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Breakthrough group: Peach Pit reflect on Juno nomination, North Van roots, and getting millions of hits online

Quartet who play brand of 'chewed bubblegum pop' up for Breakthrough Group of the Year
Peach Pit - Lead Image deluxe-232244913(1)
From left to right: Christopher Vanderkooy, Neil Smith, Peter Wilton and Mikey Pascuzzi are Peach Pit. The band is nominated for Breakthrough Group of the Year at the 2021 Juno Awards.

The fellas in Peach Pit thought they’d been hacked.

The year before, in 2016, the quartet of high school friends had already self-released a short album called “Sweet FA” and were caught up in the well-trotted rock band paradigm of working random jobs while dreaming of hitting it big.

They were a popular local band who hailed from the North Shore and were well-known for their electrifying live shows, but that was about where the story stopped – at least then.

“We were used to just Vancouverites who were our friends just following our page or something,” explains Neil Smith, the band’s singer and rhythm guitarist.

Back then, Smith was working a couple jobs during the day and rocking out at night, as was lead guitar player Christopher Vanderkooy, who worked at a brewery when he wasn’t writing breezy riffs. But the two North Vancouver buddies, along with fellow North Shore bandmates Peter Wilton (bass) and Mikey Pascuzzi (drums), were about to go through some changes.

Turn and face the change

It started happening all of a sudden in early 2017, when new fans from as far away as China, Russia and throughout Southeast Asia started blowing up the band’s official Facebook account with likes and comments.

Turns out, a popular teen YouTuber based out of the Philippines that goes by the handle TheLazylazyme had posted the band’s eponymous song to her channel and the views had started racking up – and up and up and up.

“All of a sudden, it was non-stop getting followed from people all around the world. I thought it was a mistake. I thought something was wrong with Facebook,” says Smith. “We were seeing our song get millions of plays. It was very surreal. For us, it was the first real big break that we ever had.”

To date, that original post of their Peach Pit song has garnered more than 25 million plays on YouTube.

On the industry-shattering streaming platform Spotify, that same song has been listened to just south of 60 million times, and that’s to say nothing of the band’s subsequent songs, which have notched tens of millions of listens as well.

“That was the start of any momentum we received,” notes Vanderkooy, adding that in many ways the band is still riding that high.

Break on through to the other side

On Sunday (June 6), the band might just reach a little higher. Just like past winners Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Rush and the Tragically Hip before them, Peach Pit are nominated for Breakthrough Group of the Year at the 2021 Juno Awards.

But before being nominated for awards, before signing with a major label, and before booking their first world tour, the group was just a little North Shore offshoot with some big plans, helped along by their stellar songwriting and a YouTuber with a good ear.

“I can’t even remember how that felt almost,” says Vanderkooy, reflecting on the band’s initial brush with global recognition when all those likes first came pouring in. “It feels so long ago, we feel like a completely different band.”

Perhaps the roots of Peach Pit’s effortless-sounding “chewed bubblegum pop,” as they describe it, sound so easy-breezy because these guys basically all grew up around each other.

Vanderkooy and Wilton are lifelong friends, and although they both ended up graduating from Sutherland Secondary, Vanderkooy and Smith first met each other while attending St. Thomas Aquinas school in North Vancouver.

(Fun fact: STA is also where the band’s melodic and over-the-top Drop The Guillotine music video was shot.)

Smith was in Grade 9 and Vanderkooy was in Grade 8 when the two first encountered one another. As Vanderkooy recalls, one of their first interactions involved Smith showing him a little grade-school trickery.

“I was super into magic tricks back in the ninth grade. I was going to be on the stage one way or another and I thought magic was going to be my outlet for that,” jokes Smith.

He ended up finding his true outlet when he started to noodle around with songs. As a teenager, Smith was selected for a songwriting mentorship program at Vancouver Cultural Centre that saw him paired up with the lead singer of Vancouver luminaries Said The Whale.

“Right out of Grade 12 that’s what I was all about. I wanted to be in a band,” he says.

For Vanderkooy, guitar was always a big part of his teen years, though he didn’t necessarily see it as his true calling. He was particularly inspired by his teacher, though, Lynn Valley-based guitar player Mark Woodyard, who showed him the true possibilities of the instrument.

“He’s such an entertainer. I saw him do that and I was like maybe I could play live gigs like that,” he says. “I was never really into the band thing. … The first time I ever played in a band was with Peach Pit,” he says.

Band of brothers

As fate would have it, the four members went from acquaintances to true friends after high school, coming together due to their mutual love for infectious, bright guitar pop coupled with a singing style and lyrics that tended to sway toward something dour.  

During a 2014 summer spent imbibing and vibing by the shore in Deep Cove, Vanderkooy and Smith encountered each other yet again down at Government Dock one evening.

“I knew Neil played in a band and wrote songs. I played guitar and we were at a mutual friend’s party and were jamming around and he was playing the song Peach Pit, which was the first song we ever wrote, and I was just noodling guitar over top of it,” recalls Vanderkooy.

“It just got the wheels turning in my head,” adds Smith.

After Wilton and Pascuzzi joined the fold, things started happening very fast. There was the electric live shows, the debut EP, the explosion in popularity over YouTube, and the release of their first album all in the span of a year and change. The band quit their day jobs and went on a world tour.

“Tour is honestly our favourite part of this job. We have so much fun on the road together and it’s so cool being able to travel and work at the same time,” says Vanderkooy.

On the strength of their live shows and popularity online, the band even signed with Columbia Records, who put out their second album, “You and Your Friends,” last year.

Home is where the heart is

The band was all revved up to take the record on tour and perform some of its sad-slacker anthems like Shampoo Bottles and Black Licorice for large crowds, but then, well, the pandemic hit.

“We didn’t know how far back it was going to get pushed and now it’s basically going to be two years,” says Smith. “It was devastating at first. But once we realized our families are OK, our friends are OK, and we’re pretty lucky to be living in Vancouver. …”

And wisely, the band has used the forced downtime for a number of other things, including recording a currently unannounced new album and even playing a dream gig at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom – which was livestreamed.

“We’re playing the Commodore – and it’s empty,” recalls Vanderkooy. “Even though people weren’t there, it reminded us of the hunger we have for live shows because we just had the best day.”

Looking forward to the Junos and what’s to come when the foreseeable end of the pandemic allows them to hit the road once again, Peach Pit can’t help but also reflect on the past.

Although the band has played everywhere from Bonnaroo to the other side of the world, they bring it back to their North Shore roots when referring to events like North Vancouver’s Slide the City and to the local venues where they had their early start performing and having a blast.

“We’d like to say thank you to North Van at large for supporting us over the years,” says Vanderkooy. “We’re all North Van guys and our families still live in North Van. We still have a strong connection to this community.”

Handsworth grads Laila Biali and Brandi Disterheft are also nominated at this year's Junos. Biali is nominated for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year, while Disterheft is nominated for Jazz Album of the Year: Group.

Tune in to the 2021 Juno Awards on Sunday, June 6 at 5 p.m. PST on CBC.