Photo via Isotopes' Facebook
When Isotopes frontman Evan October was 16-years-old, he had to make a choice: punk rock or baseball. At the time, the vocalist was playing baseball seriously on Vancouver’s North Shore Twins, but at an age when many of his teammates were being scouted for college teams, Evan quit to become the singer of a (now-defunct) punk band called the Kidnappers. “I was in the upper echelon of baseball in Vancouver and I loved it,” October reflects during an interview at the Lido, a bar in his home city. “It was what I did every single day, year-round. It was baseball every day. It was all I really knew until I decided that I was brave enough to want to start singing in a band, because that’s way more scary than anything else I think—making that choice to be a singer.”
Flash forward to the present and October has found a way to unite his two passions as the leader of the Isotopes (known more formally as Isotopes Punk Rock Baseball Club), a baseball-themed punk band. Founded in 2007, the outfit is named after the local team in The Simpsons, and Evan’s rotating cast of backing musicians all have baseball-themed nicknames and numbers: the current lineup includes guitarist Dallas Duststorm (number 10) and drummer Tony Hustle (number 7), among others. The singer (who is number 13) requires that his collaborators all wear an Isotopes hat when they play, and they bill themselves as “The World's Greatest Baseball Punk Band.” So why does October thematically restrict himself to baseball? “When it came to doing this band, it was either: start a band that’s going to do the same old subject matter and probably not as good as my heroes, or do something original that I thought I could be the best at,” he offers. “Everyone always says, ‘How long can you go with this for?’ I can go with this longer than I could write love songs or whatever else people write about.”
Evan’s love of the game is on full display on the band’s recently released debut full-length, Nuclear Strikezone. The Ramones-style pop ditty “Hasta la Vista, Baby” mocks Alex Rodriguez for his steroid suspension, while the feverishly surging “Ballad of Rey Ordonez” details the sad journey of the titular Cuban shortstop, who was unable to return to his home country after defecting to the States. “There’s a lot on this new record that is 90s stuff,” the songwriter explains. “Like the song ‘Magic Loogie,’ which is a reference to a Seinfeld episode [featuring Keith Hernandez]—live, no one gets that. And the song “Chicks Dig the Long Ball.” That was a commercial in the 90s with the Braves pitching staff and Heather Locklear.” Even those who aren’t baseball fans will find a lot to enjoy in Nuclear Strikezone, which is packed with pulse-racing rhythms, barbed-wire guitar leads and catchy, harmonized hooks. “We’re trying to write pop songs,” Evan explains. “We’re already boycotting enough fans by doing the baseball thing. It would make no sense to boycott baseball fans.” But despite the obvious limitations of the band’s baseball-focused approach, Evan points out that the Isotopes’ target demographic is relatively broad. “Our market, what I envision, is every Green Day fan with a baseball hat,” he says. And, even though, many Canadian audiences don’t understand the ‘Isotopes subject matter, they have been well-received south of the border. Unfortunately, Evan was banned from the States for five years after getting busted for touring without a visa in 2013.
“I’m on the floor in cuffs, a border guard with his knee in my back,” he remembers of the incident. “I’m being arrested in the U.S. and it sucks. I got thrown in jail. I’m in this blue room by myself. It’s six hours of processing. I get my fingerprints taken, I get my photo taken. I have to sit in this room for hours, they interrogate me.” He was eventually charged with “attempting to defraud an officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” For now, the Isotopes will continue to tour heavily in Canada until the U.S. ban is lifted, and Evan will keep on writing baseball-themed songs. “I’ll never run out of material,” he promises.
Photo by Kitt Woodland
Noisey: Does everyone in the band like baseball as much as you?
Evan October: To a degree. I’m obviously the leader, but I’ve tried as much as I can to surround myself and this band with like-minded individuals. No one’s played to the extent that I have at all, but nobody has played to the extent that I have except for a select group of people. I played every day, and in Vancouver, you don’t find people who have played baseball very often. So everyone, for the most part, is a casual fan for sure. And there’s degrees of that within the band. It’s most important to staff a good band, to make sure that everyone is good at delivering the songs, but people have to want to be in this band. We’ve had close to 30 members at this point. So if it gets to a point where a guy isn’t interested in the whole program, then that’s when the guy leaves. It’s happened lots, where guys are like, ‘I don’t want to wear my hat.’ Well, okay, there other bands where you don’t have to wear hats, but if you’re in this one, you’re going to wear your hat. And I’ve fired people just based on that. But most of the time we’re all baseball guys, which is good.
Do the Isotopes appeal more to punk fans or baseball fans?
It’s both, and it depends where we are. In the States, there’s a huge demographic of punk fans who love baseball. It’s a thing that doesn’t really exist in Canada. But down there—it’s like hockey fans here—everyone loves baseball, everyone has a team. So you get sects of fans that are punks. They like all the bands we like, they like us. They’re familiar with it. They’re not just jocks—they’re jock punks. That doesn’t exist here. That’s why I always love going to the States because our whole market is down there. You show up and there’s a guy with a New York Mets hat and a Ramones shirt or a Black Flag shirt. You don’t see those guys so often here. They’re here, but there’s not a bar full of them in every city like there is in the States.
There are 162 games in a baseball season. Have you played 162 shows in a year?
Not in a year, no. But we will play 81 road shows this year. I’m going to call that success, because in a ball season you do 81 on the road. So we’re going to do that, and that’s great, because that’s been my goal the whole time. We’re never going to do 81 at home because that would be crazy. Or maybe that would be funny to do. If you could do 81 shows at home—a show a night for the whole season, basically, that would be awesome but would also be gruelling. If you could get every venue in town to throw down a hundred bucks for the idea—‘You guys are going to come in on game 57 of the season? Sure, I’ll give you a hundred bucks’—you’ll make $8,000 in the year. And I challenge any fucking band in town to do that at home. No one would do that. You can’t make $8,000 in the city, ever.
Which pro baseball player has the most punk cred?
The guy who had the most credibility is Scott Radinsky. He was the singer of Ten Foot Pole and Pulley, which are both Epitaph Records punk bands. And he was a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox and I don’t know who else, maybe the Dodgers. And then he was most recently the pitching coach for the Cleveland Indians before he got fired. He, without a doubt, has the most punk baseball cred, because he did both to the most professional level.
I heard that, when you were in your old band the Kidnappers, you got expelled from high school for kidnapping someone as a publicity stunt. What happened?
I said, ‘We can’t be called the Kidnappers if we don’t kidnap anybody because that would just be lame.’ It was for a music video. There were six of us in my parents’ van wearing black ski masks. A friend of our drummer’s was in a classroom—he was aware of what was going on. We kick open the classroom door, barge in, throw a sack over the guy’s head and just haul him out. The classroom is going nuts: people are screaming, the teacher doesn’t know what to do. It was chaos.
They expelled me not only from the school but the entire school district. They did let me come in and write my exams and I passed every class that I was in except for guitar class, because the final was to play “Stairway to Heaven” and naturally I hate Led Zeppelin, so I refused to play it. I performed it in power chords and they were like, ‘That’s not how you play it.’ So the whole reason I didn’t graduate is because I refused to play “Stairway to Heaven” and that was the only credit I needed.
Alex Hudson is a writer living in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter - @chippedhip