All quiet on the campus front

Why new bands aren’t stepping up to fill a void at Queen’s

Derek Zwiep of The Cowboys aired his grievances about the campus music scene.
Derek Zwiep of The Cowboys aired his grievances about the campus music scene.

Changes to Kingston’s musical climate in the last few years seem to have had an impact on the campus music scene, although fluctuations in the campus band circuit are subject to different factors. As many venues off campus close, pare down their concert schedule or shift genres, the campus band scene has become a victim of attrition.

As recently as the 2004-05 school year, QEA Battle of the Bands was held both terms and had enough competitors to include semifinal and final rounds. This year’s event was decided in one night, as a steady hemorrhaging of campus staples over the last few years hasn’t been replenished by a new crop of bands.

Bryce Daigle, Sci ’06 and M.Sc. ’08, remembers a different period on the campus scene. Daigle played bass for Average Lime from 2003-05 and 2006 QEA Battle of the Bands winners Fat Robot from 2005-06. He has also been part of Afrobeat band, Living Planet, since this fall.

“I hate to sound so negative, but it’s basically been a steady downhill slide, in my opinion.When I was in first year, Bedouin [Soundclash] was still around ... and you had bands like [The] Jack Kerouac [Knapsack Band] who were really, really good, and [The Radical] Dudez were around, not so much first year but second year [2003-04] definitely, and second year we got started up with Average Lime and we played two shows a week for the entire year. And you had Electric Mayhem/The Laginsky Reunion playing all the time,” Daigle said.

“There was a good solid group of five or six bands that played really frequently. A lot of it was charity shows—you’d be playing to 40 or 50 people—but they were shows nonetheless, and there was a nice little community that surrounded it.”

“You had, like, five solid bands, but they wouldn’t play shows together too often,” said Matt MacLellan, Clark Hall Pub’s Entertainment and Marketing Manager this year. “So you had three nights a week where you could have a good band playing and other bands could start up and open for them. Now you just have Mass of Distraction and Living Planet—who just started, too.”

Bedouin Soundclash and Obsidian left Queen’s in April 2004; Average Lime, Khaki Snack, Parlormaid and The Jack Kerouac Knapsack Band in April 2005; The Radical Dudez, Tomate Potate, The Laginsky Reunion (formerly Electric Mayhem) and Whiskey Steve and The Steves took off last year. At the end of this school year, De Rigeur and Mass of Distraction will wrap up their career as most members graduate, and Fat Robot played their farewell show in November.

The most regular gig on campus this year has been The Cowboys’ free Monday night show at Clark. Cowboy Derek Zwiep, Sci ’07, has also played in Death and Taxes and as part of the band for seven Queen’s Players shows.

“The Cowboys didn’t have an opener at probably half of our shows, despite the fact that we would have let anyone play,” Zwiep said. “ ... I wanted young musicians to get a spot where they could get some exposure and figure things out, and it’s not too much pressure because you’re opening up for a band that doesn’t take anything seriously whatsoever.”

Since clubs still regularly hold fundraising events, there are consistent opportunities for bands to play charity shows, but Zwiep worries that the scarcity of bands has made these events too repetitive for artists to maintain much draw.

“With the quantity of shows ... there’s so few bands now that the bands that are established have to play so many shows ... it’s basically the same lineup over and over again and people get tired of it,” Zwiep said. “... There’s no distinction between the well-established bands, older bands that are getting really good, and younger bands that are just getting started.

“... There used to be times when you’d see a certain lineup and it’d be like ‘Oh, that’s going to be killer and that doesn’t happen that often, I’d better go to that show.’ And now it’s like, ‘Oh, those bands again.’ ”

The few bands that have started up this year, like Sargasso Sea, have reaped busy concert schedules as a result.

“Being at CFRC, we got a lot more new bands that wanted to be on the radio that were from around here [in 2004-05], and now it doesn’t seem the same way anymore,” said Michael Brolley, ArtSci ’08, incoming CFRC Programming Manager and one of the multinstrumentalists in Sargasso Sea. “... But it seems like there’s more opportunities for a band like us who’ve only been around for—three, not even four months.”

“We don’t get to work on new songs as much as we’d like to because we have to practice four or five songs for the next gig, and playing the same songs over and over again, you can’t expand as much as you might want to,” said Brolley’s bandmate Geoff Reith, ArtSci ’09.

This same problem prevented De Rigeur from playing as many shows as drummer Edward Rothschild, Sci ’07, might have liked. Though the band formed in fall 2005, Rothschild estimates they haven’t played much more than a dozen shows.

“There was an idea of artistic integrity. ... You don’t want to bore your fans, listening to the same music. So we sort of pared that down a bit, and things got busy for us this term as well. We went through periods where we weren’t playing a show for five weeks.”

Promoters say they haven’t heard much from campus bands looking to book their own shows.

“I love to have campus bands open, actually love to have them—like Tomate Potate, and we did some shows with Mass of Distraction and Fat Robot,” said Grad Club manager Virginia Clark. “Whenever we had an opening spot available, I always gave campus bands priority. ... But if they don’t come to me, I’m not going to know who they are. So this year, I didn’t really hear from anybody.”

De Rigeur contacted The Grad Club in January about playing a show. With the venue’s shift to two nights of live music programming a week instead of three, the first available date for them was in April.

MacLellan said he hadn’t received much response either.

“You still get five or six bands that want to play Battle of the Bands—they just don’t seem that interested in playing shows all the time,” he said. “If a campus band plays at Clark that I didn’t book, I give them my card, tell them to shoot me an e-mail if they want to play, and this year, bands just haven’t.”

With the elimination of Ontario’s OAC year, the last year to enter university with a sizeable contingent of students who reached legal drinking age in first year was the Class of 2007, who arrived in 2003. Now nearly a quarter of students can’t get into 19+ shows and few promoters offer all-ages concerts. Daigle thinks this has had a definite effect on the formation of campus bands.

“I’m sure that’s a huge part of it too,” he said. “ ... Because I had just turned 19 [late in first year], there was a novelty factor and I really wanted to go out and check out the local scene. I went into second year trying to start a band and start playing shows as soon as possible. Whereas right now, I think because they’re isolated from that world ... they don’t really see it.

Zwiep said there may have been a shift not only in the way fans approach music, but in how students approach their leisure time.

“There’s almost a culture of, ‘Indie rock is so cool and I should listen to that. If I can find a band that has a lot of hype on the Internet and get into it, then that’s sweet, but I’m not willing to go out and try to find these bands through live shows locally.’ ”

However, Sargasso Sea say they haven’t had a difficult time attracting people to their gigs, partly due to the novelty of being one of few bands at Queen’s.

“If you tell people you’re in a band here, they seem to be more interested,” said David Kelusky, Comm ’09. “Our last show, a lot of people came who I never would have expected to show up.”

Cedar Speeder, another band who formed this year, have also been satisfied with their reception.

“Queen’s is very welcoming to new bands and there are a great deal of opportunities available if you’re willing to look about,” said Alex Andrews, M.Sc. ’08. “... We average about 4-5 gigs a month. We have been pretty happy with the steadiness up to now, but we are excited about getting some more shows in there.”

Ben Wright, ConEd ’08, was a member of Groove Merchant, who had a weekly residency at The Scherzo, and plays guitar in Living Planet as well as the Queen’s Players band.

“I think there used to be a lot more established campus bands,” he said. “... We always talk about the past like it’s way more epic, but this year I find ... all of the musicians seem to know each other really well through the Players band and Living Planet. It’s a group of maybe ten of us musicians who are all friends and in all these different bands, and there’s not a lot going on outside of that, it seems like.”

Living Planet includes members of Mass of Distraction, the Queen’s Players Band and the now-defunct group The White Russians.

“It’s really just been an evaporation of bands, and I think it’s kind of self-reinforcing,” Daigle said. “Because the less bands there are, the less shows there are with local bands, so people who might be starting new bands don’t know about the opportunities they have available to them.”

Zwiep is concerned that the campus music scene that does exist may be overly insular.

“It seems largely like your friends are the only people who you can get to show up, and half the time it’s like a personal favour for them to be there ... Particularly with MOD and Living Planet and the Players Band—which shouldn’t even be a campus band but we’ve gotten booked many, many times this year for outside gigs because there’s no one else to book—everyone in those bands ... we’re like the group that is at all each other’s shows. And very few other people are coming out to them.”

Kelusky thinks the campus scene is about to undergo a renaissance.

“I think a lot of people are just going to come out of the woodwork. A lot of bands that have just been getting their start this year will play more—The Baked Potatoes, Garcon Means Boy.”

His bandmate Brolley doesn’t have such a rosy outlook.

“Unfortunately it comes down to people’s ability to manage time and prefer being in a band over watching TV one night—or doing well in school. To be honest ... I haven’t heard that many other bands, and it’s a dedication problem. I used to ... You can’t judge the level of dedication in the future, really, but I’m not as terribly optimistic about it as some people are.”

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