Hostage Life is a band from Canada and one that, from the get-go, had me hooked. The band is melodic and malicious, aggressive and accessible, cynical and comical, and simply rock out with a potency that very few have done since the first Dillinger Four album. This interview is with the band’s vocalist, Colin Lichti, and conducted via email during September 2007.
Interview by Steve Scanner, http://www.scannerzine.com/
Photos provided, with permission, by the band via: http://www.formertransformer.com/
Steve: Just tell us how you all met and why you put the band together? What were your main goals when the band formed in 2002?
Colin: I got the idea to put a band together after having two years off from playing in bands. From the age of nineteen to twenty-four I had been singing, as both a creative outlet, and as a way to deal with some of my pent-up aggression. By twenty-six, I was losing my mind. I missed it so badly. I needed to get together with some folks and yell again. I started off just writing songs with Hostage Life’s first guitarist, John. It was great. I really liked writing with him. From there we recruited Eric, then my best friend Adam—Hostage Life was his first band—and then Paul. I had met everyone from playing in bands and partying. Shortly after we released our first demo (two songs of which are included on the U.K. release of Sing for the Enemy), John quit and we brought Hai in. Like everyone else, we knew Hai from the Toronto punk scene. Adam was the next to defect, and Patrick replaced him. We met Patt through his old band, The Atomic Drops, whom Hostage Life had played a few shows with and really liked. Eric was the most recent member to bail. He was later replaced by Patrick’s brother, Shamus.
With the exception of John, who none of us even see anymore, we are still on really good terms with everyone who quit. During hockey season, I’m usually at Eric’s place on Saturday night for hockey night in Canada. And I consider Adam to be the best friend I have ever had. Eric and Adam’s decisions to leave had nothing to do with personality conflict. They left because they wanted to get on with their lives and not ruin the rest of the guys’ fun because they couldn’t devote as much time and energy.
Musically, we always wanted to play punk rock. No flashiness, no pandering to trends. We were never concerned with what subgenre we fit into. We just wanted to play the kind of music we enjoy. Me, I’m stuck in a fucking time warp. I’ve been listening to the same stuff for a decade and a half. I love the music that this band produces. If I wasn’t in it, I’d be a fan.
Steve: You’ve all played in bands previous to Hostage Life. You were in Marilyns Vitamin, Eric was in Engage and other members have been in Blank Stare and Atomic Drops. Given the different stylings of those bands, did you find that there were different directions that each of you wanted to take Hostage Life in?
Colin: I really like the bouillabaisse of writing styles that exists in this band. We have four active songwriters all with very different writing styles. I never made friends with an instrument, but I occasionally come up with song melodies that I sing to the boys, and we all write from there. I think it really works because we are all operating with the same kind of artistic vision for the band in mind. When we all got together, we made it very clear that this was going to be a punk band; a punk band that operated more on the rock’n’roll side of things. No ska, no metal, no stupid haircuts and crying. Everyone liked that idea and we’ve stuck to it.
Steve: What do you hope Hostage Life will achieve that those bands failed to do?
Colin: Our mandate has been that this band must be fun to be in. We only want to do things that make us comfortable and only want to make music we would listen to. So far, mission accomplished.
Steve: Why did Eric leave the band? Has the introduction of Shamus— Patrick’s brother—on bass changed any dynamic within the band?
Colin: Eric left the band to get his personal life in order. Initially he wanted to work towards becoming a fire fighter, but that has changed. Now, he’s seriously considering becoming a police officer. I think that’s a horrible idea and I’ve told him so. I mean, I love Eric, but all politics aside, I’m not too keen on a friend of mine choosing a career that has being shot or stabbed as an occupational hazard. Interestingly enough, Shamus’, and thus Patrick’s, father was an undercover narc for the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) for many years. We’ve got a lot of cop surrounding us.
Steve: What has he brought to the band that was previously lacking?
Colin: I’d have to say pugilism. We get into more fights since he joined; and by that I mean one. I suppose that is a side effect of being in a band that is forty percent Irish.
Steve: The band recently released its debut full-length album, Walking Papers. It shows a progression in terms of varying moods and dynamics from the more direct EP, Sing for the Enemy. Is that something you would agree with?
Colin: The differences between Walking Papers and Sing for the Enemy definitely arose from the number of line-up changes that we went through. Sing for the Enemy was written almost entirely by me and John. Walking Papers had more hands shaping it, and I think that made it a better album.
Steve: Given the benefits of hindsight, is there any aspect of the album that you would now change?
Colin: I wouldn’t change shit about Walking Papers, except for a couple song mixes. There’s one part on “Hostage Life Are Fucking Alive and Well” where the guitars drop out and it makes me cringe. Who knows, maybe in ten years, when I look back at it, the imperfections will be what endears it to me.
Steve: I think the album was the first time any of you—except yourself with Marilyns Vitamins—had recorded a full album. Did you approach the recording of an album differently from that of an EP/single?
Colin: We took the recording for Walking Papers a lot more seriously than we did for Sing for the Enemy, and we demanded a lot more of the engineer. It ended up taking a long time to finish; far longer than we anticipated, and, I think, during the process, everyone had one pissed-off meltdown. We used a studio in an old box factory and after two months the dank started to get to us. Didn’t help that there was a wood shop next door with a dude running a power saw twelve hours a day. If you listen close, you can probably hear it on the recording.
Steve: “How to Die With a Smile” deals with euthanasia, yeah?
Colin: I think it’s pretty obvious that I support a terminally ill person’s right to terminate their own life.
Steve: Do you support the right of someone who is terminally ill to make such a decision? Could this not set a precedent for state-supported suicide?
Colin: The state should not force people who are in pain to remain alive. To me, matters such as this are a no-brainer. What a person does with her/his body is her/his business. This goes for drug use, physical augmentation, consensual sex, and, yes, assisted suicide. It should be noted that only a fucking nimrod would suggest that this previous statement means I support depressed fourteen-year-olds slashing at their wrists with steak knives. Those people need help. Suicide is a bad cure for depression. However, a fourteen-year-old terminal cancer patient, spending every day of his or her life in utter anguish with no hope of recovery—that person should be granted the freedom to escape the agony that living causes them. No one on this planet: no institution, no body of government, no family member, no fucking pope, has the right to tell anyone else what they can or can’t do with their body.
Steve: That song, coupled with “When I Get Cancer” suggests you are very aware of your own mortality. You ponder your own death a great deal and, should you get cancer, is that when you will “consider regrets” as the song states?
Colin: In the year or two leading up to Walking Papers, I was spending a lot of time thinking about my mortality. I used to have a pretty big fear of death. I was convinced, irrationally so, at age twenty-seven that I wouldn’t live to see thirty. I’m a heavy smoker/drinker/drug user, have been for quite some time, and I’ve never had any illusions that this will catch up with me. I just enjoy partying so much. The idea of an afterlife is ludicrous, I am well aware that this is all I’m going to get. But, yeah, it will probably take my first cancer scare to get me to clean up my act. “When I Get Cancer” was written as a metaphor for how Homo Sapiens treat the planet. Collectively, we treat the environment as poorly as I treat my own body. Much like I will one day regret the four thousand cigarettes I’ve inhaled, we, as a species, will one day regret how uninhabitable we’ve made earth.
Steve: An album highlight for me is “Securing My Seat (On the Hostage Life Board of Directors).” Can you just explain the ideas behind this song? There’s a bit of lyrical imagery about dead bodies, but I guess the song is about cut-throat business tactics. Do I have that correct?
Colin: You are exactly correct. “Securing…” is intended to be a commentary on the championing of greed that occurs in both the business world and society at large. Perhaps I’m just terribly naïve, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if humans put a greater emphasis on making sure that everyone in the group has enough to get by, as opposed to a group comprised of individuals all fighting to gain the most? I’m an incredibly lucky person, in that the majority of people I associate with on a daily basis are kind, generous, selfless people. It’s when I step out of the tiny bubble that surrounds my life, and work in an office, or get mugged walking home at 2AM that I realize how fucking selfish and cold this world is. Fortunately, I’ve spent more time in bars and at my friends’ apartments than I have in veal pen office cubicles.
Steve: The lyrical direction of the album is somewhat more cryptic than that on the EP, and it works stunningly well. Lyrically, “Hell Awaits Hostage Life” is one of the best songs about religion that I can remember for many years. How important to Hostage Life is writing lyrics that make the listener think as opposed to bludgeoning them with base diatribes?
Colin: Hey, thanks for the compliment. The music that I have always found the most compelling has always been music that makes me think. Not to say that I can’t enjoy a sappy love song, it’s just I prefer to have a little more meat under the gravy. It’s always a great feeling to learn that someone has been able to connect with something I have written. Music is a performance art, it requires an audience. It follows then that you should constantly be trying to engage your audience. It’s far better to do that by raising questions than it is to come forward yelling, “Listen up, fools, I have the solutions.” I mean, I don’t have any answers, I have some suggestions, maybe—like maybe we should stop worshipping invisible men who live in the sky; it’s a bad idea to assault people and take their shit, crack heads are annoying but should still be treated with dignity. Simply spewing a shit-load of slogans and facts at someone is not only boring, but rather arrogant. Who the fuck am I to tell anyone how to live? I don’t buy into that horseshit about every entertainer has an obligation to be involved in politics. Fuck that. The last thing anyone in the world needs is another uninformed blowhard asshead with no other qualifications than a loud voice screaming at them to mend their ways and tear down something—anything, the state, the cops, Bush. Most musicians I know are stupid. Doesn’t it make anyone nervous that Bono… fucking Bono… is invited to the UN to speak? He wrote that fucking song “The Sweetest Thing.” That song’s moronic.
Steve: Did achieving widespread commercial radio play with “This Song Was Written by a Committee” surprise you—especially when it ridicules the music industry for employing ‘scientific formula’ to search for the elusive mainstream hit?
Colin: Buddy, nobody foresaw all the hype that would swirl around that song. The fact that it was embraced by mainstream radio and television was incredibly funny to us. I mean, we didn’t ask for it to happen, we just all got emails one day saying that it had been added into Edge 102.1 FM’s rotation. Amusingly enough, the decision to air the song was made during a board meeting of all the DJs and the program directors… it was like life imitating art.
Steve: You ever considered sending one of your songs to that Hit Song Science scheme just to see the results? I think it’d be great for you to get an opinion on that song!
Colin: I’ve never heard of Hit Song Science before. It sounds wonderfully awful.
Steve: The titles of the band’s songs are followed by subtitles that are both intriguing and cynical. Is this an intentional trademark, or something that came outta the blue and has been continued?
Colin: I used to write a serialized chap book called Let’s All Die and the idea for subtitles for the songs came from my subtitling of every chapter. It will probably continue because I find it funny.
Steve: Given the propensity for using “fuck” in song titles, has the band ever faced the evils of censorship in any way or even offended the holier-than-thou righteous punk crowd with titles like “Of Shotguns and Pleasure Wands/ A Sincere Tip of the Hat to That Cocksucker Lenny Bruce”? I kinda think if you have managed to piss off the right-on crowd, then that’s a job well done!
Colin: I’m a profane man. I love swear words. I love words that make people squirm. There is nothing more abhorrent to me than the destruction of language. We’ve actually played a few shows where we agreed in a contract to not swear on stage. I regret doing it. Both shows ended with the organizers extremely upset, and me feeling like a sucker. The first instance, I threw the contract out the window and dedicated the final few words of “We Will Make You Crawl” to the owners of the venue; incidentally, I had worked for them in the past and had been fucked over by them with a worker’s compensation claim when I broke a rib. The second incident involving a similar “clean” contract, found the promoter hating us, not for our use of profanity, but for speaking negatively of drug prohibition laws, and suggesting that neither god nor the devil exist. Served us right. We agreed to do the show without researching it thoroughly. It was put on by a Christian organization, and had we known that, we would have never agreed to work with them.
I don’t know if I’ve ever offended the holier-than-thou self-righteous punk crowd. If anyone is offended by the alternate title of “Of Shotguns and Pleasure Wands” then that would certainly be a prime example of what I find to be a problem with the left wing. First off, why would this person only focus on the word “cocksucker” and not on the name “Lenny Bruce”? The title is a homage to Bruce, who, aside from making the most poignant remark on North America’s schizophrenic relationship with sex and violence—“You can bite off a nipple in Central Park but you can’t suck one”—was arrested in the ‘60s in America for uttering the word “cocksucker” during a stand-up comedy routine. Bruce wasn’t even being homophobic; he was trying to point out how ludicrous it was for a public school teacher, who had recently been outed in his community, to lose his job for being homosexual. Cocksucker, in the context of this song, and in the context of Bruce’s joke, was not homophobic. It’s just a fucking word and using it is not inherently wrong. Anyone that is so hell bent on making the world a nice, pretty place where everyone is equal should realize that their goal will never be accomplished if their method includes the destruction of language. The fewer words we have, the harder it will be for us to communicate.
Steve: The band is signed in the U.K. to Household Name Records in London. You must be real pleased to be on such a respected label that is run by two of most sincere people I have had the pleasure to know. How did the band hook up with the HHN gang?
Colin: We hooked up with Household Name through our Canadian label, Underground Operations. Underground Operations sent our disc to a bunch of different labels to see if anyone wanted to license it or distribute it. Household Name showed interest, and after we saw the great bands that they were already working with (Hard Skin, Bombshell Rocks) we were like, this sounds pretty good. I’ve never met anyone from HHN. I have conversed with Lil (co-owner of Household Name) over email but that’s it. Hai went on a trip to Europe recently and he and his girlfriend Chelsea met up with Lil when they were in London. Hai said that Lil was a great guy and that he paid for both he and Chelsea’s pints. That’s the way to do it. The way to Hostage Life’s heart is through our livers.
Steve: You play any covers when you play live? I know you are big Clash and Stiff Little Fingers fans. You got any plans to record any covers?
Colin: We are definitely big Clash fans, and without a doubt, one of the highlights of our career was opening up for SLF last summer in Toronto. In terms of covers, we’ve never tackled an SLF song, but we were asked by Chelsea (the young lady who was with Hai when he met up with Lil) and her family to play a set of Clash songs for her father’s fiftieth birthday. He was a huge Clash fan back in the day and had followed them around on one of their Canadian tours. For that party we tried to play songs from every era of the band’s existence—every era except Cut the Crap, of course. We played everything from “Janie Jones” to “Spanish Bombs” to “Police on My Back” which is a cover of a cover, but fuck it, who cares? We don’t usually play any Clash live, but every now and again we break out “Clampdown.” We used to cover “Mr. Suit” by Wire, and recorded a couple demos of it, but they’ve never been released. We reworked and rearranged Tapper Zuke’s “MPLA,” and it’s become a staple of our live set. We hope to record it for the next album, providing we can get copyright clearance.
Steve: I note you’ve played the Warped Tour. How did you find that? You prefer those large shows or the more intimate club shows?
Colin: I hate Warped Tour. We’ve played it twice now, and I can’t stand it. First off, smaller acts like us do not get paid. Here you have 40,000 kids paying forty bucks or more to get in, and something like 90% of the bands are not getting paid. Secondly, you have to arrive at the grounds between 7AM and 9AM, and me, I don’t function that well before noon. I don’t want to be anywhere doing anything band related in the morning. Hostage Life is for the night. Thirdly, if you show up late, the security and the stage managers start yelling at you like a boss. It’s all just one big stupid headache as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never had a good time playing it. I definitely prefer smaller venues to big ones.
Steve: Given that the Warped Tour is sponsored by Vans and you have a track on the new album titled, “Hostage Life’s Legally Distinct Cola Commercial,” do you not consider there is an oxymoron present here? The song is basically a tirade against product endorsements, yet the main sponsor of Warped is a commercial product. That’s a bit of a contradiction in terms is it not? It’s even more contradictory when considering the song “Nickel Sneakers” from the debut EP.
Colin: Good question, man. First off, “…Cola Commercial” is not intended to be a tirade against product endorsement. It was written out of my frustration towards the advertising world and what I see as its contempt for the average consumer. Television ads, particularly, address their audience as though they were morons. Everything is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator to the point where certain cola companies and fast food restaurants actually believe that if they have this week’s buzz musician hawking their wares, the moron watching from her/his couch will be compelled to purchase it. The song is not a diatribe against the artist that would choose to do this. Being a musician is a tough thing to live off. Very few ever make enough to make rent, much less afford to pay for their gear/van/meals. I see nothing wrong with a musician licensing a song for a shit-load of money. It’s their song! They can do with it as they choose. The lyric Paul sings before the song’s end refrain, “I want a dumpster of cash driven up my ass/ I need this check for first and last,” is not tongue in cheek. I view artists as workers, just like any other profession, and I disagree with the idea that it is wrong for artists to remain poor in order to create. This isn’t to say that Hostage Life is looking to sell a song to a commercial, because that isn’t something everyone in the band would feel comfortable doing. However, we’re not going to get in anyone’s face for managing their band differently than we do ours. I spend enough time dealing with my own band to spend any worrying about someone else’s.
Now, again, you need only read the first verse of “Nickel Sneaker” to see that I am not attacking artists that choose to align themselves with corporate sponsors (“a van’s a sweatshop when you’re on tour, so who can blame anyone for playing the whore?”). My intention is to neither condemn nor condone this type of thing. The idea behind “Nickel Sneakers,” was to point out the moral compromises that people in the western world are forced to make as a result of the practices of multinational corporations. i.e.: no one really wants to wear clothes that are made by children or poorly paid laborers, however, the average suburban family—or me for that matter—would be hard pressed to find many affordable alternate choices. The fact that Vans outsourcers labor for the production of their shoes isn’t exclusive to them; it’s a common practice. I only mention it in the song, however, to point out that among punk rockers there has always been a “fuck Nike and their evil business practices” attitude that hasn’t been extended to other companies with similar business practices. I’m not saying what’s right or wrong, just making some observations.
Steve: You also played on MTV Canada, did you not? How did that come about? The above question could also be applied to this, given MTV’s global position as a corporate giant, or were you using MTV for your own gains? I mean, if the medium exists, why not use it, huh?
Colin: As far I can remember, MTV Canada approached us about playing. They’ve actually done a pretty good job of supporting the local music community in Toronto, providing a lot of lesser-known bands from the area with a chance to reach a broader audience. Why did we go on MTV? My motivation was to have a chance where I could say, “Look, mom, I’m on TV.” I’ve been in bands for almost ten years and my mother had never seen us play once. Incidentally, she doesn’t get MTV Canada and was unable to see us play after all! That and we all thought it would be fun. And it was. Everyone who worked there was really pleasant. They fed us and didn’t seem to care that we left two hours before we played and drank a lot at a local bar. It was a win, win kind of day.
Steve: Tell us a bit about life in Toronto, Canada.
Colin: I love Toronto. I’ve lived here for twelve years and since I moved here I have made amazing friends, and honestly have no desire to leave. It’s a very multicultural place which, for me, translates into one of the greatest culinary places to live in the world. On any given street you can find Middle Eastern cuisine, African, Mexican, Asian, it’s a great place to eat.
Steve: You guys have jobs there, or is the band a full-time deal? Tell us a bit about that.
Colin: We all do different stuff in the city. I just graduated from UT, Patt and Shamus bounce around from job to job, but are currently working for their dad as private eyes— seriously—how funny is that? Hai Vu, well, none of us really understand what he does for a living, but he makes the most money out of all of us. And, Paul runs Samo Media. Samo is a CD and vinyl brokerage house. They help labels and bands get all their shit together for their releases. It’s cool because my girlfriend works there as one of Paul’s employees and she loves it. I work for a research company currently as a focus group host, which pretty much makes me a glorified waiter and receptionist. It rules though, because I do very little actual work. In fact, I wrote almost all of this interview during one of my shifts.
Steve: What’s it like as a city to live in? Is there a thriving punk rock scene? Is it a good city for a punk to live?
Colin:Toronto has a great music scene. There are so many good bands here, and a lot of great people involved. Like anywhere, there are some sketch bags, and some inter-scene politics, but nothing that bad. Mostly, every musician that we know is friendly, regardless of how famous or infamous they may be. This has always been a great city for punk rock and hardcore. I would have to say that right now this is more of a hardcore city than a punk rock city, but that is far from a bad thing.
Steve: What’s the one thing that any one visiting Toronto should do or see and why?
Colin: Go to Sneaky Dees and get nachos. Go to the island near Hanlan’s Point—you get a great view of the city from there—and get drunk. Unfortunately, the art gallery of Ontario’s permanent collection isn’t so hot, but if you are here during one of its visiting exhibits, you might see something rad. I missed the Warhol exhibit when it came, but managed to catch the Man Ray, Goya, and Munch exhibits. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) used to be free on Fridays, but since they renovated it and made it fucking ugly, I think freebie Fridays are a thing of the past. If you’re into comic books, you have to check out the Beguiling, it is the best comic shop I have ever been to in my life, and I’ve been to quite a few.
Steve: How do you, as Canadians, view yourselves when compared with Americans? If the Michael Moore film, Bowling for Columbine is to be believed, Canada is almost one big peaceful commune where no one locks their doors or windows. How far from the truth is that?
Colin: I always think of Canadians as being Americans with less guns and more healthcare. I used to think of us as Americans with less religion, but a recent poll revealed that 60% of Canadians believe god has some role in the creation of the universe. Oh well. I think a lot the “facts” Michael Moore puts forth in his films are debatable. What’s funny about the “unlocked door” scenes from …Columbine that he filmed in Toronto, is that they were all shot in pretty crime-free areas. He also failed to mention that all of those people most likely lock their door at night.
For the most part, everyone in the band lives in and around Parkdale, an area just west of Toronto’s downtown core. The sheer volume of crackheads and drunks in the area doesn’t allow us the luxury of keeping our doors unlocked at night. Violent street crime—involving guns at any rate—appears to be on the rise in Toronto, at least according to a sensationalist media, but it has not reached the frequency or intensity of some major U.S. cities. Our manager Katie lives down the street from us and she has to keep her doors locked at all times to prevent the crew of crack addicts that camp out on her front stoop from wandering inside. It hasn’t happened to me in half a dozen years, but I have been mugged in the city. Once on my way home from a party, another time trying to buy weed off the street. So, yeah, I’d have to say Moore’s utopian vision of Canada is a crock of shit.
Steve: Would the band ever considered moving to America for its own betterment, or even to Vancouver? Do you think the band would have been a vastly different entity had you come from the U.S.—or, as punk rockers, would you have the same ideals whether you were based in Toronto, L.A. or wherever?
Colin: I love Toronto and have set some pretty deep roots here. I have no need to move. In terms of heading south to the states, I wouldn’t want to give up healthcare in order to improve my band situation. I can’t really say how we would be as people or a band had we not grown out of here. I mean, I changed a lot when I moved to Toronto from the small town I grew up in. Who knows how different I’d be had I moved to L.A. or New York.
Steve: If you could change one thing about Canadian life and culture, what would it be and why?
Colin: In recent years, our healthcare system has been under attack. The Provincial government made it so that eye care is no longer covered, and a privatized health clinic opened a short time ago in B.C., offering top notch care to anyone who can afford it. The latter incident is particularly alarming because two tier healthcare systems usually end with universal healthcare being dismantled in favor of the privatized sector. Free healthcare is a right every Canadian is entitled to regardless of income.
I would also like to see the legalization of prostitution and more in the way of drug decriminalization. Prohibition of narcotics and prostitution allow for a brutal black market to exist. Drugs and fucking for money are never going to be stamped out, regardless of how strict the laws enforced are. And they don’t need to be since it isn’t morally wrong to get high or give someone a blowjob for money. So it seems like a better idea—especially in terms of AIDS prevention—to legalize, regulate, and tax both.
Steve: Is the band prolific when it comes to writing? Have you started work on the follow-up to Walking Papers? If so, does the material follow a similar path, or will we see further changes in the band’s dynamic; ska or emo, perhaps?
Colin: Emo? Ska? Never. Prog metal? Fuck, never. We’re definitely interested in making an album that stands out from the last one, but we aren’t going to be trying to hard at winning over new fans by radically changing our style. There is definitely a progression in terms of what we’ve been writing, but it’s still rock’n’roll. We’ve begun demoing ten or so songs for the new album, but we got kind of side tracked with touring, so the writing for the next album has taken a bit of a backseat to playing live. We plan to get back to it in the fall.
Steve: Besides the next record, what other plans does the band have for its future?
Colin: We want to tour more outside of Canada: the States, Europe, even Japan. But there really isn’t that much of hurry since we don’t plan on breaking up anytime soon.
Steve: If Hostage Life had a motto, what would it be?
Colin: Hostage Life Ain’t Nothing to Fuck With, although, we did steal that from the Wu-tang Clan.
Steve: Anything you wanna add?
Colin: This was a great interview. I really enjoyed answering these questions. Thanks for reaching out.