Single Mothers’ Drew Thomson On Punk, Alcoholism And The Road To Happiness
With the recent surprise release of third full-length Through A Wall, Canada’s Single Mothers have exceeded any and every expectation they ever had as a band. After all, this is the London, Ontario punk/hardcore/post-hardcore/whatever-you-want-to-call-it-core outfit who have always claimed on their Facebook page that they “broke up in 2009 – and have been playing shows ever since.” In those early days, the band had a somewhat dysfunctional reputation, spurred on by their raucous live performances, frontman Drew Thomson’s wild stage presence and his spat/spoken/shouted observational lyrics about wilder nights. Not to mention the chaotic, haphazard nature of the band itself – at one point, Drew even left the band for a while to become a gold prospector for his aunt and uncle in a town called Swastika. They carried on without him.
Single Mothers first came to people’s wider attention when Touché Amoré’s Jeremy Bolm released their self-titled second EP on his own label, Secret Voice, in 2012. Two years later, the band released their debut album, Negative Qualities – a shuddering, forthright blast of visceral hardcore, that saw a whole bunch of hype swell up around them, before things went quiet again. Literally – Drew released a series of home recordings and a couple of EPS of some acoustic songs, showing off a very different side to his talents. In 2016, the band (or another iteration of it) returned with a surprise EP, Meltdown, which was followed by last year’s second record, Our Pleasure. And almost quicker than a Single Mothers song, the band are back with a third album, Through A Wall. And while it sounds very angry indeed, as Drew explains, all might not quite be as it seems…
First of all, why did you decided to surprise release Through A Wall?
Drew Thomson: We did that when we put the [digital version of the] Meltdown EP out. I think I got the masters the same day we put online. I’m just very impatient – I don’t like waiting around. We write a lot of songs and I love being able to play music, but the worst part about it is the waiting. You can write a record one year and have it come out the next because there’s always just so much backlog. So I like just putting stuff out and luckily [Canadian/American label] Dine Alone are cool and they went along with it.
You did that a few years back with some solo stuff, too.
Yeah. I don’t know – I think the age of the big roll out is coming to an end. There’s so much music out there and people are streaming more and more and more, it’s kind of pointless. It’s not pointless yet, but I think it will become more and more pointless to have these big roll outs when there’s just so much content out there.
Through A Wall sounds like an angry record, but you’ve said that in a way it’s more satirical and funny than anything else you’ve ever done. Where does the balance lie between those two things?
I think Through A Wall is funny, but nobody thinks I’m funny, so it could just be me laughing at myself. To me, it’s not an angry record. If anything, it’s more of a sad reflection, but also with a sarcastic tint, of what I see going on around me. I’ve always taken a more observational tone in this band, and of course it might come off angry, but I think that’s more in the tone of the songs. Lyrically, I think it might be more…positive’s not the right word, but more sarcastic and nihilistic than Negative Qualities and Our Pleasure really were, where I think I was a little bit more depressed and pissed off at the world than I am now, where I’m a little more ‘Fuck it’ than mad, if that makes sense.
It does. Why do you think that is? You’ve stopped drinking – is that part of it?
Yeah. I didn’t realise how depressed I was for so many years, and I think a lot of that had to do with alcohol abuse and just drinking kind of every day to try to get out of this spiral and I would be so sad and I would blame it all the time just on being hungover. But alcohol, as we all know, is a depressant, and I was just very, very down – on myself, on the world, on the band – and since I quit drinking I’ve… the term mental health gets thrown around so much these days I try to stay away from it because I find it becoming less impactful, but my mental health and my emotions are a lot more stable than they were in the past, and getting sober has had the biggest impact in my adult life of any decision that I’ve made and I’m glad every day that I made it and have friends supporting me and have been able to kick that habit for now. And I think that attitude has made such an impact in my personal life that it comes out in the songs, even just subconsciously.
What was the reason for going sober? Was there something specific that led to that decision and made you think, ‘Okay, I need to stop’?
It’s interesting , because there’s been a lot of times where I should have just stopped – like waking up in driveways and things like that – but the one thing that made me quit was recording Our Pleasure. Right at the tail end of that I was drinking a lot and I was the only one in the band drinking and I kind of noticed it more. And I caught a look from our guitar player Justis [Krar] and I don’t know if it was a look of disappointment or I just perceived it as that, but it hit me for some reason in that moment. It wasn’t anger or sadness or anything else, it was just, ‘You don’t need to be doing this to yourself’ is what I got from it. I was drinking a glass of wine and I just out it down and that was the last time I had a drink. That was the last one – I didn’t even finish that glass.
That’s amazing. Especially as so much of Single Mothers’ identity when you first came around seemed to be that hedonistic, wine-fuelled attitude. There’s even a line in Hell (Is My Backup Plan) where you sing about getting ‘Bukowski drunk’ – was that real, or a character you were playing?
It was definitely real. I don’t say ‘alcoholic’ too often, but I was pretty strong alcoholic. I was drinking, if not every day, then five days out of the week for years. And it was such a big part of my life that I wrote about it. I think I characterised it in the writing to make a more exaggerated aspect of it, but I was definitely drinking a lot. And we lived in a university party town, where the drinking culture was so prevalent it didn’t seem weird. Like, all of my friends, we all drank that much, we all partied all the time and because we were all doing it, it seemed like the normal thing to do. And you know – you grow up and you go on tour and you see how other cities and towns are and you realise that maybe you’re in the bubble, and that was kind of an eye-opening experience. Even when I went up north, though, everybody drank. I went up north to try to get sober and everybody drank more up there. So it’s been an interesting ride. But I don’t think it’s bad to drink. I just personally have a problem with it and I’ve been able to luckily recognise that, but I don’t think everybody should stop, or anything like that.
It can turn you into a wretch. But if you’re self-aware about the fact that you’re drinking too much then that makes a big difference. And it’s tough, especially when you get drawn into that constant cycle of drinking and being hungover.
Yeah. One of the main reasons I’ve stopped for as long as I have – and hopefully for good – is I don’t like feeling dependent on things. I don’t like feeling like I need things, and with booze I felt like I needed it. I relied on it to get by in day-to-day life and that’s the thing. It wasn’t for fun anymore. And in Single Mothers songs I don’t think I ever glorified it – it was always kind of a love/hate relationship. But yeah, if I could go out and have some drinks for a week and just go on a bit of a bender and then feel fine the next day and put it down for a week I probably would, but I know myself too well and if I have one drink then I’ll drink everything in the house.
Stoic/Pointless, on the new record, seems to be both a break-up song from afar, while also addressing that idea of being a drunken romantic and bringing that into the equation and distancing yourself from that projected image of Bukowskian, sad hedonism. Was that a song to yourself more than it was to someone else?
To me, at least, it’s more just a song to my peers – people in my age group who break-up and they realise you’ve grown together and now what? Like, a lot of my friends that got married in their 20s are getting divorced now and now they’re just catapulted into their mid-30s but they missed their 20s. When you’re planning on being with someone or in a job for the rest of your life, or anything like that, and you get that taken away from you, you’re trying to catch up in a way, but also trying to find out where on the bell curve your past fits in with the present. And a lot of my friends, you go and break-up and then you realise, ‘Oh, I don’t know who bought this record.’
Which is maybe also a good metaphor for that ‘normal’ lifestyle everyone’s supposed to follow and conform to, where you go to school and university and then you get a career and you get married and have kids and a dog and a cat – where actually there’s a lot more to life than just that.
Absolutely. It’s interesting – I’m 32 now, and I started the band kind of late, but before I started the band, that was what I thought I was going to be. I was working in real estate and figured I was going to be a real estate agent for the rest of my life, but there’s such a difference between what I felt at 22 and what you’re supposed to do with life, and living through your 20s and realising that things don’t have to go that way and, generally, it’s a lot better if they don’t. You can kind of live the life you want without the expectation of what was there before. I never thought I’d be able to play in bands and tour when I was in my 20s. I was ready to settle. So yeah – it’s definitely a combative tone between settling and taking those risks.
What flipped that switch in your mind about getting out of that cycle?
Well, I honestly never thought Single Mothers was going to do anything at all. But I was working this real estate job and working with people that I didn’t like and there was a lot of crazy stuff going on in this office and one day I quit. The day I quit I went to the bar that all my friends went to and I started Single Mothers thinking that it was just going to be for fun. I really didn’t have any other expectations for it – I just wanted to sing in a band. I played guitar in bands growing up, but I’d never sung or been the frontperson for a band before and I just wanted to write songs with people. And then Jeremy Bolm found our seven-inch and that made us start touring, but I never thought that we would do anything except play London [Ontario]. It just kind of happened, and now that it’s happened I’m super happy that it’s happened, but I never had the confidence to think anyone would like us outside of our friend group.
And here you are almost 10 years later. So who’s actually in the band now? There’s the joke on your Facebook page that you broke up in 2009 and have been playing shows ever since, and the line-up seems to shift with each release.
So, on this record, it’s my friend Ian Romano, and Dan Romano plays on it – they were both in this band called Attack In Black and they’re in a band called Ancient Shapes now. And Peter Landi, who tours with us, is on it, my partner, Sara Froese, does some vocals and that’s pretty much the line-up for this one. But it’s always changing. I basically have a bunch of people that I consider in the band – there’s probably 12 members now that actively play in the band and sometimes a couple extra people will come and play shows here and there, but we usually tour as a four-piece, with Peter Landi, Riley Simpson and either Brandon Jagersky on drums or, on this tour coming up, Ross Chornyy is going to drum on it. So it’s a constantly changing line-up with a bunch of core members who all still play different roles in the band. It’s become much more a collective than it was in the past, but it was always supposed to be a collective, so it’s kind of finally worked out.
So there’s no bad blood between you and the guys who used to be in the band?
No. It’s mostly because people have day jobs and you can only get so many days off and you’ve got to be pretty strategic with it to keep on the road. It’s really just due to availability; whenever people are around. When we play Toronto, it goes from four-piece to a five- or a six- or a seven- or an eight-piece, depending how many people are around and want to jump onstage.
A number of Canadian bands like PUP and The Dirty Nil have got a lot of attention in the last couple of years, and the latter even won a Juno Award. What do you make of the acclaim bands like them have received, when you haven’t quite got to that stage? Yet. Does that annoy you or are you happy to see your friends do well?
It doesn’t annoy me. I’m just happy touring when I want to and not having any pressure. I don’t have a manager, my team is very small, I’m very close to my label, I have a couple of booking agents. I do pretty much what I want when I want, and I value that freedom over pushing the band really hard. But I love the Nil guys and I’m very stoked for them. We’ve been friends for years, and Luke [Bentham] and Ross [Miller] – and Dave [Nardi], when Dave was in the band – they’ve all played in Single Mothers at different times and we actually live down the street from each other, so it’s really nice. And they work super hard. That’s the other thing – they work a lot harder than I do. I just do kind of what I want. I like to sit at home and write and do my thing quite a bit. So I’m very happy with Single Mothers. I think we’re exactly where we should be. The only thing I want to do more is come over to the UK, but it’s just very expensive.
So is music now your job, your career?
It’s been music for a bit. It’s music now. I might go back up north and do some digging for my aunt and uncle, but for now I’ve been able to make things work for Single Mothers somehow. I don’t know how!
How does your solo stuff, the Drew Thomson Foundation, influence Single Mothers, or vice-versa? Do you split between personalities in away? Because Stay, the most recent Foundation record, is incredibly melancholy. Do they just represent different facets of your personality?
Yeah, I think so. I feel like I’ve got four or five Drew Thomsons bouncing around in my head at any given moment, and the Drew Thomson Foundation is, I guess, more of who I’m becoming now – comfortable with myself and more in the songwriter driving seat, whereas with Single Mothers I don’t really get involved in the music. It’s more an experiment for me to get people together and see what happens and then write my words and yell over it. The Foundation stuff, it is another side of my personality that I haven’t really shown before. And Stay is one of the only really personal songs I’ve written and released. It’s definitely the closest ‘feeling’ song I’ve ever written and released. So this is a new chapter that I’m kind of embracing, I guess.
It’s a very sad song. Is it about someone in particular?
Yeah. Stay is about being away on tour and playing Reading and Leeds – I grew up with a single mom in Canada and I grew up mostly with my grandma at the time, so we were very close my whole life, and she died while we were on tour in the UK. And that song’s really just about being away. My mom called me like literally 20 minutes before we had to go onstage at Reading – which was also a huge highlight of my Single Mothers career – so it was very bittersweet and that song’s just about wishing thing went differently.
Going back to the new Single Mothers record, the last track, Evidence Locker, seems very different in terms of theme and tone to everything else. It’s wistful and sad in a way the other songs on the record aren’t – there’s an emptiness and vulnerability there.
To be honest, I think all the songs are kind of sad when I re-read them all. I think I’m just a sad guy. I don’t know if I’m getting older or what, but I just like writing sad songs. If I’ve ever had a goal, it’s to write a nice tearjerker. It’s just hard in Single Mothers to pull that off. But Evidence Locker, I remember writing it, that the music was done and I really liked the music and I wanted to write a story to it, so I sat down and wrote this little story really quickly. Usually what happens is I’ll listen to the instrumental track, either at practice or as a demo and I’ll get a feeling, and that song just gave me this sad, kind of rebellious, nihilistic feeling, and I wanted to write a little story about it. And I wrote it really fast, like in a few minutes and was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting!’ Usually, I’ll sit down and write something and I won’t really tune in to what I’m writing until after it’s done and then I’ll take a minute an re-read it. And if I like it, I’ll keep it.
Does that help you understand who you are, in a way – that you let these things come out of you and then read them back? Does it help you work out what’s in your mind and what you’re going through?
It definitely does. I remember when we recorded Negative Qualities and listening back to all those tracks for the first time. I didn’t realise as we were writing them how negative they all were and how angry. And it made me think for the first time, ‘Jesus. Am I super angry and negative?’ We don’t always realise the way we are because that’s just the way we are, but re-reading through a lot of those songs for the first time, it kind of hit me. Like, ‘Maybe I should go and see a counsellor!’ But I didn’t. But it’s definitely kind of eye-opening. In the past, just as a writing exercise, I’ve tried to write positive, happier songs, and they always come up very fake and contrived to me and I don’t like it. Some people are very good at that way of writing, but I don’t think I’m one of them. I feel like if you have to try too hard, it’s not going to be a good song. In my understanding of the way I work, the harder I try to make something good, the worse it gets. Usually the first take is my last take. And that’s kind of the motto I live by.
And you definitely seem, on the whole, in a good place now.
I am in a good place, yeah. I’m pretty happy. I’m comfortable. I’ve done more with the band than I ever thought I would, I have a great group of friends that I get to play music with and they’re all very interesting, talented people. And for the most part, the members of Single Mothers are mostly sober, too, which is kind of hard to imagine. We’re all pretty laidback now. I guess being in your early 30s is a lot different to being in your early 20s. It’s a lot better, I think. You couldn’t pay me to go back to being 20 again. But yeah – I think the world is in a shitty place, but me personally, I’m less depressed than I’ve ever been. I don’t know if that is happiness or not, but it’s on the way to it. Perhaps.
Words: Mischa Pearlman
Single Mothers’ new album Through A Wall is available now on BSM.
Listen to Single Mothers’ new track Metropolis (Cultivated Wasteland)
The biggest rock album of all time is officially bigger than you thought.