By Sara Hanson
Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Whenever Canada’s independent musical identity is placed on a map, these are the three cities that first come to mind. Toronto is home to indie-rock veterans Broken Social Scene, Montreal is where the members of the Arcade Fire first got together and Vancouver gave the New Pornographers their radio-friendly start. Calgary, however, is typically more famous for being the home of ginger beef than as a nurturing environment for aspiring musicians. While the majority of Canadians, including many Calgarians, may believe city musicians are only capable of producing honky-tonk love songs, this stereotype is false, at least according to Sled Island Festival Director Zak Pashak, who also owns the Broken City Social Club.
“People in New York love the fact that they are from New York and they are going to like a band more because it’s from New York,” says Pashak. “It seems like there’s a lot of people in Calgary that would rather go see a band from New York than from Calgary and that’s kind of a shame to me. I think it would be great if people from Calgary wanted to see a band from Calgary.”
Pashak began planning Calgary’s first indie-rock music festival six months ago, and despite any negative stereotype surrounding Calgary’s music scene, he has managed to attract an impressive lineup featuring Miami’s Cat Power, Austin’s Spoon, Vancouver’s Destroyer and Brooklyn’s Les Savy Fav as headliners. If the endeavour is as successful as is anticipated, it could become the next big music festival–next to Austin’s South by Southwest and Toronto’s North by Northeast–to which music lovers flock, hoping to be amongst the first to hear an up-and-coming band’s innovative sounds.
“I think the line-up this year is as interesting and diverse and there are enough interesting names there that [Sled Island] is already on par with those other festivals,” says Pashak. “We just need to get the fan base kind of used to it and different people getting excited about it year by year.”
Although each of the headlining shows feature out-of-town artists, they all feature local bands as openers. Of the more than 50 bands playing throughout the four-day festival, many of them are from Calgary and the Thursday night line-up at Broken City is also specifically reserved to showcase some of Calgary’s hidden talents. While festivals such as this could potentially become scoping grounds for record label executives hoping to capitalize on the growing popularity of independent music, Pashak maintains that is not the objective of Sled Island.
“The music industry is pretty soul-destroying,” he says. “I think it’s pretty bad in a lot of ways, so it’s certainly not my goal to try and expose local bands to the music industry. They can chase those things down and many of them are very capable of doing that on their own. I just think it’s important for there to be a sense of community. It’s better if a local band is known by a bunch of people in the city. Then at least they can play gigs and draw a bunch of people out who are more focused on that than watching a music video on TV. I think it’s important for people to get out and congregate and figure out what’s happening in their local community.”
The plethora of homegrown musicians will be performing at a number of interesting venues around town, including Cantos, a music museum featuring a unique collection of keyboards. In addition to checking out local acts, Pashak encourages festival-goers to attend the rare performance by Japan’s The Boredoms, whose noise-rock has wowed underground music fans for two decades.
“South by Southwest happens in Austin every year and people [who] live in that city are driving up to see [The Boredoms],” he says. “It would be great if people from Calgary realized that and took the opportunity to see that one.”
Having an epic band like The Boredoms perform at Sled Island could provide the boost Calgary’s burgeoning music scene needs. Once folks begin to realize that Calgarians are capable of appreciating music other than country and people begin to see that Calgary is home to an impressive array of independent artists, then perhaps Calgary can finally earn its place on Canada’s music map.