Part 2 of 2: From Here to There and Back Again? Canadian artists and producers gone to Berlin
Joanne Thompson - June 30, 2011
In a city filled with tourists and Internationals, Berliners have a joke that the British get drunk, the Spanish do drugs and the Italians run in groups. And Canadians? They blend in. Everywhere you turn it seems, there are Canadians working in the arts, making themselves at home; collaborating with each other and with German friends.
Berlin also offers other modes of employment and opportunity in music and technology related fields, partly as a consequence of the city being an epicentre for innovation and home to a number of important music software and hardware companies. These days, Jeff Milligan works at Ableton, frequently touring for them and doing workshops. Scott Monteith has worked for Native Instruments. But the Canadian contingent are also busy doing their own music business from abroad. Hawtin’s M_nus label, Shannon’s Cynosure, and Jonson’s Wagon Repair are headquartered there, as is Caulfield’s Dumb-Unit imprint, Adam Marshall's New Kanada and Deadbeat's new label BLKRTZ.
Milligan on 4 turntables
As one of Berlin’s circulating flavours, the Canadians are often seen playing together at clubs like Watergate. Last spring, Mike Shannon threw a birthday celebration there for his friend Deadbeat, which ran well into the morning and included a bad-bwoy jungle set by Mathew Jonson with brother, Nathan, aka Hrdvsion, fist-pumping on stage. Somehow it felt more like being in someone’s house than a club. Shannon acknowledges that there is a strong sense of community amongst the ex-pats, “I think it’s easier to make moves like that when you have old friendships all around you. It’s been really interesting because I’ve seen friends from all parts of Canada come together in Berlin now and become closer friends”.
Techno has had a long run and many in the city feel a need for change. UK Bass and Nu-disco have become popular new ‘Berlin flavors’. Live instrumentation combined with electronic wizardry and a willingness to experiment is something Jeff Milligan believes is key to moving the various electronic genres forward. Berlin provides a context to keep trying new things.
Shannon’s new album, as Blue Fields, intended for Mathew Jonson’s Wagon Repair label, debuts a studio project featuring Fadila on vocals and Takeshi Nishimoto on guitar. “It’s not really like the dance floor stuff that I’m known for but more of a jazz influenced listening album. Something similar to the work I did for ~Scape in 2005, but with some even deeper explorations with the help of Takeshi’s virtuoso skill.” There are cameos from a few different musicians, including Berlin’s Paul Kleber on bass and Montreal’s Patrick Watson on piano. Shannon hopes to bring the project to Canada in the near future for some live shows.
Most of the ex-pats plan to continue making Berlin their home for the foreseeable future, though as Shannon says, “I always have dreams of coming back to Canada, but as long as I continue to be apart of the international circuit, Berlin really is an easy place to be based. Most of my best friends are based there as well and the community that we have is really something that would be very hard to find elsewhere.” Berry agrees that it would be difficult to make a living in Canada at what he does. The real reason for leaving Canada is opportunity, or as Gardner puts it, is, “purely desperation. I mean, why else would we abandon this beautiful country?”
The usual reasons can be cited; Canada is a vast country with a small population and it’s expensive to fly between cities. But, as Milligan observes, “there is support from institutions if you are a singer-songwriter.” The international profile of Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene has certainly been helped along by a funding and radio infrastructure as well as a culturally determined preference for rock/pop and folk. A category recognizing electronic music has only just this year been added to the Canadian music industry awards, the Junos, and it’s still struggling with definitions for a form of music that falls outside of conventional song constructions.
The electronic music genres however, as a kind of international musical Esperanto, unconstrained by language, reach all around the planet, and Canadians take up a significant part of this contemporary space.
The king of things M_Nus, Richie Hawtin, is arguably one of the most successful DJs and producers in the world today; taking the top spot on RA’s annual Live Act poll for 2010, and second place (to Ricardo Villalobos) for best DJ - positions he’s been toggling between for years now. Hawtin had his 40th birthday last year and has been producing techno for more than two decades. Even after all that time, and over 500,000 Facebook fans, you’d be hard pressed to find a commercial radio station in Canada that plays his tracks.
Plastikman at MUTEK 2011, photo by C.Hayeur.
Milligan feels that Germany has many conditions conducive to a thriving electronic music community which Canada lacks. “Germany is just better, period. In regards to policy, arts support, personal freedom, more people and close to more countries that are NOT the USA.” He adds that the barriers to working in the US are prohibitive (visas, fees, brokers).
Daniel Gardner is quite direct, about the lack of support for electronic music from cultural institutions, record labels and commercial radio in Canada. “Yeah, that totally sucks. I mean how many producers and electronic performers are hailing from Canada? TONS! It’s absolutely ridiculous that there is no support or even recognition of the amazing resources of talent. However, this new category at the Juno’s is a step in the right direction. Thank god, we have had MUTEK pushing the agenda of this music. Otherwise we’d be worse off than we are now.”
Not everyone feels it’s necessary at this point to make a permanent move. As Koesch from De:bug says, “These days it doesn’t take any longer for an album from Canada to land in my inbox than from anywhere else.” Many still come to the city for its relaxed atmosphere and for inspiration, choosing to make extended visits to Berlin rather than decamp.
Michael Pettit and Jamie Drouin from Victoria’s Overcast Sound spent three months in the city last year and plan to spend another three this coming fall. Overcast’s recent album, Beneath the Grain, takes its inspiration from time spent there. Pettit explains, “Berlin is much more mature than what we are exposed to here in Canada, so there was a desire to be in a place where we could be immersed in a creatively stimulating environment - both as an audience member and performer. It can be a bit of a vacuum living here on the west coast of Canada. We wanted to see if the Berlin we hear so much about is a myth or reality.” And did it live up to their expectations? “Yes and then some. You hear the stories and see the pictures, but I don't think it really does it justice. And for myself there was a level of disbelief about the whole thing. I do recall thinking before arriving - that there was no way it could be like everyone said... it's all hyperbole. But it really wasn't. Being there and living in it, especially when compared to what goes on in our hometown, is really unlike much else.”
For Nathan Jonson, aka Hrdvision (and Midnight Operator with his brother Mathew), a more recent arrival, the decision to move to Berlin came after spending a couple of months there and in Switzerland. Returning to his hometown of Victoria, he says he could feel the conservatism everywhere. “Things I might have done anyway in Canada despite laws, were suddenly legal in Europe. Smoking, drinking, nudity to some degree. I just get a feeling that people would rather live their lives here than police each other.”
Living in Berlin has definitely affected his music. “Here I don't feel those walls. I don't feel I have to prove anything to anyone anymore. That means that I don't have to make things too nerdy or complex or even perfect.”
For Shannon, the change is more subconscious. “Sometimes not seeing the sun for over a month in the Berlin winter can really effect the mood of your music. People say that the Berlin sound has always been melancholic and deep and that's almost exactly where I've been many times in the past with my productions.”
In Berlin you can hear what other producers are up to, the current music trends, what the Djs are playing in the clubs or hit a record shop like Hard Wax. “Personally, I try and use that information to do things creatively that I haven't heard ten times the weekend before.”
Canadian producers seem to get a lot of love and respect from the foreign media, including airplay and regular features and profiles, not to mention well attended, well paying gigs. So, why no love at home? For anyone in Canada wanting to keep up, BBC1 has long been the place to keep current, especially after the cancellation of the long running and much beloved Canadian radio institution, Brave New Waves. Jonson says, “The dumbest thing imaginable for that station was to cancel that show.”
With the decline of traditional and broadcast media like radio, internet stations and magazines with their own podcasts like Resident Advisor, Fact and XLR8R are all responding to new opportunities and niche tastes. These are all places that Canadian content regulations do not apply, or even make sense anymore.
Like Gardner, Milligan wishes he could have stayed in Canada. He misses the food and the multi-culturalism, which he says is good for both music and talent. But he feels the Canadian content laws are counter productive and only serve to devalue the work.
As Shannon says, “Canada is that place that will always be my real home and I hope that one day I can make it possible for myself to return comfortably.”