In the year since their latest album Goodnight Mara was released, Ottawa’s High Waters have enjoyed the success that a well-oiled independent band in Canada should – charting well nationally, hitting the road and growing their fan base outside the local market, becoming a marquee name for their label So Sorry Records. Ultimately, they’ve made a name for themselves as a group that writes emotionally-charged music and connects with audiences and listeners on a deeper level than most.
I got to chat with High Waters’ lead vocalist and principal songwriter Derek Connely about the last few years, and what might be up ahead on the horizon for the band. Read the interview below, and be sure to check them out live as they play Mavericks on November 4th with Trees, Listen Up Kid, and Mark Fossen.
OSBX: Now that Goodnight Mara has been out for over a year, can you talk a bit about its reception and how things have changed for the band since its release?
Derek: Upon release, Goodnight Mara was very well received. Our album got a handful of positive reviews and quickly reached new audiences from coast to coast. It was strangely uplifting to watch it attain some sort of measurable success as it hit several local Top 30 charts at community and campus radio stations across the country. The record continued to do well at those stations until it eventually hit a couple national Top 50 charts. But at the end of the day, stats are just stats. The biggest reward is positive reinforcement at our shows. Hearing and seeing people’s reactions is what we live for, that moment of connection. I, for one, don’t like drawing too much attention, but when it comes to music we try to reach people far and wide. Prior to the release we were in full creative mode, and because we’re entirely self-managed it’s been a lot of admin work since the release. We’re itching to hit the road again this month for a series of shows in Quebec and Ontario.
OSBX: The band is on Ottawa-based label So Sorry Records. Why is being part of that family important to you?
Derek: Teaming with So Sorry Records for the release of Goodnight Mara made sense to us. We’ve known the guys running the label for about a decade now and established a strong mutual trust over the years. They’re inspiring individuals with a highly creative and innovative approach to business. Albeit a small boutique label, So Sorry boasts a roster of like-minded emerging artists that think large and continuously share resources with one another. It really is a family that we’re a part of, and we’re happy to watch it grow.
OSBX: 2009 is when High Waters formed, and that kind of feels like an eternity now. In what ways have you grown as artists since then? Is the creative approach to music the same?
Derek: It definitely feels like ages ago. Actually, I’ve known some of my bandmates for a third of my life now. We have a rich history and hope to continue working together well into the future. Having lived under the same roof for several years in the past, we were forced to wear multiple hats, learning to respect each others’ boundaries and needs. Each member thrives in his own way, and we’ve all come to understand that. The creative approach to music is never the same for us. It really is a case-by-case scenario. Sometimes the song dictates the method, and sometimes it’s the other way around.
OSBX: High Waters is about to embark on a 2016 tour. Do you have any stories or memories about the road?
Derek: In 2013 we toured The Maritimes. My family has a cottage in New-Brunswick where we set up our gear for a few days and made music. Although playing in different cities to new crowds is always a huge rush, I think my favourite part was laying low at the cottage with the band and a few friends. For my bandmates, it was refreshing to let loose and be creative in an unfamiliar space, whereas it allowed me to creatively tap into the intimacy of a place I consider my home. Along the way, the four of us were guests in other people’s homes where we strengthened relationships and shared in the beauty of making new ones. On our upcoming tour, we anticipate reconnecting with friends that we met during our previous time on the road and look forward to making new allies.
OSBX: Your music has been described as cinematic, emotional, and dark yet beautiful. At its core, what are you trying to get at in your music?
Derek: Everybody has a skeleton in their closet. Some of us stashed it there ourselves, and others merely found it there. Each one has a story worth telling. Often for me, the most difficult things to express are more easily articulated through a marriage of words and music. In conversation, I tend to over-explain an idea or feeling that I’m passionate about. While examining a topic from multiple viewpoints can reveal a deeper meaning, it can also contaminate what is otherwise pure. I think that’s just it—get close but not too close. Observe the beast but don’t domesticate it. Music allows me to do that, like manipulating a subject from behind a glass. I like to leave room to fill the blanks and as a band, we create the musical context.
OSBX: How did the Indica Records video/session come about? (See video below)
Derek: We had plans to shoot live performance videos in a studio for some time, but the timing was never right. Sometime in late spring, our friend Pat Steele who currently works as an engineer at Indica Records (he also runs his own distribution company called Chit-Chat Distro) offered to free up the studio for us. I took that as an opportunity to finally carry out our video plans. Our session at Indica Records in April with Pat and Jesse Daniel Smith (our videographer) went incredibly well so we booked a second session in July. We plan to release a video from our second session very soon.
OSBX: What’s next on the docket for High Waters in 2017?
Derek: There’s been talk about some interesting projects, and we’re currently weighing the feasibility of the ones that attract us the most. We also have an archive of unfinished material from which some pieces are beginning to take shape. I can’t yet predict the outcome, but I feel good about the direction so far. For the time being, our primary focus is performing and planning our 2017 touring schedule.
The Voodoo Glow Skulls showed us all that even after 27 years, they still have what it takes to make people dance and mosh a Saturday night away.
The kings of ska-core from Riverside, California took to the stage led by singer Frank Casillas rocking a luchador wrestling mask and a ton of energy from a band nearing almost the three decade mark. They got people moving and singing right away starting off with “Insubordination,” setting the tone for the night. Their fast paced brand punk riffs and beats topped off with blasting brass section and energetic leader Casillas is so great to witness live. The pit was never dull as it ebbed and flowed from moshing to thrashing to circle pits to a skanking dance party.
The Voodoo Glow Skulls casting a spell at Mavericks in Ottawa.
I was beyond delighted to hear them play older tracks like “El Co Cool” and “Drunk Tank.” Another interesting aspect of the Glow Skulls is that they sing in Spanish. It was great that they didn’t keep shy away from their heritage, and in some cases their mother tongue, and played their Spanish songs. As the set ended the crowd chanted “Voodoo Fuck You,” lyrics from the song “Voodoo Anthem,” non-stop to get a band back on stage for an encore. They did return and did not disappoint, closing out with the always entertaining “Fat Randy,” which has a little bit of everything for all types of ska lovers.
The Cardboard Crowns laying it down at Mavericks in Ottawa.
Before Voodoo cast their spell on us, we were in the court of The Cardboard Crowns. The local area favourites were clearly among friends considering the amount of attendees rocking crowns of their own. These boys really know how to have a great time and always look like they are having a blast. They may not have the brass of typical ska bands, but don’t discount them or count them out of the ska family. They mix in elements of ska, reggae, punk and folk into a high energy sound and performance. And as much fun as they have, they do not fear covering important issues of facing the planet such as the environment, political participation, and global citizenship.
The band played a great mix of tracks off their debut album and their new recently released album Hold On, covered MGMT’s “Kids,” and played songs in both English and French. I loved when the lead singer Joel said, “Nous autres on parles en Franglais, so dirty.” One thing that has grown to be one of my favourite parts of a Cardboard Crowns show is their awesome punk ska rendition of the old school Robin Hood theme song. The band was joined by the brass ensemble of Late Night Munchies, the opening band I unfortunately missed, to add some extra pizazz to the Crowns’ hit “Global Citizen.” I am certainly not alone when I say what a great addition the horns were to the Crowns.
The first band I saw on Saturday was Les Conards à l’Orange from Sherbrooke, QC. Les Conards sang their entire set in French and it was great to see some most excellent French ska for the first time. I truly enjoyed their set and would certainly see them again. Their lead singer was full of charisma and cracking jokes, even if many of the people in attendance may not understand what he was saying. A prime example of this was when he took the time to introduce the band, and introduced every member as Gill Côté. Two songs from their set really stuck with me, “Ah! Si nous étions tous des vedettes!” and “Le Numéro de ta sœur.”
The super fun night featured songs in three different languages (English, French and Spanish), almost thirty years of history and singing, dancing and loving the wonderful variety of ska. Big shutout to Rude Mekanicals Productions for organizing their first show outside of Quebec.
TW/CW: racism, violence, transmisogyny, sexual assault mention
If you are involved in the Ottawa music scene, it is likely you have heard about the controversy surrounding American pop-punk band, The Queers, or more specifically their headlining of a much contested show at Mavericks.
For those who remain blissfully unaware, here is a brief summary: The Queers were slated to play at Mavericks on a bill put together by the production company, The Diamond Mine Agency. If you actively follow punk music, you may know that The Queer’s front man, Joe AKA Joe Queer AKA King Joe AKA Joseph P. King, has received a lot of criticism in recent years, most notably by Don Giovanni Records who issued a statement in 2014 via Facebook asking Asian Man Records and Recess Records to dissociate themselves with the band (you can read his post here).
Upon finding out about the Mavericks booking, a local queer collective known as Babely Shades (aptly named as such due to all members being people of colour) created a petition asking the promoter to cancel the headliner on the premise that Joe’s outspoken racism, sexism, victim blaming, and support of Ben Weasel (prominent punk asshole) had no place in Ottawa’s music scene. Many found reasons to disagree with these statements and soon counter petitions were created. One stated there was NO proof of Joe’s well-documented transgressions and that what Babely Shades was saying was libel as well as censorship, while Joe himself created another stating that Babely Shades’ only contention with him was the fact that he was gay and married to a transwoman. He later expressed that he is neither gay nor married to a transwoman, that these remarks were simply sarcastic and meant as a joke. This was admitted by him after many of his fans mobilized against Babely Shades, and it should be mentioned that several of their members identify under the trans umbrella and do not have a luxury as treating their gender as a laughing matter.
Anyway, The Diamond Mine Agency cancelled the show, Babely Shades and their supporters were met with much hostility in the form of racist and sexist slurs, many people mourned the “death of punk rock”, several Ottawa-based news publications provided watered down coverage, and then… Mavericks rescheduled the show.
Now, before I go further I’d like to introduce you to some links that Joe supporters/Babely Shades haters seemed to have overlooked in the initial threads that ensued on the original event page (perhaps they were too busy screaming themselves hoarse with cries of “FASCISTS” and “SLANDERERS!”).
Now, if you are wondering how Ben Weasel’s actions are relevant to The Queers, I have to inform you that Joe has supported, defended, endorsed, and promoted Ben’s actions and continues to make music with him to this day.
If you want to imply that what Babely Shades did is in any way “censorship”, I’d like to call your attention to the obvious fact that he WAS awarded freedom of speech, in that Joe was able to say what he said and did not face persecution by the government or any other institutions. Try to remember that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.
His comments were not censored as they still remain in the public domain and he still has a large platform via Facebook to continue to say shitty, uninformed things that are the antithesis of punk (unless you define punk as a bunch of angry white dudes listening to glorified pop music with shouting on top). As citizens it is not possible to “censor” in the way his supporters are saying, given that it is a private event (originally put on by the Diamond Mine Agency) at the private venue, Mavericks, and lest we forget that private means not publicly owned (by the state). Let’s use another example:
If the CEO of a company’s products are boycotted on the premise that they are a shitty person and do and say shitty things, would you have the audacity to claim those who choose not to consume their products are censoring the company? Joe’s product, his band, (and I say his because he has fired countless musicians in his 30 + year long career as The Queers’ only permanent member) is a product that Babely Shades and others did not want to consume or endorse so they chose to educate others via a petition, which is how most boycotts actually function.
Joe Queer. Photo: readjunk.com
If we are going to invoke “free speech” – and we should – it should also apply the other way around. As citizens we have the right to lobby and petition, which is what was done. Diamond Mine made the decision to cancel the show out of a desire to avoid controversy that could potentially tarnish their production company’s name with associations to the band. The petition was created as a measure to inform Ottawa punks just who they would be paying to see, and who their money would be supporting. The petition did convince a lot of people to avoid spending their money on him, though unfortunately it attracted the attention of a ton of people who refused to face the ugly truth, or who were sent by Joe himself, or just came there to shit on women of colour. Everyone has the right to choose how they spend their money and it seems that a lot of people in Ottawa want to spend their money on someone who promotes hate speech.
Not that I need to further defend Babely Shades, but I’d like to bring up a similar situation that happened almost a year ago after the band Black Pussy played at TARG. Babely Shades was newly organized and they received backlash when they called out House of TARG for booking a band with such a blatantly racist name. (It should be noted that the band have gone on public record stating they named themselves after the song “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones – a song that clearly references the rape and abuse of black women.)
TARG eventually apologized and has made continuous efforts to rebuild the trust they lost when their initial response to the protest was shirking responsibility. During the social media frenzy that occurred during this time, many expressed doubt regarding whether the scene was actually sexist or actually racist when they themselves had never experienced it. It seemed more plausible to them that the women and people of colour positing the existence of these barriers were only doing so to ruin things for the “real” music fans.
Another common phrase used in defence of BP playing was, “Why complain after the fact? What does that solve?” Fast forward to now, with a petition created almost a month in advance of the show in question, with substantial proof of the frontman’s continued oppressive remarks, with many supporters in and out of the scene, and it didn’t make a fucking lick of difference. The show will go on, and punk in Ottawa will remain the same as it was before: full of angry, hypocritical hedonists who lack the introspection necessary for compassion. Long live punk, indeed.
On a personal note, I’d like it on record that I listened to The Queers growing up and was a fan, but I ascribe to the belief that punk is synonymous with politics given that so many young punks formulate their opinions on those of their idols. Joe is unapologetic in his prolific, reckless spouting of hateful rhetoric that endorses a certain way of thinking about women and people of colour; it really is up to his fans to hold him responsible for it because, in reality, if people are still paying his bills, he can go on without checking himself because he doesn’t have to. You want to act like you aren’t complicit by going to the show? Enjoy living in the fantasy world where punk is “just about the music”.
Unfortunately for members of Babely Shades who are also musicians, they are not afforded the luxury in which they can separate themselves from their music. Last week’s MEGAPHONO involved an incident in which Babely Shades activist and musician for Everett, Elsa, was met with hostility from the bar staff working at Dominion Tavern. During their set, Elsa made a statement about how mentally and emotionally taxing the ongoing backlash has been when a bartender reportedly shouted “at least The Queers are good!” This statement was fortunately not met with agreement from the crowd who was largely there to see Everett (tips were pulled back and the bartender avoided), but it still was a source of anxiety for Elsa who understandably felt disrespected by the venue to which they were bringing business.
“I felt like I was more focused on reclaiming that word and spreading positivity,” Elsa says, “We still had a good night and felt supported by the community and everyone that was there.”
The experience of community support has not been universally felt by all; many individuals who have been outspoken regarding The Queers have felt unsafe venturing out into spaces so overtly full of people who believe their lived experiences of oppression are invalid and even necessitate violence. Several of Babely Shades’ members have been doxxed and harassed with dehumanizing comments on their Facebook pages, walls, and inboxes (TW: racism/ablism/sexism – some examples can be seen here.)
Many are choosing not to attend events and turning down work with the music community out of fear. It is up to the rest of the community to do as was done at the Everett show and demonstrate just how unwelcome racism and sexism is in Ottawa’s music scene. It’s up to us, not Babely Shades, to continue calling each other out on behaviour that invalidates marginalized experiences and put in the work to change the scene for the better. It’s up to you to educate yourself and not rely on those who are exhausted to do so for you. Please consider donating to Babely Shades today to support Ottawa’s artists of colour and ensure they can continue doing the work they do and creating the art they make.
*update: Mavericks has taken to deleting and blocking people from the new event page. So much for ‘freedom of speech’…
Editor’s Note: In the initial stages of this article, I approached the author with a pitch prior to speaking with the Babely Shades collective. In making this rash decision, I failed to acquire permission from the very group that has been the focus of harm from The Queers backlash. I have apologized to Babely Shades, and have since received permission to continue with this post. We are working with members of this community to fight back against racism, sexism, transmisogyny in Ottawa. Please seriously consider joining us in this cause. – MM
* Any hateful comments made on this post will be deleted at our discretion. We don’t tolerate that kind of discourse amongst our community.