It’s late enough on a Monday night in what he fondly refers to as downtown Oshawa’s “sketchy south end” that I’m puzzled why my friend Will McGuirk is as enthused as he is to unlock the front door and usher me into Kops Records’ darkened new satellite digs at 156 Simcoe St. S., after hours on a streetscape egregiously littered with desperate, zombified evidence of meth and opioid addiction.
Once we’ve felt our way up the back stairs and he’s flipped on the lights, however, it all makes sense. Upstairs at Kops, strewn with Christmas lights and gold tinsel, lurks an inviting, low-ceilinged space that new employee McGuirk hopes to turn into an incubating all-ages hub for new music emerging from Oshawa and its neighbouring towns in the 905.
On the last two Thursday afternoons, he’s brought in such locals as chamber-folk quartet Wooly, singer/songwriter Cale Crowe and soft-popsters Native Other to stoke the fires for Oshawa’s young downtown music festival Crossing Point, which sets up in Memorial Park for its second go-’round on July 26 and 27.
There’s a lot of notable music emerging from Oshawa and Durham these days. Rising stars Daniel Caesar, Jessie Reyez, Lennon Stella, recent Juno Award winners Dizzy, recent Jack White tourmates Crown Lands and the Standstills all hail from “Canada’s Motor City,” for instance, while Bowmanville has bragging rights to Nashville-approved country sweetheart Meghan Patrick and Whitby is home to acclaimed punk outfit Chastity and roots songstress Jadea Kelly. A certain Shawn Mendes grew up in Pickering.
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All of this on top of an already proud Durham legacy that goes back to half of Steppenwolf and Durango 95, the Purple Toads and Starkweather on through the late-’90s/early-2000s boom that gave us k-os, Cuff the Duke, Timber Timbre, the Mark Inside, Sum 41, Protest the Hero, the Carnations, Anagram and, by way of Kingston, the Inbreds, to name a few.
No wonder McGuirk, who moved to the ’Shwa 35 years ago from Dublin’s north side at 19 with his parents and five sisters and never left, has made celebrating Durham’s vibrant scene a passion for most of his adult life. (A career newspaperman, McGuirk has since the 1990s sidelined his way to his status as Oshawa’s de facto Mayor of Music through his tireless championing of Durham-region acts in columns for Oshawa This Week, his old zine The Woolly Toque and the ongoing blog SlowCity.ca while paying the bills with gigs at the Toronto Star and its Metroland properties.)
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“Nobody else wanted the job, man,” he laughs. “But I think Canada, as a whole, has a very difficult time telling its own stories. So when it came to the Oshawa ‘scene,’ it was sorta like if nobody else is writing about it, I’m just gonna do it myself. I’m an old punk from Ireland, right?”
The strength of Durham’s music scene, which tends to funnel into Oshawa because that’s the place with a proper downtown and (sometimes) the clubs, is likely traceable to its tight-knit nature. Everyone seems to know everybody else, and everyone seems game to help each other out because blue-collar Oshawa has not historically been a city that prizes arts and culture.
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As McGuirk himself wrote in 2013: “Over the years various folk have created what is in some ways an underground cultural community working at night, in the vacant spaces, in the halls and back bars, in fanzines and cafe walls. They’re working to make a better city for all of us, a city to be proud of and one that’s just way more fun and interesting.”
“It’s hard to just start being a musician,” opines Katie Munshaw, frontwoman of Dizzy, who took the Juno Award for Best Alternative Album. “A lot of people are, like, ‘Oh, I could never write a song. I could never start a band.’ But it’s, like, ‘Yeah, literally anybody can do it.’ And the thing about Oshawa, at least for me personally, is there were a lot of spaces at the time that allowed us to go in and play some pretty crappy songs and still be supportive and say ‘See you next month’ and we’d know that there was gonna be an open-mike at the café down the street.
“So that consistency and that community was really special for us and really encouraging … Because we had played a lot in Oshawa we were already pretty well-rehearsed and had kinda got all the kinks out in the bars in Oshawa that nobody was really at yet, by the time we played our first show in Toronto.”
That sense of belonging to a proper musical community was an indirect inspiration for the Oshawa pride Cuff the Duke so often flaunted on early tunes like “Rossland Square,” which name-checked beloved — and now defunct — venues such as the Velvet Elvis and the Different Drum, local sports teams the Angels and the Generals and the late scene booster Glen Bensley’s open-stage nights in addition to the titular strip mall, says frontman Wayne Petti.
“It was tight-knit and there was always a scene. It was a total rock/punk-rock thing in my day. In the late ’90s and early 2000s that was fully what you were doing,” he says. “For us, you just kinda got to pluck away and develop this thing that was unique to you. And unbeknownst to us, I think, young bands always have to try to find an identity and we just sort of inherently made Oshawa our identity, in that we were from this random town where no one ever thinks a good band is gonna come from.
“And that’s sort of the attitude still, obviously — you’re writing about it, y’know? — and I think we sort of cashed in on ‘We’re just a blue-collar band from Oshawa.’ And we wrote songs about Oshawa, 100 per cent. It was a badge of honour. Even though by that point we’d all pretty much moved to Toronto.”
Boredom helps, too, adds Protest the Hero frontman Rody Walker, whose scorching metallo-punk outfit was synonymous with Oshawa basement haunt the Dungeon and the 905-centric Underground Operations label around the turn of the millennium. Protest the Hero hails from Whitby, and got very, very good because it had nothing else to do.
“You’re living out in the suburbs. There’s nothing to do. So on the summers away from high school, you either do a whole bunch of drugs or you write a whole bunch of music or you do both,” he chuckles. “That’s kind of the recipe we always used when we were younger. There’s nothing to do so you go to the f–in’ movies every Friday night. Well, that gets old. It’s not like living in the city where you can be anywhere all the time doin’ f–in’ anything. But in the suburbs, up until the point when you’re 16 you just get on a bike and ride with a guitar on your back and meet up with your friends and write some f–in’ songs. So I think the suburbs would be a big part of why there are successful musicians coming out of these areas because they’re kids who got bored and put all their energy into learning a skill.
“Everybody in high school had a band and, y’know, when a band would come through Oshawa or Ajax it would be, like, ‘Well, whose high-school band is going to get to open for these guys?’ Sometimes it was us, sometimes it was our friends but everybody went, all the time, so it didn’t f–in’ matter but we just continued for some reason and caught the eye of a couple other people so with a little dumb luck and a little persistence we managed to make a career out of it.”
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Speaking of the Dungeon, the recurring lament amongst Oshawa — and, by extension, Durham — musicians and their supporters these days is the lack of places to play.
On a drive around downtown, McGuirk points out venue after venue that’s been shuttered. The Dungeon sits empty beneath a neglected laser-tag operation. Coffee house Wasted Space is now a gaming café. The building that once housed the Different Drum burned down years ago and is now a parking lot. The Moustache Club closed last year and sits atop another vacant property on Simcoe St. The Velvet Elvis is now a dentist’s office. And, as a revealing insight into Oshawa’s economic and social woes, not one, but two former venues — the old Orange Hall where the late Mike Star of Star Records used to host his “Star Club” shows, and the space that used to house the Eclipse and the Moon Room — are now men’s shelters.
The 600-capacity Oshawa Music Hall is doing fine, as is its admirably grotty and relatively tiny rock ‘n’ roll neighbour, the Atria. But there’s a dearth of small rooms in the city for up-and-coming acts to play, and that has people worried — especially since Oshawa has such a proud history of all-ages-friendly rooms like the Dungeon, the Velvet Elvis and Wasted Space. Hence McGuirk’s delight in having the upstairs room at Kops Records to play with. As he puts it: “If you don’t invest in it, man, you never get it back.”
“I think the scene is healthy in the fact that there are punks or whatever, but it’s unhealthy in the fact that there isn’t any infrastructure for community, for those kids on the fringe to meet,” says Chastity’s Brandon Williams, who occasionally throws all-ages shows in a barn on the outskirts of Whitby — a city that, as he’s fond of pointing out, has 10 hockey arenas yet not one dedicated municipal arts space — because there’s really nowhere else to play.
“They have no space to go around here and I know it. They have Toronto, which is a GO train ride away, but not everyone has access to a ride to the GO train, to the means to get out to Toronto. So I think a local community space is totally missing. I was lucky enough to have the Dungeon, which was just such a great example of — it was the perfect space for it and it was all-ages. And it worked. A lot of my best friends today are people I met at the Dungeon.
“It’s a void of community and a lot of lost potential and promise for future musicians. I was nurtured at the Dungeon, and Protest the Hero was. I just worry for the kid who isn’t into hockey in Whitby. People in the Whitby and Ajax and Pickering and Oshawa and Bowmanville area also need support systems that are often encouraged and granted in more urban centres where, for some reason, the population size merits highlighting the importance of the arts whereas somehow in towns it often gets lost. Sure, Whitby is called a town but it’s a town of 120,000 people so how has it just been lost on us?”
Both the Dungeon and the Velvet Elvis were partly driven out of existence by pressure from the city in the form of noise violations and the usual bureaucratic means of “death by a thousand cuts.”
“It was very hard to work with the city proper, with city hall,” says Liisa Whalley, who finally gave up on the Velvet Elvis in 2008 and now lives in Peterborough. “There’s a lot of roadblocks at that level. I hope it’s better now, but when I was there it was a struggle to make things happen. Anything that was different or that didn’t fit into a box was just not going to happen.
“They hassled us. They harassed us. The Velvet Elvis was in an old house but it was a commercially zoned space, but they were constantly harassing me about where I was — I was kind of near residential area — and because it was a different idea it was ‘wrong.’ It’s very hard to cultivate anything new or different if it doesn’t fit in the box that they’ve created for you. And I see a lot of bars struggling in that town.
“But the community was strong. People wanted things to happen. When people made an effort to make things happen, people really flocked to it because I think they were craving that, striving for that — maybe even starving for that, in a way.”
Fortunately for the Oshawa music community, one of their own was elected last year to city council. And trying to make Oshawa more music-friendly is chief among Derek Giberson’s mandates now that he’s an actual politician — not just at the bureaucratic level, but in general. This is why he started the Crossing Point Festival last year: to try to shake the population free of the entrenched idea that it has to drive 45 minutes down the 401 to Toronto if it wants to experience culture.
Oshawa had a population of 159,000, according to the 2016 census, with 380,000 in the total “census metropolitan area.” That’s more than enough to sustain some healthy music venues at home. It’s getting people to come out to them that’s the problem. The dream with Crossing Point is that — heaven forbid — Torontonians might actually come out to Oshawa for the weekend to see some music.
“We’re trying to shift people out of that mentality that if you want to ‘experience the culture,’ you’ve gotta get on the 401 and go into Toronto to do that because so many people here believe that the local culture is all blues bands and cars,” says Giberson, a gigging keyboardist himself who will perform with the Julian Taylor Band during this year’s festival. “And I never want to see that pushed out — it’s part of the history and part of the culture — but we’re trying to show people who are already here, who are used to being cynical about their own city, that we can make space for other elements as well, for other creative forms.
“My mantra is if we’ve got all these people near us, then what’s the gap in terms of reaching them? Because if we have venues that should have succeeded but have closed down, if we have events that should have become runaway successes that didn’t, what’s the gap? Maybe they’re almost great and there’s just something that needs to tip them into ‘great’ territory, where it’s a good idea and it just needs to be pushed into that ‘great’ territory and move beyond this inferiority complex we have where people are not engaging with their own local community and just doing the suburban thing where we have our finished basements with our big entertainment systems and then we jump in the car and go to Toronto once in awhile but we don’t even look around in our own backyard.”
Wherever it’s played, music will remain in Oshawa and Durham region, one suspects, because — as McGuirk observes — “the kids will always find a way to do it.” And, as Protest the Hero’s Walker also observes, the kids today are a lot savvier than he and his bandmates were.
“It’s interesting to see that this generation’s been able to create a scene not based around a venue. They don’t need the f–kin’ venue to make their own scene and I think that’s kinda awesome. They’ve clearly just circumnavigated that element that we needed. I think that’s probably due to the internet and s–t like that, right? I think if we’d had f–kin’ MySpace back in the day when we were playing the Dungeon we might not have spent so much time at the Dungeon,” he laughs.
“I don’t think it’s necessary for the scene to continue to be successful. We needed a place to all gather on the weekends and I think the upcoming generation and the generation that’s currently f–kin’ doin’ it are better than that. They’re smarter than us. They don’t need this place because the community is a lot bigger and they’re seeing a lot bigger picture than we did. When we started our band, our only f–kin’ goal was to play at the Dungeon … and that’s so small-minded and everything that happened after that was just kind of a happy surprise and a happy accident. But I think these kids are seeing a bigger picture right from the get-go.”
Crossing Point festival’s Saturday lineup includes Wooly, Cale Crowe, Native Other, Rory Taillon, Skye Wallace The Wooden Sky, Weapons and Vs The Borg; see crossingpointfestival.ca for details.
Ben Rayner is the Star’s music critic and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ihateBenRayner