A Brief History of Ottawa Explosion Weekend
Photos by David Forcier
Rock n’ Roll Pizza Party
Let’s rewind to the mid-2000’s, a time when Ottawa was bursting at the seams with garage, rock, and punk bands that would play often and play hard. Rock n’ Roll Pizza Party wasn’t just a party where people would dance, drink, and see new bands—it was a meeting ground and an incubator for the music community.
Luke Martin, OXW co-founder and musician, and Brad M., aka DJ B-Rad, started the weekly pizza party in late 2006 at Babylon Nightclub. Soon after Emmanuel Sayer, OXW co-founder and DJ, also jumped on board in spring 2007.
The party then moved to Bytown Tavern in February of 2008 where it had its longest run until February 2009 and really caught its stride.
“Brad and I started it the last weekend of November 2006,” Martin recalled. “Brad was working at Babylon and they wanted a new Thursday weekly so we jumped on it. I came up with the name and idea of giving away free pizza every week from a band photo shoot that involved slices of pizza. It seemed like a perfect fit.”
Rock n’ Roll Pizza Party stuck to a simple formula: Doors at 9. Bands at 10. PWYC if there were bands, and free if there weren’t any bands. DJs all night, with a lot of guest DJs. Free pizza at midnight or later.
“This happened every single Thursday for years,” Sayer said. “The pizza literally came from 2 for 1. Literally out of our pockets. We didn’t really make any money at this and that tradition continues to this day!”
At one point in 2009, the pizza party was out of a spot and ended up at The Royal Oak for a few weeks.
“The manager went back on our deal to have us there,” Sayer said. “We immediately relocated, but the first week we were gone they hired some dude to play “rock” music CD’s and he was spotted in the empty bar eating pizza.”
Rock n’ Roll Pizza Party was a crucial first chapter in the story of OXW. It was a place where new bands could play, people could meet up and share stories or start bands, and where touring bands could come and play to a room full of energy on a regular basis. Although the party got moved around a lot, and eventually folded in 2010, it was a major chapter of the OXW story.
“I met Ian Manhire (of White Wires and Voicemail) for the first time at Rock n’ Roll Pizza Party,” Sayer said. “Shortly thereafter he released the first few Going Gaga zines then started releasing records and put on the first Gaga Weekend in 2008. RRPP was always the opening night for Gaga Weekend.”
Going Gaga: Gaga Weekend
If Rock n’ Roll Pizza Party was the ongoing heartbeat keeping the community’s blood pumping, Gaga Weekend was the adrenaline jolt making Ottawa’s heart race. The two events coincided like pepperoni and cheese.
Gaga Weekend was the brainchild of Ian Manhire, a devout participant in the garage/punk scene in Ottawa at the time who published a zine series called Going Gaga, and also ran Going Gaga Records. The first edition was held in 2008, and was molded out of some great festivals like Gonerfest (Memphis, TN) and Budget Rock (San Francisco, CA) which focused on inclusivity and everything being done as cheaply as possible.
“There were lots of great bands, lots of great parties, everything was done on the cheap, it was all about good times,” Manhire said via email. “I really liked the idea of a local celebration too. There was the feeling that we had our own world here in Ottawa, and it was (still is) special.”
“There were 3 Gaga Weekends, and a lot of traditions!” Manhire continued. “The opening night was always at the RRPP, usually with three or four bands playing, lots of late night drinking and then lots of free pizza! The Friday show was always a basement party, just a total shitshow in one of the many basements we used to party in. I loved those basement shows—59 Argyle, Cozzie’s place, A&A Speedshop.
Then on Saturday it would be an [all ages] matinee show with like 12 bands at Yogi’s Meatlocker. Fun in the sun! Really relaxed. Great bands inside, people hanging out in the parking lot outside. Then the Saturday night we’d go down to Babylon for a big blowout, usually three or four bands. I’d always get DJs to flip records at all the shows, that was a great part of it too. And then there would be an after party, which I remember 200+ people in Davey’s backyard!”
This yearly get together was yet another hotbed for people in the community to meet new friends, play with new bands, and have a great excuse to party for three or four days straight.
A treasured keepsake of the Gaga era is the Ottawa Gaga Compilation, Vol. 1, of which there were only 330 pressed on vinyl with a zine included. The compilation was recently posted on Bandcamp, and thankfully is still available for all to hear. The concept was to avoid going the standard compilation route and record all the songs live off the floor at the old Capital Rehearsal Studios on Bank Street, now located at City Centre, in order to maintain a cohesive feel.
“The idea was to record a small snapshot of some of the bands in the scene, at the time,” says Jordy Bell, one of the sound engineers of the compilation and member of Crusades,The Creeps, and Cheap Whine.
Ultimately, Gaga Weekend only lasted three years but its impact cannot be understated. Manhire decided it was too much to carry on Gaga Weekend on his own, and at the time he was collaborating a lot with Martin and Sayer on a lot of projects. They sat down and talked about Ian’s departure from Gaga and what it would mean going forward.
“I asked Emmanuel if he wanted to take over and do his own thing,” Manhire said. “He didn’t need my permission, but things like that are basic respect. Plus, our friends all looked forward to that weekend in mid-June when all of our bands would get together. He was doing a great blog at the time called Ottawa Explosion, and he and Luke were on fire booking bands. So I stepped completely out of the game and they started fresh and just rolled with it. And look at it now! The evolution of OXW was natural… and crazy impressive!”
OXW’s first edition took place in June of 2011, featuring over 40 bands from Ottawa and other cities. Each year the festival has grown in scope thanks to key personnel like Azarin Sohrabkhani, who manages the administration, business, and logistical elements of the event. As the Industry Director at the Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF), Sohrabkhani’s experience with festivals and events have provided much-needed expertise to the organization. From nurturing partnerships to co-ordinating volunteers, her collaboration with Martin and Sayer to achieve common goals has proven successful year-in and year-out.
Even more, OXW has become catalyst for inclusivity and representation of minorities in the music scene.
“I’m very proud that OXW is still around and has stayed true to its independent and DIY approach,” Sohrabkhani said. “I love looking around and not being the only PoC at a show, this feels like a big development. I think that has a lot to do with learning from our community and working on fostering inclusive spaces and programming—which is always a work in progress.”
“I’m also stoked that we have a new generation of emerging and young artists, fans, and volunteers at the event. For organizations like ours, growth is only compelling if it comes from engaging with those who will feed the future of arts and culture in this city. I believe we’re doing that and it’s pretty darn exciting.”
OXW continues to be one of Ottawa’s strongest community-based music festivals. Although the story has evolved a lot since the mid-2000’s, the event’s importance as an incubator for new music remains, and will continue to encourage a new generation of musicians and friendships.
Ottawa Explosion Weekend 2017 occurs Wednesday, June 14 – Sunday, June 18. Weekend bracelets available for $80, day passes also available. More info/purchase passes, click here. For full festival schedule, click here. This article appears in the May Edition of Ottawa Beat newsprint in the OSBX column.
Throwback Thursday: Ottawa Gaga Compilation (2009)
Over two weekends in March, 2009, 15 bands got two hours each to lay down one track live off the floor. These songs would then go on to be part of one of the best local compilations of all time, Ottawa Gaga Volume 1.
Going Gaga Records was a local record label founded by Ian Manhire (White Wires, Sedatives, and Voicemail) and Ottawa Gaga Weekend was a three-day gathering of mostly local, and some out-of-town, rock, garage and punk bands in Ottawa for an unforgettable few days. This event, which dates back to 2008, was the precursor to what I call Ottawa’s punk and garage Christmas in June, more commonly known as Ottawa Explosion.
Poster for Ottawa Gaga Weekend in from 2009. Cool to note that Yogi’s is the original recording studio/venue by now owner of House of Targ, Yogi Granger.
Of the 15 bands to lay down tracks for the Gaga compilation, only three remain active (The Creeps, The White Wires and Mother’s Children). That isn’t to many of the people who locked themselves away during a frosty weekend in the capital aren’t still major players in the Ottawa music scene.
Earlier this year the compilation, Ottawa Gaga Volume 1, was finally put online for our listening pleasure…and oh have we listened. This compilation is a blast from the past to anyone who went to shows at the time. This is the era of the Rock n’ Roll Pizza Party and when garage rock was king in Ottawa. I have so many fond memories of many of these bands, and the Million Dollar Marxists will always be one that holds a special place in my heart.
We interviewed Jordy Bell, member of The Creeps and Crusades, who helped put the weekends together and mixed the compilation.
What was Ottawa like in 2009?
The Ottawa scene in 2009 was going through a pretty explosive period. It was around this time that Emmanuel Sayer, Luke Martin, and Brad McQuoat were running the Rock N’ Roll Pizza Party night, a weekly night that was hosted at various venues around town (the Bytown Tavern was its longest running spot, which is now a Comedy Club on Elgin St.). The night usually featured a few local bands and a touring band, so it brought a lot of different musicians and people into the same room. This subsequently led to the formation of quite a few bands, and even more new friendships.
Allie Hanlon (aka Peach Kelli Pop) recording tambourine for The Felines track. Photo: Jordy Bell
Who came up with this great idea?
It was definitely Ian Manhire who conceived the idea, and was responsible for curating the compilation. Ian was already active in the Ottawa scene, putting out records on the now defunct Going Gaga Records. The idea was to record a small snapshot of some of the bands in the scene, at the time. It was probably a discussion at a Rock n’ Roll Pizza Party that led myself (Jordy), and Ian Showalter (Suppositories, Dagger Eyes, and current House of Targ sound engineer) to volunteer our time and skills to record it.
We decided to not go the traditional compilation route, and thought it would be fun to try and record all of the bands ourselves in a couple of weekends. It sounded like a daunting task, but each band was scheduled in a 2 hour time slot, and we tracked each band one by one.
Where was the recording done?
The recording was all done at the old Capital Rehearsal space, run by Luke Martin. The old location was at 240 Bank St (Luke has since moved the business to the City Centre building), and was in the basement of a government building. He set aside one of his jam rooms for us, and we had our little ‘control room’, located in the lobby outside of that room.
Ian Showalter (Suppositories and sound at House of Targ) getting levels before recording. Photo: Jordy Bell
Who was the team that took on this task?
Ian Showalter and myself were responsible for the entire recording and mixing portion of the record. Ian handled all the on-site engineering, running the recording software, and I was responsible for getting the bands set up in the room, and making sure mics stayed in place in between takes.
I handled the mixing portion of the record, with Ian Manhire, and Ian Showalter sitting in on the mixes. Mixing was completed at my current workplace, Atomic Audio, located in the west end of Ottawa. Once the mixes were complete, they were sent to Bova Sound, a family run studio in the city, for mastering.
Can you shine a little light on the set up?
The idea was to record the compilation with all the same gear. There was two reasons for this. First, we wanted the record to have a cohesive feel to it, often compilations are pretty jarring with a wide range of recording sources. The second reason was just for simplicity. Trying to record that many bands, on all different gear would have taken much longer. So, we settled on using one drum kit, with each drummer bringing in their ‘breakables’ (industry speak for the kick pedal, cymbals, and snare drum). I believe the bass amp we used was a Fender Musicmaster Bass Amp, and the guitar amps were Marshall heads and cabs for the most part. A few people brought in their own heads, or small solid state amplifiers as well.
Using all the same gear actually simplified the mixing process as well, as in most cases I was able to apply the same kinds of processing (EQ’s, compression, etc) on each track, then just make minor adjustments to the individual performances of each band.
The Beach Blankets (featuring members of Mother’s Children, Zebrassieres, and Babble Goons) Photo: Jordy Bell
Can you share any stories about those two weekends, some memorable moments or silly little anecdotes?
It was just a lot of fun, and incredibly busy. Once we got everything set up, it was just a case of getting each band through their recording session. There was still a lot of time to hang out, and generally even once a band finished recording their song, they’d stick around and hang out, and have a beer.
One story that sticks out in my own mind, was the recording of the Beach Blankets song “Greatest Hit.” The Beach Blankets had a short and raucous existence in town. In that song you can hear the sounds of bottle clinks, claps, and general chaos. This was because after they were done recording the music and lead vocals for the song, they had between 20 and 30 of their friends fill the room and recorded a take of everyone partying and making noise. Ian decided it would open the record, and I think it perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the record.
The Sedatives. Left to right: Emmanuel Sayer, Steve Adamyk, Ian Manhire and Dave Williams. Photo: Jordy Bell
What band from the Ottawa Gaga would you like to see get back together?
If I had to choose just one from that list that I’d like to see get back together, it would be Sedatives. I say this knowing that, in very recent days, the Sedatives have actually started to get back into the rehearsal room. I came to know the members of the band (Emmanuel Sayer, Dave Williams, Ian Manhire, and Steve Adamyk) from Rock and Roll Pizza Party first, and since those early days, they’ve become some of my closest friends (I currently play in Crusades with Dave and Emmanuel, and in Cheap Whine with Steve). I’m happy that they’ve decided to pick it back up, and am curious to see what comes of the reformation.
What is your favourite song on the compilation?
The Million Dollar Marxists song is my favourite. Listening back to it now, it makes me nostalgic about the early 2000’s in Ottawa. Before Rock and Roll Pizza Party, there was Bumper’s Pool Hall, which was located at 580 Bank St. (currently the home of the Works burger joint). This was my introduction to the punk scene in Ottawa. As someone who moved here in 1998, and formed a band (The Creeps) shortly after that, it was where I met a number of people in the scene (including Luke Martin of the Marxists, who was doing sound there at the time). When we recorded this compilation, the Marxists were essentially done, but Ian Manhire convinced them to record a song for the compilation.
Anything else you would like to share?
I’d be very interested in seeing what a compilation like this would look like today. It’s been six years since we recorded ‘Ottawa Gaga’, and the city, and music scene has changed so much in that time. If anything, the scene continues to expand and thrive at an exponential rate. While many of the musicians on this compilation continue to make music, there is also a wave of younger musicians and bands that continue to innovate and push the boundaries of music in Ottawa.