Arts & Entertainment
6 min

Shearing Pinx: ‘castrating cock rock’ since 2005

A backstage chat with Vancouver’s outspoken queer noise punks

Shearing Pinx warms up last November at Thor’s Palace. Credit: Shearing Pinx/Jacob Gradowski

A naked man with an erection stares out of a poster with the words Shearing Pinx below him. It’s apparently a gig poster, though a somewhat confusing one, since no venue or date is mentioned.

It’s also the centerpiece in a wall of Shearing Pinx art, posted in an underground East Hastings art space where the band played its 10th anniversary show on Feb 14.

The posters are largely the work of the band’s guitarist/vocalist Nic Hughes. He and drummer/co-founder Jeremy Van Wyck invited Daily Xtra into a back room — a ramshackle jam space filled with musical equipment — to discuss their history. We start with the basics: why, besides the obvious pun on “Pinking Shears,” call the band “Shearing Pinx?”

“Erin made it up,” Hughes replies. He’s referring to Erin Ward, who, with Hughes and Van Wyck, filled out the original trio, playing second guitar. A member of the Vancouver “Fake Jazz” scene, she also played in the all-female experimental art project Her Jazz Noise Collective and recorded as Les Beyond, before leaving Vancouver in 2009.

“I think [the name] was symbolism for castrating cock rock,” Hughes continues brightly. “Destroying it. Our music is just anti-everything that way.”

He’s not being entirely serious.

Hughes and Van Wyck both grew up in the mid-1990s, and their sound takes a cue from the avant-rock that was burgeoning at the time. Think Sonic Youth at their darkest and most demanding, from the Confusion is Sex and Kill Yr Idols years: eccentrically structured, jagged-edge punk songs, with passages written into them for fierce, guitar-driven improvisations and instruments sometimes tuned in irregular ways.

“I remember when the internet came out, that was all I would look up,” Hughes says. “Sonic Youth lyrics and tunings!”

But that was a bit later, Van Wyck notes. “When we were really finding our own music, as young teenagers, the internet wasn’t there. So it was tape trading, fanzines. I think Nic, you’ve told the story that you ordered your first records from a skate magazine.” (“Sessions,” Hughes chimes in.)

“That was the early 1990s, and Sonic Youth was everywhere,” Van Wyck continues. “And back then you would read interviews, and whatever t-shirts they were wearing, whatever names were on the thank you list, that was how you discovered stuff . . .”

Without the internet, there was definitely a greater sense of isolation, growing up as a weird punk kid in the 1990s. This is even truer for Hughes, who spent his teens in the small town of Enderby, BC.

“It was brutal,” he says. “I think I was out as bisexual as first, but even that — nobody was out. There was maybe one or two other kids at my school who I maybe thought were, but nobody had pink hair like I did, or listened to the same music. I felt insanely outsider. There weren’t even any older queer people I could look up to. I felt like, I’m never going to find love here, I’m never going to be accepted here. We have to go to the city.”

He and his friend Freya Giles eventually escaped to film school in Kelowna. Film would eventually bring Van Wyck and Hughes together; they met at a Vancouver café where Van Wyck was working, which Hughes and Giles wanted to use as a set.

“Jeremy bugged me for so long — let’s start a band, let’s jam!” Eventually Hughes met Ward through a newspaper ad, formed a short-lived group with Ward and Giles called Nun Un, and then, around Valentine’s Day 2005, incorporated Jeremy, who was returning from a nomadic spell in Mexico, into what became Shearing Pinx 1.0. (Giles moved on to other projects, like the sludge-metal band Disworship).

It’s a politically clumsy question to ask, but it’s not every day you meet straight guys who end up drumming in a band with a gay/ bisexual man and a lesbian. “For us it really didn’t seem like a thing at all,” Van Wyck answers. “I have encountered that question before. Starting to tour, we would often get grouped with queer-oriented and queer-identified bands, which is just always amazing. The odd time I would meet someone else who was the lone straight person in the band, and they’d kind of reach out to me. They’d be like, ‘isn’t it weird? Isn’t it just crazy?’ I never could relate to a lot of those feelings. And I never felt like there was anything we weren’t all on the same page about, obvious things like being anti-homophobic, even when we do queer events like [queercore festival] Queeruption.”

Besides, he continues, “we’ve never been a totally flag-waving band when it comes to most issues.” Van Wyck’s own background is First Nations, and he has his own interest in colonial history, but it’s never the overt topic of songs, where the lyrics often arise from jams as a sort of “stream of consciousness poetry,” as Hughes puts it.

All the same, there are occasional song titles that stand out like “Anal Jesus,” rendered as “Anl Jesus” on the album cover, off their 2011 release Rituals, which featured Ward’s then-replacement, Jesse Taylor.

Plus Hughes and company have a penchant for occasionally speaking from the stage, sometimes being more provocative than they intend. “When we [meaning Hughes and Van Wyck] were touring the UK as a duo in 2010, the Pope was in town, and it was a big deal over there,” Hughes says, grinning. “So we would be like, ‘so the fuckin’ pope’s in town, what’s up with this kiddie-fucker piece of shit?’” (Van Wyck, listening, bursts into enthusiastic laughter). “Everyone was just—” Hughes adopts a dropped jaw, terrified stare. “It was like tumbleweeds going by,” he finishes. “We were like, ‘fuck your pope!’”

“I feel like people would yell in approval with that statement here,” Shearing Pinx’s bassist Sydney J Koke says, joining the interview in progress.

Koke also plays bass for The Courtneys, a vastly different, all-girl Vancouver band, who have gorgeous bubblegummy pop songs. Like Van Wyck and Hughes, she’s strikingly charismatic; like Erin Ward before her, she’s queer (bisexual, actually) and out about it.

How did she come into the band? “It’s kind of a weird story. I was originally a tour driver, for a tour in 2011, and right before it started, we found out that Jesse wasn’t going to be able to come,” she says. “Jeremy was out of town, so Nic and I met up for about a week, and I learned a lot of songs and wrote down tablature for all of them, and then when we started, we had one jam the night before we left. My second jam ever with Shearing Pinx was the first show of the tour.

“Then we drove through Montana, which takes, like, three days, so I had a lot of time to practice the songs, since I didn’t want to take my book onstage. They’re complicated songs, they’re not just things you can kind of learn by feeling it. At the time, I had to count a lot and write down a lot of really specific details. I had a graph of how loud different parts would be, or how crazy things would be, and I made up symbols for the different kinds of improv. There’s whole sections where there’s no plan, except there’s a cue to come back in.”

Koke has been a happy third member of the band for a couple of years now (though the band members remain friends with Jesse Taylor, whose new band, Mormon Crosses, played their 10th anniversary show).

“I would say, like, five out of 10 times, [playing with Shearing Pinx] is just pretty fun, and two out of 10 times it’s incredible, especially when it happens live,” she says. “We get into this crazy spiritual mode of communicating with each other, and the audience can tell that it’s special. And it’s usually in a shitty place with dim lighting, in a gymnasium or something!”

Returning to topics of queer identity, Koke sums things up nicely. “I think all art and music is political. If you’re making genuine art, your experience in the world will be reflected in that. I think that’s way better than trying to instrumentalize some kind of cause. That just makes you look like you have an agenda.”

Still, she adds, “I guess when you have a band where you have people who have marginalized identities, the tension of those politics comes up more though a really intuitive kind of expression . . . The music can contain your identity.”