A&E » Music

IllScarlett's big, bold return

Rock-reggae band hits Longhorn Saloon Saturday



Alex Norman doesn't mind the Sublime comparisons.

They pop up everywhere. There's one in nearly every press clipping from the early days of IllScarlett's eight-year career. There are exactly three in their Wikipedia page. The mark that the infamous rock-reggae trio has made on these Torontonians is indelible — they started off as a Sublime cover band, for one — so of course Norman is going to hear about it.

"People say we sound like Sublime. Well, duh, I know that!" the vocalist says by phone on the road to Regina.

"But I do think we have our own thing, and we have so many musicians and music styles that we're interesting in that Sublime is just one element of the type of music that we play."

They'll grace western Canada with said facets this summer as they head out on a mini-tour, including a stopover in Whistler.

They're amidst writing sessions for the follow-up to 2009's 1UP!, which they hope to have released by the end of the year.

This tour is all about getting the gears back in motion. Wiping the dust off. Getting some grease in the wheels and, in the mean time, "pay some bills."

Norman says they'll play some new songs along the way.

"We have some rock songs. We have some reggae songs. We have some punk songs," he says.

"It's a bit frustrating because we have so much content. We want to get this album recorded and get back out on the road, but you got to set up your pieces the right way before you head out on the road, and I think we've done that this time."

IllScarlett was founded in 2001 by high school friends Norman and drummer Swavek Piorkowski in Mississauga, Ont. In the summer of 2004, following the self-release of their debut album, ILLP and vying for some extra attention, they set up a makeshift stage outside of the Vans Warped Tour festival grounds in Barrie. Festival organizer Kevin Lynman was impressed by what he heard and invited the band to play for his personal barbeque that night.

They did. That night, Lynman asked if they'd like to play a few Warped dates the following year.

They did.

By the end of 2008, they had a gold-selling album, All Day With It, released the year before. They'd been nominated for a JUNO. They'd charted on Billboard Canada and had hit #1 on the MuchMusic charts with "Nothing Special," a woe-is-me slab of punk-charged teen angst served up with some reggae for good measure. The teens loved IllScarlett. They were big.

But this was all happening as the Internet was shattering the music industry's economic model and Sony, their label, was scrambling for ways to make money. They proposed to IllScarlett a series of ideas for generating income that, according to Norman, that everyone in the band "weren't comfortable with."

Their final album with Sony, 1UP!, performed poorly on the charts — a result of the "rift" between band and label — and the following year, the parties parted ways.

"They did some good stuff for us but at the end of the day, in this market of people not really buying records anymore, a lot of record companies are scrambling with how to make some money," he says.

"Some of their ideas of generating income for them and us, we weren't really comfortable with that, and the end of the day... it was a business relationship that wasn't working anymore."

In the time between, Illscarlett lost long-time bassist John Doherty. Norman says the entire experience has renewed their vigour for making music and they've come out the other end with a better understanding of why they do it.

"But it feels better now than it ever has, so we're really excited to really get out there and do it for real. As much as we like doing these little tours we want to get out there and do it really big."

Maybe not Sublime big but, you know...