Party Machine: The Rise of Canadian Electronic Music

“In days of yore, from Britain’s shore,

Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came

And planted firm Britannia’s flag

On Canada’s fair domain.

Here may it wave, our boast our pride

And, joined in love together,

The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine

The Maple Leaf forever!”

— Alexander Muir, “The Maple Leaf Forever” (1867)

Canada, this writer’s home and native land, is the second largest country in the world in terms of landmass. It’s a proudly multicultural land, with two official languages, and enjoys a socially minded democracy with publicly funded health care, high taxation to distribute wealth, legalized same-sex marriage, and no capital punishment. As of 2012, Canada contains roughly 35 million people, a couple mill shy of the population of California, but spread out across an area larger than the entire United States Empire, spanning 9.9 million square kilometres (aka 6.1 million miles). The majority of the populace is huddled close to the US border, to stay warm.

In January of 2012, after Canadian acts like Drake, Feist, and Fucked Up were highly ranked on many American and International publication’s year end lists, The New York Times ran a blog post that postulated Toronto was having a “Seattle moment”. Granted, that article should be taken with a grain of salt, but considering the meteoric rise of electronic music over the past few years, and Canada’s placement within that phenomenon, I believe it’s fair to say that Canada, a country with a population the size of a large state, may be experiencing a Chicago/Detroit moment.

Certainly, Canada has produced some revolutionary electronic music minds over the years. In the ’40s, atomic physicist Hugh Le Caine created, among other unique and groundbreaking devices, the Electronic Sackbut, one of the world’s first synthesizers. In the late ’60s, Bruce Haack created his own unusual synths and vocoders, like the heat and human touch responsive Dermatron, producing the weirdest electronic children’s albums this side of Raymond Scott. Then, while the industry took little notice of his achievements, Haack begat Haackula, moving in an aesthetically and lyrically dark direction that helped invent techno in the process.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, surgical bandaged showman Nash the Slash made quite a name for himself with his experimental industrial prog releases marked by the use of electric mandolins, electric violins, and drum machines. His groundbreaking 1981 work Decomposing was a record designed to play at 33, 45, or 78 RPM speeds. By the mid-’80s, Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly were helping to usher in the electro-industrial genre. In the early ’90s, Richie Hawtin was a major player in Detroit techno’s second wave, and has gone on to win countless awards as one of the world’s best DJs. In 2011, MixMag ranked Hawtin at #2 on their list of the greatest DJs of all time. While its significant historical contributions have perhaps not been as widely recognized as they ought to be, Canada has quietly been at the forefront of electronic music since its inception and shows no signs of retreat.

The Future Is North

“Oh, Maple Leaf, around the world,

You speak as you rise high above,

Of courage, peace and quiet strength,

Of the Canada I love.

Remind us all our union bound,

By ties we cannot sever,

Bright flag revered on every ground,

The Maple Leaf forever!”

— Vladimir Radian, winner of a CBC contest to revise “The Maple Leaf Forever” (1997)

Building on its legacy, and coinciding with the resurrection of electronic music into mainstream consciousness, in the past five years Canadian electronic efforts have ramped up a notch. Dan Snaith of Dundas, Ontario won the Polaris Music Prize with his 2007 album Andorra, released under the name Caribou. Later, Caribou’s Swim from 2010 was ranked the number one album of the year by prominent electronic music sources such as Resident Advisor and MixMag, and went on to win the Juno (Canadian equivalent to the Grammy) for Electronic Album of the Year.

Toronto producer Deadmau5 is currently one of the most recognized names in the music world. His 2010 album 4×4=12 charted in at least half a dozen countries, and was nominated for a Grammy. Everyone from Snooki to Snoop Dogg are self-proclaimed fans. Las Vegas even went so far as to officially pronounce 2 January 2012, to be “Deadmau5 Day”. Lesser known Duck Sauce, half of which is Montreal-born turntablist A-Trak, also got a Grammy nod in 2011 as their “Barbra Streisand” single hit the top ten in over a dozen countries. The song also received lip-synching treatment on the popular TV show, Glee.

Over the past decade, Winnipeg’s Aaron Funk (aka Venetian Snares, Last Step) has earned an air of Aphex Twin-like mystique, with his haphazard yet prolific releases gaining a cult following and rousing admiration from tastemakers and fellow musicians alike. Though much of his work is in unusual time signatures, like 7/4, his music was recently chosen by two different performers on American reality game show So You Think You Can Dance as backing tracks for solo routines.

Montreal’s Tim Hecker and Vancouver’s Loscil have created a ton of drone/ambient music as of late, both for the cutting edge Chicago label Kranky and both lauded by the Pitchfork reading crowd. When not performing as the drummer for Destroyer, Scott Morgan found the time to put together a new Loscil album every other year since 1999. Tim Hecker has found even more mainstream success as his 2011 album Ravedeath, 1972 made the Polaris Music Prize long list, and the won the 2012 Juno for Electronic Album of the Year, as well as landing at #30 on Pitchfork’s and Uncut’s year-end lists.

Canadians are no strangers to the global music charts, either. The first two self-titled albums from Toronto’s Crystal Castles both cracked the top 50 in the UK charts, with their 2010 album making the Billboard 200. Electroclash provocateur Peaches hit #160 on the Billboard charts with her 2009 album I Feel Cream. The last three albums by Hamilton electro-pop duo Junior Boys have all made the US Dance Top 10, while electronica band Holy Fuck hit #14 on the US Dance charts with their 2010 album Latin. Electrofunk duo Chromeo hit #70 on the Billboard charts with their third album, 2010’s Business Casual.

Canada is also host to two of the world’s most prominent electronic music festivals: Shambhala and Mutek. In BC, just down the road from Nelson, Shambhala has grown over the past decade from a party of a few hundred people to a six-stage weekend serving a myriad of (mostly) electronic genres to over 10,000 patrons and 2,000 volunteers and performers. In 2011, Shambhala beat out much larger festivals like Burning Man and Glastonbury to win Best Large Event at the Breakspoll International Breakbeat Awards, and repeated the feat again in 2012.

On the other coast, Montreal not-for-profit organization Mutek has arranged performances of the most groundbreaking digital artists in the world, blossoming from 2,000 attendees to over 20,000 indoor and 68,000 total participants. Everybody who’s anybody has been there or wants to go. America’s finest electronic music magazine, XLR8R has called it, “the crème de la crème of digital arts festivals in North America.”

Canadian labels like Wagon Repair (home to Mathew Jonson’s Cobblestone Jazz), Last Gang, Paper Bag, Upper Class, Rottun, Ache, Nettwerk, and Alien8 are veritable breeding grounds for cutting edge electronic music. Countless other electronic musicians have been signed to prominent labels with worldwide followings. Felix Cartal, MSTRKRFT, and Datsik are signed to Dim Mak. Poirier and Kid Koala are on Ninja Tune, while Grimes and Purity Ring are on 4AD. Venetian Snares is on Planet Mu, Babe Rainbow is on Warp, Fairmont is on Border Community, Solvent is on Ghostly International, and Holy Fuck is on XL. And then there’s the noted work of Deadbeat, Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts, Arthur Oskan, Tiga, Azari & III, Excision, Egyptrixx, Humans, ill.Gates, Jacques Greene, Lowfish, Misstress Barbara, Jokers of the Scene, Frivolous, Downlink, Longwalkshortdock, Shout Out Out Out Out, Stephen Beaupré, platEAU, Teen Daze, Foxes in Fiction, Secret Mommy, Born Gold, Marc Houle, XI, Sissy, Lunice, Myagi, and dozens of other productive producers hitting their peak in recent years. The reach and quality of contemporary Canadian electronic music is irrefutable, and extremely impressive considering the relatively small size of the talent pool.

Sketchy Sunday

“At Queenston Heights and Lundy’s Lane,

Our brave fathers, side by side,

For freedom, homes and loved ones dear,

Firmly stood and nobly died;

And those dear rights which they maintained,

We swear to yield them never!

Our watchword evermore shall be

The Maple Leaf forever!”

— Alexander Muir, “The Maple Leaf Forever” (1867)

Canada has begun to take some responsibility for its own electronica legacy as of late. The Juno Awards finally created a category for ‘Electronic Album of the Year’ in 2010. In 2012, national public broadcaster CBC got around to legitimizing their electronic branch, complete with two online music streams. This came after much unpaid, self-motivated work on behalf of a few electronic music insurgents who created a following for CBC Electronic as a twitter page and Facebook group. A more supportive framework for the scene is slowly emerging.

Unfortunately, just as the CBC took the initiative to fully implement their electronic music coverage, the Harper Government recently slashed funding for the public broadcaster. As history has proven, it is not enough to simply “know” that your country has a great art scene. You have to establish that fact yourself, and then people have to talk about it, publicize it, critique it, and document it.

If Canada is unwilling or unable to support efforts like CBC Electronic, more invaluable lights on the Canadian electronic music scene will dim. The scene may just dry up and blow away, drifting off to places like Germany, the US, and UK that have more systemic backing. An entire generation of prolific Canadian producers could get Haack-ed. Considering the wealth of talent Canada has produced, one would think the scene is viable enough to sustain itself and its lifestyle, but there is still a long way to go in solidifying its place at home. As it has proven over the past five years, it’s definitely worth the effort.

CBC Electronic

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting

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