The untold story of Shane Told of Silverstein’s first band Jerk Circus
While most know Shane Told as the commanding and versatile frontman of Canadian post-hardcore titans Silverstein, he got his start at the tender age of 13 as the vocalist and guitarist of Jerk Circus. Formed in the musically fertile region of suburban southern Ontario in the mid-’90s, Jerk Circus played a fast and melodically rich blend of punk rock that captured the essence of teenage angst in candid detail. Shortly after, the band cut their teeth on the VFW hall circuit alongside several local and now-timeless acts, including Moneen, Alexisonfire and Boys Night Out.
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What’s more? Told caught the attention of a particularly iconic Canadian pop star to join her band just as he was in the midst of a juggling act between Jerk Circus and the early formation of his longtime band Silverstein, with whom he has released 11 studio albums and toured the globe with for well over two decades. In many ways, Told has experienced multiple lifetimes throughout his career in the music industry, and it all started in a humble middle school in Oakville, Ontario.
What is the origin story of Jerk Circus?
Our first show ever was in middle school, and we played Green Day’s “When I Come Around” right around the time when Dookie had just come out, and I remember ripping a blazing guitar solo during the interlude section because I wanted to look like a shredder. Our bassist Brian [J. Robinson], who plays in A Wilhelm Scream now, had just started playing because we didn’t know anybody who played or even had a bass. We would sign out the bass from our music room in seventh grade every single day to jam, and now Brian is one of the best bassists in the world.
[Photo via Shane Told]
Would you say that the moment right after ripping your first guitar solo live sparked your lifelong desire to pursue music full time?
That’s a great question, but honestly, not really. [Laughs.] In my yearbook in grade eight, everyone wrote “Too bad you can’t sing.” And you know what? I couldn’t sing, and no one really can when they are 13 years old. I wasn’t discouraged and kept trying, but even through high school, punk rock, shows and the scene, I never thought I would do anything in music. For me, I got pretty good grades in school and spent two-and-a-half years at university and later on had to take a break when Silverstein got signed. I do remember a distinct moment on the last day of high school at this big party, and there was this older guy named Ray [Tombran] who was in the band the Fullblast who said, “You’re not going to university, are you? You know you’re just going to end up playing music.” I guess he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
What influences were Jerk Circus pulling from?
Early on, we were really into Black Sabbath, which was our collective favorite band, and here and there we started to get into the punk side of stuff like Green Day or the Offspring. When our drummer Andy [Lewis] got NOFX’s Punk In Drublic on CD in 1994, that was the biggest game changer, and right away we got obsessed with the fast, double-time drum beats. From there, we immersed ourselves in bands like Strung Out, Lagwagon and Rancid — basically, we just wanted to play super fast and catchy stuff.
It must have been really exciting to not only do the DIY VFW hall circuit in the suburbs but also get the chance to play some truly iconic venues in Toronto later on with Jerk Circus at such a young age. If I’m not mistaken, you played shows with Pierre Bouvier’s (Simple Plan) first band Reset during time as well.
The first show we ever played in Toronto was at the [legendary music venue] El Mocambo, but it was a pay-to-play scam show. They said we could play if we sold 25 tickets, but we didn’t even sell that many tickets, so they put us dead last [on the bill] on a Wednesday night when we had school the next day. We actually never played with Reset, but I met Pierre as a fan after one of their shows long before Simple Plan existed. It was super cool because that band was [already] doing so well, and I really looked up to them. Pierre is only a year or two older than I am, so it was pretty cool to see a kid my age in this awesome band from Canada really doing it.
[Photo via Shane Told]
Who would you say were Jerk Circus’ closest peers in the music scene at this time?
I’d say the Pettit Project were probably our best friends. They were a power-pop band and featured members of Boys Night Out, and Charles Moniz, their bassist, went on to play for Avril Lavigne, who I actually got the gig for because I was originally asked to be in Avril Lavigne’s band twice but turned it down both times.
No way! Please divulge.
I was in both Jerk Circus, Silverstein and a radio-rock band called the Livid at the time since both bands actually overlapped, which is important to note. In fact, Jerk Circus never [technically] broke up. During that time, the Livid had some major-label interest, so I met some more mainstream industry people. I remember getting a call from Avril Lavigne’s management company during my summer job a week after Tony [Brummel, Victory Records CEO] called with interest to sign Silverstein. When I talked to the management company, they said they wanted me to be in her band because I had the “right look” and knew right away I didn’t want to do it. [Laughs.] They ended up picking up my friend Charles, but then years later, he called me and said, “Our guitar player just got kicked out, and I know you’re doing stuff with Silverstein, but do you want to join as the guitar player?” I was like, “I appreciate the offer, but I’m gonna ride this out with Silverstein.”
Since Jerk Circus technically never broke up, is there a scenario where you might get the band back together one day and do some hometown reunion shows?
We’ve talked about it quite a lot, actually. In fact, I even wrote a setlist a couple of years back and sent it to our bassist, Bry. He told me that the last time he was in Japan, he signed some Jerk Circus CDs for some fans, so maybe we have somewhat of a following, and I don’t even know about it. I think if there was a local promoter in Burlington or Oakville interested in doing a show, I’d do it. I think Andy still has his drum chops and would be down, but our fourth member Joe is the wildcard, and I don’t know where he is or if he’d be interested.
An idea I had was for us to do a true reunion show where we all practice on our own, go over the set in our own houses, but the first time we play those songs is onstage — that would be a true reunion show. Would it be rough around the edges and shitty? Yes, it would be, but maybe it would be an even more authentic and better experience for us because let’s be honest: We would really only be doing it for ourselves. [Laughs.]
Silverstein's Shane Told appears in Alternative Press' spring 2023 issue. Grab a copy here or below.