Despite its reputation as a dyed-in-the-wool rock ‘n’ roll town, Hamilton has never been a desert when it comes to adventurous music.
Dating back to a least the 1990s, there’s been a vibrant underground community for musical exploration. Techno minimalists Teste produced the iconic 1992 single “The Wipe” (eventually re-released on Richie Hawtin’s Plus 8 label) there. 1992 also birthed the Infant Cycle (a.k.a. Jim DeJong), a project that generated a vast catalog of spooky abstraction up until 2014. Throughout this time, DeJong ran The Ceiling, a label and distro for other like-minded artists. Christina Sealey and Rich Oddie’s Orphx started around the same time and continue to perform their dark atmospheric work worldwide. Junior Boys, Jessy Lanza, Sianspheric and Caribou — among the most visible acts to emerge from the area — are all noted for their heavily-sculpted sonic profiles.
Like most other mid-sized cities, Hamilton has experienced countless ebbs and flows of support for weirder music. In recent years, though, the city has seen a massive surge. HAVN‘s programming has embraced experimentalists from the local community and the surrounding areas alike The now-defunct New Harbours series (spearheaded by Oddie) presented a large swathe of radical activity. The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s What Next Festival, under the direction of composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte, has been giving a voice to contemporary classical output since 2010. Even the much-touted Supercrawl has incorporated numerous unconventional artists into its decidedly populist line-ups.
While some of these aforementioned outlets are already on the cusp of becoming local institutions, two of the city’s strongest advocates for music of this ilk are still in their nascency.
Sun Rooms at Something Else! 2014 (Photo: Marek Lazarski)
Cem Zafir moved to Hamilton in 2012 with long history of presenting events elsewhere. He cut his teeth in Vancouver, and right from the get-go exhibited just the sort of ambitious streak one needs to stay in the game. When free jazz mogul John Zorn’s group Masada was touring out west in 2000 Zafir decided, rather than make the cross-border trek to them in Seattle, that he’d try his hand at presenting them in Vancouver himself. Thus Zula was born, and the homespun operation started hosting top-tier international improvisers routinely, contextualizing them amidst intriguing local players.
On Boxing Day 2004, Turkish resto and venue Rime opened on Commercial Drive — a joint venture between Zafir and chef Emir Polat. While Zafir’s curatorial scope broadened to welcome a larger, more diverse community, Rime remained a hub for more marginal musical practices. Ultimately, various factors conspired to make staying in Vancouver untenable. Following a stint on Gabriola Island, and a sabbatical from presenting spent amidst Montreal’s musical universe, Zula set up shop again in Hamilton.
The first Something Else! Festival emerged organically. No sooner had Cem been in touch with various old contacts, than he realized that a cluster of shows was starting to take shape. Craving a cohesive summer festival in the Hamilton-Toronto region, especially in light of the Toronto Jazz Festival’s increasingly safe programming, he and his team just decided to go for it. Zula currently consist of artist/ pedagogue Donna Akrey, musician David Lee, Nightwood Editions publisher Maureen Cochrane, and Somewhere There founder Scott Thomson.
Announcing itself with the bold double bill of Chicago/Oslo trio Boneshaker (Mars Williams, Kent Kessler, and Paal Nilssen-Love) and local upstarts Eschaton, the inaugural festival made for a memorable weekend. While the overall tenor was one of accomplishment, there were a couple obstacles along the way.
“I was being interviewed on the radio and for some reason they’d made the decision to play some of the music from the festival in the background while we’re talking,” Zafir laughs, recalling the subliminal skronk. “While we’re chatting, the interviewers stops for a second and turns to me and says ‘Do you really call this music?’ and I was just thinking ‘Holy shit… What am I in for?'”
The audiences weren’t huge, but the numbers were amplified by enthusiasm, and by some out-of-town folks who had already decided the festival was a destination. Regardless, the response was sufficient to precipitate a whole season’s worth of programming.
“Sometimes I get down about it,” he continues. “I feel like I don’t know how to reach people, and then someday I’ll be working [Zafir works as a letter carrier] and some regular guy cutting grass will walk up to me and say ‘I know you! You do the festival, right? That was awesome, man.’ That’s so inspiring to me.”
With two festivals and full seasons, support from the Ontario Arts Council, co-presentations with the Art Gallery of Hamilton, and Open Streets Hamilton, it’s clear that the community at large is on board.
This year’s Something Else! festival starts on Thursday, June 16th. Hard-edged Scandinavian free jazz trio, The Thing (Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love, and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten) is the ostensible headliner but each night features acts of equal calibre and international renown. Luc Ex, of Dutch punk innovators The Ex, presents the Luc Ex’ Assemblée, featuring sax heavyweights Ingrid Laubrock and Ab Baars, with drummer Hamid Drake.
Bhutanese-American guitarist Tashi Dorji‘s singular voice has earned him the endorsement of folks like Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance) and Sir Richard Bishop. He appears with Norway-based saxophonist Mette Ramussen, noted for her fiery versatility, and drummer Tyler Damon. Guitarist Mary Halvorson performs with her band the Out Louds on Friday night.
Artists from across Canada also feature prominently. Multi instrumentalist Gordon Grdina from Vancouver will perform a solo oud set. Also slated to appear are Castor et Compagnie, a Montréalais musique actuelle supergroup including Jean Derome, Diane Labrosse, Joanne Hétu, Pierre-Yves Martel, and Pierre Tanguay. Former Hamiltonian Marc Molnar is visiting from Ottawa with Dusk Scored Dark. Locals Eschaton, Lee Barwin 3, Haolin Munk, Kinds of Lightening, and the Prospero B. Rappini Arkastra offer an array of different musical approaches through out the festival.
The full schedule and tickets are available here. Full passes are a steal at only $75.
The Famines at Strangewaves 2015
Strangewaves began as a languid daydream up at Becky Katz’s family’s cottage in 2014. By next summer the reality of the event—all the excitement and stress—was staring her and her collaborators right in the face.
The Strangewaves family is comprised of Katz, Dallas Walzak, and Ken Inouye (former owner of the Pepperjack Café, now the manager of The Brain), Shawna Small, as well as two literal family members, Katz’s sisters Laura and Sasha. Riffing on fond childhood memories—notably of summer camp, and family trips to the Rockton World’s Fair — not to mention grown-up memories of everyone’s fave weirdo festival Electric Eclectics — the event was framed as an inclusive-immersive camp for all ages.
Aside from a rather thorough complaint letter from a local detractor, last year’s debut event came off without a hitch. At least for the audience.
Unsurprisingly, given the scope of the festival, there were a few moments of panic behind the scenes, it being their first time and all. “It was pretty intense, we were kind of flying by the seat of our pants in a lot of ways.” notes Walzak. “We got in a couple fights”, interjects Katz playfully, narrating a couple nail-biting incidents.
Walzak shifts the focus: “It was a thrill. We’ve both been to a lot of shows and festivals over the years, we know what we enjoy and we wanted to put that into action. It was quite the little community of southern Ontario people living together in this immersive environment.”
Although Katz and Walzak hadn’t presented a festival before, their lines of work often involve cultivating warmth and conviviality. For the past eight years Dallas has been working in a group home for people with various disabilities. Katz is the Art Education and Community Arts director for artist-run Centre. “It’s a very rewarding job.” she says, “I get to work with a lot of marginalized and underprivileged people.”
She’s also a creative focal point in both Hamilton’s visual arts community and its experimental music scene. Her band Sourpussy brandishes a peculiar amalgam of bent folk, trance-inducing ritual vocals, and punk-feminist toilet humour (they’re also framed as a reply to the Spice Girls — each member with their own -Pussy moniker)
While listeners frolicked (read: bugged out) to a wildly varied soundtrack, Katz’s father oversaw a bunch of fun-fair style games—dunk tanks, egg-tosses and the like. Last year’s roster included the likes of Jennifer Castle, Tenderness, Lido Pimienta, a DJ set by Jessy Lanza and a punk show in a barn curated by locals TV Freaks (featuring The Famines, Mick Futures, Kappa Chow, and more). There was no shortage of visual stimuli either, including a screening of Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver’s psychedelic odyssey Asphalt Watches.
Just prior to last year’s Strangewaves, Walzak and Katz had become roommates. This fact certainly came in handy when the residual momentum from the festival simply refused to wear off. Christening their headquarters Strangebarn, they’ve hosted numerous artists in the intervening year — sometimes in their own home — including the following: Wolf Eyes, Drainolith, Circuit Des Yeux, Marisa Anderson, Psychic Mirrors, Peter Walker, and Joyfultalk.
The upcoming festival will be mounted on Paris, Ontario’s Fairgrounds from July 15-17th and Strangewaves has assembled a commendable preliminary lineup.
Mangy no-wave-y trio Palberta — Katz’s favourite band — are visiting. Toronto’s Tranz DéFoncé are performing one of their John Waters-meets-Gwar trash-masquerades. Legendary guitar flayer Bill Orcutt is slated to appear. Keytar-wielding Egyptian Lover collaborator XL Middleton and Moon B will import different strains of funk from LA.
Toronto’s Fake Humans (Colin Fisher of Not the Wind, Not the Flag and Carl Didur of Zacht Automaat) are parking the mothership in Paris before taking off skyward. Cindy Lee, formerly of Women also haunts the lineup. And of course Hamilton is already well-represented: Glasseyelashes (featuring Katz on drums) serve up their warped songcraft, while local favourite Electroluminescent returns from a five year hiatus.
“A lot of stuff that happens in Hamilton doesn’t get documented,” Walzak concludes. “It’s not as well publicized as Toronto acts, I think. There’s a lot of great shit that happens once or a few times, and there’s no Bandcamp, no official thing that’s made for it. But that kind of makes it exciting too.”
Zafir posits a connection between Hamilton’s industrial history and the industriousness of experimental musicians: “It’s a blue collar town, and rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be blue collar music, right? In 2016 it sure ain’t. To me improvised music — or anything left of centre — the work ethic that goes into making that happen, the commitment, it’s hard work! To me, that’s more akin to doing a blue collar job than being a rock ‘n’ roller. Rock is where the money is!”
“The key to keeping the Hamilton music scene fresh is appreciating, applauding, and harnessing the desire of those who seek novel and exciting music and art,” notes Katz with characteristic optimism. “The scene has this unique infinite cyclical give-and-take relationship, like a forest wherein the carbon dioxide gets sucked up and spits out fresh oxygen. You have to give in order to receive. I am constantly inspired by Hamilton’s artistry, which fuels me to further my creative output, whether it be through art, music, or curation.”
Indeed, by demonstrating this very sort of palpable enthusiasm, commitment, and an increasing immersion into Hamilton’s community, Something Else! and Strangewaves are stimulating diverse and exploratory musical practices, while fostering rapt, open-eared audiences.