For one old rocked-up thing to be reborn, another kind of had to die: it was just this past summer, on the open top floor of an Edmonton warehouse, that iconic prairie punk band Choke got back together just to bid their old rehearsal space goodbye.
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You’ve gotta understand: before word came down that the jam space was destined for demolition, they’d known the place for a very, very long time.
The four Choke guys weren’t too far out of their teens in 1997, when they moved into the jam space near the corner of 109th Avenue and 105th Street. From its windows, they watched other buildings in the ‘hood dance with the wrecking ball, as Grant MacEwan University’s footprint spread; but that rehearsal space kept on rocking. Maybe a dozen bands worked out their riffs there, in its life.
“It was a real, jeez, just a staple of a place that contributed to our music scene in Edmonton,” says Choke bassist Clay Shea, who continued to rehearse there with his band Black Mastiff until getting kicked out. “So if we were going to get evicted, we thought we’d throw one hell of a party.”
Translation: it was time to get the old band back together.
That jam-space shindig was the perfect setting for the Choke reunion nobody ever ruled out, or were quite certain would happen. In front of 200 friends and familiar faces, the band cranked the amps; their pounding, intricately technical punk-rock didn’t have to sound perfect, that night. It just had to sound like Choke. “It was a party, there was no pressure,” Shea says. “Everyone was just happy we were giving it a shot.”
Yeah, including the members of the band.
See, a couple of days before that July party, the ex-ex-bandmates were lounging on Shea’s porch after wrapping up rehearsal. It was the first time the four of them — Shea, guitarists Jack Jaggard and Shawn Moncrieff and drummer Stefan Levasseur — had just hung out together since Clay got married, a month after Choke’s last show in 2007. “We were like, jeez, that was really fun,” Shea says. “‘Maybe we should look into these offers (to play) that have come up.'”
The end of Choke wasn’t a salacious break-up, never a matter of animosity: after 13 years sprinting down highways to make the next show, the next boozy prairie bar and the next recording session, the band just hit a wall. Their searing 2005 album Slow Fade Or: How I Learned To Question Infinity was a glorious opus of raw emotion and precise and unrelenting rhythms; it broke ’em bigger across Canada, but not quite big enough to survive.
That record was their last battle cry, a heartrending final missive of everything Choke was, or wanted to be. They even knew it at the time. “It was a bit of a subconscious feeling, I think we all knew it down deep,” Shea says. “It was like, let’s fire this out and put everything into it, and maybe it puts us into a situation where we can just do that. But life was definitely catching up with us. All the years of putting everything on hold to just jump in the van.”
So in 2007, after all the promotion for Slow Fade was said and done, the four guys turned to each other, and knew it was time to say goodnight. They’d lived it all, right: they had a rabid following across Canada. They had spent many nights sleeping in Winnipeg’s gloriously disheveled Royal Albert (“Staying there,” Shea laughs now, “was like a punk band initiation”).
Best of all: they had six full-length albums to be remembered by, each one drenched in critical acclaim and sounding a familiar sad song of home.”I think of how the prairies are so desolate, and the prairies just when you look at things have a serious side,” Shea says. “And I think that always came across in our music.”
They kicked off their farewell tour in Winnipeg, and ended it at home in Edmonton: what started as a bunch of kids playing skate-punk in the suburbs, went out as modest prog-punk heroes. After they disbanded, they grew up and got real jobs: Shea, now 37, opened a health-food store for pets. Levasseur, who holds an architecture degree, moved to Vancouver. Jaggard took a job with CN Rail as a rail traffic controller, and Moncrieff became a certified Bobcat operator. They gigged in other bands and projects, because no real musician ever falls silent.
One interesting thing: they never really thought about Choke all that much. Fans, though, asked about it all the time. “We had a real cult following, you know?” Shea says. “The people that were into us were pretty passionate about it. I think we had the type of a fan base that don’t just let go or forget. We all have memories that were forged in those songs, and traveling through them.”
Why is why they never once ruled out the possibility of a reunion.
Back to the moment they decided to reunite, sitting on Shea’s porch after rehearsal last summer. It’s partly because even those songs seemed fresh again: dusting off old classics like “Gone Too Far,” from 1999’s Foreword, was something of a revelation. “For some reason, the old rippers have been really fun to re-learn,” Shea says. “All of them have been really fun to go back to, the stuff from the ’90s. They’ve been coming along good.”
As to any special gems that fans might hear at Choke’s upcoming reunion shows, Shea won’t quite tip his hand: “we’re pulling pretty even from our entire catalogue, that’s all I can say” — but mostly, he’s just grateful people still want to hear whatever the band might thrash out their way. “I want to say thanks, to everyone,” he says.
“It’s been a real nice surprise to see that people are interested.”
Choke’s Dead Band Rocking tour kicks off in Winnipeg at the West End Cultural Centre on Wednesday, Jan. 23. Then the band hits The Exchange in Regina on Jan. 24 and Calgary’s Broken City on Jan. 25, before rocking Edmonton on Jan. 26 at The Pawn Shop. Dates in Whistler, Vancouver and Toronto follow.
Melissa Martin is the entertainment editor at Spectator Tribune. Go ahead, follow her at @DoubleEmMartin or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.