On Stage with Mike Jones - In Conversation with Fort McMurray's Music Scene
• Musician, Principal, Fort McMurray Composite High School.
• Hometown: Fortune, NL
• Programs Manager, Arts Council Wood Buffalo, Actress/Director.
• Hometown: Hamilton, ON
• Musician, Sound tech/Owner, AJP Productions.
• Hometown: Antigonish, NS
• Radio Host – Country 93.3, Music Director, Arts Council Wood Buffalo.
• Hometown: Leduc, AB
• Musician, Co-Founder, Abandin All Hope, Show Promoter.
• Hometown: Fort McMurray, AB
• Musician, Service Technician - Campbell’s Music, Community Director, Arts Council Wood Buffalo.
• Hometown: Drumheller, AB
WHAT MAKES FORT MCMURRAY MUSIC’S SCENE DIFFERENT FROM YOUR HOMETOWN?
Dan Tulk: My town of 900 people had like seven or eight bands, cuz it’s Newfoundland and everybody played music. If you’re playing a gig and you’re “done”, you’d just pass the guitar and someone else would pick up.
Scott Meller: When I left Drumheller in 1995 there were no consistent live music venues. Arriving here I was met with several consistent live venues, an annual competitive music festival and three festivals that regularly included live music: InterPlay, Blueberry Festival and Festival of Trees. This has changed somewhat but there are still regular live music venues and even more events that include a live music component.
Andrew Pottie: The Trews are from Antigonish. Going through high school it was really good – we would put on our own shows. I was just back over the summer and talking to my buddy who’s a musician and teacher and he said it’s like pulling teeth trying to get shows on the go. He hosts the one open mic in the town and they get about ten people out regularly.
Diana Moser: So Hamilton is big, it’s like a half million people but it’s in the GTA where everything is close to each other. Toronto is less than an hour away, if you don’t hit traffic. I didn’t really get into the bar scene growing up I was more involved in marching band and concert bands. There’s a lot of groups from youth all the way to adults which we have a little of here in Fort McMurray, but not as much.
Mike Jones: Leduc’s music scene is basically Edmonton’s music scene. You can drive there in 20 minutes so a lot of times on weekends once you turned 18 you would go to Edmonton. We had mostly a punk scene growing up with Drive By Punch who were kind of our Abandin All Hope at the time. They were the idols and a bunch of bands followed in their wake but there’s not a ton of venues in Leduc.
Darren Ehler: I grew up in Fort McMurray but one thing that makes our scene stand out is the willingness of the community to help local talent grow. The radio stations are always giving musician’s air time, lots of bars are pushing live music and Wood Buffalo continues to increase our summer events every year. Fort McMurray has always supported the bands I have played in and I couldn’t be happier to continue playing in this community.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN TO BRING FORT MCMURRAY’S MUSIC SCENE TO THE NEXT LEVEL?
Dan: I think Fort McMurray is a unique beast. There’s no other isolated pocket of 80,000 people anywhere in the world where you’ll see Nickelback, Bryan Adams, punk shows, comedy shows, jazz shows and country shows. There’s a thriving punk/metal scene here, there’s a thriving country scene, there’s a cover band scene here. The amount of playing a musician can do here in Fort McMurray rivals St. Johns or Halifax. I would say on any given Friday night, Fort McMurray has more live music venues per capita, maybe not even per capita than Edmonton or Calgary going. But that being said, the up and coming scene, the original scene is pretty much centric to Tavern and it would be nice to see a few other places take some chances. You see bands like Zero Loss and Volt out there growing their fanbase and promoting their own shows but it does seem relegated to one place.
Darren: Bars/Bands/promoters need to bring in different types of shows that appeal to our community. We’re already doing that in pockets like when Andrew does Tavern Tributes once every few months it brings out a great turnout. Golf Tournaments and group camping trips with live music – these events are great and I’d like to see more of it to really emphasize and support the talent we have in the area.
Scott: I’m not sure that we need to take our music scene to the next level, as much as we need to let the grassroots music scene catch up to the one that has been artificially created. I would like to see the concert scene grow organically with promoters bringing in money making concerts like Carrie Underwood for our citizens, and the government supporting ones that promoters wouldn’t normally bring in. For instance, symphonic performances. If the Calgary Philharmonic can have Beethoven in the Badlands, why can’t we bring up the Edmonton Symphony for Offenbach in the Oilsands? How about a Ballet? Or an Opera? That, for me, would signal that we are not just a community looking for a party, but one that has sophistication and a desire to support and experience culturally significant works.
Andrew: There’s not a lot going on locally, outside of bars. Part of that is there’s nowhere realistic for younger acts to play or put on their own show. There’s all ages venues like Mac Island and SECPA but it’s very expensive. I hear they used to do shows at the Boys and Girls Club and the Friendship Center but I don’t know if something happened or it just fizzled out because people stopped forming bands. We tried (with Cataclysm Productions) getting All Ages shows under way but it just wasn’t feasible. We straight up lost money on those shows.
Diana: I think part of it is a lack of venues, but also music looks different now in so many ways. There’s such a DIY mentality now where you can just put your stuff on YouTube so why would they go out and “grind the pavement”. Maybe that’s where more of the focus is going.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO ENGAGE THE YOUTH AND THE NEXT GENERATION?
Dan: Like Diana said, music goes in trends. When I was a kid, Pearl Jam, Nirvana – those were the bands me and all my friends were into. And then we shifted to the frosted tip era with the boy bands. Half my staff are in their late 30’s and they were all at the Backstreet Boys show in Edmonton. We shifted a little back to rock in the 2000’s with that kind of pop-punk/scene feel but now it’s drifted away again.There’s great bands out there that I’m fanboying over as a 40 year old man – but I don’t know if that’s what they’re looking for.
Scott: I think that there are already some successful programs reaching some of our youth, but that accessibility and availability are the restrictions. A conservatory in the downtown core, music in the elementary schools, and workshops with visiting artists would do so much to reach kids when they need to be reached. How cool would it have been to have a workshop with Aaron Pritchett at the District Recording Studio or a lecture from Bryan Adams? It would serve not only to inject the experience and methods of these artists into our grassroots music scene, but it would also make the RMWB more than just a money stop on the artists tour. They would go away with a better sense of who the community is, and become an ambassador on the world stage!
Darren: Over the last few years I have noticed the declining participation from the youth in the music scene. Recently, The District Recording Studio opened at Composite High which is a great opportunity for the younger generation, and I’m excited to help Mike out with an event like Rock the Rails which is directed at the youth of the community. I’m excited to help plan more events like this out.
Mike: I like to think there’s a lot of 18 to mid 20 year olds out there killing it right now like Éva La Prairie, Kristen Duhamel and The Veins and they’re hanging out with the older crop at Open Mics and stuff but we’re losing a lot of those kids to Edmonton – for a variety of reasons. As far as the next generation - maybe I’m just old and out of touch but I had to go looking for bands for our upcoming Rock the Rails event. One high school band Bizza In a Box took the time to apply and send me their stuff – and I threw them on the bill. You look at someone like Daisy Mella who is just amazing and we book her wherever we can for Food Festival or Urban Market but is there a more regular place to feature her art?
Diana: Where are the places that are willing to let you play original music? We’ve proven that there’s an audience here that would be interested in going to support it but it’s important to nurture that fanbase to be a little bit louder and for them to say, “Yeah, I’d rather go see that than going to a bar and listen to covers all night” and maybe that starts to influence the venue owners.
Dan: The next step is how to foster the future. I need to work myself out of a job. I shouldn’t be playing 120 – 140 shows a year. How do we foster the kids to come out and make music?
Diana: And part of that is determining what kind of environment the kids want to get to? That bar scene is never going to go away – but is there a way we can complement it with a different style?
Andrew: Something like the Full Moon Café is great for teens and kids, but it’s always designed for a small room as a kind of laid back vibe. So it is a bit limiting, you’re never going to put a band in there.
Mike: And the other thing with that is it’s an event that I always want to support but there’s so much competition it seems with Saturday nights. Someone’s always having a birthday, or there’s a big show at Mac Island or Keyano – and it can be difficult to support it. Maybe if something similar like that happened on a Tuesday night people would be more inclined to support it. And it doesn’t have to be a late thing cuz I get it people have school and work – so instead of first band on at 9, first band is on at 7 and you’re home in bed by 10:30.
HAS THERE BEEN A SPECIFIC MOMENT WHERE YOUR REALIZED THE STRENGTH OF FORT MCMURRAY’S MUSIC SCENE?
Scott: Honestly, what keeps me here is a series of those moments. When I experienced my first “Coffee House” Open Mic. When I sang with friends in Rotary Park in perfect five part harmony with the Northern Lights above. When I performed on Keyano Theatre’s Main Stage and heard why Liona Boyd loves that space. When everyone from Corb Lund to the Beach Boys, to Jerry Doucette have played a song that I love, and held the audience in the palm of their hand while we shared that musical experience. There is no one moment. There is the energy, diversity, and creativity of the people here in Wood Buffalo.
Darren: An event Steve Crowe, Adam Macleod and myself try to hold every year is a night to showcase the late Joey D. The Amount of support and resonance we get from the community regarding this event shows the impact local musicians can have on people’s lives. Joey was a large part of the music community and when a Joey D tribute night sells out in days because people just want to hear his music again, it really shows me how lucky we are to live and play in a city with this type of support towards local music.
Mike: Exactly. For me it’s that moment where someone grabs a guitar at Open Mic and just starts playing one of Joey’s songs and soon enough the entire bar is singing along at the top of their lungs. It’s not a song on the radio, I don’t even think you can find it on YouTube or Spotify – but everyone knows it because they’ve heard Andrew Coish do it at an Open Mic or heard Kenny Fitzpatrick play it around the campfire. Music really is one of the ways where we become immortal.