Andrew Penner chose the Tranzac’s upstairs bathroom as his favourite spot in the Tranzac. “The night of our CD release, we put together a choir on the spot—it must have been close to thirty people—and the building was really hopping, so this was the only place we could rehearse. We crammed everyone in here, I backed into the corner, and we learned the song together in ten minutes. It was one of those really special Tranzac moments, for me.” Photo by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.
The Tranzac Club still has money woes, though things are looking up for the new year. While the Annex staple is raising money to cover its current operating deficit, Torontoist is conducting a series of interviews with musicians who have close ties to it. Up today: Andrew Penner’s music career is inextricably linked to the Tranzac. He and his band, Sunparlour Players, have spent this past year touring their sophomore album Wave North, creating theatre with the Kitchenband collective, and contributing music to the upcoming feature film Small Town Murder Songs. Penner and the band also make tasty preserves.
ANDREW PENNER: The Tranzac is definitely (or, at least, probably) THE home in Toronto for alternative music, whether it’s improvisational jazz, or experimental folk music, experimental rock, or any hyphenated genre you want to say [laughs]. I don’t know what the answer is to their current situation; I just know, for me, it was crucial.
The Sunparlours did a residency there from summer of 2005 to summer of 2006, a full year, and it was so good… we played the front room, and it was a chance for us to figure out what our songs were. We went from writing the songs, to seeing them transform live, and figuring out what our first album would be. It was a breeding ground, for us.
TORONTOIST: So a lot of the songs on your first album Hymns for the Happy came out of that residency?
AP: A lot of them were written before, but a lot of them were written at the Tranzac, or changed there. It was “let’s break out a new tune for next week’s show!” It was really great for me; it was a launching pad.
We met a lot of other artists, there, too. There’s a real scene there. I don’t know if I can say, personally, that we were a large part of that…
TORONTOIST: Well, like you said, there’s so many different scenes there. I wonder if anyone knows all the different scenes there, save for maybe the bartenders.
AP: Yeah, probably. [laughs] I think maybe it’s something more personal with me, where I never quite feel like I fit in.
TORONTOIST: What about your earliest experiences with the Tranzac, before you guys started the residency? What brought you in?
AP: The first time I went in there? I can remember exactly! It was the St. Dirt Elementary School. They’re a jazz band; Jake Oelrichs of Run With The Kittens is their drummer, and Ryan Driver plays a whole bunch of stuff. It’s masterminded by this pedal steel player, Myk Freedman.
The first thing I saw was that. I went in, and was like, “what the hell is this place? It’s like a clubhouse!” It was in the front room; the Southern Cross room has always been my favourite.
So that was my first thing there, and then, well, the Southern Cross is one of the only open mic nights I’ve ever done, before I started playing anything live, in early 2005.
TORONTOIST: You were working primarily as an actor, then, yes? So, this is what encouraged you to start going out and doing your own music?
AP: Yeah, I was writing a lot, and I really didn’t enjoy doing any acting stuff at the time. So I was really starting to get pumped about the stuff I was working on musically, and you want to see if anybody else connects with that.
So I went out and played two songs at this open mic there, and I remember I really hurt my hips, because there’s a cement floor in the Southern Cross, and I was slamming my feet down so hard! And a couple of days later, I got a call from one of the managers, and they wanted me to come back.
TORONTOIST: That’s terrific… you mean, the first time you went out to do the open mic, they were like, “we want you to come back!”
AP: Yeah, totally! I did that, and then, from that, we did a show a month later, and then, the day after the show, they were like, “we want you to do a residency here.” So, the first Sunparlour shows were me solo, and then, we started up at the Tranzac as a duo, and then a trio.
TORONTOIST: So, what makes the Tranzac special, as compared to other live music venues?
AP: There’s no venue like it in Toronto, in that you could just walk in, any day of the week, and see something completely different. Like, you’ll see the Jamzac, this jam session of older folk players, or you’ll see a poetry reading, or the loudest garage rock band you’ll ever see.
Two years ago, I went to see Bjork’s drummer do this live free association jazz show there, and it was packed; The improvisational and experimental scene in Toronto, they know his stuff.
It’s a big building, and I know they’ve been struggling for years, for almost a decade now. But it’s like a petri dish for this city, where a lot of stuff that wouldn’t be heard otherwise develops. That’s probably why, economically, it hasn’t been doing well the past few years, since it’s doing an alternative thing; but that’s also why we all need it to stick around. After it goes away, you can’t just spin something like that up.
TORONTOIST: We’re at Theatre Passe Muraille right now for this interview, which was looking like it might close a few years ago, and the City of Toronto bought it and leased it back to the theatre, and now it’s doing great. So, maybe something like that is possible for the Tranzac, too.
AP: I hope so.