by carl wilson

Tranzaction Figures

The Bicycles in their "Last Schmaltz" cd-release party at the Tranzac in Toronto last summer.
Their four-week Wombat Wednesdays series at the 'zac begins tonight.
Photo by Beth Hamill, Rockpaperpixels.

This entry was co-written by me and Zoilus contributor Chris Randle. - C.W.

On one wall of the Tranzac is a bulletin board for events and meetings around its Annex neighbourhood. This isn't exactly unique for Toronto venues, but what's across from it is: The opposite wall is covered with dead men in uniform, a roll call of Australian Victoria Cross recipients. This is the Toronto Australia New Zealand Club's curious nature, as a space deeply devoted to nurturing and housing communities whose history stretches back to before almost all of that community was born, back to a Toronto where even seminal venues like the El Mocambo and George's Spaghetti House were dream buildings.

The past doesn't just leave wistful memories, though. It also creates debts, and the Tranzac has a lot of them. As Kate McGee, a board member as of this fall, puts it: "Obviously, as a member-run community space, there is often a degree of worry about funds and maintenance and sustainability." The fundamental changes that the community has undergone since the group's inception only complicate things further. [... continues on the jump ...]

The Australians and New Zealanders have mostly drifted away now. The Tranzac moved to its current digs at Brunswick and Bloor in 1971, and a few years later it had become an essential hub for traditional music from the British Isles (almost as though Oceania were being colonized again!). And the Tranzac remains an adoptive home for that tight-knit, familial community: Both Chris and Carl, in attending the occasional folk event there, have heard the clatter of Morris dancers' wooden swords (memorably at dawn one May Day), the raucous sea shanties sung from memory by an entire room. Kate McGee grew up in a folk-music family and still participates in that music, while (like Richard Parry of the Arcade Fire, whose dad David was a member of Toronto's famous Friends of Fiddlers' Green) also becoming a part of the indie-rock scene: "I've been going to the Tranzac since I was a little girl," she says. "I remember getting to see all sorts of old friends and family friends and family members everywhere I looked, and being able to roam free all over the club to sample whatever music suited my fancy. I remember other kids falling asleep in guitar cases and on piles of coats under tables, while their parents played music late into the night. My friends' kids still do this."

In the interim, though, the Tranzac has opened its doors to music much beyond the boundaries of - although not entirely forgetful of - folk music. In the past several years, the front room of the Tranzac has become the day-to-day drop-in centre of free-improvised music in Toronto, especially the Rat-Drifting constellation as well as other portions of AIMToronto; yes, the Arraymusic space and Now Lounge are the homes of weekly series that grant this music its most intense testing ground, of players among players, but the weeknight front-room berth the Tranzac affords to improv groups may well be Toronto's most relaxed, affordable experimental-music venue, where you can hear the likes of Drumheller, Deep Dark United, the Reveries, the Silt, the Saint Dirt Elementary School and the Woodchoppers' Association; it was a frequent stop for Rock Plaza Central before they broke through to Pitchfork-level recognition. It's been the site of the annual 416 improv festival, and last summer the three-day Bummer in the Summer psych-noise-improv-boree. More and more, when new-music pioneers such as Rhys Chatham have visited Toronto recently, you'll often find them at the Tranzac, which is like a shambling rec-room little sibling to the more formal Music Gallery.

Given all this confluence, it's no surprise that some of the city's most broad-minded and activist musicians and organizers have begun to take up the Tranzac's cause. According to McGee, it was Jonny Dovercourt, of Wavelength and the Music Gallery, who first recognized the venue as a fellow traveler of the "Torontopian" project, which after all perceives the entire city as a member-driven community - imperfect, lovable and human. Thanks to treasurer Chris Hendricks, the vital musicians' co-op, Blocks Recording Club, is now a tenant of the Tranzac. Not long ago, Chris Randle dropped in to hang out with friends who were working there, and it was such a casually marvellous thing: teenagers, basically helping to run a record label, one of whom has also played shows there - another link in the Tranzac's multigenerational, extended-family story. Blocks luminaries Final Fantasy and the Phonemes, among others, recently played evening and afternoon benefit shows (the latter all-ages, natch) to help the Tranzac deal with its financial issues.

This is the dream for the club - that it become a fully sustainable centre for music and the arts, a nexus, an infrastructure. A space where performers can bring their kids (instead of quitting music for parenthood, or at least quitting the communitarian approach, as too often happens), and where those kids in turn discover what they want to create. When the Tranzac board first started reaching out to the Torontopia-identified rock scene with these ideas, there was some suspicion - was this just a mismanaged folk club scrambling around for ways to survive? But in the past couple of years they've proven some depth of commitment. As McGee says, "I've heard so many people dream out loud about a place like this, an artist-run community space, a social club with lots of room for debate and creativity, and it makes me kind of want to shake them, because it already exists."

We don't mean to minimize the logistical challenges. Despite the numerous artistic organizations that call the place home, its membership is not as high as it once was. What if no one who visits the Toronto Zine Library there realizes that they can get involved with the entire building? We started writing this piece in resignation, thinking it might well be doomed. But the new President, John Sladek, has some experience in turning around arts organizations (specifically the Mariposa festival), and the board as a whole seems to understand the challenge posed to them. We were delighted to learn that Blocks co-founder Steve Kado is now the Tranzac's Building Manager. It needs that spirit of collaboration.

This ethos is personified in one of the bands that played the fundraiser. 123Ten are the children of Tranzac-denizen folkies (one of them is Kate McGee's younger sister) but their debut was opening for Ninja High School at Sneaky Dee's, and the oughta-be-a-hit single Squirrel Babies that announced their existence was released on 2006's infamous Bad Bands Revolution compilation. The trio sings about fighting whales and a crippled "wheely dog" who still finds love with irresistable vocal harmonies that attest to the rich musical heritage they grew up with. Moreover, as Kate McGee says, "It's not unusual to see one of 123Ten doing production up in the Blocks office for a couple of hours, or stuffing envelopes with the new Tranzaction newsletter, or singing along in the crowd at the Flying Cloud Folk Club." The Tranzac has the potential to become an incubator for culture like this, localized without insularity. There are so many gaps this space can bridge if the struts holds together.

Tonight (Wednesday) the popular Toronto bubble-core group The Bicycles (who held their own epic record-release party there last summer) begins an effort to help that happen, by curating the first in their "Wombat Wednesdays" series of evenings of poppier, more song-based evenings at the club - which, in their turn, are meant to help the Tranzac also persist as a venue for the sonic R&D; the weeknight improv evenings allow. It's all a part of a musically cognizant culture that understands how disparate pieces fit together, a realm in which pop and humour and experimentation and exploration can meet and resolve to survive. But without an audience, that leap of faith will not find a treetop to cling to. Don't let the venue fall into misuse or disrepair. Help support the modest ramshackle building with its wonderfully flexible and mutually beneficial vision: All they want is to be one of our landmarks.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 07 at 2:48 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)



this made me feel warm and fuzzy. and scared and worried.
a really great piece.

Posted by fig on March 9, 2007 12:51 PM



Chris & Carl -- Very nice work indeed. You do capture the spirit of the place, and I concur with all the sentiments expressed here so far. I think that venues and buildings for music/art are really important to people -- and it's a constant frustration to have to explain this to people who think that the art just exists on it own, outside of any physical/social context (or SHOULD do so). I actually read this story right before attending a Music Gallery board meeting, so I printed it out and quoted from it to back up that very point!

Posted by Dovercourt on March 9, 2007 12:01 PM



Thanks very much to both of you. Print publications do seem to think that nobody wants to read about venues, while my experience is quite the opposite - I think people like to read about places almost more than they do about bands.

As for why I didn't write this for The Globe - just a matter of lack of time. As some readers may notice, I haven't written anything for the paper in ages, because I'm busy with too much else. This will eventually change, but blog posts are much faster.

However, I do think they get out beyond the "echo chamber," Michael - sometimes I hear more feedback about Zoilus than I do about Globe pieces.

Posted by zoilus on March 9, 2007 12:08 AM



nice work. very nice work!
at the risk of bashing the blog format, why hasn't a Toronto print publication published something so beautiful, poignant and contextual? these are the stories that need to be told outside of our own echo chamber.

Posted by barclay on March 8, 2007 6:59 PM



The Tranzac has been such an important part of our development as a band, where we actually wrote a lot of our songs while performing in that front room. So when NOW asked us to be on the cover in a bar shot, it was the first place we suggested. You may not be able to tell because of the darkness. But where else can they give you shot glasses of St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout!?

One of the most important places in Toronto. Looking forward to playing there again in the summer.

Posted by Chris Eaton (RPC) on March 8, 2007 10:09 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson