Monday, October 23, 2006

Torontopia, part one: Jonny Dovercourt

We'll start this off with one of the most articulate advocates of Torontopia. I first met Jonny Dovercourt (ne Bunce) sometime back in high school in Scarborough. We had mutual friends of some kind, but both of us are hazy on the details now. I ran into him again sometime in university; I seem to remember him sleeping on my couch--again, the details are hazy. I also went to university with his sister, though the connection was so tenuous that none of us figured that out until much later.

Our current relationship began when both of us were working at Eye Weekly in 1999. He was a vocal proponent of a lot of local bands that I didn't really like--mostly math rock, which was never my thing at all. And I'll be the first to admit that I was rather conservative back then, on my way to becoming a Mojo-worshipping, No Depression sort of MOR CanCon apologist (which still happens--have you heard the Kevin Hearn record? Amazing).

At that time, Jonny was just about to launch a weekly music series called Wavelength (named after the Michael Snow film, in a nice nod to Toronto's avant-garde heritage). I bugged him about my band getting into Wavelength, but he never got back to me. Unlike many, I didn't take it personally. We were a four-piece power pop band (a great one, I still believe), but we obviously didn't fit in with what Wavelength was trying to do.

Wavelength went on to become a grand gestation for what became known as Torontopia, fostering the likes of Three Gut Records, Broken Social Scene, and the Blocks Recording Club, as well as making links to the city's improv, noise, electronic and avant-garde community.

But furthermore, Jonny is nothing if not a passionate Torontonian, and he's interested in much more than music (as his essay in the book uTOpia illustrates). Jonny wants the enthusiasm that goes into the city's thriving music scene to bleed into municipal action, re-imagining the city as a green, bicycle-friendly, neighbourhood-driven, Jane Jacobs kind of place. His sister has a PhD in this kind of stuff, so it runs in the family. And as one of the oldest of the Torontopians, he's also in an ideal position to place the last six years in context.

His latest day job is as co-programmer of Toronto's venerable avant-garde venue
The Music Gallery.

Oh, and his latest band, Republic of Safety, totally kicks my ass.

A quick reminder: if you don't know what I'm talking about and haven't read this yet as a primer, then I recommend you do so before diving into this unedited conversation.


Jonny Dovercourt

July 25, 2006

Future Bakery, Bloor and Brunswick, Toronto

[recorder is turned on mid-conversation about newfound sense of confidence in Toronto since 2000]

Jonny Dovercourt: The previous generation was maybe more intimidated by New York and the cultural and economic mass of the Eastern states. I remember telling people that my band was going to play Chicago, and they’d be like, ‘Woah, dude.’

Barclay: Meanwhile, going to Winnipeg wasn’t a problem.

JD: It was more cultural and economic intimidation, I think.

I think it’s largely cultural. I have a whole Mulroney/Trudeau theory which isn’t going to be very politically popular. Children of Trudeau grew up thinking that Canada was the be-all and end-all, which was necessary and great on many levels because we had to build Canadian institutions. But—even though I don’t think free trade is a great idea—people born in the '80s grew up seeing the world in a different way, and not feeling limited by Canadian borders. They have a sense of ownership in the world, not just Canada. In order to succeed in that world, you have to have that confidence. Whereas before, we thought in a bubble.

One thing I discovered that bolstered my confidence was through Wavelength, we found that there were lots of American bands who felt the same way we did.

How would you describe pre-Torontopia Toronto?

It was like a lot of the old model. Everything happened through the club scene, and that was it. If you talked about the music scene, it was only about who was playing in the clubs and building a following. Any music industry reality seemed divorced from that. The standard model we received was that your band gets a gig in a club and you have to play every month and get more people every time and then someone will sign you and you get a record deal and a video on MuchMusic. The whole model was just bullshit.

Were you ever a part of that model? Did you think that when you started playing in bands?

I don’t think so. When I started playing in bands, I was at least mentally thinking a lot more globally. I had dreams about my band being on 4AD Records or Merge Records or some cool label from the U.S. or U.K.

But there was nobody local on those labels—at least not at that point.

It all seemed a very distant horizon to aspire to. Then you’d read about more grassroots DIY labels like K and Dischord, and the dream of creating a more artist-driven music community around a record label was the dream. But nobody knew how to do it.

Which is weird, because it’s not rocket science. Did nobody know how to do it or nobody had the confidence?

I tried running my own label in 1996. I didn’t crash and burn, but I put out a few records and they ended up sitting in my bedroom, and I just thought, What am I doing wrong here? But a lot of it was probably my own lack of motivation. There was a lot of that surrounding the music scene: a lot of idealism, but not a lot of ability to follow through. At the same time, there was still a great community in the downtown club scene. Going to see a Skull Geek Record showcase at the El Mocambo, with Pecola and Smallmouth and Neck or whoever, Parts Unknown, that was the beginning of the social community that went on to form Wavelength. It was a really small community of people who supported each other and went to see each other play.

It was very small and very DIY and no one knew how to properly promote themselves or get much in the way of press or get records in stores—beyond the absolute basics of putting something on consignment in Rotate This. It was the indie tape days, and pressing a CD was a big investment. Everyone was really poor, we were all just coming out of university and there weren’t any rich kids on the scene. Later on, I realized that maybe all these cool American and British scenes had the capability to do that because there was one person involved who had the capital to finance something.

Or the financial comfort to live as a poor artist.

Everyone I knew was just struggling to make rent and working café jobs. A lot of genuine artist poverty.

How does that transform into optimism and hope? Because what you just described exists in every city. And this movement is really civically minded and about being excited about homegrown things, which people weren’t always here. It’s not particular to Toronto, but it’s endemic in Toronto, where you’re validated only by outside recognition.

Wavelength started with a small group of people I’m talking about, about 20 or 30 people, taking a good hard look at itself and turning around its engagement with the world. Up until then, we celebrated ourselves a lot, but in terms of our acceptance and recognition from the rest of the world, all we did was complain about the lack of it. ‘How come no one will write about our bands? How come no one will help us put out records? Why do only 30 people come to our shows?’ That led to this sentiment of, ‘Oh, because we’re in Toronto, Toronto sucks.’

We thought we shouldn’t blame Toronto; we should blame ourselves for giving up in advance. Maybe we’re not giving the rest of the city enough reason to care. Maybe we need to figure out how to generate more excitement around what we’re doing. That was the purpose of Wavelength: let’s celebrate our own music, let’s celebrate our rich history which goes undocumented, let’s celebrate the cool stuff that’s going on here under the radar. It was a recognition of what wasn’t being done, what wasn’t being covered. There wasn’t one nexus to the music scene, and we realized we had to create it.

That’s where the Sunday night series came out of. If you take all the best music from the Toronto underground and put it in one place, where people know they can find it and it’s always there, they’ll come back for more. It was thinking: if I’m an average music fan who is excited to new stuff but isn’t scouring the weeklies trying to find out who’s cool, how do you find out about this stuff?

What was the difference between Elvis Monday and Wavelength then? [ed note: Elvis Monday is a Toronto institution going back off and on for over 20 years, curated by William New, bounced from venue to venue, featuring free admission and largely up and coming bands; much of the mid-'80s to early '90s Toronto scene was fostered here, and it has been resurrected lately at the Drake Hotel.]

The difference is that Wavelength was curated. Those [Elvis Monday] nights were great, but the quality could be really up and down. You didn’t know what you were going to get. We wanted our night to be more like a mix CD, picking the best stuff. By saying certain things are great, you’re implicitly saying other things suck, and we took the risk of putting our taste out there.

I think what made it work was the mix of genre, and focus on the less conventional, whereas there are a lot more outlets for a four-piece rock band playing pop songs.

That was another important part. It’s not just an indie rock night or pop/rock night. We reached out to other genres and communities and tried to find the connections between these pockets of activity in the city that were isolated from each other.

What do you think it means when a certain term like Torontopia gets associated with this? For better and worse?

It gives things a brand identity, which is fine. I don’t want to be knee-jerk and say it’s a bad thing, because Wavelength did the same thing. It’s no different than starting a record label, and then people say, ‘This is a Constellation band; this is a 4AD band.’ It gives the public a convenient way to categorize things and gives it a sense of what we’re about.

But not a general sound.

No, exactly. This music movement was civically and ideologically driven. Obviously, every sort of label has its shortcomings because it can’t possibly encapsulate everything. There are things that are just as valid that might not fit within the framework of that. In order for those kind of labels to work, they have to be open-ended enough that they can encapsulate a lot of things that are different on the surface, so that you’re not rejecting someone on the basis of what kind of instruments they play or whatever sort of formal structures they’re working within.

This term came out of the Wavelength scene and the Toronto is Great compilation, but in the last six months or so—or maybe longer, I don’t know, but certainly since I moved back here—it’s been popping up in mainstream media as a shorthand for civic engagement. I can’t believe how much people here now talk about ways of improving the city in ways they never did before, and envisioning what it could be. I didn’t see that in Montreal, and I certainly didn’t see it in Toronto three or four years ago. How do you think the term made the leap from a musical discussion to a greater municipal discussion?

The way we talked about it, the people who are associated with the term, we didn’t talk about it in purely musical terms. We talked about how one lives in the city, your personal relationship to where you’re from as an artist and a citizen. It becomes more universal in that sense, and not something that only musicians can take a lesson from. All artists and people who care about living in the city in a meaningful and sustainable and responsible way can relate to it. The fact that people in more mainstream political and editorial circles are picking up on the term and understanding where we’re coming from is a good thing.

How transferable is the concept? Part of what interests me about writing this article now and not two years ago is that the term and the discussion are bleeding into different communities, either as an inspiration or as a parallel. I read an interesting article in Discorder recently…


Yeah. First of all, I couldn’t believe that anyone in Vancouver even paid attention to the Torontopia concept, just because of classic cross-Canadian antagonism. But I interviewed the guy who wrote the article, and he told me that he admittedly forced the term onto the scene out there in question, but that he was excited by what he was hearing and reading about in Toronto, and thought the term was transferable. How do you think this concept can apply to other cities?

It’s one of those things where the term is specific, but the notion is not. That’s where people can respond to it and come up with their own version and take on it. Every town is different and has its own things it wants to celebrate, its own problems it needs to overcome. Any other city dealing with similar issues can transfer it to their own reality, no problem. They have to do the creative work of using their own term or slogan. We had people in Montreal who wanted to start Wavelength there, and we told them no. It was very specific to what we were doing, and we encouraged them to use our model, but they had to come up with their own name and identity. We don’t want franchises.

That would be like someone saying, ‘Hey, can I start Dischord Canada?’

Yeah, exactly. And the answer would be, no! Independent thinking artists in other cities should be able to identify with the fact that a city like Toronto celebrating itself is a real ballsy move, because we have the whole country against us. We’re supposed to play nice and not give them any more reason to hate us.

Your band [Republic of Safety] has openly embraced the term.

It’s because we want to be true to our roots. We’re a band that was spawned by this wave of excitement. That’s how we all came together. I represented Wavelength and the slightly older guys-with-guitars indie scene of Toronto. Then I met the people from the Barcelona Pavilion, which was a younger, anti-conventional rock band, a yelling laptop band. We came from two different schools that were part of the same movement. We wanted to loudly proclaim the cultural movement that created us, the fertile ground where our collaboration started. I’m never excited by the idea of a band being a band alone, without any context. To be part of something larger always gives four people in a room a more exciting identity.

How do you find external reaction, outside Toronto, to such a Torontopian band? You employ the term liberally in your own press.

I don’t know, I haven’t heard much. What have you heard?

I’m hoping this article will generate debate, because it might be the first time they hear the term. I asked the Discorder guy when he first heard the word, and he said in February. And in February, Kat Collins and Carl Wilson were interviewing each other and discussing whether it was time to retire the term because it had outlived its usefulness. Which is why I wanted to write the article now.

I always anticipate that there’s going to be a backlash against this in the rest of the country. I remember trying to promote a show on the Montreal message board and being told, ‘Go home, Toronto!’ If anything, I hope it makes some people who have those anti-Toronto prejudices to rethink them. It is speaking to the stereotypical images of Toronto, which aren’t completely unfounded: it can be a grumpy town. I spend a weekend in Montreal and come back here and think, ‘My god, what’s up people’s asses here?’ The message we’re trying to send with Torontopia is that there are cool things happening here outside the rat race. There is an exciting, vibrant and friendly underground. That’s ultimately the message of the term.

Now that it’s arguably reached this critical mass of people, there is some griping that it can’t possibly be all things to all people: does it include this band? Does it include that scene? Suddenly there are higher expectations of what it could mean.

Yeah, and that’s unfair.


There are limits. It’s a term that wasn’t meant to describe the entire city. It is a very personal term, about things that I identify with as an artist living here. There are lots of people who live here that don’t share the same reality. I recognize that Jane and Finch might not be Torontopia. It becomes such a difficult conversation. The other communities that we co-exist with in this city might not share in this same view of it, but that doesn’t mean I’m excluding them. It was never meant to be anything exclusionary. It is about a personal relationship with the city, from the position of an individual artist who is also part of a community. Does that make sense?

How loose and fluid is it? I’ve felt it at very different events, whether it’s an all-ages matinee at the Tranzac or the Jamaica to Toronto concert at Harbourfront. I got choked up at that Jamaica show, just at the sight of such an incredibly diverse audience: thousands of people of all-ages and every imaginable cultural background, all celebrating this almost-forgotten chapter of Toronto music history.

Sure, you and I can experience that as a Torontopic moment, but it’s wrong-headed to try and impose that on other people. It has to be left open for people to respond to and interpret any way they want. To sit around and have debates about what is or is not Torontopia is really dumb and counter-productive. It’s based on a feeling, a personal relationship with the city.

I do get a sense of suspicion around the more commercially successful Toronto bands.

One of the unfortunate things about a movement is that it can become about ‘who’s with us and who’s against us.’ That’s when lines start getting drawn, when popular people you don’t like start jumping on board, and the original founders feel like they’re getting shoved out of the limelight. That can lead back to the same kind of resentment and falling back into the same divisions and rivalries that this open, inclusionary movement was supposed to counteract.

And there are always people on the other side who are not going to feel invited. ‘Oh, my band never got invited to play Wavelength.’

It’s tough. But I think I haven’t fully responded to the question of how other communities in the city respond.

I think they’re only beginning to now, that it’s dropped into mainstream discourse, like the big spread the Toronto Star had on Easter weekend about re-envisioning Toronto.

Did they use the term in there?

I’m pretty sure they did. It was basically an extension of the uTOpia book, about the hope and optimism of a new city.

One of the things I want to clear up, as far as me being a white, middle-class indie artist: I am a cultural tourist in certain parts of this city, but I don’t think I or other people should be afraid of that. There are a lot of places in this city where white people feel like they can’t go, and that’s one thing that I would like to see change.

Coming from Montreal, I did feel divisions there. Maybe it’s because the indie scene was so separate from the rest of the city: very white, very McGill/Concordia, very anglo, mixed with American students and Toronto expats. I didn’t encounter a lot of civic things where I felt like I was stepping outside of a homogenous community.

Or that people cared about the city they were living in? One of the things that is different here is a genuine hometown pride. Pretty much everyone involved in the music scene here is someone who grew up here or in the suburbs.

I don’t think that’s true.

Really? Who are the exceptions?

I’m sure it’s partially true, but Toronto is a place that people move to from all over Canada. In our interview the other day, Kado likened the city to a big bus terminal. From Winnipeg, from Ottawa, from Montreal, from the East. Usually people west of Winnipeg move to Vancouver. But sorry, I’ll let you finish your thought.

There are people like Steve who moved here from the 905 suburbs, and maybe Toronto could have just been a bus stop for him. But people like Steve Kado and myself made a decision to stay in our hometown and make a go of it. The people who have really made a difference here are people who wanted to give their hometown a chance.

[conversation is interrupted by Kat and Matt Collins walking by the patio en route to the Blocks office]

Sorry, I’ve lost my train of thought.

Do you want to talk about the new report on creative cities?

What’s that?

It’s a huge report that was released on Monday. It’s a big report by this 43-person task force assigned to study Toronto’s creative economy and what it needs to do. It’s obviously a post-Richard Florida creative city discourse, which had its ups and downs. But a lot of things they were recommending were really positive, in terms of the arts in Toronto and getting young people engaged. It was a very mainstream political document—Toronto City Summit Alliance, Toronto Star-level discourse about the city. But it included references to Broken Social Scene and the indie music scene. A lot of people in the grassroots scene here have done a great job of pushing the agenda of independent culture onto the table. I feel like that will be—for me, personally—among the most exciting work of the next five years of my life. Which is figuring out how to get what in many ways is this silly, goofball cultural scene some serious, governmental recognition and support.

Is there a danger in instiutionalizing it? I was talking to Kat about her Bad Bands Manifesto, and I get the impression that that came out of this codification of independent culture and what those goals of that should be.

If you have an idea of how to create things, it’s up to you as the artist to push that agenda. It means you have to work a little harder against the established models. If this whole notion is about creativity, then let’s make sure that the policy makers follow that to the logical conclusion, which is being able to assess what’s going on honestly and be able to create the room for things like Bad Bands Revolution so that it’s not just a standard model, that everything isn’t just Arts and Crafts. For us as independent musicians and artists, we have to do the work to make sure that happens. I get frustrated with the arts community when things fall back into complaining mode. If you have this vision of the way you want things to be, then figure out a way to make it happen and figure out a way to either get money for it or how to do it without money, if you think that taints things. I feel like I’ve outgrown the whole attitude of, ‘Institutionalising things is dangerous.’ Actually, I feel the reverse. Institutions need to be there to protect things. That’s what needs to be created in the independent music scene, a sense of advocacy and protection and creating opportunities to be as in the moment as they want to be.

That’s true of the Music Gallery or something like Artscape…

And both those organizations do become bureaucratized. I deal with that every day. There’s nothing wrong with being smart and learning a language and learning how to get what you want out of people. Maybe it’s because I’m more left brain than your average artist. To me, the process of learning how to work within the system to create autonomy for yourself is fascinating.

Where do you think Torontopia is now? Has the term outlived its usefulness? Will we still be using it in 10 years? Is it an albatross that will be buried by the cynical?

In some ways I do feel it represented a time and a place, a moment of a flowering of optimism. As this community does engage more with mainstream culture and serious bureaucracy, it is a term that may generate more snickers and chuckles than support, which is kind of what we need at this point. The big question is sustainability, and indie culture is dealing with the same issues as society in general, of mode of operations being unsustainable. Independent musicians, for better or worse, are going to have to engage with funding bodies and levels of governments and maybe even the private sector in order to get what they want.

What do they want?

Everyone wants the same thing, to be fulfilled as an artist, to write songs and not work crappy jobs. To be able to make a living off their music. That’s the frustrating thing about independent music, is that it’s often an extended adolescence between the ages of 18 and 31. Are you supposed to give up on it once you finally have to get a real job? The maturation of the indie community has forced this question to looked at more soberly. One of the most interesting things about Toronto is that if you compare it to the indie scene of other cities, it’s a lot older. There are a lot of people in their 30s still playing in bands and who still care about this. It’s our life.

How do you know that’s not true of other cities?

I didn’t take a census or anything, but I’ve been to New York and had people say, ‘You’re 32?!’ Everyone I met in bands was 22. I do get the sense that if you compare it to American cities, you have to sell out earlier there. Once you’re 26…

I don’t think that’s true of Chicago.

Yeah, but there’s the core of successful musicians who have made a career out of Thrill Jockey Records, and then there’s everyone else.

There’s the Bloodshot scene, the free jazz scene. I’ve always thought of Chicago as a model of a sustainable, artist-friendly culture.

But that’s because they’re all musos. There are a lot more amateur musicians here. The Bad Bands thing is really interesting, because most of these people can barely play but they’re totally committed to playing music.

To me it’s totally rooted in performance art. It’s very conceptual. It’s meant to be ephemeral, not necessarily a band that has a shelf life of more than two years or even two months, not necessarily a band that’s going to translate to a studio and make great records. I’m glad there are so many great records of the last five years, and I’m glad there are also wonderfully silly records in the last five years.

I am more old-fashioned, and this is where I diverge from the bad bands thing. I don’t really care about the stack of silly recordings that I don’t have time to sift through. I don’t have time to go to MySpace to hear your practice tape. I have a lot more “don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” Spend some time working on something and get back to me when it’s done. I do appreciate the necessity of that, and sometimes the inadvertent genius that comes out of that can be the most exciting, grin-inducing thing you’ll ever come across. But to uphold that approach as being important is kind of self-defeating.

(thoughtful pause). I’m still thinking of your earlier question about whether or not Torontopia has outlived its usefulness.

Okay, has it outlived its usefulness?

It probably has outlived its usefulness, because I kind of don’t care. I feel the time from which is arose a few years ago was an important enough time to want and preserve and document when the time is right. If it’s done now and we’re going into a new phase, that’s fine. But if it catches on in some other weird stream of popular consciousness, then that’s great as well.

What if it shows up on a David Miller poster campaign?

I wouldn’t feel like ‘Damn, where’s my cut?’ It would be cool.

The whole ‘outliving its usefullness’ question seems like such a self-sabotaging question to even bring up. It’s so typical to say, ‘Hey, this great thing happened—is it over?’

Yeah. As long as people self-identify with things, then they are useful. It’s like asking, ‘Is surf music dead?’ It is kind of a stupid question to ask. Alright, that’s it, I’m done.

[off-tape small talk leads us back on topic; Jonny requests the recorder be turned back on.]

Earlier this year I had this worry that all the chatter around Toronto’s cultural renaissance was just that—just chatter. I had this sense of, ‘Are we spending so much time celebrating ourselves that we’re not actually improving ourselves?’ That’s not what the whole Torontopia idea was supposed to be, which was a meaningful call to arms.

Does this assertion of it create this counterintuitive complacency?
That’s the danger. It is meant for people to respond to and get to work. Not to read about it and bask in it.

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