Since 2016, Alien Boys, a punk band based in Vancouver, BC, have toured across Canada and the United States, bringing an in-your-face performance with anthemic, driving songs and crushing riffs that don’t stop. I was keen to hear from Sarin, the band’s lead singer, about their experiences living in a place full of ghosts and hauntings—the city.
ROOM: You’re in Vancouver, really in touch with all the issues people face here. How do you relate to living in the city?
SARIN: Vancouver provides opportunity. There’s so much more to have, and do, and see—all these things in a metro city. That was certainly one of the reasons why I relocated from the BC interior, probably about twelve years ago now. But not just that, it’s closer to a lot of activism. That was important for me to be around because you can try and push for activist spaces and struggles when you’re in smaller places, but that unified-front feeling is smaller, too. You don’t see yourself reflected in spaces you wish you would. For example, Vancouver has a thriving activist backbone, especially in the movements around substance users, drug user activism, and for folks who have otherwise been marginalized.
It’s nice to step out and step into a place where you don’t feel alone. There’s a social magic in being surrounded by more people. And in that surrounding, you also get to be part of a constant motion, of learning and reinventing yourself. There is the aspect of anonymity in a bigger city. Even if you have spent a lot of time here, you could go to a different location and experience things as though it was for the first time. For me, Vancouver has a bit of that magical aspect of metamorphosis. You don’t have to commit to any one thing. You can be a part of everything, every place, all at once.
ROOM: I love your song “Free Birds,” wherein the city is a place of connection and great isolation. What’s your relationship with that?
In a city like this, when you’re surrounded by so many folks, how many connections can you foster with people? Where do you find a meaningful social group, and what does that represent for you? For me, being queer, a punk, a poet, an activist, there were limited forms of engagement when I was growing up. In Vancouver, I felt immersed in those differences, and it felt like anything could happen. While that was intoxicating when I relocated initially, it was also overwhelming to figure out how and who to connect with.
“Free Birds” was this personal anthem about coming to terms with a split: with the vast expanse of Vancouver’s opportunity came a new onslaught of challenges in approaching intimacy and friendships. Because there’s so much going on, there can be this tendency to have small interactions that may not necessarily be as long. Alternately, there are people who may or may not make eye contact with you in a city like this, too. I found it could be pretty cold. I’m accustomed to it now, but in the beginning, it was startling. It made me feel like maybe the reasons that I came here weren’t necessarily here at all.
Free Birds is really that journey of being able to find your people and find your community. To ask, what interactions do I find meaningful? Is it knowing everyone by name at a show? Am I fostering connection and community? What unifies our tendency to divide? For me, it comes down to collective experience. Especially watching live music.
ROOM: I feel like I’ve connected “Free Birds” for myself with finding my people and then losing them through conflict or people moving away and the struggle of always recreating community.
SARIN: I deeply respect that, and thanks for sharing that perspective. It is true. And I think the complexity between “Free Birds” and “Dogs” for me is in talking about the complexity with substance use and mental health in my own life. They can feel isolating, involve lost connections, having to find new people… Watching people who were there for you in the beginning, fade away. Were they as strong of a connection as you had hoped or as you had thought? Those little tests can be the measuring stick for how I am feeling. As people living in a society where things can be so draining around us all the time, there’s so much going on; we all have to work ridiculous jobs for X amount of time and dedicate ourselves to this so that we can barely have the means to survive. What are we left with at the end of the day? Try to take those opportunities to find a space to charge yourself up again. What is it that keeps you going? What is it that motivates you? And how can you weave those back into what you do?
ROOM: Those are some of the questions I was going to ask you!
SARIN: Working in a field of harm reduction, working with people who use drugs, working within a system that continues to forget people and claim that it is working, but we can see before our eyes that’s not true for everybody. That can be draining. Whether you’re working with a non-profit organization, or you’re working with a user group, or trying to raise awareness, it can become a question of how much can you carry? We are confronted by this reality—that change only comes in incremental movements, which means you need to be methodical in your approach. At the end of the day, the change you hope for may be very small. So, how do you weave your way in and out of wrapping your head around that? How do you contend with these institutions, this system that can hear you and all the voices of people who say, “These are the kinds of things that we need!” whether that’s safe supply, basic minimum income, expanded access to food programs, and yet nothing feels like it is getting addressed? It can be a little hopeless, at times, to keep screaming into the void and knowing the void is not going to answer back.
So, how do you get an answer? That’s really the motivating piece for me. This aspect of taking that anger and making it constructive sounds so cliche to talk about, but it’s important. If it becomes a personal dagger, it can rest in your chest until it consumes you. It’s hard to keep moving forward if you’re frozen in place. I find, a lot of times, that grief and that heaviness that’s associated with those kinds of feelings of being overwhelmed and that hostility are important as long as we’re keeping them constructive and knowing that we can refine them and make weapons to throw back. I also really need to stay busy to keep away from those feelings of being down – learning to sit with yourself is important, but in silent moments, I feel those negativities a lot stronger. My answer is to keep moving, whether that’s just like walking my dog or going out with some friends for a drink somewhere or having a tea or going to jam or just writing of some sort, anything, anything.
ROOM: Even though there are lots of struggles in the city and lots of change, you’re trying to fight for what’s coming in increments. Do you still enjoy living here? Do you want to stay here?
SARIN: I think the city wants me out of here. You know what I mean? I don’t know how anybody who’s not very well off could feel welcome here anymore. And I think that that’s something that I’ve been struggling with over the last couple of years. I would love to be able to stay here because it’s my home! It has a lot of the things that I love all in one very accessible space. I think one of the most valuable things that we can do is take the knowledge that we’ve gained and the support that we’ve gained and the things that we’ve turned ourselves into and take that back somewhere else because not everyone gets to have those experiences. Not everyone gets to experience firsthand what it’s like to help with a collective, or to have access to a DIY space, or to be able to run all ages shows or something like that. I want to be cautious that we’re not saying that we’re going back into another community and starting new things as though we’re the first and only people who have ever thought about them. But I do think that there’s a lot of value in collaboration.
And that’s one of the things that I really like about being in the city, too, and being in some of the roles that I’ve been in, or while we’re on tour, for example, just brainstorming with other people in community and taking the knowledge that we have and the ideals that we share with other people and helping them manifest those kinds of experiences into realities. Provide points of access to be able to lift people’s voices. Vancouver may not be the ideal final spot for me. On one hand, that’s a shame because it’s breaking up, in a sense, these kinds of places that have been established for so long that have been the site of so much community and forward momentum.
But I also know that no matter where you are, you can always find your people. Someone once told me it takes 18 months before you feel at home. I relocated up to Prince George when I was doing my Gender Studies degree. I would say it probably took about twelve-ish months by the good graces of knowing some folks already up in that area as well. But it’s true, right? You have to get to know a new place like you just get to know a new version of yourself. And wherever the city falls down, there’s always going to be someone there to pick it back up again. But when the place is pushing out so many voices that need those accessible spaces and are charging exorbitant amounts of rent and are closing venues and are closing down collective spaces, I just don’t know how the places that we exist will survive and what that will mean for those that come after.
It certainly feels a lot harder to breathe and have that space to flourish. So I worry about the futurity of Vancouver. I worry about the futurity of folks being able to come out to shows and find those spaces where they can feel comfortable and safe in. But every time we play a show, I know the community of punks is still resisting. It’s all right there in front of me in the faces of the crowd.
ROOM: What are your favourite places that were in Vancouver and that are now gone? And what are some places that are still currently surviving and that you’d recommend people to check out?
Sarin: Red Gate is just such a great place to be. That spot that they used to have on Hasting Street was just pinnacle. It was awesome. They’ve had to go through so many transformations. Like, they are just the ultimate crew who don’t give up. I love that about them. It’s things like that, I think that also give you the steam and the momentum is you just see people doing it and like, No, we’re not going to let this go. We’re going to figure it out no matter what. 333 was a great space, too. I really miss that place. It was just like an old car garage, but it was great. Same vibe, Fingers crossed Studios was where we used to have a jam space. That space was just getting used for everything, whether it was artists or philosophy groups.
Black Lab is always one of the key places now that are hosting shows and have great community politics. Smiling Buddha, back in the before days when we had the skateboard ramp in there, and there were shows sometimes and other times, it was folks from the community accessing the space too. I love that. I love that collaborative approach because when you’re running a space, whether it’s DIY, all ages, whatever, if you’re not giving back to the community that you’re sharing space with, then I think you’re probably doing it wrong.