Features | Interviews

Weird Canada

By Jessica Faulds | 17 May 2011

When, last February, The Glow was nominated for the title of “Best Canadian Music Website” in CBC Radio 3’s Searchlight Competition, we found ourselves up against some heavyweights: Exclaim, Carl Wilson’s Zoilus, the, uh, Tegan and Sara website. The long-list of nominees was dauntingly, well, long, and surprisingly diverse, including newsy sites, record label homepages, digital music stores, and, of course, “pretentious, introspective gashwrap” (that’s us!). And while this entire contest was likely just another way for CBC3 to pass its endless airtime, in this strange mixed-media free-for-all, voters’ clicks may have had broader implications than just which website is the Canadian favourite. Perhaps it was not just about which website readers liked best, but what kind of website they felt was most worthwhile. Considering the limited time any music fan has to spend looking at the endless tumbls and takeaway shows and interviews and reviews that even a single release scatters across the web, how is that time best spent? What form should “Internetting” about music take?

Hearteningly, the results revealed that whatever readers want, it doesn’t hinge on a flash player. Weird Canada, a new site out of Edmonton, Alberta, focusing on digging up fringe musics new and old, won the contest over much bigger and flashier (pun acknowledged) nominees, perhaps proving that listeners are interested in enthusiasm rather than sophistication, and in locating and hearing the bands popping out of the country’s every pore rather than continuing to flog the much-buzzed ready-to-go-international Canadian scene that materialized in the wake of the Arcade Fire’s success (and promptly wilted when fame wasn’t actually forthcoming). Weird Canada couldn’t care less about hype, except for that which flows continually from themselves, and which is characterized by an unlikely blend of enthusiasm, humility, and gratitude. And for the third year running, they’re channelling all that good vibrational energy into putting on a touring festival, featuring many of the bands that they themselves broke to the public.

I should probably disclose that I also happen to write for Weird Canada, though I had no part in developing the model that makes the site so unique and good-natured. In fact, I found that I am apparently more cynical than site founder Aaron Levin and Managing Editor Jesse Locke, who both gracefully ducked any attempts I made in my questioning to stir up shit. Ah, well. I’ll always have the hatebag.

Jessica Faulds (CMG): First of all, a belated (and not at all begrudging) congratulations on the Searchlight competition. You really rallied the troops! How did you pull it off?

Aaron Levin (AL): Thank you so much. As you can imagine, we’ve been asked this question several times as of late, and we’re honoured to oblige each query. However, what I’ve noticed is that the more times I answer this question, the more I’m convinced that Weird Canada’s Searchlight victory was not our victory; it was a victory for the bands, labels, and individuals working ardently within the confines of this fringe music scene exploding in Canada. So, while we’re honoured to have won, we’ve done nothing more than turn our fanciful attention to something that was already happening!

And this is probably the key reason behind how we pulled it off. Early in the campaign Jesse Locke and I had a phone conversation about our nomination—what it meant and what our chances were of winning. We were up against very well established and respected publishers like Exclaim! and Cokemachineglow. However, because this was a popularity contest and not an editorial decision, it became clear that Weird Canada had a chance by leveraging our national focus and intimate relationships with all these marginalized artists. As publishers cover music with a wider appeal, their intimacy with the musicians lessens to some degree, especially if these musicians are doing numerous interviews and being subjected to handfuls of reviews. In the context of Searchlight, Weird Canada is extremely lucky to have very close connections with artists often being covered for the first time. As such, they really took ownership of the victory and this was a hugely determining factor.

Jesse Locke (JL): One of the main things that I think is special about Weird Canada is that the artists we cover are, in fact, 100% Canadian. There are other Searchlight-nominated sites like CMG, Southern Souls, and Said the Gramophone sharing lots of great music, but with the specific guidelines we have in place (1. Canadian, and 2. physical releases only) it’s helped carve out a highly specific niche and create a hub for this kind of activity. Because we’ve given lots of artists their very first pieces of coverage, that’s helped create a real following within the crisscrossing network of fringe musicians, music fans and small labels. These people all came together to help us run a grassroots campaign, with endless posts on blogs and social media, mass emails, and even some special videos created by Frank Ouellette and Emily Pelstring. I also heard about people voting on every single computer in different libraries, so that probably bumped up our numbers a bit.

AL: I also owe considerable thanks to Marie Leblanc Flanagan, who was instrumental in organizing and proofing the actual “campaign” details (posts, videos, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

CMG: What sort of impact has the CBC3 win had on Weird Canada? Do you have Grant Lawrence on Speed dial?

JL: The win hasn’t changed our approach in the slightest, but I think it might have legitimized the site in some people’s minds. We’re still a bunch of weirdos obsessively listening to cassettes, 7-inches and LPs and heaping hyperbolic praise upon them, but now we’re a CBC award-winning bunch of weirdos obsessively listening to cassettes, 7-inches and LPs and heaping hyperbolic praise upon them. One day Grant Lawrence will have us on speed dial.

AL: I maintained from the beginning that the impact would be marginal. At the end of the day, we’re still a publisher covering music that is challenging. It’s certainly exciting to anyone with an ear for the curious, but you’re not going to see Weird Canada popping up in the minds of the mainstream populous looking for background music.

However, the victory did establish us within the eyes of the media and established industry. Weird Canada is no longer just some pesky blog with a lot of pretentious adjectives and nonsensical writing; we’re now a legitimate voice for a thriving current of creative brilliance previously marginalized by the very organizations singing our praise.

In some ways it’s lovely.

I do have Elliott Garnier (CBC Radio 3 Producer) on speed dial. Grant won’t answer my letters.

CMG: Do you think you have had an impact on CBC3? I clicked over to their website the other day, and they were playing Red Mass. Plus, there was a d’Eon track featured on the front page! Have they been trolling throught the Weird Canada archives?

AL: I hope so! Wouldn’t that be fantastic? This is really our goal. We’re all just really enthusiastic about this stuff and to see it proliferating in the world is incredibly rewarding.

As I stated above, the Searchlight victory lent us some legitimacy, and therefore we’ve become another tool used to sift through the massive weight of our nation’s creative expression inundating writers and producers across the country. There’s no doubt that sometimes this will mean that particular artists we’re exciting about will cross that threshold.

JL: I’m always happy to see the artists we cover popping up in more mainstream spaces, and if the CBC3 programmers are trolling through our archives, more power to ‘em! It’s only a matter of time until d’Eon is on the cover of Rolling Stone and Gobble Gobble are touring with Lady Gaga.

CMG: Let’s go back to the beginning. Aaron, how did you decide to start the site? What were your original intentions?

AL: Prior to Weird Canada I had been collecting and dealing used records to supplement my income as a graduate student. The record scene in Edmonton was very behind places like Toronto, LA, and New York. Rare records were everywhere for the picking, especially beautiful and obscure Canadian records. The classic “psych monsters’ were still legitimately tough to find, but rare folk, singer-songwriter, experimental, disco, etc. were everywhere. Additionally, northern Canada and the prairies were still relatively untapped insofar as rediscovering vintage fringe. Through my travels I was able to find and share these records with the international audience for the first time. The experience was so rewarding I became very interested in this “rediscovery” and, eventually, with “discovery.”

After finishing my Masters I got a job at CJSR FM 88.5 as their Music Director. As it became more and more difficult to find vintage records and with my new job at CJSR I gradually became exposed to more of the new and emergent music locally and in Canada. My fervor for discovery carried over naturally into this new realm.

During National conferences for other radio Music Directors across Canada we’d inevitably get together and enthuse about the peculiar DIY musicians in our hometown scenes. It became very apparent that _a lot_was going on that just wasn’t breaking through municipal barriers. So, I looked around and noticed that on the Internet there were quite a few American blogs focusing on similar trends and soundscapes. I felt obliged to start capturing these emerging musicians in Canada with the purpose of exposing and recreating that sense of discovery I loved so much when dealing used records. I pitched the idea to Cecil Frena from Gobble Gobble and he sat me down and made me register the domain on the spot, and within ten minutes we had the site up and running. I owe a lot to Cecil for that move.

Certain decisions were made at that time that had a long-lasting effect on the site: clear/minimal design, easy-to-play mp3s in every post to allow the reader to decide if they liked the music or not, positive and enthusiastic expressionist writing, and a focus on physicality (with scanning each artifact to preserve this physicality). I had no idea at the time how impactful these decisions would become. In my eyes, they’ve truly defined the site.

CMG: Initially, Weird Canada was a one-man operation, with Aaron creating all the content and running the site himself. Then Jesse got involved as a contributor, and has since graduated to Managing Editor of a whole writing team. How did you guys meet and decide to work together?

AL: Jesse was living in Calgary at the time and I had met him through Cecil Frena while I was working at CJSR. His band Mt. Analog was touring with Calgary’s Puberty, and they had a show in Edmonton. Jesse is a naturally enthusiastic and wonderful person to be around so it was so easy to connect and get along with him. I can’t remember when our friendship made the jump to the level it is at now, but it seems like we’ve been friends and colleagues forever.

JL: Immediately after Aaron launched the site, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I’ve been writing about music and working as an editor for various publications for years now, but nothing has felt like a better fit than Weird Canada. While living in Calgary, I was heavily involved in local music—whether covering it, playing in bands, or putting on shows—and even had a super cheesy column for The Calgary Sun at one point called “The Scene” (their name, not mine). Anyway, I’m extremely happy about taking on the Managing Editor position, and just wish I had more time to devote to it in between my other freelance assignments. Aaron and I have become extremely close pals, and I’m good friends with almost every contributor, so the whole process is a lot of fun.

CMG: Has it been hard opening the site up to more contributors?

AL: Somewhat. I have a hard time asking people to do things for free and so I want to set up all these complicated systems to ensure all the contributors, editors, and volunteers know how valuable their work is. That part has been difficult. I want to be sending presents and e-mails and phone calls with every individual involved, because every review, interview, page view, or link shared is an incredibly rewarding thing for the site.

There is a fantastic amount of interest from writers, so the only thing holding us back from taking more on is ensuring they’re properly mentored and managed. Jesse was just the perfect person for this role. I’m so glad he’s on board.

JL: Everyone who contributes to the site is also part of their local music community in some other fashion, between playing in bands, running labels, putting on shows, writing for other mags or websites, or in the case of Paul Lawton, all of the above. As such, there seem to be more and more people interested in writing for Weird Canada all the time, and everyone does it as a labour of love. I’m paraphrasing Aaron here, but what he told our most recent contributor is that, “This is not music criticism or journalism. It’s musical enthusiasm.” I think it’d be awesome to eventually have people from every province on board to continue widening our scope of stuff covered. If you’re reading this from Nunavut, get in touch!

CMG: Weird Canada is becoming known for its frenetic, compact, hyperbolic writing style (Sample excerpt: “Aunty Panty’s digital halo debut is a dualic descent into derelict guitar destruction and vocal annihilation”). Where did the Weird Canada house style come from?

AL: Haha, good question! I have no idea! In the beginning, I wanted the focus of the site to be on musical discovery, with the written component to act as a guide. As such, I wrote very short reviews. But, I wanted the reviews to be fun, to create a spark of emotion in the reader so I could communicate my excitement over the artifact in question. This naturally turned into a frenzy of adjectives as I tried to communicate these strong vibrations of emotion that would course through my mental space as I digested all this crazy stuff people were sending me.

One of the Hobo Cubes reviews is probably the most ridiculous for this. That and the review of S E L F H E L P by THOMAS.

JL: This might be an obvious thing to say, but I’ve always felt that one of the best things about writing about different kinds of art is that it can inspire you to branch off into directions you never would have imagined otherwise. Byron Coley remains a big inspiration, and it’s why I turn to The Wire over any other music mag. Lester Bangs always looms large as well.

CMG: You’ve put on Wyrd Fest before, but this year’s festival marks a growth spurt. There’s a three-city multi-band tour, plus a show in Montreal. What are your hopes for the festival this year and in the future?

AL: Wyrd remains, for me, a physical manifestation of Weird Canada. As such, our (Paul Lawton, myself, Jesse, and Gabriel) main goals are always to reinforce the beauty of musical discovery. That’s the main focus. But we’re always trying to bring artists from coast-to-coast and create a unique atmosphere that patrons will experience nowhere else. This year I’m excited to bring three francophone bands to Alberta (a rarity). Breaking into Montreal is still blowing my mind. Like, how did this happen? The Jesse, Gabriel, and the people at Suoni are marvelous. Suoni is such a wonderful festival.

JL: I’m incredibly excited for the first annual Wyrd MTL, a 10-band, multi-stage night we’re holding as part of June’s month-long experimental music festival, Suoni Per Il Popolo. In my mind, it marks a major expansion of Wyrd Fest. That same month (two days before it, in fact) we’re also teaming up with Flemish Eye for a co-presented showcase as part of NXNE in Toronto. I hope these shows will both be successes so we can continue them as yearly events from now on. As for the upcoming Wyrd Fest dates in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, I’m convinced that they’re all going to be huge, crazy spectacles with a non-stop barrage of insane artists. Anyone looking for a one-stop shop for the music we cover should come out to these shows, and I’d love to hold them in even more cities in the future.

CMG: The Wyrd Fest website states, “We do not rely on known names and instead leverage Weird Canada’s ethos of discovery, encouraging people to explore new directions in Canadian music.” While you have incidentally booked a couple of semi-hyped acts like Dirty Beaches and d’Eon, the festival lineup is made up mostly of small, locally-focused artists. Also, the lineup order is totally reshuffled for every show, so that headliners of one night may open the next. Is it hard to organize a relatively big festival without big names? How do you help facilitate people’s exploration of new things?

AL: Hah, I booked Dirty Beaches before he received all this Pitchfork hype. But that’s besides the point. I would have booked him either way. He is such an amazing performer.

In fact, last year COSMETICS encouraged me to bring him to Wyrd II but it was too late.

It’s incredibly difficult to organize a one-day festival with 18 bands. For one, each of these bands, had they come to Edmonton alone, would be headlining a show. But with 18 bands, someone has to start the festival and play at 7 PM And! We also need to make sure people show up at 7 PM! So, I sat down with ex-CJSW Music Director Myke Atkinson one-night and started stressing about this issue. He came up with the brilliant idea that we form “blocks” of musicians and rotate the throughout the festival. In each block we made sure there was a performer with lots of draw (either locally or on the touring level) at both the beginning and end of the block. Then, we rotated those blocks through each day. So, each block had an “opening” shift, “middle” shift, and “headlining” shift. This provided a very fair way of ensuring each performer got a great show, an even better show, and a decent show as an opener. Additionally, since we put bands with draw at the beginning, we encourage more people to come early and check out those starting bands! I’m infinitely thankful to Myke for coming up with this idea.

It’s definitely difficult to organize a festival without big names. It’s just that much harder to get the word out. You need to rely on pure branding and reinforcing the notion that the festival is enjoyable because you don’t know any of the bands. You also need to price it accordingly, which makes it tough financially. At the end of the day, it always comes down to being organized and properly communicating with everyone your expectations. The number of times I’ve tried to reinforce “25 minute sets” is countless. I don’t want there to be any surprises.

JL: For Wyrd MTL, we weren’t as concerned with booking “big” names, as Suoni is essentially a festival for avant-garde, experimental, and generally much lesser-known artists in the first place. There are a few recognizable names on our lineup (d’Eon being one of them), but we mostly just wanted to book artists we liked. The Hobo Expanding Cult Band (a collaboration between artists from the incredible Hobo Cult Records family) is a special one-off for our show as well, so I hope that’ll inspire people to come out. Plus—like the site itself—one of our main goals is to expose people to music they’ve never heard. We’re also going to have a massive merch section from some of our favourite labels and visual artists, and a taco truck serving snacks all night. The latter should be reason to attend the show alone.

CMG: The term “weird” seems recently to have exploded all over the blogosphere and music scene. As I’m sure you know, Pop Montreal branded its 2010 festival with the tagline “Weird is the new Indie”, and bands of all kinds have been labeling themselves with terms like “weird’, “lo-fi” and “experimental” as everyone scrambles to escape the boring, milquetoast connotations of “indie.” How do you feel about weirdness’s sudden surge in popularity? Are you pleased or, uh, weirded out?

AL: When I named the site, I just thought that “Weird Canada” sounded infinitely better than “Eclectic Canada.” I’m certainly pleased that people associate positively with the idea of “weird music,” but I don’t take any of the credit.

JL: Weirdos of the world unite!

CMG: The site has gone from renegade startup to one of Canada’s music scene staples in just a year or two. Your growth has been huge, but you remain community oriented and operate largely on a grassroots level, acting as a mouthpiece for a number of diverse musical interests. Do you think you can continue to grow and maintain a close connection to small communities?

JL: I definitely think so, as there are new bands and labels popping across the country all the time that I get excited about. In Halifax alone, there seems to be another amazing skronky pop band (probably featuring a member or two of Long Long Long) with a new cassette out every other week. Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Sydney and, yes, even Toronto (yuk yuk) all have hugely unique and amazing local communities, and that list is just the tip of the iceberg. If anything, I think it’s only going to get bigger and better from here.

AL: It won’t be easy. Especially from a human resource angle. We don’t have paid advertising, we don’t want paid advertising, and the site consumes a large amount of human power. A good monetization (grants? store? consulting? etc.) strategy will be key to maintaining our community focus. The more time we can spend scouring the bowels of the Internet looking for wyld new music, the more we stay engaged with our community.

In step with the above, one of my main priorities is to start building tools to help our community collaborate, book tours, publish music, etc. The more tools we create, the more we become the home of fringe music and one big happy family. I’m really excited for the future.