By Nicholas Jennings on Sunday, 31 December 1995
Category: Magazine

Cover Story: Canadian Rock Music Explodes

With his straggly, shoulder-length hair, torn blue jeans and red sneakers, Greig Nori doesn’t look like the sort of man to be wined and dined in elegant restaurants by smooth-talking business executives. But Nori, who is in his late 20s, is a singer-guitarist in a band called treble charger, one of the hottest new acts in Canada. And several major record companies have been vigorously courting the group for the past year with a series of lucrative contract offers. Although flattered by the attention, treble charger shocked many in the record industry last month by turning down all the big-league offers. It chose instead to continue releasing albums on its own Smokin’ Worm Records, the company the band created in 1993 for its acclaimed debut, NC17. Distribution will be handled by another tiny label, Hamilton’s Sonic Unyon. "Sure, a record deal may be every kid’s dream," says Nori, who is originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. "But we felt confident enough that we’re better off on our own."

An act of bravado or a sign of maturity? Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a young musician to turn down a major record deal. Now, it is an indication of how much Canadian music has come of age. In earlier golden eras, artists such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell had to go south to establish their careers. In the mid-1980s, Canada’s record industry could support only a handful of home-based pop stars. And they tended to be carbon copies of American and British performers - bands such as Platinum Blonde, Glass Tiger and Honeymoon Suite that seemed to be manufactured by the major labels for a largely unadventurous record-buying public. But all that has changed. While the country still produces its fair share of derivative pop stars, including Bryan Adams and Céline Dion, a newer, fresher Canadian sound has emerged, and it is attracting more and more attention beyond the country’s borders.

In fact, primed by the domestic success of such acts as The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and Jane Siberry, and the international breakthroughs of the Crash Test Dummies, Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan, Canadian pop is exploding as never before. The Crash Test Dummies have the biggest profile abroad, with sales of their second album, God Shuffled His Feet, at four million copies. As the record industry heads into this year’s Juno Awards, on March 26 in the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, a whole new wave of stars is in the spotlight - and continuing to win over music lovers. The albums of such groups as Moist, Junkhouse and The Tea Party are all selling briskly. Last year saw a record-breaking 95 albums by Canadian artists sell more than 50,000 copies each. Says True North Records president Bernie Finkelstein: "Canadian music is experiencing, quite simply, a huge creative renaissance."

Finkelstein should know. As manager for many of the top acts in Toronto’s Yorkville scene in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, including The Paupers, Kensington Market and later Murray McLauchlan and Bruce Cockburn, he was at the centre of Canadian rock’s first big heyday. But the current boom is distinctly different from anything that has come before. For one thing, it is more artist-driven as musicians educate themselves about the recording industry, at conferences like this week’s annual Canadian Music Week (it was expected to draw 1,000 music industry executives and more than 400 acts from across the country). For another, affordable technology has allowed bands, including treble charger, to make and sell their recordings without any involvement from the major labels. According to Tim Trombley, head of artists and repertoire for Toronto-based EMI Music Canada, the independent - or "indie" - movement has flooded the market with vibrant new recordings and fuelled the whole Canrock explosion. "There are at least half a dozen acts I’d love to sign right now," says Trombley. "You have to be out four nights a week just to keep up with all the new talent."

The frenzied activity in clubs across Canada is all the more remarkable because most new bands being scouted are playing exclusively original material. It never used to be that way. When The Tragically Hip started out in campus pubs around southern Ontario in the mid-1980s, the group played mostly cover versions of blues tunes by The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones. Neil Osborne of Vancouver’s 54-40 remembers the days when bars in his home town booked strictly cover bands. And Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy recalls that when his band was packing clubs along Toronto’s Queen Street strip, even as late as 1986, talent scouts were nowhere to be found. Says Cuddy: "Even if you called and invited them to your show, they’d respond with complete indifference. That just doesn’t happen today."

Struck by the success of groups such as the Hip, Canadian labels have woken up. The band’s latest album, Day for Night, has so far racked up sales of a phenomenal 500,000 copies in Canada and earned it five Juno nominations. Considered by many to be the best live act in the country, the Hip sold out its recent 20-date arena tour in just three days. The five musicians have proven that it is possible for a Canadian group to thrive without a big international following: so far, the Hip has failed to crack the U.S. market, although Day for Night, released south of the border on Feb. 14 (the band appears on Saturday Night Live on March 25), may provide that breakthrough.

In search of the Next Big Thing, many record companies have taken part in expensive bidding wars over the latest "buzz band," as the industry calls them. Already, some of the signings are paying handsome dividends. And the talent is coming from everywhere: from Vancouver, where Moist’s moody, melodic pop sound has produced double platinum sales of 200,000 for the band’s debut album, Silver; from Windsor, where The Tea Party’s mystical, multicultural strains have sold platinum; from Winnipeg and Hamilton, where The Watchmen and Junkhouse have received gold awards for sales of 50,000.

Many of those acts have benefited from national exposure on TV shows including the CBC’s Rita & Friends and Ear to the Ground. And MuchMusic, now in its 10th year of operation, continues to be instrumental in launching new Canadian artists. In the case of Moist, the channel actually helped land the group a record deal with EMI. MuchMusic’s airing of the band’s Push video, produced for a mere $1,100, led to a cross-Canada tour, which in turn sparked interest and an eventual deal from the label. Now, Moist is up for three Junos, including best video for Push. Similarly, Bass is Base, a Toronto trio that blends funk with rap and jazz, received crucial support when MuchMusic put its low-budget Funkmobile video into heavy rotation. That pushed sales of the group’s independent album to 10,000 copies and netted the band a deal with A&M Records. Says Denise Donlon, MuchMusic’s director of music programming: "Videos still provide essential exposure. But the technology is now available to anyone who knows how to use a camcorder."

Along with videos, the record industry itself has helped to create a star system in Canada. Virtually non-existent 25 years ago, the business has now grown to include more than 200 record labels, along with the six foreign-owned major companies: BMG, EMI, MCA, PolyGram, Sony and Warner. According to many in the industry, credit for that growth belongs to the sometimes controversial Canadian-content regulations, which the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission under Pierre Juneau introduced in 1971. The so-called CanCon rules, stipulating that radio stations must devote 30 per cent of their airtime to Canadian productions, have had their share of opponents, who claim that the regulations breed mediocrity. But now, even broadcasters have changed their tune. "CanCon’s had a huge effect," says Brad Phillips, program director at the popular Vancouver station Z95. "There’s a ton of great Canadian music around now - and it’s obviously selling."

The breeding ground for much of the new wave of Canadian talent can be found in clubs including Halifax’s Oasis, Toronto’s Rivoli and Vancouver’s The Falls Pub. On a recent Saturday night at The Falls, located in the downtown Hotel Niagara, local hard-rock band Duster was pumping out a barrage of raw, unadulterated thrash, to the delight of about 200 body-pierced, pink- and green-haired fans, who hurled themselves around the bare plywood dance floor. A former strip joint, the emerald-painted room features cheap beer, pool tables and a special touch for one segment of its young clientele: valet parking for bicycle couriers. It is now a mecca for Vancouver bands - everyone from punk veterans Art Bergmann and D.O.A. to such newcomers as cub, Meeca Normal and North Shore Blowout. Brian (Godzilla) Salmi, a Falls regular, believes the club is on its way to becoming a legendary venue. "It has completely revitalized the music scene," says Salmi, who has a regular column in the local hipster weekly Terminal City. "Punkers are going to be writing songs about this place."

Similarly, Halifax’s Oasis has become as popular with musicians as it is with fans. A recent show by Thrush Hermit, a rising Halifax power-pop band, attracted local grunge heroes Sloan as well as members of the worldbeat group Big Picture to the basement club. The supportive approach of musicians is exemplified by Sloan, who recently took local acts including jale and Hip Club Groove with them on tour. Says Frank Brady, owner of Dischord Compact Discs: "If Halifax was going to have a scene, it had to be homegrown. The bands help each other out. There’s a real nurturing community atmosphere."

Regular appearances in clubs throughout southern Ontario have helped treble charger to sell 5,000 copies of nc17, its album of ruggedly tuneful songs. According to the group’s manager, Michael Murphy, the record cost only $3,000 to make. It is still near the top of Toronto’s indie charts seven months after its release, and has earned $40,000. "They’d have to sell six times that amount on a major label to make the same money," says Dublin-born Murphy, who also manages Junkhouse. "And this way, there’s no record company to tell them how to dress or what niche to fit into. The band has total creative control." Jeff Rogers, manager of Crash Test Dummies, is also testing the indie waters with a promising new Toronto group, Rusty. The band’s five-song album, which includes the delightfully offbeat hits Wake Me and k.d. lang, an exuberant punk tribute to the Canadian singer, was released in December at a cost of $3,000. So far, it has broken even.

If independent labels are the driving force in the Canadian music industry, then 10-year-old Nettwerk Records has been the central indie thrust. In the 1980s, the Vancouver-based company launched the careers of Skinny Puppy and the now-defunct Grapes of Wrath. More recently, it has been associated with the emotionally eloquent Sarah McLachlan, whose latest album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, has sold more than one million copies worldwide. And the label has pioneered multimedia technology in Canada, releasing interactive CD-ROMS by McLachlan and the band Ginger, a group made up of former members of Grapes of Wrath, that include videos and interviews as well as music. Like record companies and artists across the country, Nettwerk is also establishing itself on the Internet, to give fans access to information about its artists and to a selection of musical tracks.

Nowhere in Canada has the indie spirit spawned a healthier scene than in Halifax, where local grunge sensations Sloan and the all-girl jale got the city tagged as "the next Seattle" two years ago by various American music magazines. Sloan, a young four-piece group, started its own label, murderecords, and has introduced groups including Eric’s Trip, Hardship Post and Thrush Hermit. Both Sloan and Eric’s Trip, from Moncton, N.B., are vying for Junos in the newly created best alternative album category. According to Sloan’s Jay Ferguson, the reason for Halifax’s flourishing music scene stems from its geographic isolation. "No bands come here, so you start your own band and start shows," says the 26-year-old. "Anybody can have a label - just put a tape out and you’ve got a label."

Inspiration for the thriving indie movement can be traced directly to Toronto popsters Barenaked Ladies and Stratford, Ont.-based Celtic singer Loreena McKennitt. Both acts released do-it-yourself cassettes and CDs and, through their own distribution networks, managed to sell the sort of quantities that make record company executives drool. Each now has a major-label deal. In the case of the Ladies, who sold an unprecedented 80,000 copies of their 1991 self-titled cassette, success has become a family affair: band member Steven Page’s father, Victor, who set up a small distribution company along with the group’s manager, Nigel Best, now runs Page Publications Inc., a pioneering operation that distributes tapes and CDs by more than 30 Canadian artists to record stores across Canada. Recently, 52-year-old Victor Page quit his teaching job to devote himself full time to the thriving business.

Barenaked Ladies, like The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and other established acts, has also helped to foster Canadian talent by exposing new bands to their audiences on tours. The Hip’s recent tour featured Vancouver’s The Odds and Toronto’s Change of Heart, a veteran indie band that recently signed a deal with Virgin Records. Craig Northey, a singer-guitarist with The Odds, praises the Hip’s generosity to up-and-coming bands. "Last year, they paid for us to come down to Seattle to see them play and then play ourselves," he says. "Then, they invited us to play with them on Canada Day at Molson Park in Barrie [Ont.]. It really paid off for us."

Such supportiveness seems quintessentially Canadian - as does some of the new Canrock itself, which reflects various aspects of the country’s diverse cultural identity. The Hip’s dark and edgy songs dealing with forgotten hockey hero Bill Barilko and drowned Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson are pure Canadiana. Both Sarah McLachlan and Calgary’s Jann Arden, a rising star with five nominations at this year’s Junos, continue the Great White North tradition of singer-songwriters that originated with such artists as Joni Mitchell.

But is there a Canadian sound? Well, there are certainly some distinctively Canadian acts - such as Toronto’s The Dream Warriors, a group that has created a West Indian-flavored rap style that has nothing to do with hip hop trends in Brooklyn or South Central Los Angeles. It is hard to imagine The Rankin Family, with its Celtic-influenced Maritime songs, or The Waltons, a Toronto-based band with its roots - and its heart - in Saskatchewan, coming from anywhere but Canada. Offers Finkelstein, who continues to manage Bruce Cockburn and other singer-songwriters: "We used to say it has to do with the big open spaces in our country. There’s a stillness, a coolness in what we do that’s inescapable." Dave Bidini, a member of Toronto’s passionately nationalistic pop group the Rheostatics, hears it in "the distance in the voice, the sense of place and the loneliness of the lyrics." J. D. Considine, a pop music writer for The Baltimore Sun and Musician magazine, cites the "strong sense of personal statement in Canadian music, a perspective that bridges the individual to the universal, that you find in the best work of The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and Crash Test Dummies."

Ultimately, the new confidence and prosperity has strengthened the voices in Canadian music: artists are not afraid to sing about who they are and where they come from. "Canadians are no longer sucked in by lookalike, soundalike bands," concludes Blue Rodeo’s Cuddy. "All they want to hear is music that’s honest and means something to people. Fortunately, we have a lot of that right now."

Maclean's  March 27, 1995