Stephe Perry’s Punk Rock Radio Journey by Daniel Makagon

Sep 17, 2019

Part of The Sound Salvation series

Stephen (Stephe) Perry has made important contributions to Toronto’s rich campus-community radio history. He co-hosted “Fast and Bulbous on the Spot” on CHRY at York University from 1985-1999 and has co-hosted “Equalizing X Distort” at University of Toronto’s CIUT since 1999. Stephe has a vision for a punk rock college radio show that blends local, national, and international sounds, and strives to serve as an important outlet for listeners in Toronto and abroad to hear new and old music that matters.

Stephe’s approach to radio has continued to embody a belief that doing it yourself is really a collective effort, from working with co-hosts, to seeking out guest producers, to collaborating with other punks. And he strives to leverage the resources available at a campus-community radio station that help bands and other members of a scene create important art. He also uses a blog to complement the radio show (and share the show with an international audience). From this perspective, Stephe is able to blend the localized power of radio and the international opportunities that come with digital outlets.

Daniel: Maybe we can start by talking about how you got into punk.

Stephe: My mother is Estonian. After WWII, there were a lot of immigrant groups that came to Canada. And as part of that, the Canadian government gave some property or leased property to these populations. I went to this Estonian camp during the summer and that’s where I developed my musical taste. For the first couple years, I was learning about rock and prog rock and that kind of stuff. There was a turntable in the barracks—in the place that we stayed—because it was a sleepover camp. The kid who owned the turntable got into punk. What’s interesting about that is that he lived on a farm. It was kind of an unusual trajectory, because we usually think of punk as an urban phenomenon. I came to find out that there were a lot of the campus-community stations in the area that he lived in that became a lifeline for him. He listened to these radio shows at night and found out about this new music that was being broadcast on these stations. Then he’d go and try to find these records in record stores in urban centers that were close to him. He came with quite a collection to camp that year. I think I might have been thirteen, probably 1978. Right when punk was coming around.

Daniel: And how did that interest in punk translate to doing a radio show?

Stephe: I went to an all-boys Catholic high school. They had a radio club for lunch hour in the cafeteria. It was basically a speaker that was hung at the highest spot in the caf and there was a turntable in this room that was off to the side. Each person had a show once a week for a year. Somehow, I got involved in that. I think I had records and I put up my hand quicker. [Laughs] I was into punk at that point. I’m thinking, “I can convert people into liking this stuff. It’s so great that it will sell itself; all I have to do is play it.” To my surprise, I was met with people throwing lunch bags at the speaker almost every week.

A close friend of mine, who was also kind of an outsider in high school, got involved at the radio station at York University. He knew I had a record collection and hounded me during my first year at York. I was working and going to school, so I didn’t have much extra time. I fucked up that first year so bad that I decided to quit work. Why am I paying for school if I’m just going to flunk out?

Anyway, that second year, he kind of tricked me. “Let’s meet up for lunch in the college where the radio station is.” And then: “Have you filled out a volunteer form? It’ll just take you two minutes.” They were looking for volunteers to do a show. The radio station at the time, for the first two years I did the show, was not an FM station. It was a cable access station, so it was only available on the campus. Not even Rogers Cable, just on campus on channel 10 and through a speaker in the student center. It was almost like the high school show. We were broadcasting to a few people who might just happen to walk by the speaker or who were living on campus and had channel 10 on, which was just a test pattern. They weren’t showing anything (any other images besides the test pattern), so you had to be stoned or really bored to put that channel on. We didn’t really have a lot of people listening.

But to be involved with the people at the administration level was a great experience, to apply for a FM wattage, to get letters of support, and develop a community base. It was really great to be in it from the beginning. In two years, we had a 50-watt FM station and CHRY was broadcasting on air. It was up at the north end of the city and there were some northern suburbs up there and a lot of those kids would listen to our show. But it was a very small radius.

Daniel: What was the structure of “Fast and Bulbous on the Spot”?

Stephe: I’ve always done the show with somebody. I’m a shy person so I feel more comfortable when there are other people to talk to and to share the workload. When I first started the show, I worked with Mike Canzi. He was the guitarist for Sons Of Ishmael—they were a fantastic hardcore band from Meaford that moved to Toronto. He was into a lot of different stuff that I wasn’t into; he just blew my mind with different things. If you have different people who don’t have the same tastes, in some ways you can cover a lot more. That happened for about four or five years and then he graduated.

We were the only punk show for a long time, and then when Paul Abrash had moved—he did a metal show that featured some crossover and hardcore—he used to do a demo feature on his show. When he stopped doing his show, I took over the demo feature. So we play a demo in its entirety at the end of every show. I feel like first releases are usually bands’ most critical and some of their best releases. There’s so much energy, there’s no filter, and they’re still learning how to play their guitar. To pay tribute to this format is important to me. So, I got it from Paul and I think he learned it from a show at CJAM. Stealing good ideas is always a good idea, especially with radio. [Laughs]

Daniel: Why did you move from CHRY to CIUT?

Stephe: I started that show at CHRY in 1985, which was my second year of university. After thirteen years of doing that show, I decided—there was another station downtown at University of Toronto that had 10,000 watts and had a huge, 250-mile radius. I thought: “I’m putting so much work into this show; I’d really love it if people could hear it.” I had been friends with the program director at CIUT. He actually got advice from me as a younger kid about how to get into radio. I guess I gave him the right advice. [Laughs] He was also a singer in a hardcore band called Armed And Hammered. He had two really great garage shows but didn’t have a hardcore show and that was bothering him a lot.

I heard that he approached a friend of mine, who I knew would do a great show but maybe wasn’t as organized in terms of going forward with it. This was Simon Harvey, who runs Ugly Pop Records. And I felt like Simon needed to be on the air, so I approached Simon and said, “Let’s put a show together.” The program director said it was the best proposal he’d ever seen, which was flattering. Within a week we had a show, so I had to quit the show at York.

That was 1999. Simon came up with the name “Equalizing X Distort”—he was very into Gauze. We put an “X” in there because we were both straight edge at the time. I’m still straight edge, but I grew up being punk first and finding out about straight edge later.

Daniel: Is there anything about the show that changed when you moved from CHRY to CIUT beyond the increased wattage and new name?

Stephe: I feel like we became more concentrated on hardcore. Part of our proposal was to focus on international hardcore, but we also have CanCon (Canadian Content) guidelines in Canada. We have to play somewhere in the vicinity of 25–40% Canadian material. The proposal that Simon and I put together described how there was a lot of development within the punk scene and hardcore in particular—a lot of different genres and subgenres. There was always one band in Toronto that was really good at one of those subgenres that was developing and evolving. So we wanted to track how punk and hardcore were developing and how we could fit the Canadian stuff in that analytical evolution that was going on. We weren’t strict about these subgenres, but we would try to play musically thematic sets, which is not uncommon for any radio show. You’re going to try to link stuff that sounds good together.

We have a blog and we put up all our radio shows with a player and a download link. And we put links to people’s Bandcamp pages, labels, and sometimes we’ll put up videos, and different things that may be related to the show. We also tag things because we have a number of different types of series.

For example, we do a show called “Notes from Behind the Iron Curtain,” where we focus on the evolution of punk from a country that was formerly behind the (Soviet Union’s) Iron Curtain. Yugoslavia’s traditionally known for having a fantastic punk scene even during occupation. So, we did shows on all the Balkan states. We’ve also done shows about East Germany, Poland. And then we’ve done two shows about Cuba.

I’m working on one about China. There’s someone who was here in a band called Bad Skin. He moved to Beijing for school and he’s playing in this awesome band over there. His guitar player is a historian of Chinese punk and he’s agreed to put it together. We’ve also got a series on Latin American punk scenes called “Latinoamerica Resiste” (America Resists) hosted by Jose El Podrdido (Jose the Rotten). He used to do a pirate radio show here in Toronto. Anyway, we’ve got lots of different things like that.

Daniel: You’ve probably run into this with older punks: Sometimes they seem to be stuck in a certain time period. Even people who have hosted a radio show for a long time, they maybe don’t play much music post-1985 or whatever random date you want to choose. But our conversation shows that you’re mixing old, new, you have these themes, these geographic regions. What drives you to keep up on new music?

Stephe: I know exactly what you’re talking about and I think I experienced this right when I got into punk. When you’re first getting into a scene like punk, which really demands participation, you wanna be involved somehow. You notice within your immediate circles, your peers—who are kind of like you and are just getting into it—you find support. But people who have been into it for a while are like: “Who are you?” It’s like you haven’t passed muster yet, kind of thing. It feels like it’s hard to get into it and you get that generational cold shoulder. I really hated it. And I hate when you hear in documentaries about all these scenes that punk stopped “when I got out of it or got disinterested in it.” Punk never stopped and there are so many amazing things going on. Punk is continuing to evolve and it’s super exciting.

We do a live feature, and this is a thing that really helped us connect to younger punks. Once or twice a month we record a local band. We do multiple takes until they were happy with it. Then we would play the best take they liked. And we would do an interview that talked about all the songs. They can be generic, but I feel like in doing that we take the time to get into the band: what their influences are, what their lyrical influences are, stuff that inspired them to be a band, an issue that really drives them (animal rights band or anti-racist band or trying to break the glass ceiling). There are tons of things that motivate people to get up there and want to have their say, and no one really asks that back story. And I feel like bands want to tell that story. We were doing that all the time, but because it had to be bands that are current. I always ask who they would shout out in the local scene; we would find out about all these new bands that are coming up.

Daniel: How does your show fit into the larger Toronto radio spectrum? Are there a lot of punk shows in the Toronto area?

Stephe: Toronto used to have three campus-community radio stations and now CIUT is the only one left. The first station that I grew up listening to was CKLN. If I could situate the Toronto radio market a little bit, there’s a show I grew up listening to called “Aggressive Rock.” That was on CKLN and was hosted by Brian Taylor, who was in my all-time favorite hardcore band called Youth Youth Youth. He also worked at the local record store. He’s a key person in Toronto punk because he recorded basically all the hardcore bands. And he put out this compilation called T.O. Hardcore ‘83, which was basically our This Is Boston, Not L.A. That was only out on cassette, so people didn’t hear it. But he recently released it on vinyl as a limited pressing. Anyway, he did a show called “Aggressive Rock” that was initially a hardcore show and then became a crossover show that did part hardcore and part metal. Then it became a metal show and he would play Maximum Rock’n’roll tapes after that, so if you didn’t get enough hardcore, you could just stay tuned and listen to Maximum Rock’n’roll. That was a show that I learned a lot about music from and I learned a lot about radio from. And it pre-dated anything I did.

There were also some guys who did a show at the radio station at York. It was a punk show, cable access show. This guy named Ken Huff, who was an amazing guy. You know how you hear about these guys who are king of the pits kind of thing? He was going to school on a wrestling scholarship. He was fantastic at doing these acrobatic things on top of people and around people and through the air. He was also basically the guy who would stop every fight, invite little kids and women into the pit, and make sure it was a safe space for them. He was kind of like a Robin Hood for the punk pit in the Toronto scene. And he did a show before we were on, but got kicked off because he was just so agitating to the administration. But he’s just such a rad guy and I also learned a lot from him. So, there was a history of that (punk radio).

Daniel: One of the major motivations for this Razorcake series is to showcase the contemporary and historical importance of radio. It seems like you’ve been focused since the very beginning on ways that your radio show can contribute to a local scene.

Stephe: I did a comp in 1985, which was right when I was starting the radio show. It was called Ontario: Yours to Discover and was a look at bands in and around Ontario. So it wasn’t just bands from Toronto, but bands in the area from Oakdale, Hamilton, Meaford. There were so many that weren’t from Toronto and I think there were like seventeen bands on it, ninety-minute cassette tape. I took out some ads in Maximum Rock’n’roll and some classified ads. I think I sold like, two hundred copies of that. I put it up on our blog so you can find it digitally, including the booklet. I had a page for every band so they could put lyrics or whatever they wanted to put on it. That PDF is also up there.

Later on, as we did fundraising shows, I needed to give people a pledge incentive. For punk kids, do you really want the radio station’s shirt? Some do, but I betcha a comp would be better, right? We started doing these tape comps and then we started doing them as CD comps. We don’t do them now, but we were doing different genres. So if you wanted a d-beat comp, we did a d-beat comp. At one point, we had six different comps. It actually started off as a comp just looking at the newest bands coming out that month. I would fill a 90-minute cassette tape with one song from all these new bands. We did different things, like a stick of chewing gum in one of them. [Laughs] Different gimmicky things.

But to me it was a way to shine a light on all this amazing new punk. I would try to pick the best song by the band and if you liked it, you would try and go find them. That was the point of it: to inspire people to dig crates, to find these bands, to network. So we put as much information in there as possible: information about the label, information about the band, whatever we could find. I started linking them to features we were doing on the show, so we did one that was called “Demolition” that was basically… I picked a song from each demo that I played that year. I think we were doing fundraising every six months, so that was close to twenty-five demos that we had featured.

I also want to mention that we were doing a zine for a long period, maybe thirteen or fourteen years, and that was inspired by the interviews we did. I was listening to these interviews and thought, “Shit, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here.” I started transcribing and submitting to MRR. But then MRR was like, “You’re submitting too much; this isn’t a zine about Toronto.” I was trying to submit one a month, so there was always a Toronto band in Maximum Rock’n’roll. They kind of caught onto that: “We’re not your mouthpiece.” I should really just do this myself. So we started putting out these zines and I think it lasted about thirteen years. Some years we did one a month and other times, one every two months. Then it went down to one every six months until it stopped because I was too busy with so many other things that were going on.

Daniel: And you’ve also contributed to the book, Tomorrow’s Too Late, which is about hardcore in Toronto.

Stephe: Sixty percent of those interviews were done here at the studio here. I want to mention that Derek Emerson and Shawn Chirrey were the two main people behind the book. Derek did a metal zine and Shawn did a punk zine called Still Thinking back in the day. And Shawn used to be in radio; he was involved with CHRY and CKLN. He did an open format music show. They put out the Heresey Face Up To It record when it first came out and they put out a local compilation called Progress. They did a Facebook page and they started putting stuff on there. Like when they put up flyers people would always have these interesting stories about the show, as you see in social media. The discussion would always end with: “Someone needs to put a book about this.”

Those two are notorious workhorses. They started getting people involved, including my co-host Rob. They looked at our blog, and we have a lot of archive stuff up there: PDFs for zines, a lot of great stuff that is historically important. We started using our blog as a record of this stuff. And we try to post things around the release date so the blog is chronological based on Toronto’s punk history. There’s a local brewery out here called Shacklands, which is owned by a punk rocker. There was like, twelve of us, and I looked around the room and realized that everyone here did a zine. This is the right group of people.

So they approached me and I said, “Let’s do these interviews at the studio. I’ll record them, turn them into broadcasts, and this will be an archive for the history of the Toronto hardcore scene.” They just started booking because Derek’s a fantastic organizer. As we started explaining the project to all the bands, it was interesting how quickly the community spirit came. I think it was motivated by many different things. Part of it is that these fantastic people who started this scene did so bravely with lots of risk. They were doing amazing things: inventive, creative, smart things that were “re-evolutionary.” They were re-evolving things that were going on and turning out something new and they weren’t getting any credit.

I put together 60% of these interviews and spent hours combing through things, because I knew this was going to be my only chance to talk with some people, and asked myself: “What do I want to know?” Some of these interviews were eight hours in length and we had to take breaks, and sometimes we had to do more than one date. We had people come back and do second dates, because we were here in the studio until 2:00 in the morning. I was trying to get everything from everybody, because some people are dying out of this age group. We’re at that lifecycle stage where people who are generation older than me—when I say generation, I’m only talking about three years because I feel like punk generations are super-fast. These are pretty much peers but they just pre-dated me by a little bit. There have been many memorials for lots of people, and I’m like: “We’ve got to do this now. This is the only time this is going to happen. And if we do it right then maybe other people will get in touch with them and it will continue.”

We’re also seeing that a lot of these bands broke up in bad ways and some of these people have held grudges for thirty years. We were seeing people explain themselves to each other in a safe environment and making up for the first time while we were recording. It was like social work in some ways. There are a lot of people talking to each other now, which there wasn’t at that time. When the book launch happened, there was a festival here—Not Dead Yet—and the tickets sold out almost immediately when the show as announced. They had sold all the first pressing of the books at that one show. I think they pressed 984 (so to represent 1984).