Calgary’s rock renaissance (or not)

Part one : This ain’t no history lesson

With Chad VanGaalen on Sub Pop Women on Jagjaguwar Azeda Booth on Absolutely Kosher and The Neighbourhood Council rumoured to have a standing offer with Rough Trade Calgary’s young musicians finally seem to be getting international recognition and music fans are getting swept away in the excitement. It seems that Calgary’s been waiting in the wings to deliver its headline-making monologue for awhile now — at least since Feist hit it big and local media adopted her as Calgary’s indie rock darling. The question remains though is this increased focus on Calgary anything new?

Mike Paton guitarist for the Ex-Boyfriends along with producer and singer-songwriter Lorrie Matheson and Forbidden Dimension drummer and Exploding Pigs front man Mark Igglesden aren’t all that keen on giving history lessons. Still you can’t help but learn something in talking with them and a number of other musicians who have been plying their trade in Calgary and abroad since many of us were too young to know the difference between Morrissey and The Smiths. According to them the Calgary scene isn’t exploding or if it is it’s been doing so for decades. The whole truth of the matter is that “the scene” (and they’re loathe to use the word “scene”) is nothing but a cyclical and almost regurgitative process. The issue stems from the fact that the “scene as it was” has always been determined by the young or as Paton so eloquently states “24-year-olds hopped up on cheap Pilsner and the idea of romantically blazing virgin trails into unheard-of territory.” He may sound like a crotchety old-timer sitting on his porch yelling at the skinny jeaned hipsters but if someone’s going to give a history lesson why not people who were not only participants “back in the day” but who are still contributing members of said exploding scene? There are four things Igglesden Paton and Mattheson seem to agree on: a) things are different b) things are the same c) the music scene is fragmented and d) thank you Internet.

“The scene which has never been much of what people mean when they say ‘scene’ has been pretty fragmented for as long as I’ve been around” says Paton. “It keeps going through cycles. Every few years we see one dominant musical genre represented by a few Calgary bands getting hyped up. A few local taste-makers get all excited blab about it in print and in person and a certain easily led portion of the population follows suit and queues up.”

He mentions Calgary’s Red Autumn Fall as the trigger for the idea of an exploding Calgary scene in the mid-90s. Calgary audiences were going wild and the local press along with national magazines like Maclean’s were beside themselves dutifully reporting on the phenomenon. We were going to be the next Halifax albeit with a decidedly Britpop bent. Fast forward another couple years and the city’s dominant genre started moving over to garage rock. Now we have what some describe as neo-folk or noise-pop and again the hype is brewing that the Calgary scene is back.

Matheson agrees that the hype may be cyclical but thinks it may have more to do with the fact the music scene has always been about the kids. It’s the kids who buy the albums — or MP3s for that matter; the kids that write review criticize and blog about music. The thing that’s changed isn’t necessarily the characteristics of the local music scene but more so how we get our hands on music in the first place. Local bands aren’t solely influenced by what they can buy at their local record store and what they hear at shows. Now local bands can be influenced by the underground offerings of any city they choose with the click of a mouse. This in turn helps get Calgary music out into the world.

“Sure it’s a musical shift” says Matheson. “But it’s not just that Calgary has a cyclical scene. The entire indie music world is cyclical. I mean would we have ever heard of Women Azeda Booth or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah [without the Internet]? It’s not only Calgary bands that are getting noticed in places that they wouldn’t have before. It’s not about the massive media blitz anymore. It’s about some kid in Florida listening to his iPod.”

The thing we’re forgetting is that Calgary isn’t any different from any other city in North Amercia — then or now. Every city has their “next big thing” waiting in the wings of musical stardom but what’s changed things this time around from the heyday of Chixdiggit and The Primrods is one little thing; the Internet.

“The thing with talking about particular cities and their particular scenes is that it’s totally artificial” says Paton. “Geographical disposition especially in an Internet age of instantly accessible music from around the world isn’t a guarantor of quality personality or anything else relevant to good music; it’s an arbitrary angle for editorial pieces.”

It’s a game that is as old as the music business itself. Hype something enough and you can convince the masses that it’s worth it. At this point it may well be working in Calgary’s favour much to the chagrin of all who came before. It’s happened before though and it’ll happen again.

“I think this whole concept of one city spawning a multitude of great bands is sort of a music industry fantasy” reckons Igglesden. “Every city has lots of bands good and bad. I suspect the main reason people went bonkers in Montreal was that one big band attracted all the A&R guys there and they actually took the time to check out the other bands. I doubt if it had anything to do with the magical wonder of the Montreal ‘scene’ which I’m sure is no different from any place else. Maybe if David Bowie does a guest spot with The Dudes things will change for Calgary.”

Next week part two looks at the up and coming side of the local scene.