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Evenings and Weekends in Hamilton's Music Scene: An Interview with Andrew Baulcomb

Andrew Baulcomb’s Evenings and Weekends: Five Years in Hamilton Music, 2006–2011 (Wolsak & Wynn) covers a five-year stretch of the explosion of a small but mighty music scene in Hamilton, Ontario, a post-industrial city located seventy kilometres southwest of Toronto. Baulcomb, who grew up in Hamilton, worked at the McMaster University student newspaper The Silhouette while he was in school; after he graduated, he wrote for community newspapers, kept going to shows, and continued to write about music. I met him at a Second Cup I used to frequent in my youth to ask him some questions about Hamilton, Toronto, music, gentrification, and, briefly, crime.

Andrea (Kathleen) Bennett: There are some types of journalism that I think are harder than other kinds of journalism. Music writing and food reviewing are uniquely difficult, I feel, because to a certain extent a restaurant is a restaurant is a restaurant, and a show is a show is a show. How did you develop your ability to write about music in an interesting way? What were your techniques for figuring out how to develop interesting stories?

Andrew Baulcomb: Early on, it felt like I wanted to be the guy who focused on local music. I sensed something was happening in Hamilton, even in the tail end of the nineties, into the 2000s.

I think when you’re younger, especially in music, it’s easy to envision yourself interviewing the biggest bands in the world, and going on tour with huge bands, and reviewing every new major record that comes out from the biggest groups in the world. But I was always drawn to the hyper-local thing, in the way that some people like local politics or local sports, so I tried to build a reputation in that niche specifically.

Being so limited forced me to be creative in my approach to writing about music, and it really taught me how to dig up stories and find interesting things, because it wasn’t presented to me on a Pitchfork blog or something. I had to really dig, and it felt like a good proving ground to being a working journalist.

akb: How did you get to know people?

AB: I was going to shows all the time. There were a lot of good bands playing at the campus bars, or the bars in the west end, or downtown. People would just come through [the campus paper] as well. We kind of had an open-door policy. People would just show up with show flyers and demo CDs. In the book, I talk about Max from Arkells. Like, all the time, when the band was called Charlemagne, he would just come in and say, “Here’s a new single we did,” or, “We’re doing this demo,” “We’re doing this show,” or whatever. You build your Rolodex of contacts from that, I guess.

akb: The first line of your book says that Hamilton "is a blue-collar town... living in the shadow of the country's largest and most-affluent metropolis." Right off the bat, Hamilton is situated in the context of Toronto. Could you talk a little bit about how you feel that impacted the music scene here, and maybe how it impacted your conception of your city’s culture?

AB: I think people traditionally, maybe, have a bit of a chip on their shoulder when it comes to comparing Hamilton to Toronto, or feeling like we’re second-class citizens, or we just can’t measure up, that sort of thing. And I think at some point, young people in Hamilton just stopped trying to make an impression on Toronto, or rise to that level, and just turned inward, and focused on doing things for ourselves and being creative for Hamiltonians. Doing something that was unique to the city and our generation.

And I think it’s okay, too, to admit that they’re maybe not on the same level. Like, Toronto’s a world-class city. It’s just so happens to be forty-five minutes down the road. And I think that’s okay. Hamilton, I thought, could do something unique and creative and influential, without necessarily trying to rise to that level.

akb: In the book,there’s a fascinating interview with Kevin Douglas from the band Sailboats Are White that you did over Facebook Messenger. He’s quite candid about how difficult he was as a stage persona and, it seems, privately as well. Did you ask tough questions, or is that material that he offered up to you?

AB: I didn’t drill down that far with him, explicitly, in my questions. He opened up with a lot of that stuff on his own, and was very candid and very forthcoming about his personality and who he was at that time. It just felt like he had a lot to get off his chest, and was happy that someone was interested in a band of his from ten years ago, that maybe was running the risk of being forgotten in the sands of time. It felt like he wanted to have his whole story out there while he had the opportunity to do so.

He always had a reputation as being, like I said, a bit of a wild man, or unhinged, on stage. And I knew he was reckless—a bit—behind the scenes as well. But [when he talks about] regretting blowing opportunities and messing things up with their management and their label—I didn’t know about much of that, really. It was interesting to have him offer that up and want to be very honest about it, and have it be part of the book. It made for a good story, for sure.

akb: It felt, all of a sudden, very emotionally vulnerable.

AB: It was like a confessional or something, right?

akb: The other interview that I think it’s interesting to stack up beside that interview is the one that you did with Danielle Delottinville from the band Pantychrist.Was it a phone interview?

AB: Danielle was a phone interview.

akb: Was she in jail at the time?

AB: No. She was out at the time. Pantychrist had reformed at that point, and had begun playing shows again. And are still playing shows now. She was arrested in January 2012 in connection to the death of a Hamilton man, and later pleaded guilty to robbery. An earlier charge of first-degree murder was withdrawn. I didn’t want to necessarily rehash all of that at this point, because I felt like it would’ve been a real diversion from the narrative. It wasn’t a true crime book. So I wanted to just focus on the music with her.

I think she really appreciated that, as well, because she had maybe become, in a lot of people’s minds, defined by that incident and her role in it. And I felt like – as one of the few all-female bands in Hamilton during the time period of the book, and to the credit of the other women in the band – they deserved to have a place in the story. They were pretty influential, and turned a lot of heads. I didn’t want to just erase them.

I went back and forth on that a lot, and my editor had some advice on it, and we felt it was better just to present it so that if people wanted to delve deeper in that whole other side of things, they could, for sure. That story is out there. But I didn’t want to open that all up in this book. You could probably write a book about that whole thing on its own, right?

I was nervous about it, for sure. I didn’t know how it would be perceived. You’re actually the first person who’s asked me about it, at all, in the six months that the book has been out. Which is fine. I sort of expected more of a reaction to that, but… Like I said, for me, it was more about making sure the women who had participated in the scene were well-represented, or at least the ones that I thought had a big impact. So that meant, to me, including them.

akb: Because of the way that things developed, there aren’t a ton of women in the music scene in Hamilton, or really anywhere. Was that something that you consciously had in the front of your mind, to try and seek out interviews with people who maybe weren’t that well-represented?

AB: I’d say so. And not just women. A lot of people perceive [Hamilton] as a rock-and-roll town. Or a punk rock town, or metal. Anything guitar-driven and loud and abrasive. And all of those bands, or at least the big names, have been well-documented. There’re several books now that cover the history of Teenage Head, the Forgotten Rebels, and a lot of those bands. There’s a new book about Simply Saucer that just came out.

I wanted to ensure that women got their due, and electronic musicians, hip-hop artists, and people that are just unclassifiable. The ones who—like, we were talking about Sailboats Are White—maybe would’ve just been swept away and forgotten. I felt like they had just as much of an impact on the development of the scene. I wanted to try and include as many as I could.

akb: I noticed that, in true Hamiltonian fashion, you claimed Dundasians Caribou and Junior Boys for your own. A controversial move.

AB: It depends on if you’re talking pre- or post-amalgamation, I guess. Dirty Nil is from Dundas, too, and they’re in there. Yeah, I guess I had the post-amalgamation mindset.

akb: I call myself a Hamiltonian these days, anyway. There are still people in Dundas who have those anti-amalgamation signs up. [Ed note: they say “Dundas Forever.”]

AB: Sure. Yeah, Dundas, Flamborough, Stoney Creek.

akb: 2008–2009 comes in the middle of your book, and everything went to hell in a handbasket in the States, and that influenced us in Hamilton, obviously.

AB: And southern Ontario, for sure. All of the manufacturing towns like Hamilton and Oshawa took a hit.

akb: There’s an interesting moment, midway through the book, where you talk about how that impacted your career and the music scene.

AB: I felt like, the year I finished at McMaster, in 2008, a lot of us had been set up to have this mindset that if you worked hard in school, and you stayed focused, you would come out the other side and have all these great career opportunities presented to you. Or if you decided to go to grad school, that that would be a great option as well, and it would definitely pay off a year or two later.

And then I graduated, and three months later—[as] I say in the book—the bottom fell out of the economy of the US, and it hit us here. And it felt like a lot of my friends and people in my generation were working precarious employment or contract jobs, or part-time gigs as bartenders, barbacks and baristas.

akb: And at the Metro.

AB: Yeah. The Metro for me, and a lot of my friends. It was tough economically, but it freed up a lot of time for people to devote to other things, whether it was playing in bands or getting interested in writing, or—Hamilton has a big visual arts scene. That’s right around the time the art crawl and Supercrawl started gaining momentum too. I think people tried to see the silver lining. It just felt like it was part of our generation’s identity.

akb: As Hamilton has become more culturally appealing, a whole bunch of Torontonians have come here to make their home. I wonder how you feel about that, having covered the lead up to this cultural explosion, and understanding what Hamilton used to be like, and how it’s changing.

AB: Okay, let me try and come at each side of that. I don’t think Hamilton has changed as much as people think it has, or as Twitter represents that it has, or some of the press. Certainly areas like James Street North, it’s night and day. And Locke Street, and Augusta. Ottawa Street. There’re all these little pockets of new economic activity. And it has changed the whole streetscape. It has changed a lot of people’s opinions, I think, outside of Hamilton, of what is going on here now.

But, at the same time, if you drive thirty blocks east of James Street, that whole area—Gibson, Landsdale, Beasley—none of that has really changed, right? The second you go east of James, all the way down to the football stadium, it’s still pretty much the same Hamilton, if not worse off, because all the manufacturing jobs in the north end haven’t come back. All the people who were laid off at Stelco and a bunch of plants.

Certainly Hamilton has a different public image, and people on blogs and Twitter talk up all the new businesses and restaurants and shops, which I think is fantastic, but I don’t know if the entire city has changed, or is benefitting from that economic change.

akb: Why did you decide this period of time, in this particular place, needed to be a book?

AB: It felt to me like a unique moment in Hamilton music history and Canadian music history. As I mentioned before, I felt like Hamilton had this reputation as a rock-and-roll town. A hard-drinking, hard-music kind of city. A lunchbucket city with a music scene that reflected that.

And this generation felt like the complete opposite of that. It was a lot of great rock and roll, but the DJ scene was fantastic, the nightclub scene was amazing; electronic music, hip hop, folk music, outsider-unclassifiable music—it all felt like it added to the vibrancy of the scene. It wasn’t just Arkells doing it in isolation, or Junior Boys, or Monster Truck, or those bigger names. It felt like all the smaller players, these diverse musicians and creative types, had a real impact on evolving the scene. It was a unique time period in the city’s history, and I wanted to just have that little snapshot. Five years felt like a good amount of time to cover.

And I lived it firsthand. I came of age during those years. In 2006, I was twenty-two, so those were my formative years. I didn’t have to step back in time and step into someone else’s shoes, and try and write a book about music in Hamilton in the sixties or something. I felt like I had a real intimate understanding of what had transpired here.