Single Mothers' Drew Thomson Sobered Up to Make the Best Punk of His Career

The notoriously volatile frontman has watched many of his peers find success, as his bands kept screwing up and breaking up. But with a newfound focus on The Drew Thomson Foundation, he’s making some of the best work of his career.

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May 17 2019, 1:00pm

Drew Thomson of The Drew Thomson Foundation | Image by Graham Isador

Earlier this week I watched Pkew Pkew Pkew destroy a set on Late Night with Seth Myers. They’re the second Toronto punk act to make the show recently, following PUP’s appearance earlier this year. In 2018 Hamilton band The Dirty Nil landed on a handful of best of lists for their excellent sophomore release Master Volume, with critics dubbing the group the next saviours of Rock and Roll. But a decade ago when I got to Toronto and started writing about the music here, I put bets on Drew Thomson to be the breakout performer of all the groups in the scene.

Thomson’s post-hardcore act Single Mothers put out aggressive tunes that still had an undeniable pop-sensibility. On the tracks Thomson shout-sang thoughtful, smart, and brutally honest lyrics that painted self-aware portraits of an angry young man. Their were very few people that did it better. But while other bands grew their profiles Single Mothers would break up every two months, then reform with a new lineup. Thomson struggled with addiction issues and alcohol. He spent well-documented months away from Single Mothers in Northern Ontario literally prospecting for gold. The band would get a big break at a music festival or some stellar reviews then implode again. Thomson had some success, for sure, but not quite on par with his peers. It always seemed like a struggle for a little more attention, a little more stability, and a little more growth. All of it a game of one step forwards two steps back.

Later this year Thomson, now sober and more focused, will release an album with new band The Drew Thomson Foundation. The tracks are a departure from the angry sound of Single Mothers—nowadays Thomson is treating performances with his hardcore act as character driven, putting on a persona of the man he used to be—and serve to highlight the musician's knack for words. It’s a natural growth for the performer and some of the best work of his career. Recently I had the chance to speak with Thomson about the new tunes, trying to provide for yourself with your art, and his comparative place in the scene.

VICE: Single Mothers has been through a dozen or so members since its formation. You've had record deals come and go. Attention from media has been back and forth. What was the impetus to keep pushing forward as a musician?
Drew Thomson: I don’t think I’ve ever seriously considered quitting. I’ve definitely rubbed shoulders with the idea, but I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it as a reality. For a long time there I was going on spite—just the fact that people said I wouldn’t be able to keep it together or put out another record focused my drive—but as I’ve tamed that instinct. What I think keeps me aligned is that at my very core I am a songwriter. If I was a carpenter, I’d go home after a day working in the shop and I’d write songs. It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve done the longest. I’ve quit everything. I dropped out of college. I’ve had a myriad of abandoned careers. But song writing sticks because I’ve never had to try to do it, it’s just something I do.

Some of the song with The Drew Thomson Foundation sound like the lighter Single Mothers tracks. How do you differentiate between the two?
I started Single Mothers when I was 23 or 24. It was one of the darkest times of my life. It’s been ten years of yelling and part of me loves that still, but I feel like there’s more I wanna get out there. As a general rule I take a sideline approach to the Single Mothers musical arrangements and focus on the lyrical content. There are a few songs, mostly on Our Pleasure that I had more of a hand in. If they didn’t end up in that record they could have been Foundation songs—but for the most part it’s in tone. As I grow up slowly Single Mothers starts to become a bit more of an alter ego, a bit more exaggerated. The new Drew Thomson Foundation is more of where I’m at. It’s where I’m going as a person. Single Mothers is becoming a bit more character driven which I find really interesting and exciting.

Your home when off tour is currently an apartment in Hamilton. Previous to that you had a long stay in London, Ontario. Has being outside of Toronto allowed you to have a more sustainable life as an artist?
Absolutely. I couldn’t afford to do music full time and live somewhere expensive. I love Toronto. I love visiting but when you’re on the road 150-200 days a year it doesn’t make much sense to me to piss away all that money on rent. It takes a lot of financial planning running two bands. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do that while living in Hamilton. That being said—being on the outside has its drawbacks, too.

Can you talk to me about that?
I do end up missing quite a few shows that I probably still wouldn’t go to if I lived in Toronto...but feel like I would. There are little things—the rest of my band lives in Toronto for the most part - but I just take the train in. I like the slower pace of Hamilton also. I go to the movies alone a lot —matinees—I don’t know why but the thought of doing that in such a big busy city like Toronto doesn’t feel like it would be the same. I like feeling ‘alone’ in Hamilton—even though I have friends here, I have fewer.

How conscious of the business side of what you do?
I’ve had to learn to navigate the business side of things out of necessity. I haven’t had a manager for a few years. I really hate being told what to do—and for me it just works better this way. I don’t think anyone in our world is really doing it for the money. If they are I gotta say —there are easier ways to make a buck than hauling all your shit across the continent.

You’ve been a part of a Southern Ontario music scene that’s had a lot of success lately. Does it feel like a community of bands?
It does feel like ‘something is happening’. I love the [Dirty] Nil. I live down the street from them. Luke and Ross both played the first Drew Thomson Foundation shows. We’ve played with PUP and Pkew [Pkew Pkew] and I couldn’t be happier for all their success. I mean that honestly. It’s hard being in a band—it’s harder being a working band, so it’s very cool to see friends rise up.

You’re my favourite songwriter out of all those bands, but I feel like you haven’t gotten the same credit as the others. Is that something you’re aware of?
Thank you very much. I mean, we all go at our own pace. Lots of ups and downs. In a way I kind of shot myself in the foot early on. Made some bad business decisions. Let some people make bad decisions for me. Drank too much. But everything seems clearer after it’s happened. I never in a million years thought anyone would care about my bands or songs. A twenty-year-old Drew Thomson would be absolutely stunned at what I’ve been lucky enough to do. So maybe other bands get more credit. but everyday I’m thankful for my friends and my band. What we’ve done and are going to do.

Where would you like to get to as an artist? What’s your ultimate goal?
I’d like to have a large body of work that when I die someone can glance at and think hum, I should look at that later and maybe does.

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Drew Thomson is on Instagram