Kat Collins landed in the Toronto music scene as a member of the Barcelona Pavilion, a band founded by Steve Kado and at the time featuring Maggie MacDonald; both were also Hidden Cameras at the time (Maggie still is). When Maggie left, she was replaced by Vanessa of No Dynamics. The band had two bass players, two shouting vocalists, and a deadpan laptop player who--by all visible appearances--did nothing but stand there with an absurd neckstrap supporting the computer on his chest. Barcelona Pavilion made minor miracles out of two minute songs that demanded simple everyday things that sounded like they were revolutionary manifestos ("Tidy Up!"). Their greatest legacy to the Torontopian concept is undoubtedly their song "How Will You People Ever Have Fun If None of You People Ever Participate." ("Oh boo hoo/ oh cry cry/ if nothing ever happens/ I/ wonder/ why."
After that band fizzled out, Kat started a new project called Pyramid Culture with three other ladies, singing about scientific concepts over computer beats, outfitted like 20-minute-workout rejects and borrowing choruses from 80s-period Billy Joel. Earlier this year, she wrote something called a Bad Bands Manifesto... which is a whole other kettle of fish we'll get to soon enough (and which will include the second part of this interview). She's married to Matt Collins of Ninja High School, aka The Second Most Opinionated Toronto Musician after Steve Kado, and together they run a CDR label called Jennifer Lopez Knife... in theory, anyway--good luck finding anything on the web about it (coz you know, if it isn't on the internet, it isn't real).
Somewhere along the line, she made a short film about the Torontopia concept (which I haven't seen), and is also one of the few to make the leap from talk to action by participating in the City Idol contest that tried to find fresh new voices to run in the upcoming municipal election. She currently works on the Murmur project, which I'm sure their website can explain better than I can.
As always, if you haven't read this, you should do that first before wading through here.
July 21, 2006
Setting: Back patio of a bar on Bloor St. across from Long and McQuade, west of Ossington
When did you first hear the term Torontopia and what did it mean to you?
I first heard the term Torontopia in 2003. Steve Kado was putting it on a flyer or a poster. He had heard it from some other guy he met playing Fototag, and decided it was a good way to succinctly express how we were feeling about Toronto at the time, which was extremely optimistic and extremely positive.
Why did you feel that way? Did you grow up here?
I’ve been living here since the late 80s. I was 11 years old when we moved to Toronto—all my formative years. I wasn’t really involved in any kind of music scene or independent or underground art scene at all. Halfway through university I was talked into joining the Barcelona Pavilion. The first few shows we played were probably the first few local shows I attended.
I wasn’t a part of the scene, so I had no context to understand how things were different from the way they had been previously, or how they had been changing. All I knew was that in the first year or so of us being a band, I saw so many different shows and met so many interesting people doing really creative, neat things that I’d never even thought about before, let alone experienced.
To me, it seemed that Toronto was this wonderland of fantastic creativity. Everyone was so open to new ideas and so positive and so interested in collaborating and making things happen and starting projects and being productive and active. To me, it didn’t even occur to me that it hadn’t always been that way. Toronto wasn’t always this fantastic utopia of creative expression. For a lot of people, it was a welcome change from what they had seen as a more stagnant or at least not as open to new ideas atmosphere.
By the time 2003 rolled around—which now gets bandied about as this nostalgic period that we all look back to as a peak of the Toronto scene—to me, the term seemed like a fantastic shorthand for all the things I had been experiencing. I didn’t think of this as being new. To me it was an awakening to the potential that Toronto held.
I had always enjoyed living here, but I wasn’t in love with the city. I figured that I could do just as well anywhere else. By the time I started hearing the term Torontopia and thinking about what it meant to me, it really signified this new attitude I had about the city, which was not in fact a utopia, but it had the potential to be whatever any of us wanted to mold it into. That was really terrific. Every city has that potential… potentially!
I’m curious how that artistic explosion bled into how people thought politically and socially about the municipal entity itself, learning to love Toronto in ways they hadn’t thought about before and becoming civically engaged. I’m not sure how much I’ll touch on this in the article, because it’s more of a Toronto Star angle, but what are your thoughts? Having moved back here recently myself, there’s unquestionably a different attitude here than there was when I left Ontario three and a half years ago.
That feeling has continued to grow. People are still learning to love the city in new ways. Things like City Idol are good examples of taking that initial enthusiasm about the boring municipal politics side of Toronto, which seemed like it was looking up when we got a new mayor and it seemed like amalgamation wasn’t going to completely ruin us, and so taking that initial enthusisasm and building on it and turning it into something that involves even more people engaged in the process of civic politics is really great. It’s still on the rise. I don’t think that’s peaked yet. That’s going to continue growing, and more people will get involved in things. It was definitely something that I started to see about three years ago, when this Torontopian stuff was a new buzzword on posters.
It’s interesting to me because I moved away when people first started using it, and I’ve been watching the germination of it from a distance. It was even more curious when I started reading stories about Montreal’s music scene—which, with the exception of the Arcade Fire, was not focused on bands that I was seeing all the time there—and I was thinking of how much I would rather be living in Toronto at the time. But I’m wondering now if, because there’s so much art here produced on an indigenous level and so many success stories, Toronto becomes a place that they want to be for a long time, as opposed to a temporary stop where they make some money and then return to their hometown or move on to somewhere else. The other day, Kado compared the Toronto of old to a bus terminal.
It’s becoming one of those vibrant cities that people talk about existing elsewhere. Over the span of the 15 years or so I’ve lived here, or since I was old enough to go downtown by myself, I’ve noticed not just the obvious things people complain about—gentrification in Parkdale or whatever, Liberty Village is being ruined by development—but just the number of people who are out on the street, who enjoy being in the city doing things. When I was in high school and went to see shows at the Music Hall on the Danforth to see shows, it was this horrible dead zone that was creepy and scary to walk around in, because it was empty. The streets would be dead by 10pm. It wasn’t a sketchy neighbourhood by any means, but it was depressing and creepy. It felt weird walking around, so desolate. It felt like a suburban residential neighbourhood where everyone goes to bed—but it was pretty much in the middle of downtown. Now, you go there and it’s clogged with people. Parents are out at 11pm with strollers, and I’m thinking, those kids should be in bed!
Musically, what do you think helped turn the tide? Or were you aware of it at the time?
I remember reading articles when I first started playing music, that talked about bands like the Hidden Cameras—who I was friends with, so I saw their very early shows, even though I wasn’t so much a part of the music scene. Articles talked about the Barcelona Pavilion as helping to turn the tide of people dancing at shows, like it was a new approach to more participatory music. To me, it seemed like all the shows we played at were like that. It didn’t occur to me that it was a new thing. Certainly, when people talk about the heyday of 2003, I remember bands that I thought were amazing that seemed so new and different to me, because I didn’t have a context to know whether they were new and different. I wasn’t aware that it was a tide that was turning until much later, when I got the context from other people who had been at it for much longer than me.
Could you describe the Toronto is the Best release party, on February 29, 2004?
That was one of my favourite days ever. We booked ourselves to play second, after the Singing Saws, so we had to be there at 9 in the morning. By the time we went on, there were already 20 or 30 people there—enough that I was surprised that there was a crowd at 9.30 in the morning. I stayed for the entire show. I danced more than I think I have ever or will between the hours of 9 and 5. I had been on the catering team—our friend Todd made all these amazing vegan snacks for everyone, so he went all out and we prepared days in advance. The atmosphere at that show was so positive. People were excited to have a daytime show, which is happening a bit more now. People were excited to see that many bands at one show, over a dozen. It was such a celebratory mood. Everyone was so pumped about what was going on. I met a lot of new people who were almost overwhelming with their enthusiasm, and would talk to me for 45 minutes about how inspired they were and how happy they were to have found this thing. I was surprised at how much of an impact it seemed to be having on people who were newer to the scene than I had been.
That fascinating to me, too, because people from the outside like to accuse it of being an insider clique, a group of friends.
Of course a large number of people there were friends or at least people you recognize from other shows, but there were a lot of new people who heard about it and thought it sounded like a neat idea and were blown away by how awesome that day was and how positive the feelings in the room were. To me it was an inspiring day. It validated a lot of my feelings about Toronto, that it could come off so great without any cynicism.
I’m fascinated by how contagious the Torontopian concept is, when I think about the Track and Field or Living Room Festivals, or parallels like the Ford Plant in Brantford. And I was reading an article in the Discorder from Vancouver drawing parallels between Torontopia and stuff that’s happening in Victoria right now. But do you think there’s a dangerous geocentrism to the term Torontopia that makes it easy for outsiders to dismiss?
I think that’s been the only real problem in people misunderstanding what we mean by it. It’s nice to hear that there are places that hear the term and apply it to where they are. It’s a perfect combination of words. It fits nicely with Toronto, but a criticism we’ve heard repeatedly is the assumption that Toronto is some kind of utopia that is better than any other place on earth. That’s kind of ridiculous. But it’s this sense that wherever you are, you can make it awesome and better than it is and start the projects that are going to make your town worth staying in. It’s great that people are adopting that idea. That was the whole point in the first place.
Do you think that such a productive scene eventually creates a counter-intuitive complacency among audience members and potential participants? That’s always a paradox of living in a large urban centre: ‘there’s so much going on, I will just consume instead of create.’
True. That’s where Torontopia meets bad bands, in a way. The initial feeling behind this whole Torontopian thing, when the word was first being used, was that there was a great sense of the music scene being very united, and everyone being of the same mind about what we were doing and how we wanted to accomplish it. Everyone was friends and everyone was always at everyone else’s shows. It was extremely community-oriented and a single unit, which is ridiculous to say because there are tons of other little music scenes in the city that never overlapped with ours. It’s incredibly self-centered to say that the whole independent music scene in Toronto was united. There was a sense that that was what was happening, what we were moving towards.
Now there are all these little factions again. Bad Bands divides the people who are into that from people who are into another thing. Then there’s a third faction of people who are into something else entirely. There is more animosity and more debate about what things mean and what we want to accomplish. That in a way is healthier and will ultimately breed a more sustainable community. It also fights that tendency to become complacent.
There is stuff to argue about. Most people feel strongly about one thing or another, and if there is always that debate going on then it’s just a matter of redefining what Torontopia will mean in the future. Currently, we’re embroiled in too much semantics about what it means, and it’s not the point at all. If it starts becoming a thing again that symbolizes our sense that we’re improving our surroundings and being creative in new ways, it will morph into a new thing.
A lot of talk lately has accused the Torontopian concept as not being very inclusive at all, and how could it ever be in such a large, diverse city, etc. There will always be critics who will suggest that a utopian model could never live up to all of its potential—and of course it can’t. There will always be different factions, and not as much cross-pollination as you think.
Yeah, but any term with a utopian deal always gets that kind of criticism.