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.