A Comprehensive Look At Winnipeg’s Legendary Noise Rock Scene
Call it "Mammoth Metallic Noise" or "ugly music for ugly people," but Winnipeg's loud music scene has a storied history.
From the cold, literal heart of North America known as Winnipeg, hundreds of miles in any direction from an urban centre with any more than one million people, a new crop of loud, abrasive weirdos are taking to the trails carved out of the tundra by the generations of “Mammoth metallic noise” rockers that came before them.
Today, bands like Dead Ranch, Pop Crimes, and Tunic are taking their dissonant feedback on the road. Their live shows and early demos, EPs, and LPs are reminding basement dwellers across the continent that ugly old Winnipeg has always punched above its weight when it comes to making outsider noise. And while these are but the first in a new wave to hit the road, a critical mass – including bands like the Party Dress, Lukewarm, Conduct, and more -- are sharpening their teeth at home, preparing to hit the road shortly with their own debut demos or 7” EPs.
Since the early 90s, Winnipeg has vomited out wave after wave of bands that do not fit into the molds of punk or metal, but who maintain a command over high intensity music played at deafening volume. Inspired initially by the noise scenes out of Chicago and Minneapolis that centered around the Touch & Go and Amphetamine Reptile labels, alongside unsung local heroes that went before them, bands like Kittens, Meatrack, and Stagmummer punched their way out of the “frozen shithole” (as Venetian Snares’ Aaron Funk so poetically put it) of their isolated hometown into international repute as some of the loudest, most brutally bizarre bands out there.
KEN mode - 2006 Tour with Daughters and Pelican featured Jahmeel Russel (malefaction/ KITTENS/ Red Vienna) on Bass - By Lee Repko
“Watching them play always remind[ed] me of the footage of that Asian monk who set himself on fire,” Ted Turner wrote of Kittens live performances in Winnipeg’s Stylus magazine back in 1996. “I was too young to check those bands out,” says Dave Schellenberg of Tunic, who has also had stints in many other local acts of renown. “But I have some tapes and old CDs, and it’s all so rad.” The fact that many of those tapes and CDs exist at all is thanks in large part to No List Records’ Lee Repko. Originally from the small town of Neepawa, Manitoba, Repko moved to Toronto in the late 80s, relocating to Winnipeg in 1992. He took an early interest in the local scene, and eventually formed No List in 1995.
“The summer I moved here I saw Drive Like Jehu. I saw Supersuckers, Jesus Lizard, Unsane, and the Dwarves,” Repko told Noisey over beer at the downtown Garrick Hotel. “These were all bands I’d never seen before in Toronto, and I had been going to a lot of shows in Toronto.”
Winnipeg’s location in the absolute middle of nowhere meant that while bands from the coasts might eschew the wasteland that is the American Midwest and the Canadian Prairie Provinces, the (relative) proximity to Chicago and Minneapolis had bands from those local scenes making the trek up the Interstate to Winnipeg regularly. From Hüsker Dü playing The Royal Albert in the 80s to the Jesus Lizard playing the city “two or three” times a year in the early 90s, Winnipeg punk and indie fans were served up a healthy dose of the noise pioneers from those Midwestern scenes. In between, the city saw regular appearances from Canadian punk stalwarts DOA and SNFU pass through town.
Winnipeg’s own Personality Crisis were the first such band to hit the road back in the mid-80s, paving the way with blown out tires and empty beer cans for countless others to follow. “When we’re on tour the older guys always bring up Personality Crisis,” Andre Cornejo of Dead Ranch told us. “I’m using this cab right now that used to belong to Personality Crisis, and the owner of this one bar was like, ‘You know Personality Crisis?’ Then he wrote this personal letter and wanted us to get it to them.”
While Personality Crisis were out on the road, a thriving local scene for punk and rock music developed over those years out of venues like Wellington’s, Verna’s, the Royal Albert, and countless community halls that would rent space to would-be promoters. By the mid-90s, the Royal Albert in particular became a rallying point for Winnipeg’s underground scene, a scene that spawned, among others, the early, floundering drunk (and often naked) incarnation of Propagandhi.
“Draft Nights became legendary,” Repko recalls. “You’d have bands like Bulletproof Nothing, Red Fisher, Meatrack all playing together. There was this undercurrent of incredibly creative people.”
Repko says that he “can’t underestimate the work of Sister Records early on, with Breath Grenades and Bulletproof Nothing,” for laying the groundwork for not only what No List Records would go on to do, but to fostering a challenging, creative scene in Winnipeg. And while Kittens might have made the biggest splash outside of the algae choked local pool, releasing a handful of albums on Sonic Unyon to close off the 1990s, their early label mates at No List Records, Meatrack and Stagmummer, were also stomping hard on muddy banks of the Red River.
By the late 90s, these initial bands had either broken up or had moved on to bigger things. At that time, Repko says he “got smart and went to university,” folding No List while he was out in Alberta. In the meantime, the noise scene in Winnipeg went through its inevitable evolution and various reincarnations.
When he returned, in the early 2000s, he found the scene had not only sustained itself, but had both grown in new, more exciting and extreme directions and that new bands were carrying the torch passed on by the previous generation.
“The scene takes care of itself,” Repko says. Venues opened and closed, as they always do, but the spirit lived on in DIY, underground venues. “Bands we’re putting on DIY shows in small spaces which were all ages welcome.”
Hide Your Daughters - Jeff LaPlante (meatrack) and Jess Matthewson (KEN mode) - By Katherine Leitheid
Around this time, Mike Alexander threw the first Arsonfest, giving bands on the most extreme end of the loud spectrum, from Winnipeg and far beyond, an annual stage to come together and lose their collective shit.
“Winnipeg is a unique place for fast, noisy and uncomfortable music because the people who tend to it and who foster it have been doing so for a long time,” Alexander explains. “Other genres and musical trends come and go, but noise survives no matter what.”
Alexander should know. In 1994, he formed Swallowing Shit, one of the most extreme acts Winnipeg’s scene has produced, and has since gone on to perform brutal music in Head Hits Concrete and the ever-disgusting Putrescence. Arsonfest itself is going into its 14th incarnation this year on August 8 and 9th, featuring performances from Achagathus, Throatslitter, Enabler, and more. And year-to-year, Alexander regularly promotes extreme shows through his Mount Elgon Productions.
“Mount Elgon productions is great in that it gave a stage to bands like Under Pressure,” Repko says. “Under Pressure was the greatest live band of the early 2000s as far as I’m concerned.”
Other bands that emerged in those early years of the 21st century included the mind-bending guitar assault of Electro Quarterstaff, the explosive garage rock of Hot Live Guys, and the otherworldly HAM. Bands that released records via the resurrected No List at a time when Repko decided to focus the label purely on “noise rock, just heavy shit” included Big Trouble in Little China, Hide Your Daughters, and KENmode. All are firmly entrenched in the local noise tradition. And while no doubt the former acts left behind some heavy cloven foot prints on the local, and even national, scene, the band that has out-worked and out-shone them all, is KENmode.
Over 15 years after they formed in the St. Vital neighbourhood of Winnipeg, the Juno-Award winning trio, centered around Matthewson brothers, continue to tour the world today, releasing punishing, challenging record after brutal, ear-drum destroying record, with no signs of slowing down. “They’re doing it to challenge the listener,” says Repko, who released some of the band’s early records on LP, and worked with the Matthewsons in Hide Your Daughters. “That’s where KENmode really gets off. They want the listener to hate the new record for the first month or two.”
And so, just what is it that keeps the flame of noise rock burning so intensely in Winnipeg, an isolated shit-hole where the temperature drops so far in the long, dark winters so as to become colder than Mars?
Potatoes - members of XOXO, SNFU, D Rangers - 2014
“We’re subconscious Neanderthals,” believes Hart Koepke of the Party Dress and Lukewarm, constantly on the hunt for that “Mammoth metallic noise,” as Matthewson (with some jest) once described the sound.
“All these bands, they’re making music for themselves, first,” believes Kent Davies, host of CKUW 95.9FM’s Peg City Groove, a weekend round-up of live music events happening in and around Winnipeg. “They’re almost like jazz musicians in that way.”
“There really are no kneepads and chapstick with these bands,” says Repko, after pondering the question a while over his Fort Garry Pale Ale. “They’re not ready to serve and please. They are doing what they need to do.”
In a city like Winnipeg, with a population of less than 800,000, part of that is playing on bills with bands that might sound little – if at all – alike; which was part of the beauty of the Draft Night events. While events like Arsonfest may and the occasional spot with a touring act may offer noise bands a chance to play alongside similar acts, those events are few and far between.
“We play with everybody,” Stefan from Pop Crimes told Noisey last month. “We’ll play with pop bands, or metal bands, or noise bands, whatever.”
“The cross-contamination of these bills, I mean, these bands are all our friends,” Chad Alsop from Dead Ranch says. “If we’re playing with like, a power pop band, for a lot of their audience, that’ll be the first time they’re hearing something as loud and sludgy as [our band].” “I love music, generally,” says Andre Cornejo. “To be like, OK, I’m down for 4 hours of the same thing… I mean, come on! A glass of milk is good for you. Try drinking a gallon of it! That’s no good.”
As to what inspires these noise junkies to pack up the van and drive for hundreds of miles to the next pocket of civilization, to play to a room that may well be empty? That one’s a little easier to answer.
“I think it might have a part to do with tradition, whether the younger generations even understand that or not,” says Jesse Matthewson of KENmode. “If we could give the next generation of musicians that spark that bands like Kittens, Stagmummer, and Meatrack gave us,” Matthewson told Stylus magazine back in 2003, “that would be the biggest compliment we could ever hope to receive.” Over ten years later, there is no doubt that spark has been ignited, once again, like a North End back alley garage fire.
“You see a band like KENmode, they kind of gave me hope, you know?” said Ryley Devine, drummer in Dead Ranch. Dead Ranch’s 2013 LP Antler Royale had only one challenger for last year’s loudest, most intense record out of Winnipeg: KENmode’s Entrench. “They’re from Winnipeg, just like us. They played their music and went on the road. It makes you want to give it a shot.”
“When you’d see a band like that play at the Albert,” added Chad Alsop, also of Dead Ranch, “and the next thing you know you’re playing at the Albert, it makes you feel like you can do it. Like it’s not impossible.”
“Winnipeg is definitely a place where you can always try for more,” believes Andre Cornejo. “The bands that come out of here are great because of that drive for more.”
“Winnipeg’s a fucked up place,” adds Devine, “but I’m proud to be from here. I love it, and I just want to make good music and take it on the road.”
Hide Your Daughters - Rick Bujak (meatrack, The Strap) and Jeff LaPlante (meatrack) - By Katherine Leitheid
“I’d rather sit in the van all day than sit on my couch all day,” says Cornejo, with the final word. “Even if it sucks. If it’s Chad shitting on a sewer drain in a Wal-Mart parking lot at 4am in the morning, it’s still more fun than seeing Chad shitting on my own toilet.”
And as for the music itself -- the nebulous “loud, other” music -- Repko and the boys from Dead Ranch both had some eloquent words that summed up the Winnipeg music experience. “When I put out music,” Repko says with a smirk, “the tag line is ‘new Noise of the North.’ But when people ask me what it sounds like, I tell them ‘It’s ugly music for ugly people.’”
“There was one guy in Sudbury,” Ryley Devine recalls from a recent Dead Ranch tour, “who said that Winnipeg was like that not-so attractive girl at the party, but who knows like the best music and can play like King Crimson and is cool as fuck. But you’re kind of like, ‘can we just be friends?’ That’s Winnipeg.”
Sheldon Birnie is a writer living in Winnipeg. He is currently the editor of Stylus Magazine, which has been covering Winnipeg’s music scene for 25 years. - @badguybirnie