You kids have it so good these days what with owning your own glockenspiels and having thousands of Facebook friends you can call on to gang-sing in your viral video campaigns and such.
There was a time, though, when being a Canadian rock 'n' roller wasn't so easy. Back in the '80s and '90s if you weren't Kim Mitchell you had to learn to hunt as well as play guitar just to prevent yourself from starving to death on tour.
But with the bad also came the good. From such harsh conditions came great music. And there'd probably be no Arcade Fire and Fucked Up and PS I Love You and their kind standing before you today if it wasn't for their avant forefathers like Sloan, Slow, and Change Of Heart. Smart-type music writers Michael Barclay, Ian Jack and Jason Schneider figured that out a decade ago and wrote a book about it — Have Not Been The Same: The Canrock Renaissance, 1985-1995.
To celebrate the until-recently out-of-print book's tenth anniversary, the authors have updated and released a new edition of Have Not Been The Same and are hosting an accompanying Weeping Tile reunion concert/launch party in Toronto on Friday.
CHARTattack talked to Jason Schneider about what just might be the most important, formative time in Canadian music history.
CHARTattack: What is the book Have Not Been The Same about?
The book is about the history of the Canadian music scene between the decade 1985-'95 and that was the period the three of us feel that is probably the turning point in Canadian popular music history where a lot of the artists and the industry itself really came of age.
Why put out a tenth anniversary edition of the book? What's different?
The book sold out its first run within a few years after the initial 2001 publication. We were thrilled by that, but the downside was that since it was such a big book it was such a huge investment for our publisher to undertake a second printing. So it just kind of laid there for awhile and during that time we were always surprised when people would ask us about it and they'd then say they couldn't find copies anywhere. So with the 10th anniversary coming around we felt this was the perfect opportunity to make a pitch to the publisher to get it out there again and for us to look at it again with fresh eyes and clean up some of the things that have bugged us about it for the longest time and also do some updates on a lot of the artists who are still relevant today.
Where does the title come from?
The title is from a song of the same name by a Vancouver band named Slow who were around briefly in the mid-'80s. To me it was the greatest rock 'n' roll song I had ever heard in my life. It became kind of an obsession with me, and when we came around to doing this project really it was one of the cornerstones. We wanted to tell the story of the band Slow as part of the Vancouver punk narrative and just using that title as the overriding narrative of the book just made complete sense — since here was a song personally, for me, that was a dividing line between the stuff I had grown up listening to, the classic rock and the heavy metal, and this brave new world of indie rock that was opening up before my eyes.
Who are the bands and the scenes you cover in the book?
We wanted to strike a pretty even balance between the bands that clearly had a huge impact in the mainstream – The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, Sloan, Sarah McLachlan, Daniel Lanois — but also explore the context of where they came from through the stories of bands from the same scenes that they came out of, bands that inspired them, bands that they were friends with. The Vancouver punk scene, the Montreal underground scene, the Toronto underground scene of the early '80s, all of these cities had wildly diverse songwriters and somehow they all kind of co-mingled on a pretty friendly basis, which is really the heart of the whole story.
Do you remember when it was standard to hate The Tragically Hip? The whole "it's not the band I hate, it's their fans." It was easy to hate the Hip around then. It feels as though the perception of that band has softened over the years. What's changed?
Initially what made them so great and what people connected to was Gord Downie coming out with these songs about real life Canada, the real life experience of living in Canada and expressing it in such a powerful and attractive way, and not the way we were used to.
So, deeper than Stompin' Tom?
Yeah, beyond that saccharine CBC way that a lot of us grew up with. And again, for me personally, it was something I had never experienced before on that first bunch of records. But then as things always do with mainstream acceptance, a lot of people jumped on board with the band who possibly were into them for not the same idealistic reasons that some of us were initially.
They just liked the band for Toronto Maple Leafs references.
Yes, exactly. And that became a turnoff for a lot of people. And in some ways the band coasted on that for a long time musically. But yeah, in the last few years I've been seeing an effort by the group to return to their roots and get on the same page again both lyrically and musically striving for something different.
It's kind of taken for granted now, but what was it like during the indie breakthrough period where independent bands like Barenaked Ladies, Lowest Of The Low and Moxy Fruvous got huge?
It was a very personal thing for me because this was music that I loved, and at the same time, being able to see these bands in small clubs in my hometown on a regular basis I was able to forge personal relationships with a lot of these people. So yeah, it was an incredibly special time to have this experience of feeling like I'm part of a movement. Like, I'm not just reading about it in Spin Magazine, this is really happening.
What role do you think indie labels like Mint and Sonic Unyon and Nettwerk played in shaping this era?
These labels were the product of very specific visions of the people who created them. The guys at Sonic Unyon — Mark [Milne], Sandy [McIntosh] and Tim [Potocic] — they knew exactly what they wanted to do and the kind of bands they wanted to work with. The same thing especially with Terry McBride at Nettwerk, he remains to this day part of that old school cutthroat business mentality, but he knows how to find artists that he can work with and groom to the Nettwerk philosophy and make it successful. And he did that from day one with Nettwerk. It's all about having an artistic vision, and that's what these labels had. And I'm not sure that this exists to the same extent nowadays when so much of the business is geared towards online marketing and getting that quick hit with one artist.
"Is this artist going to get a car commercial?" is the new "Is this going to get on the radio?"
Let's talk about a few bands from back then and where they are now. Weeping Tile.
Weeping Tile were one of the great hopes for me from the first EP I heard. I thought this was a classic Canadian band. Great songs, had that real kind of Neil Young vibe, but with a real attractive female singer. It just seemed like a natural thing to work, but for whatever reason it didn't. But there's no surprise that Sarah Harmer has gone on to the great career that she has. Looking back at it now I guess being in a band like Weeping Tile was just a bit too edgy at that time for the mainstream to accept, but when Sarah started performing under her own name that's when people started taking notice.
What about Thrush Hermit?
I think with them it was possibly more of a case of too much too soon. It's incredible to look back and realize these guys were doing their thing in high school. Writing such great songs and going on to sign with a major American label by the time they were 20. It's incredible. But that whole process has obviously sped up the maturation process of Joel Plaskett and he's grown into one of the most consistent Canadian artists nowadays. He really should be a lot more recognized around the world. But he's doing fine and it all goes back to those basement shows in Halifax when they were all young and trying to do as many drugs as they could.
Both Joel Plaskett and Sarah Harmer are now Massey Hall-level artists. And they used to be in outsider bands during that era.
That's totally right. That speaks a lot to the entire era that we cover. People have grown up with these bands in a lot of ways and really stuck by them and it shows how much this music resonated with people then and still does now. You just have to look around to see how many of these bands have been reuniting in the last little while. This music still means a lot to people across Canada.
By Divine Right?
That's another question mark of "Why weren't they bigger than they were?" To me they were the kind of band who if they were from the U.K. or something, they had such great pop songs, that they would've connected so much stronger I think in places where that tradition already existed. But being in Toronto I think they were just a bit ahead of their time. And to have Feist in that band says a lot. I'm sure she learned a lot of her craft working with Jose [Contreras] and I really hope he gets the recognition he deserves at some point.
And what about Merrill Nisker?
When I first encountered her at Sneaky Dee's in Toronto it was something I wasn't prepared for at that time. I saw her as this very strong feminist voice. And she was doing something that was deliberately going against the grain in Toronto. At that time I didn't have much hope that she would go on to big things. But after she had her transformation and went off to Berlin and came back as Peaches that's when I wasn't surprised and I was like, "OK, this makes sense." She was picturing this outcome for herself eventually that she would become this artist. It takes some time for people sometimes to get that way. The other great thing about this era was that it allowed these artists to develop kind of on their own terms and their own timeline and the results speak for themselves.
What do bands like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene and Death From Above 1979 owe the generation that came before them?
In practical terms, apart from a lot of the indie labels starting at that time, bands from that era really paved the way for the national touring circuit that we take for granted nowadays. Back then Change Of Heart would basically stop in every town and find a gig wherever they could and when they came back six months later there would be an audience there for them. The real grassroots work that happened in that period, particularly from '85-'90, was crucial in establishing this "alternative," for lack of a better word, to what most bands grew up believing — which was: we must get a major label deal, we must get an agent, we must start out as a cover band... That was the mindset, and these bands threw that rulebook out the window and they did original music right from the start and that's what bands from today should look back on and take a lot of pride in and motivation from.
Weeping Tile, King Cobb Steelie and Kevin Kane will be performing at Toronto's Lee's Palace on June 10 to celebrate the 10th anniversary reprint of Have Not Been the Same: The Canrock Renaissance, 1985-1995. Tickets are $15 in advance and proceeds will be going to CAMH.