Blame Canada

How the post-9/11 border is keeping us safe from indie rock

That translated into a fraud charge and a strict five-year ban on entering the United States—tempting the wrath of a border guard now could earn O'Shea two to 20 years in prison, plus a $250,000 fine. (The severity of the punishment is thanks to his heroically steadfast lying—a band that attempts an illegal border-crossing and then pleads bureaucratic ignorance might get off more easily.) "A lot of people had been telling us that since 9/11, they stepped up the border quite a bit, bringing guys from Homeland Security back from Iraq and straight into border patrol," O'Shea says. "So they know how to be even harsher. They weren't mean, but . . . the guard explained, almost in a threatening tone, You're really lucky that this is the States, son. If this was China or Russia, you'd be out back shot right now. They don't make it easy for you, that's for sure.

"I still know bands that go down all the time," he continues. "They have different ways—whether there's an American in the band who drives the gear over and the other three just walk across, say they're going to Seattle for a week to hang out with some friends. There's always ways around it. Punk rock has always been about not doing things the proper way—for us, getting the visas was a bit of a weird, new thing. At the same time, we had to start doing it legitimately. I get a lot of people asking me, 'So what did you do, to make sure that we don't fuck it up?' A lot of bands are using us as a good example of what not to do."


Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes and Swan Lake recalls a kinder, simpler time: the halcyon days of the mid '90s, when a crappy ID card issued by Money Mart, a check-cashing chain, was good enough to enter the U.S. Even now, he admits a bit of superficial hygiene goes a long way: "We shave and don't have Mohawks. We rent a minivan. We could be young Christians coming over the border."

Dan Boeckner of Handsome Furs, clearly posing no national security threat whatsoever
Matt Moroz
Dan Boeckner of Handsome Furs, clearly posing no national security threat whatsoever

In a lot of ways, the new regime simply means it's a whole lot harder to flout a set of laws that used to be politely ignored. And if sneaking into the U.S. was once a viable option, it no longer is, mainly thanks to the online hype machine that helped put these musicians on the international radar to begin with. "With the Internet now, it's pretty much impossible to bullshit your way through the border," Boeckner says. "If you look like you're in a band—if they smell 'band,' right?—they'll take everybody's passports, they will Google people's actual names. If anybody's blogged about you, no matter how small, or if you have a MySpace page, that will come up, and then they'll find out the name of the band. They usually can put two and two together." (Mercer agrees with the idea of Web-savvy border guards, but doubts there's "a research squad checking Pitchfork.")

There's another, stranger motive behind all this harassment: Maybe Canadian bands are under scrutiny because they might be competition to American bands. Just like an itinerant bricklayer who wanders down from Quebec to pick up work in Albany, the idea is that foreign musicians are taking Yankee jobs. That's an amusing illogic that turns a rock group into a utilitarian sound-making machine, a musical widget only differentiated by its country of origin. "Why have a Canadian band play when you can be employing American musicians with the same show? That's totally their line of thinking," Boeckner explains. "If you talk to the visa people, they take it really, really seriously. What this all comes down to is that Canadian bands are stealing American bands' jobs. They're not differentiating between whether you're a band or if you're in contract work for an oil company or you're an architect. With the climate at the border now, everyone is just going to have to get the proper paperwork—and pay."

Tamizdat, a nonprofit firm, has been offering visa services for a fraction of the price charged by law firms and outside agencies. They began in the early '90s—assisting Eastern and Central European bands that wanted to tour America—and now their roster includes a healthy number of Canadian musicians. "After 9/11, things got a lot harder for artists to get into the U.S.," explains executive director Matthew Covey. "Up until 2001-2, a young German entering the country with a big boxful of vinyl would be considered a 'record collector.' Suddenly, [immigration] updated their profile: That's a DJ coming to work, and he doesn't have a work visa. The biggest problem I've heard of recently [is bands] not getting their act together in time . . . Most people in the music industry, if they haven't figured out what they're up against with this, they should have by now—which is in no way to be an apologist for the process. It's not a secret. It doesn't take a lot to figure out that it's a nightmare."

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