Friday, January 12, 2007

Friends in Bellwoods

Scene-based compilations, as a rule, usually suck. There's usually one or two tracks worth salvaging for radio play or mix CDs, but more often than not the whole affair is bogged down with scene politics and nepotism. Every enterprising indie musician thinks that assembling a compilation is a great idea at some early point in their career; soon enough, they learn that it's often not much of a help to anyone, and no one buys them.

Friends in Bellwoods breaks all these rules. This is a 2CD, 36-artist compilation based around a group of friends in one band, who congregate at one house, and their extended family in Southwestern Ontario, Ottawa and Montreal. Eleven of the artists are directly related to Ohbijou, whose Casey Mejica and James Bunton assembled the whole affair; many other tracks feature members of that band as guest players.

Sounds like a navel-gazing wormhole, doesn't it? Yet I can confidently say that, without a question, this is one of the finest documents of a time and place that I've ever heard. Even the few throwaways here have a certain charm. And though I like to think I know a thing or two about what's happening in this area, ten of these artists are totally new to me. Many of the tracks fall in line with Ohbijou's brand of melancholy folk-pop, but there's so much more: electro, ambient, country, psych... enough to keep you guessing, yet consistent enough to avoid any harsh left turns. Plus, it's well sequenced, another forgotten skill with most compilations.

The word "community" gets thrown about far too often in music writing, especially when it comes to Canadians these days, but this is a living example of what the word truly means.

Both the CD release show tonight at the Tranzac and the CD itself are benefits for the always worthy Daily Bread Food Bank.

Some names you might recognize, if you've paid a modicum of attention to Toronto's indie scene in the past year: Snailhouse [from Montreal], Meligrove Band, The Acorn [from Ottawa], Rural Alberta Advantage, Forest City Lovers [from London], Kids on TV, the D'Urbervilles [from Guelph], etc.
It also marks the debut of three solo projects from members of considerably more prominent Canadian acts: Sebastien Grainger of Death From Above 1979 re-invents himself as a folkie; drummer Jeremy Gara of Arcade Fire contributes the Tim Hecker-ish electronic textures he's been playing live for a couple of years now; and the Constantines' Bry Webb sings a Lou Reed song with Mejica. His new band, the Paramedics, features Mike Feuerstack of Snailhouse, Pat Conan (ex-Tricky Woo) and others; they make their Toronto debut at the CD release show tonight at the Tranzac.

Torontopians need to hear this album out of sheer civic duty; listeners from afar should consider it an essential primer on what's happening here.

Thankfully, there's been an avalanche of press, namely this cover story in Eye by Stuart Berman. Sarah Liss at Now also had a chat.

I conducted this interview with Casey Mejica for a piece that ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record yesterday.

Casey Mejica

January 4, 2007

locale: a phoner, taking a break from her dayjob as production assistant at CITY-TV

What’s your role here?
It’s something Jamie and I took on in the summer. We took a look at all our friends around us playing music and figured we should make a compilation of all this crazy amazing stuff going on. Bellwoods is a house where I live with my sister Jenn and our roommate Kim. We recorded at the house, and this captures everything that’s gone on there in the last year or so.

How long have you been at that address?
A little more than a year. Not too long, but not long enough.

How did you find yourself in the Trinity-Bellwoods neighbourhood? Is it not ridiculously expensive to live next to a big park?

It’s not expensive at all. It’s a steal for us. (off-the-record rent disclosure) We were biking by one day and met the guy who was renovating the house. We talked to him, he was a young guy, and he said, ‘Sure, you can live here.’ And we were like, ‘Sweet!’ (laughs) I’m surprised how cheap it is. I’m sure if it was any other guy renting it, it would be really expensive.

How often do you have house shows?
Every now and then. We’ve had six or seven, just enough to make every one special.

How many of these artists have played at your house shows?
Probably eight. The rest have some sort of connection with us, either recording in the basement or having a beer with us on the front porch.

How many bands on here are directly associated with members of Ohbijou?

Ryan Carley is in We’re Marching On and Alight. Heather played bass in Gentleman Reg. Annissa plays cello on several tracks. A lot of us lend instruments to tracks on the comp. Jonas Bonnetta recorded at our house and Jamie happened to have his trumpet there, so he played on that track.

Can you think of other scene-based compilations that rank among your favourites, one that really capture a time and place?

There was the Social Arts one, that was pretty neat. I think it was called Social Hearts. That was an introduction to a lot of Guelph bands I hadn’t heard before. And the Blocks compilation that came out a couple of years ago [Toronto is the Best], I liked that as well. But other than those two, I don’t really remember any others.

Usually these are done either by a group of friends, or for political reasons, or for a radio station, and they tend to suck or just not be very consistent. I’m amazed at the consistency of this one spread over two discs, especially considering that it’s primarily a group of friends.

We weren’t expecting it to be that big. And I’m sure it could have been bigger, but I’m happy how it ended.

How important was it to focus on unreleased tracks? Why not put out greatest hits of your favourite acts? It’s not like any of them are overexposed.

This was more participatory. People had to come to our basement and record. It was nice how people would come over and sit and hang out. It’s nice for people buying it, too, to have new things. It’s nice to hear Sebastien [Grainger of Death From Above 1979] sing an acoustic song. It introduces people to things that these artists might not be known for, like [the Constantines’] Bry Webb singing quietly.

Those two artists will be surprising for people, whereas [Arcade Fire’s] Jeremy Gara, for example, has toured with his ambient soundscapey material before. But to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time his solo stuff has appeared on disc, no?

I think so. I emailed him and he was so eager to participate. That’s one thing with everyone who contributed: they were all really eager and we didn’t have to chase anyone. It all took one email and one follow-up. And it’s for a good cause, so…

It’s not paying for renos at the house, or anything.

No. Not that we don’t need them.

But those slackers in The Acorn, their track just came out on their new EP!

I know! They said they were going to give us one that was new, but they couldn’t put it together. But that’s a good track.

Are most of the people here transplants to Toronto?

A lot of these people have traveled here for school or for a change of scenery. A lot of them are from small towns.

What do you think that says about the Toronto music scene?
I think the Toronto scene is made up of small cities, small communities who like the same kind of music. Because it’s so big and populated, people naturally gravitate to others who like the same kind of music, or are inspired by what others are doing. It becomes these little pockets of people in different areas of Toronto doing their own thing and making shit happen and keeping music inspiring. Some people think Toronto is so big, but when you look at it in a different way, there are little cities everywhere.

Your house seems like a city in itself after this comp. But do you think that creative types will always end up in the big city, and are these feeder towns doomed to perpetual turnover and brain drain?

I don’t think so. Tim Ford is still doing amazing things in Brantford, and people like Jonas Bonnetta are doing really important things in places like Peterborough, keeping indie music and music in general really creative and bustling. I don’t think everyone moves here, but a lot of people do. The people who love their towns stay there and do good work there. Especially Tim Ford, but everyone knows that.

Are you very conscious of this record being a time capsule of this point in time in Toronto?

When Jamie and I were talking about it, we’ve always realised that the fun of living at this house and everyone’s bands being popular will eventually peter off. Three Gut reached a height and then eventually petered off. Everything has its moment, and it’s nice to relish it for a little bit and then move on to something else. It’s nice to have something to mark a really good time that we’re having in our lives right now.

How are things in the Ohbijou camp? What’s happened since the album came out in September?

We had some pretty amazing moments. Playing with Joanna Newsom was really amazing. She was really down to earth, and getting to play in front of her crowd of people and being well received was really heartwarming. And the Virginfest was really mindblowing, because I don’t even know how we ended up there. But getting the opportunity to play there was really nice. Meeting Wayne Coyne, someone who in our minds is really amazing, and finding out he was so humble and so nice and sat there chatting with us at breakfast. It was one of the most surreal moments, sitting there eating bacon and eggs with Wayne and his bandmates at nine o’clock in the morning and we were the only other ones in the tent. He was there from the very beginning to the very end, and sat on stage when we played and was so nice to us. It was like, wow, that’s how everyone should be in music. It was so humbling. And playing the Sarah Harmer show to save the tree in Oakville was a really great experience, especially because the tree actually got saved.

Oh, did it? I never heard the end of that story.

Yeah, it’s been preserved. It meant a lot to Ryan, especially. His grandfather is a big defender of the tree because he’s lived in Oakville for so long, and is a big guy in agriculture. He got an Order of Canada for setting up radio systems in third world countries—I don’t know, it’s a big long story that Ryan will tell you better than I will.

I also heard that you did a collaborative thing with Kids on TV for CBC Radio. How exactly did that work out?

Yeah, we did this show Fuse in front of a live audience, and it felt like a show from the 50s or something. We arrived in Ottawa and had six hours to practice together. We met the day before also to go over some things. It was really difficult to try and mix the two. With more time we could have done it better. Johnny played cowbell with us; they were kind of limited in terms of instruments. But when we accompanied them it was really exciting, and we added strings and things. Johnny said the word ‘cock’ on the radio and stripped down to his underwear; it felt like they really shook up the CBC, and it was nice to witness that. Alan Neale was just like, ‘Oh my!’ We were going to try and do it again. Kids on TV are doing a show at the Music Gallery, so we might back them up there.

It’s funny that they said the word ‘cock’ on the CBC, because I once met a DJ at either CKUT or CISM—one of the Montreal campus stations—who had been suspended for playing a Kids on TV track with the word ‘cock’ in it.

Really? Weird. Well, on the CBC they let them get away with the word ‘cockwolf,’ but when it was just the word ‘cock’ they put a chicken sound over it. There’s one song called “Breakdance Hunx” where he says it all the time, and it’s all overdubbed with a chicken, which is hilarious.

Back to the CD for a second, there are 36 people here and only 10 that I’m not familiar with. Some of them I’m curious about, particularly the Dinghies, which sounds remarkably like you, which would mean four tracks here feature you on lead vocals.

The Dinghies is Tim Fagan of We’re Marching On and myself duetting to a song that Chris Stringer—who recorded the We’re Marching On album—did all the instrumentation along with a friend and then sent it to us to do vocals. We spent one day in the basement drinking wine and singing to each other.

How many things here are one-offs? The opening track [credited to The Bellwoods Crew], obviously.

Yeah, that one and the Dinghies. That might be it. Nuts and Bahai Cassette are projects from boys that used to do Social Arts, and as far as I know they’re both continuing.

Who is Nina Nielsen of Norway?
That’s the girlfriend of Gavin Gardiner of Friday Morning’s Regret. Apparently, and I don’t know if this is true, but she’s really well known in Norway and was just nominated for something similar to the Polaris Prize. I could be wrong. But she has a really lovely voice. She lives in Toronto with Gavin, but is a Norwegian expatriate.

I hadn’t heard of Jonas Bonnetta before this comp, but I see he’s playing around quite a bit. Is he a lynchpin in Peterborough?

He recently moved there this year, from Orono, maybe. He does basement shows and has a radio show at Trent University and has a recording studio. He’s just starting to get that city stirring, kind of the same way Tim Ford did in Brantford. He’s had basement shows with the D’Urbervilles and Kat Burns and stuff. It’s starting to bustle.

Oak Oak?

That’s our roommate Kim England, and she’s never recorded or sang before in her life. She really wanted to contribute to it. We were on a farm in rural Quebec, and she wrote a tune that we all put instruments to. She’s a visual artist, but she really wanted to represent the house.

Are there other debuts here?

Hmmm. Allan Graham, who plays in Nervous Sleepers and used to play in Black Cat and Sick Lipstick, he has Elliott Smith-ish solo stuff going on. Water Colour is Ryan Carley by himself. Tusks is the new band for Samir Khan [of Kepler] and I’d never heard anything recorded by them before; they came to our basement and that was fun.

Grand Mouse House?

That’s Andrew Kinoshita, who plays mandolin with Ohbijou.

Nich Worby?

He’s from Brantford, he’s on the Ford Plant label, and used to date my sister. He recorded this album with Jamie and Heather. That was done in our basement too, with all of us yelling.

Purple Hill?

That’s Owen from From Fiction, his alt-country thing he’s doing now after the death of From Fiction, and it’s really good.

That’s a shift!

A total shift! I think his soul belongs to this type of music, because he’s really from a different time period if you meet him and talk to him. He speaks country and should be playing it, I think. Even though From Fiction was so good.

What do you think the Paramedics [Bry Webb's new band] are all about?
He’s playing with a full band and Mike Feuerstack is in it, so it should be really interesting. Sebastian Grainger is headlining the show in Toronto, and it’s him, Nick from the Illuminati and Leon [Taheny, of Germans and Final Fantasy], and it’s supposed to be really loud. I thought it would be more like the track on the disc [which is quiet and subdued] but it’s not.


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