Drawing Water from Stones
Exploring Windsor’s Drive to Succeed in Tough Times
By Aaron Binder
Photos by Emily Sheff
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN FAZER MAGAZINE
End of the Line
Coming to the end of the line always raises one obvious question; where do we go from here? It is a seemingly innate and innocuous query; we always want to go somewhere when cornered. What if that corner were a hidden goldmine though? What if the corner wasn’t a corner at all but the entrance to an expansive new room?
At the end of Via Rail’s line in southern Ontario lies a city demonized by its troubles and economic woes. This city possesses one of the highest unemployment rates in Canada, fleeing industry and a future that is becoming bleaker with every passing day; for industry at least. It is amazing what this drab financial environment can do to foster creative growth though, during times of economic uncertainty people tend to turn to creative outlets to soothe their despair and pain.
Just like all of the cities and regions that have endured before them, Windsor has just begun to experience the full brunt of these effects. At the same time, the music culture that is starting to seep out of the city is being regaled as some of the best in the country by outlets like CBC 3, Indie Weekly and Exclaim.
For a sleepy town on the south side of Canada, there is a creative and musical engine roaring to life. Though the city has unquestionably contributed a number of top-notch acts to the Canadian music neighbourhood over the past 30 years – Big Sugar and The Tea Party to name a couple; the new breed is more ambitious, and times have changed since the dawn of the internet age. Will the new faces on the scene be able to adapt to an ever-changing landscape?
Profiling the Best
In this city there are many rock bands that are considered popular and must-see acts. When deciding who to profile for this special report, we wanted to include 3 bands that we believe have the ability to step up to the national stage and beyond. It also was determined that each band needed to have a solid foundation and fan-base outside of the city; after all, you can only get so far gigging in your own town. Each of the three bands that have been chosen also are poised to release new albums within the next 6-8 months, and each record could very well be a make or break situation.
After careful deliberation, Neverending White Lights, Michou and Pat Robitaille were chosen as meeting all of the criteria and because each band has experienced a measure of national success in the past.
NeverEnding White Lights has already experienced national success; their first album produced the hit single “The Grace” and their follow-up produced “Always”. The band has stalled though and the pressure is on to produce something that once again will bring the profile of the name back into the mainstream eye.
Michou has been garnering more buzz with each passing month. Touring 7-8 months of the year, they have built up a fanbase across Canada. Their first release, Myshkyn, produced the single “Control” which received light to moderate airplay on Toronto’s 102.1 The Edge, as well as the video being placed in rotation on MuchMusic. They have the will and the talent to reproduce this success, but after label setbacks and lost time, do they have the way?
Pat Robitaille is at this point is the most low-key member of the lot. While he experienced success with his 2008 release “Two Forty Eight”, the buzz has mostly worn off. Fans and the industry alike are waiting with breath bated for the next album from this young star. After opening for Sam Roberts, The Beach Boys, Leonard Cohen and a plethora of other established acts, will he be able to shake his young-kid persona and turn into the headlining act that so many believe he has the talent to be?
To get into the minds of these artists, one must travel to their stomping grounds, the area where (while not on tour) they have spent and are still spending their formative years.
Windsor is an embattled city; with an economy in decline for over 5 years. This is a grim situation considering that their big brother, Detroit, still hasn’t managed completely to recover from a very similar collapse in the 1970’s.
While the industrial and financial sectors are struggling, creative business owners and entrepreneurs have been figuring out new ways to support a local community and entertainment industry that is thriving.
Standing across from a vacant building (a reality that becomes all too obvious the more streets you walk down) is Phog Lounge. Rated as “Canada’s Best Venue” in February 2009 by CBC 3 listeners, Phog has been one of the unchanged pieces of landscape in a tumultuous downtown core. The bar’s dark red exterior turns into an even darker red on the interior, creating a dingy image you wouldn’t expect from a top-rated venue. For a venue that was rated the best in Canada, it is surprisingly small; capacity – 65.
In their 7 years of existence, they have hosted a number of internationally renowned Indie acts from Cuff the Duke to Paper Lions to so many more it would be a task assembling them all in one list. They are consistently packed with local talent and patrons – an oddity to most watering holes in Windsor for the time being but it is them trying to do their part to keep the entertainment alive in Windsor.
They have hosted Michou and Pat Robitaille many times, and it is the place to go if you’re trying to find local stars. PerileLLe, constant collaborator with hot underground Canadian acts, makes this one of her regular homes in the city. CBC 3 darlings, Yellow Wood are also frequent regulars. If you need to find someone in the Windsor music scene, this is a good place to start.
This point would come up with all three bands profiled; everyone in the city is in constant contact with everyone else. For most bands and musicians in the city, the heart of their music industry lies with the close connections that they make, the underdog status the city has gained, and the ability to surprise the rest of the music world on a regular basis.
The Small Giant
Pat Robitaille is not a big man. He stands about 5’8” and is almost waif-thin. To meet him on the street it wouldn’t become apparent that he is able to command a stage better than most professional musicians twice his age. There is a great reason for this though; since the day he was born he’s been raised in a musical household. Instead of listening to the radio or watching television, his family members would break out various instruments almost every night of the week and perform for each other.
He has been performing professionally since 15, tuning his image, refining his stage skills, and figuring out what works for his audience. He may appear to be a meek, unassuming guy, but when he steps on stage a lion is unleashed. His eyes become set; visualizing chords, notes, and lyrics that are delivered without hesitation. His shoulders broaden as he stands up straight and booms his silky voice out across the speakers. The second he is done, it all reverts back to just being Pat. He can switch his commanding authority on and off in an instant to become just another face in the crowd.
He is taking tickets as he sits at the front door of The Blind Dog – a new incarnation of a club that has been around since the current crowd’s parents were attending live concerts here themselves. As if to echo his sentiment, this is part of sticking together with the local scene; if he were playing tonight it would probably be one of the Michou boys on ticket duty. “Hey, Sasha (from Michou) said you were coming” he says as a smile burns across his face, “Let me find someone to hold down the door and then we can talk for a bit.”
Standing outside in the slightly chilled air, people inhale cigarettes more quickly than normal and walk into the club, almost every single one in their late teens or early 20’s. On their way in almost all of them say hello to Pat with a familiarity that suggests they have known him forever……some of them have. He explains how lately he has begun jamming out his newest album, it’s just starting to conceptualize, but it is some of the best stuff he’s ever written. While this is a pretty commonplace statement for most musicians, his momentum speaks volumes toward the believability of such a comment. Despite being in rotation on MuchMusic and on major radio stations across Canada, Robitaille is quite humble. He explains: “There’s an art scene going on here, all of us that are making music and art are hanging out all week long. It’s really cool.” This is one of the secrets to success in this competitive city.
Where other cities have their artistic collectives, Windsor’s are just beginning to develop. He drops another observation: “It’s the only way, you look at the success stories coming out of Canada, the biggest one is Broken Social Scene, that whole environment coming out of Toronto; it’s so crucial and so important that we help each other out.” Striking the nail on the proverbial head it is obvious to see that there is something brewing in this city.
Elsewhere, it doesn’t really matter which live-music oriented venue you travel to, there is something going on. The Coach and Horses is hosting a local metal show and is completely packed, a sold-out Mackenzie Hall is exhibiting the talents of pianist Tad Weed and classical jazz singer Shahida Nurullah, Phog Lounge is swaying to the sounds of a dreamy-rock band from Michigan and is just as full as every other venue in the city. Not bad for a chilly November evening.
While Robitaille may be performing a traditionally low-rung task back at The Blind Dog tonight by tending the door for Michou’s concert, he is able to understand the larger importance of being the monkey for the evening. Every important movement, whether social, artistic or political has always started with a core group of people, and he is part of that new breed in Windsor.
Michou is a strange part of that group as well, the most active of the three profiled and the band that has been gaining the most momentum over the past 6 months. The band has been together since 2007 and since the release of their first full-length, Myshkyn, they have been making waves nationally as one of the hottest unsigned acts in Canada. After a string of high-profile dates in Toronto at the 2009 NXNE, CMW and other music-industry events, they have become one of the darlings of Canadian indie rock thanks to their tireless touring and promotion.
Where Pat may be a rather unassuming, bashful guy off-stage, the characters of Michou carry themselves with an air of humble deference. They have made it their mission to succeed and they are all focused on the same goal of pushing themselves to the top of the music game on their own terms. They carry a reverent tone yet dress like paupers; pea coats, jeans that leave you wondering if it has been days or weeks since their last washing, hair mostly unkempt. Amidst their almost homeless looking exterior are their cheerful smiles and gracious manner that have helped win fans from Vancouver to Antigonish.
After their set they make their way to the front of the Blind Dog, pausing briefly to ask Pat what he thought of the set. Stepping outside, Sasha and Mike take the reins and answer a few questions, both alternating between straightman and jokester. In the middle of a conversation, drummer Stefan walks over and is jokingly fired for interrupting for the third time that day. Seconds later he walks off and back into his own world. Bassist Ryan Firth circles in vulture-like fashion every few minutes to see what is going on. All of their personalities mesh into Michou, oh, and by the way, “It’s nice to Mich-ou” they cleverly comment to anyone new they meet along the way.
While they have made waves nationally, they still draw a heavy influence from the area. Where earlier Pat spoke of everyone being interconnected, this is one of the first connections made in the local scene. Michou came together from a bunch of other bands breaking up, a common happening in Windsor. Even though many of the local acts are top-notch, local politics can have a lasting effect on some of these groups if you pick up the wrong member from a break-up. While it’s a part of the music scene that nobody likes to believe exists, it is certainly there.
Michou is a band that has had to weather jibes and jabs from many local contemporaries, one of the most popular games in the local music scene is jealous admonishment. At the first sign of success, a portion of local fans and supporters will automatically be turned off. While there are haters everywhere, the scene here is so small that certain amounts of this polarization become glaringly obvious. Talking to fans at every show, even the mention of some bands at some concerts will draw a snarl for no real, discernable reason, aside from the fact that they have experienced some success. The most proper comparison would be akin to proclaiming your love for the new Misfits at a Danzig show.
Heading over to a metal show at Coach and Horses and dropping the name Michou is akin to kicking a skinhead in the family jewels while wearing pride colours. This isn’t the audience Michou is catering to though, and it shows. You really will get snarls and snide attitudes. “It’s just the way things are, everyone does their own thing here and none of it really meshes unless a promoter throws a huge show” says Chris Steingart, guitarist of local metal band Hammerdown.
There is such a rift in this city between musical genres that it is hardly ever breached from one style to the next, but that is one thing Michou isn’t worried about, they’re more interested in just promoting themselves and becoming successful instead of trying to increase their local reputation. In effect, they’re throwing their small fish into the ocean instead of staying the big fish in a lake. That doesn’t mean for one second that they don’t respect where they’re from, most people in the city understand the music culture that they come from and respect all forms of art and music.
There is so much history to the city that it would be seemingly impossible for their music scene to be stagnant. Ever since Detroit became one of the hottest music cities in the world during the middle part of the 20th century, Windsor has always been the cool, little brother, Sasha explains “I’ve always had a heart for Windsor, even though it’s a hole, I think there’s something about Windsor, maybe because it’s opposite Detroit, there’s so much history there, this is radio city and I want to be part of that radio.”. Driving through the area, you can tune into 3 different classic rock stations (plus 2 more from Ohio that are just a little fuzzy), you can find all types of hip-hop, rock, rap, soul and even some classic jazz (not just CBC).
Being a radio city means a world of diverse influences and because of that you notice just how much of a microcosm the city becomes. The previous night, Phog hosted Toronto band Rep by Pop and they said it best: “I notice here that people aren’t focused on Toronto, it’s just too far away. They don’t have time for it so immediately, there’s a different personality to it, which is great.” And it ends up ringing true. These musicians don’t care what’s going on in Toronto unless they are touring through the big city. If they want to be successful on a larger scale, eventually they will have to step up and frequent larger markets more often, but this is one of the revelations that coming to the area brings; the city is one of the best musical incubators in North America.
If you’ve ever tried to start a band in a major city, it’s tough. You have to play the dive venues for 5 people at a time before you can play the junk venues for 20. Then, once those 20 people don’t boo you off stage, you have to find a manager, hire a PR firm, beg a promoter to be the opener at a bad venue for 50 people, and then try to spin it as some sort of success.
When you do it in Windsor, you play for 5 people some nights, you play for 20 sometimes, usually you play for more, but you also have the ability to hone your craft without the universe harshly critiquing every small movement along the way. Where in a major market you need to do or die before fading into obscurity, you can practice in the small city before making the leap to a larger stage. Then, when it comes time to do or die, you’re prepared, you’re confident, and because you’re from somewhere other than that major city, you’re exotic.
Michou has done exactly that. While they still base themselves in Windsor, (why not? it’s cheap) they have become constant travelers to Toronto for recording sessions, exclusive shows and an impressive showing at the 2009 NXNE. As frontman Mike Hargreaves explains: “We’re just bracing ourselves; our career up to this point has just been a preparation thing. Our fan-base right now is super important to us and at the same time we’re trying to do the jump.”
While they do have a long road ahead of them, even with their past success, they are prepared to take it. The local politics are far behind them, the rest of the country is just becoming charted as they continually tour wherever they are invited, and as they make the transition to the national stage they continue to turn heads that can help them. This is a band that declined a record label contract because they thought they could do it better on their own. Whether or not that holds true will be determined with time, but one thing is for certain, as they make the jump, past supporters will be there to help them, and future fans will undoubtedly join them.
Where do we go from here? This is a question that has been plaguing Neverending White Lights creator and force Daniel Victor since his last release in 2007. NWL rocketed into the limelight in 2005 with the smash single “The Grace” featuring Dallas Green. The overnight success of the song and album put a huge amount of pressure on Victor’s shoulders that has not yet been lifted.
The follow-up album, “Act 2”, while not as successful commercially, still managed to chart two singles, the more popular “Always” and “The World is Darker” featuring femme-rocker Melissa Auf Der Maur. Considered a critical success by most, sales compared to Act 1 were not on par and the pressure for Daniel to produce a commercially successful follow-up grew even stronger as he began to work on his third album.
Holed up in his Windsor basement studio, spanning the entire bottom floor of his family home, he is dwarfed by an enormous channel mixer. In the background is a rack of guitars, each one giving off a different tone, sound and mood, each a part of Daniel’s personality. He tours the basement showing the vocal room, directly adjacent to the production area, blocked by a slightly cloudy window but opaque enough to see into the soul of an artist as they lay down their craft in the cozy box.
Adjacent the vocal area is the drum room, stacked with guitar amplifiers in one corner and more than one drum set in the middle, showing off that he executes his craft exactly as he hears it in his mind, the perfect instrument for every sound knocking around his interior orchestra. Walking back to the lobby, hanging above another stack of music equipment is a gift from Dallas Green commemorating the success of ”The Grace”, a reminder of the pressure on Daniel’s shoulders, but an indication that he is able to accomplish great things.
As he walks around the studio, it is easy to see that his gait and punctuated method of speech are refined, but that he is plagued with certain insecurities. As he explains: “When I started on Act 3 I had some pressure on me to re-create the magic and the success that happened by having a single like ‘The Grace’, and that pressure came from label people saying “you need a big hit, you need a crossover hit”, so I got paranoid and I’m thinking that maybe it’s not any good.” Sitting with a glass of red wine in one hand and his other arm stabbing at the air in exasperation, you can tell this is not the first time he has told this story, and certainly not the last time he will until he is pleased with his project, his life’s work.
The problem with early success is that the people pulling the purse strings always want you to re-create that magic. The music industry can be vicious that way, stealing credibility from artists that just want to write the music they know their fans want. When push comes to shove, often the artist loses out. Luckily for Daniel, he has collaborated with so many mainstream artists over his first two albums that there is a measure of pull that he seems to have with his masters. After butting heads with the label for so long, he finally came to a realization: “I learned a lesson on this record that if you force something it’s not likely to happen and I think most of the greatest songs and greatest records happen because they have heart.” His aspirations are high for Act 3 and after making this realization he scrapped the first version of the album completely to start from scratch and write without force or pressure, something that came from his heart. To do that he has holed up in his hometown for the last year to feel the vibe and help him connect with his soul.
Most of his life has been spent in this city of cars, concrete and artistic passion and most of his life has been built around music; he engineered his first album at 14 when his father delegated the duty of recording a local metal band to the young mind in the studio. Daniel has educated himself in a variety of instruments and styles, but the local influence can be seen, especially in his drumming. “One thing my engineer always points out is that ‘your approach to drumming is very Motown influenced’ because my drums are always very groovy and behind the beat.” As most people that grew up in the area will tell you, it is almost impossible to ignore the influence of big brother Detroit. Economically the two cities have been related for over a century, artistically the cities have traditionally traded musical acts for almost the same amount of time.
Where before it was the orchestra’s and chamber quartets, there are now local shows on the major radio stations in the area. Radio station 89X’s Homeboy Show has helped launch the careers of many local artists, giving them the confidence to step outside of the cities and on to the national stage in both the US and Canada. Canadian superstars Three Days Grace, while not from the area received support from the Windsor area as their career was starting. The Tea Party received massive amounts of support from local radio as their career began to blossom in the mid-1990’s.
While the support is there, the artists that eventually become successful realize the need to leave the area. Michou and Robitaille both mentioned this, but Daniel said it best: “We’ve always had a great music scene and there’s never anybody here to take note of it and bring it anywhere else. All the bands think that they’re going to make it and get discovered by staying here and that will never happen.” The Homeboy Show only goes so far in the grand scheme of things and playing the same bar 20 times is only going to wear thin for a band that wants to make it national. This may be one of the reasons that local talent is so desired though.
Daniel may be the exception to this, he doesn’t do much touring with NWL, but he has been successful on his own terms. He does come across as a perfectionist, and for an artist that focuses so much on the album, it is a necessity. With Act 1 and Act 2 behind him and a third album on the way hopefully this year, Daniel is starting anew with his last major release almost three years behind him. Even with the damning quality of time running against him, the confidence that he exudes out of every single pore seems to bring him closer to major success with his third offering.
The weight that holds Daniel down looks as though it is lifting off his shoulders every passing day as he comes closer and closer to completing the harrowing project that has troubled him for so long. “When I hear a song that just knocks me out, it puts me in a state of mind, “I have to do this, I have to do something better than this, I have to come up with something that evokes the same emotion that this song evokes in me.” His craft is based in emotion, and that is what it will remain, but with his previous success behind him, it will be up to his fans and critics to determine whether or not his newest release is still relevant three years later. His lion-like heart is gentle but ready to pounce when the moment is right; the future is unwritten and he is hoping to capitalize on this fact by proving that Act 3 will exceed expectations and become his most successful project to date.
At the end of the Via Rail line lays a city shrouded in mystery. While in ruins economically, the town is a true artists haven; inexpensive to live in, thriving nightlife, a local music scene that compares to Winnipeg or Halifax and all within a four hour drive of Toronto. This short distance is one of the reasons that so many of the bands from the area are able to make an impact nationally, thanks to the ease of the short drive to the big city. At the same time, the fact that few major bands travel to the Windsor area has left the city to its own drive and devices and lent them the ability to build their own music culture.
Being able to hone skills in a tight-knit community means that area musicians receive a constructive level of feedback from their peers and fans in a way that many major cities don’t necessarily afford. Brought up by Daniel: “The scene downtown is not what Toronto has, but it’s its own thing, it’s almost like a mini-metro city.” Many of these bands realize this, and the ones that decide to take the next step are able to plan when the time is right for them to start touring outside of the area.
The connection to one of the most musically rich cities in North America just across the border is an undeniable influence as well. Motown radio has had a major sway in much of the music from Windsor from the golden days in the 60’s, through to the grunge era of the 90’s and today as many of the up and coming musicians begin to mould the sound of American and Canadian radio.
After examining Pat Robitaille, Michou and Neverending White Lights in detail, it is easy to come to the conclusion that they all have the ability to rise to the national level and in NWL’s case, to do it again. These three bands may not be supported by every local musician and band, but there is enough support from the national outlets like MuchMusic and CBC 3 that when these three bands begin to launch themselves back into the collective Canadian landscape they will turn heads.
Two young careers are launching and as they attempt to make their new releases the most successful to date, everything seems to be aligning well enough for them to make major pushes in the very near future. Fate will decide, but the momentum that Michou and Robitaille have built up already speaks volumes. One established career has the ability to breathe new life into sails that have never been completely opened, NWL may not have the momentum yet, but Daniel Victor is ready to win back his former glory and sail it into even deeper waters. They all may not make it in the end, but all three of these artists are a testament to the unique talent and lion-like tenacity that come out of a sleepy little town at the end of the line.