Living with Lions' 'Holy Shit' — and Canadian Music's Stinkiest Controversy — Turns 10
Ten years later, the Vancouver pop-punks discuss how they "were putting other artists at risk" after their Bible parody drew the Harper government's ire
Published May 13, 2021They knew it was stupid. Of course it was stupid. Generally speaking, an adult who draws a cartoon of a human turd — any turd, really — knows fully well that it's crude and juvenile and tasteless and, well, stupid. But it's funny! …Right?
The title of Living with Lions' second album came first. Holy Shit. Why? Basically, the five members of the Vancouver-based band just thought it was a fun phrase.
But that led to other ideas. They designed the album cover to look like a Bible, with the cracked, leathery texture and stately gold lettering traditionally found in a church pew or in a hotel room or perhaps on your own bedside. Then, they took it a step further: the lyric sheet looked like Bible verses printed on aged, yellowed parchment, and it includeed two illustrations of biblical scenes, with Jesus Christ replaced with a visibly stinky piece of poo.
That, if you can guess, turned out to be their deadly sin.
Prior to this, Living with Lions were an inoffensive (and arguably underrated) pop-punk band looking for fans in basements and bars. But in 2011, Holy Shit drew the ire of the Harper government, a notorious right-wing pundit, and, presumably, at least a few Christians, thrusting the band into the centre of one of the dumbest controversies in Canadian history.
"When we had the idea — which I thought was pretty harmless — everybody told us it was a bad idea from the beginning. But we really wanted to do it, so we decided to do it anyway," singer-guitarist Chase Brenneman tells Exclaim! a decade later. "It was purely satirical to us. We just saw it as a silly poo joke, but other people saw it differently."
Living with Lions emerged in 2007 with the Dude Manor EP and followed it up nine months later with their full-length debut, Make Your Mark. Over the next couple of years, the band toured North America as the supporting act for groups including A Wilhelm Scream, Comeback Kid, the Swellers, the Flatliners and Defeater. They started working on their second record in early 2010, going through some lineup changes in the process; namely, lead vocalist Matt Postal left the band and was replaced by Stu Ross of Misery Signals.
With the album finished in early 2011, Living with Lions announced its impending release by getting the title tattooed across their butts and set out on a month-long U.S. tour with the Wonder Years, Fireworks, Such Gold, and Make Do and Mend. Holy Shit was released on May 17, just as the band returned home to embark on a cross-Canada tour.
Broadly speaking, Holy Shit is a fairly typical pop-punk record that's somewhere between Hot Water Music and New Found Glory. It's full of loud, chunky guitars, anthemic choruses, and lyrics about youth, relationships and dudes being dudes. It was a perfect fit for Montreal's Pouzza Fest or Gainesville's the Fest. Nothing about it ought to raise any eyebrows.
But the album's physical packaging is another story. On the outside, it looks like a Bible. On the inside, it's subtitled "The Poo Testament" and includes drawings that spoof the birth and ascension of Jesus, with the son of God replaced by a steaming log swaddled in toilet paper. Meanwhile, the artwork for the 7-inch single "Honesty, Honestly" riffed on Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam, with a fly-infested turd being passed from one hand to the other.
LA Weekly was the first to publish an article about it. "Not only is the Canadian government giving punks money so they can depict Jesus Christ as, literally, a piece of shit, but they're also supporting a band that sounds like bad Bad Religion," writer Dave Parkman quipped.
The vulgarity itself wasn't the problem, and even the blasphemy of the artwork might have been mostly overlooked or otherwise ignored had it not been for the Government of Canada and FACTOR logos printed along the bottom of the record's jacket.
The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings, more commonly known as FACTOR, is a public-private partnership that provides funding to Canadian musicians and record labels. The not-for-profit organization administers funds provided by the Department of Canadian Heritage (through the Canada Music Fund) and by private radio broadcasters.
"FACTOR's decades-long history of funding countless artists' recordings, music companies, and music communities has made a sizable impact in promoting Canadian culture at home and internationally," FACTOR's current president and CEO Meg Symsyk tells Exclaim! now. "Obviously, this project would not be FACTOR's first choice to draw attention to our contributions to artists' achievements. There were strains on several fronts during this episode but those didn't affect the continued work across our programs. The passage of time has afforded a balanced perspective that, we think, gives greater weight to the successes we've played a role in."
Symsyk also confirmed to Exclaim! that its contracts "have always contained language prohibiting offensive material." FACTOR has said that the album's packaging wasn't submitted to them for review prior to its release.
The LA Weekly article made its way to then-heritage minister James Moore, who didn't take very kindly to Holy Shit. "The content of this CD is offensive and the fact that it is clearly designed to offend a group of Canadians based on their faith is simply wrong," a spokesman for Moore said at the time. From there, media outlets including CBC News, the Vancouver Sun, Gawker and Exclaim! picked up the story.
"I think they were looking for excuses to cut budgets, especially with arts funding," Brenneman recalls. "It was perfect timing. They saw an opportunity and they seized it. Within three or four days of this article coming out, it was in the news in Canada, people were talking about it, politicians were talking about it."
Living with Lions had allies in Propagandhi's Chris Hannah and D.O.A.'s Joe Keithley; the latter told the Vancouver Sun, "I think you can kiss FACTOR goodbye […] or at least they're going to get their funding cut in half." Among the band's prominent critics was Ezra Levant, the far-right extremist who, at the time, hosted a daily TV program on the newly launched (and short-lived) Sun News Network. He called the band "a bunch of losers."
It was a PR crisis for Living with Lions, their record label Black Box, and FACTOR. Under a Conservative majority government that touted "fiscal responsibility" and was known for dogged budget-cutting, Moore's public condemnation of Living with Lions and their alleged misuse of taxpayer money was seen as a broad threat to Canadian music.
"We were putting other artists at risk, essentially," says Brenneman. "That's how we were looking at it. If we fuck this up and FACTOR loses funding, we're screwing over tons of our peers and friends. It was definitely a precarious situation. It would have been rad if we could have just said 'fuck you' and called everybody out on it, but it wasn't that simple."
More than just a moral panic over the album artwork's ostensibly sacrilegious wordplay and imagery, the Holy Shit controversy was a matter of government influence on artistic freedom. Those who sided with Moore argued that public funds shouldn't be used to finance a creative product that offends a religious group. Those who sided with the band believed that if politicians can decide whether a work of art is legitimate, arts funding is tainted.
"It's our art. They don't have the right to say whether it is or isn't," Brenneman says. "As soon as the government has some kind of influence on that, that's essentially propaganda."
Speaking to Exclaim!, Symsyk reiterates that "while FACTOR is accountable to the government regarding overall funding, it operates at arm's length as a third-party administrator and the government cannot direct FACTOR."
Moore didn't explicitly or implicitly say that his government would be taking any particular action in response to Holy Shit. But the Harper government had already been criticized for cutting $45 million in funding for Canadian arts and culture in 2008, with the prime minister remarking during that year's election campaign that "ordinary people" don't care about subsidies for the arts. (Moore, who exited politics in 2015 and now works in the private sector, did not respond to Exclaim!'s requests for comment on this piece.)
This context was enough for Living with Lions' situation to put pressure on the band, the record label and FACTOR to avoid any potential repercussions. After a tense few days, they arrived at two options: Either the band could keep their $13,248 loan and change the artwork, or they could keep the artwork and return the money. They chose to pay it back.
"We disagreed with the way the government was handling the situation. For us to change the artwork and keep the money, it seemed like it would go against everything we had come to believe at that point," says Brenneman. "I think that was the best move. It got FACTOR off the hook, and it definitely helped our record label. In the end, it was better to take our stand but not necessarily drag everybody else down with us."
A week after the album was released, Living with Lions paid back FACTOR. It was the only time an artist has returned money to FACTOR due to offensive content, Symsyk confirms. Physical copies of Holy Shit were recalled and reproduced without the acknowledgement of government support. In their only public statement on the matter, the band said they chose to return the money so that the album would "forever remain true to the original format." They also took shots at Moore and Levant by pulling out quotes in which they each expressed their belief in free speech, "which I thought was ironic," Brenneman says.
Living with Lions went on to launch a Kickstarter campaign later that year, asking fans to help them recuperate the money they returned to FACTOR. Brenneman says some of the people who donated to the fundraiser weren't even fans — they just wanted to show their support for the band's stance. He says the group never had any trouble booking tours because of the situation, though it did put a strain on relationships with some of their family members; over the last 10 years, those fences have been mended.
The band even got FACTOR funding for their next album, Island, in 2016. "They were pretty pleased with the outcome and how we handled it," Brenneman says.
While it was tense at the time, it only took a few weeks for the Holy Shit controversy to blow over. By then, 21-year-old Senate page Brigette DePape had taken the political spotlight when she staged an unprecedented protest on the floor of the Senate chamber, holding up a sign that read "Stop Harper." Brenneman says Ezra Levant's producers had tried to get Living with Lions to come on his TV show to talk about their album. The band declined and appeared on a TSN program about the Vancouver Canucks instead.