We pick up this look back on the life of the late Ken “Chi Pig” Chinn, singer of the Edmonton-born punk act, SNFU, in the mid 1980s, just as the band has added new bassist Jimmy “Roid” Schmitz to the lineup that included Evan C. Jones on drums, twins Marc and Brent Belke on guitars on vocals and Chi on vocals.
These stories were told to Steven Sandor nearly 20 years ago, as part of a project that was never published before. With Chinn’s passing this summer, these stories serve as a remembrance of a special era, Edmonton in the 1980s was a lot more than the Oilers. If you haven’t read Part One yet, click here and then come back.
PART 2: HOUSE FIRE
New bassist Jimmy “Roid” Schmitz arrived just in time — SNFU was slotted for a half-hour special (play six songs live, plus an interview) on Shaw Cable, and the band had just been asked by a promoter named Barry Peters for a few songs for the compilation LP. It Came From Inner Space. Instead of donating the same two songs they had recorded at CJSR for a previous compilation that was never released, the band put together three new tracks: “Strip Search,” “Grunt, Groan, Rant & Rave” and “(Real Men Don’t Watch) Quincy.”
Jones not only played drums, but added his skills on the acoustic guitar on “Grunt, Groan, Rant & Rave.” And, he got a very special credit for his work on “drums and tweeters” because of his blunder in the warehouse studio.
“I blew out the tweeter struts,” Jones laughed. “I was helping mix the tracks and I thought it needed something more, that it needed more high end.
“I man, that’s what I always did. I was always asking ‘Can we make this heavier?’”
This time, there was no scam; the compilation was released. SNFU had made it onto vinyl (on Peters’ Rubber Records label). Chi Pig could put his own band’s record into his vast album and singles collection. But this was not so much a triumph as it was a beginning; the band had proven to themselves that they had what it took to be a success in the studio. But the band still never entertained too many thoughts of a real record deal — not yet.
“It was not a conceived plan to get a record deal,” said Brent. “The term ‘record deal’ wasn’t ever thrown around.”
After the release of the compilation, SNFU left the Grandin-area rehearsal space (other people who lived in the house simply got sick of the noise) and began rehearsing in the garage that belonged to the parents of local fan Andy Rogers. It was a temporary set-up, and another fan — a guy by the name of Ken Hansen — helped them find a new permanent space. It was what Chi lovingly refers to as the “Mouse House,” right on the border between Edmonton’s Corso D’Italia district and Chinatown. The house was a regular hotel for vermin. As the guys used to watch TV together in the den, it wouldn’t be unusual to see two or three mice scurrying in front of the set. Like most of SNFU’s early-days rehearsal spaces, the “Mouse House” was a communal setting. Many local punk acts rehearsed and lived in the home, including Jerry Jerry and the Sons of Rhythm Orchestra. The house was an entire city unto itself.
But SNFU and their comrades wouldn’t have the house for long. While the members of SNFU were out and about, a fire started on the porch and quickly engulfed the old rickety home.
“I remember Ken Hansen called and told me ‘Your house is burning down.’ I thought he was joking until I went by,” said “Jerry Jerry” Woods.
While no one was hurt, SNFU’s members arrived at the scene expecting the worst. All of their equipment — amps, guitars, drums, basses, cables, all the stuff it takes to put on a modern rock show — was stored in the basement and wasn’t insured. They were sure that all the money and effort put into getting good equipment had just been destroyed by the flames.
But, when the ruins of the home were safe to enter, the band’s equipment was found relatively unscathed. The section of the basement where the equipment was stored had survived the flames. An inch of water stood on the floor, but the amps and equipment were all up on platforms and rollers, meaning that none of the vital components had even touched the water. The equipment had survived the extreme heat, the flames and then the water which had flooded the room.
Soon after the fire, in the middle of ‘84, the band began to gain an audience across the Canadian prairies. You’d think that the prairie geography would have prevented a prairie punk scene from ever starting; you’d be wrong. When a touring band does made stops in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg in the 1980s, the kids treated the shows like major events — and were far more rabid than you’d find in the notoriously fickle Canadian music centres of Toronto or Vancouver. While a punk band could get a gig in Toronto, it would find it had to compete with five other shows on the Queen West strip that night. A band could roll into Edmonton or Regina and know it was the night’s top attraction; kids who have never heard the band’s music before would show up at the door just because it was the place to be.
“I remember a show in Winnipeg we played at a place called the Doghouse,” said Schmitz. “We got paid 30 bucks for the gig. And, at the time, it cost us 60 bucks in gas to get there.”
SNFU’s fan base grew with every show. That buzz, along with the tracks on the It Came From Inner Space compilation, got the attention of Shawn and Mark Stern, the founding members of Los Angeles-based hardcore band Youth Brigade.
Even though Youth Brigade hailed from Southern California, the Stern brothers were Canadians and still maintained strong ties to their home and native land. They had moved to Los Angeles because their father worked in the movie industry and relocated to Hollywood.
After being featured on a double-bill with SNFU, the brothers were sold on the young Edmonton band. They asked the band to contribute a track to a compilation album called Something to Believe In, which they planned to release on their own B.Y.O. label. SNFU recorded “Victims of the Womanizer,” the first true musical signpost of their career, in Winnipeg. It was a song about date rape, Chi Pig’s manifesto against the macho, masculine lyrics of the time.
“There she slumps at the end of the couch
One last drink, she’s going to pass out
Instead he smokes her up with a joint
To make sure she sees that pass out point
Now her bodies like a rock and she’s fast asleep
With his macho man hands he begins to creep
But that girl, you know she can’t resist
The womanizer got her too damn pissed.”
It’s also worth noting that SNFU would never have made it to that Winnipeg recording session without the help of Hansen (he of Mouse House fame). It was Hansen who drove the band across the prairies in his ‘67 Buick.
“There we were, seven people crammed into a car with only two doors,” recalled Jimmy. “And we stuffed as much gear into the car as we could. And that’s how we got to Winnipeg, crammed in this car, driving through the night.”
The Sterns were impressed enough with SNFU’s work that they offered the band a two-album recording deal. No, it wasn’t going to make the boys from Edmonton rich; but it would allow them to realize their goal. The year was 1984; and SNFU was now a rising force on the Canadian music scene. The Something to Believe In album was available in America, and the band was beginning to get fans south of the border, too.