Canadian X’s

Part 1 of 2: From Here to There and Back Again? Canadian artists and producers gone to Berlin

Joanne Thompson - June 28, 2011
Canadian X’s

Richie Hawtin, Mike Shannon, Deadbeat/Scott Monteith, Jeff Milligan, Frivolous/Daniel Gardner, Jeremy P Caulfield, Pantone/Sid Le Rock/Sheldon Thompson, Mathew Jonson/Cobblestone Jazz, Hrdvision/Nathan Jonson, The Mole/Colin de la Plante, Fairmont/Jake Fairley, Guillaume Coutu-Dumont, Adam Marshall, Marc Houle, Danuel Tate, Konrad Black, … From points west, middle and Montreal, this long list of Canadian artists now all reside in Berlin, the Mecca of techno, the headquarters of innovation in electronic music practice and performance, where it’s common to be playing for the thousands of Easyjet-setters from the UK and other Euro destinations who flood the city each weekend, while remaining virtually invisible at home in Canada. 

In Berlin, clubs generally don’t open until midnight. Trams and trains on the 24 hour public transit feel like a party on wheels; Berliners happily quaff bottles of Warsteiner en-route. You can even buy beer at kiosks in the u-bahn. According to Tobias Rapp’s 2009 book, Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno and The Easyjet Set, 7 out of 10 tourists arriving in Berlin are there to experience the clubs. With no fixed closing time, the last DJ plays to ‘ende’ and the party finds a natural conclusion, often many hours into the daylight of the following morning or afternoon. Sure it’s 10 o’clock, but what day is it?  Parties can go for two, three or even four days, people coming and going, ebbing and flowing like schools of fish passing through.  Just when you think the party is winding down and that it might be time to head home, in comes another wave. 

The first wave of Canadian artists to make Berlin their home base, arrived in the mid-2000’s. Beforehand, these Canadian ex-pats were making regular visits to tour in Europe, building their artistry, learning from the plentiful experience of the international circuit, but also, earning a living in ways not possible at home. Many had made Montreal a home base after migrating from other parts of Canada, before the jump to Germany.

Daniel Gardner, aka Frivolous, originally from the British Colombian west coast, says that Berlin was a natural choice for him.  “I was struggling in Montreal once I reached the limit of what the city could offer me.  After my first album was released on Karloff (Cologne/Berlin), I was starting to get a lot of requests to play in Europe, mainly in Switzerland.  I was only really surviving because I would head over to the EU and play a bout of shows every couple of months, before returning to a life of pretty serious poverty in Montreal.  I was DJing every week at Laika on Saint Laurent and without it I would have for sure failed”.   Three years in, he realized that it was his trips to Europe that were sustaining him and decided to make the move to Berlin.  He feels though that, “This isn’t an admirable accomplishment, because I love Canada so much and would love to be able to live there.”


Frivolous performing live at MUTEK.ES, February 2011.

Scott Monteith, Mike Shannon, Jeremy Caulfield and others soon followed; already known in Berlin and considered to be somewhat established by then through various label affiliations and personal and professional connections, the transition wasn't that hard.

According to Sascha Koesch, Editor of Berlin’s influential De:bug Magazine, “By the time they moved here, Canada had become a Berlin flavour. There was a specific Canadian sound, back around 2000 when they first came to be known here; the time when most of them started their own labels. Microhouse, a certain playfulness with minimal and dub, a certain rock attitude, all of these things put Canada on the map.” 

He recalls, “They started appearing on German labels back then too, such as Perlon, Trapez, and Kompakt. Force Inc released an album with Canadians only, back in 2002.”

It was Jon Berry, now a manager in Berlin at Kompakt, who facilitated this scene and moment defining compilation album. “I moved to Montreal back in 2001 and at the time was working with Frankfurt based record label, Force Inc. I was lucky enough to encounter a new, thriving community of electronic minded musicians that really fit the scope of what we were releasing on the label at that time. I put together the Montreal Smoked Meat compilation that featured a number of local acts that are now living in Berlin; Deadbeat, Mike Shannon and Jeff Milligan, as well signing Akufen and Jetone/Tim Hecker.” A year later, Force Inc was to release Mike Shannon’s Slight of Hand, full-length and Jeff Milligan’s mix album, Composure.

In Canada, Montreal always displayed characteristics of a European style clubbing and nightlife scene and has been able to incubate local talent, from swing and disco times, to contemporary techno and house producers and DJs. Toronto’s electronic scenes, like the once vibrant techno and jungle scene which became huge in the late 90’s, collapsed circa 2001 under the weight of bad press and a lack of homegrown production momentum. Meanwhile, west coast producers had to contend with their profound geographical isolation. Given the situation in southern Ontario, and the west coast, Monteith, Shannon, Milligan, Colin The Mole and Tim Hecker all variously found that Montreal was just what they were looking for, with a critical mass of energy and opportunity emerging at the turn of the millenium.

Gardner remembers that “Montreal was really cooking at that time.  I guess it was around 2002-3.  Everybody from the Toronto scene had converged with the scene up there. There was the SAT (The Society for Art and Technology) and Piknic Electronik was just starting up too.  People were really embracing the high-tech sound, as minimal started to take root, but with a distinctly Canadian flavour.”

Shannon adds “With clubs like Sona having residents like Richie Hawtin and Tiga, Montreal's club scene was really happening, but the real magic was the festival events at the original SAT and EX-Centris. Montreal had a European connection with a mutation of its own, making it stand out from everything else in the world at the time, slightly different from the Detroit and Chicago influences that I was used to in Toronto.” 

Both Berry and Koesch credit MUTEK with helping garner attention for these artists and to cement international connections.  “With MUTEK shining the light and what was going on, people world wide started to take notice.” Shannon recalls.

The first Micro_MUTEK event in 2001 that debuted Tikiman with German artists, Scion, is significant in Berry’s memory, “Everyone was so excited to see these guys play. They were GREAT! The surprise highlight was when Deadbeat did his first ‘dub’ set ever. Nobody had heard him play like that before - it was mind blowing and a huge moment for him as it set a whole new course for him musically. The following year, I met Michael Mayer from Kompakt, when he played his first North American show in Montreal with Reinhard Voigt. This was a huge moment for me both musically and for my career today.”  


Deadbeat live at MUTEK 2011, photo by C.Hayeur.

Not everything about the Canadian ascendancy in Berlin and internationally is just pure happenstance. This disparate group all arrived with a particular deliberateness and sense of shared artistic goals. Koesch says, “When they first got known, the idea was, put Canada on the map and they were very outspoken about that.  Milligan and Akufen [who never made the move], for instance, always mentioned all of the other Canadians to check out. It’s not like Canadians stick to themselves, but you hardly ever see one alone.  Canadians are plural and this first group is what more or less defined Canadians over here for a long, long time.”

To be Continued.....Part 2, on Thursday, looks at the comaraderie and productivity that comes from being a clan of Canadians in Berlin.

Joanne Thomspon curates kanadische inhalte :  canadian content, a program dedicated to Canadian DJs and producers. She is based in Berlin and Toronto. Archives of the show are here, and here. 

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