Strange Brew Vancouver's Weird Punk Scene Invents Itself
Published Aug 25, 2008Dreary, rainy, and occupied with a class war visible as you walk down the street, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has an oppressive, negative mystique that can drown inhabitants completely if they aren't careful. On the flipside, it's the sort of environment that inspires — almost requires — forward-thinking creative output. Beginning with D.O.A. and the birth of hardcore in the early '80s, the city's most revered musical exports have always sprung from the gutters, while names like Barney Bentall or Age of Electric are forgotten as soon as they cash their last royalty cheque.
Long referred to as "no fun city," pressure from police, a lack of venues, and no real support from the local media have made participation in Vancouver's music scene a burdensome chore. Aside from the odd band that makes it big and brings their side-projects with them, the city is not designed for live music, and bands that don't fit the cover-band mould have had a hard time finding a decent place to play.
Stricken by greedy promoters and over-zealous cops looking to break up the fun, the city's venues seem to disappear as often as they are created. It doesn't help that the bars are going through a cultural gentrification. Pub 340, once a thriving haven for Vancouver's punk kids to work and play, recently fired its entire staff to switch its focus away from noisy rock'n'roll. Similarly, East Vancouver's Astoria, once a seedy punk club, has built a new stage and switched its focus to DJ nights. "The bars will make tons of money, but what happens when that all fades?" asks Mish Way, vocalist for messy punk combo White Lung. "Will it ever fade? It's just fucking stupid — they cleaned it all up and now, no more bands. They'll spend the next few months cleaning coke and lipstick off the toilet stands."
Still, the urgency to create inspires a drive that pushes through any circumstance, which is evident through Vancouver's current boom of weird punk bands, many of whom straddle the line between harsh noise experimentation and pre-punk dirty rock'n'roll. This is reactionary music, railing against the endless boredom of the city, the ignorance of genre restraints, and the rain-filled dreariness of everyday lives. Doing it themselves at every level, these artists have inspired a counter-cultural renaissance by putting on their own shows (often inventing new venues in the process), recording their own demos, and releasing limited, often handmade pressings of their music.
"It's more inspired by the barebones, DIY music that was being made when the first wave of punk began to splinter and people were able to do whatever they wanted," explains Ryan Dyck, singer for scrappy punk act B-Lines. "All of these weirdoes, creeps, and teenagers are coming out from under rocks with amazing ideas that nobody was able to appreciate before."
Spearheading the movement is the Mutators, a post-punk three-piece who match messy, sometimes skronky guitar parts with combative vocals and frantic drums, at times resembling Black Flag's wall-of-sound hardcore paired with post-punk's jittery rhythms. At their side is Shearing Pinx, the humming free jazz/noise rock trio known for their collaborative spirit and stunning recording output (if you include their compilations, the band have appeared on over 50 releases in three years as a band).
Having completed numerous tours of North America, Mutators and Shearing Pinx are perhaps best known outside of Vancouver. Still, there are new bands starting weekly that span everything from garage punk fuzz to noise rock freakouts and everything in between. Take the synth-heavy darkwave of Twin Crystals, the disco-inspired lo-fi power pop of Ice Cream, and the no-frills garage punk of Defektors and try to find a common thread.
Aesthetically, there is little in common between these bands; instead, they're united by a generally bleak outlook that overcasts their music. "The sound, underpinning everyone from pure electronic outfits to full bands and everything in between, is harsh," says Josh Rose, who performs abstract noise as Sick Buildings. "Not dark, not 'psychedelic,' almost never misanthropic, just harsh. It's not some bullshit hard-man macho thing, it's not about appearance, and not entirely about lifestyle. It's harsh music for a harsh environment."
Another unifying factor between bands is a willingness to push the envelope and break down walls between genres. "There is more of an open-mindedness to this scene," says Cameron Reed, who books the annual Music Waste festival and makes a racket with prog-punks Basketball. "People in the bands and that attend shows are a lot more receptive to experimentation and free to explore new ideas." Any given show can see a harsh noise group performing with a DIY punk band and a solo artist. Reed sees this as a logical extension as music tastes diversify. "I think it happened naturally," he says. "Punk has way too many subgenres to like just one. As if I'm only into post-punk and hate the Stooges, you know? It was only a matter of time until it all came together."
Though placing it in a central role does a disservice to the countless promoters, record labels, and recorders that grace the scene, it's hard to ignore the integral place of the Emergency Room in Vancouver. Recently documented on the epochal Emergency Room Volume 1 compilation, the venue, recording studio, and practice space has been a key piece in building the community. Like everything else, it too was formed out of frustration with the city.
"Vancouver's pretty boring, so you start doing weird shit, trying to make the most fucked up noises and also finding others who are into the same stuff," explains Keith Wecker, who performs in the group Sex Negatives and solo as V Vecker. "You've got nowhere to go, and that kind of reminds me of some of the brutality of the music. You're backed into a corner and you just have to come out swinging. It's not about waiting for that big break but making your own, more or less. Which is reflected, I think, in our lack of dependency on Toronto or Montreal to look for what's cool.
"It's also the search for our own identity and culture," he adds. "Vancouver is a really young place, and it really shows a lot of the time. With how people behave and how the city is run, it's like a child running around the legs of adults — always falling and not really knowing what to do when push comes to shove. When something like the Olympics is awarded here, it's like one of the adults noticing the child and giving it a driver's license and a Ferrari. It is going to destroy this place."
Fed up with the search for culture, Wecker made his own. As a student at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, he made noise music with his roommate, a Lawrence, KS native who went by Rat Boy. Against the idea of playing live, they kept things limited to their apartment until a few weeks before Rat Boy moved home and decided he needed to play a live show. Wecker discovered that the Emily Carr parking garage went two floors underground and had power outlets, and, on Easter Monday, 2006, the original Emergency Room was born.
"I started the Emergency Room to have a place to play. At the time, it seemed as if Vancouver was at an all time low for places to play, so I made one up. A lot of bars weren't into noise bands playing, and some [bands] were essentially getting banned from bars because of the music," Wecker explains. "It's weird how you can get to this giant frustration point, and then all of a sudden you start to notice little things happening."
When the show went off without any complaints, Keith organized another show on graduation night, where bands played to "40 people and 200 cars." A secret institution was born, and Wecker was its unspoken curator. "One time, someone said they were going to have a dance party down there, and I didn't want that type of scene or music associated with my space," he recalls. "So I told the person in question that if they tried I would show up with chains wrapped around my fists."
The original Emergency Room played host to shows with numerous bands (and, at one point, a dentist who spun records from the back of his Volvo station wagon), but they were overshadowed by the Vancouver police, who are already averse to the city's legitimate venues, never mind its guerrilla art spaces. Wecker still hosts the occasional show in the parking lot (including a recent R. Kelly tribute night), but the Emergency Room is now holed up in a former fish processing plant. Playing triple duty as an affordable recording studio, busy practice space, and a makeshift venue, the Emergency Room is a second home for Vancouver's weird punk scene.
As a member of Twin Crystals, Emergency Room recording engineer Jordan Koop understands the scene first hand. "I'm so focused on documenting these bands and playing with my band," he explains. "Everyone is so resourceful, they record and put out records or CD-Rs themselves all the time." Koop dropped out of recording school and worked as an engineer's assistant at Vancouver studio the Hive before he was introduced to the city's noisy underbelly. When a friend took him to see Live Girls, a band featuring members of Twin Crystals and Mutators in 2005, he never turned back.
Offering a lower price for "mid-fi" quality recordings, Koop is plugged in to the priorities of the bands, where creative output comes first. "Making records and playing shows come first — paying rent and eating comes second," he explains. "These bands aren't going into some big studio and paying 600 bucks a day to work with someone who doesn't understand their music. They come to me because they trust me. I'm at their shows and at home listening to their tapes and CDs."
Alongside the recording studio, the Emergency Room acts as a practice space for the majority of the bands — who hole up in giant refrigerated lockers to create their masterpieces — and as a makeshift venue known for rowdy, exuberant performances. But for all the haphazard wonderment the Emergency Room has provided, no one can deny that the city is in need of some legitimate venues. Fortunately, that void is partially filled in the form of Fake Jazz Wednesdays, a weekly experimental night at Vancouver's seedy street punk bar the Cobalt.
Put on by Shearing Pinx drummer Jeremy Van Wick and Bill Batt from heavy bass and drums duo Stamina Mantis and Thankless Records, the night was formed to give local artists a chance to showcase material that would normally go unheard. Two years in, Fake Jazz Wednesdays continues to thrive, drawing more and more locals to see everything from new bands forming to performance art.
"It's hard to sum up, but Fake Jazz started as an outlet for everyone to try ideas," says Van Wick. "There was a huge wealth of artists in Vancouver, and every time we'd go out for drinks we'd say 'Man, we have to jam,' but then you'd have to practice a few times, and then book a gig. It got to the point where we thought maybe if we just book the gig [first] we'll be forced to do it. Then we decided we'd have a space where we can have weird ideas and play with everyone. We've really tried to make it inclusive to everyone."
After three years, the weekly showcase now regularly draws close to a hundred spectators who've seen new bands form off the cuff on stage. What is especially peculiar about the night is its location. Long known as one of the seediest bars in the downtown Eastside, the Cobalt is normally privvy to wheat-paste mohawks, pints of Guinness, and leather-clad bands trying to recreate the Exploited. As such, the diversity Fake Jazz has inspired is a major talking point. "Bill and I always get interesting feedback because we'll have a band that sounds like elements of the Grateful Dead, and then we'll have a performance artist performing a fake blood orgy, and then we'll have a harsh noise dude," Van Wick explains. "The harsh noise people might not be into the Grateful Dead band, but to me there's something that ties it all together, which is a thirst for experimentation."
Daniel Pitout, drummer for the heavy, screeching "voodoo punk" duo Nu Sensae, sees Fake Jazz Wednesdays as a welcome invitation to push the envelope. "Nights like Fake Jazz Wednesdays have really encouraged creative and experimental music in this city," he explains. "When you go to Fake Jazz and see a girl on stage masturbating with a contact mic, you're forced to view music a little differently."
This "anything goes" mentality has also spilled into the way these bands release music. Unhappy to wait for a record deal, many artists are releasing records themselves, employing hand-made, DIY methods like silkscreening and spray painting to get their material out as fast as possible.
The Fake Jazz promoters are at the forefront of this concept, with Batt's Thankless Records imprint going strong after countless spray painted releases, and Van Wick's Shearing Pinx fronting the Isolated Now Waves imprint. Among Now Waves' hundreds of hand-made releases are the Pinx' own split tapes series that's had them collaborating with artists from Mexico, Belgium, France and Spain.
Van Wick sees the explosion of hand-made releases as a ripple effect from selling them at shows. "I think it's inspiring," he says. "Someone can take old digi-packs, spray paint them, make labels, throw a CD-R in there, and make them look fucking amazing so that others will say 'I could do that!' Thanks to technology, it's much easier to do it yourselves. You could even put out a DVD if you wanted to."
Josh Rose started Run Down Sun as a vanity label to release material from his own projects, including Sick Buildings, free-metal ensemble Leviathans and psych-folkers the Bastion Mews, but soon blossomed into a full-fledged imprint. For Rose, the hand-made aspect was "a marriage of necessity, convenience, and aesthetic, with a healthy dose of that old DIY-cum-punk ethic."
Besides the flurry of home-made releases, there are also those willing to dive in and release music on more traditional formats, including pressing vinyl. Though the rest of the world seems to call this a suicidal time to start a record label, the emerging weird punks have gotten some Vancouverites so excited that they'll stop at nothing.
B-Lines vocalist Ryan Dyck runs Hockey Dad Records, the label responsible for highly sought-after seven-inches from the likes of White Lung and the Defektors. To prove they're a band that will stop at nothing to make their music available, White Lung even recorded their Hockey Dad debut in Ryan's garage. "We went in there and did it in, like, 45 minutes before the neighbour came and threw a fit about the noise," explains vocalist Mish Way. "We were worried because we got to do one take of every song and we couldn't hear each other for shit. They wanted me to stand outside the garage door with my mic and sing in the yard, so the sound wouldn't bleed." The record turned out surprisingly well, adding a lo-fi quality to the band's aggressive garage punk sound.
Asked about the futility of making money from records, Dyck explains: "I want to put out records that don't exist but really deserve to. I don't look at it as a financial investment, I'm just excited to help make something happen. Some people buy big TVs or cars with their pay checks, and go on holidays to sunny places or something. I put out records and spend hours folding covers while watching curling on CBC."
Dyck isn't the only one hawking non-digital music. Nominal Records and Grotesque Modern, the parties responsible for the explosive Emergency Room compilation, understand the urgency of making this music available. According to Justin Gradin, a member of the Mutators and head of Grotesque Modern, "There are so many good bands right now, and people don't want to wait around for something to happen," he says. "The whole 'Fuck it, let's just do this' thing is pretty strong here."
"Nominal Records is my mid-life crisis," adds Nominal head Sean Elliott. "After years of near total disinterest in Vancouver, I saw some bands and, in the case of the Emergency Room, a spot that needed to be documented, so Nominal was created."
Unfortunately, with a wave of releases comes a rising tide of popularity and attention, and some fear that pigeonholing the city's scene will result in the loss of some of its initial charm. "About two years ago, it seemed like every local band worth watching imploded and more venues shut down, so all of these people who had been in bands were kinda floating around looking for things to do," explains Ryan Dyck. "All these people started new bands with friends and people put on shows wherever they could get them. It was a transitional period. But everything is always the most exciting before it becomes defined, and I think that is sort of what is happening right now."
More than just losing its charm, some fear growing numbers at their makeshift venues run the risk of them getting shut down. One musician, who plays in a handful of the city's bands, refused to participate in the interview for fear of compromising the small, makeshift art-spaces that house these acts. Instead, he told me to "stick to covering Factor grant bands."
If anything, the story of Vancouver's weird punk renaissance should serve as an inspiration, not a hype-piece. In the face of extreme boredom and stifling conditions, the bands in their desperation built a small but sustainable infrastructure that includes everything from recording and releasing music to putting on shows. It's early punk's DIY story — that one you've heard so many times before — but happening now in this country. And if the kids in East Vancouver can make it happen on their terms, who's to say you can't?
Vancouver Mix Tape
To call this a list of key releases would be inadequate, because with so many home-made CD-Rs and cassettes, along with a whole crop of new full-lengths due to hit later this year, it's nearly impossible to keep track of the creative output coming from Vancouver. Still, there are ample releases coming out in more traceable formats that certainly warrant attention.
Emergency Room Volume 1 (Nominal / Grotesque Modern)
If anything defines the Vancouver weird-punk scene, it's this elaborate compilation. Focusing on the Emergency Room as a venue and art space, the compilation documents a year there with unreleased tracks from Defektors, Petroleum By-Products, Vapid, White Lung, Mutators, Twin Crystals, Nu Sensae, and Sick Buildings alongside an impressive 20-page photo book. It sort of makes you wish you were there.
Mutators Secret Life LP (Nominal)
Following their own seven inches, appearances on split releases with Shearing Pinx and Night Wounds, and their spot on the Emergency Room comp, Mutators have landed with their debut full-length. With 13 songs, the trio have perfected their merciless messy punk attack with tighter songwriting that is somehow more brutal and more catchy.
Shearing Pinx / Stamina Mantis split 7" (Reluctant Recordings)
With Shearing Pinx member Jeremy Van Wick and Stamina Mantis' Bill Batt running Fake Jazz Wednesdays together, this release is a logical extension of their relationship. On the A-side, Shearing Pinx literally drop a bomb with "Halves", a screeching post-punk number that ends with an explosion sample. On the flip, Stamina Mantis build a slow bass line into a fuzzy blast beat with "Unicorns Shit Rainbows".
White Lung Local Garbage 7" (Hockey Dad)
Recorded in a garage, this 7" matches White Lung's frantic punk rock with a scrappy lo-fi sound. It does nothing but add to the all-girl quartet's ferocious take on Wipers-influenced garage-punk with elements of 90s riot grrrl. Throw this record on your turntable, and you'll understand why White Lung start the most vicious of warehouse parties.