In 2010, when I informed my music-forward friends I was moving to Calgary, I was met, overwhelmingly, with eye-rolls. “What?” they’d sneer. “You’re going to write for their alt-weekly — something that’s supposed to celebrate local music?”
Then, they’d laugh: “Good luck.”
It wasn’t an exercise in rote snobbery. My friends, who hailed from large, eastern metropolises, were missing the point — and the context in which our city’s music exists. A recent Walrus story compared Calgary to places like Dubai and Singapore — not Montreal and Toronto. But apt as those comparisons may be, they don’t apply to our music scene: Calgary’s an exercise in isolationism, bordered to the west by mountains, to the south by Montana, to the east by endless prairie. In a nation notoriously difficult to tour, Calgary is among its most remote destinations. So musically, Calgary’s closest comparisons can’t, and shouldn’t be, giant eastern metropolises. They should be Halifax, Edmonton and Winnipeg.
Still, isolation minus talent is, at best, a sociological curiosity (a sentiment captured excellently in the Mountain Goats song, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”). Fortunately, Calgary has talent. And we don’t mean that in a back-patting, arts-scene circle-jerk sense, either — the three labels voted Best of Calgary have each achieved both local and national notoriety. So, how’d they pull it off? Read, friend, read.
1. FLEMISH EYE
What else can be said about Flemish Eye, a label counted among Canada’s most respected? Nearly every local (or ex-local) LP they’ve released has been essential, a trend it continued in 2011 with Chad VanGaalen’s Diaper Island, Jennifer Castle’s Castlemusic and Braids’ Polaris-shortlisted Native Speaker.
So, how’d it manage to capture international ears? By being really. Fucking. Good.
“It was always really important to us to spend lots of time on an album,” says label founder Ian Russell. “I find that if there’s more than one in the cooker, [another] tends to suffer. Also, I have a drinking problem.”
Yeah, us too. Nonetheless, the slow-crafted method has certainly worked for Flemish Eye, and it, along with its detailed packaging, has become a label trademark. (Although the handcrafted, card-stock-and-glue-gun manufacturing days of yore have since passed, with production now being handled by “North Korean dwarves.”) But, says Russell, as ever, there’s a single key to their success.
“It’s the ridiculous luck of having some very talented friends,” he says. Amen to that.
2. MAMMOTH CAVE RECORDING CO.
Mammoth Cave is perhaps Alberta’s most ambitious label. And rightfully so. Founded by Fist City’s Evan Van Reekum and Lethbridge’s Paul Lawton, it’s responsible for sculpting Alberta’s signature garage punk sound — right down to its in-the-reds recording aesthetic. Indeed, HoZac records’ Alberta fascination, Weird Canada’s ascent and Calgary’s garage explosion owe much to them.
“One of our key things, when we put out records, is picking bands who are ready and able to tour,” says Lawton. “A lot of bands are amazing, but if they don’t leave town, they’re easily forgotten.”
Lawton has a point; Mammoth Cave’s roster features bands with equal parts work ethic and talent: See Montreal weirdos Red Mass. Or Hamilton, Ont.’s hilarious B.A. Johnston. Or Lawton’s band, the Ketamines, which released a wonderful psych-garage LP in Spaced Out. Heck, they’re even reissuing Can-punk classics, such as Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planets’ Savvy Show Stoppers. And in the process, they’ve garnered plenty of national attention.
“We came up with our Bloodstains compilations [which featured Alberta, Ontario and B.C.], where we asked our favourite bands from across Canada to contribute,” he says. “We didn’t get many nos. That’s fast-tracked us in many provinces. And we have key contacts in community radio — CKXU helps distribute us to stations across the country.”
Their only misstep? Releasing a Grown-Ups 7-inch, featuring Fast Forward Weekly music editor Josiah Hughes. Terrible decision.
3. HOMEBREAKIN’ RECORDS
Here, a label which has no expectations of a nod in Best of Calgary. And that’s because its founders, Matt Dauncey (or DJ Neighbour) and Cal Bass, have largely been content with being low-key. Reaching a decade in age, Homebreakin’, and its sister label Punchout, have been quietly parading some of the best house, funk and disco music Canada has to offer — even when such genres were less-than-trendy.
“With electronic music, people’s tastes are narrow — [if they like a genre] they’ll find you before you find them,” says Dauncey. “It stems from vinyl origins — people would buy music from a label before even listening to the record.”
He’s right. In fact, many Homebreakin’ releases — Spilt Milk, MC Think Tank and Cut La What among them — earned loyal fans in Europe, Australia and Japan prior to gaining local ears. Dauncey and Bass had fans at home, of course, but the duo hardly performs — which is why they’re so baffled that they’ve been selected as one of Calgary’s favourites.
“When you’re just releasing music [and not playing], you don’t see if people are into your music,” says Bass. “But there’s been a huge turn for bass music. I didn’t think there was a new scene for new disco and house!”
Well, there is. But it’s comforting knowing that, once the EDM craze dies, that Homebreakin’ will still be spinning, as Dauncey puts it, “awesome music in warehouses.” Until then, though, Homebreakin’ is revelling in the attention.
“A big thank you for everyone who supported us,” says Bass. “Sometimes, it feels like an uphill battle in Calgary. But then, people come out of the woodwork to show their support. It’s just awesome.”