Interview – Curtis Steeksma from Fighting For Ithaca

Interview By: Jenna Melanson
Photo Credit: Katrina Gurr

If you are a frequent reader of Canadian Beats, or a fan of Canadian music, chances are you’ve heard of Fighting For Ithaca, and you’ve probably also heard that the Vancouver based pop/rock band has announced that they are no long continuing as a band. A lot of fans had questions and speculations, including myself. I had the chance to conduct a very in depth interview with Curtis Steeksma, who was the lead singer of this popular Canadian band. Whether you’re a fan of FFI or not, this is the most interesting interview I have conducted, as it touches base not only on the breakup of the band, but also goes very in depth about the music scene in Vancouver, and much more.

You were always very active on social networking sites, and took time out of your schedules for your fans. Because of the bond you created with your fans the news of the band breaking up hit many of us very hard, can you explain to us why the band decided to call it quits?

CS: You know, this is a really tough answer to summarize in writing, lol. It was a decision that took a long time for us to come to. I would say the biggest motivation was that it just felt like things had run their course. It was the right time to let it go. Tommy and I were the only original members remaining and we had gone through so many changes musically and personally over the last couple of years. The truth is, we had talked about ending things before when we lost Adamm and Phil. Jon was also dealing with some other career things that were taking his time away from us and at the same time, we were having some struggles with our record label. It was a lot to handle all at once. We really had to take a look at the whole picture and decide what to do. At that time, Tommy and I decided to give it one more try, re-form, and see where that could take us.

Flash forward a year and although we found some awesome new members, we had sort of arrived at this point where it no longer felt like Fighting For Ithaca. Any time you replace a band member, the writing style and dynamics change. In this case, we had replaced over half of our band and things just felt different. We had started writing and some of the stuff was really cool but I don’t think we had a clear idea of where we were heading. It just didn’t feel the same.

For me personally, I had been struggling with the decision for almost 6 months. I was travelling a lot for my day job and frankly, I was exhausted. There were days where I would return from a week long work trip, sleep for 4 hours, go the gym, go to work for 8 hours, back to the gym, and then go to band practice. It is was too much, ya know? I remember the day that Tommy and I really talked about it and made the decision – it turns out it had been weighing on him as well and the both of us sort of felt relieved when we got it out in the open. That’s when I knew it was the right decision – we were both feeling the same way about it.

When you look back over the years of the band, what is your most fond memory?

CS: There are so many things that I look back on fondly. Some of those memories even stem way back to our early years in Vancouver playing bars, more specifically, a venue called The Bourbon. That place was where we really cut our teeth and there were so many awesome bands around back then. I remember those shows like it was yesterday.

I’ll also always remember the Lost In Paradise tour with Faber Drive, Victoria Duffield, and Courage My Love. That was the biggest tour we’ve ever done and every single night was like a dream come true for us.

What do you think of the speculation that the band was ending once Phil left?

CS: To be honest, I didn’t even know there was speculation about this. I mean, it totally makes sense that there would be whispers about it or that fans were disappointed but I never once felt like people thought we were done because of that. Phil, although a more public face of the band, was 1 of 5 guys just like the rest of us. Everyone that has ever been in this band has worked their asses off, whether it was behind the scenes or in the foreground.

That said, if I’m being totally honest, it hit ME pretty severely when Phil left.  We’re very close and I felt like we shared a vision on how to take things to the next level. We knew each other years before he ever joined FFI and we used to joke about how if him and I were ever in a band together, we would have a real shot at creating something special. Some people just work together really well, you know?  When he joined the band I felt like we were able to realize that dream and consequently, when he left, I sort of felt like half my passion for FFI left with him. I still loved the band and what we were doing, it just felt different.

I remember the exact moment that I knew he was going to have to leave. We were on tour in Montreal and we had a few minutes alone. He used the opportunity to tell me that he had just found out his wife was pregnant with their second child. We were ecstatic! After we hugged it out and celebrated, I looked at him and said “Dude, I’m so incredibly happy for you but I have to ask – how much time do we have?” Meaning, how much time before you have to leave FFI. I knew it was coming eventually. His life was moving forward and he needed to move with it.

Phil is a phenomenal drummer but he is an even better Dad. He is doing what he is meant to be doing and I am so happy for him.

Can fans expect anything new from the band members? Will it be the same style of music?

CS: Yes! Tommy and Sheldon have started a new band that they will be announcing soon. I’m excited to hear it because those guys have a really solid chemistry together! I haven’t had the chance to check it out yet but I think it’s a little more angsty and heavier than what FFI was doing.

I know Jon has been working on a solo EP and he plans to feature FFI members on it.

Justin and I have started writing material for a new project as well but we’re still determining what direction we want to go with it. It will probably be a little different than FFI.

Will there be a farewell show? If so, what can you tell us about it?

CS: We’re still sort of working out the details right now. In fact, we’re having a meeting this week to discuss if/when it can happen and what it should look like. In a perfect world, it would be fun to bring back some of the old songs and I would love it to feature some of the old band members as well. Who knows? 😉

Speaking of shows, you had the opportunity to do a cross Canada tour with Faber Drive in 2012, what is the moment that sticks out on that tour for you?

CS: That whole tour was amazing. I really consider that the pinnacle of our career. Forget the record deal, the radio play, etc. That tour was all I wanted to be doing. I feel like that’s when we were at our peak.

There are so many stories from that tour that will never be told (lol) but I think one of my favorites was our ferry ride over to Newfoundland. Let’s just say there was a LOT of alcohol, wheelchair racing, sea sickness and dudes with their shirts off.

Looking back on your FFI career, is there anything you would change if you knew what you know now?

CS: Hindsight is 20/20, you know? I’m sure there are things that we could have done better if we had the same level of knowledge that we do now but I have no regrets. It took us experiencing those things to gain the understanding we have now. It’s all about the journey.

I guess the only thing I can think of for me personally would have been to live a little more in the moment. I was always thinking about what the next step for the band would be, my girlfriend at the time, my job, etc. I probably would have enjoyed more time to “stop and smell the roses”, so to speak.

What was the most difficult or challenging thing about being in a band?

CS: I think everyone has their own unique struggles but for me, it was always finding that balance between music and my personal and professional life. Being in a hard-working band affects everything – your job, relationship, friends and social life. It’s absolutely worth it but there are times that it can be really difficult to maintain everything.

You’ve been playing in Vancouver (and nationally) for 8 years. Can you tell me the kinds of changes you have experienced or witnessed in that music scene throughout your career?

CS: When we first started, we were mostly playing bar shows. Back then, there were a few really cool venues in Vancouver that supported live rock music and actually paid the bands fairly. There was this core group of like 10 artists and a few hundred fans that would come out every weekend to see live music. It was awesome and I remember that time very well. We played that bar circuit for the first few years of our career. Eventually, FFI reached a point where we wanted to try some new ideas. We started adding more pop elements into our writing and after that, it made sense to take a stab at an all-ages demographic.

At that time, there were literally zero all ages venues in Vancouver and no core fan-base for it. The first handful of all ages shows we played literally had like 10 or 15 people in attendance. It was a tough start because we had no bands locally that could help us out with that market. Soon after, we started leveraging social media and going to the big shows that came to town to hand out flyers and promote the band. That hard work paid off and our fan base rapidly grew in a short period of time. For the last 5 years or so, I really think FFI helped create and develop the Vancouver all-ages music scene. A lot of bands came after us and followed our model for success, specifically marketing to our core group of fans, which turned out to have both a positive and a negative effect. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they discovered a ton of new bands because of us and I’m really stoked about that.

Throughout the course of our time playing all-ages shows I noticed some pretty significant changes to the scene. Firstly, a lot of the venues shut down completely because they weren’t making enough money. Finding a decent and inexpensive or “low risk” venue was always a bit of a challenge. It was not uncommon to invest $1200 in a venue rental for a room that could only hold 250 people. When you have 4 bands on the bill, if you want bands to get paid, you have to sell that show out. Not an easy task when you’re just getting started.

To combat this, we saw the adoption of a pre-sale ticket model in which bands would get paid based on how many pre-sale tickets they sell. In theory, this is a fair way to do things but it certainly has its faults. We would often end up in a situation where we had bands scrambling to sell tickets to the same core group of people in order to get paid more, rather than searching for new people to bring out. I can’t tell you how many times we heard from fans “I’m coming to see you guys play but I promised I would buy a ticket from <band x>”. I feel like this practice largely contributed to a decline in all-ages show attendance in Vancouver. Eventually fans get older and their music tastes may change. If the fans that “grow up” stop coming to shows, things will taper off. This is why it is imperative that bands work together and always continue to seek new listeners.

In terms of the audience, I feel like going to live shows has become less of a priority for fans in their late teens. There seems to be this mentality of “oh, I’ll catch them next time”. It’s likely due to an oversaturation of shows and bands playing in general but as a result, artists have been forced to give an extra incentive to encourage someone to attend a show. After a while, a lot of bands started delivering tickets directly to people’s doorstep. This of course, was in an effort to make it as convenient as possible for the fan and at the same time, ensure their attendance. As much as it can be fun visiting fans and doing that, I honestly feel like that’s something bands shouldn’t have to do. It sort of sets an unfair precedent and creates a cycle of expectation.

The resurgence of electronic music has also squeezed the life out of a lot of live music performance. I can’t tell you how many people I know that have no problem spending $150 to see a DJ set but wouldn’t be caught dead paying $15 to watch 4 rock bands. As a result, a lot of venues just stopped doing rock shows. After all, from a business perspective, if the majority want electronic music and you don’t have to pay a band, a sound guy, promoter, etc, it makes perfect sense to follow that model.

Fans of of rock/pop/pop-punk/metal are starting to grow up and with that, a lot of them are moving on. In this modern music age, bands need to continually innovate and work harder than ever to attract new audiences, as well as keep the attention of the old.

After you announced the break up, you released an un-released demo entitled “So Good To Say No”, are there any more unreleased demos?

CS: We also released a demo track called “Battle Scars”. We have been playing both songs live for a few months now. They were originally written over a year ago. There are no other usable demos, unfortunately.

There seems to be a bit of a trend with bands breaking up or being less active in the last few years. In your opinion, is there a specific cause or reason for this?

CS: I think the industry is in this really awkward transitional phase. You have all these amazing bands that are struggling to make ends meet, labels that aren’t turning a profit, show attendance dropping off, record sales down, etc  etc. Unfortunately, the inevitable result is that bands start breaking up. They are the ones that feel the pressure most.

There is a huge misconception that musicians make money if they have achieved some level of success. I was honestly asked this by a fan the other day: “Do you drive a Lamborghini?”. Granted, this is a bit of an extreme example but most people have no idea how little musicians actually make. I think this disconnect is partly to blame for why record sales have dropped off. You have this younger generation of music fans that want to just consume new material with a few clicks but they don’t understand the importance of supporting the artist or how much time, money, and work goes into creating a record. It’s not their fault, they just haven’t been exposed to it.

I know so many bands that consistently tour and play to 1000-2000 people a night but are still stuck making a very low income. Think about that for a second. Bands that tour for like 6 months or more out of the year – they leave their jobs, family, and relationships to chase their dream and come back with very little in their pockets. These are bands that are getting national radio play, have record deals, and consistently draw large crowds to their shows. It truly is a labor of love. Artists, like everyone else, have to pay bills, mortgages, spend time with family, etc. Eventually, if you get to point where you’re not progressing, you realize it might be time to move on. I think a lot of bands are getting older and have reached that point, ya know? Guys that started playing in their early twenties and now they’re all in their mid-thirties and thinking “I should be further ahead in life than this”.

There are other problems too. The labels are panicking because they’re struggling to make money. The result is that they don’t feel comfortable taking chances on new artists or bands that don’t fit a mold that they know will sell quickly. Similarly, radio is afraid to take the same chance. Radio stations make their money from advertisements and in order to maintain that business, you need to be playing what you know will be popular and attract the most listeners. That leaves very little room for taking chances or new artists that want to try something different.

It is a tough time for everyone and that is why supporting artists by buying music, going to shows, telling your friends, and promoting online is so crucial.

You left an amazing speech for the fans when the break up was announced, but do you have anything you’d like to add?

CS: I feel like our farewell message really summarized what we wanted to say. Fighting For Ithaca grew in popularity because of the relationship we have with our fans. I truly feel like we accomplished something special together. I feel like we inspired a whole new era of all-ages shows in Vancouver and we managed to connect with fans all over the world.

We are so fortunate to have had our own little piece of success and we simply could not have done it without all of you. You made our dreams come true and I deeply hope that we, in some way, were able to give you something back.

As a final note, I want to express my deepest thanks my brothers in Fighting For Ithaca. When I started this band so many years ago, I never expected we could take it this far. We’ve had member changes but through the years, everyone has contributed to making this band the best it could be. FFI believed in the dream, and we all worked hard to make it a reality. Thank you to every single person that has been a part of this band. I love you guys.

Please keep in touch because we still love hearing from you and who knows, you may see us again soon.

Thank you for the wonderful memories. I will carry them until the end.

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