Lightning Bolts A-Glowin’
When the world tuned in
If the devil is in the details, Michael Barclay may well have written this hefty book with flames shooting from his ears. Barclay, whose previous works chronicled the life of Gord Downie (The Never-Ending Present) and the 1985–95 Canadian rock renaissance (Have Not Been the Same, co-authored with Ian A. D. Jack and Jason Schneider), turns his attention to the network of music scenes that flourished during the first five years of the aughts. Hearts on Fire is an ambitious project from an accomplished journalist, a wellspring of anecdotes and testimony wrought from more than 100 exclusive interviews and two decades of research. This is a story worth telling, and Barclay is the one to tell it. (Is there better street cred than having your voice on record as part of the anthemic chorus of Arcade Fire’s era-defining call to arms, “Wake Up”?)
Barclay’s project unpacks a crucial time in the maturation of homegrown talent. “The years 2000 to 2005,” he writes, “are when the rest of the world actually gave a shit about Canadian music.” More than that, though, it illuminates the backgrounds of a whole cohort of creators, kids whose parents were the hippies and who came of age at a propitious moment. “This was the first Canadian generation raised with real creative opportunity,” he writes, pointing to the huge amount of money being pumped into the education system, as well as the time-release effects of some key funding programs.
In 1971, content regulations implemented by the federal government required radio stations to allocate no less than 30 percent of their playlist to Canadian artists. Ten years later, private broadcasters — in a not entirely altruistic move to avoid endless spins of Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, and the Guess Who — created the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Record. Following FACTOR’s success, the Radio Starmaker Fund was established in 2000, to focus on marketing domestic music abroad.
This isn’t new information, but Barclay underscores grant funding’s importance to an up-and-coming regiment of musicians: “It’s all a huge investment in the very existence of Canadian music.” Such supports would be unheard of for our neighbours down south.
Public funding, however, was hardly the only catalyst for the creative explosion. Barclay also points to Montreal’s “insanely cheap rent,” which made the city a magnet for artists. Collaboration and cross-pollination exploded. Constellation Records took over a loft above a garage in the Mile End neighbourhood, next to train tracks that serve as an unofficial municipal border. Hotel2Tango, as the space was named, would host Godspeed You! Black Emperor performances and punk shows aplenty. Furthermore, studio technology was becoming cheaper and more accessible; it was suddenly possible to record radio-quality songs in your basement. The early 2000s also marked an explosion of peer-to-peer file sharing and downloading, meaning that artists could generate buzz in previously unimagined ways.
While Hearts on Fire spends a portion of its vast length looking at industry trends, the majority is made up of seventeen thematic chapters, each of which displays the research and scope of a master’s thesis, but with better storytelling. Every one carefully unpacks specific scenes and the artists in and around them. Some acts stand alone: Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Constellation Records warrant a whole chapter, as does Arcade Fire, now international superstars (although allegations of sexual misconduct against the front man, Win Butler, may test the band’s virtuous reputation). But we also have the ’90s survivors (the Weakerthans, Sarah Harmer, Danko Jones, Joel Plaskett) and the ex-pats in Berlin (Peaches, Gonzales). There are country rockers (Kathleen Edwards, the Be Good Tanyas, the Sadies) and a new generation of hip-hop (Kardinal Offishall, k-os, Swollen Members, and Saukrates). Barclay pivots to punk and hardcore with Alexisonfire, Billy Talent, and Fucked Up before delving into the “weirdo magnets” (Kid Koala, Buck 65, Caribou) and the “drunk clowns of the Victorian era” (Hot Hot Heat, Wolf Parade, Black Mountain). Naturally, the Kevin Drew/Brendan Canning galaxy gets prominent treatment, with “Your Ex-Lover Is in the Band” covering the chaotic heartache of Broken Social Scene, Stars, and Metric. Even Nickelback gets a chapter! (It’s three pages long and entitled “Must You Always Remind Me?”)
Hearts on Fire’s length can be daunting at times, but for those with a passion for Canadian music and the perfect storm it enjoyed at the dawn of the new millennium, this is a bible: an extensive catalogue of who worked in which bar, who slept on whose shabby couch, or which chance encounter ultimately resulted in a generational classic. In a way, the sprawling text reflects the larger-than-life arrangements of the bands that typified the era, many of whom featured lineups that ballooned to include string and horn sections and were subject to change night by night. Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew recalls the group’s business manager — his father — having to take a photograph of each performance just to keep track of who needed to be paid. Colourful anecdotes animate the research, such as the story of twelve-year-old Kardinal Offishall laying down his first single at a DIY studio inside a restaurant in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, then heading north to the suburbs to film the lip-synched music video at Canada’s Wonderland.
A sense of playful scrappiness is a common theme. “Punk rockers like to think they invented DIY,” says Barclay, “but if punk and DIY are inextricably linked, then every Canadian musician has always been a punk.” To wit: even after they’d attained a modicum of success, Godspeed’s Efrim Menuck and Thierry Amar still took time at the Hotel2Tango to flatten pennies under the wheels of passing freight trains, to be slipped into vinyl copies of their debut album, F#A#∞. Whether by diving into the turbulent waters surrounding the Hidden Cameras and the band’s mercurial leader Joel Gibb, revelling in the internal antipathy of the hardcore scene, or simply following the road-worn boots of Leslie Feist and Emily Haines as they traipse through many, many stories herein, a music fan would be hard pressed not to get something out of Barclay’s book.
So what happened? What ended the ride? The sad answer is that things changed, man. The dawn of the streaming era, the rise of social media, the collapse of CD sales: these factors all created tidal shifts that have left the musical landscape, Canadian or otherwise, transformed. Written in our present era of “plummeting revenue, societal contempt for working artists, infinite competition for audience’s attention and a real estate crisis that impacts creativity in general,” Hearts on Fire is a time capsule of optimism and creativity, and a reminder of what’s possible. Here is a celebration of a rising tide that refused to “quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock,” in the words of Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne — pictured on the cover holding a megaphone, a mischievous glint in her eyes.