Extreme music and social responsibility

Eleventh annual Arsonfest showcases great bands from across North America and raises money for a good cause

The members of Calgary’s Mares of Thrace are looking forward to headlining the first night of Arsonfest. Camille Elise
Organizing Arsonfest is a labour of love for Mike Alexander, left. JON SCHLEDEWITZ

Two months before the 2011 Arsonfest, festival organizer, metal promoter and musician Mike Alexander is looking back at how it all began 11 years ago.

“The first year it was called the Winnipeg Hardcore Festival,” Alexander says. “Hardcore for me meant all things rad and dirty in music, but others gave me a hard time about the name.

“We changed the name the next year and got all sorts of other trouble from the mayor’s office and the fire department because the name invokes a really strong reaction,” Alexander continues. “There was some unintended media coverage and attention of the (University of Winnipeg Students’ Association) that came from the name, but we decided to keep it instead of changing it again.”

The name Arsonfest sparks an immediate gut reaction from anyone who hears it. Arson has a long history in Winnipeg that has left citizens dead and property lost.

The destruction that is often associated with fire in an urban setting is always immediately tragic.

However, as in nature, fire is always followed by re-growth and new life, another aspect of an incendiary and extreme music festival that might illuminate a little more about the name.

Arsonfest was inspired by the More Than Music Festival in Dayton, Ohio – a benefit festival that combined music and social activism. Alexander explains that Arsonfest has always held itself accountable to its community and has been a way for him to give back.

“Punk for me hasn’t always been about putting on shows and paying bands money – it is about social responsibility,” he says. “Music and ideas are supposed to be a progressive sentiment and this is about raising money for someone else in our community – something that has never changed (about the festival).”

Alexander has chosen to support his community again this year by donating the proceeds from the festival to the Powwow to Honour Children (who have died as a result of violence).

“The life story of Phoenix Sinclair is tragically sad and has an abrupt ending,” explains Alexander, who is a part of Swan Lake First Nation. “And in Manitoba a lot of us here live in the shadow of this tragedy.”

Phoenix Sinclair was a five-year-old girl from Fisher River First Nation, about two hours north of Winnipeg. Her life was full of torment at the hands of her mother, Samantha Kematch, and stepfather, Karl McKay, who eventually killed her.

Their defence council deemed the treatment she received while alive “horrific.” Her body was found wrapped in plastic in a shallow grave at the edge of the garbage dump.

Sinclair had broken bones throughout her body when she died.

“I feel like I am straddling two communities – one of metal and one of thinking about powwows,” Alexander says. “(Powwows are) a place of celebration (and) this one is to pay tribute to those children. It is important to take time aside to process grief and process trauma and deal with those kind of things.”

“With … the justice system the way it is, these kids are totally at risk of being subject to horrible things, and Phoenix is just an example.”

An example that is not easily forgotten.

“We must remember and honour,” Alexander says. “That’s just the way it is for me.”

Arsonfest takes place at the Death Trap at 93 Albert St from Aug. 5 to Aug. 7. All ages welcome. Visit Arsonfest on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/Arsonfest2011.

Three to see at this year’s Arsonfest

Mike Alexander’s Arsonfest has established itself as the premiere summer destination for prairie punks and grinders looking for the best in extreme music from around North America.
This year, bands from as far away as California (Bloody Phoenix) join locals who have just come off U.S. tours (Cetascean and Willing Feet).

Fiercely DIY, this festival runs on volunteer power and the generosity of many musicians who play for barely gas money. Here are some highlights.

Mares of Thrace
Friday, Aug. 5

Calgarians Mares of Thrace have been around since 2009. Blabbermouth referred to them as “a figurative bag filled with ’90s post-punk and AmRep-ish sounds, and face-melting sludge from this decade or the last,” so let’s roll with that description even though they left out the kittens being lowered into the woodchippers.

“Arsonfest is awesome because it keeps turning into a yearly congregation of all our best friends in all the sickest independent extreme bands, in one of our favourite cities,” says band member Thérèse Lanz.

Saturday, Aug. 6

From Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Enabler joins the throng of acts that have come from the cheese-lovin’, union-bashin’ state to grace the Arsonfest stages (Northless and Half-Gorilla have both made lasting impressions). Blasting hardcore with a relentless grind and thrash backbeat, this band is an all-go-no-slow noise attack that Sputnik Music calls “the musical equivalent to being boiled alive, tarred and feathered.”

Scab Smoker
Sunday, Aug. 7

“We just wanted a band name that everybody would remember,” says Scab Smoker’s James Korba. And we do remember it. Stoner sludgy doom is what immediately comes to mind but these adjectives hardly do them justice. The muck that they mire themselves in is slow and low – down-tuned and dirty at a glacial pace. For now, their lack of huge equipment still lends their sound to a minimalist aesthetic.

Published in Volume 65, Number 27 of The Uniter (June 29, 2011)

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