Jonathan Bunce was active in Toronto’s indie-rock community when some of us here at Torontoist were still pulling pigtails and tattling on bullies that stole our lunch money. Over the last decade he’s been music editor at eye Weekly, played in more than a dozen bands and even became a co-presenter at the Music Gallery, Toronto’s best venue for avant-garde and contemporary classical music. But Jonathan Bunce, or Jonny Dovercourt as he’s known in some circle, is best known as one of the founders and editor/booker for the Wavelength zine and music series.
Over the last five years the weekly series has helped launch the careers of dozens of Toronto bands. Torontoist’s own Boy Reporter caught up with Bunce last week and chatted about Wavelength’s up-coming fifth anniversary, Toronto’s booming indie music scene and the best venue in Toronto.
Wavelength’s fifth anniversary concerts are happening from Thursday, Feb. 10 to Sunday, Feb. 13 at various venues around town. Highlights include: Critical darlings Lal on Thursday, the Constantines and the Creeping Nobodies on Friday night, Jon Rae Fletcher and the River and Final Fantasy on Saturday night. Sunday’s show brings K-Records’ the Blow all the way from Portland, Oregon and the Two Koreas.
When did you start being involved in the indie rock scene here in Toronto?
I probably started playing in bands when I was fourteen, in the late ‘80s. I guess I played my first show at a downtown club when I was sixteen, in 1990 or so. But really I’ve been actively involved in the scene, knowing people and putting on my own shows since about ‘92. It’s been a dozen odd years now.
How did Wavelength start?
[When I was listings editor] I was trying to get eye to cover more local music, but I was still feeling a bit weird about it because I was in some of the bands playing and trying to avoid that minefield of conflict of interest. That was where a bit of the impetus for Wavelength came from, wanting to do something, zine-wise, that covered the local music scene. I never felt there was never any kind of document, there was no interesting journalistic coverage of the Toronto underground music scene. I wanted to start something that served that function but sort of exclusively by and for the musicians themselves. “Ok, you guys aren’t going to cover us we’ll cover ourselves.” That kind of fuck-you, DIY kind of spirit. I had the idea of starting a zine like Wavelength for a few of years but it was kinda hard to get off the ground.
The kind of projects that ended up becoming Wavelength had been kind of around for a few years, but no one could really get it all together, get it beyond the talking stage. By the summer of 1999 me and my friend, Alex Durlak, we were playing in a band at the time, Kid Sniper. He and I were sort of just talking and it seemed like the scene was bottoming out. A lot of the good bands had broken up, the few labels we liked around town had abandoned us all. Man we had to do something, form a collective kick start this. If it’s not now, then when? If it’s not us, who? I called a ‘heads of state meeting’ a bunch of people we knew from bands around town and started talking about what we could do together. Out of that came the idea of a regular weekly series and a zine and website. Wavelength became something that packaged all three into one identity.
After five years what did you accomplish?
I think we’ve changed Toronto a lot. I think in terms of the music scene it’s totally different, it’s easy to get people to come out to shows now. Local bands can develop followings quickly. We’ve seen people from the independent music underground break out of the confines of the city and reach a wider audience, from Broken Social Scene to the Constantines to Peaches, etc. I wouldn’t say that Wavelength was strictly responsible for that but I think we helped lay the groundwork for that, for things to evolve to this point. Pretty much all those bands at one point have played Wavelength at one point, at some point of their early existence, Broken Social Scene’s first show was at Wavelength at Ted’s in December 2000.
We helped boost the sense of people taking themselves more seriously in town and out of town There used to be this fucked up attitude, to self-deprecate and be self-defeatist, thinking “we’ll we’re just a band from Toronto.” That this was something to be ashamed of, it was inexplicable. I think there’s a bit more pride, pride of place, people want to know a bit more about their history and get excited about things at the local level.
In terms of civic identity, there’s always been this sense that things from here are kinda cheesy. The mass culture representation of Toronto is like the Blue Jays, hot dogs, Mamma Mia and the SkyDome. There’s really not much about the underground. People who want to be part of something which is a bit more interesting and exciting, a bit more cutting edge find it’s hard to latch on to anything because there’s not the same mythology as a place like New York or London even San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago or Berlin or whatever.
Why do you think Toronto bands are finding more success these days?
I think a lot of them offered things that are unique. The Hidden Cameras are a unique band. Is there anyone that’s like them in anyway, anywhere? I would say no. Same with Peaches. Same with the Constantines, they’re kinda like the classic indie rock band but they still have a unique mix of influences. Mixing together the DC hardcore with soul and classic heartland rock, they’re kind of peerless.
Can you talk a bit about the Wavelength fifth anniversary?
It’s gonna be a big party, the fifth anniversary is a big round number. We wanted to make it more of a blowout. Take the chance to make it a bit of a retrospective. We’re trying to reflect a cross-section of the people that’ve played over the last five years. Going all the way back to Mean Red Spiders who did the very first ever Wavelength on Feb. 13 2000, they’re playing on that same date in 2005 only it’s their new alter ego/incarnation. Wavelength has always been about trying to represent as many different communities as we possibly can. I’m pretty proud of the lineup, in terms of its diversity. I think if you look at the lineup it reflects the communities that make up the WL mosaic.
Why did you want to leave Wavelength?
To set the record straight I’m not leaving Wavelength. I just want to see it return to be more of a collective thing. It had become by default me running everything. That wasn’t how it was envisioned. I just didn’t want to be on the hook for everything anymore. For the last year, I’ve been responsible for every aspect: from booking, to editing to writing to distribution to promotion to advertising to bookkeeping. I just need to get some of that away from me. And in terms of the booking and editing I just wanted to see what someone else can do with it.
What advice can you give now to a band that’s starting out now and wants to do well?
Be good. That’s all that still matters. People still get caught up about this idea of, what did you call it? Making it, succeeding? That’s still not the point. That’s what we’re trying to get across. Write great songs. Come up with a great idea for the band. Don’t just imitate. Emulate who you love but focus on your musicianship, putting good songs and riffs together. All that stuff about playing to the audience is really just gravy. It makes it more exciting. It makes the act of creating and performing music a lot more invigorating but it’s really all about making a more fertile canvas for creation, but it shouldn’t take the place of creation. That’s where people get lazy. They recognize it’s easy to play for an audience now, so they put in less work into being good, into actually making an awesome band.
And learn how to do it yourself. It frustrates me to no end, that something like Wavelength is just descended from the sky. Like it’s just a resource to be drawn upon. Fuck no. Learn how to put on your own show, learn how to promote yourself, get together with your friends and learn help each other out. Because that what we did and that’s how we got to the position of Wavelength being a successful thing.
Can you tell me about your other projects, like Republic of Safety?
It’s a band I play guitar in. With Maggie MacDonald on vocals, she’s best known for being the crowd-motivator/xylophonist in the Hidden Cameras. With Kat Gligorijevic-Collins. who plays bass in the Barcelona Pavillion, Kate McGee who also plays bass and drummer Evan Davies. The band formed in December of 2003. I’ve wanted to start doing it for a while. I had an idea of how I wanted it to sound. I wanted something, like “future-punk,” really streamlined punk rock, short and sharp and to the point but rhythmic and danceable at the same time, with lots of screaming and aggression but with lots of hooks.
We really liked the idea of it being like a fake country, using this metaphor to reinvigorate all the rock and roll clichés of being in a band and doing shows and all that kind of stuff that you have to do, but it’s boring to talk about and explain to people. But to explain it all in the way a nation operates it’s a lot of fun. Maggie is such an amazing front-woman that the live shows have just gotten an amazing response. We’ve only played like eight shows so far. Having only played eight shows we’ve already gone through a drummer change, we finished our first record, which we finished with our first drummer, and we already have a batch of new songs. I’m already looking forward to recording those. Things have been moving really fast and I’m really excited about the project.
What about the Music Gallery?
I started working at the Music Gallery soon after I left eye. I’ve known about them for a long time, it’s got a rich history in Toronto. It’s definitely an institution as being the main live venue for experimental music, it’s been around since 1976.
Right now the bulk of the Music Gallery’s programming is contemporary classical music, serious new music, western art music. Stuff that’s funded by the Canada Council, this stuff is a hard sell; it’s hard to publicize, hard to get people interested in it, hard to get audiences out. But in the two years I’ve been here, I started doing some of my concerts here. Starting with the third wavelength anniversary concert and that went really well. It’s bringing a younger crowd, an indie rock crowd. I’m not sure whether this audience is crossing over with the new music audience but I think I helped create a lot of awareness of the Music Gallery and what it does outside of the composer’s crowd. Jim Montgomery and Clarissa De Young [the Music Gallery’s artistic director and general manager] were both pretty pleased with the work I’ve done in bringing in the indie-rock kids. They asked me to curate a series here called Pop-Avant, a series of five shows this concert season in 2004-05. It’s done pretty well and I was fortunate enough to have Brave New Waves sponsor the series.
What do you think is the best live venue in Toronto?
I don’t think one exists yet. I don’t think any of them are quite there. I think there’s a void to be filled. I think that it was Ted’s Wrecking Yard but no one’s really filled that void once it closed.
What made it good?
Amazing sound, a great location, a certain amount of relaxation among the management and staffs. It was very comfortable and cozy, cozy and comfortable but maintaining that minimalist decor. They weren’t trying too hard but it wasn’t like they weren’t trying at all. It was just a really exciting place to see shows.
Best Toronto band?
Ever? Phleg Camp. They were just one of those bands. Kinda like The Wire of Toronto, one of those was bands only around for a few short years, but every different kind of incarnation spawned a different kind of subgenre. They went from being an DC hardcore knock-off and suddenly morphed into this really weird, dark math-rock country band and then became an even more of a dark country kind of thing. They’ve been gone for so long now; they broke up in 1993. Their mythology probably far exceeds their actual existence, but if you listen to their recordings they still totally kick ass. I’ll play it for people now and people will go, “Woah, these guys are from Toronto, when were they around?” and I’ll tell them when and they’ll just go, “Wow, they were ahead of their time.” Definitely influenced a lot of people. They took a lot of chances and got out there. They did these super long tours of the US.
Everyone should want to be in a band like that. That’s totally a potent force while you’re around, constantly evolving and always trying new things. It’s so easy for a band to become, in a couple of years, a cover band of themselves. They’ve been playing the same songs for too long. Phleg Camp were a band that refused to do that and that’s why they were totally respectable.
Photo courtesy of: Wavelength/Andrew McAllister