Aaron Levin, Weird Canada shine light on indie music
When Aaron Levin started Weird Canada out of Edmonton, he was a radio director frustrated by Canada's lack of resources and support systems for up and coming bands and artists. Too excited by the albums he was receiving at the station to not give them all the signal boost he could, he started a blog.
In a nation where new and underground bands are starving for support, Levin's unique dedication to the hidden world of Canadian obscur-o made the blog a hit, and within just a couple of years, Weird Canada was promoting shows, booking festivals, and helping artists and fans old and new network and grow.
Levin re-rooted Weird Canada's headquarters from Edmonton to Toronto in late 2011, and though he's been here less than a year, he's promoted shows for a diverse collection of Canadian acts from Montreal's Drainolith and The Pink Noise to Calgary's Chad Vangaalen, as well as Braids, Grimes, Tonstartssbandht and local weirdos The Soupcans and Sexy Merlin. Levin's also opened a venue of sorts called Infinite Library in his second floor Queen Street space, near Queen and Bathurst.
Earlier this month, we dropped into Infinite Library to talk with Levin about what it's like to sit on the Polaris Prize panel, booking shows in Toronto and beyond, and the state of the nation's music community.
When and how did Weird Canada begin? Was it just the blog, or have you always hosted events?
I started it in 2009, after being a music director at CJSR 88.5 in Edmonton.
Music directors at radio stations, at least 5 years ago, were at the forefront of every self-released item in the universe, so I was ingesting a lot of emerging local music, and there was a lot of things that were quite exciting. I would share them with other music directors and people would play with on their radio shows, then that would be the end of it: there was no national vanguard for all of this music, and no one was discussing it at a national level.
I started Weird Canada to capture all of this music that was being released, and additionally as an experiment to see the role that curation plays in creating communities and identities. I started with some basic premises: everything had to be physically released, Canadian, and all the writing had to be enthusiastic, and we went from there.
We didn't plan on doing events in the beginning. I'd been doing lots of shows myself, but what I found was as a blog or digital entity, it's hard to maintain a presence in the community beyond just the interaction you have on the computer. Doing a live event actually brought forth a live component of the website and kept us in the minds of bands, people and the media. In fact, you can quote me as saying that I never wanted to be doing shows, but I do them so much. It wasn't my goal; I don't want to be a show promoter.
You recently moved here from Edmonton, right? When and why did you make the switch to Toronto?
I moved in November. It was half personal, half for Weird Canada. Toronto is better situated for bands that are on tour and for doing live music. It's the only place in Canada where bands can tour like Americans: if you think about a band touring cross-Canada, most of the time you're doing 8-hour drives. In Toronto you can do Toronto to Kitchener, Waterloo, Guelph, Hamilton, London, and Kingston in very little time. There's a lot of opportunity for touring bands and doing live events.
It's also more centrally located, and there's a lot more granting and funding opportunities. From the live music and operations perspective it was a more strategic place to exist than Edmonton, which was awesome for being in the middle of nowhere, but terrible for trying to do anything.
Do Weird Canada events have a certain sound or ethos, and what makes your shows special?
They definitely don't have a specific sound, but the ethos that we always try to employ when programming is we try to have a diverse soundscape: combining groups with different sounds when possible. Our shows are always with Canadian bands and we're always trying to maintain that sense of discovery that is embodied with the website.
What's going on with this Queen Street space?
The space was named by the executive director of Weird Canada, Marie Flanagan. She named the place "Infinite Library" after a Borges story.
The idea is to have a centralized location for the website; to have a physical presence which would involve an occasional live show. We'll be starting a monthly gathering very soon, open for the public to come in and interact with writers and contributors, and other invested people in the music community.
What goes into booking a show - are you a one-man operation, or is it more of a group effort, like your blog? I've seen Weird Canada's name as co-producer on a lot of events this year.
It's usually a group effort. We work a lot with Tad Michalak from Burn Down the Capital. We usually like to partner with people because it's easier, and we don't like to have this notion of trying to own a single homogenous identity.
Then it's usually myself, Jesse Locke, Paul Lawton, and Marie Flanagan who are handling the operational aspects. We've been doing a lot of shows, so the process is pretty standard. We have a timeline for promotion, when we want posters to get out, and after you've done fifty shows, it's the same old hat. That said, you're still always seemingly scrounging for resources, and it's incredibly stressful because we all work full-time jobs.
How do you choose the artists you book?
We usually program around a group that's touring, and after that, it's identifying disparate audiences and trying to bring them together. We look at who might enjoy the show and who would come out, and try to find bands that bring out different audiences, to maximize attendance and expose people to different types of music. That's the ideal, then it's always a reduction of who's available, and who's not available.
Do you find a lot of groups through the blog?
Yeah, it's very difficult to tour through Canada, so once someone identifies you as a contact, you become a means to get a show in a city. Weird Canada has a very public-facing facet of it - the website - so we have a lot of bands who email myself and the other writers, trying to get shows in different cities.
Are you an artist yourself? What's your day job?
I'm a data engineer for a company in Waterloo called Sortable. I write and I play music, but I don't consider myself an artist.
Do you have any tapes of your own floating around?
Yeah, there is a tape of my band, Jazz. It was reviewed on Weird Canada, not surprisingly. It features my dad on the cover. It's not terribly interesting music.
What's been your favorite live Weird Canada moment so far?
In Alberta, we did a festival called Wyrd Fest. It was a traveling festival with fourteen traveling bands between Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver. At one of the Calgary shows, Dirty Beaches and Tonstartssbandht did a spontaneous duo set.
At some point I was putting out a fire in another room - not a real fire, something happened - and then I came back and the guitarist from Tonstartssbandht and Alex from Dirty Beaches were both crowd-surfing and soloing, and there were 250 people there. Two bands from across Canada in two different creative areas coming together spontaneously with so many people excited about it - that was a really rewarding moment.
What's been the best thing about booking DIY shows in Toronto, and what would you like to see change?
The best thing is that people in Toronto are really exited about new music. When people come to shows, they're really open to things and there's not a huge barrier, I find. So that's really great and really different from Edmonton, where people didn't want to have fun and they didn't want to like anything. People like stuff in Toronto, and that's okay.
What's been difficult is there are a lot of shows going on and a lot of inefficiencies. What I'd like to see is Toronto promoters come together and help each other. We're always going to be competing for audiences, but that doesn't mean we have to compete with each other in terms of sharing resources, communicating, and making sure we're not double booking shows.
Tad and myself for example, we do a lot of shows. Before I do a show, I'll reach out to him and say "are you doing a show this night, is there a chance that we can collaborate, do you have a band that's looking for a show on this date."
Also more venues, especially all-ages venues - that's really missing from Toronto.
You sat in on the Polaris Music Prize panel this year, right? How did that come to be, and tell us a bit about what that's like.
This is my second year. When Weird Canada won the CBC Radio 3 contest for best indie music website, by vote, that opened up a lot of doors, including Polaris.
It's an interesting, difficult, rewarding, and sometimes discouraging peek into aggregation of opinions across the Canadian media landscape. You're part of a message board and email discussion, and you hear people talk about records, and you can see the opinions and ideas percolate through them.
I've suggested bands like Grimes and Dirty Beaches and other bands before they percolated into the upper echelons of the Canadian media, and there's no discussion - but when they get a review in any major publication, then all of a sudden there's a great huge narrative that's spawned by everyone. Actually, I've never learned so much about people's reliance on external validation, and how a lot of writers are really scared to get behind something that hasn't been vetted by some other community.
At the same time, I've really grown to appreciate the Polaris Prize. When I first joined I was really critical of it, but I actually think it does an amazing job of bringing Canadian music and bringing questions of the role of Canadian new media, emerging new music, major and minor labels, to the forefront. I've grown to really value its presence, even if I disagree with a lot of the outcomes. I've also learned to separate the decisions of the jury, from the Polaris Prize as an entity.
Weird Canada is a blog, event coordinator, and now you have a sort of venue. What does the future of Weird Canada hold?
Two major things we'd like to improve is Weird Canada's "human factor" and creating more resource-focused content: become more of a resource for emerging music and artists, while ensuring everyone we touch impacts them in a positive way. Another thing is broadening our penetration, for lack of a better word, into streams of media.
Right now our content is all curated - what you see on the website is a selection of what the writers are enthusiastic about. There are a lot of bands who don't get reviewed for whatever subjective reasons, but that doesn't mean that we can't have an article that details where and how to release a cassette in Canada, or how to get your vinyl manufactured in Canada, or building databases of venues and people you can contact for shows, putting bands in touch with other bands - those kinds of things. Things that are less subjective and more geared towards helping people.
I started this thing just writing about music that I'm interested in, and what it's become - not by my choice - is one place where people come together and try to solve their problems. It's become the center point of the community.
Like how Toronto used to have Stillepost.
Yeah, having something like that on a national level.
One of the big goals is to reorganize ourselves internally so we can register as a non-profit, hopefully a charity, to increase our ability to take in and nurture volunteers and new writers.
We have a lot of side projects related to Toronto: I have some ideas for an iPhone app to help bands handle merch at their shows. Lots of little things on the go.
What's the best way for artists and fans to reach you?
The best way is to email email@example.com because that goes right to my personal email inbox, and the worst way is to reach me on Facebook. Just knock on my door and you'll get a response for sure.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Favourite Brunch Spot?: My kitchen.
Favourite gone-but-not-forgotten Toronto band or artist: Moe Berg
Favourite venue: Halo Halo (long live the village!)
Favourite record store?: Aaron Keele
Polaris Pick?: Probably Grimes.
You can get your Weird Canada on this Saturday August 25th, 2012 at Polyhaus with The Pink Noise, Actual Water, and Wolfcow. Then check out Infinite Library (664 Queen Street West) on Sunday September 30th, 2012 as the first "Weird The Gathering - Weird Canada's Monthly Gathering of Inquisitive Ears" kicks off at 3pm.