How Canadian content grew up

Culture Music

I’m a radio host and music critic, and as a result I know a lot of amazing Canadian bands—stuff like Good for Grapes, The Zolas, A.C. Newman, and The Dears, just off the top of my head. But it wasn’t always that way; before the Internet made music easy to distribute and market, the concept of Canadian Content was frustratingly boring. By the end of the 1990s, our airwaves were required to fill 35 per cent of their time with homegrown content, but it was tough to be really proud of your heritage when the best of your nation was Shania Twain. If you want an idea of what it was like in the bad old days, just listen to any light rock station; they’re still stuck in the rut where Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Bryan Adams, and Nickelback are the only viable Canadian bands.

In the 2000s, there were a few standout Canadian success stories—Avril Lavigne, Sum 41, and Our Lady Peace, to name a few. But one Canuck band was an early favourite of mine, and despite some early promise, they disappeared in the wake of more consistent stuff from the United States: Ontario’s Treble Charger.

Treble Charger was one of the main Canadian pop-punk bands of the 2000s, and Wide Awake Bored, their fourth album, was the first to gain some decent airplay in the United States. This is likely due to the hit single “American Psycho,” which topped the Canadian charts and managed to nab some attention in the Lower 48. It’s intriguing to listen to it now, having access to a much broader variety of Canadian musicians and bands, because in the past 15-odd years, Canadian music has gotten a lot more confident in itself. Nowadays, our relatively mainstream bands are things like Metric, The New Pornographers, and Stars; they’re high-calibre talent with their own sense of identity and unique sound, without feeling as if they must compete directly with their American counterparts. Things weren’t so simple back in 2001.

The first two tracks of Wide Awake Bored are phenomenal. “Brand New Low,” the opener, starts with a catchy bass line and some fantastic percussion and builds to a prototypical (but excellent) example of the snotty, fun pop-punk of the early 21st century. The subject matter is old school, parents-don’t-understand, early teen rebel. Then “American Psycho” kicks in, and it’s easy to see why this was Treble Charger’s biggest hit. It’s just perfect for its subgenre—a classic song about the dark side of being famous, sung by a bunch of privileged white guys playing at punk rock. Here’s the chorus, as a sample:

“Now I know how far you go
To be the next freak show
American Psycho
Cover of the magazines, patron saint for troubled teens
Wish I’d never heard your name”

This was the world of the 2000s, before social media made Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame into a genuine possibility for anyone with Wi-Fi. This was before Wi-Fi was really a thing, even. And this was what happened in Canadian music before the indie wave. We were the curators of American culture, observing everything but limited in our actual participation. Our cultures are just different enough that we could identify with a lot of the U.S. experience while still being separate from it, and our music was often a slightly less successful version of whatever the Yanks were putting out. That isn’t to say we were just aping it; we were often pretty good at being critical of a world that felt like ours.

Treble Charger had one more album before they disbanded: 2002’s Detox. It is a great deal more rock-heavy, with crashing drums and crunchy guitar chords on songs like “Hundred Million” and “Ideal Waste of Time.” The band was trying to catch up to the pop-punk superstars of the day—Blink-182 with Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, Sum 41 with All Killer No Filler, and The Offspring with Conspiracy of One (along with their impressive back catalog of established hits). These albums brought a manic energy to the pop-punk scene that Treble Charger couldn’t quite match; they were the quintessential Canadian sibling, trying to play with the big kids but never quite making it. It’s a shame, because the thing about Detox is that it contains Treble Charger’s one truly brilliant ballad: “Don’t Believe it All.” It’s a wrenching breakup song in the vein of Offspring’s “Denial, Revisited”; in fact, you could probably call it a smudgy carbon copy. But even so, the melody and the emotionality are raw and genuine. If Wide Awake Bored had consisted of the better parts of itself and Detox, and included “Don’t Believe it All” as its one slower song, then it would have been one of the best albums of the pop-punk era. As it stands, it was the final breath of a band that probably deserved better.

If the role of a radio host is to help listeners discover new music, then part of that involves being a curator of beloved forgotten pieces of history; for me, Treble Charger was a vital part of my adolescence, and I still fondly recall their best songs, knowing that they helped shape both the overall state of Canadian music and the person I would someday become.