an_oral_history_of_blocks_recording_club

It’s Gonna Be Us!: An Oral History of Blocks Recording Club

As the Toronto artist-owned music co-op becomes a memory, we look back on a generation’s legacy of local love and labour.

- Oct 5, 2015
All photos by Yuula Benivolski unless otherwise attributed.

When Toronto recording co-operative Blocks Recording Club arrived, it was fighting the odds. And for a while, it won.

Although committed to a rigid regional restriction that would only see it hawk releases from Toronto artists, Blocks was less about curating a Toronto sound, and more about creating a safe community to subvert the capitalist model of the dominant music industry and the heteronormative guitar rock that otherwise defined the local music scene when it arrived. It pursued that goal with cooperation and exclamation marks, declaring “Toronto is the best!!!” and, dictating a motto that preached, “Don’t Try! Do!”

The club built an engine that fed itself: a network of artists that assisted each other in recording, manufacturing, distributing, and promoting their work. It became synonymous with “Torontopia,” a regional cultural renaissance and optimism that encouraged a surge of philosophical engagement that spread to urban planners and lifeworld archivists.

What started as a small-scale curatorial project operated out of a South Annex house was eventually fully incorporated as an artist-owned music co-operative. It released more than 70 recordings from a stable that ranged from successful Toronto artists like Fucked Up, Owen Pallett, and Katie Stelmanis (of Austra) to the expressly uncommercial likes of MC gangs that screamed over iPod “drummers” and trios that turned their instruments into musical projectiles.

Plagued with burnout in its later years, Blocks officially folded on May 9 of this year at a special farewell concert at Toronto’s Tranzac Club, a just peculiar enough base that Blocks accessed for office and event space for most of its life. The final show took a deep dive into Blocks’s catalogue, with short sets from early staples like club co-founder Steve Kado’s Barcelona Pavilion and Ninja High School projects, The Phonemes, Matias Rozenberg, and Nifty; Blocks lifers Bob Wiseman and Hank; a “surprise” Les Mouches reunion; and Katie Stelmanis’s post-Blocks project Austra. In classic anti-capitalist form, Blocks also liquidated its remaining catalogue stock at a pay-what-you-can rate. It was a night that showcased the club’s eclectic archivist tendencies and its legacy as a local incubator.

If that farewell concert closed the book on Blocks, the recent re-release of Les Mouches' 2004 album You’re Worth More to Me Than 1000 Christians opens a new one. It brings one of its most influential archival releases over to the roster of Orchid Tapes, leaving Blocks as a memory, but one that continues to reverberate across the Toronto music scene. In light of this, Chart Attack checked in on some of the voices from throughout Blocks’s existence to piece together an ecstatic record of this Toronto institution’s legacy.

Small Fires Burn Bright 

In the early 2000s, Sick Lipstick and Barcelona Pavilion members Mark McLean and Steve Kado hatched the idea for a tapes and mini-CDs-only label over the course of discussions they shared in Toronto’s South Annex neighbourhood. It seems fitting Blocks had its beginnings in such a basic community exercise.

Steve Kado (Blocks co-founder; Blocks BoD 2005-2007; musician, The Barcelona Pavilion, Ninja High School, The Blankket, The Hidden Cameras): [Mark McLean] was a couple blocks away from where I was living in the South Annex. I was living on Oxford Street and later moved to 19 Major Street, and Mark was living on I think Brunswick Ave. with [Dennis Amos] from the Sick Lipstick and The Creeping Nobodies later. We were just having neighbourhood discussions, more or less.

Matt Smith (Blocks president; musician, Nifty, Les Mouches, Owen Pallett): [19 Major] was this house that just kind of had a bit of everybody in it. Steve Kado lived there, for a time Dan Snaith from Caribou lived there, I lived there, Dan Vila from Double Double Land lived there, Robin Fry, Jon McCurley, Wes Allen, Eugene Slonimerov. It was like this whole kind of world until the house caught on fire and everyone had to move out.

There was very much a Do atmosphere. It was just, we’re doing this. It’s happening. It’s on.

Maggie MacDonald
Steve Kado: Our original discussion was that [Blocks] would be a mini-CDs-only label that would have pretty extravagant packaging. And that was largely because both of us were in bands that had such choppy and spazzy sounds. Mark was in the Sick Lipstick and I was in the Barcelona Pavilion. The Barcelona Pavilion’s complete recorded works are under 20 minutes, so there was actually no reason to press a 12-inch, even considering all of it, let alone when we would come up with parts of it. So the mini-CDs thing sort of made sense, at least on that level. And they seemed really nice; they were just these portable things; it was kind of the perfect format, especially for shorter-length recordings. Now it’s a complete weird joke. I don’t even have the means to play a Barcelona Pavilion recording anymore.

Maggie MacDonald (make-day coordinator; musician, The Barcelona Pavilion, The Hidden Cameras): Blocks was being discussed as we were assembling [Barcelona Pavilion] covers in Steve’s basement. That was really cool. There was very much a Do atmosphere. It was just, we’re doing this. It’s happening. It’s on. So it was exciting.

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Maggie MacDonald onstage with The Barcelona Pavilion

Behold! The Hand! Of Men!

Heteronormative guitar music was ubiquitous in ’90s and early 2000s Toronto. But still, institutions like the Hidden Cameras and Will Munro’s Vazaleen parties were laying a safer groundwork for the far left-of-centre.

Maggie MacDonald: The music coming out of Toronto that I saw was very male, it was very straight, and it was very guitars. It was like keyboards are not allowed, synthesizers are not allowed. This male, heterosexual guitar rock was ’90s Toronto for the most part.

Coming out of the ’90s and early 2000s, mainstream Can-rock – it’s hard to picture something so grim. I Mother Earth? Moist? This is terrible!

Steve Kado
Owen Pallett: [Les Mouches] was really borne out of the kind of Wavelength scene, and the Wavelength scene at the time included The Hidden Cameras and to a degree Broken Social Scene, but was more focused around this kind of social scene. It was like every Sunday people would go to Wavelength and hear new bands. And it was kind of a rock scene. There weren’t a lot of laptops onstage. It was a rock scene, it was a noise scene, and it was kind of geared towards experimentalism.

Steve Kado: Growing up in Toronto, you grow up actually near the MuchMusic building. Mainstream CanRock happens here. And coming out of the ’90s and early 2000s, mainstream CanRock – it’s hard to picture something so grim. That whole scene’s changed a little bit, and we can debate what’s good or bad about the situation now, but I Mother Earth? Moist? This is terrible.

Owen Pallett: I think people had a very different relationship with the mainstream culture. It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but there was kind of a combative relationship between people who made so-called art music and people who made mainstream music.

Liz Hysen (musician, Picastro): There was a lot of music happening, but I just didn’t feel like there was a ton of support for if you were even just a little bit out.

KIDS ON TV teaser for Vazaleen - July 3, 2011

Maggie MacDonald: Will Munro had Vazaleen once a month, and that was rock ‘n’ roll queer bar. In the ’90s a lot of the gay clubs in Toronto were gay or lesbian. It wasn’t a “queer”/“whatever” kind of vibe and it was often clubs. It was a certain vibe and it was more Church Street. Then Will came along with rock ‘n’ roll queer bar, where you’re going to hear punk music, you’re going to hear the Velvet Underground, and then amazing no wave stuff. And anyone can come; it’s queer, but very open; it’s not “this is for gay men” or “this is for lesbians,” or whatever; it was everything, including just artists and weird people, and that really opened up a space that I think helped to shift the music scene.

Steve Kado: The early batch of Blocks stuff all came out of people who were involved with or around the Hidden Cameras – even though it was musically quite different from the Hidden Cameras, it was very much a scene connected to the arts and not just a bunch of college educated, straight men, but gay people and people with other concerns.

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Steve Kado leads a Ninja High School singalong.

Toronto Is The Best!!!

With the release of the 2004 compilation CD Toronto Is The Best!!!, Blocks paced out its parameters: the club would exist to document, encourage, connect, and enthuse about local music that didn’t fit the mould. Blocks became synonymous with “Torontopia,” a term Steve Kado was credited with popularizing; its meaning has always had a life of its own.

Steve Kado: I forget the guy who actually coined the term, but it was actually a joke. He had an idea for a joke magazine that was to celebrate the banalities of Toronto, but celebrating them as if they were happening for the first time. And that joke existed in response to an extant cultural landscape in Toronto that was completely ahistorical – could not remember itself for a second. Like there was no movie about Fifth Column that you could watch to understand what was going on. So you were just essentially living in this vortex of the centre of the English Canadian culture industry. But only the part of it that is actually the worst. And so its initial production was sarcastic.

Maggie MacDonald: It was adopted as this kind of “Toronto is the best!” thing, and then it became really associated with Blocks, and then Coach House did those uTOpia books.

Steve Kado: There’s stuff about liking and caring about Toronto in this ambiguous way that’s part of the original half-joke version of what Torontopia meant that I think has really come out in the latest Drake record. You know what I mean? Where he feels bad for not being around and really enjoys being there, really enjoys coming from there, but at the same time has a very complicated relationship to some of the more provincial aspects of Toronto and feels this weird combo of guilt and pleasure surrounding it.

Torontopia wasn't Metric and Broken Social Scene. Torontopia was a queer, DIY scene, and it was running out of the basement of 19 Major.

Maggie MacDonald
Maggie MacDonald: Has the meaning changed? I think so. I saw a Vice blog about New Fries, these kind of feminist and queer and really awesome people – I’m friends with some of them – and this review of the band came out, and it said they are the “anti-Torontopia” and the reviewer said Torontopia was Metric and Broken Social Scene, and I was like, no. Those were bands with a lot of fans and …  they were a different social scene. Torontopia was a queer, DIY scene, and it was running out of the basement of 19 Major, and it was a specific crew of people who were all going to each others’ shows and stuff.

Steve Kado: I think maybe a part of the Blocks Torontopia thing that was lacking was we essentially were talking about a tiny part of Toronto. We were talking about west of Spadina and east of High Park, south of Bloor – and maybe the Island[s], every other summer the Leslie [Street] Spit. That was kind of it. And Toronto’s hugeQ I’m from North York, and North York itself is gigantic, and there’s all that stuff out in Scarborough, and there’s all that stuff out in Etobicoke. There’s so much to Toronto.

Maggie MacDonald: When I travel out of town or when I used to travel as a musician, people would ask, “Do you know Broken Social Scene? Do you know this band?” and it’s like, yeah, everyone knows each other. Even across Canada a lot of artists know each other, but in the mid-2000s (things have changed since then) I think I described Hidden Cameras and Broken Social Scene like this: if the Hidden Cameras are this queer family for whom Will Munro was like our Andy Warhol, and we’re Will Munro’s Velvet Underground, then Broken Social Scene are our straight cousins who are more successful.

splash-experiment-blocks_bent

New Materiology

Shortly after co-founding Blocks with Steve Kado, Mark McLean left for Ottawa, and as 2008-elected Blocks president and Kids On TV bassist John Caffery wrote for Daily Xtra in 2009, “the tapes and mini-CDs idea left with him.” Kado continued operating Blocks with Liisa K Graham, the sister of McLean’s Sick Lipstick bandmate Alan Graham, a “book/arts person” who was “fascinated with producing non-unique multiples and making special objects with a craft care.” A big part of the Blocks charm was the emphasis it placed on physical releases – one-of-a-kind hand-assembled packages assembled at casual production gatherings called “make-days.”

Maggie MacDonald: At the very beginning we didn’t even call them make-days. You’d just go to 19 Major and do this thing. But then at some point calling them make-days came up, which was really great; I think that’s a nice way to put it.

Steve Kado: The early ones would be pretty chill. They would be around the kitchen table at my house or something like that and people would get out all of the supplies and we would sit around and have coffee or get rotis or pizza or whatever and fold a bunch of stuff and talk shit about people or talk about our lives. It was a nice exercise in community building. In a band there’s more than one person, so that’s a source of sort of ready labour, and in a few bands, there’s a lot of people. So it put out through the mass emails that we sent around that Bob’s record is coming out, it’s time to go make Bob’s record, or, you know, it’s time to go make this, it’s time to go make that.

Liz Hysen: It only really works if you have two people or more, but you have a system where you take the sleeve out, you put the actual record in, you put the download card in, you wrap it up; it’s kind of like a conveyer belt assembly.

Matt Smith: They were somewhere between a college Marxist reading group and... they reminded me of going to church socials with my family when I was young. It was a fairly disparate group of people – not entirely disconnected, but sometimes less connected than you’d think – with people who were working for Blocks and people who were working for their release, and they’re bringing some of their friends and band members and stuff like that. And they were fun. They were basically just like a pizza party.

ARMY GIRLS MY KIN

Maggie MacDonald: I think that was really important and really wonderful, having this direct contact with putting pieces together, collectively. I think all great art that I can think of, whether it’s movements in literature or music, comes from a kind of community. I don’t really see a lot of real examples of alone genius like Zeus popping something fully formed out of a brain. When I think about great artists, writers, or creators, I can also name other artists or people around them who were also doing stuff and providing feedback or helping directly.

Steve Kado: They used to be very focused on individual artists and individual events, and then, as the catalogue grew, we would get a distribution order, and there would be three of these, four of those, and there would be some mail order that would need to happen.

Matt Smith: It was kind of Sisyphean, this endless task you just keep doing that defined the joy and all the tertiary conversation and overhearing or mis-overhearing of conversation going on. It was this permanent breaking the ice while folding records and getting to know people.

Carmen Elle (musician, Army Girls, DIANA, Katie Stelmanis’s backing band): I only ever managed to make it to one make-day and it was for my own album! There weren't too many people there – maybe four or five of us. We ate takeout and had a really nice hang while we worked. There's a real vibe up there in [the Tranzac’s] zine library.

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In 2005, recordings from artists like Final Fantasy were attracting attention and purchases. Increased demand led to craft compromises.

Steve Kado: As interest in the label increased we sort of tricked ourselves in a weird way. I think a lot of releases going forward would’ve benefitted from staying craft manufactured. But distributors were talking to us and they were like, “We can’t handle a recording that’s got all this stuff hanging off of it. Make it a normal shape,” and we were like, “Well, what do we want to do? Do we want artists to have their work out there, or…” and so we would have these discussions and eventually we would end up mass-manufacturing more things. And at that point, things were also increasing. The catalogue was quite large. There were a lot of balls in the air.

I was happy that my records were doing well enough that there might create a cash flow. But the extra work just made people want to cut their losses and do other things.

Owen Pallett
Owen Pallett [from a 2014 Chart Attack interview]: I think Steve Kado pinpoints the success of [the first Final Fantasy record] Have A Good Home as being death blow for Blocks Recording Club, at least in spirit. I was happy that Have A Good Home at least guaranteed a future for Blocks. Every indie label needs its meal tickets. K Records wouldn’t exist without Beck's One Foot In The Grave. I was happy that at least in some small way, my records were doing well enough that there might create a cash flow. But the extra work just made people want to cut their losses and do other things.

Steve Kado: The first Final Fantasy record came out, and it initially had a relatively handmade insert that involved a little bit of folding, and then Owen went on tour with the Arcade Fire, and… the demand for that record was insane. Well, it’s relatively modest, actually, in the scope of the music industry. But we had never encountered anything like it before, and it was insane for us. We were just spending all the time to produce these records. This basically signals that we should definitely just call in an order and have a factory produce all the material we would need for a Final Fantasy record.

In that same year, Blocks incorporated as a co-operative.

Steve Kado: It was just too much money rolling around for the Board to continue to be an unincorporated, personal project.

I had this dream, essentially, that the co-op model would place us as musicians in solidarity and on the same level with agricultural and industrial labour. That we weren’t so special, we weren’t this one kind of people who got one kind of treatment, and working people were another kind of people and they get another kind of treatment.

There are other worker’s co-ops in Toronto, like Urbane Cyclist and various food co-ops and farm co-ops and community-centred agriculture co-ops. So I thought if through being a co-operative we get deals at credit unions so that maybe the cost of doing our financial business goes down and if we get deals on bicycle stuff and deals on food as a result of solidarity with our other co-operative friends in other sectors and we can do things for them, then possibly we are going to be in a position where we have a far more sustainable financial relationship to the world that then just requires less money. So instead of relying on a backhanded government subsidy to make our lives easier as musicians, we could instead rely on just lowering our costs through solidarity with others.

2006 POLARIS MUSIC PRIZE - September 18, 2006 - Phoenix, Toronto

Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett) wins the inaugural Polaris Prize in 2006. Photo by: Dustin Rabin.

O[p]en [W]allett

In 2006, Owen Pallett’s Final Fantasy project claimed the inaugural Polaris Prize and its (then) $20,000 purse with its sophomore release, He Poos Clouds. After helping pay off his boyfriend’s student loans, Pallett donated the remaining prize money to Blocks, affirming Blocks’ future and encouraging new interest in the label.
Final Fantasy: He Poos Clouds (release version)

Steve Kado: Final Fantasy was – for the scale we were on – outrageously successful. That allowed us to put out so many other records. And him winning that prize money meant that we were actually able to sustainably continue for about a year. [The prize money] essentially enabled post-Polaris Prize Blocks to actually release records.

John Caffery (Blocks president; musician, Kids on TV): It allowed us to plan much further ahead than we had been at that stage. And it also felt like one of our artists was being recognized. This was really exciting! It creates a lot of potential and a sense of hope within folks, and just the sense that, “Oh my goodness, these little projects that we’ve got going on are actually being heard.” And I think it just created the sense for a while that anything could happen.

[Final Fantasy winning the Polaris Prize] created the sense for a while that anything could happen.

John Caffery
AGO-0901smallBlocks liquidated its remaining catalogue at a PWYC rate

Bitter Tears

Post-Polaris, Blocks responded to industry trends with a new era of release format experimentation. Wading into the new territory of online music sales with digital-exclusive releases and a digital singles series, the club also acknowledged consumer interests by producing vinyl records for more of its artists. But early Blocks peers were getting older and starting families, and the later Blocks roster lacked the social bonds that made early Blocks such a community hive. Distribution fell behind and make-days became few and far between, and as the club’s final president, Matt Smith reflects that when they did happen, they were like a “permanent breaking the ice.” In early 2015, Blocks announced it was closing.

John Caffery: There had always been this tradition of make-days and helping each other out to assemble a release. So initially I felt like there was a tension there in terms of what does it mean to go digital only? What does it mean to be on iTunes? In some ways it felt very incongruent to our whole approach,. But there’s a lot of artists involved [with Blocks] and different people felt differently, and so we went ahead with that experiment, and I think in terms of digital only, it was helpful. Not everyone is always able to put the time and energy into a physical release – or have the resources, necessarily. So it just made it possible to sometimes fast track [releases] and just get music out.

Steve Kado: In retrospect – at least from the period when I was in charge of Blocks – it would’ve been smarter if we had just kept everything much smaller. We could’ve made the packaging nicer, and the print runs of everything smaller. We made a lot of weird compromises for scale and for distribution. And scale never really embraced us.


Carmen Elle: By the time [Army Girls] joined on with Blocks it was becoming clear that the label was in a slightly different place than when I was in high school. I was really into the way things were run by an elected board of artists I know and respect but kept hearing whispers of “the way things were.” It was still a great label to be on. I love the record we released on Blocks and despite being on other labels since Blocks, have never felt as comfortable as I did in those days.

John Caffery: It needs a lot of energy to keep it going. There’s a lot of different pieces to hold.

Carmen Elle: To me, the shut down of Blocks felt like a merciful inevitability. You see, it was a bit of an insular project. It was pure. The people involved, though many, maintained a hands-on approach. No one outsourced. Everyone pitched in. The life of an artist has a somewhat predictable trajectory. We dream. We conceive of a plan. We work. We set goals and reach them. We move on. The label lived out a full lifecycle and then failed to reproduce again.

Maggie MacDonald: It really was something that depended on community effort and a lot of volunteer efforts, and organizations that are based on people giving up themselves and giving up their time. If you get a few key volunteers that are unable to do it anymore or some people move onto working internationally, it can be hard to sustain that.

The label lived out a full lifecycle and then failed to reproduce again.

Carmen Elle
John Caffery: I also personally don’t want to see it drag on for years and be in a shadow-self – to have a very productive 10 years and then have a very unproductive 10 years. I’d rather get closure on it and be able to walk away feeling really good and satisfied.

Maggie MacDonald: It’s good to call something a moment and say “this happened” and give it an ending rather than let it trail off. It’s really nice to kind of say, “Wait, we did all this stuff together, that was great, let’s get together and celebrate that.”

John Caffery: There was always just a sense of local love.

Matt Smith: In a chaotic time when everyone’s lives got chaotic, so did the label. And as everyone got old, so did the label. And that’s all it is now. It’s just a document from a generation.

Carmen Elle: Blocks was a beautiful dream made by highly creative people, run in a highly democratic way. To me it's more important that Blocks began, than it is that it ended.

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