Transcript: Race, Punk, and Rock & Roll | Jul 25, 2016

A woman speaks, with the Agenda's red "capital A." logo in the background.
She is in her thirties with curly brown hair in a large bob, and wears
glasses. An Agenda caption reads "The Diversity of Punk Rock." Another
smaller caption above it reads "Nam Kiwanuka... namshine."

Nam says It's been said that music is the
universal language.
One that can tell stories and
challenge norms.
And for just that reason, for
many people, it matters whether
a band is Canadian.
Joining us now for a look at how
well Canada's indie rock scene
reflects and expresses Canada
today, Shehzaad Jiwani--he is
the frontman of Greys, one of
Toronto's noisiest punk bands.
And their latest album is called
Outer Heaven. Welcome!

An artwork appears against a white brick wall of the studio. It features
a large group of women dancing on a black background. They wear purple
costumes and carry red pompoms.

Shehzaad is in his forties with curly dark hair and a full beard. He
wears a blue shirt.

Shehzaad says Hi, how's it going?

Nam says I'm good, how are you?

Shehzaad says I'm great.

Nam says It's so weird when you put music
in like a genre and call it
this, and call it that.

Shehzaad says Right.

Nam says What are your thoughts on that?

Shehzaad says I think it's a little bit
difficult for the artist to be
put in a box that way, because I
think that when you're making
music you don't really, like,
think of it as one thing.
And it's more of a journalistic
thing to, sort of, classify you
a certain way.

Nam says Where do you think that comes from?

Shehzaad says I think it comes from their job...

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad continues... as writers and journalist to
kind of like communicate what
exactly this thing is to people
who might not have the language
to dissect it that way.
Which is fine but it gets kind
of out of hand when someone
tells you what you are.
"Well, I don't identify that
way, musically."
So it can be kind of annoying.

Nam says Yeah, I always feel weird, like,
saying a band is X because it's
like, "What if you don't think
you're X?"

Shehzaad says Yeah, totally.

Nam says I want to set the table for our
discussion by playing a clip
from your first single.

Shehzaad says Sure.

Nam continues "No Star" from your latest album
"Outer Heaven."
(Lyrical music plays)

The clip plays and Shehzaad sings. A caption reads "Exclaim! presents
Greys."

He says "Don't shoot
I'm not the enemy
They want you to be scared
of me
I'm everybody's strategy
Where do I turn with no star
in the sky?"

Nam says You know I get a sense of
sadness hearing that song.
What inspired you to write the song?

A sub-caption reads "No Star."

Shehzaad says The song was written after the
attacks in Paris at the Bataclan Club.
We were on tour in November of
last year and we heard the news
as we were arriving to this club
in Minneapolis that we were playing.
And it was terrifying.
You know, it was very, very
jarring to hear that people,
like some people that we were
like friends of friends of ours
were at this club being
attacked, and it was just
immediately... we were like silent
and very, very afraid.
I remember calling my mom and
just asking her, "What is
happening, why is this happening?"
And beyond that, sort of,
people's responses to that,
both... you know, you had people
burning down mosques in Ontario,
and people being attacked on the
subway in Toronto just for
looking a certain way.
And then on the other side of
things you also had people sort
of using that as a platform to
sort of further their own
agendas, and really the people
who it affected the most were
the least vocal about it.
Or not the least vocal, but given
the... like, "not so much of a
voice" I felt...

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad continues ...and weren't part of the equation,
and I thought that that was sort
of unfair.
And being a person of colour, it
felt very uncomfortable to me.
And I didn't like being spoken
for that way.
And I'm sure many other people
feel that way as well.
So the song was sort of like an
aggravated response to that, of
just being tired of somebody
else speaking for me on either
side of the equation, so that's
where it came from.

Nam says Did you find people treated
you differently after that?

Shehzaad says Not me personally, like I can
only speak for my own personal experiences.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says And I've been pretty unfortunate
growing up in Toronto where it's
very ethnically diverse... the
music community is extremely inclusive.
So I don't think that people
treated me differently but it
certainly became a topic of
conversation, which admittedly,
you know, when you choose a
single that is about something
as serious as that, people are
gonna want to talk to you about
it, which I fully take on board.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says But at the same time I feel like a
lot of the message was kind of missed.

Nam says What was missed?

Shehzaad says I think it was missed in terms
of people wanted to talk about
it because it was a talking
point, not because they were
genuinely curious about it.
It seemed like a lot of
publications... certain
publications I guess... kind of,
it's like a platform they want
to talk about because maybe it
generates more traffic or
something like that.
So it seemed sort of ironic, in
a way, but also it's something
that needs to be talked about, so
I think ultimately if people are
giving me...

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad continues ...and, by extension, a group of
marginalized people a voice,
that's ultimately a good thing I think.

Nam says But what inspired you to
write it, I mean...

Shehzaad says It was scary.

Nam says Mm.

Shehzaad says It was scary to be in America,
number one, being a visible minority.
And also it was something that I
hope never happens again, you know.
It happens in a rock club, which
is a place that we consider home.
We played in Paris there like a
year before, like down the
street from that club.
Our booking agent in Europe had
several friends there.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says So it was a very jarring thing.
And I... it was immediately very...

Nam says I think a lot of people

Shehzaad says... painful.

Nam continues Yeah... I think a lot of
people have these, you know,
I think we live in a country
where we don't... we're not
subjected to a lot of things that
a lot of people face every day.

Shehzaad says Yeah.

Nam says And then when something like
that happens in a place that's
very familiar to us, because we
go to music shows...

Shehzaad says Mm hmm.

Nam says you're a musician.

Shehzaad says Mm hmm.

Nam continues I think maybe that gives
you a different perspective,
that, "My god, that could have
been us."

Shehzaad says Yes, and I think that's why it
was so powerful.
And part of me feels really
guilty because this sort of
thing happens...
Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad continues --in so many different countries
all the time.
But for a place... you know, like
in Paris, especially after like
the Charlie Hebdo attacks as well.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says Part of me felt guilty for that
being the reason that I
started really paying close
attention, but that is how it
happens sometimes when it
happens closer to home, you're
forced to pay more attention.
So by virtue of that, that's sort
of the motivation for the song,
why I kind of felt compelled to
say something, because at the end
of the day, if you aren't
addressing this, it's not going
to just go away, I think.

Nam says Do you think that music can
affect political change?

Shehzaad says I think that a lot of people put
a lot of pressure on artists and
musicians for being... for having
like an answer or something like that.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says Like people will look at guys
like John Lennon as sort of like
political speakers and it's
like, well really, that's not
the end of the conversation,
artists are the beginning of the
conversation, they're the ones
that should spark the initial
inspiration to start looking
into something more deeply.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says We're not experts... like I play
guitar and yell things into a microphone.
[Nam chuckles]
Like I'm not in any way like a
political scientist.
I can only refract whatever I
take in and communicate that to
people, so I think that I don't
know if we can inspire political
change, but we can inspire people
to start thinking more
politically and thinking a
little bit more closely about
the things that are important to
each individual artist.

Nam says I find too, now in this age of
social media, I find sometimes
that musicians, celebrities are
kind of pushed to take a stand
on certain things.

Shehzaad says Yeah, big time.

Nam says Do you think that you have
a responsibility to do that?

Shehzaad says No, I don't think that anybody
should have a responsibility to
just say... I think that's part of
the problem is that people think
that they need to comment on
everything, and I don't think
that that's the case at all.
I think that people should
comment on things that resonate
with them...

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad continues... either positive or negative.
I think part of the problem is
that it gets cluttered with
people's opinions a lot, very
easily on the internet with
things like Twitter, which
ultimately is... that's just the
way people communicate these days.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says But I don't think that
artists... I think that in 2016 if
you're not saying something
about the world around you,
especially as a punk band or an
Indie rock band, then that's too
bad I think.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says Because there's a lot of things
going on in the world that do
need our attention more than
being hungover...
[Nam chuckles]...
and partying and whatnot.
But again, to each their own,
you don't have any
responsibility... again, too much
pressure gets put on rock bands,
I think, to communicate a message.

Nam says And also too from the
perspective of the person that
you are, what you look like,
growing up, I grew up in London,
Ontario, I liked Guns N' Roses,
and I liked Skid Row.

Shehzaad says Yeah.

Nam says But then everyone had the
assumption that, "Oh, you like
hip-hop, you like R and B."

Shehzaad says Right.
When people find out --when they
see you fronting an indie rock
band...

Shehzaad says Mm.

Nam says what is that reaction like?

Shehzaad says I think people are often, like,
surprised that I'm the singer,
which I get a lot... which is kind
of funny.

Nam says What do they expect you to be?

Shehzaad says I don't know.
[Nam chuckles]
I don't know, I guess a brown
guy can't be a indie rock frontman.
But, I don't know, I grew up
worshiping like Stephen Malkmus,
and people like that.
So, those are my idols, growing
up, so obviously I want to kind
of be like that as a teenager
getting into music.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says But, yeah, it's kind of funny
when people are like, "Oh,
you're the guy who writes the songs."
It seems like an interesting--It's a weird thing
to be surprised by in 2016.

Nam says It is.
Again it goes back to the genre
needing...

Shehzaad says Yeah.

Nam says having that need to put people in boxes.

Shehzaad says Yeah, yeah yeah, I guess so.
I mean, it is kind of a
whitewashed genre, but I think
more and more you see a lot more people.

Nam says Jimi Hendrix!

Shehzaad says Yeah.
[Nam laughs]
And I mean, rock and roll was
not invented by...

Nam says Yeah, it's like, made about
black musicians.

Shehzaad says Yeah, totally.
But it's like... you do start to
see a lot more people of
all sorts of different backgrounds.
You see a lot more--there's a
lot of popular indie rock bands
with really powerful female frontwomen.
People of colour in all sorts of
different bands.
Like our label Buzz Records has
so many different people from so
many different backgrounds.
People who identify so many
different ways.

Nam says Mm.

Shehzaad says Which I think is starting to
happen more and more around the
greater indie rock community,
which I think is really wonderful.

Nam says Being in Toronto, we were just
recently named the most diverse
place in the world.

Shehzaad says Yeah.

Nam says When you travel, especially with
the climate in the U.S. with the
upcoming elections, how do fans
respond to you?
Have you ever had any negative
experiences?

Shehzaad says No, I've been pretty lucky.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says I've been kind of lucky with
that kind of thing.
If it's anything it's a very
like subtle kind of couched racism.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says But, the thing is like, within
the DIY like punk rock... indie
rock... community, it's a lot of
like-minded...

Nam says DIY is do it yourself?

Shehzaad says Do it yourself, yeah.
I think it's extremely inclusive
a lot of the time.
There's obviously like people
who don't really understand how
to navigate those things.
And you know, there's mean
people everywhere, but I think
for the most part we're very
lucky that we're part of a
greater circuit of bands and
promoters and fans all around
North America that are extremely
inclusive and have never make me
feel out of place or anything
like that, so...

Nam says We touched on it a little bit,
but I wanted to talk a little
more about your early
introduction into music.

Shehzaad says Sure.

Nam says What's your earliest memory?

Shehzaad says Of just like getting into like
rock music?

Nam says Yeah.

Shehzaad says My earliest memory was two says one
was watching Terminator 2 and
seeing John Connor ride around
on a dirt bike listening to Guns N' Roses.

Nam says Yeah.

Shehzaad says And then the other, my dad
played me "Satisfaction" by the
Rolling Stones once, and it just
like... you know the Maxell guy
who's just like (gestures with hands)...
[Nam chuckles]
blowing by... that was basically
me as like a three-year-old kid, so...

Nam says And you were hooked.

Shehzaad says That was it, yeah, that was the
end of it for me.

Nam says And those are some of your
favourite bands then, or --?

Shehzaad says Yeah, oh yeah, to this day, for sure.
And then Nirvana, like, Nevermind
came out when I was
like four years old, so that was
pretty monumental to me.

Nam says Oh my gosh, you were a baby!
[Nam laughs]

The sub-caption changes to "Part of the Scene."

Shehzaad says Sorry.

Nam says You were four?

Shehzaad says Yeah.

Nam says Wow!
Was it challenging, identifying
with artists growing up?

Shehzaad says No, to be honest.
Because I was... again, I grew up
in Toronto and my school was
pretty multicultural.
I was like the only brown boy in my grade.
But no, nobody ever made me feel
out of place for liking those things.
It always felt very... because I
mean the artists that I liked,
most of my heroes, I realized
recently, happened to be white guys...

Nam says Yeah, I read that, that you said
that you don't have any heroes
that are of Indian descent?

Shehzaad says Not a lot really, I can't think of any.

Nam says Why do you think that is?

Shehzaad says I think my dad's cool.

[Nam laughs]
Nam says Well I'm sure he's
happy to hear that.

Shehzaad says I don't know, I mean, I don't
know, that's just how indie rock
bands looked...

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad continues --I guess, for a really long time.
So it's really cool now to see
so many different bands, like
Downtown Boys and Speedy Ortiz,
and all these... and bands from
Toronto like Weaves and Dilly
Dally, with people who don't look...

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad continues --like straight white guys
fronting really powerful and amazing bands.
Like, it means... it really does
mean a lot to me as an older
person kind of navigating that a
little bit.

Nam says As an older person...
[Nam laughs]

Shehzaad says Slightly older.

Nam says How did Greys get started?

Shehzaad says Greys started... our guitar player
Cam and I went to high school together.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says At the time it was the late
2000s--2010, 2011--we were
kicking around the idea of
starting a band that sounded
like the noisy punk bands that
we liked, like...

Nam says Like who?

Shehzaad says Like "Hot Snakes" and "Drive Like
Jehu," and "Fugazi --."

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad continues --"Failure," and all these different
bands like, that... "Jesus Lizard."
And we weren't really hearing
that in Toronto because at the
time it was a vey, very indie
rock city.
This was like post-Broken Social
Scene, who still have a
monumental impact on bands from here.
So a lot of the bands that were
around at the time were pretty
like pop-y...

Nam says Mm hmm.

The sub-caption changes to "Making a Mark."

Shehzaad cntinues ...indie rock bands, which is
fine but that just kind of
wasn't what we were feeling at the time.
So we just started to start this
band that was extremely noisy
and angular, because that's what
we wanted to hear.

Nam says And what does the
noise--like, why noise?

Shehzaad says I think there's a level of
dissatisfaction that is quelled
with extremely loud guitars for
certain people.
Like there's something very
calming about just hearing and
feeling these intense vibrations
from the amplifier come at you.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says And it was somewhat therapeutic
I guess... like it satisfied a lot
of things for me.
It feels like you're like a
member of the X-men or something
like that, and you have like a
"super power," when you can just
make this like extremely loud
noise and everybody in the room
has to pay attention to you
because you're louder than them.
Yeah. And that was kind of the initial
goal, was just to be as noisy as
possible.

Nam says Tell me about our first
show, how did it go?

Shehzaad says It was good.

Nam says Yeah.

Shehzaad says Actually.

Nam says Were you nervous?

Shehzaad says Kind of.

Nam says Yeah.

Shehzaad says We had all played in bands
before so it felt pretty natural.
I look at our first shows when
our drummer Braden joined the band.
And he immediately just clicked
with everybody.
And he was so relaxed that he
was wearing sweatpants on stage.
[Nam chuckles]
And it was fun, it went over
really, really well.
And Toronto's always been very
supportive of us.
Like one of the first show's we
ever played was in a garage in
Chinatown that would later kind
of become the hub for our
community of bands on Buzz
Records, and other bands too,
who to this day, like, are some
of my best friends, and it was a
really good start for the band
to be immediately just be part
of this really diverse and
colourful community of cartoon characters.

Nam [laughing] says Super girls.

Shehzaad says Super girls, yeah, it
kind of was like that.
You look at like Marvel Comics
and stuff like that.
Like that's what the community
of bands is like in Toronto, to me.

Nam says Yeah.

Shehzaad says And I really love that.

Nam says And what do your parents think
of your music?

Shehzaad says Of the music that we make?

Nam [laughing] says Yes.

Shehzaad says I think my dad and my mom always
kind of say like, "I wish you
wouldn't yell so much."

[Nam laughs]
Nam says You're like, "That's the point!"

Shehzaad says Yeah.
I remember my mom saying like,
"I think people would like it
more if you didn't yell as much."
I was like, "OK, she's not wrong."

[Nam laughs]
Nam says You were talking about Buzz Records.

Shehzaad says Yeah.
Is it a conscious decision to be
with an independent, or would
you guys sign with a major?
Or is that something that you're
not thinking about?

Shehzaad says I think that in this day and
age, like a band like ours... like
an indie rock band signing to a
big major label is pretty antiquated...

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says like I don't think a lot
of... that doesn't happen very often.
Like guitar-based rock music is
so out of--kind of out of favour
I think.

Nam says Yeah.

Shehzaad says That's just not like what sells
records, so I can't imagine a
big, major label picking up a
band like us regardless..
But even still, I don't think
that that would ever really make
sense for us.
I love being on Buzz because, I
mean, these guys are some of my
closest friends that run the label.
And it represents something for
me that I always wanted, like it
represents a community.
It represents a sense of
identity within that community.
We have a voice that kind
of... all of us gravitated towards
the label for a reason.
You know, I think everybody on
the label has a similar mindset
in that we kind of want to mix
that dissonance with the melody,
because we all like pop music as
much as we like intense noise rock.

Nam says This is the thing, because I
think a lot of people think that
because you make the music that
you make that you don't like
certain music, and you just
brought up pop.
Do you like pop music... you just
said you did but --?

Shehzaad says Yeah, I love pop music.
I mean, I grew up listening to
all sorts of stuff.
I got into rock music a little
bit later 'cause my brother
loved hip-hop music so much.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says So I grew up listening to "Tribe
Called Quest," and "Boot Camp," and
all those kinds of things, but yea...

Nam says Well, do you think that now
rock music has kind of become a niche?

The sub.caption changes to "Pop versus Rock."

Shehzaad says Yes and no.
I mean, if you look at festival
line-ups there's always gonna be
rock bands.
Like people are always gonna
want to lose their minds to rock
music, I think it's always gonna
be there.
But I think, yeah, maybe it is a
bit more of a niche, because...

Nam says Do you feel any pressure to
popify your music?

Shehzaad says No.

Nam says Make it more accessible, I guess?
Which is so silly because
it's music.
If it speaks to you, it speaks
to you, correct?

Shehzaad says I mean, we like melody.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says But I've never felt any pressure.
I think maybe if we had this
like sudden like groundswell of
interest there would be more
pressure to perform a certain way.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says But no, we've never--we kind of
do the opposite.
If somebody wants us to do
something we'll just do the
opposite thing.

Nam says And you probably stand out even
more, right?

Shehzaad says Maybe.

[Nam chuckles]
Nam says I want to show you a clip, this
is from a program we did last
spring on the state of pop music.
And Alan Cross from "102 The Edge."
is talking about authenticity in
popular music today.

Shehzaad says OK.

In the clip, Alan Cross speaks with bookshelves behind him. He is
clean-shaven in his fifties, with longish blond hair and wears glasses.
A caption reads "Alan Cross, March 17, 2016."

Alan says I wonder where the idea of
authenticity is floating in
popular culture right now?

A Woman says Mm hmm.
Is it important?

Alan says I mean, back when we had grunge
in the '90s it was all about
authenticity.

The long-haired brunette in her thirties says Yeah.

Alan says I mean, when you got up on stage
there was no set, you were in
your street clothes, and you just
played music as it came out of
your heart.
Now we're living in a very, very
pop world right now.

The Woman says Yeah!

Alan says You look at the top 10, or the
top 40, and it's all pop songs.

The clip ends.

Nam says What do you think about what he
just said?

Shehzaad says I kind of go back and forth on
this, I think that's true, it is
all pop songs, but pop is kind
of relative.
He's referencing the '90s and
the grunge bands but that was
pop music back then.
Like Nirvana was a really,
really popular band.

Nam says Because they were popular.

Shehzaad says They were popular, they were pop music.
When you start to influence the
way people dress, then you're a
part of, like "culture," and you're
a popular artist at that point.
Like Pearl Jam and Nirvana were
extremely popular at that time,
that's why those bands sold a
lot of records.
I don't think that it's
altogether abnormal that pop
bands are in the top 10, or
whatever, in the Billboard
charts, like I think that that's
actually quite normal.
Like a lot of pop music was
extremely lucrative in the
'80s and every other
decade as well.
I don't think it's abnormal or
anything like that...
I think the pendulum just kind
of swings back and forth every
now and then.

Nam says Because I think all music
becomes popular at some point...

Shehzaad says I think so.

Nam continues --and then it becomes pop music.

Shehzaad says Yeah.

Nam says Because I think right now you
can hear a lot of rap music on
the radio.

Shehzaad says Yeah.

Nam says And you could say that's pop music.

Shehzaad says Totally is.
I consider a lot of... like, Drake
to me is not like a hard hip-hop
artist, he's like a pop guy,
he's one of the most famous
people in the world.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says I mean I agree in the sense that
I do think that, yeah, a lot of
pop music is on the Billboard
charts right now, but I don't
necessarily think that that's
like good or bad, I just think
that that's how it is right now.

Nam says So I wonder why there's like a
pushback to become popular,
because, do you get into music
to make music for yourselves or
do you get into music to have a career?
Make... you know, tour, make
money, so is being popular a bad thing?
I don't... I mean, we don't shy
away from having like a bigger
audience or anything like that
but that shouldn't inform your
creative decisions at all.
Like we...
[Nam chuckles]
it's weird for a band like us
because we're pretty abrasive
but I would never think that...

Nam says Abrasive in sound or
message?

Shehzaad says Both.

Nam says Yeah.

Shehzaad says I think that we can be pretty
caustic in how we communicate
that message musically and
lyrically but I don't think that
we, or really most of our
friends in bands, start bands
with any notion of like... it's
some other notion of glory than
like financial I think.

Nam says Mm hmm.

Shehzaad says For me it was always enough to
be able to tour and play to an
audience of people who paid
attention to me.
And if that audience grows then
that's great, but I'm not going
to stop doing it because it dwindles.
Like I think like every band has
like an arc, and if you stop
after it starts to go down then
that's too bad, because you can
continue making great art
regardless of how many people
are listening to you.
So it's absolutely not in any
way a motivational thing for us
to do better or whatever.

Nam says Now going back to when you were
three and your became a fan of
rock music, looking back and
looking at yourself now, do you
like have an "out-of-body."
experience, like "Oh my gosh, I'm
actually making this music now."

Shehzaad says Oh man, if I was three years
old and I saw myself now,
"Oh, you get to eat pizza
and hang out with your friends
all day, no problem."
That's great, I think
three-year-old me would be
pretty excited.

Nam says Is that what you do?
Can I sign up?
[laughs]

Shehzaad says Oh sure, yeah, that's
essentially my whole life.
But also like, three-year-old me
would have set the bar pretty low.
I'm flying over it, it's great.

The sub-caption changes to "Producer, Colin Ellis."

Nam says Well congratulations on your
success.

Shehzaad says Hey, thanks...

Nam says Thank you for being on the show.

Shehzaad says Thanks so much, thanks
for having me.

Watch: Race, Punk, and Rock & Roll