Interviews

Kyle Bishop (Grade, Acrid, The Black Maria, The Swarm)

Photo: Martin Blondeau Photos

Kyle Bishop has spent most of his life doing what he loves: creating music. Since his teens, the Canada native has either sang or played guitar (sometimes both) in a series of underground groups, performing in a myriad of musical styles along the way. Whether it's the grinding hardcore of Acrid, the blackened powerviolence of The Swarm a.k.a. Knee Deep in the Dead, or the melodic rock of The Black Maria, Bishop always followed his muse, usually staying ahead of whatever flavor of the moment trend was in fashion.

But despite his extensive discography, Bishop is still best known for his vocal work in Grade, the post-hardcore group he helped form in the early '90s. The band's blend of O.G. screamo dissonance and anthemic melodic hooks proved to be highly influential throughout the last two decades. After releasing four studio albums, Grade broke up in 2002, but is back in business as of late. 2014 found the vets releasing a 2-song 7" on Dine Alone Records called Collapsed Lungs.

I recently reached out to Bishop to discuss his career, in and out of Grade.

First off, tell me a bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up, and what kind of music did you first gravitate towards as a kid?

I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto in the cities of Burlington and Hamilton. Hamilton is a rough and tumble steel town where the majority of my family lives, but my mom and pop rented a small place a few kilometers away, later buying a house in the east end of Burlington. They wanted the best for my brother and I and moved away from Hamilton to a place they could barely afford. My parents were 20 and 22 when they had me in '72, still very young and wild, so the vibe within the home was vibrant and youthful. There was lots of music and fun.

My father is a huge music fan, promoted concerts at his high school, and he listened to The Animals, The Kinks, Stones, Zeppelin, all the bluesy rock 'n' roll stuff, and my mother was a Motown girl. The cool thing is my pop was never stuck in the past and was constantly buying new music, and he exposed me to Roxy Music, King Crimson, Bowie, Gary Numan, Pink Floyd, Japan, The Smiths, The Cure, amongst an ever-changing catalog. My parents, being so young, worked a lot and my babysitters were my mom's youngest brother and sister, who were only six and eight years older than me, so I was exposed to some really cool things through them.

My uncle gave me The Monks' Bad Habits and Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks LPs, which was a perfect fit beside with my obsession of KISS' Dynasty album. He also was a drummer in a local punk band called the Mean Red Spiders, and I would smash on his kit at my grandmother's house. We also would go out to the mall, where I bought Devo's "Whip It" and Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" 45s, and later Eddie Grant and Thomas Dolby 45s. Sometimes he'd bring me to band practice, and once he brought me to see Teenage Head. So rad! We didn't have much, but I had the coolest childhood.

So, you were exposed to great music from a really young age, but were you always musically inclined?

Music was definitely in my blood, I did the whole wooden spoons on the pots and pillows to be like my uncle, yet never took up an instrument until I was 19 or 20. My cousins, my brother, and I did have a little group with a couple of songs (of which they bring up at every family gathering). I can only remember performing once at my pop's friend Bob Muckle's toga party. He was the vice president of Capitol Records Canada and the party was wild, and we were these little kids singing to a bunch of stoned, drunken adults with no underwear on. We did get a lot of cool promo cassettes from Bob, he was a good dude. He brought me to see Iron Maiden and Twisted Sister on the Powerslave tour. After that, I was satisfied with collecting music and focused on skateboarding and art. It never occurred to me that I could create music until much later.

SEE ALSO: 2014 interview with Keith Huckins (Rorschach, Deadguy, Kiss it Goodbye).

Were your parents supportive of your artistic interests?

My parents were definitely supportive of my interests. My old man knew that I needed breathing space from the normal paths people took. He knew that he had a monster, and my mom has blind love in her heart. Their door has always been open to me.

Kyle in the Van Halen shirt, sometime in the early '80s.

Did you play in any bands before Grade and Acrid?

In 1990, my friends and I had our first band called Noise Patch. The name was taken from a Coffin Break song. We did a Black Sabbath cover. It was the gateway to my first real band called Incision. Incision had the same members as Grade but with a different bassist, and was made up of certain members of Noise Patch and Reckless Youth. We played with Unbroken, Undertow, and Earth Crisis, and a bunch of other cool bands. We had that cheesy '90s hardcore/metal vibe. It was our response to Chokehold after seeing their second show. They brought us into the world of D.I.Y. hardcore. We were no longer observers after that.

How did Grade first come together, and did you have a clear stylistic direction you wanted to head in before you guys started writing together?

Grade became a band once a few of the guys in Incision broke their XedgeX and we wanted to continue playing music. Initially it was named Rebirth, but we opted for the even dumber name: Grade. It was taken from the song "Grade Curve," by the band Lincoln. Grade had no stylistic direction, though there was a lot of Integrity worship at the beginning, and 22 years later every release we have put out it sounds different from each other. Our band never sounded like anything we listened to, but definitely took cues from many different sources.

Grade's first release was a split album with a band called Believe in 1994. What goes through your mind when you listen to that record now, 20 years later? It's so sonically removed from what Grade would evolve to, at least, to my ears.

The first release for Grade was actually a demo in '93, not far removed from the split in '94. I haven't actually heard that recording in 10 or 15 years, maybe longer. It scares me. Listening to any recording I've been a part of is really difficult for me. All I hear are flaws and could'ves/should'ves.

I remember when your first album, ...And Such is Progress, came out in 1995. I was instantly drawn to the counterbalance of melody and dissonance.

The initial stuff we did was more of a copy of our early contemporaries, eventually we became more influenced by the emerging sounds from bands like Indian Summer, Lincoln, and the Rye Coalition. Our influences growing up never came into play until later. Being part of the hardcore scene was profound, and we fed off the modern art and sounds that surrounded us instead. A big step out of that mundane sound we were stuck in was the writing process for ...And Such is Progress. When we got past the oddity of the sonic difference, it was understood that there were no more boundaries and we just naturally evolved. Sometimes successfully, other times not so much.

How did you arrive at your distinct vocal style?

My vocal style was accidental, more likely a total ripoff. It's really no different than Bob Mould, or Black Francis, or James Brown, except for the fact they did it amazingly. I originally was a screamer but I kept hearing melody in my head. I couldn't sing well, so I screamed what I couldn't sing. I'm a hack at best.

What was the reaction like in Canada to the band at that point? I was still living in New York City, and there seemed to be people already talking about Grade by that point.

I don't think the band was really known throughout the country at that point. We were part of a really cool scene that was close to Toronto, Buffalo, Detroit, Rochester, Cleveland, and Syracuse, of which we played frequently. Locally we did okay, played some fun and cool shows, but the States embraced us first. We owe that all to Chokehold for opening up the doors and paving a new path for the next step in Canadian hardcore.

SEE ALSO: The Heavy Metal Roots of New York Hardcore, by Freddy Alva

During this period in Grade's history, you also played guitar in the band Acrid. How did that come about?

In '96/'97, Grade was still gathering momentum. We did couple of small U.S. tours, lots of weekends, local shows, and a European tour, but it just wasn't enough for me. By this time I taught myself how to play guitar in order to show the Grade guys my ideas, rather than have them laugh at me while I mouthed out song ideas, like Beavis and Butthead. Then I happened to bump upon Acrid playing their first show. I was really into Cathedral, Sabbath, Man is the Bastard, Infest, and a lot of the really grindy hardcore stuff.

These guys were a disastrous mess with one guitar player, and I asked to join the band. The bassist and drummer quit immediately, because they didn't like me because I took over. It was a new musical life for me, and we released lots of music quickly and we started to tour more than Grade, playing with His Hero is Gone, Jesuit, Assück, Charles Bronson, etc. It didn't last, and after that I formed the Swarm a.k.a. Knee Deep in the Dead with Chris from Left for Dead, and Mike Max from Acrid, because Grade was dead in the water until we found a new drummer, which changed the path of the band.

Kyle handling guitar duties in The Swarm a.k.a. Knee Deep in the Dead.

The split Acrid did with Bombs of Death is a fucking ripper!

The split with BOD was a career highlight. I met Steve Heritage [also of Assück] years before in Tampa and all he did was make fun of Grade. Var [Thelin] from No Idea suggested Acrid for the split. I was so stoked, being a mondo fan of Spazz [Max Ward of Spazz handled drum duties in Bombs of Death], Assück, and the fact that Steve worked at Morrisound with [producer] Scott Burns. The artwork that I did for it is to this day my favorite cover I've ever done. The stuff on the split is some of the best songs I've been a part of, and still BOD crushed us. This split led to the Assück/Acrid tour.

What ended up happening with Acrid?

I left Acrid and took Mike Max with me to form The Swarm after I saw the other guitar player smoking. We were a straight edge band, and this anchored my growing discontent with him. This was a good thing. I loved The Swarm, it was so much better.

Okay, back to Grade. When did the band first start touring outside of Canada? Was it before or after Second Nature Recordings reissued ...And Such is Progress? How did your early North American tours go?

Grade started playing outside of Canada from the get go. Buffalo is only an hour away from us and the two scenes were very intimate with each other. Slugfest, Snapcase, Zero Tolerance, and Fadeaway were just as important to us as Chokehold. Just like Detroit with Nema, Ricochet, and Jihad; Cleveland with Integrity and Face Value; and Earth Crisis in Syracuse; the band grew up in those cities. We played the U.S. in Incision as well, and this smoothed the transition for Grade. If Buffalo wasn't so close, I don't think things would be the same. Once we breached those close areas things were difficult on the first tours.

We did okay, but we barely made gas money, and without the kindness of people at the shows, we may have not made it too far. We slept in a lot of parking lots, and on many floors for years, but the fun and experience went beyond our expectations. Florida was the first place we succeeded outside of the North. It wasn't until our tour with Hot Water Music in '97 that we broke through everywhere else. Both bands broke and it was amazing to see the shows grow with every show on that tour, especially for Hot Water Music.

Grade hanging with Hot Water Music on their tour for Separate the Magnets, 1997.

Grade's next album, 1997's Separate the Magnets, helped the band grow both musically and in terms of your fanbase. For the following album, 1999's Under the Radar, the band signed with Victory Records. How did that connection come about?

Yes, once Separate the Magnets was released, our fanbase began to grow quickly. This type of situation always brings out bigger labels and we talked to Some Records, Tommy Boy/BMG, and Victory, along with a few other labels. We originally settled on signing with Revelation. We were supposed to be Rev 72, but they took so long in getting things in order that we bailed. Tommy Boy was offering money that we never dreamed of, but it wasn't the place for us, so we went to Victory, a happy medium.

Our longtime friend, Sean Bonner, who reissued ...And Such is Progress vinyl on his label Toybox, along with Second Nature, was working for Victory. Their roster was awesome, yet far removed from what we were doing. Apart from that, they were not too big to get swallowed up in and still retained the hardcore/punk sensibility we grew up with. Also, our friends Snapcase were there and they were smart guys, smarter than us.

Victory, and more specifically, owner Tony Brummel, has had a bad reputation in the hardcore and metal scenes throughout the years in relation to royalties, and things of that nature. Were you aware of this before you signed?

All the crap about bad business at Victory Records didn't come out until later. They had a few accountants that did stupid things and were fired. Tony Brummel has always been a good guy to me, and from what I know, the label has never done me wrong. Bands don't get paid from any label, do they? I don't think we sold enough records to make money.

On Under the Radar, the band perfected the dissonant-melody thing to the letter. In "A Year in the Past, Forever in the Future," you created a song that I think was poised for Modern Rock radio dominance.

"A Year in the Past, Forever in the Future" was the black sheep of the album. We hated it, along with its video, and never played the song live until 2012. Jimmy Eat World and The Juliana Theory released songs around that time that had very similar riffs and theirs were better we thought. I had no idea that anyone cared for the song until we put it on the setlist and the crowds went mental.

Maybe we should've played it when it originally came out. Maybe show attendance would have been better. I hardly think it was a hit on MTV or Much Music, but I do remember MTV dying for a hit from our next album and we delivered them the opposite. Someone at Victory fed me the line that MTV wanted to make us stars, what bullshit. Everyone wanted us to make an album of soft hardcore punk hits and we wanted nothing of the sort. They did love the song "Little Satisfactions," but they found the lyrics to be too violent, thinking the public were too idiotic to understand the metaphors and premise behind the song, nonetheless still wanted a video for it. During the video shoot, I changed the song to "Termites Hollow" instead, and Darren Doanes, the director, almost shit himself. We also skipped the second half of the video shoot to go to San Francisco. Total sabotage. In retrospect it was really dumb.

Before Grade went in to record its third studio album, Headfirst Straight to Hell, in 2001, the band started having some lineup changes. What happened?

During the touring process of Under the Radar, Greg [Taylor] quit the band. His mother was sick and he wanted to be close to her, and he wasn't feeling Grade anymore. He wanted to concentrate on his other band, Jersey, who eventually signed to Virgin/EMI and released some incredible records. Sean McNab, who is now in the Creepshow, played in Jersey with Greg, and our first bass player Johnny, who both were also in Reckless Youth, toured with us for a bit, and eventually Brad filled the void on the recommendation of Greg.

We kicked the drummer from Under the Radar out because of personality clashes and Charles replaced him, which was normal for us at this point having gone through a series of drummers. When Greg left, the band lost its soul and a principle songwriter. Though we all contributed songs and arranged them together, it wasn't the same without him. Brad was a good performer and an excellent player, but a terrible songwriter and general black cloud. He was the reason why the band died.

Headfirst Straight to Hell features some of my favorite lyrics on any Grade record. There's some truly morbid stuff going on there.

If there is anything that can be salvaged from HFSTH aside from a few decent songs obliterated by a poor recording, for me, it is the lyrics. Many people think they are dark and to a degree they are, but they really are intended to take on entirely different realities. The content doesn't veer far away from past topics of heartache, self-scrutiny, scientific analysis, and art smothered in the trickery of metaphor and analogy, perhaps, at times, a tad more visceral. Much of my dissatisfaction and curious inquiry seemed to turn to hate and loathing at the time. As you might expect, my girlfriend was an alcoholic bitch. The album itself had a few great moments but overall was a failure; lyrically I think it was a triumph.

That was a real low point for me, all my friends were gone. The band was never about me, rather about us, yet I felt obligated to continue and not abandon what we worked so hard for all those years. I should have called it quits but didn't know what else to do. We let Brad [Casarin] infiltrate the band and destroy it. It was our fault for not cutting the cancer out, we knew he was infecting us. It's our own fault. At the very end, when Brad and the others made me force Charles [Moniz] out, I knew it was only a matter of time. I felt awful about kicking Charles out. He was smart and landed on his feet better than any of us, moving on to play with Avril Lavinge, and eventually, Bruno Mars. It was painful witnessing it all fall apart one piece at a time. I was dragging a corpse around, consumed with scabs.

SEE ALSO: 2014 interview with Jon Bunch (Sense Field, Reason to Believe, Further Seems Forever, War Generation).

After Grade broke up, you played guitar in The Black Maria, a band that also signed to Victory Records. You left the group after appearing on their Lead Us to Reason album in 2005.

Following the end of Grade I was asked to sing and try out for a few bands. This felt weird to me, I was never a good or a capable singer, so I avoided and brushed off all the invitations. Not because I was too cool, rather I felt no good and useless. I needed to be as far as possible from being the face of a band, I wanted to hide. I was sick of being shit on and misunderstood, tired of being called a dick, and being a dick. Nevertheless, I needed to play music and be on the road. So I started The Black Maria with the intentions of disappearing behind the guitar. We were courted by Warner Bros. and Atlantic, and a few other labels, but I didn't trust them. They wanted to hand us money to record demos, for what? To reject us and own the band, so we can't continue? No way, I knew of a few bands whose albums were shelved and they couldn't do a thing about it. Victory was a good home. I knew their game and the others hated me for forcing my hand on the decision.

The Black Maria was not what I intended the band to be like, and I barely knew the guys, minus the singer, before. I couldn't stand their entitled attitudes and definitely didn't connect with the party they wanted it to be. I was used to hard work and grinding through things and they desired the easy route, though they pretended otherwise. I quit shortly after touring with bands that made me want to vomit, and realizing that I pried myself in a position that I should've never been in. They convinced me to come back for another cycle of touring, and after that, they kicked me out. We hated each other mutually. They made me loathe music and made me quit what I had been doing since 1990, it was now 2005.

Did you play in any other bands after The Black Maria?

Years later, I did start another band for shits and giggles called Eat Me (Suck City). It was really fun, with a strong dose of noise and volume. I played guitar and sang. It didn't last. These days, I do have an insane backlog of music that I need to get out of me. It's so difficult to find anyone, the young dudes are unreliable and the old dudes have no time. Bullshit!

You have such an aggressive singing style. Have you had any long-term issues with your throat from all the years of touring?

When touring non-stop I was in a constant state of destroyed voice. I never warmed up, ate well, or slept. I was in constant stress. It was terrifying to be a singer. I didn't know how to do it properly, I just wailed and whatever happened, happened. I'm sure there are some embarrassing videos out there. One time at SXSW, I puked profusely from heat exhaustion after our set at Emo's, tearing my throat to shreds, damaging it for life. In the past few years, I've learned how to approach singing a little better than when I was younger. I'm still garbage, but I don't hurt myself as much vocally, and I don't care that I suck anymore.

Grade, 2014. (Photo: Dine Alone Records)

What brought on the Grade reunion, and had you kept in touch with the other members throughout the years?

Grade did a one-off in 2006 and that brought us all together again. For the most part, the others had contact with each other. I was afraid to be around them before that. All my fears were unfounded and we all get along great to this day. After that 2006 show, we never thought of playing again until a local promoter who was retiring asked us to play his farewell in 2011, I believe. It went famously and we kept playing because it's a blast. Some of the best shows we ever had have been in the last few years.

I know you've been touring as of late. Are you seeing younger folks at the gigs? I wonder if streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora have helped introduce you to some younger listeners who might not come from a hardcore or old school emo background.

I'm not sure if our music has moved on to newer generations. Do streaming sites actually play our crap? At shows I do talk to many people that have seen us previously over the years, and there have been quite a few that just missed us before we broke up, not too many newbies. We are kind of an oddball that has been passed over and I expect that to continue. There are too many classic records for kids to get caught up in, along with a constant influx of new music to sort through, why bother with Grade?

Grade recently released Collapsed Lungs, a two-song 7" on Dine Alone. Are there plans to make a new full-length in 2015?

No plans for a full length, a few 7"s for sure are on the way.

Alternative Press magazine named Grade on their "23 Bands Who Shaped Punk" list.

That AP article almost made me sick. It's flattering to be on that list, but in no way do we belong on it. I would be insulted if I were the Bad Brains, Fugazi, Crass, Buzzcocks, or any other band on that list and saw our name beside theirs.

Photo: Alternative Press

Outside of the band, what else are you up to these days? Are you a family man?

Nothing much has changed, aside from the fact that I have a job. That blows. I still live a plant-based vegan, poison-free life, and obsess over collecting records and gear. No family, just my '74 'Cuda and my cats.

Tim McIlrath (Rise Against), Walter Schreifels (Quicksand), Kyle Bishop, 2013.

What's the best part about being in Grade?

The best part is meeting and knowing amazing people, experiencing the world's art, the land, and its architecture. It forced me to be and do better, while exposing me to a vastness that I would have never been able to witness otherwise.

What's the worst part about being in Grade?

The worst part is not being able to do it every day.

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