Mike Warne has an unusual songwriting dictum: For every three lines that are stupid, write one smart line. The inverse also applies: If you write three consecutive smart lines, make sure the fourth one is stupid. “I just feel like nothing’s perfect,” explains the 33-year-old frontman of the ingeniously dumb Toronto punk band Pkew Pkew Pkew. “Everything gets ruined a little.”
A fine example of Warne’s method can be found on Pkew Pkew Pkew’s forthcoming album, Optimal Lifestyles, due out March 1. In the song “Passed Out,” Warne crafts a familiar party-hearty narrative that recalls the endless stream of rampaging tunes about beer and pizza from the band’s self-titled 2016 debut. “I can’t wait to go home and shut down / I’m gonna sit on my couch and stare at my wall / And destroy these beers ’til there’s no beers at all,” Warne howls over music that recalls Titus Andronicus at its loudest and drunkest. But then Warne hints at the gnawing desperation undercutting the song’s rambunctious energy: “What did I do with my day? / I worked some pointless job that I hate.”
This festive/frustrated dynamic recurs throughout Pkew Pkew Pkew’s ouevre, putting them solidly in the same camp as fellow Torontonians like Pup and The Dirty Nil, who similarly front as arena rock-loving pranksters while secretly harboring lingering insecurities. For Pkew Pkew Pkew, the fraught transition from the extended adolescence of twenty-something dirtbag bachelor life to the uncertainty of the adult world is a primary obsession.
“We didn’t want to write about girls, or we didn’t want to be too metaphorical. We just wanted to sing about exactly what we were doing,” Warne says of his initial vision of Pkew Pkew Pkew, which he formed in 2010. “I wanted to write stuff about things that I would observe in everyday life that maybe weren’t that interesting, [but] I thought were interesting.”
On Optimal Lifestyles, those things include the 1991 action classic Point Break, which Warne uses as fodder for a love song told from the perspective of undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) for his girlfriend Tyler (Lori Petty). “I think I wanted to write about the relationship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), but I didn’t feel ready for it,” he says, half-joking.
Other songs are inspired by the band’s many adventures on the road, most notably “The Polynesian,” which recounts a night spent in the midwest tourist town Wisconsin Dells, a hotbed of water parks and strip clubs situated between Chicago and Minneapolis. In one verse, Warne describes an encounter with a local woman that he insists unfolded the exact same way in real life. “I said, ‘I’m pretty easy. What should I expect? Is there anywhere anyone here ever goes to dance?'” Warne sings. “She said, ‘Goatees, tallcans, camo pants and Packers fans.’”
The attention to lyrical detail set to crunching power chords immediately recalls the Hold Steady, one of Warne’s favorite bands. Turns out this influence goes deeper than mere fandom — Warne actually invited Craig Finn to pitch in during pre-production on Optimal Lifestyles, so he could solicit his advice. The two of have been friends since Pkew Pkew Pkew opened for the Hold Steady in Toronto back in the mid-’10s.
“I just kind of thought it’d be crazy not to ask,” Warne says. “We know one of the best songwriters that I think is around right now, or ever maybe.” They wound up drinking beer and playing guitars while Warne ran potential lyrics by Finn. Warne can still remember specific lines that Finn helped him craft. (From “I Wanna See A Wolf,” this Finn-esque snapshot: “Longing to run free and skip soundcheck.”)
For Finn, the admiration is mutual. (He’s partial to “Asshole Pandemic,” a highlight from the self-titled debut.) “There’s a frustration in the songs, I think, that kind of speaks to me,” he says. “And they are the dudes from the songs, too. I mean, they’re in there drinking beer, and eating pizza, and playing video games, and skateboarding.
“It feels like he’s just trying to stretch himself,” Finn adds. “I mean, they have all these songs about beer and pizza, but he’s a pretty motivated person. They tour a lot. And they’re really trying to do this the best they can.”
The line from “Passed Out” about “some pointless job I hate” is also rooted in Warne’s life. When Pkew Pkew Pkew started, he was looking for an escape from 9-to-5 drudgery. He formed the band with a co-worker and treated it as a joke for while, bashing out silly songs about drinking while hanging out on the weekend. Eventually, Warne got fired from the job because he was constantly writing rock tunes at his desk.
The band name was the most ridiculous part of the enterprise. Warne dreamt it up originally in high school back in the Markham-Stouffville area of Ontario, about 45 minutes outside Toronto. He had just started first playing in punk bands, inspired by an unlikely mishmash of Bouncing Souls and Elton John.
“I always loved the sounds and graphics from the old Batman when he would punch people, like ‘Biff’ and ‘Boff’ and ‘Blammo.'” he says. “Also, not many words start with “pk-,” so it’s very searchable.” But nobody wanted to join a band called Pkew Pkew Pkew until Warne forced his friends to play with him in his twenties.
Eventually, Warne booked Pkew Pkew Pkew’s first gig in Toronto, and was encouraged by the response. “I’m sure it was sloppy as hell, but people were tossing us open beers while we were onstage. It was just a lot of fun for us, to see this kind of fake joke thing that we made up that we [now] all took really seriously.”
While Pkew Pkew Pkew was originally emboldened at home, Warne says the band does better in the US than Canada. He hopes that Optimal Lifestyles can repeat the stateside success that other Canadian punk acts have enjoyed in recent years, though he’s eying the band’s future with appropriate realism.
“It just feels like it’s not enough people listening to rock music that there’s enough money there to support people like us, at our level, and nobody’s used to paying for music anymore, so you know, what hope do we have?” he says.
While that might sound pessimistic, Warne appreciates that the lifestyle of a punk band in 2019 keeps him grounded in the real-life struggles that prompted him to start the band in the first place. “I always wondered what I would write about if I was a songwriter that didn’t have a job, because I’ve always had a job, and that seems like life to me,” he says. “If you just wake up every day and you have to write a song, and that’s it, I don’t know. I like having something other than music to do.”
Check out a brand new song off Optimal Lifestyles — “I Don’t Matter At All” — below.