It is Tuesday evening at the Toad in the Hole on Osborne and everything is as it should be — that is, nothing is out of the ordinary. A rambunctious patron hollers his displeasure at the television as familiar and semi-familiar faces stream by where we sit. A couple of people stop by to say, “Good show last night,” to the musicians at the table. I smile and wave to the acquaintances I run into. This is normal. What I’m trying to say is, Winnipeg is small.
At the table is Bucky Driedger and Michael Petkau Falk, both members of local record label (among other things), Head in the Sand. Head in the Sand — or H.I.T.S, an acronym Falk assures was “a happy accident” — is a group of musicians comprised of roughly 10 acts, a record label and a studio production house. “It was kind of my umbrella for the things I’ve been involved in for years,” explains Petkau Falk. “Now we’ve expanded into being more of a collective effort; more people are involved in actually doing stuff. It’s becoming its own little monster now.”
In addition to being the mastermind behind Head in the Sand, Petkau Falk is the guitarist and vocalist for one of their bands, Les Jupes, whose live show he aptly describes as “triumphant and spacey” (see the accompanying infographic for all the H.I.T.S. interminglings). Driedger plays guitar and sings in Royal Canoe, who make smart, falsetto-laden “indie” dance music. He is also one of the founding members of the Liptonians, whose pop-tinged folk rock is alternately thoughtful and playful.
This week all three bands are playing a Head in the Sand showcase at POP! ET CETERA, a 10-day music festival with concerts around the city.
Like hives of bees or the Megazord in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, collaboration is a well-traveled route to producing something impressive. Maybe it’s our socialist history, or maybe it’s the long shadow of groups like the Royal Art Lodge or l’Atelier-National du Manitoba, but Winnipeg is particularly good at artist collectives.
“We’re just basically a group of friends that make music, and I feel like there’s a lot of good music kind of coming out of our community,” says Driedger. “So, we wanted to showcase that in a way that other people could see what was going on, and also with 10 bands constantly producing music, videos, and content on this website, we could create a place that was continually exciting.”
In addition to sharing group members, Royal Canoe, the Liptonians and Les Jupes all share serious ambition. You can hear it in the music — not that they want to be “the next big thing,” or make ready-made singles designed for commercial success, but they want the music to be big, vital, not contained safely in the borders of the city’s indie scene.
And in many ways, Winnipeg is a supportive place for bands like that. There is grant funding available; we have an intimate, active and supportive arts community. But we are also not a big urban centre, and with that sometimes comes a smaller-town mentality when it comes to “making it.”
“There has been an attitude that ambition is anathema,” says Petkau Falk. “That, you know, ‘How dare you think you’re better than Winnipeg’ or whatever. And that’s not what it is at all. It’s just that you want to be able to go to London, England and play a show and not suck, and have people like you.”
It’s also a matter of being able to make a living doing what you love. “Winnipeg has built up all of these bands. And the people that have supported and come out to all these shows have really encouraged us,” says Driedger. “In the case of The Liptonians, we put out our first record not really knowing what we were doing and there was just such a warm response [ . . . ]. It was kind of an encouragement to keep trying our hand at this. But yeah, if you want to do music as a career, or even as a part time career, you need to move beyond Winnipeg and that’s just logistics. But that said, outside of logistics, I also don’t think any of our bands would be content only having our music be heard in one place.”
Fortunately for us, that does not necessarily mean moving. It means heading out on tour, like Royal Canoe and The Liptonians are doing Oct. 14, and getting your songs heard online.
“It’s a small city, you can sell a couple hundred records here,” says Paetkau Falk. “But you can’t sustain a living just playing music here, unless you want to be in a shitty cover band.”
Royal Canoe, Les Jupes, and The Liptonians play The Cavern on Oct. 9.