To stamp a definitive start date on when Toronto-based punk/rock band Organ Thieves formed isn’t an easy task.
The abridged story goes like this: While the idea of the band had been ruminating for several years, it took a series of unexpected pushes forward for vocalist Chuck Coles to transform the band he started in 2008 – as a largely acoustic one-man side project – into the four member outfit it is today.
Detailing the road towards the Organ Thieves debut album Somewhere Between Free Men and Slaves (2012, MapleMusic Recordings) makes that origin story read more like a winding epic.
While Coles and bassist Mike Smith have known each other since childhood – where they grew up cutting their musical teeth together in Oshawa, Ontario – they each drifted towards their own respective projects. Coles bounced between a variety of musically diverse bands, ranging from punk rock to reggae, in an effort to gather a broader musical perspective.
"I grew up listening to everything from Creedence Clearwater Revival to King Tubby, and even hip hop.” Coles reflects. “I just wanted to experience as much different music as I could.”
Eventually, after a stint playing in alternative rock band Cauterize, Coles settled into joining Brown Brigade – the then-newly formed heavy metal/reggae outfit of guitarist Dave Baksh.
While playing with Brown Brigade, Coles began delving into the volumes of half-written material he had closely guarded since his early days as a musician. “I’d been playing music my whole life and had never really thought of myself as a songwriter,” Coles says. “I always felt like a musician helping other people accomplish their dreams."
Coles’ personal creative growth became the defining push forward that ultimately spurred him to part ways with Baksh in order to focus on his own songwriting. He began to draw inspiration from his earliest experiences and struggles growing up in what he had always thought of as a typical working class town.
“I was living in small town where it felt like everyone was consumed by boredom. There weren't many positive places for me and my friends to turn to, so we grew up thinking you don't have many options in life," says Coles.
"When your attitude isn't positivity nurtured, and without the proper guidance a lot of us fell into some pretty dark places. We all survived, but struggles with drugs and getting into trouble were, unfortunately, pretty common.”
Once he began bringing his earliest songs to friends, including Baksh, it was clear that there was something unique and profound about them and that the two musicians had found a way to reunite their talents. The road towards becoming Organ Thieves began to take shape.
In an era where bands can pursue the self-gratification of recording and putting out records seemingly over night, Organ Thieves chose to take a longer path. After enlisting the talents of Smith on bass and eventually finding drummer Theo McKibbon, they began writing new material.
“It took us this long for a reason,” Coles says. “We wanted to figure out a what we wanted to say, and to make sure we were doing things for the right reasons.”
Through Somewhere Between Free Men and Slaves, the picture is vividly clear. Produced by Greig Nori, the album’s wrenching vocals, crisp guitar, and pounding rhythm are crafted to need no explanation. Evocative of the intensity of influences ranging from Bad Religion and The Clash to Tom Waits and The Pixies, the band pours every last ounce of intensity into the 12 songs.
The album’s first two tracks “Simon’s Wine” and “Daddy’s Little Girl” find the band roaring out from the gate. Each song deftly paints a portrait of struggles with abuse against the backdrop of an unapologetic rock sound with an intense punk sensibility.
Somewhere Between Free Men and Slaves is not a concept album so much as a collection of interwoven composite sketches that tell tales of the often-heavy side of life without coming down like dark hammer. Tracks like “Phoebe”, “Question” and “Fix The Heart of the Hollow” harken back to Coles’ earliest songwriting influences lending empathetic voice to struggles for redemption and overcoming hardships.
“I get where people are coming from when they have to stand up to the bad shit they’re going through,” says Coles. “And I don’t want to just keep things hidden, it’s about bringing everything to light and letting music not just be an escape, but a way to give some positivist.”
The album also attacks the political unrest of the world, with songs like “False Flag” and “Just Another Gun In The War Machine” which were inspired largely by guitarist Dave Baksh. Coles recalls watching Baksh talk to church youth groups and high school students about his experiences traveling to the war torn Democratic Republic of Congo in 2005 with his former band Sum 41. There he witnessed first-hand the ravages of war experienced by people of the African nation.
“In sharing those personal experiences, Dave welcomed everyone into them,” says Coles. “Everyone knows right from wrong, and sure you can be manipulated, but you have to think for yourself. People need to stand up and take notice.”
Call it music for outsiders, or a soundtrack for an uprising. Whatever you call it, one thing is clear - when it comes to being the musical conscience for a generation struggling to overcome hardships and uncertainty, Organ Thieves could be no better a fit.