The first few times my Seattle-based band went to Vancouver, Canada to play D.I.Y. gigs, the city felt perfect.
Apparently, our B.C. buds enjoyed non-stop kick-ass shows with cross-genre bills and supportive crowds free of haters and assholes.
That’s all true, but it’s a bit more complicated.
While Vancouver is beautiful, its rents are high, its daily provisions overpriced. When not enabling puritanical liquor policies and corporate nightlife, local government re-writes bylaws to keep underground music out of sight.
The labor board’s latest ad campaign patronizes: “Hipster is not a real job.” An older one lectures: “Chance your music will get you signed: 0.00563%.” Many of those I’ve met live in creaky communal houses.
2010 documentary No Fun City chronicles Vancouver punks’ problems keeping venues afloat.
The struggle continues. For years, 19+ establishments had the option of temporarily closing the bar for all-ages shows. Last week, however, B.C.’s Liquor Control and Licensing Branch clandestinely banned underagers from such venues entirely. The new law takes effect today. (All-ages advocates The Safe Amplification Society — SafeAmp, for short — broke the story.) Days later, The Waldorf — a recently-refurbished hotel, bar and concert hall — announced its sale to condo developers. It closes Sunday.
Seeking solutions, Vancouver’s numerous micro-scenes descended last fall on S.P.A.C.E. Camp, a weekend-long convention curated by SafeAmp, with keynote speakers Ian MacKaye (D.C.’s Fugazi and Dischord Records), Calvin Johnson (Olympia’s Beat Happening and K Records) and iconic local video journalist Nardwuar the Human Serviette.
With live performances bookended by panels on everything from setting up shows to interviewing bands, learning music theory to building effects pedals, it felt like a lower-key, knowledge-based take on ‘90s Oly’s watershed International Pop Underground festival.
2012’s avalanche of awesome releases by too many Vancouver bands to name suggests a renaissance of sorts. More do-it-together than D.I.Y., it lives underground, in the bedrooms and basements where people write, rehearse and record, and the punk houses and multi-purpose art spaces that remain.
The city’s venues are still vanishing. Its rents are still climbing. But it feels like the artists are winning. So what makes this determined community tick?
Seven Vancouver musicians explain:
Eric Axen, 31. I moved to Vancouver a decade ago. I studied English literature and history… therefore, I work in a coffee shop. I have a two-piece band called Hermetic that plays melodic, energetic post-punk; also, Sightlines, a pop-punk three-piece. Both have been accused of being stuck in the ’90s.
Katie Caron, 28. I moved to Vancouver two-and-a-half years ago. My sisters were both here, I loved the beauty in the city, and wanted to be in an environment where people were more like me. I have a one-track mind — the only thing on it is traveling, and creating music. Right now, I’m writing and recording a new album with my band, Katie and the Lichen. I also play in Rooms with my sisters, Besh and Nicole.
Katie and the Lichen “Misbehaving”
Selina Crammond, 27. I moved to Vancouver eight years ago for school, and stayed for love of the local music and arts communities. I work at CiTR-FM and DOXA Documentary Film Festival, volunteer with SafeAmp, and drum in two bands: Movieland (four-piece fuzz-pop) and Haiku Charlie (three-piece mellow punk).
Haiku Charlie “Sweetie”
Dan Loan, 30. I moved to the Vancouver suburbs midway through grade 11. I studied psychology and literature, and currently support adults with autism in a community inclusion program… it’s beautiful, frustrating, terrifying and lovely. Two of my bands, Bad Fate and So You Think You Can Sleep, ceased to be… but I recently joined my favorite local band, Cascadia, so I’m pretty excited.
So You Think You Can Sleep “Non-Families of Granview Park” / Cascadia “Night Light”
David Mattatall, 26. I grew up in the Vancouver suburbs, where I studied life and networked computing. Now, I program computers, release records on Needs More RAM, and promote shows at The Zoo Zhop record store, my establishment. My musical project is called Robert Downey, Sr.
Robert Downey, Sr. “Asleep at the Switch” / Boogie Monster “Castle In The Clouds” (NMR-007)
Marita M-W., 20. I was born in East Vancouver, and still live there. I graduated high school in 2010, I work part-time as a shelver at the Vancouver Public Library, and am in three bands: Lunch Lady, Derek Wheeler, and True Crush. I sing, scream, play bass, sometimes ukulele, and sometimes drums.
Lunch Lady “Motherwort”
Tom Prilesky, 30. I spent my teenhood in the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam, studied audio recording and engineering, and work as a lab rat for an American company currently building a humongous bridge. I’m part of SafeAmp, I play in Get Real — dream-grunge, a la My Bloody Valentine — and make extra pocket change recording bands, making videos and working shows.
Tom Prilesky “A Question Worth Asking”
Where do you live?
Katie: I live in a house which has anywhere between nine and 14 people living in it at a time. Most are feminists and musicians… it’s a very open and creative environment.
Tom: I live at a record store that hosts three or four shows a week. We’re under constant threat of being shut down and evicted, so we walk a fine line of providing our city with an amazing all-ages venue, and not attracting too much attention.
Dan: Living the dream. A group of friends united to inherit a house… that was totally infested with bedbugs. A Vancouver rite of passage, it would seem. We’re so Vancouver now.
Describe your creative community.
David: Flexible, ever-changing, avant-garde and punk as fuck.
Marita: Our community ranges from old friends to siblings, best friends to acquaintances… between the ages of around 20 to 40… some musicians just starting up, others who have been in bands for decades. There is a pretty rad do-it-yourself, do-it-together ethic. We organize all-ages shows and play in a variety of genres, from lo-fi pop to math rock to hardcore punk to jazz to… I don’t know. We’re friendly.
Selina: The community I operate within is politically-minded and engaged, which I’m quite proud of. This past summer, I volunteered with a group of locals to put together the first-ever three-day Shout Back! all-ages feminist D.I.Y. music festival. Then there’s SafeAmp, made up of musicians and arts folks advocating for all-ages venue programming similar to The Vera Project in Seattle. Overall, it’s very inclusive. I have friends who are technically and professionally trained, and some who — like myself — are self-taught. It’s wonderful to see enthusiasm from both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between.
Is the music scene particularly strong right now?
Eric: It’s hard to say if there’s more going on than there used to be, but it’s certainly more than I can keep up with. Lots of great bands fly under the radar, and the whole scene has learned to exist in spite of that. Sometimes it’s frustrating how much talent goes unnoticed, but there’s also a liberating purity of spirit. Career-minded musicians eventually move east, while those doing it out of love remain. That’s a romantic oversimplification, but I really believe Vancouver’s best bands aren’t motivated by mainstream attention.
What are the city’s foremost challenges?
Eric: It’s expensive. Everyone will tell you that. Some may say it’s the price we pay for living in such a beautiful, temperate city, but the reality is it’s prohibitively expensive, especially for those wanting to make art. We have an insane real estate market driven less by supply-and-demand than foreign speculation, and a civic government unwilling to change that. There’s a genuine housing crisis, and artists are among those most affected.
Selina: Rent. It’s too damn high. Not only does this affect the day-to-day living conditions of my friends and I, it contributes to a real lack of cultural spaces. Cinemas are closing down left and right, and finding affordable, safe and inclusive music venues has always been a problem. Stable long-term employment is also a major challenge. I suppose it’s the nature of working in the non-profit arts, but it’s starting to take a toll on my mental health. I’m constantly worrying about the future, crafting resumes and applying for jobs when I’d much rather work on my own projects.
What do you love most about Vancouver?
Tom: Strangely, what I like about Vancouver is the very thing that’s frustrating about being here. The struggle and angst of a lack of venues and widening gap between affluent and poor is injecting a good amount of passion into the scene. Nothing is easy, so even a small success is worth celebrating.
Do you think you’ll stay long-term?
Marita: I think it’s important to create what you want where you are, and in some ways I like how in Vancouver there’s some form of struggle… but a lot of people my age can’t see much of a future here, with cost of living and the state of our city. It seems we share a dream of a fantasy farm life where we can eat vegetables from the garden, syrup from the tree… be loud, or quiet… host touring bands… do as we please. A dream life. I’m not quite ready, but someone’s going to have to take the first step eventually.
David: I’ll stay until I’m forced out by gentrification or city ordinance. I’ll move to Berlin then, I guess.
Obvious tension exists between Vancouver and its artists. There is both hope and despair — two feelings that, in tandem, intensify each other. The city wears them down, yet underground musicians are creating vital, passionate sounds and a scene with which they can identify.
These people aren’t anti-everything “hipsters,” much less can afford to be. They’re quite the opposite — in love with their city, their friends, and the music community that could be possible.
Click here for more of Steve Louie’s photos of the Vancouver music scene.