A music journalist recounts a six-year period in which Canadian music captured the world’s attention

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Michael Barclay had just finished writing about a renaissance in Canadian music when he noticed another one rising to the surface.

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It was 2001 and the author and music journalist was living in Guelph, Ontario. Have Not Been the Same: The Canrock Renaissance, 1985 to 1995 had just been released. Co-wrote with mean AD Jack and Jason Schneider, it took a dive into a particularly fertile period of Canadian music that produced artists such as The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and The Cowboy Junkies.

“As soon as it came out it was like, ‘Wait a minute, something else is going on right now,'” Barclay said, in an interview with Postmedia from his home in Toronto. “The new pornographers had arrived. The peaches had arrived. Good luck ! The Dark Emperor was performing.

It was all part of what Barclay says has become another pivotal period for Canadian music. This is the basis of his new book, Hearts On Fire: Six Years That Changed Canadian Music, 2000-2005. A journalist with a history of working for alternative weeklies, Barclay also had a weekly CD reviews column in the Waterloo-Region Record at the time. So he was certainly better informed than most of what was happening on the national scene. Night after night he watched exciting shows and listened to stellar records. He kept a personal “gig diary” just to have a lasting record of his memories.

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“It wasn’t my youth,” he says. “I was 30 at the time; to the point where some of my friends were already stuck in their high school musical groove. But I was like, ‘No, this is the most exciting thing in my life so far (and it’s happening) right now.’ ”

Arcade Fire singer Win Butler performs on stage at the Festival Rock sur Seine in Saint-Cloud near Paris in 2005. Postmedia files / Olivier Laban-Mattei, AFP
Arcade Fire singer Win Butler performs on stage at the Festival Rock sur Seine in Saint-Cloud near Paris in 2005. Postmedia files / Olivier Laban-Mattei, AFP Photo by OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI /AFP/Getty Images

But it wasn’t until Montreal’s Arcade Fire won the Grammy for Album of the Year for The Suburbs in 2011 that he started thinking about a book.

The 2011 Grammys fall outside of the six years the book chronicles. But Arcade Fire became arguably the biggest hit of those years, a band that grew from indie-cool club to acclaimed stadium rockers with an international profile.

“Arcade Fire, every time they won a Juno or the Polaris or whatever, they were like, ‘I want to thank the Hidden Cameras, Royal City, the Constantines, Wolf Parade, the Unicorns, and all the bands that made us what we are,” Barclay said. “They were very aware of being part of a scene that helped lift them up and they were inspired by all of these bands. I love Arcade Fire, but I don’t want them to be the only story from this era. I really wanted to make sure this whole moment was captured.

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One of the biggest lessons from Hearts On Fire is that this explosion of creative music wasn’t limited to one scene, genre, city or even region. It was a national phenomenon. The book covers 42 acts from coast to coast. This may have incorporated two decades of the author’s personal research, but it only started in earnest after the release of his 2018 book The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. Most of the more than 100 interviews conducted for the book took place in 2020 or 2021, at the height of the pandemic. All but a handful of the 42 acts agreed to participate.

Barclay hopes the book will remind readers of acts that may have escaped our public awareness over the years, but were key to giving Canada an international profile.

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“Like Hot Hot Heat,” Barclay says. “I hear people say ‘Oh I forgot them’, or The Be Good Tanyas. People don’t realize how successful they were in Britain or how unusual they were in this kind of music. A lot of people outside of Alberta still don’t know enough about Corb Lund, I wanted to make sure it was all part of the story.

Tegan & Sara, 2002. Postmedia Files/Short, Universal Music
Tegan & Sara, 2002. Postmedia Files/Short, Universal Music .jpg

Barclay covers the origin stories and impact of a number of acts from the era: The Weakerthans from Winnipeg, Tegan and Sara from Calgary, Buck 65 from Nova Scotia, The Unicorns from British Columbia , Toronto’s Broken Social Scene, hip-hop artist Kardinal Offishall and experimental Montreal collective Godspeed. You! Black Emperor.

Given the vast reach of artists and their stories, focusing on what sets these acts apart is no simple equation. There have certainly been major changes within the industry. File sharing was taking off, and Canadian bands seemed to be rewriting the rules of success, taking a do-it-yourself approach to management and recording that bypassed the big labels.

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But the traditional measures of success have also changed. While many of the bands mentioned in the book did well in sales, others were important in laying the groundwork even though they never became household names.

“Godspeed got the kind of press I’ve rarely seen other Canadian artists get,” says Barclay. “I mean, it’s the bubble I live in and it’s the press I tend to read: people who like the Velvet Underground more than the Beatles. I think they’ve been quite influential both in their music, I think they paved the way for bands like Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky and other people, but also in their approach to the business of the music. They came out of Steve Albini’s world of keeping business at bay and really focused on fearless art and keeping the business within their circle of friends.

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The unicorns were Alden Penner, right, Nicholas Thorburn, middle, and Jamie Thompson, back.
The unicorns were Alden Penner, right, Nicholas Thorburn, middle, and Jamie Thompson, back. .jpg

Along the way, Barclay uncovers the stranger-than-fiction stories of several bands. Unicorns are a great example. A trio of warring misfits hailing from small-town British Columbia before moving to Montreal, the act seemed to be doing everything in their power to sabotage their careers, but ended up gaining a cult following, acclaim critically acclaimed and sold 100,000 copies of 2003’s Who Will Cut. Our hair when we left? They also “paved the direct path to Arcade Fire’s success by taking them on tour across the United States the summer before the release of Funeral”, Barclay said.

It was an era of sprawling, highly populated collectives such as The New Pornographers and Broken Social Scene, whose very membership and governance seemed very different from the norm. Barclay points out that even in the pared-down world of punk-rock, one of our most successful exports of the time was Toronto’s F–ked Up, which had six members. He says there was this feeling internationally that something was happening in Canada that was not happening anywhere else at the time.

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“There really seemed to be this communal bent to a lot of the music, whether the band was physically large or not,” Barclay says. “I really think there was a real seriousness or a real passion, hence the title of the book. I think in the post-ironic 90s and the post-9/11 terror, a lot of these artists were steeped in that passion and that seriousness. And they killed it live, that’s another thing. In the age of all those instant internet blogger buzz bands, all of those acts were so good and compelling live that a lot of “Other things just weren’t. Look at The Strokes (from New York). There’s a band that liked to pretend they didn’t care. Arcade Fire fucking attention. They didn’t want you felt jaded about anything. You were either going to love this band or hate it. I think that’s a common thread that caught the world’s attention.

Hearts on Fire: Six Years That Changed Canadian Music, 2000-2005 is now available.

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