15 cult favourite Canadian hometown heroes

Edmonton punk, Saskatoon jug bands, Halifax hip-hop, and so much more.

February 24, 2016

Photo: The Smalls

If you live in a large enough Canadian city you’ve most likely felt that confounding mix of pride and loss when your hometown musical heroes get “discovered.” One minute you’re buying a hand-printed cassette from the bass player after a show at your neighbourhood watering hole, the next minute they’ve been given a Best New Music certification from Pitchfork and started touring with some hip band from Brooklyn.

But what about those who never made it? The ones who stayed behind, whether it be because of a job, family, band in-fighting, or just plain bad luck? We took a look at Canada’s biggest music hubs (and a small hamlet in the Northwest Territories) to gives props to some legendary hometown heroes who just couldn’t get their names past the city limits.

The Rabble
 (Montreal, 1966-1970)

When you think about 1960s Canadian garage-rock, Montreal’s The Haunted and Toronto’s The Ugly Ducklings probably come to mind, thanks to a few minor hits and their inclusion on the Nuggets series of compilations. But there was a band who came from the same paisley scene who – in a hipper parallel universe – would have been just as celebrated.

The Rabble, a quartet from Montreal’s West Island, were simply too eccentric, omnifarious and downright weird to gain any sort of attention outside of the city. But a last minute fill-in for Cream at a Montreal music festival got The Rabble noticed by U.S. label Roulette (home to Count Basie, Tommy James, and Ronnie Hawkins) who would release their self-titled debut in 1967. After a cold reception south of the border, Montreal label Trans-World was given sole rights to put out their second, and more rationally blues rock-based, album Give Us Back Elaine! in 1968. The change in sound scared away fans of the group’s Zappa-like garage rock and The Rabble would never return to the studio.

Since then the group have become cult favourites around Canada and in 2008 Quebec label Disques Mérite reissued The Rabble’s two LPs onto CD for the first time.

Eric Stach (London, 1966-Present)

Many people aren’t aware that the mostly-conservative enclave of London (the insurance capital of Ontario, and probably not-ironically, the alleged serial killer capital of the world) has always had such a large and rich avant-garde music scene. Aside from the recently released Forest City Series, Vol. 2 collection of local experimentalists, London is also home to Canada’s wildest improv ensemble, the Nihilist Spasm Band.

Emerging from this same mid-1960s scene was Eric Stach, who immediately became an outsider the moment he entered London’s clubs, thanks to his out-there improvisational style of jazz. A single reed player, Stach released his sole solo album, 1975’s Fruit From Another Garden, with the help of the CBC, who were known to do such things back then.

Throughout the next few decades Stach would play with local musicians, forming the London Experimental Jazz Quartet and the Eric Stach Free Music Unit, who would in turn, go on to influence a whole new generation of London experimentalists like The Riderless and You’ll Never Get to Heaven.

Humphrey & The Dumptrucks (Saskatoon, 1967-1981)

The fact that a jug band from Saskatoon gained any type of notoriety in Canada is an accomplishment in itself. Starting out as an even more rural version of The Band – as all four members wrote and performed their own material – Humphrey & the Dumptrucks gained a small following in Western Canada through their persistent touring schedule that found their second LP, 1972’s Hot Spit, place within Canada’s Top 100 Albums Chart.

But these country/folk traditionalists, who weren’t afraid to add the odd kazoo or autoharp into their songs, would fail to gain the same notoriety that their folk luminaries in Toronto were enjoying at the time. After helping Regina playwright Ken Mitchell on a county musical based on Othello in 1975, the group began to focus on theatre work throughout the prairies, providing music to a ballet as well as a kid’s production.

By 1977, banjo and dobro player Gary “Humphrey Dumptruck” Walsh left the group, forcing them to shorten their name to the Dumptrucks. They would release one more LP under that name before vocalist Graeme Card broke up the band to focus on solo work. As of late there have been efforts to release some of their live recordings from the band’s early-‘70s club days.

Simply Saucer 
(Hamilton, 1973-Present)

Although Simply Saucer are now recognized as Canada’s premier proto-punk band – similar to what the MC5 and the Stooges did for American punk and art-rock – there was a time when this quartet were the pure definition of an underappreciated group.

Throughout the 1970s, these Hamiltonians built a small but fervent fan base thanks to their (at the time) novel blend of Velvet Underground-artiness with Krautrock-style instrumentation and garage rock execution. After disbanding in 1979 with only a 7″ to their name (“She’s a Dog” b/w “I Can Change My Mind”), Simply Saucer began to build a cult following that culminated with the release of 1989’s Cyborgs Revisited, a collection of songs made up from a shelved session with Bob and Daniel Lanois (one of their first recordings) and a 1975 shopping mall rooftop concert.

Cyborgs Revisited went on to find a whole new audience, getting a reissue by tastemaking Hamilton indie label Sonic Unyon in 2003, while Julian Cope and Sonic Youth began dropping their names in interviews. In 2006, Simply Saucer reunited and have since toured North America, with new and old recordings continuing to stalk the streets.

The Action

The Action were Ottawa’s first punk band and possibly the first Canadian punk musicians outside of Toronto. They even scrawled the term ‘punk rock’ across the cover of their first 12″ EP (1977’s TV’s on the Blink) just to make sure everyone knew.

After making their name at (and, in turn, giving a raison d’etre to) Ottawa punk club Rotter’s, The Action travelled to Montreal to record the aforementioned EP, which took on the very un-punk theme of longing over a broken television set. In 1979, a planned second 12” was left in limbo after their record label, Montreco, went belly up. Their year didn’t get any better when, after their management mishandled their visas, the band was left unable to join the Ramones – the most famous punk band on the planet – on a U.S. tour.

By the time they made it to the U.S. for 1981 shows with the Stranglers and, yes, the Ramones, punk had already become passé, leading to the break-up of the band. DOA’s label, Sudden Death, would re-release The Action’s two EPs in 2009 (The Complete Punk Recordings, 1977-1978), prompting the band to reunite to and tour through the early part of this decade.

Noel Ellis (Toronto, 1978-1986)

Born in the late 1950s to reggae star and ‘Godfather of Rocksteady’ Alton Ellis, Noel Ellis’s career took shape after he moved with his father from Kingston, Jamaica’s infamous Trenchtown district to Toronto.

While his father only stayed in Toronto for a short period of time, later moving to the UK, Noel opted to stay with his aunt and uncle, finding a home within the city’s growing reggae scene. After recording a single with the Gladiators (“It Has Been a Long Time”) during his time in Jamaica, Ellis returned to the studio in 1978, this time through Toronto’s reggae label Summer Records, to release a pair of singles (“Reach My Destiny” and “Rocking Universally”) with the latter becoming a local hit, especially within Toronto’s West Indian neighbourhoods.

In 1983, Summer Records finally released Ellis’ only full-length, simply titled Ellis. The album initially failed to make an impression, but thanks to Ellis’ mix of roots reggae, early dancehall and American disco, the album would gain a cult following, eventually being re-released by American reissue label Light in the Attic in 2006.

Willie Thrasher

It wasn’t until the release of last year’s acclaimed Native North America, Vol.1 compilation, also on Light in the Attic Records, that Willie Thrasher entered the conversation as one of Canada’s great folk singers.

Born into a Western Arctic Inuit community in the late 1940s, Thrasher grew to be one of the few teens in Aklavik to listen to rock ‘n’ roll after hearing The Beatles. Thrasher was inspired to start his own group, The Cordells, who became wildly popular in the Inuvik area and were known as the town’s first rock band. In the ’70s Thrasher became inspired to explore Inuit music and began to pen songs that were more personal and political, inspired by staggering issued faced within his own community and within the entire First Nation culture.

Touring around Northern and Western Canada, Thrasher became known as a leader in the local folk scene. He wouldn’t record a studio album until 1981’s Spirit Child and wouldn’t release another until 2009’s Asumatak – The Great Land. With the release of the aforementioned Native North America compilation, Thrasher has returned to the stage, relishing his role as ambassador for Canada’s Indigenous art scene.

Luxury Christ (Windsor, 1986-2012)

In a 1986 interview with SPIN Magazine, Gibby Haynes, vocalist and guitarist for the Butthole Surfers, called Windsor’s Trevor Malcolm “The most hated man in America.” Of course, this is complete hyperbole on Haynes’ part, but it was that level of disdain for his bass player that helped launch one of Windsor’s most infamous bands.

Created by Malcolm, fresh off his departure from the Butthole Surfers, along with vocalist Nancy Drew, Mark Gelinas, and Mark Sikich, Luxury Christ expanded on the theatricality, humour and bawdiness laid out by Malcolm’s former band. Releasing their 1993 debut, Buy Our Love, through their own Eleven37 record label, Luxury Christ became beloved in their hometown thanks to their brand of funky and sexually-charged alt-rock and high-energy performances that found the quartet often performing in the nude.

Their second LP, Problematic for the People, was put out in 1996 while the group was starting to see their core line-up change. By this time, Malcolm would go on to form the electronic duo Citywide Vacuum (with Pat Petro) and Luxury Christ’s output would began to dissipate, releasing new music in 2012 before almost completely slowing down over the past couple of years.

The Smalls (Edmonton, 1989-Present)

Although this Edmonton quintet gained perhaps the largest and most fervent fan base of any artist on this list – especially in their hometown where they’re pretty much considered living legends – The Smalls remain surprisingly unknown east of the prairies.

From the beginning, the quartet were described as punk rock, thanks to their sharp senses of humour and penchant to cover ironic tracks (“Natural Woman”, “Middle of the Road”), though their brand of blistering rock and musical prowess – including vocalist Mike Caldwell’s tremendous vocal range and their penchant for adding jazz rhythms to songs – also drew in fans of post-rock, hardcore and metal.

After releasing four albums throughout the ’90s, The Smalls played their final show inside the West Edmonton Mall in 2001. After their breakup, all four members remained in local music scene, the most notable being bassist Corb Lund, who finally obtained Canada-wide recognition with Corb Lund & the Hurtin’ Albertans. In 2014, The Smalls reunited for some festival dates in Alberta. Last year, the documentary, The Smalls: Forever is a Long Time was released through a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Hip Club Groove (Halifax, 1991-1996)

Hip Club Groove‘s connection to the ‘90s burgeoning Halifax pop scene helped the trio find an audience in the city, but it also may have also been one of the main reasons why they were overlooked during this boom.

Starting as a five piece (including members Gordski and future Ninja Tunes artist Sixtoo), the paired-down two MCs and one DJ lineup put out an EP, 1993’s Cool Beans, on local label No Records before moving over to Sloan’s murderecords for the release of their 1994 full-length debut Trailer Park Hip Hop. Although it was still a few years before Halifax hip-hop would experience its own explosion – led by Buck 65, Classified, and Ghettosocks – much of the press attributed to the city at the time would focus on Sloan, Thrush Hermit, and Jale.

After releasing one more record in 1996, Land of the Lost, Hip Club Groove would call it quits as Derek “D-Rock” Mackenzie and Brian “DJ Moves” Higgins joined uprising Montreal band Len while backing musician while Cory “Checklove Shakil” Bowles went on to join the cast of Trailer Park Boys, playing the synonymous character Cory.

Mood Cadillac (Moncton, 1996-1998)

Although the average indie-rock fan may site Eric’s Trip with starting the modern Moncton scene, hard rockers the Monoxides were actually the city’s first real rock exports. So it only makes sense that a band like Mood Cadillac, with ties to both, would become so popular within the small Maritime city.

The stoner-rock quartet (and later quintet) started out playing clubs before releasing the cassette-only release, Big Ol’ Dirty, in 1997. Recorded by Eric’s Trip’s Rick White, Mood Cadillac’s debut demonstrated just how rich and open-minded Moncton’s music scene was at the time, as their Black Sabbath-devoted sludge/stoner-rock took on elements of lo-fi and experimental rock. Before the release of their 1998 self-titled second LP, once again recorded by White, bassist Dan Dupuis left the band, only to be replaced by the Monoxides’ PJ Dunphy. Within a year, this lineup would implode, leaving members of the band to scatter off into other projects, including the beloved Blood Royal and Iron Giant.

A decade later, both albums would find re-release in digital form though a website called Out of Print Moncton alongside other hidden gems from fellow underappreciated bands like Dustbunnies, Earth AD, and Hope.

Forgotten Tales (Quebec City, 1999-Present)

Due to Quebec’s insular star-making system, there’s a number of artists who enjoy a massive following inside la belle province who are completely unknown throughout the rest of Canada. But since Quebec is one of the leading exports for metal across the globe, Forgotten Tales’ continued obscurity remains inexplicable.

Although the power-metal sextet haven’t official disbanded, they’ve been largely dormant throughout this decade, with six years passing since the release of We Shall See the Light, their celebrated third album. Anchored by frontwoman Sonia Pineault’s singularly melodic and emotive vocals (think a more operatic version of Heart’s Nancy Wilson), Forgotten Tales’ penchant for medieval themes, symphonic elements, and the presence of a keyboard player have allowed the band to distinguish themselves from their heavier, more masculine Quebec City comrades like Gorguts and Martyr.

High profile shows with bands like Cryptopsy and Gamma Ray have allowed Forgotten Tales’ fan base to expand beyond Dungeons & Dragons obsessives. But with only Pineault and bassist Patrick Vir remaining from the original lineup, it remains to be seen if Forgotten Tales can add a mystical addendum to their career.

Paper Moon (Winnipeg, 2000-2012)

The early 2000s may be looked at as Canada’s true indie rock boom – as small local festivals and record labels began to pop up around the country – giving up-and-coming acts a chance to earn a sizeable audience without having to necessarily tour across the provinces.

In 2002, Winnipeg’s Endearing Records put out One Thousand Reasons to Stay, One Reason to Leave, the debut from a young quartet called Paper Moon. The album featured the wispy and charming vocals of guitarist Allison Shevernoha and perfectly encapsulated what Canadian indie-rock did best at the time; providing the listener with a level of musical vulnerability and incorruptibility rarely found anywhere else.

After gaining a large fan base in Japan, Paper Moon (while going through a few personnel changes) released two more albums (2006’s Broken Hearts Break Faster Every Day and 2009’s Only During Thunderstorms). After the two remaining original members, Shevernoha and drummer Chris Hiebert, decided to start a family, Paper Moon became silent as of 2012. The band’s website states that remaining and former members plan on putting out music under the name September West.

Nathan Lawr (Guelph, 2003-Present)

For over 20 years, Nathan Lawr has been (figuratively and sometimes literally) the anchor behind Southwestern Ontario’s music scene. Starting as the drummer for Royal City (whose guitarist, Jim Guthrie, would later be responsible for exposing Guelph musicians like Constantines and Gentlemen Reg through his Three Gut record label), Lawr would also play with King Cobb Steelie, FemBots, Sea Snakes and countless other groups across the GTA.

Leaving Royal City in 2002, Lawr would pull a Grohl, moving from drummer to frontman while releasing four solo LPs that would mix the lo-fi sounds of Royal City with a warm singer/songwriter feel. The fact that Lawr wasn’t afraid to cover matters of the heart and political matters in the same breath made him popular with the always-progressive music listeners of Guelph.

Lawr would go on to form the Minotaurs, a collective of musicians – often reaching up to eight players – influenced by Afrobeat rhythms and West African instrumentation. The band’s third release, Weird Waves, will be released in March, but Lawr hasn’t forgotten his roots, recently playing the drums on Bry Webb’s latest LP.

Dandi Wind (Vancouver, 2003-2008)

Lumping Vancouver’s Dandi Wind in with the early-2000s wave of dance-punk is doing the imagination and charm of this duo an injustice. Formed as a collaboration between producer Szam Findlay and vocalist Dandelion Wind Opaine, they released two terrific albums (2006’s Concrete Igloo and 2008’s Yolk of the Golden Egg) that deftly combined Findlay’s adoration for his hometown’s rich industrial music scene of the ’80s (including Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly) with Opaine’s art school, dance, and performance background.

It also helped that Opaine came from a true B.C. hippie family, growing up the remote part of the province that helped the vocalist give her live shows a free spirit theatricality. For a city who – according to some of its residents – rarely celebrates its own, Dandi Wind proved to be wildly popular within Van City during their brief existence.

As dance-punk fizzled out by the end of the last decade, Findlay and Opaine formed the more electro and funk oriented synth-pop band Fan Death, bringing in co-vocalist Marta Jaciubek. With the change, Dandi’s edgy vocal style was stifled and the trio never did find a proper audience, as Opaine departed from the group after a single album.

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