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- Posted on Oct 20th 2010 12:30PM by Jason MacNeil
The small port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia soon found itself on rock's radar thanks to indie-rockers Sloan, Eric's Trip, Jale, Hardship Post and Thrush Hermit, as well as labels like Cinnamon Toast and Murderecords. Several magazines, including Harper's Bazaar, dubbed Halifax 'The Next Seattle' after Sloan signed to Geffen Records for their debut album, 'Smeared.' A flurry of signings ensued.
Integral to getting all those bands recognition was the Halifax Pop Explosion, a festival which began in 1993 and has since become one of Canada's best taste-making music fests.
Co-founder Peter Rowan, who went on to found Pop Montreal with Dan Seligman, says the festival, which runs through Oct. 23, was created to shine a spotlight on what the East Coast scene offered.
"The beauty of the Halifax scene, at the time, was that it wasn't hype, there were a lot of incredible bands, so we were doing the right thing at the right place at the right time," Rowan tells Spinner. "We weren't trotting out these B-grade bands. Basically, you couldn't swing a cat without hitting somebody who was in a really good band and who was really motivated."
"Sloan was indicative, it wasn't an anomaly..." he continues. "The guys in Sloan embodied what Halifax was all about -- they loved music, they played in different places, they played in different bands. It's not like they were separate from the community, they were in the community. Everybody joyfully jumped in."
"I think there was a lot of attention on the region musically," Sloan bassist Jay Ferguson says. "There were always the East Coast Music Awards which recognized Celtic acts like the Rankin Family and Barra MacNeils and rock bands, but it wasn't concentrated on indie rock -- it was too varied. The Halifax Pop Explosion was focused on indie rock acts like Thrush Hermit, Eric's Trip, ourselves and others; it was very specific towards the independent or non-mainstream bands. And I couldn't believe that bands like Stereolab and Sebadoh were coming to Halifax to play!"
Singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett -- who played the inaugural festival as part of Thrush Hermit -- agrees. Plaskett says the festival helped "connect the dots" for music fans, bands and the media and change the perception that East Coast music was defined by a Celtic presence.
"Sloan and Murderecords in the early '90s had a lot of momentum and having a cool, well-attended festival in the early years helped solidify that," Plaskett says. "Attention comes and goes, bands come and go, press comes and goes, but once something is established, there's a precedent."
The origins of the Halifax Pop Explosion can be traced to Rowan -- who managed Sloan at the time and also owned Dressed To Kill Records -- as well as a small cast of characters, including band managers Angie Fenwick and Colin MacKenzie, and longtime Halifax club owner Greg Clark, then owner of the Double Deuce.
"We were conscious of trying to build this whole scene," says Rowan, who had previous experience running rock festivals in New Brunswick before taking on Halifax Pop Explosion. "The idea was to bring in these unquestionably amazing f---ing bands. 'Who is your favorite band?' 'Redd Kross is my favorite band.' 'Let's f---ing bring Redd Kross in, and let's put our bands on stage with Redd Kross.' When people come to see the show, they're going to be blown away by Redd Kross, but they're going to see these local bands, too."
"We wanted to present all these cool bands that were happening all over the place as our peers," he adds. "We were doing it to help promote our bands and our scene, and at the same time, we didn't have to travel to see Redd Kross, they were going to come here."
Plaskett says Halifax Pop Explosion gave music lovers a chance to see critically acclaimed acts like Elliott Smith, Sunny Day Real Estate, Meat Puppets, Peaches and Yo La Tengo in their own backyard.
"It's a real cool opportunity when a band comes to your town from elsewhere," says Plaskett. "It changes your perspective, because you think you may never get a chance to see them because they don't tour through Halifax on a regular tour. So it made sense that it got started at that point, because Halifax, in my mind, always had currency but it was being recognized."
Its name changed in 1996 to Halifax On Music before ceasing operations in 2000. But I=in 2001, The Halifax Pop Explosion was re-launched as a not-for-profit association that proudly showcased groups like the Arcade Fire, K'naan, Broken Social Scene, F---ed Up, Cat Power and Les Savy Fav before they were household names.
"We've got that history of being one to two years ahead of what is going to break internationally," current Executive Director Jonny Stevens says. "We're run by music fans. It's not necessarily what's popular, but what's fantastic. We're really artist-friendly; all the bands get paid, they get fed, they all get put up, they have fun, and they all get passes."
Stevens says some years have seen between 2,000 to 3,000 band submissions for roughly 150 spots, but on average the number is 1,000. The ratio of Canadian talent versus international acts averages about 90 percent to 10 percent and this year's roster includes the Hold Steady, GWAR and Torche scheduled alongside the likes of the New Pornographers, Tokyo Police Club and, of course, Sloan.
"Our goal is to present the best new music out there with a real local focus, and when I say 'local,' I mean the Atlantic Canadian scene," Stevens says. "We don't have a mandate to program Canadian bands, but it's just what's awesome right now."
According to Rowan, who resigned after the third edition, the biggest hurdle getting the festival off the ground and keeping it afloat was "trying to conjure up a half million dollar festival with $100,000." All the bands got paid, even though it came in some interesting way, including once paying the Super Friendz with slot-machine winnings.
"This whole process was traumatic, it was hard and emotionally exhausting," Rowan says. "When I left Halifax after the third festival, I was pretty sure that I would never come back to Halifax. It was so disheartening to see these things that were so obviously cool and great, and at the end of it being emotionally and financially beat. It cost us thousands of dollars that we didn't have -- somebody at the gear rental place [in Halifax] is probably still pissed off at us because we may still owe them $500."
While Jonny Stevens says the festival is on good financial ground and has grown to include some other events, the thrust of the Halifax Pop Explosion is still music. But everyone agrees, compared to festivals like Toronto's North By Northeast or Canadian Music Week, Halifax Pop Explosion can only grow by a finite amount.
"We're a smaller city," Stevens says. "[But] one of the things we really want to move into is free programming for people, some larger concerts. And maybe moving some of our bigger headliners into bigger rooms so more fans can get access to them. Every venue in the city is used, so unless Halifax grows by another half-million people, we will never get to Pop Montreal or North By Northeast size. I think it's about making the shows the best they possibly can be, instead of increasing the number of shows."
Meanwhile, Plaskett says Halifax Pop Explosion has another advantage because it's not primarily fueled by labels or industry.
"People don't move to Halifax to get signed," he says. "[Toronto and Montreal festivals] are put on the calendar radar for bands and management with the idea of doing business. I don't know if that's the case with the Halifax Pop Explosion. That's not to say there aren't cool people from the industry coming for it, there's a bit of that, but that's not the main impetus."
For some artists there's also a certain comfort level. Julie Doiron -- a solo artist and member of Eric's Trip, who performed at the fest in 1993 -- says playing Halifax Pop Explosion isn't as mentally draining as other festival dates.
"I always get stressed out at events like North By Northeast and CMW," she says. "Those are very chaotic and there are many, many, many, many shows going on, and it's a really big city. I find the Halifax Pop Explosion feels much more manageable and you can actually see most of the shows."
One of the highlights this year features Sloan performing their 1994 album, 'Twice Removed,' in its entirety. Ferguson says one of the charms of playing where Sloan started out is reflecting upon some of the unique festival venues they're performed in, including the Lord Nelson Hotel's old ballroom, which they played in 1997 on a bill with Yo La Tengo.
"Oh, that's right, I remember that now!" Ferguson recalls when it's brought up. "That was around the time we were getting our second wind, we came back and were releasing 'One Chord to Another.' I remember we hadn't played in a while and we didn't sound the best. But I thought it was amazing that here I was playing with Yo La Tengo at the ballroom of a hotel that I literally lived about a block away from growing up."
"Playing [Halifax Pop Explosion] was a privilege for us because we got to play and be almost like the home team," Plaskett says. "Like the tournament comes home and we have to represent."