Thursday, November 09, 2006

Bad Bands Revolution, part two: Dollarama

Discussion of the Bad Bands Revolution continues today in conversation with Dollarama, unquestionably the most controversial of the Bad Bands. And no wonder—they openly admit that the whole reason they formed was to get kicked off an open stage. And early material—like the track “World Music” that appears on the Bad Bands Revolution CD, which would be offensive if it wasn’t so colossally stupid—didn’t suggest that there was any artistry underneath the overall prank.

I’ll confess that I have yet to see the band. Since arriving back in Toronto and promptly disappearing for most of the summer, I just haven’t got around to it. I was in NYC for their CD release on Halloween. And I haven’t heard their new album, Chinese Democracy, though the tracks on their MySpace site suggest that they actually are taking themselves a bit more seriously and making moderately listenable avant-garde music—then again, maybe the joke’s still on us pundits who insist on taking such an absurd idea somewhat seriously. (Can I squeeze any more qualifiers into this post?)

As the band’s main mouthpiece, Eric Warner is also an interesting guy. He first made a name for himself in Toronto as an aggressive (read: busy and active, not necessarily metal and punk) promoter of all-ages shows, both one-offs and his annual Over the Top festival. He has a keen ear for new bands, and is often the first person to bring Later-Respected Artist X to Toronto. His day job is at V2 Records’ Canadian office; he also runs his own label We Are Busy Bodies and manages the Meligrove Band.

The first time I ever interviewed him was many moons ago when he was still a teenager. Nike had hired him to book an all-ages club in Kensington Market, which generated much controversy among the No Logo crowd, and the club only lasted one summer. (I don’t know where my piece is on the eternally frustrating Exclaim website, but here’s something my esteemed colleague Stuart Berman wrote at Eye at the time.) At that time, he wasn’t allowed to do interviews on his own; his boss had to be on the phone line with him to make sure the interview didn’t get out of hand… or whatever. Ridiculous, in retrospect, and really, it has absolutely nothing to do with what he’s up to (or stands for) now. I only bring it up as an odd piece of trivia.

But for today, Dollarama! Again, this was conducted for a very short piece on CBC Radio 3.

(side note: I did a fill-in slot at CFRU today, my first radio experience since leaving Brave New Waves, and realized how much I missed it. Audio archive can be heard here as MP3; I was on the air on Thursday November 9 from 8AM-11AM.)

August 10, 2006
Eric Warner and Matthew King
Location: executive board room at Toronto office of V2 Records, where Eric works

Could you sum up the concept of Dollarama in a sentence?
E: I think the best way to put it is if you took a nine-year old to a birthday party, gave him free reign of the house and let anything happen. And also, our objective is that you can’t spend more than $25 per show to join our band, and everything has to cost a dollar plus tax or less.

How do you enforce that? Do people have to produce receipts?
E: That would make it a bit too complicated.

What were the origins of the band?
E: We found an open mic night, and we wanted to see if we could play and be kicked off. It backfired and people were really into it, which confused us even more. We booked more shows and for the most part we played a lot of themed events: we played in a woman’s washroom at a movie theatre, we played the fringe festival in Montreal, and events that catered to the oddball, off-kilter audience. It’s been really interesting to be embraced, because it was never expected or intended.
We just recorded our first record, which we’re actually pretty proud of. It’s going to be called Chinese Democracy. As a concept, we’re leaps and bounds beyond what we ever expected. Initially it was a big joke to us, and it may be still on some levels.

Are you in danger of becoming a good band?
E: I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I think we’re more realised now, and we can feed off each other. But when you’re an open-ended collective, anyone can show up and it can go in any direction.

How many core members are there?
E: That would be Matt, when he’s not playing with DD/MM/YY; Aaron, whose idea it was, and me, our friend Lee. With what we’re doing, we’re allowing ourselves to feel free and be open to whatever may arise… it’s all about found sounds and messing around to see what we can create. There are no necessarily long term goals. It would be great if someone decided to pick up the concept and allow us to go across the country. We may apply for a Canada Arts Grant and create a piece and see what happens with that. It would be really interesting to see other people’s reactions.
M: My idea is to have a Dollarama tour where we go across the country and play in front of Dollaramas, play with a big marquee behind us.

Have you heard from Dollarama?
E: I think if anything, if they’re not feeling it, it will probably be a cease and desist order. Then we’ll just add ‘1979’ behind us.
(update: the band was served with a cease-and-desist order a couple of weeks back, which they received while on the road at the Halifax Pop Explosion.)

I know one of your short term goals is to open for Beck. Why?
E: Because I thought it was funny, and I think it would fit with Dollarama in a big way.
M: He’s the biggest person who might actually consider the idea.
E: We thought it was a possibility that if we got to the right people, that it might happen. We have a website and an online petition, and I know he has a new record coming out. I feel the time to strike is now. With our own record coming out, I think nothing can stop us.

If not Beck, who’s the runner-up?
E: I don’t know. Dweezil Zappa? Animal Collective? Maybe Thornley. Or Hedley. Something where we’ll just end up confusing people. That would be more fun. Beck is up there for the moment, but if we could tour with someone and play to hundreds or thousands of people and confuse the audiences, I’d love that. I don’t mind being booed. I enjoy watching people’s reactions and seeing how they interpret what they’re seeing.

Were you disappointed at that first show that people didn’t hate you even more?
E: It was weird. We covered Korn that night, and I didn’t know the words but it worked out really well.

Does anyone know the words?
E: Believe it or not, Aaron—whose idea this is—does know all the words.

Do any of you play in “real” bands?
M: Am I the only one? I think so.
E: Matt and I were both in a band called the Viking Club, and we put out a record with Japanther and did a bunch of shows all over Eastern Canada.
M: And currently I’m in a band called DD/MM/YY.
E: Other than that, no. You don’t have to be in a band to join this one.
M: It’s more successful if you’re not. Less knowledge of music can definitely bring new ideas into the realm of music.

How does the audience get involved at a Dollarama show?
E: Some shows have been pretty crazy, actually. One of the standard shows would have been the Bad Bands Revolution CD release. We went on at 2AM at Boat. Everyone in the audience grabbed stuff and tried to make sounds. It was a big mess, a horrible mess. We used to bring garbage bags to our shows, but we try not to break anything at this point. We just break hearts. There was a girl at that show who came on stage and tried to grab the microphone from me, because she was mad at our performance. She kept telling me it wasn’t music and that we should stop. It was a free show, so I don’t know why she was complaining. And you have to keep in mind that this was a Bad Bands Revolution show, so whatever this girl was thinking…
M: The feeling in the room… it wasn’t a negative feeling, but because everything was bad, it didn’t make you feel good. It was an experience you don’t normally have. Normally you go out to have a good time. This left you feeling not dirty, just unclean.
One thing I noticed in the middle of the night that when some bands would play, the local bands, the people involved in the “bad bands,” people were there supporting their buddies and laughing. But when a couple of the bad bands from out of town—I think one was from Waterloo—when they played, nobody was watching them, nobody was paying attention, everyone was outside or getting a drink. It struck me as odd, and not necessarily people looking for interesting ideas, but maybe they just wanted to watch their friends make asses of themselves.

Is the “bad bands” concept an inbred clique of friends, as some have suggested?
E: We’re not really friends with that many people.
M: There are satellite bands and the core people who put it together.
E: We get grouped in with not the main bands, but at the time we were one of the people starting to do that kind of stuff.
M: It came out of a lot of people who were doing performances, but not necessarily as bad bands. Kat and Matt Collins noticed this trend going on and collected this group of people. It’s interesting to think about who the audience is.
E: I think it’s a tween demographic at this point.

Do you get people outside your group of friends coming to shows?
E: I think more so now, because in a weird way we’re actually getting somewhere.
M: It’s great to look up from mashing some cheese graters together to see some people with their arms crossed, scratching their chins and thinking about the sounds. In one way, it’s silly that people are pontificating about something that’s ridiculous. But at the same time, the reason why I joined is that I thought there was a strong conceptual basis to the idea of Dollarama performing noise music and trashing disposable consumer products.
E: We’re actually exploring now, and not just breaking everything and freaking out. With the record we recorded, I’m biased in saying this, but I think it’s really cool and innovative, because we did the recording in three hours and we did ten tracks and we’ll probably use seven, but it sounds like a really interesting record or concept album.
M: There are lots of sounds that we were able to create that are interesting to listen to, sometimes abrasive, sometimes nice percussion.
E: I don’t think you can say that it’s self-indulgent because we didn’t really care enough at the moment. But it was interesting to do it. We do like the idea of having fun and seeing what could happen. And hopefully we’ll get to the point where we’re playing for 600 people at Queen’s Park or something. And if the cops show up and try to shut us down, we can just run away, because it’s not as if we’ll be losing our drum kit or our custom Fender guitars.

Have you done guerilla performances?
E: Soon.
M: It would be interesting to perform for the customers of Dollarama, because right now we’re just performing for a certain crowd of people in the Toronto underground music scene.
E: One of the best shows was playing with Cursed, the hardcore band. All these people were going nuts for the hardcore bands, and then there was us.
M: Was that the show where I got taped to Thomas’s head?
E: Yeah, that was actually a very violent show. We’re not pro-violence, just pro-confusion. We like playing places where it doesn’t make a lot of sense, because it makes it more interesting. It’s great to be grouped in with stuff, but it’s also fun to go out there and play where you’re least expected to play.

What’s involved when you go shopping for instruments at Dollarama?
E: With what we pick up, it could be anything. We don’t have a set mission: ‘we need to get this garbage can so we can put marbles into it.’
M: I like the idea of going to Dollarama and looking at their stock to writing a song. You find materials and it’s like, ‘okay, I’ve got this bungee cord. Can I stretch this bungee cord to make a loud enough sound? Or, if I strap it to a clipboard and pull it will it make a whacking sound?’
E: We built something of a drum kit, but that got broken when we played as Ninja High School’s backing band. Again, it’s all about having fun and doing something different.
M: With our record, a lot of bad bands started as silly performances, and now there are some bands who are not legitimising themselves, but at least playing shows regularly, and we’re recording an album. Some of the bands are being persistent, while some were gimmicks for a couple of nights.
E: Pyramid Culture are great. They sing about all kinds of educational topics.
M: That’s the thing—Pyramid Culture are a great band with a great idea.
E: Great people. It’s actually interesting if you listen to what they’re singing about. You learn about concepts you wouldn’t necessarily have known about.
M: Education through bubblegum pop.

Dollarama predated the manifesto, obviously. How did you feel about it when you read it?
E: Not offended, because they’re all nice people doing interesting things. It was nice of them to include us in it. Maybe it was unexpected, but it was still appreciated. It just happened at a similar time that we had this idea, and now the Bad Bands Revolution is at full steam. It’s nice to have other people involved who can push things forward and make it more realistic to do something like this.
M: I didn’t really react at all. I just found out we were going to be on the compilation, and I thought, ‘great.’
E: Better Than Everyone are a great band.
M: But we have a beef with each other. They were upset they weren’t invited to play the Bad Bands Revolution show, so they planted some caviar on me at the show, exposing me in the middle of the set.

As what, bourgeoisie?
M: Yeah, as holding instruments that cost more than a dollar. Some people actually got mad at them for trying to come on stage. One guy held them back and told them, ‘Hey, you better not go up there. I’m an athelete.’ We had to tell him to let them go because it was part of the set.

What would be your ideal audience?
E: Tween. Seriously. I’d say 10-16. That’d be great. Disposable income, open-minded. And Dollarama is full of sex appeal, and we can use that to our advantage.

Obviously there are many similar things happening in Toronto now, but when you started the band were you aware of other people like the Nihilist Spasm Band in London, who have been improvising on junk-assembled instruments for the last 40 years?
E: I would love to play at one of their Monday night gigs in London. I’ve actually booked them twice in Toronto for my Over the Top festival. I think they’re really interesting guys. They did this without any provocation. They wanted to have fun and experiment and they weren’t aware of anything else going on around them. It’s really interesting that they’re still going strong. I guess it’s 40-odd years now. They’re still true to their ideology, which is creating these instruments and going off on them. I don’t know if we took nods from them when we started this project, it’s really interesting to see what else is out there, and be respectful to it all. It’s amazing that it goes on.

What bill did you put Nihlist Spasm Band on recently?
E: It was with Awesome and I Have Eaten the City. It worked pretty well. The audience attendance grew when they were on, but everyone worked well together. The other show I did with them was with Drums and Tuba, which was really interesting. Both bands jam on certain ideas, from different sides of the spectrum stylistically. Which worked to their advantage, because it wasn’t as if you had to hear one style for an entire evening. It wasn’t just noise or experimental music all night, it was also experimental from a jazzy/blues side. It’s great to mix and match those kind of things. Why have the same kind of music on every bill? Who wants to hear four hours of the same thing?

What would happen if Dollarama opened for the Meligrove Band? [ed note: Eric manages them]
E: It would be interesting. Obviously you never know how everyone in a crowd will react, but there’s always a few people who are into it. That’s all that matters, because you’re not always going to reach a mass audience—especially Dollarama—but even if you reach a few people, you’re still doing your part and inspiring someone or getting someone to think. That’s really important, for what we’re doing. If you can get someone to think about your concepts, then you’ve already succeeded.

Do you think the Bad Bands Manifesto is a reaction against the codification of indie rock culture as it becomes mainstream? Now there’s a new star system, and every indie rock band—no matter how humble—still has certain expectations of success, even if that just means getting a booking agent. It went from having no expectations to another set branch of the industry. So with this, where the rule book is being thrown out and it’s definitely not meant for any kind of mass consumption, do you think that plays to it?
E: I need to make it clear that our record is coming out on a major label in the early winter, and our booking agent has done a great job for us across the country. We’re going to be doing a bunch of frosh week shows. But to answer the question properly… Matthew!
M: That’s interesting, I’ve never thought about that.

It’s in the manifesto itself, and it’s one of the things that struck me. Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire played the same shows that everyone else in this town did, or they played house shows illuminated only by flashlights. I love those bands, but with that success comes a conservatism where young artists think, ‘Well, if I can just be like that, it will be my ticket.’
M: Yeah, then it’s just the indie sound like the emo sound or the grunge sound.

Whereas Bad Bands to me is all about not thinking too much about what it is or what it means, and just doing it.
E: I feel like I need to re-read the manifesto. We were just having fun. We weren’t reading too far into it.
M: We definitely didn’t read the manifesto before we submitted a song.
E: But I’m sure it’s really eloquent! I don’t know really where we stand on it, though. We’re really having fun now learning what we’re doing and again, it started as a big joke and still within reason is a big joke to an extent – because it is still just us making sounds with dollar-store material and fooling around with it. But in a weird way, I think we’re actually getting somewhere. At least we’re trying to progress past playing an open mic night and breaking things and doing Korn covers into something that, who knows where it could end up down the road. It’s not as if we’re trying to put this at the helm of our being right now, it’s just fun when it happens… If anything, this Bad Bands revolution and manifesto has taught us that it’s cool and interesting that other people have adopted this ideology, but who knows where’s it going to go after a certain point? And if you don’t like Dollarama, you can check out our ska project.
M: Which is what, Skallorama?


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