This weekend marks the 15th annual Wavelength Music Festival with a glance at the city's utopian indie rock past and weird-but-wonderful future.
controller.controller, photo courtesy of Wavelength
The idealistic, community-driven cultural movement of Miller-era Toronto that would come to be known as “Torontopia” likely wouldn’t have happened without Wavelength. The then-weekly curated music performance series gave an early stage to the now-iconic local indie acts of the early 2000s who soundtracked the hope-filled era, including the likes of Peaches, Owen Pallett, Broken Social Scene, and The Hidden Cameras among many others. While Wavelength now functions as a monthly concert series with assorted independent projects and its well-beloved ALL CAPS! Island Festival in August, its touchstone weekend-long music festival remains an annual winter staple.
Tonight marks the start of Wavelength Music Festival’s 15th annual run, and co-Founder and Artistic Director Jonny Dovercourt (whose real name turns out to be Jonathan Bunce) says that the milestone anniversary festival will harken back to the golden days of the festival’s beginning, but with feet still firmly planted in the present. We spoke with Dovercourt about what to expect, and why Toronto’s music scene remains just as exciting as ever.
Torontoist: Given that this year is a landmark anniversary for the festival, did you approach programming it any differently than you had in the past?
Jonny Dovercourt: Since 2012, we’ve been working on developing the festival’s identity as the Wavelength Music Festival, rather than just an anniversary celebration, which we felt was too focused on the history and past of Wavelength. But with this year being the big round number of 15, we couldn’t ignore the past, so we chose to incorporate it in a new way.
I came up with the idea of organizing the festival around the theme of “Past, Present and Future,” which lined up perfectly with the three-night format. “Present” and “Future” were relatively easy, as they expanded on the programming theme that had emerged at the last couple of festivals: Saturday night was our “big night” at the Polish Combatants Hall (and previously The Great Hall, before their licensing issues) which ended up being mostly stuff we were really excited about right now (the “Present”) and then Sunday night at our default home, The Garrison (since our 10th anniversary in 2010) had become the “Future” – the next wave, your favourite bands from the year ahead.
The “Past” was more difficult to grapple with. Wavelength was in the lucky position (right place, right time) to book important early shows by many now-iconic Canadian indie bands: Broken Social Scene, the Constantines, Holy Fuck, the Hidden Cameras, etc etc. And so people often ask us if we are going to be bringing these bands back. Much as we’d love to, the reality is these bands don’t play Toronto that often, and when they do, they can headline a much, much larger stage than Wavelength can provide. Intimacy is a big part of our show experience, and I doubt we’ll ever do anything at an indoor venue over 500-600 capacity.
So we came up with the idea of the cover sets. If we can’t get the iconic bands of yesterday to perform, let’s get the most innovative bands of today to play their songs! We’ve done Toronto song tribute nights in the past and they were always a lot of fun – I fondly remember our “Remember Toronto” night back in 2007. This would be a chance to show the influence of that first generation of WL bands upon the bands of today, and maybe bring in some Broken Social Scene fans and give them a chance to discover newer bands like Most People, for example.
Members of the band Most People. Photos courtesy of Wavelength.
You also have reunion sets from controller.controller and Brides, among others. How’d those come about?
The reunion sets then literally fell into our lap – controller.controller I found out had gotten back together thanks to a Facebook post by their guitarist about them playing a birthday party, their first show in eight years. I messaged him, invited them to play the fest and they were confirmed later the same day. It was ironic because controller.controller are arguably one of those iconic Canadian indie bands, and one of the bands we invited to play a cover set were considering doing them before we ended up booking the actual band! The Brides reunion, similarly, happened through one of the band members messaging me through Facebook back in the fall that they were getting back together.
What other familiar elements of Toronto’s indie DNA can audiences look forward to re-experiencing?
Art Bergmann was a happy addition to the festival – he’s an artist I’ve looked up to since first getting into punk rock when I was 14 years old, and I’ve always wanted to book him – he’s part of a whole different Past of Canadian music, the roots of the scene going way back before the birth of WL, but definitely part of the origins of our whole genealogy. I’m glad he has a new record out finally, as he is also firmly rooted in the Present.
Of course, Past, Present and Future are slippery concepts. One of the other “reunions,” The Acorn, are on the Present night, which is apt since they were really broke up, they just quietly took a break in 2011. But they’re also another iconic Canadian band, who played WL back in the early days around 2004 and 2005. They just happened to organizing a string of dates with Del Bel, one of our three Artist Incubator bands, along with Most People and Fresh Snow, for Del Bel’s long-awaited record release, which both we and the band wanted to happen at WL15, and given our recent collaborations with Rolf of Acorn through Arboretum, the amazing festival he organizes in Ottawa, it just made so much sense.
What about present and future acts? Who should we get excited about?
Lowell, who is headlining Saturday night, put out one of the best pop records of last year, and we wanted someone fun and upbeat like that to headline Valentine’s Day. We don’t take that Hallmark holiday very seriously, except that we view WL as being a big group hug for the music community, and Lowell to enjoy taking the piss out of romance in her songs (see “Cloud 69”).
Del Bel. Photo courtesy of Wavelength.
Last Ex, who I’m really excited to see again, also put out what may be my favourite album of 2014: their self-titled debut on Constellation Records. Incredibly memorable, addictive instrumentals: like spaghetti western soundtracks played by robots.
Ginla could have well been on the Future night with their spacey electro-pop, but we also want to give the opening night of Saturday to someone totally brand new and unheard before.
Mozart’s Sister is headlining Sunday night and I think of her music as being like the party music from a club scene in a cyberpunk story, though less Matrix techno-goth and more lo-tech R&B disco-pop. So, Future all the way.
Fresh Snow are one of our Incubator bands, and they’re releasing their new EP in the spring, so they’re Future in the sense of “looking forward.”
New Fries have quickly become everyone’s favourite underground Toronto band, playing shows everywhere all the time over the last year, and recontextualizing 1978 New York No Wave post-punk in a modern context. No Future?
Look Vibrant are super young, average age of 21 at the most, and therefore their scrappy electro-pop-punk has literally more Future than the rest of us.
We got a grant to do this pop-up gallery, which has been our temporary home away from home for the last 3 weeks. The idea was to use a storefront to help promote and publicize the festival, and also create a community hub that would build the buzz in the weeks leading up to the festival. But the Pop-Up, in a lot of ways, has taken on a life of its own, and people really love the space (Huntclub Studio on College), what we’ve done with it and how different it is from traditional music venues.
The “Past, Present and Future” theme also came to life in the art shows at the Pop-Up, which were also organized under that title. “Past” was represented by the archival Wavelength posters from over the last 15 years on display, “Present” was represented by concert photos from the last two years, while the “Future” took shape in the two window installations, which depicted utopian and dystopian Torontos.
It’s been great to have this space to do more than just shows, and we’ve hosted a really exciting series ofSunday afternoon music talks, which wrap up this weekend at the festival with artist talks by Art Bergmann (Saturday) and Mozart’s Sister (Sunday), both at 3pm and free. Some of the discussions have been really productive, especially the Toronto Music Moment talk, out of which may even come some real, concrete action.