On a sunny day in June during Ottawa Explosion Weekend, I caught up with Vancouver self-proclaimed powertrash band Needles//Pins. Their new album Good Night, Tomorrow was released in July of this year, and signaled a shift in the band’s sound and production. It’s more polished, and more grandiose than anything they’ve done in the past. But the grittiness quality of songwriting is still there, and fans old and new will fall right into this record.
They’re set to play House of TARG on Friday, August 25th along with Steve Adamyk Band, Audio Visceral, and NECK. Check out this candid interview with the trio, where they talk about the new album, Ottawa roots, and throw themselves under the bus.
Interview with Needles//Pins
You guys have played Ottawa Explosion Weekend before and stopped in Ottawa many times on tour. What’s your relationship to the city?
Adam Ess: Tony and I grew up in the Ottawa Valley, so we grew up about 45 minutes outside of Ottawa. So we started coming to the city in our teens to see shows, and I was in bands since I was fifteen years old playing places like Club SAW. I’ve known OXW organizers Emmanuel (Sayer) and Luke (Martin) for fifteen years or so as a result. I know Emmanuel from when he used to live in Windsor, we played with his old band called Searching for Chin. Then he moved to Ottawa and joined Buried Inside and others.
I guess the first time we played here as a band was the first ever Ottawa Explosion, it was our first cross-Canada tour. We’ve played every year since except last year, that was the only one so far that we haven’t played.
Do you get to spend much time in Ottawa when you’re here?
Tony X: It’s pretty much in and out. Usually it’s between Toronto and Montreal so we don’t have much time to take the extra night in Ottawa, we can’t lose that prime night of playing in other cities. I kind of wish we could just be here all weekend to be honest.
Needles//Pins played with The Smugglers at OXW for the Mint Records Showcase. How did that come about?
Adam: I think one of the impetuses for doing the Smuggs thing is because of Grant Lawrence’s book. It’s all part of the presentation of the book, and with the Mint Records connection we played the Vancouver show and it kind of took off from there.
Tony: Mint probably leaned on them a bit for us to play the show, I don’t think The Smugglers were begging us to play with them haha.
Your new record Good Night, Tomorrow is a bit of a different direction for the band. What is it that you are most excited for the bands to hear?
Adam: The general sound of the record, I think. It’s just such a huge sound, and that’s what we wanted out of it.
Tony: Just like you said, people are noticing it’s different and in a positive way and that’s really great.
Adam: And for us there’s no worry about that, I mean if you liked the band before then you’re going to like the band now. It’s hands-down way better, there’s no doubt about that. They’re the best songs we’ve ever written, the production is so much better, just everything. We took almost a year and a half to write and record the album, we took our time on it and wrote it in chunks, and recording as we went.
Tony: At some point we were recording and thinking, “oh good, it’s only been a year,” and then our producer Jesse told us we started in June… we were like, “oh, fuck…”
If I remember correctly, the last time you guys played Ottawa Explosion before this year there was something that literally exploded on stage.
Macey Bee: Oh shit, I forgot about that.
Tony: Yeah an amp! That was two years ago!
Macey: I think I was also on fire.
Tony: I just remember Adam was out of tune and he blamed me for it, but it actually was him. I just want to clear that up. He blamed me, but it was him. IT WAS NOT TONY, for the record. I don’t know about the amp though.
Adam: Ok then, since we’re going on the record, I am the one that coined the nickname “12 Grain” for Macey.
Tony: Oh I guess we’re recording everything now, airing the grievances. What is this, Festivus?
Have you had any other disasters happen while on tour?
Macey: I think touring with these two is a fucking disaster in general (laughs). I mean I’ve been doing it for a while now and I guess I’ll just have to keep doing it until I die.
Adam: Or until one of us dies, at least. There haven’t been any major disasters though, really. Knock on wood!
Tony: We’ve played shitty so many times, though. The worst show we ever played was in LA, and I’ll go on the record by saying it was all my fault.
Matias: You’re really throwing yourself under the bus here.
Macey: I was going to say that I played really well that night. You fucking blew it man.
Adam: That was a doozy.
Tony: I just didn’t play the right notes. There might have been some technical issues, I don’t know.
Macey: Yeah, technically your fingers didn’t hit the right notes on the bass.
Trails was the first band to play. Songwriter Allie O’Manique’s sweet melodic voice gently flowed through the air. As we watched Trails perform, we were absolutely entranced by the music. Soft, progressive and quite different from anything you’ve previously heard. The only instrument used was an electric guitar and other a gentle voice. A loop pedal was used in instances where there was a need to write a part of a song over the other.
It’s light, airy, but it’s nostalgic. For this reason it turns heads. It’s very psychedelic and lifts past memories as the performance progresses. It’s sound that makes you see colours, and swirls of them, blues of all sorts twirling around. As far as easy listening goes, this is it not only because there’s heart in the performance but because it’s so refreshing and ethereal. Trails produced harmonies with her voice and a loop pedal, singing over her own voice in different tones, creating something soothing. It’s beautifully haunting and will leave you wanting to hear more.
Next up was a band called Lake Urmia. Elsa’s vocals are smooth, high, and create a soft contrast with the sound of the band itself. They’re loud but at the same time they’re almost quiet and have a delay on the vocals so it gets distorted in the medley of music.
The sound is very refreshing and if you don’t like it at first, it’ll certainly grow on you. It’s a soft indie rock with its own flavour to it. The struggles they face are shown through the music, and although sounding happy, the lyrics represent something deeply rooted. They too allow the audience to see colours but more so violets and wine reds. They’re the perfect band to listen to as you sit by the window with a good book, and a cup of tea, listening to their sound intermingle with the rain.
The last band that I caught was a band from Bloomington, IN, by the name of Nice Try. The band is a pop rock band with vocals that strongly contrast the guitar. Their vocalist, Madelaine, has that sweet voice that you’d imagine wouldn’t work with a rock progression and a heavy drumline but the dynamic the band possesses makes everything fit together like puzzle pieces. The relationship they have with each other really adds to the fact that the music works so well. It’s something infectious that brings out the dancing shoes of the audience, and if they were sitting, they were swaying. The band is what should be classified as a feel good band, and the pure enthusiasm they have for what they do really draws the spectators in. Their live performances are a bit heavier than their recorded stuff but honestly, their sound is much more raw and untouched that it’s impossible not to love.
The last day of Ottawa Explosion really kicked it into high gear and didn’t let the impending tornado and storm warnings stop the party. They kicked it until the very end of it and all in all the day was sunny and warm much like the crowd of people there. So go down to Explosion next year and really get lost in the tunes. Trust me, once any band starts playing—even if your intention wasn’t to see them—you won’t want to leave.
I managed to get to Ottawa Explosion earlier than expected and in time to hear the very last bit of Preemptive Eulogy. I was greeted very kindly by Sacha of Sally Ride and we stood together as the previous band finished.
While local band Sally Ride began to set up, photographer Ming Wu and I sang to “Don’t Stop Believing” and got into the great ‘which movie is better’ debate. There wasn’t a moment that afternoon where I wasn’t smiling and enjoying myself.
As soon as Sally Ride began, I jumped to action. They’re quite the “go with the flow indie band” that seemed to hold fragments of a bohemian soul within their sound. It’s the perfect sound for long summer road trips. In fact, it’s probably what you’d play while rolling down your car window and driving through a deserted valley area somewhere warm. This was their first show, and despite how nervous they were, they hid it well. The music was infectious and it became impossible not to dance or sway to the beat of the songs.
The vocals were smooth but not in a perfect and polished way, which added character to the performance. There was a keyboard being played for the first little bit but that dropped off and got switched out for another guitar. To really set the tone of their performance and give off a taste f their personality, they played the theme tune of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and someone picked up the task of bubble blowing for them during their light and airy performance.
After Sally Ride came the Empty Nesters, another local band. They didn’t particularly move around too much but their music made a mark. It’s the sound of gritty rock attic demos recorded on a cassette tape. With these guys, no two EP’S or albums sound the same. This time, they were loud, garage rock with soft voices that resonated across the courtyard and down the street. The band has songs that get softer and quieter, reduced to vocals, only to pick up with a loud booming sound and jump right back into a fully energized performance.
They’re full of distorted fuzz but in the most lively way, and they manage to keep the energy contained. It’s the music that you sway to and give no shits about the fact that you’re holding your beer and might spill it. They take you into their own world and away from the one you’re currently in. A sound with much reverb, a boisterous drum beat, and the perfect amount of discord thrown in, it offers a refreshing the garage rock scene.
It’s noise but it’s the noise you want to hear. The noise that will leave old folks waving their fists in the air and saying “those darn kids!” and leave you wanting to hear more of their hypnotic tunes.
A band from Calgary, AB, by the name of The Shiverettes played promptly after. They’re an angry feminist punk band that’s out seeking justice for the misogyny faced day to day. They’re a band that get you on your toes, and jumping around. Their songs expel immense amounts of energy and anger that the audience feels down to the core.
The band consisting of three females and a male drummer conveys the struggles women face in life such as the things asked when a women reports sexual assault, the catcalling that they have to endure on the streets, and fundamental rights being taken away or not taken seriously. The anger and frustration in the screams of the lead singer really convey the emotions that women hold rooted deeply and it projects onto the crowd so well that despite the catchy and punk power chords there’s an impact left on every member of the crowd. They scream in favour of those who don’t have a voice or can’t speak up about the pressing issues in society.
They’re aggressive, but not in your face. Their points come across effectively, and loudly. If you think women don’t have voices, think twice because this band will blow you out of the water with how powerful theirs is.
Toxic Thoughts is loud, angry, in your face, and aggressive all with good reason. They voice the volatile thoughts that we have about ourselves, though it’s more so on a personal level with them. They get the crowd roaring and throwing themselves into a mosh pit at an alarming rate. The drums are well played and clearly a good part of the backbone of the song structure. The guitar seems to follow the bass line and the way the mass of noise comes together to form something so beautiful yet so full of frustration leaves you in mystery of how much anyone had to go through to be able to produce what’s essentially pain packed into music. The band toys with controlled feedback and they have managed to tame that beast. Not only is it difficult to produce it unless you have the right equipment, but it’s also very possible for it to get out of control. Their song “The Void” really showcases this, making the controlled feedback the spotlight of the song along with the bass lines.
The amount of talent that extends to minorities in music and the many different genres the festival showcases, there is something for everybody to come see. No stone should be left unturned when it comes to this festival as there is something for everybody.
During Ottawa Explosion’s fourth day, the outdoor stage at Club SAW was rocked by the Mint Records Showcase featuring The Smugglers, NEEDLES//PINS, Tough Age and Expanda Fuzz.
The iconic Canadian garage rock band The Smugglers headlined the wonderful evening. The band from Vancouver, BC existed from 1988 – 2004, and just recently reunited for select shows in 2017. Lead singer Grant Lawrence, who many know as a host on CBC Radio 3, is wildly energetic and engaging as a frontman. He kicked off the show by saying: “Ottawa, it is so good to be back in the city that birthed The White Wires, Stand GT, Resin Scrapers, The Creeps, Million Dollar Marxists, Tokyo Sex Whale and so many more!” That was quite the tribute to the locals here, and many of the aforementioned bands had members in the audience. He continued “Since the last time you saw us in Ottawa we have had nine children and one heart attack.
They call themselves a rock n’ roll band, which they most certainly are, with hints of surf and very danceable garage (maybe those terms weren’t cool back when they were). Their sound is amazing and infectious and had people dancing and singing along non-stop. I try to make a point to not comment on a band’s attire, but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the full suit and rubber boots look sported by many of the members.
The band played a high energy 12-song set featuring “Vancouver BC,” which Lawrence mentioned “was almost a hit on Much Music,” the International Smuggler Dance Competition judged by the drummer of NEEDLES//PINS and “Booze” which was dedicated to the drummer of The Gruesomes, a band from Montreal that changed Lawrence’s life, who happened to be from Ottawa. They closed with “Rock n’ Roll Was Never This Fun” and thanked us all for attending what could be one of the last Smugglers shows ever. It is bittersweet that my first Smugglers show may be my last, but I’m ecstatic that I got to see them play my favourite festival.
NEEDLES//PINS took to the stage before The Smugglers and were full of apologies from the get go. After playing their opening song “Drop It” they said “Feels so good to be back, I can’t believe we missed an Explosion I’m sorry. We will never miss another.” I sure hope the Explosion team holds them to that as I love knowing I will see this band every year. Before launching into “Best Friend” they urged us all to high-five our best friend which was a really fun moment to watch happen all around them in the packed Club SAW courtyard.
They also played a bunch of music off their new record, Good Night, Tomorrow, which hadn’t been released yet but is now available. The new tracks sounded great and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into the album. Their set featured one of the cutest and most heart-warming moments of the festival. Not everyone knows that even though the band is from BC, one of their members is from the Ottawa Valley. Emmanuel Sayer (OXW organizer) noticed some of the family members, mostly older, sitting by the stage during the set and ran them over some earplugs. What a gentleman. It is always awesome to see NEEDLES//PINS perform, they are incredibly talented but also just such nice and positive people.
Tough Age, formally from Vancouver and now based in Toronto, played Ottawa Explosion again and are becoming a festival mainstay. The new-ish, stripped down three-piece (formally a bigger band) have really embraced some post-punk influences and sound with their new music, such as the song “Not That Bad.” I, and a couple of people I was chatting with, really dig it. One of the things that blows me away about this band is how the guitarist and bass player just switch instruments back and forth throughout the set. I have massive respect and am in awe of bands that can do that, it’s just wild. Member Jarrett Samson said in closing, “I’m excited to see NEEDLES//PINS and if they don’t play “Drop It” I’m going to burn this tent to the ground.” Lucky for him and all of us, NEEDLES//PINS opened with “Drop It” as mentioned and we all avoided a catastrophe.
Opening the Mint Records Showcase was local duo Expanda Fuzz. I was unfortunately running late and missed some of their set, but as always what I did hear was most excellent. Their fuzzy and drone garage style sound has this perfect slow crawling build that leaves me wanting more. In a short time as a band, they have already released a bunch of great music, but I am constantly going back to the first song I heard them play “Flavour: Zombie.” Every time I see them perform that song I get a big smile on my face and have to bob my head. I’m glad that even arriving late, I managed to catch it.
It is that wonderful time of year again when you know all that matters is going to the punk show with your friends. Yes, Ottawa Explosion is back for its 7th year and once again mostly situated at Club SAW.
On day 2 I took in eight bands and could not think of a much better way to spend the last day of my 20s, surrounded by great music and even better people.
Headlining the night was Ottawa’s very own Crusades, which happens to feature Emmanuel Sayer, one of Ottawa Explosion’s organizers. Emanuel opened by saying “RIP JS, it is weird not being pelted by beach balls right now,” referring to last years show where JS had ordered black beach balls and decorated them with friends, just for the Crusades set. It certainly is weird not having our lovable JS around for those types of funny moments. If you see people sporting Hawaiian shirts, they are most likely doing so as a tribute to our good friend who left us too soon. Crusades put on a ripping set as always, I just can’t get enough of their style of heavy punk rock featuring three very distinct vocals. The band was celebrating seven years just like the festival, and as they prepared to play their final song, they were stricken with technical difficulties. Emmanuel simply said “We have been a band for seven years…” hilarious way to cap off the night.
Setting the stage for Crusades in the dimly lit Club SAW was Edmonton’s post-punk act Rhythm of Cruelty. This band is like no other I have ever heard. Their blend of ambient with post-punk and synth is pretty wild, but then when they add in a trumpet and loop it, it blew my mind. It might have a been a little too drone-like for the masses, but I was very impressed and would love to see them again.
Also playing inside was Sudbury Ontario’s greatest export, Strange Attractor. I believe the band has played every Explosion and always fast and hard, like everything they do. They barely have any songs over two minutes long and cram as many as they can into every set with ferociousness. One of the great things about a festival like Explosion is the bands generally stick around and watch other bands. And nothing is better than seeing a band you just watched (Lonely Parade) front and centre jumping, singing and all around losing it to another band.
Getting things started for the late-night indoor portion of the show was Black Tower. They brought us inside and delivered the metal as they summoned ghouls and ghastly creatures from Explosions past. Erin Ewing’s vocals sends shivers down your spine for all the right reasons when she unleashes the darkness within with a banshee-like flexing of her vocal cords. They are the perfect band for fans of punk, metal, and Tolkien-style fiction.
Partner from Sackville, New Brunswick (SAPPY FEST!) headlined the outdoor portion of the night. A lot of bands enjoy playing music live, but very few bands demonstrate that happiness and fun as clearly and openly as Partner. They are out there having at riot at every show and just loving life. It was raining pretty hard during their set but that did not deter them or the crowd, we simply huddle in tight under the tent, the band even giving up much of their space to make more people comfortable. They played a bunch of great new songs off their latest release Sounds of the Future, which is named so as the songs will eventually appear on the next full-length album. The highlight of the show for me was when they stopped during “Gross Secret” to ask the crowd if they had any secrets to share. The crowd was hesitant at first, but then Anthony Cardozo emerged from the side of the stage to happily admit he still picks his nose. The crowd cheered loudly and then more people started telling their secrets. Way to go Tony.
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Lonely Parade from Peterborough, Ontario also rocked the outdoor stage at Club SAW. They get better every single time I see them. It has been really awesome watching this band grow having seen them several times over the past few years. They played a lot of new songs, which they jokingly called “new song 1” then “new song 5.” These new tracks really show off the bands progression and evolution. Don’t get me wrong – I love their earlier songs, but the new ones are very tight, rocking and just have that little something extra.
Montreal’s Towanda also played. This sludgy three-piece from Montreal really rip it up. While many may focus on the guitarist, I was really impressed with their super solid drummer that really drives the music. That said, the lead singer and guitarist lives to shred and does it quite well. She also sports a scowl all set long making it just that much more intense. This band would pair perfectly with Ottawa’s Bonnie Doon.
The first band to play was one of Ottawa’s newest acts Ultralove. I was super impressed by the trio’s performance. I am always amazed when I see a drummer who has a very prominent vocal role. Some people struggle to walk and talk, so hammering the skins while singing just has that automatic wow factor. The band plays a melodic noisy punk rock with strong hardcore influences. One of their songs had one of my all time favourite song structures. A song with one verse that is repeated several times with the music and the vocals intensifying every time until it crescendos into an explosion of emotion. Local readers really need to checkout Ultralove next time they play live.
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.
The Famines are a Montreal-based noise garage music duo made up of Raymond Biesinger (who also happens to be an incredible illustrator) and Drew Demers. But they are not just a band, the duo is also a “DIY-minded experimental record label thing” called Pentagon Black.
In early 2016 Pentagon Black released it’s first compilation containing 23 unreleased songs from bands from across the country as a 20×30″ double-sided newsprint art poster with download code. They had 17 compilation release shows including 30 bands at various locations across the country for it. In April 2017, they did it again with compilation number 2, once again on 20×30″ double-sided newsprint art poster with a download code.
Pentagon Black are back with another compilation, and while they stayed true to their other compilations, they changed it up a little. Pentagon Black Compilation No. 3 is a “phone comp.” It is named as such as 16 diverse bands between Edmonton and Saint John recorded original unreleased tracks live via phone (no multi tracking allowed). This time they went with a smaller format of a 6X6″ postcard with download code.
Eric took some time to discuss with drummer Drew Demers about being a band and being a record label, as well as the story behind the compilation and the inclusion of bands from Ottawa.
Interview with Drew Demers of The Famines/Pentagon Black
What inspired/motivated the two of you to not only be a band but be a label?
Drew Demers: After releasing music on vinyl for the better part of a decade, we realized that it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage/produce. Turn-around times don’t work in anyone’s favor. We were sitting on a recorded full length and didn’t want to have to wait an additional 4 or 5 months just to get a test pressing back. On top of that, the cost was just too great for us to be enthused about it anymore, so we decided that we would just produce things as cheaply and quickly as we could on our own.
[…] we weren’t really trying to establish anything specific. We are a punk band, and so we typically play with like-sounding artists.
Subsequently what pushed you to put out these trans-Canadian compilations?
Drew Demers: We had already released a single and a record on the newsprint poster format, the latter as Pentagon Black and the former in partnership with Psychic Handshake in Montreal. We were discussing what to do next, and the idea started as a split record with The Famines on one side, and then another band on the other. The problem was, we were at odds over whether it was going to be Century Palm or Kappa Chow. We played a show with a ton of pals at this crazy fest called Strangewaves outside of Hamilton.
The lineup included a ton of bands that ended up on the first compilation, and it was beautiful because there was hardly anybody at the show outside of band members. We all just got up and played for each other and there was this sense of communal spirit behind everything. It took us maybe one day to realize that we needed to make something bigger and connect more scenes together, and the first compilation was born out of that notion. BTW, the lineup for that show: Strange Attractor, The Famines, TV Freaks, Mick Futures, Century Palm, Kappa Chow, Lizzie Boredom, and Flesh Rag.
How did you select the bands and decide how you wanted the first two to sound?
Drew Demers: The first compilation was an amalgamation of friends we’d made on tour. There really weren’t that many artists we didn’t personally know on the thing. The second time around, we wanted to focus on hitting specific zones we hadn’t traveled to in a while, and so we enlisted some close friends to give us suggestions on who we should talk to that might be interested in a project such as ours. There are a small handful of people involved in the second compilation we’ve actually never met.
In terms of the sound that we were going for, we weren’t really trying to establish anything specific. We are a punk band, and so we typically play with like-sounding artists. There is an obvious tonal undercurrent that runs through all three of the compilations, but there are significant departures happening on each of them as well.
What makes this third compilation special?
Drew Demers: This third compilation is all about spirit. The songs are rough, in many cases unfinished, and in all cases under-produced. It’s exciting to think that sonically it’s an even playing-ground for each of the tracks. For the most part, it sounds like all the bands recorded in basically the same room with the same gear. It’s also special because it’s the first time we’ve outsourced the art side of things. Historically Raymond has taken care of the art side of Pentagon Black/The Famines, but this time we placed the project in the esteemed hands of Lisa Czech. We explained the project to her and she absolutely nailed the chaos with her cover art.
This has been our most inexpensive and rapid turnover for a compilation. The postcards cost basically nothing to print, and all of the bands recorded their tracks in a three week time frame. Also of note – this one was released not too long after our second compilation, and it came out as a surprise. We were originally planning on dropping it the day of our showcase at Ottawa Explosion, but instead we just decided to jump the gun because we felt like it this week, and a project like this allows us the freedom to do that.
I am excited to see Ottawa bands on all three comps, what drew you to the Ottawa bands you selected ?
Drew Demers: We have a ton of respect and admiration for The Yips, and knew that we couldn’t release our first comp without them involved. Bonnie Doon are officially Pentagon Black royalty. They were on the first two comps, and played both the compilation releases with us in Montreal. Deathsticks are actually fairly new acquaintances of ours, but we feel connected by the sisterhood of two piece bands. They were suggested to us via our pal Karol aka garbageface in Peterborough. We can’t wait to play with them and hang out with them in Ottawa next weekend!
If you track Raymond or myself down in person, we can become pen pals and send you a postcard.
If you’re a little more adventurous, you can head to a show in your town featuring any of the 48 bands we’ve worked with and ask them very kindly to dig one out for you.
What do The Famines and Pentagon Black have planned next?
Drew Demers: Famines have a couple things up our sleeves, including but not limited to writing material for a full length album to come out under Pentagon Black sometime in the next decade. Ottawa Explosion is actually the only show we have booked right now, and it’s exciting facing a blank canvas. As for Pentagon Black, we intend to keep things fast and easy. After releasing the PRIORS record, we realized that we’re open to the idea of putting out music for other bands and want to move forward with that in the future, however that will work.
The closer it drew to 8:00pm, the more the feeling of knowing something good will come out of what I’m doing settled and eventually completely took over. This feeling – remember that I’m talking about it.
Just beyond the arch of Chinatown is a small bar by the name of Bar Robo. Despite what you may think of music clubs – grimy, unwashed bar, people asking for beer by the pint – it isn’t what you’d expect. The atmosphere was warm and friendly, and the place was very tidy, had neon lights, some large potted plants, and cushioned seating. Having only seen the bar in photos, I always thought it had a mellow vibe, but as soon as I entered it, my gut feeling was only confirmed.
The first act, The C.H.U.D.S, came on at around 9:00pm (I admit I messed up and showed up an entire hour early). They proved to be the most difficult to photograph, with Imogen (the lead singer) constantly moving around, kicking over chairs, and flipping tables, and Brenda (the bassist) having her hair in her face at all times.
The band gets up in your personal space and the members really immerse themselves in every song they perform. Not only did I enjoy their sound, which I can describe with having tones of thrash punk with a unique twist, making it their own. They heavily touch upon the societal injustices that trans people face every day, and just how poorly they’re treated. This is why I really admired them, they’re a band that is very open about trans rights and they’re very active in getting awareness out in spite of how difficult it is.
Audrey (the guitarist) threw in many amazing riffs that sound like they were very well thought out, melding so well into every song. The band even toys with having controlled feedback, which is often hard to fit into songs naturally. James’ drumming added intensity to the overall sound the band had and really set the pace for each song. It seemed to determine the energy the room held and got everyone moving, and of course Imogen played a huge role in that as well.
After they had finished off their loud performance, I managed to talk to a few people, and learned that out of all the bands James was in, this one was the one with the most meaning. I have never listened to any of his other bands, but I decided since the person knew James for a number of years, I would take their word for it. I believe this especially because the whole focus of the band is to amplify the voices of people who identify as trans. They voice their pains, struggles, and how they matter. They sing and scream about the trauma they face daily, and about the violence they face from society. They do not hide from what they are and they stand very firm in their beliefs. The band is a reaction to the expectation of being respectable and quiet, as Imogen had told me. She even brought up how she sings about resistance, drug addiction, and cis complacency.
She even touches on the hypocritical side of punk. Punk has always been considered a genre that’s meant for everyone. Everyone is welcome to the punk scene, everyone can be a part of it. It’s about resistance, and never letting anyone take you alive, so why are trans people being out cast from a genre that is supposed to include, to resist, to bring awareness to important and pressing issues? Within this band’s violence is liberation.
It didn’t take long for Street Eaters, a duo from California to begin their performance. They took the two instruments people care about the least and transformed them into a full-throttle truewave punk band. They really impressed me with the coordinated drumming and signing brought forth by Megan March. This is something that’s incredibly difficult to do. Not only was this something that blew me away, but it was also the way that John played his bass. The approach is unconventional – he played it as if it was a guitar. This produced a heavy and gritty garage sound and shook the floor with its raw power. Their singing and shouting melded together and really brought the mood of their songs together. If you like Black Flag, I’m sure you’ll find yourself loving these guys.
Their commentary about Ottawa’s weather was accurate, but they bounced back with that if we were to go down to the USA, we could insult their weather patterns as well. After this, they performed a song that they seemed to sarcastically admit wasn’t about the hail storm they experienced while coming up to Canada. The song is called ‘To the Ice’ and it’s from their new record The Envoy which you can pre-order on their Bandcamp.
They closed off with the joke of “we’ll do you one better, we’ll play one more song” after suggested they cut their set down to two more songs. The song they closed off with was one they claimed to be about punching Nazis in the face, in reference to the event that occurred a couple of months back with Richard Spencer. This one seemed to strike a fire in both of the musicians that I had seen glimpses of throughout the night, but never with such intensity.
After they finished up, I managed to speak briefly to Megan, who was incredibly down to earth, and despite the angry sound of the band, was incredibly kind. We spoke of the band briefly and a very small amount about photography regarding the band before I let her go do whatever she was set to do. During this time, a few other people had piled in and had come to support their friends in the next band.
When Warp Lines came on, I immediately recognized their lead singer and guitarist Johnny from the TARG show a few weeks back with Steve Adamyk Band, however don’t let that fool you into thinking this band had the same sound. Although possessing some of the same roots, the sound is dirtier and grittier. Technically classified as pop-punk, these guys really nailed that heavy punk rock we were there to see. The trio brings a lively performance with them, coordinating very well with each other. The dynamic the guys have was incredible, sharing smiles throughout the songs they played. They drumming relies on crash cymbals and a very heavy beat all thanks to the wonderful Dave Sec whose technique impressed me. The riffs thrown in by Johnny, in their song ‘Weak Signals´, where perfectly placed and the string bends added a new depth to the song. Some riffs were kept light to contrast how heavy the entire song was and yet, it oddly fit so well. The bass, played by Kurt Rafuse (of The Yips/Tropical Dripps) shook the floor and made itself stand out in every single song they performed. It’s no doubt that this band is not afraid to bring out the bass.
If you listen to Steve Adamyk, PUP, or Hollerado, Warp Lines is a band that you’ll find yourself drawn to without a doubt. They’ve lively and really immerse themselves in their performance and despite bordering pop punk, they don’t fall into what the stereotypical association with that genre is. In a way, they grasp it, make it their own, and bring a new flavour to the punk and pop punk scene of Ottawa.
The night ended on a really positive note and gave me the opportunity to speak to a few more people, Johnny was one of them. He’s a very sincere and approachable person despite how serious he may look. Once you jump into conversation with him, he’s a really pleasant person to talk to. I also managed to say hello to Steve (Steve Adamyk Band) and Pat (Telecomo) who came out to support their friends. Now, remember that feeling I told you about in the very first paragraph? That feeling is something I had during the entire time I was in the small bar in Chinatown. This was without a doubt one of the best shows that I’ve been to, and the whole night the atmosphere was filled to the brim with positive energy.
Overall, any of these bands mentioned above are worth seeing live because you’ll either never find the recordings no matter how far you delve into the World Wide Web, or if you do, the recordings will never do the band justice and will never possess the same grit, grime, and liveliness that their live performances hold. That being said, make sure to catch The C.H.U.D.S and Warp Lines at Ottawa Explosion weekend in order to hear their sick tunes live and raw.
We think we have finally recovered from another amazing two days out in Vankleek Hill for this year’s Beau’s Oktoberfest. This was my fourth year attending Oktoberfest and once again it did not disappoint. So much happens during these jam-packed two days. Here are the highlights from this year:
Six eighths of The Empty Steins, your Beau’s Oktoberfest Team Challenge Champions.
Competing in the team challenge
Every year I go watch the team challenge and every year I write about how much fun it looks and how cool it is to see so many people competing while raising money for charity. In years past, this joy was saved for organizations and businesses that signed up well ahead of time. This year, for the first time, they opened the team challenge up to the public. Obviously I jumped all over this and entered a team. And when the dust settled from the malt sack race, beer soaked sponge slingshots and tug of war, and after the total donations were counted, our team – The Empty Steins – were victorious. Big shout out to the other teams, the organizers and everyone who cheered loudly.
The Black Forest Stage
The Black Forest Stage made it’s debut last year and was back in fine form this year. The stage mostly features punk and garage rock and is hosted by Antique Skate, House of TARG, Vans, Pouzza Fest, and Ottawa Explosion. Once again this year it was the place to be with an absolutely killer line up featuring the likes of Steve Adamyk Bank, Solids, Lost Love, Camp Radio, Audio Visceral, Pale Lips, Wasted Potential, Brutal Youth and more. The stage also hosted an early morning Saturday Folkin’ Wake Up with some acoustic stuff to start you off slow. The highlights from this stage have to be Waste Potential bring up up Jordy Bell from The Creeps to play “Wait a Minute” and then Dave Williams from Crusades to play a track. Pretty awesome seeing the local bands getting that kind of respect. Also worth noting was the bloody blast that was Brutal Youth’s performance. I simply don’t know of many bands that have that much energy live.
Members of Antiques Skateboarding crew ripping it up on the halfpipe. Photo: Eric Scharf
In the shadow of the Black Forest Stage lies a halfpipe where many skateboarders entertain all weekend. You can find them hanging out and riding rather casually most of the time, but at a few very specific moments they let it all hang out. Whether it is during their “Gladiator” style combat where you must stay on your board while trying to remove others from theirs or when they pushed each other to the limits during a sort of best trick competition, the skaters are a sight to be seen. One thing I love about it is when people see something they like they are encouraged to throw beer tokens into the halfpipe for the skaters, I even saw some people throwing in a few bills. A photo album with some of the skateboarding I took in will follow soon.
54-40 showing that they still have it as they play on the main stage at Beau’s Oktoberfest 2016. Photo: Eric Scharf
The Main Stage Headliners
Between the team challenge, the Black Forest Stage and the Craft Haus, I didn’t have much time to check out the main stage this year. However I did watch the headliners both nights, and even though both have hyphens in their names, I was impressed for very different reasons. On the Friday it was a trip down memory lane to watch 54-40. Leading up to the show I spoke with friends about how I knew I liked 54-40, but couldn’t really think of that many of their songs. Once the band started playing I found myself singing along to every song except the new ones and having a great time. On Saturday night it was time for Beau’s collaborator K-Os to wow the stage. He played his hits and was great with the crowd, but my favourite part was when he went off freestyling, especially when he took a shot at Drake. From Canadian alt rock one night to Canadian hip-hop the next, the headliners closed out each night in style.
Remi Royale entertaining the crowd between set at the Black Forest stage at Beau’s Oktoberfest 2016. Photo: Eric Scharf
Remi Royale and the mystery of his stolen belt
This is not so much a highlight but more of an important event. Ottawa’s beloved punk rock crooner Remi Royale had his infamous hot dog championship belt stolen from the side of the Black Forest Stage. Royale was providing MC duties and singing a few songs in between bands, just doing what he does. Unfortunately some miscreant took off with his beloved belt, the item that harnesses all his special powers. If anyone knows anything that could help get the belt back, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and I am sure we can hook you up with a pretty sweet reward.
Brutal Youth were bloody brilliant as they closed out the Black Forest stage at Beau’s Oktoberfest 2016. Photo: Eric Scharf
The Food Selection and Quality
Every year I am amazed at the selection and quality of the food vendors we have to choose from on the festival grounds. There are so many inventive options, like chicken and waffles in a cone, bugger balls stuffed with smoked bacon and cheese, perogies, many kinds of schnitzel and so much more. My food highlight was Pure Kitchen’s tempeh Bavarian meatballs with roasted onion gravy served with potato hash topped with leeks, sauerkraut, pickled beets and apple sauce. Oh man am I ever hungry now.
The selection at the Craft Haus, night one wasn’t even done and stuff was sold out.
The Craft Haus
The Craft Haus is the very special tent beside the main stage where one can taste a plethora of delicious beers from many breweries. Beau’s special releases at Oktoberfest are great, Life on Juniper is one of the tastiest beers I have ever tried, and available in the other beer tents, but there is just something so special about the choices and different flavour and finishes within the Craft Haus. One of the most interesting beers was Forked River Brewing Company’s Wicked Wench which is a barrel aged sour stout. Order this beer if you ever really want to confuse your pallet. I could go on and one about all the really great beers I sampled in the Craft Haus, like Stack Brewing’s Stack ’72 an imperial IPA or Block 3 Brewing Co.’s The Epic, a chardonnay brett barrel aged saison, but instead of reading about it, just make sure not to miss out next year.
I encourage everyone, every year, to camp. I commend Beau’s for coordinating shuttle services in hopes of eliminating anyone’s urge to drink and drive, but I would much rather camp over night than have to cram into a yellow school bus with no washrooms all the way back to town. Not only do you not have to suffer through that bus ride, the party keeps on going as this year’s camping featured late night movies (Beerfest and Strange Brew), popcorn and canteen open early and late. Camping is also a great way to meet people as it is a little less noisy and rambunctious as one the festival grounds. Now if only they could find a way to have the campground licensed…
Staff and volunbeers
I think I mention this every year, but everyone I interact with, from Beau’s staff members to volunbeers, are so very nice and excited to be there. Whether it was coordinating media passes, participation in the team challenge, volunbeers serving me a drink or the ones walking around answering questions, everyone was just so positive and play an integral role in making Beau’s Oktoberfest so wunderbar.
Festival goers honing their flip cup skills at Beau’s Oktoberfest 2016. Photo: Eric Scharf
The Oktoberfest crowd
One thing that really impresses me is the behaviour of all those in attendance. When you consider that you have thousand of people displacing themselves in order to consume alcohol, I didn’t witness a single fight or any sort of misbehaviour. It is very refreshing to attend an event of this nature and see so many people having a great time and not experiencing any real problems.
Washington DC’s Sneaks performed at St. Albans Church on the second last day of Ottawa Explosion, battling heat and spiritual presences as she performed most of the songs on her self-titled debut EP, with a few additional jams thrown in. Sneaks kept her songs quick and to the point, none of which exceeded two minutes (her seven song EP comes in at well under 10 minutes), opening with a brief rendition of “This Is.”
As a solo act playing bass to a drum track, Sneaks nonchalant, matter-of-fact lyrics and lo-fi vibe really carry each song with vaguely-relatable lines, what appear to be inside jokes with herself and seemingly random words. The catchy chorus of “Tomorrow maybe / today for sure” during the fourth song of the set had me quickly singing along. Before moving on to the next song she briefly looked around the front of the church behind her, and pointed out that there was some “supernatural stuff going on,” and then proceeded into her single “X.T.Y.” Sneaks wrapped up with “True Killer.”
Shortly after Sneaks finished up, Gatineau’s FET.NAT began to set up their gear facing each other in the middle of the church floor where all of the pews had been removed. FET.NAT dived into their set with reckless abandon and formed an instant connection with the crowd, which completely encircled them during their performance. The amazing acoustics at St. Albans really made the show an immersive experience and most of those in attendance were quickly grooving hard to the energetic, off-kilter rhythms and intentionally abrasive sounds that permeated the church.
Unfortunately, for those of you reading this FET.NAT is one of those “you really had to be there” type of acts. I know that it sucks to read that, but it sucks more for me trying to write about it. While SNEAKS is as wonderfully DIY-simple and straightforward as it gets, FET.NAT’s music is precisely engineered chaos, practiced and preformed by an insanely tight band. The crazy combination of soprano sax, live drums, and electronic samples somehow fits well with the distorted franglish vocals, piercing guitar riffs and odd songs structures. I personally challenge anyone to attempt to cover one of their songs.
FET.NAT opened with the first track from their latest EP, Stop Saying It’s So Beautiful, with the aptly titled “VEGAS PARIS,” wherein the main refrain is those words repeated as the chorus as a digitally modified vocal sample. “Dre,” also on the same EP followed shortly after. The band rounded out the set with “WTF Jumpin’ Bean” and “Blunt l’Inspecteur.”
Throughout the set they managed to maintain a super fun, engaging and energetic atmosphere. This was definitely one of my favourite shows at Ottawa Explosion Weekend 2016 and if you are ever presented with the opportunity, I highly recommend seeing both of these acts, albeit for completely different reasons.
Here is a taste of FET.NAT playing “WTF Jumpin’ Bean” live at Pop Montreal a few years ago.