringed together some very goofy tunes like “Making it Work” and “Too Bad” and some more serious work like “Chinatown Connection” into several popular Canadian Top 40 hits.

            Other bands worth a footnote are Slow, whose riot at Expo 86 in Vancouver earned them some infamy. Slow changed their name in the early 90s to Copyright and have released a few albums to some success on campus radio. The Kings had a US and Canadian hit with “Switching to Glide”, then disappeared. NoMeansNo, a hybrid jazz/punk/hardcore act from Victoria have been very influential in some corners of punk rock and continue to record today. Bob's Your Uncle , an art rock band that spawned the career of artist and journalist Sook Yin Lee, formed in the mid 80s for a couple of albums. Mecca Normal is a seminal noise rock duo similar to Sonic Youth that still records today.

            Vancouver also owes its success to the rise of a few small record labels that chronicled the scene. Quintessence Records was the most important label for local punk rock, releasing early recordings from DOA, The Subhumans, The Pointed Sticks, and The Young Canadians, along with more obscure acts like U-J3RKS, Blue Northern, The Modernettes and Female Hands. Releases on Quintessence had low print runs, so original albums in good condition often demand a high price from collectors.

            On the new wave and electronic end, Vancouver was ground zero for the industrial movement thanks to Nettwerk Records. Formed in the mid 80s, Nettwerk was the initial home to many emerging Canadian and international electronic artists, including Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly, The Severed Heads, Moev, Sarah MacLachlan, Consolidated, The Grapes of Wrath, The Rose Chronicles, Single Gun Theory and Manufacture. Without Nettwerk Records, the industrial movement would have been much less successful and the world would have been denied so many amazing and innovative bands. Nettwerk took chances on many unknown and experimental bands in their early years and continue to do so today.

            The new wave movement in Vancouver gave birth to the industrial movement in the mid 80s, setting Vancouver as one of the most important places to hear industrial music, alongside other big cities like Berlin, London, Chicago and New York. Skinny Puppy, with its dark, ominous, grinding sound, became one of the most important bands in the movement. Over 12 years, the band released 9 albums, each more influential and critically acclaimed than the last. Most of them were released by the homegrown Nettwerk Records and helped the label become the success it is today. cEvin Key himself has been responsible for many side-projects for his numerous excursions into different territories. Some of them include Hilt, Doubting Thomas, Propeller, platEAU, Cyberaktif, Tear Garden and Download. Vocalist Nivek Ogre has released music under his own solo project OhGr, plus he worked with Al Jorgenson in Ministry and with KMFDM. Bill Leeb, an early member of Skinny Puppy, formed Vancouver's other industrial giant, Front Line Assembly, who had a more robotic and heavier sound, and have almost 15 albums to their credit. Leeb works with producer Rhys Fulber under the name Delerium with moderate commercial success.

            Today, Vancouver is still one of Canada's most important centres for independent music, still fuelled in part by Joe Keithley, who still plays in DOA, promotes local concerts, runs his record label and involves himself in local politics. Chronicling the large amount of music coming from Vancouver is too much of an undertaking for this article, though it's worth checking out some of the bands that call Vancouver home.


            Toronto's scene, while being less focused than Vancouver's, produced many of the most commercially successful new wave acts produced in Canada. The Toronto scene, like Vancouver, is rooted in punk rock, with bands like The Forgotten Rebels, Hamilton's Teenage Head, The Diodes and The Viletones making early strides in the Toronto area. But, it wasn't until the mid 80s that Toronto started to find its way.

            Toronto did have its punk rock bands, but the new wave scene there was more based in simple radio pop. Most of the bands that came out of the new wave scene didn't have the arty aesthetic you'd commonly see in new wave music. Only a few bands stood out in artistic merit.

            One of the most successful bands from the Toronto area was Platinum Blonde, who were often compared to Duran Duran during their career. Formed as a trio and fronted by UK expat Mark Holmes, they debuted their first album, Standing in the Dark, in 1983 to immediate success. The singles “Standing in the Dark” and “Doesn't Really Matter” were immediate hits, thanks to heavy play on Canada's MuchMusic video channel. Their second album , Alien Shores, added ex-Deserters guitarist and bassist Kenny McLean and spawned more hits, “Crying Over You” and “Hungry Eyes” among them. Their third album, Contact, was a lesser hit, but was still quite successful for the band. After an album under the name The Blondes, the band broke up in the early 90s. And, again, the band failed to make much of a dent outside of Canada, but were huge stars within our own borders.

            The Spoons were another big band to come out of Toronto. Their atmospheric style of new wave was reminiscent of Simple Minds. They released their debut album, Stick Figure Neighbourhood, in 1981 and followed it up with 1982's Arias and Symphonies, which included their biggest hit, the sparse “Nova Heart”. In 1983, they released Talkback, produced by internationally known musician Nile Rodgers and containing the hits “Tell No Lies” and “Romantic Traffic”, both of which were big hits for them on Canadian radio. The band was also the cornerstone act on Toronto's Ready Records, which was responsible for releasing many seminal Ontario new wave acts, including Blue Peter, The Wives,  Teenage Head, The Demics and The Extras, and for releasing the first recordings for Latin jazz act Manteca and blues guitarist Colin Linden.

            Rough Trade was Toronto's answer to Blondie, fronted by the brusque and sultry Carole Pope, a leather-clad evil-mirror-image of Blondie's Debbie Harry. Founded way back in 1968, the band hit their stride in the early 80s with the controversial hit “High School Confidential”, shocking at the time for the lesbian themes in the song. In 1982, they scored another Canadian hit with “All Touch” and the song also became their only American top 100 chart hit. The band broke up in 1988, and Pope now works as a producer and has released several solo albums.

            Martha and the Muffins formed in 1977 and were one of a handful of Canadian new wave acts to break outside of Canada with their 1980 hit “Echo Beach”. The band formed as a trio with David Miller, Mark Gane and vocalist Martha Johnson. Martha and the Muffins had a subtle and cool electro-pop sound to them, distant but emotional at the same time. They had several hits in Canada after their initial fame around the world with “Echo Beach”, from their debut album Metro Music. Their 1981 album, This is the Ice Age, was one of the first albums produced by Daniel Lanois. In 1983, the band changed their name to M+M and recorded “Black Stations/White Stations” which became a hit in the USA. “Cooling the Medium” was another big hit for the band, charting in Canada and on the US dance charts. The band broke up in 1992 but Johnson has continued her career as a children's music artist, for which she has won a Juno.

            The band Boys Brigade formed in 1980 and had several minor hits like “Mannequin”, “The Passion of Love” and “Melody” and had a dreamy pop sound. They released their one and only album, a self-titled effort, in 1983, which was produced by Rush's Geddy Lee.

            An early experiment at an all-girl rock act similar to the Runaways gave rise to the B-Girls. They formed in 1977 and released one album before breaking up in 1981. Singer Locasta Ross went on to form the short-lived Minutes From Downtown with ex-Popular Spies member Graham Stairs and released a marvellously catchy and underrated single “Heaven Street”. Stairs went on to work behind the scenes with Intrepid Records and Ross worked with Revolver Records.

            Other bands from the Toronto area with commercial success included The Parachute Club, fronted by vocalist Lorraine Segato, known for their upbeat, rootsy take on new wave and their hits “Rise Up”, “Dancing at the Feet of the Moon” and “Love and Fire”, featuring Darryl Hall and John Oates. Segato has released a couple of solo albums with some success on adult-oriented radio.

            Pukka Orchestra were a rootsy new wave act known for their cover of Tom Robinson's “Listen to the Radio” and the songs “Cherry Beach Express” and “Might as Well Be On Mars”. Most of the members of Pukka Orchestra now work in a band called Autocondo.

            Blue Peter was a Bowie-esque dancy rock act had an important hit with “Don't Walk Past” in 1983, but they broke up in 1985 before gaining much success outside of Canada.

            FM formed in 1976 as a progressive rock band featured bandage-wrapped electric violinist Nash the Slash and vocalist Ben Mink. They had their best success in the mid 80s, with the album Tonight, featuring the hit “She Does What She Wants”.

            The Arrows had several hits in the mid-80s with “Meet Me in the Middle”, “Talk Talk” and “Chains”.

            Alta Moda was a funk/new wave act famous for spawning bands like The Infidels and Big Sugar, and the later success of vocalist Molly Johnson, who is a jazz singer today.

            Punk/new wave crossover act, The Battered Wives, debuted in 1978, and quickly changed their name to the more acceptable The Wives for their second album, 1979's Cigarettes. The band broke up in 1980. Vocalist Toby Swann recorded a solo album and drummer Cleave Anderson went on to work with Blue Rodeo.

            Lisa Dal Bello, a Toronto based singer, started as a disco singer in the late 70s. Her 1981 album, whomanfoursays, spawned a minor hit with “Gonna Get Close to You”. Dal Bello re-emerged in 1987 with an edgier sound and produced the hits “Black on Black” and “Tango”.

            Toronto is, of course, now one of Canada's major music centres, with dozens of record labels and hundreds of bands plying their trade. The new wave banner is currently being hoisted by Metric, who are poised to break into major indy-music stars. Metric's Emily Haines' sexy vocals and the jangly, driving sound of the band have them being compared to Blondie.


            In Montreal, the new wave scene was very scattered and very arty, as Montreal is wont to do. The bands that came from Quebec in the 80s were more experimental, more obtuse and more musically accomplished than most of the other bands in Canada at the time. The bands known for the Montreal scene were a mix of dense synth-pop, jazz rock, garage rock and prog-rock and did not hang together like the Vancouver scene did. However, a lot of bands with international success came from Montreal and the scene produced some of the country's most critically acclaimed albums in the new wave genre.

            The most successful band from Montreal was probably Ivan Doroschuk's Men Without Hats, best known for their international hits “Safety Dance” and ”Pop Goes the World”. Formed in 1977, MWH had a pure synth-pop sound that sounded like a British band like Depeche Mode. Their 1982 debut full length Rhythm of Youth remains a striking landmark in new wave and synth-pop and still sounds fresh to this day.  1984's Folk of the 80s Part III was less of a commercial success, but captured the band's crisp synth-pop sound well, and produced the hit “Where Do the Boys Go?”. In 1987, the band scored their second international hit with the album Pop Goes the World, featuring the title track and “Moonbeam”. By 1991, MWH had a more rock-based sound and released Sideways, after which the band went on hiatus. They returned in 2003 for the album No Hats Beyond This Point.

            Former Hat, Tracy Howe, left the band early in their career and formed Rational Youth and Jean-Marc Pisapia left to form The Box, two of Montreal's more successful new wave acts. Rational Youth further cemented Montreal's reputation for arty, pure synth-pop, and had an icy, distant feel similar to the work of Gary Numan. Their 1982 album Cold War Night Life is one of the finest examples of new wave from Canada and gave the band minor hits with “Dancing on the Berlin Wall” and “Saturdays in Silesia”. Rational Youth broke up in the late 80s but have performed several reunion shows over the years.

            The Box had a more rock based, progressive sound than most bands of the era and gained success outside of Quebec. They first garnered national attention in 1984 with “Must I Always Remember” and “Walk Away”. In 1985, they followed up with “My Dreams of You” and in 1987 with “Closer Together” and “Ordinary People”, all Canadian top 40 hits for the band. “Closer Together” also marked the first recorded appearance of Sass Jordan, who went on to a very successful solo career. The band didn't have much success outside of Canada. They disbanded in 1992 but reformed in 2005 for a new album Black Dog There.

            Lawrence Gowan, a keyboardist, mixed elements of new wave and progressive rock into a sound similar to Supertramp. His 1985 album, Strange Animal, is one of the highest selling Canadian albums released in the 80s and had no less than four Top 40 hits: “A Criminal Mind”, “Strange Animal”, “Cosmetics” and “Geurilla Soldier”. His 1987 album, Great Dirty World, teamed him with Jon Anderson of Yes with the single “Moonlight Desires”. In the early 90s, Gowan moved his sound to a more adult-contemporary sound with great success. Today, he serves as the lead singer for the long-running prog-rock band Styx.

            Alfie Zappacosta had a style similar to Gowan, merging new wave, rock and pop into a palatable radio stew. He served as a member of 70s rock act Surrender before going solo, simply known as Zappacosta. His 1984 self-titled debut featured “Passion” and “We Should Be Lovers”. He still tours as a solo act and has a more radio friendly pop/jazz sound.

            Luba Kowalchyk (stage name Luba) scored several new wave tinged singles with “Let it Go” and “Giving Away a Miracle”. She debuted in 1980 and hit with “Let it Go” and “Storm Before the Calm” in 1984. She won three back to back “Female Vocalist of the Year” awards at the Junos. She is still recording and releasing music and now lives in the Caribbean.

             Lastly, one-hit wonder Trans-X delivered some cheesy, robotic synth-rock with “Living on Video”, a minor hit.

            Montreal also had some of the most interesting punk rock bands in the country. The Gruesomes were a mop-topped garage rock band that took its visual cues from The Flintstones' ghoulish next door neighbours. They released 4 albums of primal 60s-style garage rock, which have recently been re-released by Ricochet Records. The Ripcordz are a Canadian punk-rock institution, touring as hard as DOA and having ten albums to their credit since 1980. The Nils were a short lived punk/power pop band in the mid 80s that influenced many local bands that came after them. Lastly, the sludgy, garage-rock sound of Deja Voodoo helped define the sound of Og Records, the premier punk rock label in Montreal at the time. They were unusual in that they only used a two-man line up to produce their music. They're famous for the Voodoo BBQs, a music and food festival, the last of which was held in 2006.

            Today, Montreal is one of the best places in Canada to hear innovative new music. The electro-rock and electronic music flag is waved high here. Montreal hosts the annual electronic-music festival Mutek and is home to many summer music festivals, including the huge Pop Montreal festival. And they still produce excellent new wave styled music. Alien8 Records features experimental and new wave/noise acts with bands like Think About Life, Les Georges Leningrad, Lesbians on Ecstasy, Tim Hecker and Ottawa's Sam Shalabi on their roster. Montreal is also home to some of the world's best drone-rock/post-rock bands and home to the label Constellation, run by the band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The well-respected electronic label Ninja Tune operates out of Montreal as well, producing challenging electronic and dance music.


            Finding a new wave act outside of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver was unusual, but several towns produced successful or notable bands.

            The Northern Pikes hailed from Saskatoon and had several new wave tinged hits in the late 80s, “Teenland” being the most notable. They moved to a more pure rock sound in the 90s, producing hits with “She Ain't Pretty”.

            Chalk Circle, whose startlingly emotional rock produced several hits, had success with songs such as “This Mourning”, “April Fool” and a cover of T. Rex's “20th Century Boy”.

            Eight Seconds were a pop band with a new wave tinge from Ottawa. Their one and only hit came in 1987 with “Kiss You When It's Dangerous”

            The Demics was a short lived new wave/punk band from London, Ontario. They produced one album in 1980, a self-titled effort. Their short career was chronicled in a compilation in 1986 and their song “New York City” was voted one of the best Canadian songs in Chart Magazine in the same year.

            The Grapes of Wrath formed in Kelowna, BC in 1983 and were an early signing to Nettwerk Records in Vancouver. Their sparse, folk-tinged music was often compared to R.E.M. Their 1987 album Treehouse was their breakthrough and produced their first hit, “Peace of Mind”. They found more success into the early 90s with hits like “You May Be Right” and “All The Things I Wasn't”. The band broke up in 1992, but reformed under the name Ginger for three albums. All the member of the trio still work in music.


            Of course, many Canadian towns have thriving independent music scenes, thanks to the efforts of the early pioneers of punk and new wave music in Canada. Today, even the smallest band can produce something in their bedrooms thanks to more easily available technology and recording equipment. But the impetus can be tracked back to the early 70s with the nascent scenes in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, and again tracing back to London and New York City.


Selected Discography


Blue Peter – Radio Silence (Ready Records, 1980)

The Box – All the Time, All the Time, All the Time (Alert Records, 1986)

The Diodes – Tired of Waking Up Tired: The Best of the Diodes (Sony, 1998)

Doug and the Slugs – Cognac and Bologna (Ritdong, 1980)

Gowan – Strange Animal (Columbia, 1985)

The Gruesomes – Hey! (Og, 1988, Ricochet Sound, 2009)

Images in Vogue – In the House (Quality Records, 1985)

Martha and the Muffins - Metro Music (DinDisc, 1979)

Martha and the Muffins – This is the Ice Age (DinDisc, 1981)

M+M – Danseparc (DinDisc, 1983)

Men Without Hats – Rhythm of Youth (Statik, 1982)

Men Without Hates – Folk Of the 80s Part III (Statik, 1984)

Men Without Hats – Freeways EP (Statik, 1985)

Metric – Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (Last Gang, 2003)

The Payola$ - In a Place Like This (A&M, 1981)

The Payola$ - No Stranger to Danger (A&M, 1982)

Platinum Blonde – Standing in the Dark (CBS, 1983)

Platinum Blonde – Alien Shores (CBS, 1985)

Pointed Sticks – Perfect Youth (Sudden Death, re-release 2005)

Rational Youth – Cold War Night Life (Yul, 1982)

Rough Trade – Avoid Freud (True North, 1980)

Rough Trade – For Those Who Think Young (True North, 1981)

Skinny Puppy – Remission EP (Nettwerk, 1984)

The Spoons – Arias and Symphonies (Ready, 1982)

The Spoons – Talkback (Ready, 1983)

Strange Advance – Worlds Away (Capitol, 1982)

Teenage Head – Teenage Head (Epic, 1979)

Young Canadians – No Escape (Sudden Death, re-released 2005)

V/A – Vancouver Complication (Sudden Death, re-released 2007)


            Steve Marlow lives and writes in Kamloops, BC. He has a keen interest in all things Canadian, from music to history to professional wrestling. He publishes the perzine Psychlone and the review zine The Curmudgeon. You can reach him by email at