VANCOUVER on Canada’s west coast is the antithesis of what a thriving artistic hub like Philadelphia seems to be.
There’s a rich music scene, but it’s also an incredibly expensive city to live in, and in the past 20 years many venues have been shut down or stripped of late night licenses and operating permits. As a result, Vancouver was once known as “no fun city”, a title it borrowed from the 2010 documentary of the same name that explored the difficulties faced by artists and promoters in the city.
But Vancouverites have worked hard to shake this unbecoming title and create a supportive, diverse and truly experimental music and arts scene. From record label owners to Indigenous rappers, this is the story of Vancouver’s music scene from some of the people that make it great.
ONCE you see Nardwuar, he’s hard to forget. His unique tone, style, dress and impressive level of research have made him one of the most well-known interviewers in the world. Nardwuar has also played in local bands
The best part about the Vancouver music scene is that nobody takes anything for granted. It’s so hard to get a gig or find a place to play. Oftentimes bands play in the basement or rent a hall. It’s also what makes it unique, and because of this local bands work harder than in other towns.
Since I volunteer and have a show (Nardwuar The Human Serviette Presents…) at the best radio station in the world, CiTR FM 101.9 Vancouver, I have been lucky enough to be at the centre of the Vancouver rock universe. There are so many interesting people out there in the musical community that frequent CiTR or give CITR their music to play. CiTR Radio is the best!
My favourite interview would have to be with Snoop Doggy Dogg. Every time I have talked to him, he always is amazing. And he even did this [rolled a blunt in “record time”] during my 2010 interview with him!
Campus Independent Thunderbird Radio, or CiTR, is the University of British Columbia’s campus radio station. Andy is the music director there and has also curated the volunteer-run festival Music Waste for several years. Music Waste is now in its 24th year. On top of that, he plays in a band called Echuta, who have their second album due out in May 2018.
CiTR is a community and a place that can open up Vancouver for you, especially if you’re young or new to the city. It definitely did that for me. It’s grown beyond the impact of actual terrestrial radio. It’s more about the people involved in making it. It’s built a micro-community, and that’s important: that it is small. It can’t and shouldn’t have the desire to be something widespread. But CiTR has a recognisable essence in the Vancouver music scene, even if people don’t know anything about what goes on the radio.
One thing I think is maybe overstated about the Vancouver scene is the frustrations. I mean, that’s all true, things are expensive in relation to living costs, but there are actually plenty of places to play, and plenty of places to see shows. There’s always stuff happening and there are opportunities to do stuff at a lot of different places.
I think sometimes that’s overlooked. We want to jump to the conclusion that it’s all too expensive, that it’s going downhill, and plan an exodus out of Vancouver. But there is a lot going on. There’s potential there, and I think there’s room for people in the scene to be more open towards each other. There’s a lot going on and a lot of different scenes in Vancouver, but I’d like to see them interact more, with some more emphasis on conceptually based performances and deeper listening environments.
Another thing I’d say is a real positive is that there’s a decent awareness for diversity. Primarily it’s diversity in gender, but it’s great to see. You don’t even have to think about it, it’s just how it is. Nowadays I’m struck if I see a show that’s all dudes. That’s pretty cool.
Mint Records started in 1991 when Randy Iwata and Bill Baker finished university without any plan for what to do next. They signed a string of unsuccessful bands, mostly winners of CiTR’s battle of the bands competition, Shindig. This common fate — bands winning the prodigious competition then calling it quits or amounting to little — later became known as the “Shindig curse”. However, almost 27 years later, Mint Records have 170 artists on the roster, and are at the very centre of Vancouver’s music scene.
There’s a big variety of sounds and bands on the label. At the moment I’m really into bands like
Vancouver has a very supportive music scene. If you’re working with a band you’re really passionate about, there’s usually a group of people that are very supportive of that. They’ll be excited to get your records and come to your shows. They make you feel important.
It’s different here. I feel like the second bands form in cities like LA or Toronto they’re chasing managers and booking agents. They go at things from a very professional angle. Whereas in Vancouver, bands are more likely to play a few shows and see what happens.
It feels more organic in Vancouver. People don’t start a band thinking, “We’re going to get signed to a big label.” It’s more like, “We’re going to start a band because we like making music.” And I think that’s important. Bands that I think are good usually start that way. They do it because they love it, not because they think they’re going to make a living off it.
It is an expensive city to live in, for sure, but people always figure out a way to make things work. There are younger people always moving to the city that are going to figure out ways to make interesting things happen no matter what. I’m looking forward to seeing newer, younger bands who are excited and energetic about making new music.
Jerrilyn Webster is JB The First Lady, and a member of the Nuxalk and Onondaga Nations spanning northwest Canada to northeast America. She uses hip-hop and spoken work to capture the oral history of her culture and address serious issues affecting First Nations people. Inspired by a group of young activists called the Native Youth Movement, JB raps fiercely and proudly about survival, decolonisation and identity.
Here in Vancouver there’s a saturation of women in hip-hop. There’s an amazing base of female, especially indigenous hip-hop artists. We really influence each other and have done for a long time. Hip-hop is often very male dominated, which means you’re only getting one side of the story. It’s been amazing to hear the perspective of women, and not just from a heterosexual view, but from a queer view as well.
I’ve had the honour of collaborating with two amazing women in the scene. Missy D, who’s from Africa but she lives here in Vancouver. She just won StoryHive’s Best Video for her song
It’s been an amazing journey. To be able to create a platform to talk about these issues has been very healing and empowering for my family and future generations. There’s a social change happening across Canada, but mostly in Vancouver, because there are a lot of people connected and aware of the different issues facing Indigenous people. They want to make things right.
No Fun Radio (NFR) is an internet radio station operating out of former late night grilled cheese store, Hi-Five. The station is tiny, just shy of 10-square metres, and offers a radio platform exclusively for DJs. Derek hosts a show on the station called Pacific Spirit, and also started record-store-turned-record-label Pacific Rhythm.
There’s something about Vancouver’s energy that’s hard to quantify. I’ve been all over the world and I still think that parties in Vancouver are better than anywhere else. There’s something special about it.
The current generation is very lucky to have grown up with promoters with excellent taste. Without the people who were here before me, I think the whole scene would be different. We’re spoilt here in Vancouver.
House music used to be a dirty word. It had a cultural stigma around it in Vancouver that was a product of a shitty club atmosphere. Now it’s embraced by most scenes. Even school kids and yoga people. My friend Paul, for example, he does these 7am yoga raves twice a year. He makes açaí bowls and everyone drinks kombucha and cold brew and listens to down-tempo ambient stuff. It’s over by 9am and then you go to work. That’s peak Vancouver right there.
The whole reason we started NFR was to provide artists in the city with a platform to build themselves up and share their music with the world, rather than just staying within their community. Vancouver has an endless pool of talent that we’re only just discovering.
The name No Fun Radio is sarcastic. It’s a riff on Vancouver’s old stigma as no fun city, but I truly believe that if you think Vancouver is no fun, you’re a boring person. There’s a tonne of shit to do here all the time, and it’s all pretty fun.
Kasey has witnessed significant change to Vancouver’s electronic and house music scene in her lifetime. Fifteen years ago, she was discovering trance and jungle music in a thriving rave scene. In recent years, however, she’s watched that same scene move underground; a product of increased city development and restricted venue licences.
Kasey is determined to keep house music accessible and welcoming. She started Hotline, a warehouse series promoting women in techno and underground music.
I grew up in the rave scene of Vancouver, and what I loved about it was that it was always very accepting. You could be whatever you wanted to be in that scene. Everyone supported each other. I remember there being female DJs there and I remember looking up to them. Just seeing them was really inspiring. I thought, “I’d love to do that one day.” And here I am. That’s how Hotline was born as well. To give women and LGBTQ a platform to perform.
There used to be a massive venue called Plaza of Nations, which housed many raves. It then turned into a casino and is soon to be converted to a hotel and condos, which basically describes the fate of many venues here in the last decade. A lot of nightlife was moved and quarantined to the Granville Street strip downtown which became very mainstream. Many clubs there got shut down and developed as well. DJs and promoters started going back to the underground and taking over warehouses and unconventional spaces to keep the scene going.
The best underground venues in Vancouver are Open Studios, The Beaumont, 333 and Vancouver Art and Leisure. Pretty much every weekend you’ll find great shows with local headliners. Artists who really epitomise the Vancouver scene are Minimal Violence, The Librarian, Neighbour and Rennie Foster. They’re excellent.
Jim calls the venue he co-founded a “cultural wildlife refuge”, and that’s pretty accurate. Red Gate is an arts space that has an anything-goes feel, encouraging collaborations across genres and mediums. Running spaces for artists since the mid-1980s, Jim is a stalwart of the Vancouver scene. But he also fears for its future.
I think the Vancouver scene is better than ever. There are so many great bands and so much great talent, but everyone is hanging on by their fingernails. No one can afford to live in Vancouver anymore. It’s a crisis.
The historical situation is that most of the interesting stuff has been happening in places that aren’t licensed and so they’ve had to stay underground. It’s no surprise that most of the authorities don’t even know they exist. You’re ignored by the powers that be until you become famous somewhere else, then they’ll love you. If you’ve got the stamp of approval from someone else, they’ll love you.
The idea of Red Gate is to have studio space; a workspace for artists that’s subsidised by events. But to also have a complete DIY cultural centre, where you can do whatever you want. It’s not bureaucratically laid out, and there’s room for more spontaneous things.
People come in here and we don’t even know what they’re like. They’re friends of friends or whatever, and some of the best shows have had the least attendance. We had this nine-piece Andalusian folk band here, for example. They were amazing. Or the Gamelan orchestra that makes all their instruments out of old bike parts. Then there was a series of live, improvised soundtracks for silent movies. It’s all fun. And that for me is the best of it.
KC started art rock?, a monthly event for experimental performers of sound, visuals and poetics. It was only supposed to run for a year, but is now in its third. She also started a music and printed matter label called Agony Klub and hosts a show of the same name on NFR. All of KC’s work is bound by the theme of “popular esoteric”. She plays as hazy and formerly in the band
Popular esoteric is super vague I suppose, and it wasn’t supposed to be pretentious or anything. It’s the idea that we’re familiar and in love with popular music in its various forms — from Beyonce to ‘60’s girl groups — and the way it’s used to sell images and things to us. It’s about making this esoteric and for ourselves again. It comes from wanting to reclaim the space of what popular culture means. Making it empowering again.
At art rock? I love it when people who already have an art or music practice get on stage and come up with something completely different, like Zenfinger,
Like with any music city there’s so many different things going on in Vancouver. The sounds I respond to the most are in the rock cannon: darker, moody stuff. I think it’s somehow related to the nature and the weather we’re in. It’s the stuff I like to make but also listen to. And I love the people here. People are in love with what they do, and despite the difficulties living here, we all do it.
Izzy Tolhurst is an Australian freelance music and culture writer currently based in Vancouver.