Photos by: Ryan Parker
In nine years, Sled Island has become an indispensable part of Calgary's music community. Each June the festival brings over 250 bands to town and fills the city's bars and clubs with live music. On its surface, this sounds a lot like the SXSW or NXNE model, but it's refreshing just how good-natured and pretension-free the festival is. There's very little talk of "economic impact" or "activating" the city, very few branded showcases (beyond an RSVP-driven Vice party that kind of felt out of place), no petitions to speak of; Sled Island is all about the music, and you can feel it. The bigger bands are there to push the smaller ones, it's closely curated, the band bios are well written, the festival programmers look as excited as you are (somehow Festival Manager Shawn Petsche was at every show at once), and the volunteers actually seem happy.
There were a handful of bigger headliners - Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Lightning Bolt, Television, De La Soul and Kim Gordon's Body/Head project among them - but Sled Island is about more than just a couple of names in big font. It's about stopping into the local Legion and seeing your next favourite band, staying for the set after the one you came to see, letting your friend drag you to something you've never heard of. And so, after my last week embedded in Calgary, I've decided to focus on discovery, from Canadian bands I'm already binging on Bandcamp, to experiences I didn't know I'd want to have, to acts I've come to look at in a different way. Check it out below and click play on a few things.
My experience with Fountain is the perfect example of Sled Island's community-driven discovery engine. Seeing their name on the schedule and vaguely recalling liking what I heard from their appearance on our Personal Views guide to Victoria, B.C.'s music scene, I decide to take a chance and check it out. After a song or two of spiky guitars and Mission of Burma post-punk heft, I'm hooked. Plus, there's free cotton candy, so, sold.
Sparking a conversation with the bartender at Bamboo, I learn he's the drummer of Calgary punk band Racket who, coincidentally, will be playing Chart Attack's showcase the next night at Nite Owl. I ask him what we should do at Sled Island that the program guide won't tell us and he advises us to show up the next afternoon at a place called the Red House. Though he can't give me an exact address, it's easy enough to find: it turns out the Red House is an actual red house. I follow the sounds of Wire-y time signatures and art-punk crunch to a kitchen, where there's a handful of people crammed in, sipping PBRs. And who's that playing? Fountain.
Later, throughout the week, I spot no fewer than three Fountain t-shirts, one of which is sported by Scott Munro of Viet Cong onstage at their Olympic Plaza set.
When a festival is focused on discovery, band names speak loudly. And there were some doozies on the lineup. Guantanamo Baywatch? Not bad. Bullshit Hardcore Band? Getting warmer. Meat Wave? Therrrrre you go.
The Chicago trio (who named themselves after an all-time great Onion article) were one of many punk-tinged bands at Chart Attack's two-floor showcase at Nite Owl, playing to a neon multicoloured light up dance floor and banquettes. (The downstairs had more of a library vibe; up there, we wanted to order bottle service). Their lo-fi, breakneck punk chemistry that ineffable Sled Island sweet spot and rewarded those who showed up early to see The Coathangers (whose feminist, instrument-switching, red-wine-from-the-bottle-swilling badassery was well worth showing up early for). I wasn't just into it, I was contemplating buying a t-shirt.
The Central United Church Creative Fund
Godspeed You! Black Emperor were de facto headliner at a festival where the names at the bottom of the poster matter almost as much as the names at the top. The fact that they were also the "guest curators" meant they were sharing the wealth with bands like Avec le soleil sortant de sa bouche and Big Brave (who, in conversation, Astral Swans' Matthew Swann aptly described as like "Earth fronted by Bjork"). But their two shows at The Central United Church were the big ticket of the festival (Kijiji was lighting up with people who had to be there).
The band play in low light against a backdrop of grainy black and white film projections with words like "HOPE" in all caps. The idea is to take the focus off the personalities creating the big hulking crescendos (and, from their new album, the occasional hulking Sabbath riff) and onto that overwhelming aural transcendence they're so good at building. But sight and sound are only two of five senses and the rest were being provoked by the intense heat in that church (Calgary doesn't seem to believe in A/C).
A sign at the church's concession stand (run by actual church ladies) advertised that all proceeds would go to the church's creative fund. That's going to be one well-funded church program. Before Godspeed! got on stage, the queue was practically out the door and when I finally got to the front I had to fend off a line-jumper to claim the final bottle of water. It tasted so, so sweet.
Band Dialogue IV
You didn't need a wristband for everything at Sled Island. One of its most memorable events was free and all-ages. For Band Dialogue IV, the city shut down a strip of 16th Avenue, next to Tomkins Park, and set up 14 bands, 7 facing each other on each side. Composed by Seth Olinsky of Akron/Family, the piece was both a collaboration and a conversation between many different musicians from bands like WHOOP-Szo, Septembryo and Delicate Steve. It was the first time this was conducted in Canada, and many of the players were local acts or bands in town for the festival
Standing in the middle, Seth would "conduct" by pointing at a band or a musician, who would in turn respond with a drum beat or a distorted chord. Sometimes they'd play all at once, sometimes they'd alternate, strolling the sound down the street. Towards the end, he held up a set of pages, each with a single note, say "D" or C#". When he flipped it to "*" it was funny to watch each guitarist squint, shrug and then just play noise. It was a different experience based on where you listened from, a true "you had to be there" event that's hard to explain but utterly sublime and transforming.
It's what I would have liked to experience from Godspeed!, whose mystique has been a bit dulled by overexposure and unintentional self-parody. I'm glad I got it here instead. By the end, even the musicians looked like they had experienced something utterly unique.
The large thumprint of Women
The marquee big-ticket event at Olympic Plaza was filled with bands with the Velvet Underground effect. You know, the ones who were huge sellers in their heyday, but inspired every fan to start their own band. That meant the crowd for CBGB's O.G.s Television and post-hardcore trailblazers Drive Like Jehu were filled with artist wristbands. Hometown heroes Viet Cong have transcended that status. In all honesty, beyond the nice feeling of well-played post-punk reaching more ears than it usually does, a big outdoor stage like Olympic Plaza is not the way to see them. But if you reach back to Matt Flegel and Mike Wallace's previous band, Women, and you'll find that same VU effect.
All over Sled Island, and indeed all over Calgary, you'll find young bands with Women's DNA: those shimmering jangle-punk guitar leads, those uncanny flat vocal harmonies. There's some of it in Dories, it's there in Lab Coast, you even see it in a band like Fountain. I stopped into a random all-ages daytime show at Tubby Dog (which, as a functioning hot dog restaurant/vintage arcade, is totally awesome whether or not there are bands playing) and there was a Saskatchewan band named Susan who, while head-turning on their own merits, have certainly attended a Women show or two.
The modern impact of Ex Hex
A trio of musicians from '90s alt-rock bands playing unabashed '70s-style power pop. You'd think that would be the recipe for a throwback, but seeing Ex Hex live emphasizes just how potent their impact is today.
The history of rock and roll is written by dudes. Listen to classic rock radio - the kind of guitar-heavy standards you hear blasting out of your uncle's convertible - and almost nothing passes the Bechdel test (Is there a Bechdel test for music? There should be). Mary Timony, Betsy Wright and Laura Harris take those phallocentric rockstar moves and recast their gaze. Amp climbing, guitar crossing, drumstick spinning, solos aplenty: yes, those sound like cliches when you describe them, but watching a congregation of young, female music fans cram the front of the stage to fist pump to a song like "How You Got That Girl" (I’ve been the object of your affection / I’ve been the target of your cruel intention / Oh and I know / How you got that girl") and you get it. This is alternate history big-tent Rock written by and for the people usually pushed to back of the crowd.
The uncanniness of a live podcast
One of the things that makes the podcast a distinct medium from its grandfather, radio, is that most often you listen to them alone. That creates an odd feeling of intimacy, like they're speaking directly to you, right into your ears. So there's something strange about sitting in the audience of a live one. On the one hand, you've come to see two guys shoot the shit. On the other, it's weird there are all these other people here.
Chart griller Chris Locke and the ever-hilarious Mark Little headlined the comedy program of Sled Island, but in the interest of that road-less-travelled strategy, I opted for the live taping of Locke's Utopia To Me? podcast. The premise is intriguing: Locke acts as interlocutor in a neo-Socratic thought experiment in which the guest builds an ideal world in speech. It's also just a funny vehicle for riffing about one-hit wonders and poop jokes.
That same banter is hard to pull off when you can see the people listening ("don't worry about them," said Chris Locke at one point. "We're just two guys hanging out in front of a bunch of people... who want to kill us.") But it also produced some jokes that wouldn't have happened if it was in Locke's living room instead of a bar. One frequent interrupter was named Captain Footnote and then imagined as the editor of a David Foster Wallace novel ("great stuff Dave!") and our own photographer Ryan Parker was mocked for his analogue camera (stay tuned for our Sled Island edition of Exposures). I'd describe it more, but it's hard to capture the in-the-moment humour of good banter. Plus, you can listen to it yourself on iTunes soon enough.
WHIMM in a basement
First the disclosures.
Disclosure #1: WHIMM drummer Jon Pappo used to work for Chart Attack (before I started).
Disclosure #3: Before they played the basement of said house party, I followed singer/guitarist Chris Chami to WHIMM's van so he could retrieve his amp and spot me a tall can.
So, question my bias if you want, but the specific circumstances of cramming into a tight, confined 400 degree space alongside drunk music scenesters from Toronto and Calgary for a short set of toothy post-punk made this one of the most memorable experiences of Sled Island 2015. Even if I'm fuzzy on the details.
The restorative power of instrumental doom metal
Saskatoon's Shooting Guns played an event called "Stoner Rock Guy Presents: Hangover Bangover" at 3:00 pm on the weekend. Deafening, ominous doom riffs might not sound like your particular brand of blue Gatorade, but, trust me, it works. As the floor vibrated around me and my volunteer-donated earplugs protected me, I closed my eyes, submitted to the vibrations, had a couple sips of hair of the dog, dodged the (ironic?) beach balls and, believe it or not, felt a lot better. Noted for next time.