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Eamon McGrath Is Surviving The Only Way He Knows How: Playing Punk Rock

The DIY road warrior still has some fight left in him, he’s just jamming a bit more econo these days. 

by Sebastian Buzzalino

Photo by Robert Georgeoff

Eamon McGrath, Canada’s perhaps most enduring punk rocker, knows a thing or two about survival and the need to keep moving forward at all costs. As we catch up with each other over the phone, he speaks in a caffeinated staccato, the burning conviction that drives his career, and in turn fuelling his responses. “Sometimes I feel like I’m deep in the eighth round of a boxing match — and I have no idea how I’m still standing.” 

McGrath is currently settling into his new home in Windsor, ON, where he’s moved with his partner after having been priced out of Toronto. After our call, he’ll return the U-Haul he rented and then try to squeeze in a little bit of downtime before heading back out on tour. Because according to McGrath, if he doesn’t move the needle forward, no one is going to do it for him.

Originally from Edmonton, the blue-collared songwriter has been a fixture across Canada for more than 15 years. He’s a romantic rock and roll spirit through and through: all worn-in denim jackets, band patches, busted kicks and a head of hair perpetually matted by countless sagging couches. Then of course there’s the booze, the drugs, the late nights, and the intense early mornings; the six-strings and the distorted chords, the constant search for truth and authenticity in the face of a deeply uncaring world. It’s all so familiar to McGrath and he must love it because he keeps getting up, round after round.  

His career reads like a millennial punk’s journal: furious, idealistic early days (with the excellent Peacemaker [2010] and Young Canadians [2012]), driven by instinct and a desire to be that rallying cry in the night, mature into a smoldering willingness to survive at all costs, the stalwart rebellion of someone who has carved out a spot for themselves in the world and will not give it up without a desperate fight. McGrath’s recent albums, including his latest, A Dizzying Lust, trade lush, layered punk stylings for a more contemplative folk aesthetic — just him and his guitar, him and the naked truth, trying to find a positive headspace amid the swirling chaos of the world. 

“This record is a by-product of all the things that have happened to me this year,” he says. “It’s been insanely tumultuous to be a musician right now, on a personal level and on a professional level. I’ve never come out of a more challenging time.” Part of that was lockdowns, being unable to play — for someone that makes his living on the road, constantly renewing the touring cycle, it was a huge blow. Part of it is a newfound sobriety, the realization that drinks and drugs were only worsening his chances of survival in the music industry. And perhaps the biggest part of it is the epiphany that his fierce DIY ethos is no longer merely the consequence of young idealism, but “the only dependable way to survive as an artist.”

“I’m as giddy as a teenager / with all the fire but none of the anger.” 

— Eamon McGrath, “Teenager”

“I know the avenue that I can drive in and I’m so happy now — way more than I’ve ever been,” he continues. “Because I’ve stopped trying to fight for everything. I’ve realized the things I can control in my life: my career is one of them.” A Dizzying Lust is the record of that realization, that commitment to knowing what he can do and living off the kind of art that he wants to make. It’s an empowering feeling, that sort of self-actualization: anything that doesn’t serve his larger purpose in life is discarded like so much chaff. So he tours mostly solo across North America, Europe, Japan, Mexico, and proudly owns it (“I’m really sick of playing a solo show and having it feel like an apology,” he laughs); he comes to terms with the fact that he’s not 21 anymore, becoming comfortable with the fact that he’s “not angry at the world anymore.” Rather, all he does is play music, write songs, and play shows. Which is pretty much par for the course when it comes to McGrath. 

“I have to be more methodical because, if you’re not, the cost of living will just sweep you away,” he says.

It’s a matter of pure survival for McGrath. One way or another, he will make a living writing and playing music, regardless of industry trends and tribulations. He calls his new record “the most econo record I’ve ever made… It’s my Double Nickels on the Dime record. I did everything myself because it’s the only way I can afford to do it… a quiet folk record, especially right now, with all the chaos in the world.” 

A Dizzying Lust is DIY because it has to be, because social media makes selling out too expensive, because honesty and authenticity are the only currencies that can’t be easily commodified. Eamon McGrath would love to tour the world with a full band in tow, packed stadiums every night and intricate stage setups, but the reality is that that’s almost an impossible dream and he still needs to pay rent, put food on the table in the meantime. It’s the only way forward for him.

“The only people that are going to come out of this unscathed are the people that can do it themselves.”