Story by Olivier Robillard Laveaux | August 4, 2016
For a moment, forget your idea of China as a totalitarian and repressive regime. Not that it’s become a paragon of democracy and human rights as a country – far from it – but getting to know the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project will help you discover another China that you wouldn’t be able to find on the map.
“A large bottle of beer costs 50¢, pot plants grow right on the street, and if you’re a foreign musician, you can do just about anything you want,” says the band’s singer/guitarist JP Tremblay. “Over there, everybody wants to have their picture taken with you, especially if you’re white and play the guitar.”
The Chicoutimi-born songwriter knows what he’s talking about, having lived from 2006 to 2013 in the Chinese city of Kunming, where he founded the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project with a bunch of Quebec roommates who’d gotten stuck in Southwest China while travelling through Asia.
“I already played music,” says Tremblay. “I’d survived for three months in Greece as a street guitar player, but in China, it was something else! We quickly realized that foreign musicians were considered as demi-gods in that country. You didn’t even have to be good!” he laughs. “After we created the band, we started doing corporate shows – monkey shows, as we used to call them. Local people working for outfits like Mercedes or BMW were delighted to be able to have ‘exotic’ entertainment at their company functions. We played whatever we pleased. Sometimes we got hired as a jazz orchestra, in spite of the fact that we couldn’t play a one damn note of jazz. Not to worry! The big bosses still wanted to have their picture taken with us.”
Besides corporate shows, the band toured in China, but also throughout Laos, Thailand and India. More than 10,000 kilometers away from “La Belle Province,” the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project rocked the stage with their own songs, and bluegrass covers, delivered with confidence and good humour. A documentary called La Route de la soif (The Thirst Road) was produced to capture the team’s Chinese journey.
“I could tell you a million stories,” Tremblay continues. “We crossed the border between China and Burma through the jungle, followed by soldiers who seemed determined to find out how fast we could run and how scared of bullets we were. We organized a music festival for two years in suburban Kunming while bribing the local army with cases of beer. Let’s just say you had to be able to keep cool.”
The adrenaline-filled early days of the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project are now in the distant past. Whereas QRBP used to come home for brief summer tours, it’s now settled permanently in its native Québec. “The road between Tadoussac and Rouyn may be less exciting than the Burmese jungle – except that, the other day, we hit the ditch near Québec City when a wheel came off our van! What matters is the road ahead,” says Tremblay. “We’re quite capable of making a go of it and have fun anywhere in Québec. Besides, things were starting to get a bit less fun in China. The novelty eventually wears off, and police officers can now raid a bar and have all patrons take a urine test to find out if they’ve been taking drugs. It gets tiring.”
With Nick Flame (mandolin), François Gaudreault (acoustic bass) and Madeleine Bouchard (violin) completing the lineup, QRBP’s transition is in progress. The band’s albums – Scandales et bonne humeur (2014), 3000 boulevard de Mess (2011) and Sweet Mama Yeah! (2010) – have all been available in Québec since last year, and a new one is in the works.
“Out of a population of 1.3 billion people, China only had three bluegrass bands,” says Tremblay. “So expectations aren’t the same here. We’re working like mad on our fourth album, which should be coming out this winter – in time for our 10th anniversary. The songs are great, and I can find inspiration for lyrics in a ton of past experiences.” Like the time you went to jail in China, someone jokes. “That’s one experience, but I didn’t stay in very long,” he says. “Only a few hours for material damage. The cops were cool. They brought me tea and cigarettes.”
Which means that even Chinese prison officers love the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project.
Photo by courtesy of/courtoisie de Buzz Records. (Weaves)
Entrepreneurs: All About That Buzz (Records)
Story by Stuart Berman | August 9, 2016
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.”
Photo by James Dean
Linda McRae: Inspired by Leading Prison Writing Workshops
Story by Kerry Doole | August 4, 2016
When Linda McRae plays a show at Vancouver’s Rogue Folk Club on Sept. 4, 2016, it’ll be more than just another gig. There, the roots-based singer-songwriter will be inducted into the British Columbia Entertainment Hall of Fame as a Pioneer. “I’m very surprised, but just thrilled at the honour,” says McRae. “My daughter shrieked on the phone when she found out.”
This is well-deserved recognition for a body of work that includes stints in ‘80s Vancouver bands, membership in Spirit of the West during that group’s commercial heyday (from 1989-1996), and a solo recording career now comprising six albums.
But this veteran is showing no signs of slowing down. McRae’s most recent album, 2015’s Shadow Trails, was her third in four years (2014’s Fifty Shades of Red was a compilation), and she continues to tour extensively in the U.S. and Canada.
McRae was creatively energized by a 2011 prison visit, she explains. “Back in October 2011, my husband James Whitmire [a published poet] and I were invited to participate in the arts and corrections program at New Folsom Prison in California. We had such an incredible experience, and were met with such respect and gratitude for just being there. We’ve gone back about eight times. We then decided we wanted to work with inmates and at-risk youth, helping them find a voice and put their thoughts into words.”
The result was a creative writing workshop called Express Yourself. McRae based these workshops on creative writing, as opposed to songwriting, in order to reach as many people as possible. “Not everybody plays an instrument, so I made it a creative writing workshop so anyone could go,” she explains. “I also do songwriting workshops, and I’ll be teaching at the Haliburton Music Camp next March. On some of those I adapt some exercises I use in the creative writing ones.”
McRae describes some of the writing by inmates and at-risk youth as phenomenal. “They’re often very surprised by what they end up writing, as many have never really written anything before,” she says. “It’s an interesting journey, to structure the workshops so you don’t leave everyone depressed at the end. You want to leave them with food for thought, but also feeling good about themselves.”
Tim Miller, Assistant Warden of the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, testifies to the success of these workshops. He’s written, “I can’t explain how two people come into a prison, meet people for the first time, and instantly bond with them. I can’t explain how James and Linda can unlock a heart that has been shut for so long and make it put life, goals and dreams on paper and back into the forefront of the mind. I can’t explain it, but I have seen it happen.”
Such notable Canadian festivals as South Country Fair, Coldsnap Festival, and the Vancouver Island Music Fest, as well as Folk Alliance International, have partnered with McRae to present her workshop as part of their community outreach programs.
These experiences helped fuel the muse for McRae’s Shadow Trails. One song, “Flowers of Appalachia,” features music she wrote as a setting for a poem from New Folsom Prison inmate Ken Blackburn. “It came out of that prison workshop,” says McRae. “It was a poem Ken had written that I loved so much, an incredible poem talking about a life missed. A lot of the stories in the songs on the record are inspired by some of the writing and stories we’ve heard.”
Other songs were inspired by the American South, a region that has had a deep impact on McRae since she and Whitmire moved to Nashville nine years ago.
Much admired by her musical peers, McRae has consistently worked with the cream of the crop of roots players on her records. Shadow Trails is no exception, featuring the rhythm section of John Dymond and Gary Craig (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Bruce Cockburn), keyboardist Steve O’Connor, and guitarist Steve Dawson, who also produced and mixed.
McRae has a history with these players. “It felt like a reunion,” she says. “Gary and John played on my first solo album, Flying Jenny [produced by Colin Linden], and Steve Dawson and Jesse Zubot were in my touring band for that record. Tim Vesely of Rheostatics engineered, and in Spirit of the West I loved playing shows with Tim’s band.”
Notable guests on Shadow Trails include Ray Bonneville, Fats Kaplin, Gurf Morlix (who produced earlier McRae album Cryin’ Out Loud), and former Spirit Of The West comrade Geoffrey Kelly.
“Making the album [at Blue Rodeo’s Toronto studio, The Woodshed] was so much fun,” McRae says. “The studio is so comfortable and it just oozes a vibe. We recorded everything live off the floor over four days there.”
Over the course of her solo career, McRae’s work has been met with near-unanimous critical praise. “It blows me away that I haven’t had a scathing review yet,” says McRae. “As can be typical for singer-songwriters, you don’t always have the self-confidence you should, and you get down on yourself. If that happens, James says ‘Just read your reviews!’”