“When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love… L-U-V!” These are the immortal words that sprang from the lips of The Shangri Las, leading off their 1964 hit, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” While Ben Crossman, lead singer for Edmonton’s Real Sickies, isn’t swooning over anyone in particular, the overriding sentiment off his punk band’s new album, Love Is For Lovers, takes its cue straight from the Shangri-Las – what the world needs now is a great big kiss.
Along with the anger and frustration that came with the pandemic, the Sickies’ endured their own personal turbulence, which included a series of homophobic insults hurled online at their videos as well as real face-to-face racist attack. On the streets of Edmonton, Crossman gave the middle finger to a car full of drive-by, flag-waving neo-Nazis who then chased him down, prompting a confrontation. In response, the Sickies retaliated with the short, pulverizing track, “Tear It All Down,” that doesn’t hold back condemning neo-Nazi aggression and their poltical play. “It’s all over the world,” says Crossman reflecting on the tyranny of the far right. “But when it’s close to home, in Alberta, seeing something so hurtful as gay-bashing and just being so close-minded, I wanted to make clear we don’t stand for that. There’s so much hate, I wanted to try and address ways we can get along with ourselves and each other.”
While he leans to the left, Crossman is keenly aware that listening to both sides is a virtue. Still, it’s one that’s fragile where the discussion easily breaks down when rights are overlooked and freedoms abused. “It’s one thing to have freedom, but when it’s impeding on other people’s free rights, like the freedom of speech, is it free? If it’s costing somebody something when you’re bashing them for their race or religion, gender or whatever, that’s not really free. It’s coming at a cost to somebody else. That always kind of stood out to me.”
In addition to the complications of come-on-people-try-now-to-love-one-another, Crossman dives into the tricky business of trying to manage romantic love when it breaks out of its boundaries. The ambitious track, “They Don’t Know,” which Crossman says is a “throw to Bowie,” centres around two married men who fall in love with each other then wrestle with the emotional complexities and resulting aftermath. “It’s an eye-opening thing where they’re like, ‘How can I love you if I’m already in love with this other person?’ And how does that change the dynamics… having to address that they loved each other and then continue on with their families and stuff like that.” Crossman further explains that when the whirlpool of love “can come out of nowhere, it can mean a lot of different things and bring out a lot of different feelings that sometimes jeopardize other things close to you.”
Like the bandwidth of emotion that runs through Love Is For Lovers, the Sickies mix up their sonic delivery with an assortment of punk stylings even though they often get tagged as Edmonton’s answer to the Ramones – an alignment that wasn’t intentional, rather the result of different skill levels and influences funneled together from the band’s beginning. And yes, they blast forth ripping with intensity, but there’s more going on in that wall of sound than a simple reinvention of the Fab Four from Queens. An affection for 80s pop and a lot of tongue-in-cheek comedy also filters its way into their songs. “Being compared to Ramones isn’t a bad thing,” says Crossman. “Is it 100 per cent accurate? No. I think there’s way more bands that sound exactly like Ramones and do it a lot better. We’re not trying to step away from that, we’re just Real Sickies and we sound like many influences.”
One of those many influences on the new record is the punchy, uptempo rocker “Give and Take” with its 60s keyboard swirl and bluesy rapid-fire guitar solo. Crossman also wanted a duet for the song and set his sights high on Dwight Yoakham. Knowing “that wasn’t going to happen” they brought in a familiar face who could do it live in the studio instead of bouncing vocal tracks across the universe. Lauren Wilks, also from Edmonton, fronts the country gothic, dream-pop band, Lucette, was asked to add some spice to the Sickies’ sound. “It was a step out of her comfort zone. She got to rock it up a little bit more, and that was fun. Definitely nice to have her in and switch things up for her and us.”
On love’s more subtle side, Crossman brings up the backstory to the track “My Least Favourite,” recalling a show they played in Quebec City and were hard pressed to find accommodations for the band afterwards. Through a connection with the bartender they found a nice, sympathetic couple willing to put them up. “We got there a little late and one of our guys wanted to go for a stroll and check out the area. You’re not always in Quebec City, so he went out to get into a bit of trouble. When he got back he started ringing all the doorbells at this apartment complex, waking up all the neighbours. It was an old building, when he finally got in he has these Doc Martens stomping his way up these loud wooden stairs at four in the morning. The lady came out and kind of gave him shit. He then went out again and the cat got out the second time. I just found it very endearing in the morning when she said, ‘You were all very nice, but you were the least favourite of mine. She was upset, but because she used ‘least favourite’ you know she didn’t hate him. It was a very kind way to say it.”