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Predicting the Future of Canadian Electronic Music with Four Artists at Bass Coast 2016

Sergio Levels, Michael Red, Esette, and Andrew Williams tell us how we can better grow scenes across the country.

Hollie McGowan

Michael Red, Sandro Petrillo, Andrew Williams, and Isis Graham (left to right), photo by Max Martel

As Canadians, too often we focus our attention on musical talent that comes from beyond our own borders, regardless of genre. While we've seen a shift in recent years when it comes to our electronic artists being recognized at home—look no further than yesterday's Polaris Prize shortlist recognizing albums from Grimes, Jessy Lanza, and Kaytranada—there's still plenty of work to be done to help foster communities and support these acts.

Among this year's list of workshops at this year's Bass Coast Electronic Music and Arts Festival in Merritt, British Columbia, Vancouver-based arts organization Groundwerk hosted a panel on building and developing local electronic music scenes. For the discussion they recruited four artists from four cities across the country—Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Toronto—some of whom also run labels, organize shows, teach production, and more. Afterwards, we caught up with the panelists to hear more from them about what makes Canadian music unique and how we can continue to promote its growth.

The Artists:

Andrew Williams (NVS, Dunmore Park): Edmonton-based DJ, producer, and member of collective Night Vision.

Isis Graham (Esette): Calgary DJ and producer, co-owner of label Substation Recordings, and one of the founders of Studio Social.

Sandro Petrillo (Sergio Levels): Toronto-based DJ and producer, Modern Math affiliate.

Michael Red: Vancouver DJ, producer, and promoter, founding member of collective lighta! sound, and head of digital label Low Indigo.

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THUMP: What makes Canadian electronic music specifically Canadian? If you had to pick one word to describe Canadian electronic music, what would it be?

Isis Graham: I'm going to say "heartfelt." In Western Canada, I feel like the people leading the charge are putting a lot of energy into thinking about what they want to do and how's it going to be presented, and it comes out as heartfelt.

Andrew Williams: I do think that Canadian electronic music is still somewhat in its infancy. We don't have this long history of creating the genres that are world-class now, especially within the last five years, I've seen a renaissance in Canadian music. Everyone has gotten a little bit older, a little bit wiser, and they're starting to put out music that's globally competitive. I think that we're kind of in our teenage years.

Sandro Petrillo: I would say "undiscovered." There's an enormous amount of high-quality output that comes from Canada but sometimes just doesn't get the press.

Michael Red: "Modesty" might be a quality, which is also a detriment as well.

Graham: Artists from other countries will come here from dubstep, drum and bass, and deep house scenes, and they're like, "Holy shit! This scene you guys have here is a ruckus." People come here and they're surprised, but they're also like, "Wow, we wish we had this special thing."

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All of you live in very different cities and regions of the country. How do your natural environments affect the music you produce?

Red: I do think there's a West Coast sound. It's very exciting that it's not as defined at this moment, but it's starting to come into definition. With the mountains, the water, the coastal [area], there's a reflection that happens with the natural landscape, which also shapes the people. There's also a laid-backness compared to other places.

Graham: We have a middle coast, as we call it. Our middle coast cities in Alberta is where you can hear the contrast. The music isn't as ethereal and as textured, it's more rugged.

Petrillo: There's parties that I've been to in Toronto that remind me of the West Coast.

Red: There's a vibe in Toronto though. There's a very cool, experimental, underground techno scene in Toronto.

What are the benefits of learning music at a school versus being a self-taught artist?

Petrillo: Being self-taught is a bit raw and then you develop you own craft out of that, which is amazing. At the same time, when you're self-taught, you do have mentors. Schools are great too, you can speed up the process, and get a good foundation quickly.

Graham: I got my whole education in record stores and that's what we need and what I miss the most. Lining up on Friday and having somebody be like, "Yo, I pulled these tracks for you. You should check out these other ones." Those people guided me along so much and now that record stores are so absent within our community, we don't have the meeting places where people can get together and get that education collectively. Now we have music schools, music production tutorials, and monthly meet-ups.

Williams: I think that small private, music production schools are going to be the foundation of the next wave of Canadian music. Obviously I'm biased because we started a music school, the Night Vision Music Academy, and I took our own classes. I learned so much, and it has made such a difference as to how I produce and the quality of my music. I've been dicking around in my room for ten years, and it was only until I learned some fundamental concepts in how you produce music, that I could get the ideas in my head out into the world and actually have them sound good.

We don't teach taste, we just teach the ability to take whatever is in your head and get it out there. What you do with it, is what you do with it. It makes a scene healthier.

How do music festivals like Bass Coast nurture electronic scenes across the country?

Williams: The average electronic music follower gets introduced to a range of new music at festivals, which makes it possible to book those artists in the cities that we come back to. There's artists that play Shambhala, Bass Coast, or any other festival first, and then they regularly come back to do the Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria, and Vancouver loop. Festivals are essential, that's where we educate our crowds a lot of the time.

Graham: People can come to a festival like Bass Coast and hear world-class talent playing really advanced, mature sounds. Then they can go back to their normal scenes and other festivals, compare, and be like, "You know what? I kind of like this weird deep, dub techno stuff. I'm going to try and find more of that."

How can Canadian audiences better support their artists?

Graham: First of all, stop listening to top 40 bullshit radio that only plays music from other countries. When you're listening to top 40 radio, you're listening to the same 20 songs over and over again. If we could just cut that out of the diet, and start introducing Canadian talent in the same genre(s), we could be exposing so much more.

Red: I think there's enough people living in Canada doing their own thing, people can just steer in that direction, and then that kind of question becomes irrelevant.

Petrillo: I think supporting the Canadian artists who are taking the biggest risks is where the biggest gains can be found, because a lot of artists at all levels within all countries start to emulate whatever is big. I think where we'll get the most identity and the most support is focusing on the artists who are doing something unique. We'll never beat the Americans at their game, or the British at their game, we've got to figure it out for ourselves.

Graham: Or stop being sorry that we're Canadian.


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