Tag Archives: indie music

Weird Canada is getting behind cassettes in a big, $50K way

Canadian indie music website to use FACTOR grant to distribute music, champion technological accessibility

Cassettes overflow a KFC bucket display atop a table for Sonic Boom’s Cassette Fair held Sept. 7. The event was held in honour of the first annual international Cassette Store Day, where Weird Canada spoke of plans to feature cassette releases in its upcoming FACTOR grant-funded distribution service. Photo: Tom Beedham

Cassettes overflow a KFC bucket display atop a table for Sonic Boom’s Cassette Fair, held Sept. 7. The event was held in honour of the first annual international Cassette Store Day, where Weird Canada spoke of plans to feature cassette releases in its upcoming FACTOR grant-funded distribution service. Photo: Tom Beedham

On Sept. 7, a hefty serving of audiocassettes filled a KFC bucket to the point of overflow atop a table in the Annex location of Toronto record supermarket Sonic Boom. Ripe for consumption and low in calories, what’s been dismissed by some as a stale format for decades, the audio cassette has seen something of a revival amongst recording artists in recent years, this year prompting an inaugural, international celebration of the medium – labeled Cassette Store Day (hence the format’s prominent situation at Sonic Boom on the Saturday).

While Sonic Boom’s locations are most revered for the breadth of music they offer consumers through vinyl media, its Annex shop spent the day housing a “Cassette Fair” at the front of its store featuring offerings from cassette-release toting labels Arachnidiscs, Artificial, Awesome Tapes From Africa, Bennifer Editions, Burger, Buzz, Daps, Feather Hat Guy, Healing Power, Heretical Objects, Hosehead, Inyrkdisk, Kinnta, Mathematic Recordings, Medusa Editions, Not Unlike, Optical Sounds, Pansy Twist, Pleasence, Reel Cod, and Telephone Explosion.

Also tabling at the event were representatives of renowned indie music website Weird Canada, a publisher about to get behind cassettes in a big, $50,000 way.

After a stressful grant application process that had Weird Canada Executive Director Marie LeBlanc Flanagan up late writing (and rewriting) a proposal to the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records (FACTOR) on Valentine’s Day earlier this year, in the spring, Weird Canada was informed it would receive a $50,000 FACTOR grant to build an online store and distribution service.

“Basically what we’re going to try to do is connect record stores with bands, with fans, with labels, and send these cassettes all over Canada,” Flanagan told Burden of Salt while taking time out from speaking with consumers and those curious about the table she was working at the fair.

But why cassettes?

“Well, I feel that we as a culture, and our generation, really desire a physical medium,” said Flanagan. Speaking on the subject at a bustling record store, it was a suggestion that preached to the choir, but it didn’t yet clarify why people should be interested in what some now call an archaic recording medium.

Flanagan went on to explain that people should look to cassettes because they open doors for artists that other physical media cannot.

“We desire something physical that we can touch and collect and keep as a symbol of our music, but it’s really hard to release physical media,” Flanagan elucidated. “It’s expensive; it’s complicated; cassettes are the cheapest, easiest, actual physical, tangible media that we can access. The accessibility of technology means a lot.”

In deed, Weird Canada founder Aaron Levin has had some personal experience dealing with pressing records to vinyl.

“I put out a record and, yeah, it’s really expensive,” said Levin, leaning in front of Flanagan to get a word in. Levin also commented that the fallout from pursuing that particular physical medium can become intrusive. “When [records] don’t sell you have like 300lbs of stock that you have to live with.”

He calls cassettes “a very viable and accessible option for people who can’t release vinyl.”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Weird Canada will even roll out some cassette releases. After recording a Wyrd Fest showcase the publication threw at Toronto’s Music Gallery, the website has been granted release permissions from the venue to sell 100 cassettes of the concert, which featured performances from Jennifer Castle and Colin Bergh covering each others’ material, Zachary Fairbrother Feedback Guitar Orchestra, and Soul Sisters Supreme. They also have a project called The Weird Canada Releases, which will give rise to some cassettes.

While some have railed against the reemergence of cassettes as signaling cultural decay favouring an inferior recording medium and consumer exploitation, pointing to how less of the information recorded in a studio can be heard from cassettes when the medium is held against other formats like vinyl, Flanagan and Levin stand by the medium and say the “audiophile” argument is pushing a moot point.

“These cassettes aren’t taking away from records that would’ve been, they’re creating room for music to emerge that wouldn’t be without the cassette,” said LeBlanc. “This is a space in between for people that can’t [afford to] press a record.”

The argument also falls victim to deflation when it is brought up that most contemporary cassette releases come packaged with download cards linking the purchaser to digital recordings of the same music.

“But people don’t just want the download card, they want the cassette,” stressed LeBlanc. “They want the art and they want to touch it.”

“I think people want things to sound good, but most importantly they want the result of their creative expression to exist in the world and to be enjoyed by people. And tapes are right now the best format through which to do this,” said Levin.

Weird Canada’s distro is set to arrive in January 2014.

Unleashing a dragon at eBar

Polaris shortlisters Yamantaka // Sonic Titan bring theatrical concert act to Guelph

Jan. 24, 2013

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan played eBar (Guelph) on Jan. 17, 2013.

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan played eBar (Guelph) on Jan. 17, 2013.

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan (YT//ST) fans who turned out to eBar on Jan. 17 might have been confused when the headliner began its set with just three members occupying the stage, but any confusion was soon resolved after a dragon parted the sea of concertgoers, slowly worming its way up to the stage.

You read that correctly: YT//ST unleashed a dragon on its audience.

Held aloft by YT//ST director and vocalist Ruby Kato Attwood and Ange Loft (vocals, percussion), the black-and-white paper dragon made an appearance in the vein of Chinese Dragon Dance ceremonies dating back to the Han Dynasty, and it was just one of the many cultural signifiers concert-goers were presented that night.

This is standard fare for the YT//ST camp, and mention of the routine only brushes the surface of what the group has in store.

Originally formed in Montreal by Ruby Kato Attwood and Alaska B – both of mixed Asian-European heritage – YT//ST identifies itself to its audiences as an “Asian, Indigenous and Diasporic Art Collective,” and as such, cultural aesthetics gleaned from the Eastern and Western cultures (Nôh, J-Pop, C-pop, manga, Chinese Opera, First Nations Mythology, Iroquois core, prog, black metal, punk and noise rock, to name a few discernable influences) are staples in their diverse output – musically, visually, theatrically, and philosophically. The group also invented the term “Noh-Wave” (a pun on Nôh theatre and the stripped down, experimental No Wave scene of mid-’70s New York City) as a genre category that affords them to avoid the exhausting practice of placing art within predetermined boundaries when being asked to describe their style to outsiders.

“People wanna gatekeep and we’re just kind of more interested in kind of… You know, you point in a billion directions at once and they’re too busy looking, and by the time they look back you’ve already stolen everything,” Alaska B – who performs vocals, drums, and keys, in addition to carrying out other duties for YT//ST – told The Ontarion in a back office of the eBar while opening acts primed the audience for the group’s Guelph performance.

To wit, the process of presenting appropriated (“mal-appropriated,” B emphasizes) cultural aesthetics in a hybrid pastiche is a controversial avenue for any artistic undertaking to pursue. But it’s one B and the rest of the group will argue for.

“I think that’s literally a bullshit catch-22,” said B. “You police expression and then you selectively grant – based on your political opinion – what is appropriate, authentic, or real. And I think that’s a trap that you fall into automatically, based on your ethnic background, cultural appearance, et cetera. And that’s something you can’t escape from.”

“What I find funny is how whenever we played without saying who we were, people [said] it anyways. And so, it was like, ah, we’ll just say what it is and that means that we can have the conversation on our terms.”

The group provides representations of cultures that are selective and at times potentially cartoonish, but B maintains the collective refrains from participating in exotification of its source cultures because of its authentic approach to the subject matter; B is of Chinese-Irish heritage, Attwood is of Japanese-Scottish descent, and Loft is from the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, for starters.

“To exotify means that you have to distance yourself from what you’re doing. We’re not distancing ourselves at all.”

“I don’t think what we do is any more offensive, culturally, than punk rock is offensive in a class sense. How wearing the signifiers of a lower class is considered somehow revolutionary no matter who you are, while to knowingly don cartoon kind of costumes of your ethnic identity is somehow offensive,” B philosophized. “It kind of puts us in a position of like, you better dress traditional like it’s 1850, or you better dress like a white boy. Otherwise you get no space in between or you’re somehow gonna be racist.”

Something B finds more concerning is the tendency for bands that cannot claim the cultures they appropriate as having provided their ethnic identities to avoid acknowledging the positions of privilege they access those sources from.

“I find it funny that we have to have this conversation while bands like Indian Jewellery, Indian Handcrafts […] there’s so many bands that just kind of get away with whatever,” said B. “And they just say it, they do it, they appropriate, and ’cause they never ’fess up to it, people can dodge the conversation.”

The performer argues that YT//ST necessarily engages its audiences in a critical reading of the music scene the collective operates within.

“By critiquing us, you’re inadvertently critiquing the entire indie scene.”

Whatever your stance on the political motivations of the collective, for a group that began as a large scale theatrical performance art project – perhaps lubricated by a 2012 shortlisting for the Polaris Music Prize that brought them international attention – YT//ST has come to offer a concert experience of undeniable allure. While the group’s sound is often fragile, sweet, and atmospheric, also present is a brooding energy that builds up to an incendiary fever pitch. At the group’s Guelph performance, this was realized when, late in the set, the audience erupted into a bouncy mosh pit that even saw audience members crowd surfing throughout the eBar.

Loft indulged the enthusiastic audience by joining them in the pit when the group dove into an encore performance of “A Star Over Pureland,” returning only at the end of the track to deliver a booming chant.

If you feel YT//ST’s already impressive dossier doesn’t leave much room to grow, the group is also currently absorbed in the process of putting together a side-scrolling video game (a play on YT//ST’s initials, it’ll be called Your Task // Shoot Things) scored with an original soundtrack from the collective.

“It’s like a full-on little rock opera with a narrative that you play through,” said B.

The group is hoping to reach out to the public for input at a series of work-in-progress presentations and eventually involve a studio, but B is determined the game will be YT//ST’s own.

“There are bands that’ve had video games based on their franchise, where they order them like an advergame – like the Skrillex Quest. The difference is, is that as far as I know, none of them actually took the time to sit around and fart out code. So we’ll be probably the first band to ever make our own video game from start to finish.”

B imagines the process could take until early next year, but YT//ST fans won’t have to wait until then for new material.

“We’re also recording our second record,” said Attwood.

“We start recording in the next couple months,” said B. “We hope to have a record out by the end of the year.”

Beyond that, the group just has touring on its minds.

“We have some performances coming up, but we can’t announce them yet,” Attwood added. And with summer festival season not too far in the distance (and their lineup announcements approaching even sooner), that could mean augmented exposure for the industrious art collective.

(Originally published in The Ontarion on Jan. 24, 2013)