Saturday, October 28, 2006

Glam Slam wrap-up

Warning: extremely inside

A small personal note and a thank-you to everyone involved in Thursday night's Glam Slam, the annual CFRU fundraising prom in Guelph, Ontario. For the second year in a row it's been a great honour to play with friends old and new and cover a wide swath of material. The set list is always a tightly guarded secret, so for any of you who know the principals involved and are curious, here's what went down and who sang what:

Shout (Isley Brothers): Geordie Gordon
Walking on Sunshine (Katrina & the Waves): Jen Cutts
Glory Days (Springsteen): Vish Khanna
Thing Called Love (Bonnie Raitt): Sylvie Smith
I Only Have Eyes For You (Flamingos): Geordie Gordon
Pretty in Pink (Psychedelic Furs): Dave Withers
Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads): yours truly
Ghostbusters (Ray Parker Jr.): Bill Whitehead, complete with six cans of silly string: "bustin' makes me feel good!"
Careless Whisper (George Michael): Nick Craine
Crazy (Gnarls Barkley (no relation)): Tristan J. O'Malley
Do Ya Think I'm Sexy (Rod Stewart): Sylvie Smith, Evan Gordon
Thriller (Lambchop... just kidding, Michael Jackson): Jen Cutts
Get It Together (Beastie Boys): Vish Khanna, Anita Khanna, Michelle Lobcowicz, Bill Whitehead

If you don't know who any of these people are: Geordie, Sylvie and John Merritt are all Barmitzvah Brothers; Evan leads the most fantastic live band in Guelph, the Sad Clowns (also featuring Geordie and John. Both Gordon brothers play guitar and keys. Bill Whitehead hosts one of my favourite CFRU shows every Saturday morning, Voyage to the Great Attractor, and many moons ago played in a band with Jesse Stewart; here, he played clarinet of the bass and regular varieties. Jen Cutts used to sing in a band called Corduroy Leda. Tristan O'Malley (guitar), Dave Withers (Guitar, percussion), Nick Craine and I (keyboards, saxophone) used to play in a band called Black Cabbage. Tristan, Vish and I played in a band called the Neutron Stars. Anita and Michelle roll with Vish.

Other band members: Chris “mastermind” Herlihy on bass (Nathan Coles Outfit); John Merritt on drum kit, percussion and electronic drums; Gary Pereira on tenor saxophone.

I'm not sure why so much of the set drew from the 80s--don't kids today want to hear something newer? Apparently not, as the youngsters in the band (Sylvie, Geordie) didn't pick anything older than 1990 (Geordie picked songs from before even I was born). Gnarls was an obvious contemporary choice, and we picked the Beastie Boys just to make sure we had something from that god-awful decade of pop music that was the 90s.

I just find it strange that the song that's been stuck in my head the most for the last few weeks has been "Get It Together"--what does that say about all those other pop hooks?

This experience reminded me once again that I spend far too much time consuming music compared to creating it. Needless to say, the latter is always more rewarding, even if it's in a once-a-year cover band.

pics will appear at some point.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Torontopia, part three: Kat Collins

*whew* okay, this is the last Torontopia interview, I swear. Then we'll move on to other topics.

Kat Collins landed in the Toronto music scene as a member of the Barcelona Pavilion, a band founded by Steve Kado and at the time featuring Maggie MacDonald; both were also Hidden Cameras at the time (Maggie still is). When Maggie left, she was replaced by Vanessa of No Dynamics. The band had two bass players, two shouting vocalists, and a deadpan laptop player who--by all visible appearances--did nothing but stand there with an absurd neckstrap supporting the computer on his chest. Barcelona Pavilion made minor miracles out of two minute songs that demanded simple everyday things that sounded like they were revolutionary manifestos ("Tidy Up!"). Their greatest legacy to the Torontopian concept is undoubtedly their song "How Will You People Ever Have Fun If None of You People Ever Participate." ("Oh boo hoo/ oh cry cry/ if nothing ever happens/ I/ wonder/ why."

After that band fizzled out, Kat started a new project called Pyramid Culture with three other ladies, singing about scientific concepts over computer beats, outfitted like 20-minute-workout rejects and borrowing choruses from 80s-period Billy Joel. Earlier this year, she wrote something called a Bad Bands Manifesto... which is a whole other kettle of fish we'll get to soon enough (and which will include the second part of this interview). She's married to Matt Collins of Ninja High School, aka The Second Most Opinionated Toronto Musician after Steve Kado, and together they run a CDR label called Jennifer Lopez Knife... in theory, anyway--good luck finding anything on the web about it (coz you know, if it isn't on the internet, it isn't real).

Somewhere along the line, she made a short film about the Torontopia concept (which I haven't seen), and is also one of the few to make the leap from talk to action by participating in the City Idol contest that tried to find fresh new voices to run in the upcoming municipal election. She currently works on the Murmur project, which I'm sure their website can explain better than I can.

As always, if you haven't read this, you should do that first before wading through here.

Kat Collins

July 21, 2006

Setting: Back patio of a bar on Bloor St. across from Long and McQuade, west of Ossington

When did you first hear the term Torontopia and what did it mean to you?

I first heard the term Torontopia in 2003. Steve Kado was putting it on a flyer or a poster. He had heard it from some other guy he met playing Fototag, and decided it was a good way to succinctly express how we were feeling about Toronto at the time, which was extremely optimistic and extremely positive.

Why did you feel that way? Did you grow up here?

I’ve been living here since the late 80s. I was 11 years old when we moved to Toronto—all my formative years. I wasn’t really involved in any kind of music scene or independent or underground art scene at all. Halfway through university I was talked into joining the Barcelona Pavilion. The first few shows we played were probably the first few local shows I attended.

I wasn’t a part of the scene, so I had no context to understand how things were different from the way they had been previously, or how they had been changing. All I knew was that in the first year or so of us being a band, I saw so many different shows and met so many interesting people doing really creative, neat things that I’d never even thought about before, let alone experienced.

To me, it seemed that Toronto was this wonderland of fantastic creativity. Everyone was so open to new ideas and so positive and so interested in collaborating and making things happen and starting projects and being productive and active. To me, it didn’t even occur to me that it hadn’t always been that way. Toronto wasn’t always this fantastic utopia of creative expression. For a lot of people, it was a welcome change from what they had seen as a more stagnant or at least not as open to new ideas atmosphere.

By the time 2003 rolled around—which now gets bandied about as this nostalgic period that we all look back to as a peak of the Toronto scene—to me, the term seemed like a fantastic shorthand for all the things I had been experiencing. I didn’t think of this as being new. To me it was an awakening to the potential that Toronto held.

I had always enjoyed living here, but I wasn’t in love with the city. I figured that I could do just as well anywhere else. By the time I started hearing the term Torontopia and thinking about what it meant to me, it really signified this new attitude I had about the city, which was not in fact a utopia, but it had the potential to be whatever any of us wanted to mold it into. That was really terrific. Every city has that potential… potentially!

I’m curious how that artistic explosion bled into how people thought politically and socially about the municipal entity itself, learning to love Toronto in ways they hadn’t thought about before and becoming civically engaged. I’m not sure how much I’ll touch on this in the article, because it’s more of a Toronto Star angle, but what are your thoughts? Having moved back here recently myself, there’s unquestionably a different attitude here than there was when I left Ontario three and a half years ago.

That feeling has continued to grow. People are still learning to love the city in new ways. Things like City Idol are good examples of taking that initial enthusiasm about the boring municipal politics side of Toronto, which seemed like it was looking up when we got a new mayor and it seemed like amalgamation wasn’t going to completely ruin us, and so taking that initial enthusisasm and building on it and turning it into something that involves even more people engaged in the process of civic politics is really great. It’s still on the rise. I don’t think that’s peaked yet. That’s going to continue growing, and more people will get involved in things. It was definitely something that I started to see about three years ago, when this Torontopian stuff was a new buzzword on posters.

It’s interesting to me because I moved away when people first started using it, and I’ve been watching the germination of it from a distance. It was even more curious when I started reading stories about Montreal’s music scene—which, with the exception of the Arcade Fire, was not focused on bands that I was seeing all the time there—and I was thinking of how much I would rather be living in Toronto at the time. But I’m wondering now if, because there’s so much art here produced on an indigenous level and so many success stories, Toronto becomes a place that they want to be for a long time, as opposed to a temporary stop where they make some money and then return to their hometown or move on to somewhere else. The other day, Kado compared the Toronto of old to a bus terminal.

It’s becoming one of those vibrant cities that people talk about existing elsewhere. Over the span of the 15 years or so I’ve lived here, or since I was old enough to go downtown by myself, I’ve noticed not just the obvious things people complain about—gentrification in Parkdale or whatever, Liberty Village is being ruined by development—but just the number of people who are out on the street, who enjoy being in the city doing things. When I was in high school and went to see shows at the Music Hall on the Danforth to see shows, it was this horrible dead zone that was creepy and scary to walk around in, because it was empty. The streets would be dead by 10pm. It wasn’t a sketchy neighbourhood by any means, but it was depressing and creepy. It felt weird walking around, so desolate. It felt like a suburban residential neighbourhood where everyone goes to bed—but it was pretty much in the middle of downtown. Now, you go there and it’s clogged with people. Parents are out at 11pm with strollers, and I’m thinking, those kids should be in bed!

Musically, what do you think helped turn the tide? Or were you aware of it at the time?

I remember reading articles when I first started playing music, that talked about bands like the Hidden Cameras—who I was friends with, so I saw their very early shows, even though I wasn’t so much a part of the music scene. Articles talked about the Barcelona Pavilion as helping to turn the tide of people dancing at shows, like it was a new approach to more participatory music. To me, it seemed like all the shows we played at were like that. It didn’t occur to me that it was a new thing. Certainly, when people talk about the heyday of 2003, I remember bands that I thought were amazing that seemed so new and different to me, because I didn’t have a context to know whether they were new and different. I wasn’t aware that it was a tide that was turning until much later, when I got the context from other people who had been at it for much longer than me.

Could you describe the Toronto is the Best release party, on February 29, 2004?

That was one of my favourite days ever. We booked ourselves to play second, after the Singing Saws, so we had to be there at 9 in the morning. By the time we went on, there were already 20 or 30 people there—enough that I was surprised that there was a crowd at 9.30 in the morning. I stayed for the entire show. I danced more than I think I have ever or will between the hours of 9 and 5. I had been on the catering team—our friend Todd made all these amazing vegan snacks for everyone, so he went all out and we prepared days in advance. The atmosphere at that show was so positive. People were excited to have a daytime show, which is happening a bit more now. People were excited to see that many bands at one show, over a dozen. It was such a celebratory mood. Everyone was so pumped about what was going on. I met a lot of new people who were almost overwhelming with their enthusiasm, and would talk to me for 45 minutes about how inspired they were and how happy they were to have found this thing. I was surprised at how much of an impact it seemed to be having on people who were newer to the scene than I had been.

That fascinating to me, too, because people from the outside like to accuse it of being an insider clique, a group of friends.

Of course a large number of people there were friends or at least people you recognize from other shows, but there were a lot of new people who heard about it and thought it sounded like a neat idea and were blown away by how awesome that day was and how positive the feelings in the room were. To me it was an inspiring day. It validated a lot of my feelings about Toronto, that it could come off so great without any cynicism.

I’m fascinated by how contagious the Torontopian concept is, when I think about the Track and Field or Living Room Festivals, or parallels like the Ford Plant in Brantford. And I was reading an article in the Discorder from Vancouver drawing parallels between Torontopia and stuff that’s happening in Victoria right now. But do you think there’s a dangerous geocentrism to the term Torontopia that makes it easy for outsiders to dismiss?

I think that’s been the only real problem in people misunderstanding what we mean by it. It’s nice to hear that there are places that hear the term and apply it to where they are. It’s a perfect combination of words. It fits nicely with Toronto, but a criticism we’ve heard repeatedly is the assumption that Toronto is some kind of utopia that is better than any other place on earth. That’s kind of ridiculous. But it’s this sense that wherever you are, you can make it awesome and better than it is and start the projects that are going to make your town worth staying in. It’s great that people are adopting that idea. That was the whole point in the first place.

Do you think that such a productive scene eventually creates a counter-intuitive complacency among audience members and potential participants? That’s always a paradox of living in a large urban centre: ‘there’s so much going on, I will just consume instead of create.’

True. That’s where Torontopia meets bad bands, in a way. The initial feeling behind this whole Torontopian thing, when the word was first being used, was that there was a great sense of the music scene being very united, and everyone being of the same mind about what we were doing and how we wanted to accomplish it. Everyone was friends and everyone was always at everyone else’s shows. It was extremely community-oriented and a single unit, which is ridiculous to say because there are tons of other little music scenes in the city that never overlapped with ours. It’s incredibly self-centered to say that the whole independent music scene in Toronto was united. There was a sense that that was what was happening, what we were moving towards.

Now there are all these little factions again. Bad Bands divides the people who are into that from people who are into another thing. Then there’s a third faction of people who are into something else entirely. There is more animosity and more debate about what things mean and what we want to accomplish. That in a way is healthier and will ultimately breed a more sustainable community. It also fights that tendency to become complacent.

There is stuff to argue about. Most people feel strongly about one thing or another, and if there is always that debate going on then it’s just a matter of redefining what Torontopia will mean in the future. Currently, we’re embroiled in too much semantics about what it means, and it’s not the point at all. If it starts becoming a thing again that symbolizes our sense that we’re improving our surroundings and being creative in new ways, it will morph into a new thing.

A lot of talk lately has accused the Torontopian concept as not being very inclusive at all, and how could it ever be in such a large, diverse city, etc. There will always be critics who will suggest that a utopian model could never live up to all of its potential—and of course it can’t. There will always be different factions, and not as much cross-pollination as you think.

Yeah, but any term with a utopian deal always gets that kind of criticism.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Baby Eagle: Constantines' Steve Lambke solo

Today: Another diversion from all that heavy Torontopia reading.

The last track on the latest Constantines album, Tournament of Hearts, is a barely-there whisper of a song, featuring little else but Steve Lambke's voice, guitar and vibraphone (from what I can remember, anyway... I've misplaced my copy recently). There are quiet moments on every Constantines album, mostly belonging to main vocalist Bry Webb, but this one was a particular revelation: a real coming-out for Lambke as a songwriter, not just a belter as he was on previous Cons contributions.

Some of that vibe continues on his solo debut as Baby Eagle, but he also picks up a Dylanesque harmonica (actually, better than Dylan, whose harmonica is the sole reason I can't listen to those early records), some country two-steps and various other ornamentations courtesy of the royal couple of Winnipeg singer/songwriters: Christine Fellows and John K. Samson of the Weakerthans. Like Lambke's voice, whose limitations he's well aware of, the album is slight at 24 minutes long, but it's a promising first step.

This interview was a bit rushed in the middle of a busy post-Thanksgiving, post-Pop Montreal week, and not as insightful as I had hoped; I wish I had a chance to spend more time with the lyrics instead of asking obvious surface questions about the music. The article it was for runs next week in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, a paper whose reach includes Lambke's hometown of Cambridge--hence the spin of some of the questions.

Baby Eagle has a whole whack of dates in the next month opening for the red-hot Jon Rae and The River; they play tonight at the Casbah in Hamilton. For more dates check here.

Baby Eagle
Steve Lambke
October 10, 2006
Setting: the Three Gut House

When did this come out?
It came out October 3 on Outside. But I first burned CDs in January, and since then I re-did one of the songs, but it’s essentially the same. And it’s been mastered.

What were your initial intentions? Were you looking for distribution?
Outside expressed interest, and it seemed foolish not to take them up on it. One of them came to a show and bought a CDR and took it from there. But the reason it took so long was because of the Cons stuff, just touring all the time.

Did you want to wait until the band had time off to release it?
That just happened, really. Right now we’re taking time off and writing and not playing so much. It worked out well, but it wasn’t a real plan.

When did you first start writing material like this? The last song [“Windy Roads”]on the latest Constantines record [Tournament of Hearts] is very much like this, very sparse. I also remember the song you wrote for the 60-Second Song compilation for DROG Records [back in 2002].
I’d always been doing a bit of stuff without any intent to make a real record. It was in the back of my mind, as was playing shows by myself, because I love seeing people do that. I was accumulating a bunch of songs and recording demos on GarageBand.

How far back does that go? Does it predate the Constantines?
Not so much. Mostly it’s been the last few years. I ended up talking to Christine [Fellows] and John [K. Samson] about it and they were really enthusiastic about working together, so we figured out a time when that could happen. There wasn’t a lot of intent behind it.

Did they talk you into it?
The idea came up and it seemed like it would be fun. Christine is such a great, inspiring person. We had talked about it and it didn’t seem like it would work because we were all on tour last fall. But we passed through Winnipeg early last summer, and when we were hanging out, she pulled out the calendar and said, ‘Let’s make this work.’ But even then I went to Winnipeg without a clear idea of what would happen. I had all the songs, but I was totally open in terms of arrangements, and I didn’t even bring an instrument. I just borrowed and used what was at hand. I thought, maybe I’ll just do something by myself, or maybe we’ll all play together—there was no plan for a release, so there was no pressure. If we got a couple of good songs out of it, that’d be great. But we got a bunch that felt like a record.

Was there something about clearing your own headspace by leaving town?
For sure. Being there was amazing. We recorded at their house and I stayed there. We worked hard; I didn’t go out at all for the six days I was there, except for one night because the Arcade Fire was in town. We just had campfires in the backyard in the evening. It was a positive, creative, inspiring atmosphere. The drummer who’s on there, I hadn’t met before. He plays in a band called the Paperbacks, and I guess John is helping to produce their record. And Keith played mandolin, and he’s played on a few of Christine’s records, though I’d never met him before.

I imagine when you were demo-ing the songs—I’m not sure how much layering went into it at that point—but did you picture these acoustic guitar songs being more country, or more ornamental, or what did you think would happen to them genre-wise? Could these songs have gone anywhere?
Once we got into it, the fact that it’s all acoustic felt natural. The only electric instrument on there is bass guitar on a couple of tunes. They are simple songs, so they could be treated different ways. Some of the demos were a little weirder, just goofing around with home studio reverbs, which is a fun way to make music. Some of them are more ‘out’ than what happened on the record.

Had you been performing these songs, or did you start doing that after you made the record?
That came after. I didn’t do that until last January. I’d done a few things, but nothing like a real show.

Didn’t you do that immediately? I remember you playing in Montreal around the time of the election [it was actually the night of the English leaders’ debate, and I missed his set because of it, showing up right after he finished].
Yeah, I toured with Jessie [Stein] of the S.S. Cardiacs. We planned on that sometime in the fall. She was in between bands and was itching to do something, so we both went out solo. I was really nervous about it, so it was great to not be doing it in front of hometown faces and friends, to get a few shows under my belt. I still get really nervous playing in front of people I know, but that tour was really fun.

Was that out east?
Yeah. It was only five or six shows: Moncton, Sackville, a couple in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa.

Did people know what it was? Was your name and the Constantines association on the bill?
Not to any great extent. Jessie has a bit of a following out there, so S.S. Cardiacs were the main attraction. Response was really positive. Performing solo was something I’d always wanted to try, so if people weren’t paying attention, it was fine, because I was learning. It’s different, just technically—singing with just yourself and your guitar. You have to be further away from the mic than when you’re in a loud rock band, and I had no idea. Just stuff like that.

Thinking of your songs in the Constantines too, you often belt it out and stop playing the guitar, letting the rest of the band carry it.

I’m curious about the role of acoustic music in your own development. Did you grow up playing acoustic?
I grew up playing electric. We had an acoustic guitar in the house and I’ve always listened to different music. My parents listened to country music. Even when I was playing in full-on punk bands, I was listening to different stuff.

Because this is the article for a local paper, what were the bands you were in while growing up in Cambridge?
There was Captain Co-Pilot [a hardcore band with fellow Constantine Dallas Werhle and journalist Vish Khanna], and a whole mish-mash of things before that who didn’t play many shows—usually one show and then we’d break up. Nothing worth mentioning, I’d say! It was all essentially just three of us with different drummers.

Captain Co-Pilot was when?
It would have been… 96 to 98, maybe. Then the Constantines started in 99.

What was happening in Cambridge at that time? Were there any acoustic people in that scene?
There was. The only place where anything was happening was the Refugee Café in Cambridge. Lots of different things happened there, not just rock bands. It was an all-ages venue, kind of a hippie café, people doing spoken word and reading poetry and stuff. It was really cool. I was very much on the fringe of that whole thing.

Did you play often?
We played there a couple of times. That’s probably the first time I met [future Constantine] Whil (Kidman), who would play there solo all the time. It was a cool place, because there was nothing else in Cambridge at the time.

When did you move to Guelph for school?
In 1997.

The first Constantines record is now five years old.
And the band is seven years old.

Now seems to be the time when the Woolly Leaves record [Kidman’s acoustic solo project] comes out, and this one too—do you see the band going in different directions at all, not just in terms of other projects, but in terms of the material written for the band?
We’ve started writing the next Constantines record, and that’s everyone’s priority. Whil’s record came out a few weeks before this, but it’s different in that his record is the culmination of something he’s been working on for a long time. And even specifically that record: some of the tracking for it was done a long time ago.

But he performed solo even before he joined the band.
Yeah. I met him a long, long time ago. But once in 2001 the Constantines played in Cambridge and Woolly Leaves opened; it was a duo then, with a drummer. It was great. We played a couple of shows with him, in Waterloo and Guelph. It did used to be more of a rock band. It was more inspired by Pavement and Built to Spill, with lots of riffs. It was still very… ‘sensitive,’ but more of a rock band. It gradually got quieter and quieter until it was what it is now.

Could you see your project going on a reverse trajectory, and becoming more of a band on its own?
In my mind I’m toying around with the idea of playing shows with people, but I haven’t done anything about that yet. The one thing I really do love about it is that I can play a show whenever—there’s no apparatus involved with it at all. That’s immensely satisfying. At the same time, I realise it would be better if other people were involved. It takes someone really special to pull it off alone, and I often doubt if I have that.

How many dates do the Constantines do a year?
Last year it was about 100. This year it will be a bit less, but still about 70.

So that still leaves lots of time.

What is everyone else doing with their downtime?
Dallas plays bass in a band called Deloro, with a couple of other artists in town: Dave Armstrong and Tony Romano. Those guys write the songs, and then the band includes Dallas and Dave Clark on drums, the new guy in Jon Rae’s band. They’re great. I think they’re kind of making a record, kind of just hanging out. Doug is just being Doug. Bry does his own thing, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.

Why, is he secretive about it?
No, not at all, but he’s in Montreal now. He mentioned that he and [Mike] Feuerstack [Snailhouse] might do something together. I don’t think he has real plans for anything, but then again neither did I.

Post-script, November 30: Bry Webb does in fact have plans. They're called the Paramedics, and they're playing a show here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Torontopia, part two: Steve Kado

More notes from the Torontopia files today.

Steve Kado is the main man behind the Blocks Recording Club, a bonafide collective run by members of the Creeping Nobodies, the Phonemes and Final Fantasy and others. A couple of years ago Kado was in nearly a dozen bands, including the Barcelona Pavilion and his solo project The Blanket. Blocks also had an insane release schedule in 2004, numbering nearly 15 releases. After realising that didn't have any time left over to have a life, Kado scaled back to being a hype man in Ninja High School and the drummer for Jon Rae and the River (he plays on the new album, but left just before its release), while trying to get a grip on the runaway success of Final Fantasy.

Personal history: I first met Kado on the street outside the Family Thrift Store in Guelph while he was getting his hair cut by Jenny Mitchell of the Barmitzvah Brothers. I had just seen the Barcelona Pavilion play (my first time) and was trying to get him to give me copies of their EPs to bring back to Brave New Waves. (promo has never been his strong point.) Later that year, the entire band (plus the Barmitzvah Brothers) would crash in my kitchen in Montreal when they played the BNW 20th anniversary party. Kado stayed at my place a couple of times after that when he had a gig in town; sometimes when I wasn't even there. Long discussions and debates often ensued into the night, even though I barely knew the guy. Blocks cohort James Anderson, who also stayed one night when Lenin I Shumov was in town, asked us, "How do you guys know each other?" We both responded, "We don't, really."

He's an extremely intelligent, magnetic, confident and passionate chap, and even when I vehemently disagree with him he remains intensely likeable. As his statements below and the mere existence of Blocks illustrate, he's an idealist. Lately this has made him feel like he has to draw lines in the sand, a move I find unfortunate but somewhat understandable.

But in a town where people have always talked more about ideas than actually implementing them, Kado is the embodiment of Torontopian ideals in terms of his slogan: "don't try, do!"

Kado's quotes in my Torontopia article--again, if you haven't read it already, I recommend you do so before diving in here--were the most controversial parts of the article... at least in the insular world of Stillepost, the equivalent of the high school cafeteria in the Toronto music scene.

Many wondered why Kado seemed so negative about the present day and already nostalgic for 2004. To me, this seems obvious: 2004, for him, was full of ideas and action and optimism. In 2006, he's had to face up to the realities of doing something he never wanted to do: running a real record label. Which, despite its co-op structure, Blocks has been forced to become on some level, only to deal with the demand for Final Fantasy. (Spotted in a Leaside HMV last night: He Poos Clouds priced as part of a 2 for $25 promotion.)

On top of that, his retreat from the stage (in order to have a life) has coincided with more mainstream discussion of the Torontopian ideals he championed (including in the New York Times), and it sounds like he's upset that Arts and Crafts is (likely unwillingly) dominating that discussion, and not more grassroots, DIY folks... like himself. Needless to say, this is all conjecture on my part.

Many people wanted to know: what's his beef with Broken Social Scene? You'd have to ask him. The band never came up in our discussion directly, on or off the record, though it's obvious from some of his references that he's referring to them (the Olympic Island show). I'll take full blame for baiting him on Metric (a band whose music I've despised since day one), but I didn't include that part in the article. I was as surprised by the tone as anyone else.

I honestly don't know who he was referring to when he said he was "being ripped off while having the same group of MuchMusic video bands rebrand themselves as a Toronto community of artists." You'd have to ask him. I didn't, because I didn't want the article to be a bitchfest and I had a lot of other things I wanted to talk about.

As it is, the discussion and all its tangents ran an hour an a half. I foolishly parked on Bloor (I was on my way out of town, otherwise I would have biked) and got my car towed because we finished after 4PM. The bill was $160. Can I write that off as a business expense come tax time?

Here we go:

Steve Kado

July 18, 2006

Setting: The Blocks office, inside the Tranzac Club

You’re credited with coining the term. Is this true?
I didn't invent the term. I forget his name. I played a game of fototag at St. Lawrence Market with this guy, who was a friend of Rob Judge's. He had this idea for a hilarious magazine called Torontopia. I thought it was a funny word. It would be about how awesome Toronto was, but it would be about really boring stuff. It would be based on Japanese magazines that freak out about 'stuff,' about the corner of Grace of Dundas or something, which has a church and a convenience store and nothing else. That was his deal.
I definitely brought it from there to, like, Jonny Dovercourt and Carl and whomever.

Jonny says he heard it from you in 02.

I would be the source for that, but I didn't invent it.

So the originator thought it was entirely a joke.
He thought it was a joke, and it's funny to me, too. Both of us felt the same way about Toronto, that what's so good about it is what's so bad about it. I don't want a more beautiful city. I don't want waterfront redevelopment. I don't want anything to work any better than it does. In some respects I feel really conservative about it, but Toronto was the capital of gross alternative rock and MuchMusic video bands, so you had that gross sheen.
Sure, I Mother Earth was based out of Toronto, but it was a part of this hilarious other world that had nothing to do with anything. In and of itself it was so douche-y and lame that it didn't draw any attention from the States or anything. Nobody said, 'Woah, this is where I Mother Earth is from?! Wicked' It was our lousy generic commerical music. Otherwise it was a town that was mostly full of immigrants but still had this dose of Protestant restraint from being the northern capital of the British Empire for a while. It had a good blend of stuff.
I torrented all five seasons of Kids in the Hall recently. What blows my mind is that it was funny to anyone outside of Toronto. It's the most Toronto-y show I've ever seen. The sad part is that it was shot between 1989-1994, I think. The bumpers of that show are these Super-8 shots of stuff, and you can recognize all this stuff from a Toronto before there were Starbucks, before downtown chain stuff got big, before whole neighbourhoods changed drastically.
Toronto was a way less douche-y place, as an urban area. The process of it getting douched up has a lot to do with very Torontonian insecurity. I don't feel alarmed by it. I don't feel this change is irreversible. It's part of the same process that has always led to Toronto building a CN Tower or City Hall. If we weren't screwing things up all the time, it wouldn't be Toronto, it would be a much more successful, smooth-running city and we wouldn't have these problems.
Right now we're decimating all our major public art institutions by putting unnecessary extensions on them. This is disastrous from a personnel standpoint. This will ruin both collections, the ability to display them, and the people running things will be sacrificed hugely in order to facilitate the construction of wings provided by wealthy donors to house collections that aren't necessarily of any exterior importance.
Ken Thomson's Cornelius Krieghoff collection is the impetus for the AGO needing all this extra space. Otherwise, I would feel it was fine for size. It's small enough to do in a day, which for a displayed collection I think is delightful. Cornelius Krieghoff might be important in the history of Canada, and his work belongs in the National Gallery in Ottawa, but as art, in the history of art, it's not a major chapter in Canadian art by any means. Really, Canadian art gains international significance with people like Jeff Wall, 1989. Other people before that, sure. Really, we haven't been producing. That's what the AGO should be focusing on, other than the requisite amount of Group of Seven stuff for tourists.
(more talk like this for another five minutes)
It's good that Toronto is doing what it does best: self-sabotage and screwing things up. I can't wait until the condos down by the lake are crime hives full of guns, like the Don Valley condos all turned out to be.

Is there a similar self-sabotage at work artistically at all?

My proximity to it makes me feel more defensive, and less likely to have that same 'it will all wash out in 20 years' attitude. I feel like me and my friends have been stolen from by a group of largely older… basically being ripped off while having the same group of MuchMusic video bands rebrand themselves as a Toronto community of artists. I feel a bit dinked around by that on a personal level. But I felt way more down about that in 2005. Now I feel like lines have been drawn again and everyone knows what's what, who's on what side of what line. Nothing's so weird anymore. We have our new Watchmen now.

Which are who, Metric?

I’d say maybe Stars.


Metric are another kettle of fish entirely. The Watchmen never got to open for the Rolling Stones. So the scale and level of the lameness is what's so astonishing, and what is maybe a bit shocking. It's not something I'd wish for myself, it's not like I feel they're stealing my opening spot for the Rolling Stones, but that it's something no one should want. It's something that no one from Toronto should need.

On a smaller level, I was reading the Wavelength program for February 06, which was some anniversary—perhaps their 300th show. There was a description for a panel called Torontopia vs. Dystopia that read: “Are instances of violence and hard drugs ruining the scene?” And I wasn’t sure what that was about.

I would say your shock and surprise at that is: is undeserved multimarket commercial success bad for the Toronto music scene, for artists who aren't even a part of the Toronto music scene. The attention comes from without, based on people who have nothing to do with Toronto.

Who has nothing to do with Toronto?
I would say Metric definitely has nothing to do with Toronto. They were easily trying to make it elsewhere, and moving back to Toronto seems to have been largely a failure, to pull in the success they wanted in L.A. When things started turning around here, it seems like they said, 'Well, instead of going to L.A. to make it, we'll go to Toronto to make it.' That kind of thing. It seemed like a more savvy decision. It's a place they occasionally live in between touring. I can't sense any affection or sense of place or anything Toronto-y about what they do. Not that they have to sing about Toronto, but you can just tell sometimes. You can often tell when bands are from New York or Montreal and Toronto. With Montreal it's often disguised by the fact that they're really from Victoria or Ottawa. Then, they sound like an Ottawa band who burned all their bridges and moved to Montreal.

I don’t hear anything particular Montreal or Toronto in a lot of these bands, because they’re often made up of immigrants to the city.
There's something in the desires of the people who move to the place, regardless of where they're from.

Like people who move to Olympia wanting to sound like everything on K Records?

People who want to make certain things or certain ways of living will move to Montreal to live the Montreal way. It shows. Another wicked thing about watching five seasons of Kids in the Hall is hearing the same Shadowy Men song over and over. They are the most Toronto band ever.

They’ve all lived here for many years [ed note: bassist Reid Diamond passed away in 2001, R.I.P.], but they’re actually from Calgary.
Not all of them, though.

Uh, at least two of them definitely are.
Well, they sound the most Toronto-y. Possibly because I was between the ages of nine and 14 and forming all my impressions of music around me in those years, but the association with landscape is huge. Brian was playing guitar at Graffiti's one day when I was shopping in Kensington Market, and they had the front door open so you could hear it for at least a quarter of a block, doing exactly what he does. The sun was setting, and it was the Al Waxman neighbourhood, and I got all teared up thinking how Toronto-y it was.

Shadowy Men strikes me as a great band who did unique, special things...

They were a different kind of instrumental rock band, definitely.

I meant more the creative packaging and overall approach to marketing themselves.

Oh, definitely.

But that didn’t seem to be contagious in the rest of the Toronto scene at the time. I’ve heard you talk before about the all-ages scene in the mid-90s and how you grew up with Grasshopper, and then later on finding out about Fifth Column. There always seem to be…

Flare-ups. I got really distressed in 2005. 2003 and early 2004 was really awesome, and I felt like a lot of energy and ideas sprung up. By the end of 2004, things definitely mellowed down and got a bit worse. I thought it was a little dip, but all of 2005 was hideous.

Where there signposts or events you're thinking of?
No, it's the lack of signposts and events that's the problem to my mind. Not to say that nothing good happened or no one did good work, but what was special about one time was definitely not special about the other time. Possibly that's just for me. Blocks output definitely slowed, but that was more 'Steve becomes reasonable as a human being.' It was more the hideous awareness of what I was actually doing and what the real ramifications of lots of decisions I was making actually were. Once that knowledge really hit home, we had to make a sudden shift to a more sustainable output from where we were. Also because frankly I didn't have the energy to keep doing things the way I was. Blocks output slowed, and people keep asking me when I'll do another Toronto is Great compilation, and I say, 'Well, I'll do it when Toronto is great.' I can wait. I'm patient. I'm not going to blow my load on 'Toronto is okay' or 'Toronto is fine.'

And you probably don’t want to repeat yourself with the exact same bands.

Well, a lot of them aren’t around anyway. But some of them are. The other thing about that compilation is that it was bands who weren’t already recording things. It was bands before they got a record together. It was much more responsive. There are all kinds of bands I don’t see these days because I work too much. At the same time, I think fewer people are playing shows without having any kind of recordings to represent themselves. Which is unfortunate, because it means that ideas don’t get worked out and that laboratory time seems to be missing.

They have to have something to put up on MySpace right away.

Exactly. [sarcastically] There’s no point in being a band unless you have a MySpace page.

Does the existence of Torontopia create a counter-intuitive complacency, where people see things happening and figure they don’t have to do anything?

That might have happened. Possibly that was the case. What was exciting about what some people were calling Torontopia at the time was that it had to do with doing things for yourself. The only way to participate in that experience was to do something for yourself. You really couldn’t relax about it and think, ‘Don’t worry, they have it taken care of.’ Because then you weren’t having any of the fun. Then you weren’t invited to the party. Maybe in some people’s minds that wasn’t the case, but in the one that was the most meaningful to me, and in the part of that world where my hopes rise and fall for Toronto, that’s more the case. There aren’t that many non-participants and spectators. If anything, that’s what my problem with a lot of the commercial-type stuff is, is that it doesn’t encourage any behaviour at all. It encourages you to buy your ticket to the giant show on the Island, it encourages you to get sunstroke with a bazillion other people…

Sure, but people got sunstroke at Track and Field [a two-day festival/camp-out held on a farm outside of Guelph in 2004 and 2005, hosted by the Social Arts Club and featuring many Blocks/Torontopia bands.]

But Track and Field, at least 50 per cent of the people were playing there, which is significant. As well, Track and Field is definitely not for the money. Not that it makes it better or worse, it’s not a terrible idea to make money, but Track and Field is a very honest and sometimes gruelling celebration of doing things yourself and making your own stuff. That’s not what a giant concert event is. That’s about purchasing an entertainment product and having minimal expectations of it: ‘I expect at least this level of quality.’ And those things are met or not met. It’s not the same thing at all. I don’t think it’s the kind of engagement that I think is important, socially.

I want to talk about February 29, 2004.

When we put out the Blocks compilation?

How did that day go? What was the feeling in the room?
It was my birthday, I turned six. I freaked out about it pretty hard, because I had done lots of the recording for the compilation in addition to assembling and manufacturing it. The month leading up to it was insane and the show was very ambitious and involved waking up really early. It was 10 until 5.

Did everyone play?

Everyone who was supposed to played. But not everyone on the compilation, no. It was wild. There was terrible coffee. We had excellent food. Two days before that I helped assemble food with Todd Lawrence-Parsons, who’s an excellent vegan cook. We had millions of bands. We had piles of junk to sell. It was an overwhelming experience for me. I don’t know what other people felt about it. I remember feeling mostly annoyed by the things that I had to fix the whole time. I remember the night before I went to bed really early because I need a good night’s sleep. Then in the middle of the night, [roommate] Owen [Pallett, Final Fantasy] broke into my room, ‘Steve, they need to hear the Hank record!’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? Who does?’ There was an Expensive Shit [DJ night] the night before, and [DJ] Luca, who was our other roommate, didn’t bring the first Hank CD, Ackril Venning. So Owen decided he would go home and scream at me about it. I said, ‘You dumb shit. Get the fuck out of my room! You stupid, stupid shit!’ I was so angry. Basically I stayed up all night stewing at how pissed I was at Owen. Then I got up at 6 and started dragging stuff to Cinecycle. Martin [of Cinecycle] was very patient, he was great. No complaints about Cinecycle. But I’m not the right person to ask about that. To me, it was chaotic and overwhelming all the time. I remember that I didn’t work out the stage plot stuff very well, so there was too much gear swapping and moving around, which was really dumb on my part.

When it came out, the title alone, did it appear inevitably self-congratulatory to people outside of Toronto? Could they not help but act a bit defensive?

It definitely didn’t sell too well outside of Toronto, in Canada. In the States, no one gives a shit either way. In Canada, everyone hates Toronto, right? I don’t know if it seemed self-congratulatory, or whether it was more of the awesome fact that they hate to know about all the time.

I remember when Barcelona Pavilion played Montreal for the first time, you were all wearing tacky Toronto tourist t-shirts. This was at the Brave New Waves show.

I forget that show entirely. We were all sick and in lousy shape. I remember that being the worst show ever. At our Pop Montreal show there, most of the people there who weren’t French speaking were from Toronto, expats who now live in Montreal. I remember doing a shout-out to the various surburbs of Toronto during the show, which really angered Efrim Menuck [of Godspeed, Silver Mt. Zion].

Who's from Toronto!

Yeah, he went to Rosedale High School. Sorry, Forest Hill Collegiate. He went to school with Matias. He said, ‘You’re not in Toronto anymore!’ I forgot how the heckle went down. But the Brave New Waves show sucked, and we knew it, and it was recorded for posterity and broadcast and it made my flesh crawl.

Recently, googling the word and researching this article, I came across references to several external movements that transcended the geographic origin of the term.

I don’t think there’s anything definitive about the idea of Torontopia or Victopia or whatever. In a way, what’s hurt indie rock so much is that it’s not related to punk rock anymore at all. Most of the American Analog Set or Death Cab for Cutie school of indie rock is so divorced, not only in its sound but in its production and goals, from punk rock that it’s really just regular pop music. Whereas something like Yo La Tengo, at least there is that connection to punk rock even if the music doesn’t happen to sound like punk rock anymore.
There’s a long tradition of that anyway. How many Crass albums actually sound like punk records? Two. Then they have this totally weird art rock phase that ends up with a ten minute instrumental on the last record about quitting your band and giving up. How wild is that? But they’re a punk band for sure.
It’s the separation from punk rock goals. One of the things about punk rock that’s pretty rad is when Maximum Rock’n’Roll does scene reports, and everyone’s scene is the best scene. It’s not about DC or Olympia, it’s about Columbus, Ohio or whatever and that’s all there and the understanding that there’s a network of these things existing. That’s what lacking from contemporary indie rock. There was a time when there wasn’t much of a difference economically.

When you talk about ‘every local scene is great’ there’s something refreshingly mundane about that. People’s answers are always the same throughout the years, no matter whether you’re talking about Halifax or Winnipeg or Guelph or Victoria. They say, “We’re so isolated here and there’s nothing else here to do, so because I live in Winnipeg I’m going to make the most fucked-up electronic music I can.”

In Canada it’s different than the States, in that the claim of geographic isolation has a lot more play. It’s much more true. In Winnipeg, there really isn’t anything going on for eight hours around them.

I’ve heard people make the same argument about Toronto being isolated too, which I don’t really buy, myself. Toronto isn’t isolated. Toronto just has this huge self-negation because they know everyone in Canada hates them. Most people who move here do so somewhat reluctantly. Combine that with the ridiculous boosterism of the world-class crowd…

You’re on to something there. A weird negation plays a large part in the Toronto psyche, exhibited by its insecurity and financial power that allows it to put douche extensions on the ROM. ‘We have this great institution—let’s destroy it by putting a large crystal on top of it.’ Why are you doing that? ‘Because we feel unsure of ourselves.’ That’s so Toronto.
The thing with Toronto is that especially if you’re from here or doing music here, it’s a really small town. There are two giant high schools, Central and Northern, with a population of several thousand each. Between those two, if you grew up here, you have a one-person connection to just about everyone else your age in the city. Invariably, people who go to those shows come from all over the city for specific programs … I’d go to band camp every summer, and I was really interested in art schools on the periphery of Toronto. From any of these hub high schools, there would be a group of kids who would splinter off and go to alternative schools. It’s a small town. If you grow up here, you can know a significant connection to everyone your own age. This happens to me all the time now. I run into people from high school a lot, and people who recognize me from there. People I didn’t know then.
In that respect, Toronto is a really small town if you’ve only ever lived here. And everything coming through here when I was a kid was disgusting, like I Mother Earth…

Coming through here or coming from here?

No, from here. All the bands would come through here, sure, but they’d only come to a Lee’s Palace type venue. They wouldn’t email you and say, ‘You like music, do you want to put on my show?’ Not that there’s anything wrong with being a commercial show promoter, but it’s removed from the immediacy of a scene that handles these things, professionals that handles these things.

So when someone says ‘we’re all alone here’ or some variation of that: we are all alone here, in the center of evil in Canada, in the heart of darkness. We’re regular guys who feel a part of an extended neighbourhood, you’re connected to this place and these people, and then there’s this other stuff that has nothing to do with you that runs the whole thing and represents you to the outside world. So that people say, ‘Oh Toronto, that’s where Our Lady Peace is from, or the Barenaked Ladies are from.’ Actually the Barenaked Ladies are kind of a touchy subject, because they actually were a grassroots thing. I mean, they’re terrible, but it is what it is. You can’t say, ‘those jerks!’ But Our Lady Peace is a good example. So yeah, and Toronto is where the MuchMusic building is. And we say, ‘Yes, this is where the bank is who made the decision to close all of your farms. We’re from the place where some guy in a blue suit fucked up your fishery and then closed it. It’s got nothing to do with us.’ So here we are in this small town knowing each other, but at the same time it is the biggest city in Canada but all that stuff is fighting us.

I wanted to ask you about Berlin. I know that at one point you wanted to move to Berlin, but after going there you found all these amazing venues but it didn’t have the bands to support it. Then you came back to Toronto…

And found it was actually so much better. In Berlin, everything was really easy to do. They had surplus infrastructure. It was cool, too, it wasn’t a bunch of empty strip malls. It was crazy communist junk that you could inhabit; they were begging for economic redevelopment in 90 per cent of those areas.

They’d say, ‘If you open a shop on this street, the Chamber of Commerce of Berlin would pay all of your bills for six months.’ So guys had all these dumb businesses that were cool, but there was nothing riding on it. If their sweatbands-only store failed, they’d start a headbands-only store and see how that went. Or they’d start a record label.

I went to a lot of small shows. My goal wasn’t to see Peaches in Berlin. I got enough of Peaches when she was in Toronto. I was there for six weeks, and for the first two weeks I picked up every flyer and checked everything out. And I met people who brought me to other things. There was a really healthy older, improvised, avant-garde music scene, which was to be expected and what I was interested in.

In terms of bands, I went to a festival similar to the Toronto is Great festival, which is held in an old washing machine factory just outside of Berlin. Lots of those bands weren’t from Berlin. Or those that were were things like the Puppetmastaz, which was pretty good. There was this band Puma, and I would be proud to see a band like Puma anytime. Puma was amazing. It was these two sisters who always broke up the band, always fighting. The thinner, prettier one, and the frumpier, dark-haired one, and this guy Jan who played drums. The sisters were always saying it was their last show ever. They were the best, but they were the only band that was actually like anything from Toronto. They were the only band that anyone was really excited about, because they were head and shoulders above the other bands.

When you went to Berlin did you have fantasies about what it would be like? Were you down on Toronto at the time?

I was getting more mature about Toronto. I used to think that I would get the fuck out of here as soon as I found a university program that would get me out of here, or as soon as university was done.

What turned it around, the Hidden Cameras?

To an extent, sure. But my going to Berlin I think was before I was in the Hidden Cameras, or just at the same time. Was I in the Hidden Cameras in 2001?

You were. I saw you with them in the fall of 01.

Yes, I was. That’s right. I was in Berlin and missed them playing their first Pride show. So to an extent it was the Hidden Cameras, and it was also realising who was around and what all these people were like and how awesome it was that we all lived in a village together, and that village was full of wicked, awesome people.

Also realising what proximity to all these institutions means. The isolation argument is not true. You can read any book here, look at whatever art you want, if you wait long enough, any painting you want to see will drop by. Any foreign movie you want to see, you eventually will. Now that I spend a lot of time in New York, I appreciate the convenience of Toronto because sure, New York has everything you want, but it’s so much more work to get it. It’s somewhere in this gigantic metropolis. In Toronto, it’s all about a twenty-minute bike ride away no matter where you are. It’s convenient.

I was coming to appreciate the world I had here. It was too easy for people to do stuff in Berlin, so nothing was riding on any of it. Stuff could collapse if it needed to.

Is that not true of half the bands on Toronto is the Best?

Hmmm. Yes and no. I wouldn’t say the motivation for starting a band here is because you couldn’t open a sweatband store. A band is easy to do, and if you’re going to start and stop one, then fine. But more ideas and less opportunity means you get better stuff; you get the best ideas. Whereas lots of opportunity and few ideas doesn’t help you out at all. The best DIY stuff I saw in Berlin was all outside of music, like squats that have been running for 20 years.

I wanted to ask about infrastructure. You were talking before about flare-ups in Toronto, and how things start and then stop for whatever reason, people get burnt out or whatever. Whereas Blocks is trying to not only tap the energy that’s going on now, but set itself up as something sustainable and not linked to one or two people.

That’s a conscious choice. The idea to make a thing that will be a long-term thing to counteract the fact that historically that’s not how things happen here. Maybe in doing so, strike the first blow against evil that will sustain itself. That’s the reason to do anything, to do better rather than worse. I like to frame it in really simplistic terms like battling evil.

Thanks, George.

Yeah, it’s obviously more complicated than that. Having a reductive and simplistic way of thinking about things clarifies how you feel about stuff. I think acknowledging too many layers of complexity leads to you making excuses to yourself to do stuff that you would never have approved of doing a month before. Keeping a solid idea of what’s right and wrong, although limiting in many respects, is really key to actually making this work and not fuck up. The goal is a long-term goal. I’d like there to be a Blocks for decades. If I give up, or if I don’t get things set up properly and then I move on—which should happen eventually—and then the next person gives up, it would be a bigger failure because it would be a failure of a projected long-term project.

Are there parallels to small presses and other artist institutions?

We manage to sustain that kind of stuff in Toronto, with stuff like YYZ which has been around forever, and Coach House Press, and things that gain the status of institutions.

Do you think it’s the trivialization of music that has prevented this from happening before? Literature is a recognized art form, whereas indie rock is a bunch of slackers with Casios.

Part of it is that music isn’t real. Music is automatically time-based and over once it’s done. In that respect, the idea of a recording industry is not the same thing as a book publishing industry. The shape and structure of text as a form has been longer, and up until very recently, books are books. It’s a totally different deal. Art is art, and it’s equipped with presence and this thing is often bound up in a specific object.

Music is something people do, it’s a social activity. Recordings are this novel invention of the 20th century to present or promote this social interaction. Therefore they don’t have object status of themselves. They had more object status when they weren’t immediately reproduceable, as analog media. But now with digital media they’re right where they belong as being ephemeral.

There shouldn’t be a recording industry, and it’s not in anyone’s interest that there be a professional recording industry. Not in any musician’s interest, anyway. It’s in the interest of entertainment lawyers. Music is a social behaviour, it’s hive stuff. The kind of stuff that aliens are watching us for as an interesting behaviour: ‘What are they doing this for?’

[We then spoke for about another 20 minutes on the social nature of music and its relation to the so-called music industry. I didn’t transcribe this because I knew it had nothing to do with the Torontopia article I was writing. Perhaps one day I’ll revisit this conversation for the purposes of this blog.]

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

technorati is here!

The Awkward Stage

I've been a huge fan of Mint Records for years--15, I'd say--though I have to admit that I haven't been terribly thrilled with many of their new signings in... oh, say, the last five years--which is an eternity in the music scene. There have been promises made: I quite liked a few songs of The Organ until the sameness of their album started to grate and it was obvious they were going to milk the one trick they had for at least three whopping years; I also think Immaculate Machine have a lot going on, but they don't quite do it for me yet.

Okay, further caveats: Post-Shadowy Men project Atomic 7 are amazing. The Buttless Chaps are a great live band, as are Novillero, but the albums don't do much for me lately. Fact is, much of Mint's rep still rests on the New Pornographers, Neko Case and Carolyn Mark (the latter, I'm convinced, is finally about to get her due, thanks to an increased European touring schedule and her ridiculously entertaining Hootenanny project).

Which is why it was with as much relief as excitement that I greeted The Awkward Stage, a project for perennial sideman Shane Nelken, whose most visible gigs have been with A. C. Newman and Sparrow (both Zumpano spin-offs, if you will); he was also in Vancouver Nights, one of the overlooked gems of Vancouver's thriving pop scene (their debut album featured songs by both Newman and Dan Bejar, as well as Nelken and singer Sara Lapsley). (Destroyer fans take note: his song for this band--one of my favourites of his--is the free MP3 download at the link above.)

The album cover intrigued me immediately: it's one of the rare instances where the cover image actually conveys much of the music inside. As we can see, Nelken is older, greying, and a bit of a nerd (the inside image has him wearing velcro shoes with his tux), which combined with his resume would accurately suggest that he's into the Costello/ Lowe/ Hitchcock school of pop songwriting. And Carl Newman didn't hire him just for his looks: Nelken has a similar melodic sense to Newman, though his music is much less dense and more lyrically-focused (or more literal, anyway) than Newman's, making it a different beast entirely.

As we can also see from the cover, he's clearly hung up on some teenage issues, and the album wades through fading trails of adolescent angst and their modern manifestations that haunt us every day of our advancing age.

In other words, this is music that's perfect for 35-year old men. I'm sure others will enjoy it too.

The Awkward Stage are on their first cross-Canada tour now: check here or here for dates. They play a free show at the Horseshoe in Toronto tonight at 9.45 (on a very strange bill--they're followed by the metallic thunder of Bionic). There's an equally free in-store at Six Shooter Records on Queen E. (very east, past Pape) at 6pm. If you don't live in Canada and are bound for CMJ in NYC next week (as am I) you can see them on November 2 at Union Hall in Brooklyn as part of the Mint showcase.

If you don't have time to wade through my conversation with this very amusing man, you can hit up the highlights in The Awkward Stage article that ran in Eye Weekly here.

Awkward Stage, Shane Nelken

October 12, 2006

Setting: phone. He was driving to the second date of his national tour in Red Deer, Alberta, and was calling from a mechanic’s where his van had just broken down

You play most of the instruments on the album, so is this a band or is it just you? Did you play around Vancouver before?
I played some shows around Vancouver, but it’s always been a rotating cast of musicians, whoever is available. For the next month, however, this is the band.

Which is who?
I have Josh Lindstrom on drums. He plays in Precious Fathers and Battles and Bonaparte [the latter is a new Dan Bejar project]. Shaun Brodie plays trumpet and various percussion instruments and glockenspiel. He and I played together in A.C. Newman. Then I have two very talented girls: Janine Leduc on piano, and Faye Mallett on guitar. They both sing harmonies with me.

To the best of my research abilities, you’ve been a member of the following Vancouver bands: A.C. Newman, Vancouver Nights, Tennessee Twin, the Come-Ons, the Buzzards, the Blue Lodge Quartet, Ronnie Hayward Trio. Did I miss anyone?

Sparrow. There’s probably quite a few others, but I don’t know if any of them are worth mentioning.

Did you contribute songs to any of those bands?

Yeah, to almost all of them, or at least assisted with arrangements. In the case of the A.C. Newman record, I was hired to play whatever and help him flesh out ideas. Sparrow, same thing, I just helped with arrangements. All those other bands I wrote original music for. A lot of the bands I’ve been in have been genre-specific bands, and I was amassing these songs that were songs for songs’ sakes, just melodies and chords. They were the most representational of me, and I thought I should find the time and discipline to make a record like this. I was a little surprised that it came out so poppy. I thought it might be stranger. Maybe the next one will be.

Is that because of the lyrical content? Were you surprised how pleasant the music sounded?
I just thought that once I gave myself the freedom to do whatever I wanted, maybe it would be a bit more bizarre sounding. But these are the songs that came out. And I’m pleased with it overall.

You said this material represents you well. When I read the lyrics, I see tales of anorexics, psychopaths, vengeful circus animals, deluded paranoiacs. What, if anything, do you have in common with these people?

Both my parents are psychiatrists, so that’s where a lot of that comes from. I guess there’s some familiar territory I keep returning to. Living in East Vancouver I come across a lot of psychotics and circus animals just wandering the streets. It’s funny how it just doesn’t phase you, either. ‘Oh, look at that—an emu.’

In some ways, these lyrics read like a Barbara Gowdy short story collection or something.

That might be a bit of a Tom Waits influence, I suppose. I like how he’s cinematic in his writing, he makes little movies. I’m probably represented in all of those songs, even if it’s not a literal thing. Observations about myself or other people work their way in there.

Do you relate somehow to dancing elephants? Is there a parallel there to the role of a sideman?

Yes, I do, quite a bit, I relate quite a bit to a sedated, repressed circus elephant. Aside from a weight problem, there are other reasons, too. From time to time I definitely feel the links of the shackles coming loose and I feel ready to tear up a pre-school. That’s definitely in there.

Is Carl Newman the whipmaster?
Possibly, he may be partially responsible for those feelings. No, I played for Carl a demo of ‘The Morons Are Winning’ and he was a fan of that. It’s probably the song most like one of his own on the record. He was probably an influence, at least on the falsetto chorus. Our sensibilites are similar to begin with, which is why he hired me. I don’t know if he’s heard the whole record. I haven’t heard from him in a while; he moved to New York.

With your extensive resume, who have you learned the most from, either from their mistakes or their successes?

I really try and learn from everybody. I can even learn from people I give guitar lessons from who know nothing, from the questions they ask. I’ve definitely learned a lot from people like Carl Newman, Kurt Dahle and Neko Case. Everybody I play with I think I can learn from. No matter how good you get, you can always learn something from the people you play with.

Now you’re a bandleader, though, and you can tell everyone else what to do.

That’s right. I’ve definitely learned what not to do on tour, how to get hated.

Care to share?

I did a couple of tours with Ronnie Hayward across Europe that probably shed years off my life.

How so?

Oh, my goodness, if there was a worse way to do something, he would find it. It was basically like doing a gruelling nine weeks with a schizophrenic grandparent. That’s pretty much what I would liken it to. He was really nasty. One thing about touring---for people who’ve never done it—is you realize whether or not you can do it immediately. The people that can’t do it, it’s just a nightmare. For the people who can do it—things that are happening to me right now with this van breaking down—you just gotta be able to roll with whatever comes and not get too upset. There are some people who behave in a way that when things are lousy, it’s like they’re the only ones who are undergoing it. They’re the only ones it’s happening to. As long as you try to keep positive and deal with whatever comes along the best you can. It’s these things I even miss when I’m not on tour. Vans breaking down and weird things happening.

Really? You could just hire someone to sabotage your van at home randomly, and it would be like being on the road.

Exactly! I should try that.

One of my favourite lines on the record is in the song “I Drive,” the chorus of “Love must test out its mettle alone on a freeway.” I like the concept of your love being tested not when you’re actually with the person, but when you’re alone.

Well, thanks. That was a song that was written on tour with Carl Newman. I was driving the RV late at night. It’s a feeling I’ve had all my life when I’ve toured, that if something were to happen to me right now on this lonely, god-forsaken stretch of highway, that it might be weeks before anyone even found me. I’m driving and knowing that I’m responsible for all the lives of the people sleeping behind me, and trying to stay awake. The thing keeping me awake were loved ones back home: my girlfriend, my dog, whatever. It’s very lonely at times, knowing that if something were to happen, no one would know for a while.

How is your love doing on this tour? I know it’s early.

So far it’s good, other than this little snag we’ve hit. I’m standing in a dealership with my fingers crossed. We all get along great. I selected people based on their musical ability and people I thought could be very complimentary in the van.

You sing that you have “a thousand teenage hearts in my engine revving.”

Most of the songs were written around the time they were recorded, but that one I’ve had around for a while. It was tricky. For a while I wasn’t sure if it translated. You never feel more than you do when you’re a teenager. Everything is so intense when you’re young, whether it’s being in love with someone, or feeling the world is out to get you, or jealousy. The song was loosely based on a friend of mine I was really close with, who ended up in this teenage abusive relationship. This guy totally closed her off from her friends and her family and any support system and I never really heard from her again. The initial idea was that it was written from his actual viewpoint, as a viciously jealous teenage boy, but in the end I don’t know if it translated that way. Basically it was the idea that the feelings are so intense when you’re that age.

It’s the awkward stage, as we say.


That theme runs through several of the songs, as well as the brilliant artwork, which colours my impression of the record. What’s your relationship to your teenage years? Are you in a prolonged adolescence or do you have profound nostalgia for them? Are you working through all the issues from those years still?

I’m 34 now, and it’s evident that I will always be working through those issues. I really feel that youth was a war. People who pine for those years, I just don’t trust them. Every year away from my youth is glorious! I love getting older, I really do.

So never mind Mr. Springsteen, you’re saying these are the glory days.

That’s right. I did have a tough time growing up. I was miserable, like so many people. That’s the more common sentiment. There are a lot of pop songs that over-sentimentalize being young, but the reality of it is that it’s a nightmare. Those are the years that really shape you, they’re very psyche-warping.

Have you been to high school reunions?

No, I haven’t. And to be fair, if I was to go to a high school reunion, I’d probably just go to the field behind the school and take hits off of a coke can bong and shotgun pilseners off a chicken wire fence—that sort of thing.

Did you grow up in Vancouver?
Yeah, for the most part. I was born in Winnipeg and moved to a suburb of Vancouver when I was 9. I’ve been in Vancouver ever since.

Were you one of the White Rock kids? [ed note: this is a suburb of Vancouver that’s spawned many of the city’s musicians; contrary to appearances, it is in no way meant to reference white supremacism]
No, those were the more privileged ones, like Carl. When we stopped in at his mother’s house on tour, she said, ‘Oh, that’s where Carl kept his pony.’ I was like, ‘You were the kid with the pony!’ He said, ‘Well, it wasn’t exactly like that.’ ‘Well, how else could it be? Did you have a pony? Yes, you did. You were the kid with the pony!’ I was the kid without the pony. Most of us were.

Your characters are not only rooted in adolescence, but the pitfalls of prolonged adolescence.

Definitely. That’s the reason behind calling the band The Awkward Stage. There’s a song that didn’t make the album called ‘The Awkward Stage’ that includes the lines: ‘Forget your age/ forget you’re clever/ the awkward stage lasts forever.’ Those feelings of shame never totally go away. As we get older, we learn to accept a lot of the things we can’t change about ourselves, but we’re just one bad experience away from those feelings of shame and humiliation: the businessman who drops his briefcase and papers spill out everywhere, he’s probably instantly transported to that gym class where he gets pantsed or something. It’s always there.

Your parents are psychiatrists, you say?

My father is a psychiatrist, my mother is a psychologist family counsellor.

The phrase “awkward stage” refers not only to teenage years, but also those weird moments at the beginning of a relationship when you’re not sure what’s going to happen. It doesn’t apply to age, necessarily.

It applies to performing as well, as I’ve proved a few times.

It’s hard to imagine a more scathing character portrait than Hipster Darling.

It’s an amalgam of a lot of people I’ve known, including myself. I am fascinated with celebrity obsession, and that being our measuring stick for human worth and just how damaging it is. I have it to a degree as well, and I try and work on it and realise how empty and vacuous that pursuit is. I know a lot of people, and a few of them are girls—I’m really trying to guard against the much-plundered songwriting territory of the tortured female. It’s just so easy. But it’s also rife. Those lines do come from people in my life that I’ve known.

One of the things I like about the song is that there’s an equal amount of sympathy and scorn. The narrator obviously lends an ear to this woman, it’s a friend, and much of the song is taken up with the refrain, ‘I love you, hipster darling.’ There’s obviously some empathy there. But there’s also some absolutely vicious lines in there.

It’s true, I know. It comes from a very real place.

It’s certainly universal—we all know people like this, but were you at all worried about how people would respond in the insular Vancouver scene?

I know who has inspired those lyrics, and I wonder if others question. But usually the characters like those depicted in that song are not too self-aware. They’re usually pretty deluded, so I’m not sure if they’ll pick up on that. But I have felt that singing that song.

I understand your current job is at a crematorium.

It is. My touring drummer, Josh Lindstrom, he and I met playing as the rhythm section in Sparrow and became friends. He had been working at the crematorium for close to four years. When I got back from tour with Carl Newman I needed a job. I was actually calling Josh for a musician’s phone number, I needed a flute player. During the course of our conversation, he told me that they needed to hire somebody. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but my interview went well and I’ve been doing it for two years now.

It wasn’t a career you set out for.

No. Music’s been my career, and it brought me there. I had no idea I would ever do this.

Does it require a certain temperament or sense of humour to enter the profession?

It probably does. You have to do a lot of things to normalize the job and detach a bit. I always wonder if this job isn’t effecting me on some sub-level. It is surprisingly how quickly it becomes ‘just a job’ and I have to snap myself out of it. I don’t want to get too complacent about it. I want to remember that these are all people. I’ll be initialling the log book and then I’ll look down and see thousands of my signatures and boxes of log books, and it strikes me that these are all people.

It’s a very sacred thing to do that then becomes ritual.

There are certain ceremonies that really snap you out of that. A lot of the Buddhists really value what you do. You’re the last person to touch the casket and send their loved ones into the next life. They give you these envelopes full of what translates as ‘lucky money,’ which are red envelopes with basically a tip. I usually buy a lottery ticket with it, with the idea that if I won I’d make a donation to their temple. So far, no luck.

The afterlife figures into the album title, Heaven is For Easy Girls. Do easy girls really go to heaven, or do they end up like “Hipster Darling,” with their shimmer ever dimmer?

I think they end up in heaven. Nobody appreciates an easy girl like a lonely pervert.

I was thinking of how disappointed a suicide bomber would be if he found that heaven was full of easy girls instead of virgins that are supposed to be waiting for him?

Exactly—see how much better things would be? No 9/11! If only we just let the sluts have their day!