The art of bonsai guitar making

February 6, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Bonsai guitars are displayed on the main wall in Thompson's apartment. (Photo by Meagan GIll)

There’s no doubt Cal Thompson is an original.

Wearing rolled-up jeans and an I Heart NYC t-shirt, he fits the description of laid-back musician. But there’s something different about him: he makes bonsai guitars.

Bonsai guitar is a name he has given to the instruments that he makes, which look like regular-sized guitars, but miniatures. Thompson estimates that he has made over 400 bonsai guitars.

Some of these instruments can be found hanging from hooks on the wall in his apartment, running the entire length of the main wall. Other guitars are or have been in the hands of famous musicians, ranging from Link Wray to Paul Hyde.

Asked who the majority of his customers are, he says that he gives most of them away to children.

“I really don’t care all that much about money, much to the chagrin of my wife and everyone else around me.”

His band, Little Guitar Army, also performs with many of his bonsai guitars.

Thompson said that the sound from a bonsai guitar, in comparison to a regular-sized guitar, is “a little bit higher, but on all of my records, no one can tell they’re not full-sized guitars until they see us play live.”

[audio: bonsai.mp3]

Click to hear Thompson play one of his bonsai guitars

The History

When Thompson was seven or eight years old, his uncle gave him a guitar.

A Motorhead VIP pass is shown on one of the bonsai guitars. Many members of the band Motorhead have Thompson's guitars. (Photo by Meagan Gill)

“I immediately knew that that was it. That was my first love, my first marriage. I’ve devoted myself to it, regardless of what anyone thinks, tells me or feels,” he said.

Apart from loving the music itself, he also became interested in the mechanics of guitar building. He had grown up around his father’s cabinet shop doing woodworking, so he learned some of his skills from there.

“I started doing it when I was really young,” Thompson said. “I think I came across a ukelele and decided that I could put the same things that were on a big guitar on a little guitar.”

Years later, he was taught instrumental construction by Michael Dunn, a guitar builder from Vancouver, who taught at Douglas College. Dunn says that Thompson was a good student.

“The proof is that he’s still out there making instruments. It wasn’t for everyone. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s tough,” Dunn said.

Thompson also worked for Jean Larrivee, another well-respected guitar builder in Vancouver. It was there that he had the idea of making bonsai guitars from materials that people were throwing away.

Larrivee “was throwing stuff out and I thought there was so much waste. So I started taking everything that he was throwing out and taking it home. I built a lot of instruments on what people were throwing out.”

Even now, each time he needs materials for a guitar, he’ll scavenge alleys and trash bins in an attempt to find something usable. Thompson said that thriftiness runs in his family.

“My grandfather was a real handy fellow. He didn’t have much money and he had all these responsibilities. So if he needed something, he would come up with something or just do without…My father is the same way.”

About 90 per cent of the materials he uses to build his guitars have been thrown out by somebody.

guitar playing

Thompson plays one of his bonsai guitars in his living room. (Photo by Meagan Gill)

The Process

His building process starts with a design. He’ll sit at his wooden kitchen table and sketching. Once he has something that he likes, he doesn’t mess around with the design much anymore.

“I’m pretty much done when I know that something is right,” Thompson said.

Next he’ll use math to figure out things like the scale length and how far apart the frets are going to be on the guitar. Then he collects his materials.

Once Thompson has designed, planned and gotten his materials, the building begins.

“I have a checklist in my head that I do. So I’ll make the bodies and make sure that they’re fine. Then I’ll make the necks. And I’ll marry the necks to the bodies. I make sure that they are going to function sonically and be comfortable.”

After that, he worries about the esthetics of the guitar.

“I worry about how they sound and how they feel,” Thompson said. “They can sound really good but if they are uncomfortable to play, then no one is going to make good sound on them.”

The time it takes for him to make a bonsai guitar varies. He has built one in as little as a day and a half, but he has yet to finish a guitar he started building in 1988.

It costs Thompson roughly $600 to make a guitar, but says that some of the guitars that he makes are worth upwards of $3,000.

Thompson has made hundreds of guitars, but he doesn’t feel like he has perfected his craft.

“If I come out with something that is even close to the essence of what I had in my head, I’m satisfied with it,” he said. “And the older I get, the closer I get. It’s never been perfect, and I doubt it ever will, but the older I get, the closer it gets.”

Each guitar is precious to him. Ask him which is his favourite guitar, and he’ll look shocked.

“It’s like asking what one of your children is your favourite! Yeah, probably deep down in my psyche I do [have a favourite], but I’ll never tell a soul. I’d probably feel guilty about it.”

A portion of the bonsai guitars at Thompson's apartment are displayed on one of the walls. (Photo by Meagan Gill)

What now?

“It’s a compulsion more than I’d like to say,” he said. “When I can make a living out of it, I do. But it’s kind of hard to make money out of being an artist.”

He has supported his art by maintaining a variety of other jobs, including carpentry and cabinet-making. Right now, he is thinking about working in a local guitar factory and a guitar repair shop up the street from his house.

But don’t expect to find him playing or crafting full-sized guitars anytime soon.

“Why do someone else’s thing, when I can do my own thing?” he asks. “It’s a hard road, mind you. If you do something that differs, in any culture or subculture, I find that people want you to conform. And if you don’t, my god. You will be called all sorts of names and you’ll find all sorts of barriers that are put up by people trying to be individuals. It’s really quite hard. It’s not easy.”

But continue he will; it’s his love.

Mint Records: Surviving as an independent record label

January 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The main goal is survival.

Mint Records is entering its 20th year and co-founder Bill Baker admits that changes in the music industry are a threat to independent music labels.

“As flippant as that sounds, [survival] is the number one goal and it always has been,” said Baker. “It’s a challenge and right now it’s just about this adaptation and seeing what we can do. A lot of people in the business have changed entirely. Record labels basically don’t put out records anymore, rather they do artist management and merchandising and publishing and things like that. [They're] focusing on other [ways] of working with bands and still have the potential to generate income.”

Changes in the music industry have forced Mint Records, like other labels, to revamp the traditional way of putting out music. One of the label’s suppliers, which has manufactured its CDs since 1994, is taking its last breath this year.

“We focus a lot more on putting out vinyl now,” said Baker. “We’ve been forced to cut back on the kind of investments we can make on projects. [In the past], we would’ve probably put out a record knowing that it was barely gonna break even, if that. But it was something that we felt passionate about doing. Now we may either not do that, or we may release it digitally only through iTunes, so we’re not actually incurring any manufacturing costs. It’s changed the way that we do things, for sure.”

In the beginning

Mint Records came to life in 1991 when Baker and his co-founder Randy Iwata came up with the idea of starting a record label after they left CiTR, UBC’s student-run radio station.

The early ’90s saw the growth of the grunge scene in Seattle, which had a huge influence on Vancouver’s music scene. Baker describes it as a vibrant time.

“There were a lot of new venues and up-and-coming new bands and people starting out. The whole punk thing had, at that time, gone by the wayside. We were getting new kinds of music and people were starting to explore. We certainly had no lack of material when it came time to find a band to work with,” said Baker.

At that time, Canada’s music industry was mostly based in Toronto, with branches of a few major labels in Vancouver. But despite being present, according to Baker, they failed to engage the local music scene.

“We recognized a bit of a niche, I suppose,” said Baker. “We weren’t the only people to do that at the time either.”

Baker and Iwata noticed the success of local independent label Nettwerk, but still saw a number of unsigned bands with potential.

“Here we got all these bands playing, people coming to see them and nobody’s really putting out their records. To be on Nettwerk, you had to be, at that point, reasonably well established. There’s a huge gap here with all these bands that we like, where are they gonna go? The majors won’t put them out and they’re not likely to be on Nettwerk,” Baker said.

“The goal was to just document what was going on in the music community in Vancouver at the time. There weren’t very many outlets for that. We were thinking there’s so much happening here, this sort of thriving community and unless you’re here, nobody will know about it. Our intention was to publicize it in the short term and document it for prosperity.”

Mint managed to achieve commerical success with artists such as The New Pornographers, Neko Case and The Organ. But Baker names the experience of working with Cub, one of its first bands back in 1992, as their greatest achievement.

“When Cub came out, that was us just learning and we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Baker. “If there were 10 things we needed to learn to run a record label, we probably learned nine of them.”

Cub went on to sell thousands of records across Canada, Japan, Australia and the U.S.

“In terms of a non-quantifiable success, I think that was our greatest success because no one really knew who we were. We were virtually unknown by the time we put out the Cub record,” he said.

“The first record was just a guy who recorded in his basement, didn’t know what he was doing. I think people initially considered their music to be juvenile and very poorly played. Their music provided a refreshing counterpoint to what was going on elsewhere and it really caught on with people.

“To be able to take something that basically came from virtual unknowns all across the board and make it into something where we were selling hundreds of records a week just in Vancouver and doing interviews on the CBC… That was when we really went from nothing to something. I look back on that with tremendous fondness.”


“Like any record label that has survived that long, through all the changes that have taken place in the music industry, [Mint Records] had moments of success and moments where they’ve encountered some resistance and they’ve come out of it intact. They still exist,” said Kaitlin Fontana, author of Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records.

While bands breaking up is always a setback for a label, Mint also had to deal with Cargo Records, one of its largest Canadian distributors, going bankrupt in the late ’90s.

“In an agonizingly long process. It took six months of us trying to get the money they owed us and eventually we didn’t get anything,” said Baker. “They took a substantial amount of money of ours down with them when they went bankrupt and we were unable to pay a lot of our artists the royalties that we owed them for some time. One of the artists on the label decided that they didn’t feel like that was fair and so they had to leave.”

Baker added that those things happen in most businesses.

“Those are very frustrating things to have to get over and in many respects they were difficult lessons to learn [but] they were valuable. I don’t think we lost hope, obviously we kept going but there were trials.”

The current trial the label is facing is digital downloads.

“Those are the kind of obstacles that, no matter how plucky and optimistic you can be, there aren’t really that many ways to overcome it unless you change what you do substantially,” said Baker. He remains appreciative of Mint’s customers, crediting them for Mint’s survival.

“We’ve been lucky so far because I think for the large part, the people who are interested in the music we put out are typically more in the mindset of a collector or someone who is part of a community,” said Baker.

“I think when people are primarily focused on things like Top 40 music, they don’t necessarily have some personal investment in what’s on the radio all the time. There’s perhaps less of a stigma about downloading that one song for free than there is if it’s your friend’s band and you know that they’re working three jobs to be able to play in a band and you like them and you want to help them out. I think that’s why, until recently, we suffered a lot less in terms of a decline in CD sales because of all of this.”

The label has also put more focus on a new approach to earning money: licensing songs for film and television.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that you could have one music use in a television or advertising situation that could probably pay more than the record could ever make in its history. For every one of those, there are hundreds that don’t get anything but it’s something that’s worth pursuing because there’s money there and there’s people that want to spend it.”

Another battle that independent music labels face is the number of people who see no use for a label, taking advantage of the internet to put out their music via MySpace or YouTube.

“Agruably anybody with an internet connection and Garage Band could put their music out for free,” said Baker. “But if everybody’s doing that, it sounds like a very democratic, wonderful type of situation but it also increases the general background noise. I don’t think people like being told what to like but I think people appreciate having guidance when there’s a million things to choose from. I think it’s meaningful to someone to be able to say ‘I like most of the records that I bought that are on Mint. Now they’re putting out another one, I’ll probably like it.’”

Fontana acknowledged the importance of Mint Records and the role it has played in Vancouver’s music scene.

“I wanted to write the book to point out that there has been this wonderful, underground scene and this wonderful pop scene in Vancouver that Mint Records has basically been chronicling for the last 20 years,” said Fontana. “If we ignore that, if we ignore the contribution that this label has made to the city, we’re ignoring a big part of our own culture and I don’t think that that’s a wise thing for any community to do.”

Baker hopes that Mint will continue putting out music that documents the scene in Vancouver, as it has done for the past 20 years.

“I think that there’s still a value to a record label,” said Baker. “I think as long as we could continue to find ways to put out music without just going bankrupt from doing it, that’s something that we’re always gonna do.”

What is Indie?

January 17, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Where to find indie music in Vancouver (article below graphic):

Vancouver indie music

Infographic by Amanda Punshon

We’ve heard about indie music, indie films, and other indie arts.

But what exactly does it mean?

It’s more than guys in tight jeans who listen to bands that no one has ever heard of.

Oswaldo Perez Cabrera is involved with the promotion and public relations for, a Vancouver-based website dedicated to giving exposure to indie bands.

He defines indie as being “all forms of art or culture that are outside of the mainstream media.”

Kwantlen students at the Richmond campus were also asked how they would describe indie, specifically indie music.

“Hmmm, that’s a good question,” said Alexandra Pastega, an English and marketing student. “Slightly acoustic. It has a kind of soft punk vibe to it in my opinion. Indie bands to me would constitute a band maybe like Metric. Kind of edgy but soft.”

Ian Nobak, a general studies student, said that indie means “independent. It would be maybe students making music, like downloading software and mixing it themselves.”

There is quite a difference, however, between a band such as Metric, which gets played on the radio, tours worldwide and has a large fan base, and students mixing music in their basement.

“There are people that start as indie and they move into more established companies,” Cabrera said. “There are other bands that prefer to keep it indie. Even some indie record companies, some indie labels, that start with a couple of bands, with their friends, and they become bigger and bigger. So then we have this question of how big they have to be to still be considered indie?”

It’s a question with no definitive answer. Everyone seems to have his or her own opinion.

But small or big, Cabrera believes that having independent artists is an important aspect to any city.

“Since [indie artists] don’t have any censorship or they aren’t subjected to what big companies are going to decide for them, it’s a very important voice to the culture of any city. It shows a little bit what the problems are in the city, it talks a bit about social issues, a lot of the time about environmental issues, they talk about what is happening in the subcultures of the city.”

He also believes that indie music is a form of resistance.

“It’s a resistance against the whole establishment. Because right now, most of radio and television, they tell you what to listen to, they tell you what to buy, they tell you how to think. And all these indie artists, it’s a resistance to all of that. Because they are talking about different things. They are talking about things that are contrary to what the establishment or what the mainstream is telling you to do. That’s a form of resistance.”

This is hardcore: Vancouver’s highly politicized DIY music scene through a founder’s eyes

January 17, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Vancouver's DOA, founding fathers of hardcore. (Photo by Diane Foy, courtesy of Sudden Death Records)

By Amanda Punshon and Meagan Gill

Hardcore music is “a bunch of people screaming their heads off, playing fast. Screaming their heads off, playing fast and playing loud,” according to Joe (“Joey Shithead”) Keithley, founding member of legendary Vancouver hardcore band DOA. Hardcore has been one of Vancouver’s most vibrant music scenes for 33 years, and DOA has been there in one form or another for all of them. In fact, the band’s second album, Hardcore ’81, which was released in April 1981, is responsible for the use of the term “hardcore” as a description of their type of punk music.

Despite being an offshoot of punk, hardcore was influenced as much by folk and metal as punk itself. Keithley counts Iggy Pop, Lead Belly, Arlo Guthrie, Jimmy Hendrix and Black Sabbath as some of the musicians that most affected DOA’s music.

Perhaps the biggest, most important reason for the spread of hardcore was the conservatism of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Politicians such as Ronald Reagan in the States, Margaret Thatcher in England, Helmut Kohl in Germany and Brian Mulroney here in Canada formed “a quartet of idiots,” in Keithley’s words, that people reacted to strongly.

The political climate may be different now, but British Columbians still take social activism seriously, which, Keithley says, is one of the reasons that Vancouver’s hardcore scene continues to thrive.

“Let’s put it this way, if you’re not politically aware, you’re probably not really a punk band,” he says. “Some of the bands are into it, and they’ll play at rallies and protests and stuff like that. Not all of them…but I mean, it’s a part of activism within the punk rock scene.”

In addition to its politics, Vancouver is known for its arts scene.

“Vancouver is a happening place, arts-wise. It’s not surprising that you’d get kids who want to do something in music, they’d move out here. They probably don’t realize how tough it is or how expensive it is but they get out here and somehow they keep working on it,” Keithley says.

And it is tough. According to Keithley, it’s incredibly hard to get a record deal because major record labels no longer have the money or the sense of adventure that they did in the 1960s and ‘70s. They’re much less likely to take a risk on a band that’s not a sure thing.

In addition to that, big record store chains are increasingly less willing to stock albums by little-known bands, Keithley says. So many hardcore bands — DOA included — start their own record labels. Others turn to the Internet to distribute their material, which, for Keithley, is a mixed blessing.

“It’s hard to be heard, or what I say, get above the ‘noise floor.’ It’s kind of hard to get noticed because the most outrageous things have been done, the most screaming’s been done,” he says. But at the same time, “it’s good, the access is there, you can make an album a lot cheaper [than in the past.]”

When DOA was starting out, hardcore bands would play alongside new wave, reggae and pop punk bands. They had to in order to fill a room. But today, Vancouver hardcore has enough of a following that the lineups for most shows are filled by other hardcore bands.

Keithley is not sure what the future has in store for hardcore music in Vancouver. “It’ll just keep growing and morphing like it always does,” he says. “There’s always going to be a new bunch of kids coming along that make their own scene. I can’t predict that.”

But one thing is certain – “people are so passionate about [Vancouver hardcore],” Keithley says. “There’s a lot of support for it…there’s love there for it, and [at the same time] the support’s not there because there’s not a lot of money. It’s coming from the heart, and that’s a good thing.”

For more Chronicle coverage of independent arts in Vancouver, click here.

When Mozart met the Godfather

November 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Kwantlen's brass ensemble

Kwantlen's brass ensemble relaxes after their performance. Photo by Max Hirtz

Kwantlen’s brass ensemble played pieces by Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi and others as part of Music at Midweek, on Wednesday, Nov. 5 at Kwantlen’s Langley campus.

The ensemble — four trumpets, two French horns, two trombones and a tuba — had been preparing for the performance since September under conductor Thomas Shorthouse, principal trumpet with the Vancouver Opera Orchestra.

“He, being a trumpet player, he’s the trumpet teacher, so any trumpet players here get one-on-one lessons with him,” said Adam Junk, one of the four trumpeters.

Junk wrote an arrangement specifically for the performance, called Papa Tom’s Pizzeria. The piece featured excerpts from the Godfather theme and other Italian-flavoured songs.

The free show was part of the Music at Midweek series of musical performances put together by Kwantlen’s music department. Each Wednesday, until the end of the semester, a different ensemble performs for about 45 minutes in Kwantlen Langley’s auditorium at 12:15 p.m.

Some audio excerpts from Wednesday’s performance:

[audio: Grand.mp3]

Grand March from Aida by G. Verdi, arranged by K. Snell

[audio: Symphony.mp3]

Symphony #7, 2nd movement by L. van Beethoven, arrangement by R. Larden

[audio: Queen.mp3]

Queen of the Night Aria by W.A. Mozart, arranged by T. Shorthouse

[audio: Papa.mp3]

Papa Tom’s Pizzeria, featuring excerpts from traditional Italian songs and the Godfather theme, arranged by A. Junk

Free concert series returns to Kwantlen

September 20, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Music at Midweek has begun again at Kwantlen.

Every Wednesday at 12:15 p.m., musical performances will go on at Kwantlen’s Langley auditorium, just as they have for the past several years.

The shows, which typically last 45 minutes, are free to anyone who is interested.

“We would love to have as many people from the community or from other parts of Kwantlen [as possible],” said Zdenek Skoumal, this year’s head organizer.

The events in the first half of the semester will feature professional musicians from outside of Kwantlen.

Last Wednesday, violinist Calvin Dyck performed with pianist Betty Suderman in front of nearly 100 people.

The aim, Skoumal said, is to “introduce [music students] to really fine music-making.”

“It inspires you as a musician.”

The second half of the semester, beginning Oct. 27, will feature Kwantlen students performing different styles of music.

“They watch each other as they perform, so it works on various levels,” Skoumal said.

The next performance — Wednesday, Sept. 22 — will feature the Campbell Ryga Jazz Trio.

Richmond steps up and rocks out: Community centres expand the music scene with local band nights

January 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Venice Queen lead singer Ryan Bloomfield rocks out at one of their shows downtown.

Venice Queen lead singer Ryan Bloomfield rocks out at one of their shows downtown.

Everybody loves to see their favourite stars perform, but nobody likes the empty wallet when the show is over.

For example, tickets to the Oct. 23 Rascal Flatts concert cost at least $85 for a decent seat, which for some is too much for four hours of music.

A way to remedy that is to see the talent showcased a couple nights a month at Richmond community centres, for $5 or less.

Youth programs at both Steveston Community Centre (SCC) and South Arm Community Centre (SACC) run the band nights on Fridays during the Night Shift program, a weekly youth hangout night and now Cambie Community Centre is getting in on the act.

The Cambie centre, at the corner of Cambie and Jacombs roads in Richmond, is hosting Richmond based band Venice Queen’s first all-ages show on Oct. 23. Opening for them will be local youth bands Ill and Fallen, and The Chase. All three up-and-coming bands play serious rock music, and the Cambie Night Shift coordinator is excited that they’re playing at the community centre’s first ever band night.

“We’re just beginning to explore the musical side of things at Cambie,” said Brandon Bloomfield. “If this night goes well, we plan on having more.”

Venice Queen is one of the winners of the 2009 Vancouver Seeds competition, held by The Fox radio station for indie bands. The band has also played a number of shows downtown, but wanted to become better known in its hometown, so agreed to headline Cambie’s band night, which has a $5 cover charge.

Venice Queen has also played at South Arm Community Centre, which, along with Steveston Community Centre, has regular shows featuring high-school-aged and young adult bands.

Alvin Li, a Steveston Community Centre youth development worker, said that the band nights are more about the kids and their music than making money..

“It’s the chance to give youth in the area an opportunity to play and show their talents,” said Li. “We rarely ask for more than $2, sometimes it’s free [to get in] or… we ask for clothes during the winter to give to charity.”

SCC presents five or six acts a night, consisting of acoustic music with some rock and alternative thrown in. Li said they also want to expand into hip hop.

Most of the youth-oriented events at Steveston, including band nights, are “run by youth for youth,” said Li. He also said it’s a chance for SWAT, Steveston with Active Teens program, to learn how to organize events and members to develop leadership qualities.

Band nights at South Arm Community Centre are also run mainly by its youth group, Mosaic, and organized with the help of Andy Roy, a youth worker.

SACC has a band night once a month, featuring three or four local bands who play some metal, screamo, rock and alternative music, with a $5 cover charge. The next show at SACC is Nov. 13; the bands haven’t been announced yet.

A changing game: Digital technology has changed our musical lives

January 10, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Slocan Valley resident Charles Van Toorn picks up world music at Zulu.

Slocan Valley resident Charles Van Toorn picks up world music at Zulu.(Justin Langille/Kwantlen Chronicle)

In his 10-year run as general manager of Zulu Records, Nic Bragg has seen his customers’ connection to music transformed drastically during the revolution brought on by MP3s and the Internet.

“It doesn’t really have a value anymore,” Bragg said. “The relationship has changed. Your music tastes are constantly evolving and you’re constantly consuming, as well as purging music.”

The devaluation of music has been encouraged by the transition of traditional music journalism into the online forum, Bragg said. He said that taste-making websites like have encouraged lifestyle branding of artists.

“I went to Chicago to their [Pitchfork’s] music festival and basically, it’s like a Wal-Mart of independent culture. Shoe companies and other companies are paying to be at the festival to market to the demographic,” he said.

Bragg is skeptical about Pitchfork’s willingness to turn music fans into customers for corporate wares, a common practice in commercial culture, but guarded against in grassroots music circles. Most of them that is.

On the other side of Vancouver, Edo Van Breeman, owner of label Unfamiliar Records, is ecstatic about Pitchfork’s marketing power.

Unfamiliar Records is the Canadian home of Pitchfork favourites Japandroids. Last year, Van Breeman sent Pitchfork a press release for the punk band’s debut album, Post-Nothing. The album was immediately given the prestigious Best New Music title, the site’s gold seal of approval. Overnight success ensued.

“You could attribute, at least preliminarily, 100 per cent of their success to that review,” said Van Breeman. “Pitchfork is a unique case. They’re like the online, modern Rolling Stone.”

Although Van Breeman believes that Pitchfork’s support was pivotal to Japandroids’ success, he also thinks that if the band hadn’t gone on the road to meet fans and tour as much as it did afterwards, it wouldn’t have done so well.

“You also have a lot of best-new-music designations that don’t do as well as Japandroids. I think that has a lot to do with how the band has toured and how the band is marketed. It’s not like you get the review and bingo, you’re a big band. You have to work for it as well,” Van Breeman said.

Bragg concedes that around 2006, when Zulu Records started to see a decline in sales because of music pirating and online sales, a renaissance in live music began. As musicians could count less and less on traditional income from the sales of LPs and CDs, they hit the road to deliver their art in person and revive the relationship between bands and their fans.

Speaking to BBC News in 2007, Stuart Galbraith, the UK managing director of LiveNation (one of the biggest concert promotion companies in the UK and North America), said that the sales of festival tickets in the UK were surging “beyond belief,” and that the live music scene in the UK was doing better than he could ever remember.

“Live music is the ultimate experience,” Galbraith told the BBC. “It’s not bootleggable, you can’t replicate it, you can’t steal it, and you can’t mimic that experience of actually standing at a gig the roar of the crowd, the smell of the greasepaint.”

Vancouver blogger Quinn Omori would agree: he would even take it one step further. A UBC IT technician by day, Omori runs From Blown Speakers, a modest blog that presents an exhaustive list of nearly every show going on in Vancouver.

He believes that the amount of music available online hasn’t lessened the value of music for fans, but has allowed people to find music that inspires them to make music themselves, perhaps the most intimate relationship one can have with music.

“Anything you can possibly think of, anything that you might want to hear or want to emulate, you can find,” Omori said. “And you can probably find a bunch of people wanting to do the same thing.”

Back at Zulu records, Bragg and his coworkers are still managing to get by. Pitchforkapproved artists, Canadian independent music and timeless favorites like Zeppelin and Hendrix still sell, and vinyl is making a moderate comeback among the hipster set.

Bragg said that Zulu could expand into literature and video games, the way HMV has in recent years, but he thinks the chemistry is good enough for now.

“It’s a specialized thing now. The things that you’re looking for here, you can’t find in every corner store. The record store could become pretty much like Urban Outfitters if it really wanted to, but we’re not interested in that.”

Choir offers more than just Christmas spirit

December 7, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Snow hasn’t fallen on Metro Vancouver yet this winter, but it won’t be long from now if Gail Suderman has her way with the season.

For the last nine years, Suderman, the director of voice and choral studies at Kwantlen’s Langley campus, has spent most of her time teaching Kwantlen students to sing classical music.

But in her spare time, she indulges in her love of more contemporary music, helming the Good Noise Vancouver Gospel Choir, one of only four community choirs devoted to singing gospel music in Vancouver.

Every year, Suderman and the choir perform Christmas carols and pop music favorites at the Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Vancouver for two nights before Christmas to get people in the spirit of the holidays.

She recalls that the choir ended last year’s show just as Vancouver’s picturesque white Christmas began.

“The memories that particularly stick in our mind are when snow is involved,”said Suderman. “The last night [last year] right as people were walking out, the snow started falling. It just added to that Christmas energy, that spirit of it.”

The concerts usually end up selling out every year and are wildly popular with Vancouverites looking for a unique musical experience around the holiday, said Suderman.

This year, the choir will perform its Glory of Christmas concerts for two sold-out nights on Dec. 11 and Dec. 12 at the cathedral. There will be another performance during the afternoon of Dec. 13 at the Frasierview Church in Richmond.

Suderman, a classically trained singer, and her colleague Marcus Mosely, started the Good Noise Choir in 2004 out of a mutual love for the energy and celebratory spirit of gospel. After doing some workshops with people in the community and being inundated with requests to keep going, she held auditions and did the first Christmas concert at the Christ Church Cathedral that December.

“It took off just like wildfire, in terms of people being excited about it and people coming out to concerts,”said Suderman.

Since its debut, the choir has grown from 42 to 75 members and includes people of all ages and walks of life. Some people come from as far as Abbotsford to train with the choir throughout the year. Members have to audition to join the choir, but the choir is non-denominational, which makes it open to anyone in the Lower Mainland who wants to sing.

“It’s a bit of a microcosm of what real life is like,” said Suderman. “It’s a great example of this diverse group of people coming together, creating this sort of unified sound through the singing. It has a really good energy.”

When not performing Christmas carols, the choir performs at events such as the Vancouver Folk Festival and has its own concert series that runs throughout the year at Christ Cathedral Church. Years of hard work paid off recently, said Suderman, when the group got a chance to perform for superstar record producer David Foster, who produces albums for the likes of Celine Dione and Michael Buble.

Suderman admits that the Good Noise choir enjoys popularity in the Lower Mainland, but that there isn’t as much of a culture around gospel music in Vancouver as there as there is in the United States, where the music has ethnic and cultural roots in African-American culture.

Vancouver is home to more classical and church-based choirs, but only a few popular music, or contemporary music choirs, the category that she feels Good Noise belongs to, said Suderman.

“It’s not that we feel isolated in terms of the choir itself,”said Suderman. “We are a little bit unique. I wouldn’t say that people are surprised that there are gospel choirs in Vancouver area. Because it’s unique, people take an interest in it. People say. ‘Ah, this is kind of different, let’s check it out.’”

This year, Suderman has invited three Lower Mainland music industry mainstays to join the choir for the holiday rejoicing. Kate Hammett-Vaughn, Karin Plato and Jennifer Scott, known as the Jazz Divas, will join the choir onstage to celebrate the holiday spirit.

Gospel is a music of celebration, which makes the Christmas holidays the perfect time for the Good Noise choir to rile up audiences and help Canadians shake off their reputation for being subdued at concerts.

“They love it,” Suderman said of the audience that shows up for the Christmas concerts. “It’s different than if you went to a classical concert, where you would sit quietly and be polite. For these [Christmas concerts], clapping along, singing along, it’s all part of it. It’s audience participation and people love, love that aspect.”

Cram Jam: The video

November 18, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Cori Alfreds and Alicia-Rae Light provide a look at Cram Jam that combines video and photography, the bands and the fans, as they capture some of what happened in Cloverdale in late September. (Video is large.)

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