It begins, as all tales of rock ‘n’ roll–inspired insolence should, in a garage.
Tucked behind venerable Toronto Chinatown blues bar Grossman’s, this garage opened its door to the public in 2011 to showcase a decidedly different strain of guitar rock, one as grimy and ugly as its graffiti-strewn, rat-infested back-alley surroundings. The nameless space only held about 50 people, but its warm environment – in both the figurative and literal senses – attracted the best burgeoning indie-rock, punk and noise artists from Toronto and beyond; everyone from Vancouver screamers White Lung to Montreal electro collagist Doldrums made themselves at home there, years before international label deals and European festivals beckoned.
Among those 50 people who routinely sardined themselves into the garage was Ian Chai. He wasn’t a typical patron; for one, he was about a decade older than the venue’s college-aged regulars. But, as he says with a chuckle, “I have Asian genetics, so I don’t look like the incredibly old man at the show.” And while Chai had punk-rock roots and the tattoos to go with them, by day, that inked skin was covered by a suit.
Chai was a corporate lawyer at the time, and had spent much of the 2000s practicing in Europe. Upon returning to his native Toronto in 2011, he came to the realization that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life drowning in documents. Instead, he figured he could combine his astute negotiating skills with his passion for music to pursue a career in artist management. There was, however, just one problem. “When I came back to Toronto, I literally hadn’t been in the country in five years,” Chai recalls. “My knowledge of the scene was very limited.”
So he did what any good legal scholar would do: he studied. Chai’s Toronto indie education was expedited by Dean Tzenos – a former member of local avant-grunge outfit Ten Kens who was looking to get his more goth-leaning project, Odonis Odonis, off the ground, and needed some legal advice. Upon learning of Chai’s managerial aspirations, Tzenos introduced him to the scene that was coalescing around that Chinatown garage, which was operated by Tzenos’ bandmate Denholm Whale, along with Jude (just Jude) of the scuzz-punk outfit HSY, and the venue’s resident visual artist Stefi Murphy. (The trio each had rotating stints as basement-apartment tenants in the adjacent house, ensuring the favourable lease – and access to the garage – stayed in the family.)
“I was really skeptical,” Chai admits, “because I was, like, ‘Listen, I don’t need to listen to a bunch of 19-year-olds telling me how punk they are!’ But they really had a vision to build a community space, and leverage that into a label. It was clear we shared the same principles.”
Of course, this being downtown Toronto in the 2010s, the garage venue inevitably fell victim to an opportunistic landlord who wanted to convert the space into an extra rental property. After a year-and-a-half of hosting sweat-soaked soirées, the venue – by then, branded as the Buzz Garage – was shackled in 2012. However, if the Buzz crew could no longer present Toronto’s most exciting underground rock bands for a small coterie of downtown feedback junkies, the least it could do was bring them to the world, through a combination of the Garage team’s ear-to-the-ground sensibility and Chai’s business savvy.
“I think that’s why artists enjoy working with us –we have similar values and we love noisy music.” – Ian Chai of Buzz Records
Initially, Buzz Records served the same clubhouse function as their former venue, putting out proudly discordant releases by garage-affiliated bands like Odonis Odonis and HSY. But very gradually, each of the label’s releases became a stepping stone for the next. The 2014 EP from art-pop eccentrics Weaves was the first to make noticeable ripples south of the border, earning them a “Band to Watch” feature in Rolling Stone. Then Sore, the 2015 debut from grunge-scarred misanthropes Dilly Dally spread even further afield, through rave reviews in The Guardian and Pitchfork. And that international attention, in turn, amplified the positive critical reception for 2016 releases from noise-punk agitators Greys and the aforementioned Weaves, who’ve been riding the momentum of their recent self-titled full-length through Europe this summer.
Weaves singer Jasmyn Burke attributes much of that success to Chai and his dogged determination to get his bands heard by the right people. “Ian’s very passionate, and he can be extreme,” she says. “He’ll put pressure on media and festivals to make sure that you’re properly represented, and sometimes you have to be stern with people. But you need those people [like Chai] on your side – people who aren’t afraid to ask questions, knock on doors, and stir things up in order to do well.”
In a sense, the evolution of Buzz is not unlike that of more prominent Canadian indies like Arts & Crafts and Last Gang, both of which began as collaborations between seasoned professionals and idealistic, guinea-pig artists. And like those imprints, Buzz quickly realized that there’s a lot more to being a record label these days than just selling records; in addition to the traditional label arm, Buzz has launched a couple of other boutique, bee-themed services – Beeswax Booking and Hive Mind PR, both of which service the Buzz roster, but also handle unrelated acts.
But where Arts & Crafts and Last Gang have essentially evolved into Canada’s new major labels – with gold records and JUNO Awards on their mantles and FACTOR funding – Chai sees Buzz on a different path. While its DIY philosophy has been flexible enough to entertain (an ultimately short-lived) distribution deal with Sony Music Canada, and though Chai himself briefly worked for Arts & Crafts’ management wing, he’s not interested in institutional Canadian music-industry acceptance. The sort of unapologetically abrasive music he deals in pretty much negates that possibility anyway.
“Yes, I want to pay my rent and eat,” he says, “but the A&R that we’re choosing is not indicative of a label that’s trying to go for the brass ring. That’s not to say we don’t have ambitions to scale up, but I don’t think we’re a FACTOR label.” Weaves and Greys did receive FACTOR funding to help offset recording costs of their most recent records, but, Chai says, “we’re not making label decisions based on what’s going to be most easily attainable, in terms of getting grant money.”
He’d rather have Buzz serve as the central node in an international network that encompasses like-minded U.S. and U.K. labels who can promote Buzz bands in other territories. (Weaves are signed to Memphis Industries internationally, and Kanine Records in the U.S.; Dilly Dally are signed to Partisan Records internatonally; and Greys’ U.S. release is handled by Carpark Records.) The more his acts can tour abroad and cultivate their fanbase in other countries, the more management and booking revenue ultimately trickles back to Buzz, and the more the label’s scrawled logo will be seen as trusted seal of quality. The label’s bands – which now range from the jangly dream-pop of Twist to the strobe-lit electro of Bad Channels – may not necessarily sound alike, but you’re guaranteed a certain uncompromised aesthetic.
“It’s interesting,” Weaves’ Burke observes. “On the road, people will ask us about Buzz, and I’m often surprised – they know every band on the label. It really feels like we’re part of a community. The thing with Toronto right now is that bands are really trying to push forward and do well internationally. So I feel there’s a healthy level of competition within our [Buzz Records] group. You can accomplish more when there’s a group of you. Dilly Dally are on the road as much as we are, and it’s great to have people to call up and ask, ‘How do you deal with being on the road for three months at a time?’ It helps to have people to lean on.”
But as with most labels experiencing their first brush with success, Buzz is approaching a crossroads. The fact that one of the label’s former tent-pole acts, Odonis Odonis, opted to release its latest record, Post Plague, on fellow Toronto indie Telephone Explosion suggests that Buzz is entering that inevitable, evolutionary phase where the needs of individual bands start to diverge from the collective vision. (Tzenos declined comment for this article; his bandmate, Whale, however, is still actively involved with Buzz, overseeing its booking arm.) And, currently, Chai is trying to gauge if Buzz’s small in-house staff (three full-timers, two part-timers) can keep up with the growing global demand for its artists, or if the label needs to join an umbrella organization with greater resources. While Chai won’t divulge any potential plans for expansion, he insists that whatever move Buzz makes will enhance the label’s vision rather than cloud it.
“We have six-month, one-year, two-year and five-year plans for every artist we work with,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a lockstep process, but we definitely want to have a bigger vision – otherwise, how can you determine if your approach is successful? We’re not going for the one-for-twenty percentage, where you get one out of 20 acts that breaks. We all know the model that the music industry still uses today is to have one band cover three to five years of operational expenses. We’re not going to base our A&R like that. We’re going to put out the bands we want to put out, and put the same effort behind a noisy, dissonant band like Greys as a pop band like Twist. And I think that’s why artists enjoy working with us –we have similar values and we love noisy fuckin’ music.”