Peter van Helvoort (finally) makes it

Darling Congress’ Peter van Helvoort [ Kyle Fisher; Collage by Laura Kay Keeling]

Darling Congress frontman and Glorious Sons bassist Peter van Helvoort reflects on the twists and turns of a life dedicated to making music.

John Travolta, Chad Kroger, John 5, Jerry Cantrell, and Tommy Lee walk into a COVID-safe backstage suite at a Rolling Stones concert in Los Angeles, and in the room with them, famished and eating hot dogs after opening the show as the bass player for the Glorious Sons, is Peter van Helvoort. “When I was younger, my goal was to play with Moneen,” van Helvoort tells me (a goal he achieved as a teenager), “So yeah, the Stones thing was cool, but it’s all been all cool.”

There has arguably never been a better time to be a Peter van Helvoort fan (a fan Helvoort?): he is the bass player in the Glorious Sons, one of Canada’s biggest rock bands; he released his first album under the Darling Congress moniker in 2022; and most exciting of all, his former band Teenage Kicks are back from the dead, fresh off a surprise gig (I was there, it was sick) and a proper reunion show (which went down the day after I spoke to him for this piece). 

And yet, for all the activity swirling around one of Canada’s most consistent and underrated songwriters, van Helvoort’s reemergence (the van Helvoort van-aissance?) seemed all but impossible to him just a few years ago.

Teenage Kicks were part of a crop of GTA rock bands in the early 2010s that seemed poised for success. With peers like the Dirty Nil and Single Mothers, they represented a back-to-basics music-making approach after the defiant 905 screamo boom and the pomp of “Torontopia” had run out of gas. These bands were cut from a DIY, punk-forward cloth that drew from some of rock’s most revered cannons. There were hints of the Replacements and Cheap Trick in the Dirty Nil, while 60s Dylan infected Single Mothers’ frontman Drew Thompson’s vocal approach. Teenage Kicks – van Helvoort, his brother Jeff (bass), Cameron Brunt (drums), Patrick Marchent (guitar) and eventually Christian Turner (guitar) –  were less snotty and abrasive than those groups (they were known to cover Creedence and the Beatles). Still, they had an edge and authenticity that made their tunes a challenge for those used to the steady thud of what tends to pick up steam on rock radio in Canada. 

“We definitely fell more into the rock realm. But then we would play with rock bands, and their audiences didn’t usually like us because it was a little bit unhinged, a little more unpolished,” says van Helvoort. “The thing is, in modern times, if you’re presenting ‘radio rock’ to people, it’s usually in a pretty narrow box. Yeah, there are exceptions to that. But we were playing with Theory of a Deadman and stuff like that, and it just…I think it was confusing for people.”

This was a familiar experience for van Helvoort. Before Teenage Kicks, he fronted Cain & Abel, a folk-leaning indie act based out of Georgetown that, true to form, played almost exclusively with metalcore, screamo and pop punk bands. At the same time, he was a member of MCODE, a metalcore band with essentially the same members as Cain & Abel. He was also a founding member of notable early 00s band-with-a-lot-of-members signed to Art & Crafts the Most Serene Republic (which he left early on to front his own project). During this time, he was befriending members of Silverstein and Sydney while singing songs that sounded (ever so slightly) closer to Blue Rodeo than they did to Grade

Billy Hamilton, the bassist in Silverstein, first met Peter in the early 00s and was immediately drawn to his energy. “Peter had a lot of big ideas and the drive to want to make those ideas a reality,” he says. Take, for example, Cain & Abel’s second record, Up North (2007), an admittedly naive and “shallow” but well-intentioned concept record about the horror Indigenous people were subjected to at the hands of colonizers in Canada. I’m not sure I grasped that concept as a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, but considering the subject of so much 00s emo was decidedly not that, it is notable that Up North stuck with my friends and me the way it did.

It was during this era that van Helvoort began cultivating a devoted fanbase. As Cain & Abel came to a close, he started sowing the seeds for Teenage Kicks. Both Jeff van Helvoort and Turner were Cain & Abel alumni. “Honesty’s Changing,” a song re-recorded by Teenage Kicks for one of their Singles Club releases, could have been a hit had it received the right treatment. “Middle of the Night,” “Shook Our Bones,” “Brooklyn Bridge,” and “Lose Your Head” (the entirety of Teenage Kicks’ first EP, Rational Anthems, frankly) all show a band leader and songwriter with the chops to reach that next level of success. These were rock songs with stakes, sung by a guy whose life literally depended on it. “It wasn’t just that we’re going to make it,” van Helvoort says, “It was that there was a ticking watch that was running down the clock, and you had to make it by this date. Otherwise, you would have to grow up and do something else.”

This metaphorical gun-to-the-head is what has made rock bands great for half a century, and the dream was nearly a reality for van Helvoort and the rest of Teenage Kicks. I remember following along online as they ventured to LA to record with Alain Johannes, who has worked on records by Queens of the Stone Age, Jimmy Eat World and the Arctic Monkeys. I remember in photos, they looked like a proper rock band: dirty, hungry and cool as fuck. There they were, recording live off the floor. I remember nothing ever coming from it. It’s hard to tell from the outside if the premature death of Teenage Kick was fate or self-inflicted (although, in Rock n’ Roll, what is the difference?). They released Spoils of Youth in 2014, a full-length not recorded live off the floor, and a year later, they called it quits.

Billy Hamilton groups Teenage Kicks with two other notable Canadian rock bands who refused to play the Canadian Music Industry Game and compromise their integrity for a “successful” career.  “I think there is a real lineage of bands in Southern Ontario coming out of the punk and hardcore scene on the cusp of big major label and Cancon radio success, be it the Constantines, Attack In Black, or Teenage Kicks.” Those are flattering spiritual comparisons. Still, it is also notable that neither of those two bands chose the “fade away” option. The same goes for van Helvoort, says Hamilton. “There is complete authenticity and almost an unwavering, and sometimes even hindering, integrity to those songs and that era of Pete’s career. I think he was really good at saying no to a lot of things that he felt were compromising his vision or his control.

“Rock’n’roll is such an insular industry, especially in Canada, and it’s difficult to both be the cool ‘it’ band of the moment and also have a sustainable career without making some compromises and ultimately taking some chances on other people’s ideas.” 

A young Jeff and Peter van Helvoort [ courtesy of Peter van Helvoort]

It’s a tension that has been gnawing at people blessed with The Punk Spirit for decades, but over time, that ideal has diminished, with fewer willing and able to commit to it. And it’s possible that instead of sustainability, van Helvoort chose to burn out. Either way, the end of Teenage Kicks was not easy for him.

“My entire identity was Teenage Kicks. And I don’t necessarily mean [going] out to the bar every night in the leather jacket…but it was all I did. I would be in the basement for 10 or 12 hours a day, just working on demos. I produced us. I mixed us. I did all of our day-to-day logistics. I would order the merch. I would do most of the design. I made the website. I did everything. So it was all I did, and then all of a sudden, it was gone.”

Post-Kicks, van Helvoort wrote an album under his own name, playing all the instruments except for drums. The results are gorgeous but harsh. “​​You know the guys from my band? / Well, I hope they never play again / I hope they never strum another chord / Because it’s my fault that they’re gone,” goes the-not-so-subtle “Song About Myself.”  The man who had devoted the previous 15 years to writing songs and music was struggling both in song and privately, which resulted in the hasty release of self title in 2017.

“I was on tour with the Flatliners as their front-of-house and tour manager, and I was in Edmonton for like three or four days. We had some days off, and I was just miserable. I was extremely sad. And [the decision to release self title was] just like, ‘I’m just gonna put this out like, I don’t care. I’m gonna leave music,’” van Helvoort recalls. “And I kept doing that. I kept saying, ‘I’m not gonna play music anymore.’ Not realizing that [music] was something I can’t not do to some degree.”

Continuing Conversations

PRESS PLAY February 2023:
“Hanging on the Line” by Darling Congress


In 2019, after two years away from touring or releasing any music, van Helvoort was working as a Shopify Guru when he got a call that turned his life around. “I got called to go and guitar tech for the Glorious Sons. And the first show I ever did with them, they headline Ottawa Blues Fest. And I walked out on stage to tune a guitar in front of 20,000 people and was like, ‘OK, this is bigger than me,’ you know? It was easy to swallow whatever amount of ego I have and be like, yeah, I can tune these people’s guitars. And that’s fine. You know, there was never this chip on my shoulder about doing it. I was just happy.”

According to van Helvoort, that was a huge realization for him: even though it’s not him in the spotlight, there is still room in music for a talented, hard-working, passionate musician. “I can do things… without being mad that I never got to do them, because that was always the thing. It wasn’t like, ‘It should be me instead of them’, but it was like, ‘Why can’t it be me as well?’ you know?” Not long after, he got the call to fill in on bass for the Glorious Sons. Five days later, the pandemic ground touring to a halt. 

And so the waiting continued. However, that stint with the Glorious Sons sparked something in van Helvoort. “I wouldn’t have started writing music again if it wasn’t for being around Brett (Emmons, the Glorious Sons’ front person) and just feeling that inspiration.”

He credits Emmons with helping him realize the first Darling Congress record, his first batch of new songs since 2017. “When I went and started working with Brett, he was like, ‘There’s so much negativity to these songs.’ And there was a lot of ‘woe is me’ and a lot of writing about the things that were wrong about me. And he’s like, ‘I don’t feel like you ever come to a point where you deal with what’s wrong with you or acknowledge that there’s something wrong with everyone.’ And so a lot of working with Brett was just him changing my perspective on things.”

The results are van Helvoort’s most laid-back and produced record, as good in headphones as in a sweaty rock club. Back to having a band behind him, there is also, as promised, a  notable perspective shift from his previous record. There is a conciliatory tone on songs like “Lazarus” and “Always on the Edge” that sounds like actual growth. “Just cause you think that you are meant for it / It don’t mean it’s yours to have,” he sings on “Lazarus,” accepting—and maybe even celebrating—his fate. van Helvoort says “Always on the Edge” is about his relationship with his brother Jeff, which was strained after the initial breakup of Teenage Kicks. Given the band’s new status as an active entity, all that work seems to have led to some healing.

“I was so fucking dramatic back then…so much constant drama,” says Pete, but his answer to whether or not Teenage Kicks are back is decidedly simple. “We’re going to make music, and we’re going to release music. We’re not going to milk it…If we’re not making good music, then there will be no more shows. That was the deal that Jeff and I made.”

Teenage Kicks, Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, January 2023 [ Sandy Lee Layden]

The chances of some good music getting made are high, seeing as most of the members of Teenage Kicks 2.0 are in the midst of releasing new music (Jeff van Helvoort’s band Mister Rabbit has a record coming out next month. Christian Turner has been releasing solo material, and drummer Konrad Commisso plays in Darling Congress).

As for van Helvoort, the last few years saw the release of the record Teenage Kicks recorded in LA, titled After Death (a must-listen, in my opinion). He was made an active member of the Glorious Sons, who, yes, got to open for the Rolling Stones and play three nights at Massey Hall last year (“Come on,” says Pete in wonder). He released the Darling Congress record. He’s working as a producer. Teenage Kicks are back. 

It appears that the van Helvoort van-aissance is indeed upon us this time. 

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