April 12, 2007

Strike a Chord North of the Bord, eh?

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I love being Canadian. And there are few things that give my Canuck heart more pride than Canada’s indie music scene. It’s a beautiful, interconnected, creative entity that defines the underground culture of Toronto and Montreal. A plethora of talented artists call these two cities home: Broken Social Scene, Stars, Wolf Parade, The Arcade Fire, Metric and The Dears. The majority of artists are linked: they play in each other’s side projects, record on the same label and show up to lend their talents to each other’s shows. Most of the artists in these bands were friends long before they had record deals. For example, many members of Broken Social Scene went to high school together and have been making music together for most of their lives. Broken Social Scene and all its affiliated bands can be best described as a large, close-knit family, and when you are in the audience at one of the band’s shows you get to be part of this special club for one night. It’s like being allowed into the coolest tree house in the neighbourhood.
Anyone who has seen a Toronto or Montreal show knows how special these performances are. You haven’t seen Broken Social Scene live until you’ve seen them play a Toronto show. Most of the band lives in Toronto, so when you see them in their hometown, it’s not just the band members who are touring, but anyone who is around, which often includes random friends and family taking the stage: a slew of talented people performing BSS songs in the raw. At my first BSS Show, seeing that many musicians (I believe they topped 25 on stage at one point) creating the characteristic multi-layered BSS sound felt like a religious experience. It’s basically watching a whole bunch of really close (and talented) friends jam together. It’s the best party in the country.
Members of BSS and their friends play at each other’s shows, making for amazing improv performances. The last time I saw Leslie Feist live, about ten Broken Social Scene members took the stage to back her up and at one point played an impromptu to performance of “Major Label Debut.” Pretty amazing. When I saw Jenny Lewis last fall, my friends and I spotted Kevin Drew and Leslie Feist in the audience and jokingly said that the only thing that would make the show better was if they got on stage, only to be surprised and delighted when Feist later added her vocals to Lewis’ performance.
BSS god Kevin Drew shows up everywhere, and he often lends his musicianship to performances by The Stills, Jason Collett and others. BSS has provided an abundance of awesome side projects (the first ten releases on the Arts and Crafts label were BSS and their other projects). If you like the more popular Canadian acts like Metric or BSS you should also check out Andrew Whiteman in Apostle of Hustle, Amy Milan and Evan Cranley in Stars, and the various solo projects of Milan, Emily Haines and Jason Collett.
Not only do Canadian artists encourage each other, but they are also supported by local media, fans, and the government. In Canada, all music stations and channels have to play 35 percent home-grown content, so naturally bands get a lot of publicity.
The scene is small enough, and dominated by people who are friends, that they have a dedicated national following. The government supports Canadian artists financially to record albums, and to make music videos. With the amount of support these bands get at home, they are able to come from a relatively small country and have global success. Most Canadian artists do not have a mainstream sound, but the financial support they receive from the government means they can still have the publicity possibilities that many bands on larger U.S. labels enjoy.
If you’re looking for a great place to see shows, consider the trip to Montreal or Toronto. I know people who go as far as Boston or DC to see shows who are missing out on the Canadian music experience. The drive isn’t very long (about four hours) and it is totally worth it.
Canada may not produce as many huge name artists as America, but the indie bands are making some of the best music out there. A country that supports diversity and culture has managed to foster a truly great independent music scene.
This scene could not be recreated in America, because there are simply too many bands, while Canada has a dense concentration in only a few cities, with huge local support. A combination of geography and musical ingenuity has created an awesome scene that makes my Canadian heart giddy with pride.