Going it alone

The pros and cons of idiosyncrasy in Winnipeg music

Being in a band is hard. The work involved goes way beyond making music. Through the ubiquity of the Internet and home recording, it’s now easier than ever to form a band and harder than ever to get noticed. Winnipeg is a haven of interconnected music scenes where like-minded musicians and fans create communities of support and exposure for their respective genres of music.

 But what’s the experience of bands with no definable genre? What if you’re the only band in this prairie tundra playing what you’re playing?

 The Dirty Catfish Brass Band is one such group. The nine-piece group is rooted firmly in the tradition of New Orleans brass bands, their party-centric sound stemming from Louisiana parade and street music. It’s a form that no one else in Winnipeg has breached, and saxophonist Kyle Wedlake says their uniqueness has influenced their entire approach.

 “We’ve always been a three-set band,” Wedlake explains. “We weren’t ever doing a five-band bill. We definitely paid our dues playing to empty rooms for a while. We just kind of carved our own niche and found the audience.”

 Despite regular gigs at Times Change(d) and The Cavern, Wedlake says that playing live in unconventional settings has been key to the group’s success.

 “One thing we feel like Winnipeg needs is more street music. We’d set up at the corner of River and Osborne most Wednesdays in the summer, and we’d gets crowds of 40 to 70 people just stopping to dance.”

 Public performances at Folk Fest and Blue Bombers games have been similarly transformative experiences.

 “We like to bring it right to the people, whether they’re ready for it or not. It gives you that feeling of being transported somewhere else. It’s a cool little sector of performance that’s opened us up,” Wedlake says.

 Innovative releases can be just as effective as innovative live performance. Local quartet Slow Spirit’s newest output, Bad News EP, is an 18-minute video EP recorded live off the floor in one take and available for free on YouTube. Since their beginnings blending jazz and electronic music, Slow Spirit have since incorporated indie rock and singer-songwriter elements that make their music even harder to pigeonhole.

 “I do feel like there is a scene we’ve fit into,” guitarist Eric Roberts says of the group’s experience in Winnipeg, “but fitting into genres has just never been a priority. We’re all just trying to express ourselves freely and not inhibit that based on other motives like marketability or…just being liked in general.”

 Local ambient group Palm Trees also willfully abandons marketability. From their beginnings as a more conventional psychedelic rock outfit, the group has shifted through instrumental post-rock and arrived at a sound of formless soundscapes composed of organ drones, guitar loops and free-form drumming.

“I think we probably lost fans,” guitarist Gilad Carroll says. “We understand that. People in a bar don’t necessarily want to hear downtempo melancholy noise. We know we’re not going to be a commercial success.”

Carroll says that recent performances, including one in Regina, have shown them there is an audience for what they do.

 “People were talking about how it was so meditative and celestial and all those cool words. One guy was screaming ‘Freebird’ the whole time, though.”

Published in Volume 69, Number 21 of The Uniter (February 18, 2015)

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