Words: Matthew Coyte
Photography: Adrian Knowler
John Davis still remembers how bad The Gruesomes were when they first started out.
“We started when we were in high school. It just like our high school band,” says Davis. “If you saw us part of the fun was seeing guys who could not play totally collapsing on stage. We would have trainwrecks all the time where the songs would die and it was almost funny to watch us try to get through a set, and that was almost part of the appeal.”
Formed in 1985, The Gruesomes were a garage-punk band formed by Davis, Bobby Beaton and Gerry Alvarez. His brother Eric was the drummer until 1987 when he stepped away and was replaced with John Knoll. At the time, Davis and the rest of the band were still in high school. Three of them came from NDG, and after they finally got good enough to put together a short set, they played their first concert in the basement of the Davis home for 50 of their friends.
“I think that the intention at first was just to get competent enough to get through a song,” says Davis. “Then our friends would come over when we were jamming and then we said ‘We think we can do like 30 minutes of music in front of our friends.’ People still talk about that they were at that show.”
With a name like The Gruesomes, people might go into a show with some expectations about the type of music they were about to listen to. They might not expect that the name is a reference to the family of the same name from the 60’s “The Flintstones” cartoon (“The Flintstones were an unreasonably big influence on us,” laughs Davis.) The entire band was young, with long mop-top hair and quick wit.
“Back then we were total dicks to each other, we were kids,” says Davis. “Now it’s like we’re old friends.”
One of the people at that first show was Chris Burns, a member of a band named the “Terminal Sunglasses”. Burns liked the show and invited The Gruesomes to open for his band. From there, The Gruesomes kept getting more and more shows, building a reputation for high-energy and whack live performances (including but not limited to ordering a pizza during a set, then continuing the show with greasy fingers).
“We didn’t care about being ernest or writing political songs to get some sort of message across,” says Davis. “The 80’s was a really stupid time in that everything was political, like U2 and all that and we were not political at all. We were the antithesis of that.”
In 1986, Davis and the band recorded their first record “Tyrants of Teen Trash,” an album that launched them on a Canada wide tour one year later. The band had stayed busy playing shows, but had stayed closer to the Montreal area, mostly doing shows in the city, Quebec City, and Toronto. Once they hit the road, Davis says that it was an eyeopener to see just how far their music had travelled. They played throughout Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC.
Playing in a time where Davis says that too many bands were concerned with trying to send a political message, The Gruesomes were more concerned with the performance itself and helping the audience have fun. “We were guys playing 3-note guitar songs screaming into the microphones,” says Davis. “We were completely the opposite of what was becoming popular at the time and I think that appealed to people.”
Their music was simple, catchy, high-energy and distinct, strongly based in the belief that having fun was the most important part of the show.
This idea was most noticeable during the band’s Halloween shows. Highly influenced by cheesy, terrible, B-rated horror movies, and old cartoons, Davis and the band brought their love for those pieces of pop culture to the stage. Even now, they still get together to watch bad movies (i.e. Sex and the City 2).
“We would do a whole routine where we would dress our lead singer Bobby where he’s dressed as the monster and we’d bring him to life. We’d use metal kitchen mixing bowls with wires attached to them and lightbulbs. We’d create these whole things,” remembers Davis. “We made a coffin and came out as dracula. We did a whole mummy thing where we painted hieroglyphics on sheets and erected it between two mic stands. One time we did a sketch where we did them all and we had a lawyer from Universal come out and tell us that we couldn’t use these copyrighted characters and then we killed the lawyer.”
Despite the success, the band remained distinctly a part of NDG culture. The music video for their song “Hey” was filmed in Davis’ parents house in the neighbourhood.
The Gruesomes decided to disband in 1990. It took nine years for them to reform. It was then that Davis and the band really hit their stride. Songs that they had written when they were in high school were still popular and known, so much so that people didn’t believe they were the original band because they were still so young when they reformed.
In the end, the band released five albums and continue to tour as a band. Their reach, starting first in NDG, then Montreal and then expanding across Canada, now stretches around the world. Bands like The Horrors have covered old Gruesomes songs. Famous interviewer Nardwuar often brings up the band with guests. Davis even remembers going online one day and seeing one of their songs being covered by an all-girl Japanese band (“That was pretty surreal”). So, with their popularity still going strong, the band keeps touring. Earlier this year, Davis and the band did a couple of shows across Latin America.
“It is fricking awesome. we feel like this investment we made as kids has really paid off big time now,” laughs Davis as he talks about doing shows in front of 3,200 people in Mexico City this year. “We love to meet great people, we have beautiful shows, amazing vacations. When people want us to play now, we think ‘Hm, can we get a vacation out of this, if there’s no vacation we’re not interested.’”
Today, Davis is the technical director at the Oscar Peterson Theatre at Concordia University’s Loyola campus. The band has a strong Concordia connection, often renting equipment and using rehearsal rooms over the years. Davis has been a part of the music department at Concordia since he was 19, and started working at the Theatre not long after. “I’m a real NDG guy.”
Despite their continued success, the band’s goals have stayed the same across the decades – it’s about having fun. “It all comes down to us enjoying ourselves, if we’re not enjoying ourselves, we’re not going to do it,” says Davis.