"I never played as a kid. I always wanted to." Sam Coffey is seated on a balcony overlooking Dundas West in Toronto, sun at his back. He's talking about Dungeons & Dragons, a game near and dear to his heart: he's at his friend's apartment for their weekly D&D night, a two-year old tradition. Coffey says that grew up in Kitchener, surrounded by hockey players. "I never played hockey," he laughs. "None of them ever wanted to do anything fantasy related. I tried, but I never really had the chance to play D&D." Here, surrounded by friends, armed with weed pretzels, gummies, a barrel of cheese puffs, cigarettes, and beers, he gets to make up for lost time.
Coffey is the inviting, friendly frontman of Toronto powerpop outfit Sam Coffey & The Iron Lungs. Right now, they're in the middle of the Dine Alone Tour, a Canada-wide tour with The Flatliners and The Dirty Nil. Later this summer, they're releasing their new record, a nine-track, self-titled exercise in rock and roll indulgence and youthful hope. It comes out on July 28, a date that itself seems a magnificent reflection of childhood. It exists in that cautionless, beautiful limbo between the hectic, whirlwind start of summer vacation, and the putrid, soggy heat of August, whose each passing day brings more Back To School ads, and a comedown from the mortality of the streetlight-lit shenanigans of late July, when the warm air stood still. It's a record that suggests the bliss of those days is still attainable.
Coffey and his friends start their D&D game; this particular campaign has been going on for a few months. Clustered around a coffee table, furnished with their coveted die chest, plastic figurines for each player, and large illustrations of the current map on graph paper, they step to it; turning around decisions, back stories, and developments on a dime, their collective minds fire at a dizzying speed. Despite the dedication, Coffey notes the group takes things relatively lightly. "There are groups that play way more strict than we do," he says, explaining that some groups are offended when a player doesn't act completely faithful to their character. He winces and recoils. "That irks me. We're in it for fun," he says. "We just like to have a good time."
Coffey's music shares some parallels with D&D, but not in a literal sense (save for one song on the new record called "Ragnarok," which Coffey explains refers to Norse mythology.) "I never write about elves and dwarves and caravans, I don't think that's very accessible," he says. "I like to be nerdy and innocent. The nerd maybe comes out," he grins. Accessibility, after all, is important to Coffey, in both D&D and his music. "Everybody can play it, everybody can listen to it."
He's more Thin Lizzy than Led Zeppelin in his approach to fantasy: "I don't know if I'd have the gall to talk about Gollum like Robert Plant does," he laughs. His records reflect an intimate relationship with mythology that rock and roll was born from. It addresses a fantastical, out-of-reach optimism and imagination, but in different terms; instead of a noble steed, it's Springsteen's fetishization of a growling Chevrolet. Instead of a goblin-infested dungeon, it's a beige, khaki-pant infested suburb that needs escaping from. Coffey nods to those ideas. "There's deities and higher powers that always come through when I write," he explains. He also notes his brand of escapism is relatively rosy and privileged. "I had a really easy go growing up," he says. "I was born in a good neighbourhood. It was suburbia: it's an easy place to live and grow up." Lead single "Judy" deals with the spiritual exhaustion that comes with growing up in the suburbs. "That's just what I know so it's easier to write about it for me," Coffey says. "Everybody who's from there can feel it."
The power and applicability of the things beyond our reality are timeless; these stories exist for a reason. They're comforting and escapist. When asked why he loves D&D, Coffey shrugs and says, "Pretending," qualifying with a chuckle. "I've always loved fantasy. I always played [role-playing games] on Playstation, so when I got the chance to pretend to be an elf, and kill orcs, I was all for it," he articulates. He also notes the "camaraderie" in his gatherings. "There's really nothing like rolling a natural D20, and then everyone around you cheers for a dice you roll," he smiles.
It's hard to not read this response as being applicable to his work with the Iron Lungs; onstage, cloaked in matching, patched denim vests, the band looks like they're playing roles that, comparable to the extraterrestrial characters in D&D, are larger-than-life. "I play a different role when we play [live]," Coffey admits. "I try to act like a big tough guy when I play," he adds, an image certainly incongruous with his warm, approachable, real-life kindness. "Sometimes I stand on my tippy-toes when I play because I want to be taller than everybody," he chuckles.
That dynamic is contrasted with the gentler underbelly of their songs. "Talk 2 Her," is a plea for expression and communication in relationships, for emotional honesty and openness. It's a healthy counterpoint to the cocky, hyper-masculine tradition of rock and roll. "I'm not a hard-edged individual," Coffey notes. "I like to think that what we say is earnest and we really mean it. We're innocent, which takes us away from the whole macho '70s rock thing."
There's something delightful about Coffey, who fronts a gritty guitar-rock band, recalling innocence. He readily admits he's a sucker for nostalgia; he's a fan of Stranger Things and Riverdale, two series that deliver him back to that sweet, summertime simplicity (though he's mighty pissed with what he views as an unfaithful rendition of Jughead: "He hasn't eaten a hamburger once!" he quips incredulously). "It might have to do with when it was an easier time," he remarks. "When you were a kid, you didn't have to worry about paying bills. You would read Archie comics, and fantasy magazines, and it brings you back to that." He thinks on it for a second more, adding, "But maybe it's just because Archie rules."
Luke Ottenhof is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.