Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Wavelength 500 Interview:
La Longeur d’onde est morte,
vivre la Longeur d’onde

February 10th, 2010

I found this CitySonic interview which includes Brian Borcherdt drawing a handy flowchart on a wall for understanding Wavelength and Toronto indie-cestuousness at History Jen’s wonderful Narratives site, which also presents her personal reminiscences about the series and a whole bunch of other videos.

I have a full article coming out in The Globe and Mail on Friday about the Wavelength 500 festival, which marks the 10th anniversary of the weekly Toronto indie/experimental music series known for kickstarting the local scene as we know it today, and also (as was announced last year) marks the end of its weekly incarnation and the beginning of something new (some details below). But only a few bits of my long conversation with Wavelength co-founder and stalwart programmer Jonny Dovercourt will make it to print, so in honour of the festival’s launch tonight at the Music Gallery (where Dovercourt, a.k.a. Jonathan Bunce, is also the artistic director - a development that, as well, can be credited to his experience with Wavelength), here is the nearly-full transcript for your edification and enjoyment. Happy birthday Wavelength, and here’s toasting to a long future.

Carl Wilson: How are things coming together for Wavelength 500?

Jonny Dovercourt: Surprisingly smoothly. That’s the advantage of super-long lead time. We started planning it almost as soon as we were done Wavelength 450: We had a list of people we wanted, and started putting feelers out in the spring.
 
There was a period when we were kind of disappointed because we realized we weren’t going to get all the big names we had hoped for. But then it was better in a way, because then the idea of band reunions came up and we had way more success with that than we expected. I didn’t really think that all these people would go for it. From Fiction originally turned us down and then called back a week later saying they’d practised and wanted to do it. So that way it didn’t have to be all about “here are these gigantic bands that played Wavelength when they started out” - because we’re not trying to overstate the case, or to take too much credit for their success.
 
Are all the founders of Wavelength still in the scene, or have some dropped out of music?

There were six bands that were the original crew: Neck, and all those guys are still playing music (Soft Copy, Ghostlight); Mean Red Spiders (Ghostlight); Parts Unknown (Creeping Nobodies until recently, and Derek Westerholm’s new project Karaoke is fucking great, shockingly good), Alex Durlak (ICPMABOYC, and now Boars); Nicholas Kennedy stopped playing music but is still involved through doing letterpress. Everybody’s still active.

It’s funny that none of those bands became the big international touring bands, or got Junos, or got nominated for the Polaris Prize. It’s an irony about it. Not that none of them had those aspirations, but I don’t think any of them were really wired for that level of “going for it.” That group of people were always going to be focused on playing music locally because they were rooted locally.
 
Maybe that’s what enabled them to start WL, in a sense - if their attention had been elsewhere, it wouldn’t have clicked.

A lot of them had through the ’90s tried to tour and had mixed success and kept coming back to Toronto. So we said, “I guess this is where we are, so let’s try to make it the best place to live and play music. Let’s not be ashamed of being a local band. We’re not any less valid as artists because of it. So let’s embrace that.” Then again, the initial crew didn’t go on to be that actively involved. They all supported it, and attended, but most of them were too busy to make it a full-time commitment.
 
What’s changed about being a musician here from then to now?

The main difference is that it’s just easier to organize your own shows and get people out to them. There’s a bigger group of promoters who will take notice of what you’re doing and invite you to play. The Internet obviously makes a big difference for spreading the word.
 
But in some ways it feels the same. [continues]

There’s still about the same number of clubs. There are still the big promoters (Against the Grain, Root Mean Square) whose circles you have to get into if you want to open for your out-of-town heroes. And despite the Internet, things like postering are as important as they ever have been. It’s just that things happen faster.
 
What’s really changed is the enthusiasm you get, that’s expressed more physically [at live shows]. Back then it was everyone sitting at tables and you had to wait till you were finished and people came up to you to get a clue if you were reaching anyone.
 
Do you feel that Wavelength and the bands associated it helped re-orient audiences’ perspectives on local music and even how to behave at shows?

The zine was a big part of that educational outreach of Wavelenght. It was providing the context for what people were coming to see. Which was a big thing to open things up - when you felt like you were reaching people in the 90s you were often just reaching the hard-core music nerds, who’d say, “You remind me of this band and that band and I can see where you fit into…” So the zine provided more context in those terms but also in the broader sense of social context, how they relate to the Toronto scene, what inspired them in their environment. When we stopped doing it in print we tried to carry it into the online realm. And also trying to explain as much as possible our curatorial impulse with any show we did. That’s always been just as important as the show itself. When we got together the zine was a higher priority for me than the live series. I just wanted to do something to make people more aware and more excited about the Toronto music scene.
 
What challenges did you face along the way, aside from obviously a certain amount of burnout in the later years?

It wasn’t even burnout so much as that we’d set ourselves such a ridiculous precedent to follow up. No one can keep that kind of workload up without serious funding and we couldn’t even stop to figure out how to fund it because we were doing it. So it just was obviously unsustainable.
 
Part of the reason it was successful was that it was such airtight formula from the beginning. The audiences were up and down - we didn’t get consistently packed houses till 2002 or ’03. But we put so much thought into the original concept, and we were so dogmatically set on it. The format was two bands and a DJ. … We eventually loosened the grip and let it evolve a bit more naturally. We agreed to officially institute three bands as the formula only a few years ago only at the request of Sneaky Dee’s, who wanted to keep the bar open. But anytime we’ve let there be four bands - on a Sunday night - it gets pretty terrible.
 
Where did the DJ part of the concept come in? Was that just to allow social time?

Yes, it was that. But also when we started it was more of a novelty to have non-DJs deejaying - it was part of the involvement of the community, that anyone who wanted to could DJ at Wavelength. It didn’t have to be some jerk with expensive equipment. And also we could have a chance to … share all our cool new shit. That aspect of it has really fallen off, only in the last year or so. Recruiting DJs was one of the tasks that fell off the map, because no one really took it up and, recently, the Garrison doesn’t have a DJ booth. It’s easy enough to program an iPod playlist - ten years ago there were no iPods!
 
But were there problems you had to adjust, things you had to figure out in the early years?

To be honest, most of the successes confirmed things I already suspected. The format was that there’d be a headlining band that was established on the local scene, and an opening band that was almost brand new, playing their first show or their first handful of shows. Almost every time we stayed true to that and didn’t deviate from it, it worked. Because the established band brings out their following and a new band brings out their friends. And it’s exciting - you’re watching something be born before your eyes, and bands play better because they’ve got something to prove. So with all the other programmers I’ve tried to reinforce that. So we did have this really clear idea of how it would work.

There was one moment, actually, in the first few months where we had to ask ourselves, “Is this series just for our circle of bands or is it something we’re going to open to a bigger community?” I had a few days of struggling with that, because part of me felt that I wanted the world to know about our bands - and I didn’t want to become a ‘booker.’ But we made the selfless decision to open it to a wider community. And if we hadn’t done that, it would have failed.
 
How did you define the limits of the styles of music presented, what belonged and what didn’t?

That’s something that did evolve as it went along. If you look at the first year of WL it was probably pretty heavy on space-rock, drone stuff, some electronic music, some math-rock obviously. But there were improvisers in from almost the beginning. Wavelength 5 had Wrist Error and Eric Chenaux, Michael Snow and John Oswald, and a screening of [Snow’s film] Wavelength - that was number 5 or 6! … I’d been going to see CCMC at the Music Gallery and Mike Genarro’s Ulterior series at the Victory and I wanted to bring some of that spirit into the indie scene - that spirit of musical freedom and experimentation. I was starting already to get sick of the Belle-and-Sebastianization of the indie scene, everything starting to seem safe and pretty and whatever. There was an element of danger I was missing … I thought, how cool it would be to have a free-jazz duo playing before a math rock band - there was a connection there, it’s what I would do on a mixed tape - and maybe I was consciously trying to freak people out.
 
Whenever we did anything weirder and more experimental there was a divisive reaction, but we kind of reveled in it. It wasn’t exactly revolutionary but it caused people to think. And that was part of the excitement about WL. It wasn’t just another indie-rock night. It wasn’t a band showcase, for ‘new bands trying to make it, trying to generate buzz.’ We were so sick of that cheap commodification of indie music. And I’ll admit I was kind of a jerk about it in the first year. There were people who approached me to play and I turned them down and told them they were “too mainstream.” There’s one person who still hasn’t forgiven me for that.

Now I’d be way more polite about it. But I was very dogmatic about what we were going to book and what we weren’t. To me this was an experimental music series, even though a lot of what we were booking was still very song-based, and by actual experimental-music standards it’d be very conventional.
 
Obviously sharing the booking helps diversify it. When you’re just booking a month at a time - or booking one show a month now - there’s a ton of stuff you want to book and it’s a matter of who you whittle it down to. When it comes to listening to solutions, if there’s any hesitation, just don’t book it. Though sometimes a submission will bring you back to it and you’ll realize that there’s something to it.

What are the furthest-out things you’ve booked, at least from a Wavelength-crowd point of view?
 
Early on, Martin Arnold’s band Marmots was the weirdest thing to hear in Ted’s Wrecking Yard. And there were people, even though it was quiet music, it was so atonal or microtonal that there were people covering their ears: “What is this? it’s awful.” And others were swooning for it.

Any time we booked something more hardcore or metal, because we did it so infrequently, like Cursed, there’d be a divisive reaction. Bands like Dance Electric or Oh the Humanity got great response at Wavelength. But it became the occasional palette cleanser. …

Then there are [“classical”-world] new-music things, Toca Loca or Continuum or Contact, having them in a bar environment, though those things in themselves aren’t that far out to me.
 
What are the things you think of most fondly that grew out of, developed through Wavelength?

Lullaby Arkestra: They met at the first WL anniversary; seeing their love grow and their band grow and evolve. They became almost our house band - they played nine WLs, and five or six of those were anniversaries.

And then obviously being ground zero for the whole Torontopia thing, beginning in 02, and exploded 03 to 05. I’m not sure quite what role WL played, other than to popularize it - someone came up with the word, Steve Kado picked it up and spread it. I was probably the first to write about it in the WL zine.

But we helped birth this thing - it was a second wave of Wavelength people making it happen but for me that was exciting. I stay in contact with my old friends but I’m excited by new blood and new things, these younger people who got the mission we were going for and really were going for it. And then as a result of that, WL getting noticed by more institutional things like Coach House Books’ Toronto books - allowing us not to feel self-conscious about taking ourselves seriously, which allowed us to do things like put on panel discussions and apply for arts-council grants.

Those are things that within the context of indie rock, there’s a preciousness about not being too serious or being pretentious, and we got to the point where we could say, “Oh fuck you guys, we don’t care what you think of us. We want to take this further.” And that gave us the confidence to go ahead and incorporate, start applying for grants and create this plan for the future that’s allowing us to evolve at this point.
 
So what is on the agenda for Wavelength version 2.0?

We’re going to have more of a concert season - we’re going to be a bit more like a new-music organization, funnily enough. When I first started at the Music Gallery I was confused by that: “What’s a season? We just do shows all year round.” And we’ll still do shows year-round, but it makes sense for us to have a yearly planning cycle, because that’s how the grants work, but also because it’s good, because it forces us to go beyond thinking two months ahead to thinking a year or two ahead.

We actually have most of the rest of 2010 planned out - WL 501 is our Images Festival show on April 3, then we’re doing a show at the Kazoo Festival in Guelph, we’re going to do bimonthly shows at the Garrison, in the summer we’ll do a show in the MG courtyard, in August our Toronto Island show… These are the things we’ve been doing the past few years - we’re just expanding the focus on it and letting everyone know that this is Wavelength now. It’s not Sundays at wherever anymore.

There are things we still want to figure out - we want to make sure that we’re still relevant to new and emerging bands. And then our online presence and what we’re offering the community in terms of coverage. As you know, every thing’s changed so fast with social media - what can a local website offer that Facebook can’t? It’s a big question.
 
Obviously we still want to build on the connections we made - recently with the African community, for example. We’re hoping to have more time to do proper outreach to them, and for us to go out and hear more and be exposed to more things. It’ll be more central rather than piecemeal. I know we got a lot of credibility in the Ethiopian community for Getachew Mekuria [this summer with the Ex], and that’s really cool, but …
 
We may be stepping away from the role of giving bands a showcase - that may be where we disappoint a lot of people, for those bands who’ve looked at WL as a career stepping stone, we’re not going to fulfill that role. We’re going to be engaging with people artistically, get them to engage with different disciplines. We want to do more cross-disciplinary programming.

As I get older I find that I care less about being professional and trying to do the right thing to get my band noticed and so on, and more about creating happenings and satisfying artistic experiences for people. And I think we all feel that. It doesn’t mean we’re giving up on new bands altogether, and we’re not giving up on the formula - something established along with something you haven’t heard before, plus maybe something altogether different - that’ll still be crucial in how we go forward. But we’re not going to be as relevant maybe to the four guys who got together, have their eyes set on Pitchfork and have been told Wavelength is the third gig you should play.

There’s an element of people who approach us who have that, and we’re not really going to be there for them - not that we ever have, but we’ve indulged them a little more. But in terms of a stylistic mandate, we’re never going to give up on indie rock altogether — I’m unashamed of being excited about music that makes me feel the way I felt when I was 20.
 
Our role is, I think, to encourage indie bands to view it as an artistic practice, and break the music-industry, rock-world program, the paradigm of “you get together, you write some songs, you practice, you play a show, you build a following, you make a press kit, you get an agent and then you …” Suddenly the whole discourse becomes around, “How popular are you?” And that’s just really not what it’s supposed to be about. So there’s a sense of breaking that conditioning.

There’s nothing wrong with looking for opportunities but you don’t have to do it that way. It goes back to the whole question of, “Are we losers for being local bands, for not being on that career track?” And you have to answer, what about the work, what about the songwriting, what about the ideas? If you talk to industry people, they’ll say, “You can be an idealistic hippie if you want, but I live in the real world.” But no, we do too.
 
What achievements of Wavelength are you proudest of, and what are you most disappointed it didn’t achieve.

I’m proudest of the fact that it created a [unified] music scene, a music community - it really did go from isolated cliques to a genuine sense of community. It’s like when you see the same person in the cafe every day, and you don’t say hi, and then one day you say, “Hi, I’ve seen you every day, let’s be friends.” It was that sort of sense of breaking down those social walls - and now most people who play music all know each other in a way that they didn’t before, and that’s made it much easier for people who are new to the scene to feel welcome, to make friends and feel that Toronto is not this cold unfriendly place. That’s the thing I’m most excited about.
 
The thing I’m most disappointed about is that for the most part, most talented musicians are still stuck here. The world only opened itself up to a small handful, an elite handful who are still working within the established music-industry parameters of having managers and having agents. Obviously you cant do everything yourself, but this apparatus - in order to take your music internationally, you still need it.

So I’m most disappointed that there wasn’t a whole DIY revolution. I think that’s what still needs to happen in a way, is for artists to really be able to choose their destiny, to figure out what they want and how to get there without … Sometimes I wish WL was just a node on a global network. What if there were WLs in every town, and it made it easy for bands on that network to just travel through it. Obviously touring is expensive and there are various ways to get your music out, but …

So yeah, I’m most disappointed that we didn’t change the whole fucking world. [Laughs] I feel like we did revolutionize Toronto. I just wish it was something that was more exportable.

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  2. Jen says:

    I like this too! (And, shucks, thanks.)

  3. Mason says:

    I’m eager to see how Wavelength evolves. The end of one chapter makes the opening of another that much more exciting.

  4. michelangelo says:

    Happy anniversary WL! By the way Carl, I think you meant “La longueur d’onde est morte, vive la longueur d’onde”. Sorry, it’s the proofreader in me

  5. zoilus says:

    Michelangelo - The template of the blog automatically capitalizes everything in the titles. I don’t like it but that’s the way it is. I think it would be “La Longeur d’onde est morte,” etc., though, because in French the name of the series would be Longeur d’onde, which raises the question why I added the “La”, a question my French grammar is clearly not good enough to answer.

  6. Benjamin Stimpson says:

    Subjunctive v. infinitive

  7. tim posgate says:

    Guys, this was a fun interview to read. Really sums up a memorable time and place experience for me.

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