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- Posted on Jun 24th 2009 9:00PM by Jonathan Dekel
To mark the launch of Spinner Canada, we're doing an in-depth series on the Canadian indie music scene that has, in recent years, taken the world by storm. In Part I we explore the foundation laid in the 1980s and '90s while Part II examines this decade's explosion and Part III will look towards the next wave.
Oh, Canada: An Intro
It may be easily forgotten in our current Age of Feist, but the turn of the 21st century was not kind to Canada's international musical reputation. The fledgling maple music industry had found its footing in the late '80s and early '90s with bands like Sloan, Tragically Hip and Blue Rodeo. But unlike Alanis, Sarah and Celine, these great Canadian indie/alternative hopes couldn't quite make it across the border.
The prevailing opinion, both nationally and abroad, was that Canada would remain relegated to vapid pop production. But in basements and lofts around the nation's biggest cities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – bands such as Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers, the Dears, the Stills, Stars and Arcade Fire were laying down the foundation for the musical maelstrom that was to come.
Ushering in an era where 'Canadian' was no longer a dirty word amongst music enthusiasts, the early aughts were a creative watershed. Led by a pair of flag-planting albums, Broken Social Scene's 'You Forgot It in People' and Arcade Fire's 'Funeral,' it seemed, for a while anyway, that the whole music world's eyes, ears and pens were pointed at the Great White North.
Today, as the Internet increasingly breaks down geographic borders, this movement carries on with another wave of Canadian talent being embraced internationally. Acts as diverse as Feist, F---ed Up, Tokyo Police Club, Crystal Castles, Thunderheist and Metric are continuing the charge of credible and innovative Canadian music -- and finding their nationality an asset, rather than the hindrance it once was.
What created such an explosive sea change? Over the next several weeks, Spinner.ca will examine the Canadian indie scene's road to success as told by the bands, label heads and journalists that have lived, played and documented during this extraordinary period. We aim to see if, as we enter the next decade, Canada's indie scenes have transcended their transient next-Seattle labels to become, alongside New York and London, preferred music suppliers to the world.
Part 1: In the Beginning [1970 – 2000]
"A while ago, there used to be something that bound Canadian music sonically -- and that was awfulness," begins Alan Cross, from his office perch high above Toronto's Yonge and Dundas Square. The radio personality, whose signature baritone has become Canada's de facto voice of alternative music history over two decades with alternative music station 102.1 The Edge, lets a slight smirk purse his lips.
"Before 1971, there really was no Canadian music industry. Artists like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and the Guess Who had to go to America to find their fame and fortune, because there was no fame and fortune here. There were few managers, few record labels, and few recording studios," Cross says.
"Before the Canadian Content rules were enacted, you couldn't get on the radio because you didn't sound as good as the other bands on the radio. But you couldn't get any better because you couldn't get any gigs or exposure because you couldn't get on the radio. It was a Catch-22 situation. So the Canadian content rules were not so much a cultural strategy as they were an industrial one.
"By forcing radio stations to devote 30 percent of their playlists to music of Canadian origin, it developed an infrastructure. We opened recording studios, domestic record labels; we weren't just branch plants of foreign labels. Eventually we got bands who had to sound, to get on the radio, as good as the best in the world," says Cross, pausing to let the point sink in. "It took a very long time -- at least ten years -- for Canadian music to reach the level of world-class talent."
Fellow Toronto journalist and author Stuart Berman, who recently published the definitive Broken Social Scene oral history 'This Book Is Broken,' agrees. "People saw [Canadian music] as this inferior product. I think that's rooted in our psyche. That [mentality] goes to the basis of the Canadian major label system, which is to find commercially viable acts that can then be exported abroad. So when you have that mandate of trying to nurture something at home and then pawn it off to your US or UK major label counterparts, you're gonna have to bring them something that's accessible to broad audiences.
"In the mid to late 80s, you had bands like the Cowboy Junkies and the Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies and Blue Rodeo. They were making music that was honest, but it wasn't necessary designed to appeal to audiences worldwide. The bands that were successful in the US were like Loverboy and Bryan Adams, mainstream rock music which sold a ton of records, but didn't have critical credibility per se, at least amongst the US indie intelligentsia. As a result, Canada was seen as a sort of pop factory. The biggest successes were very populist mainstream rock bands or singers like Celine Dion. For a long time there was a joke in US rock circles," Berman recalls, 'Oh, they're big in Canada? They can't be good.'
"There was no Canadian music I was listening to in 1992, aside from Eric's Trip," remembers Jay Ferguson of indie rock icons Sloan. "I used to rebel against Canadian reference because I thought it was cheesy. I did a [radio] show at CKDU in Halifax in the 80s and it was always a struggle to fill my CanCon. I'd play Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, which I love, but then it was like 'do I have to play this other stuff? I don't really care about it.'"
But in the early 90s, the Lollapalooza-led alt-rock uprising inspired Canadian indies like Mint and Sonic Unyon, creating a viable alternative option for homegrown Canadian talent. As grunge took over, the Halifax Pop Explosion, led by Sloan's signing to Nirvana's American label Geffen, prompted optimism, however short-lived, that Canadian alt-rock bands could break in the States.
"[Canada] had its own post-Nirvana era in the 90s where Canadian major labels became interested in alternative grungey rock music." Berman recalls. "You had Sloan and Treble Charger, Change of Heart, Hayden and hHead – a lot of those bands went on to sign major label deals. But, you know, it's a crap shoot and one out of a hundred bands that gets signed makes it and the rest get sent packing home. Sloan kept it going, but they were surrounded by break-up rumours. Then you had [Seattle label] Sub Pop signing bands like Eric's Trip and Hardship Post. But beyond a small cult of fans they didn't resonate on a mass level."
"We were on Geffen for the first two records, and they were gung-ho for our first album [1993's 'Smeared'], which had 'Underwhelmed' on it. They felt they could really work it on radio at the musical climate at the time," recalls Ferguson. "On the second album [1994's 'Twice Removed'] we changed to sort of a quieter sound, we turned the guitars down. Then we handed that record in and they said, 'We don't know how to market this.'"
But even if the Halifax scene eventually imploded, its Sloan-led community spirit would provide the blueprint for later self-sustaining music movements. "We'd be hanging out at our label [Murder Records] offices all day and Joel Plaskett would drop by," says Ferguson. "Rich Terfry [Buck 65] would be there hanging out and we'd be making posters and going to Kinko's. Super Friendz would be there, and the girls from Jale. To me that was the scene that I felt part of."
Besides, it wasn't just the Canadian indie scene. Alt-rock was in retreat all over. "Globally, the word of the day became electronica and the focus shifted from grunge to dance music," says Berman. "[In Toronto] there were still some bands around at the time – Danko Jones was a hotly tipped act and the Deadly Snakes were starting up -- but there wasn't necessarily a critical mass to support that."
According to the Stills' guitarist and songwriter Dave Hamelin, Montreal was in a similar situation. "It was a void. When we started the Stills, everything that was going on in Montreal was a NOFX punk rock thing, and we didn't fit into that. We just didn't feel we had any opportunities here. Two of our managers, both of whom were in a popular Canadian band called Me, Mom and Morgentaler, told us to get the fuck out of the city 'cause it would swallow us. So that's what we did, we went to live with them in New York for two months.
"When we moved, Canada wasn't regarded at all. It was like, 'Oh, you're from Canada, whatever. Who knows what that place is?' [The press] talked about the fact we came from Canada, but I don't think they knew what that meant," says Hamelin.
"I mean, I didn't even know what that meant back then."
Stay tuned for part two, featuring members of Broken Social Scene, the Dears, Metric and more discussing the rise of the Toronto and Montreal scenes that sparked Canada's indie revolution.