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Halifax, from a journalist's perspective

Although this article is a little old, I thought it would be an interesting
article for some of the recent subscribers to this list. 


Citation:    Maclean's, Oct 25, 1993 v106 n43 p50(3)
Title:       Read all about it; Halifax is hip! (includes related
Authors:     DeMont, John
Subjects:    Life style_Nova Scotia
             Music and society_Analysis
             Halifax, Nova Scotia_Social aspects
Locations:   Halifax, Nova Scotia
Reference #: A14602719

Abstract: Halifax, Nova Scotia, is becoming known for its
          alternative and diverse music scene. The city hosts
          many music, theater and film festivals each year. Three
          music groups from Halifax have signed recording
          contracts. The city had a reputation of an easy
          lifestyle in the 1960s and early 1970s.

It is Friday, 10:30 p.m. and the place is wired. Under a purple
spotlight, the lead singer of the high-decibel band Leonard Conan
howls lyrics at the sweaty mass of young men and women jostling
in the overheated darkness. The crowd is a jumble of goatees,
lumberjack shirts, leather jackets, black-rimmed glasses, berets
and thick-soled Doc Martens. At the Double Deuce Roadhouse, a
half- minute motorcycle ride from the Halifax waterfront, the
patrons work hard to look as though style is the last thing on
their minds. This is, after all, the pinnacle of cool in a city
that is suddenly being called one of the coolest on the
continent. And there is no need to take the word of the clean-cut
college frat boys, the lanky skinheads, the bleary-eyed garage
musicians from the suburbs who have congregated at the Double
Deuce. Somewhere in the crowd are a couple of record executives
from New York and Seattle hunting for new musical talent. And
earlier that day, a writer from Spy, the satirical New York
monthly, phoned the Deuce's management to arrange another story
on Halifax the Hip. "The whole thing," admits Mike MacKinnon, 28,
Leonard Conan's lead guitarist, "is a bit overwhelming."

Now, wait just a minute. Is this the same place that Rudyard
Kipling once gave the stodgy moniker "Warden of the honor of the
North"? That has the background of "a conservative, colonial
city," as historian Lou Collins put it? Is this the workaday
provincial capital, university town and naval port at the heart
of the depressed Maritimes? Not according to a recent issue of
Harper's Bazaar, the New York City-based fashion monthly, which
placed Halifax firmly among a new group of alternative North
American hot spots, including Seattle, Wash., Austin, Texas, and
Chapel Hill, N.C. In recent months, the British music magazine
Melody Maker and the American entertainment weekly Billboard have
raved about Halifax and its exploding music scene. A more
self-absorbed city might be tempted to believe its own press
clippings. But, as Greg Clark, co-manager of the Double Deuce,
notes: "We know we're not the centre of the universe. It's just
nice for people to know that we're part of it."

To understand Halifax's newfound fame, it makes sense to start at
Caf* Mokka, a funky downtown coffee bar where the decidedly
laid-back crowd has seen and read one too many foreign press
stories discovering their city. "Oh Christ, not another
reporter," Roberta Forsyth, 27, a black-clad bookstore clerk and
student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, tells a
visitor good-naturedly. To her bearded tablemate, Tony
Publicover, 33, who left Halifax a decade ago because he found it
too stagnant, the media hype is simply "absurd." Nearby, Peter
Wuensch, 29, the caf*'s sideburned co-owner, smiles as he
considers the ephemeral nature of what is fashionable. "The
magnifying glass has fallen on Halifax for a minute," he explains
to a backdrop of recorded jazz. "It will pass."

In truth, no one in the college-oriented caf* looks old enough to
remember the city's last brief brush with trendiness: the 1960s
and early 1970s, when American draft dodgers and visiting artists
and actors spread the word in the United States of an easygoing,
salt-caked "San Francisco North" in Nova Scotia. Now, at any of
the coffeehouses, bars and clubs that cater to the new wave of
Halifax hipsters, the fashion is black turtlenecks, poetry
readings and other Bohemian earmarks. The grunge-rock look is
also evident, although there is a certain irony in that; grunge's
old plaid shirts, blue jeans, toques and working clothes have
long been standard issue in most Nova Scotia cities and towns.
"Fashion," explains Forsyth, "has overtaken the Maritimes."

Yet, any search for changes in the city of 115,000 people must go
beyond the born-again beatniks. Even those deeply skeptical of
Halifax's new image admit that the place has acquired a certain
worldliness in recent years. "It's not Greenwich Village," says
Stephen Cross, a 34-year-old theatre director who recently moved
back to Halifax, where he was born, after a decade in New York.
"But sometimes I wonder if this was the same place I grew up in."
In those days, the city could never have supported today's
diverse crop of musical festivals--jazz, gospel, Celtic,
alternative, classical--or the fringe theatre and film and busker
festivals held each year. Like others, Cross notices a shift in
attitude on the Halifax streets, where the university employees,
hospital workers, government bureaucrats and navy personnel who
are the backbone of the economy no longer bat an eye at the
wailing street minstrels or the young skateboarders weaving
through the historic downtown. If Halifax really is, as Harper's
Bazaar put it, "the very anatomy of a hip city," the changing
face of the population is partly responsible. Although the city
lost 12,000 jobs from 1990 to 1992, newcomers continue to pour
in--former back-to-the-landers, returning native sons and
daughters, past graduates of the area's five universities and
colleges, followers of the Karma Dzong Buddhist Church that
transplanted its headquarters from Boulder, Colo., in 1985, and
added to the city's cosmopolitan flavor. Concludes Andrew Gillis,
36, a local musician and journalist: "The people from away give
Halifax its soul."

Still, Halifax would likely have remained their little secret had
it not been for the sudden burst of musical activity that focused
a larger spotlight on the city. Punk, grunge, pop-rock--the raw,
dissonant music has few obvious links to the city's seagoing
roots or the Celtic-oriented music that is so popular in the rest
of the region. It seemed a novelty last year when Sloan, a band
composed of four young Halifax-area musicians, signed a
guaranteed two-record contract with Geffen Records, the label
that carries Cher, Joni Mitchell, Guns `n' Roses and the Seattle
grunge-rock giant Nirvana. And after two other alternative local
groups--Eric's Trip, based in Moncton, N.B., and jale, an
all-female band from Halifax--signed with a Seattle label called
Sub-Pop, the music world was suddenly abuzz with talk of "the
Halifax Sound."

For all of that, most homegrown musicians scrape by playing gigs
in bars. The best-known alternative bands pack them in at the
Flamingo Caf* & Lounge, Caf* Ol* and the Double Deuce. Some make
recordings for small, local companies. But all hope to get lucky
and sign a contract with the recording executives from Toronto,
New York and Seattle who frequently fly in. "Everybody wants to
be the next Sloan," explains Clark, who regularly books about 20
groups from the Halifax area into the Deuce.

In fact, the city's downtown teems with Sloan wanna-bes, complete
with battered guitar cases and the requisite baggy combat pants
and flannel shirts. Some are the sons and daughters of well-
to-do lawyers and doctors, who shake their parent's garages and
basements as they strain for the next high-powered hit. Others
dream of being discovered even before they learn the rudiments of
handling drumsticks or laying down a decent bass line. "We're
going to get our public relations machine going, then we'll learn
the instruments," says Forsyth, who is forming an all-female
band. A few, like Rob Lemon, 23, who grew up in Yarmouth, N.S.,
and now plays guitar for pocket change on Halifax's Spring Garden
Road, come from small towns and rural areas, attracted by the
slim hint of musical fame that Halifax seems to offer. "Man," he
says, "this is the only place to be."

To Halifax's Old Guard, of course, the city's sudden
mini-celebrity seems slightly bewildering. "Perhaps all of this
hip business can help create some jobs," speculates John Dick,
57, chairman of the Halifax Board of Trade's economic development
committee. Mayor Moira Ducharme welcomes the publicity but
wonders about its long-term effects on the city. "We've always
been a well- kept secret," she notes, "but sometimes I'm
concerned that too many people will find out about us and the
city will change too much." Apparently, some people think it
already has: when the daily Halifax Chronicle-Herald recently ran
a front-page article on body- piercing (lip-, nose- and
ear-piercing as a fashion statement), the newspaper received bag
loads of negative mail. But traditionalists need not worry. For
the most part, Halifax's citizens have a history of standing firm
against the shifting winds. "The truth is that there are many
scenes here, and after the alternative music thing passes they
will still be going strong," declares Ian McKinnon, 31, a Halifax
manager and leader of Rawlins Cross, a folk-rock group. Even in
the steamy gloom of the Double Deuce, the buzz over the city and
its music is viewed with more than a hint of amusement. "They say
we're the next Seattle," yells Michael Graham, a 24-year-old
bass player. "Who's going to be the next Halifax?" In a city
that makes a subtle art of not taking itself too seriously, life
will go on long after the record scouts have stopped coming.

RELATED ARTICLE: Rocking the Atlantic

They work in a dank room in a shabby warehouse overlooking the
grey waters of Halifax harbor. Although the makeshift studio may
not be everyone's idea of the rock 'n' roll big time, it is an
entirely fitting setting for Sloan, the youthful quartet that has
spearheaded Halifax's alternative music explosion in the past two
years. With their disheveled hair, flannel shirts and canvas
sneakers, the four members look the very model of the
Seattle-style grunge-rock bands to which they are often compared.
But this is alternative rock, Canadian-style. And while American
grunge idols such as Nirvana's Kurt Cobain recover from heroin
addictions, the members of Sloan sip Evian water and talk
politely in a manner that betrays their college educations and
middle-class upbringings. "We're just ordinary guys," explains
25-year-old drummer Andrew Scott, "sort of dull, really."

Their story--which virtually every member of the Halifax music
scene now knows by heart--is not dull at all. As Scott puts it:
"Our success is just a happy accident." Although only he and
guitarist Patrick Pentland, 24, come from musical families, all
four had long experience in garage-style bands when they decided
two years ago to form a group. They recorded their first album in
the home of a small local producer. Then, in June, 1992, their
big break came when Geffen Records, Nirvana's label, signed them
to a guaranteed two-record deal. Sloan's densely textured, often
dissonant songs, which the members write themselves, tend to be
about such everyday subjects as adolescence and their friends--in
fact, the group's name refers to a mutual acquaintance. So far,
their first album, Smeared, has sold more than 100,000 copies and
won positive reviews in Rolling Stone and the music magazine
Spin. And when the four returned to Halifax late last month to
begin work on their new record, they had just completed a
cross-Canada tour replete with sold-out 1,000-seat houses and
wild fans.

Has success changed them? Not so far, they vehemently claim.
Guitarist Jay Ferguson and bass player Chris Murphy, both 24,
still live with their parents in Halifax, while Pentland has his
own apartment. And although Scott has established a Toronto
residence in order to spend more time with his fianc*e, actor
Fiona Highet, the four insist that Halifax will remain their
base. Not only is it where family and friends live, but it is
also home to the music scene that they spawned. And the laid-back
city offers far fewer distractions than a bigger centre would--a
boon for a group intent on completing their second album by
November. In securing an outpost for grunge in Atlantic Canada,
Sloan has put Halifax on the pop-music map.

RELATED ARTICLE: School for the avant-garde

Mention Halifax at a trendy New York City gallery opening and
chances are someone will nod in recognition--even if they have
never heard of the hot Halifax band Sloan. The reason: the Nova
Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in downtown Halifax,
which since the 1970s has exerted an influence throughout the
North American art world that has defied its small size (now
about 600 students and 45 faculty members) and out-of-the-way
location. "We developed an international and national reputation
long before we were really recognized locally," says NSCAD
president Ian Clark. Nowadays, though, the school is part of what
gives Halifax its aura of hipness. Two members of Sloan studied
there. Outside the college's 20 historic buildings, students and
hangers-on dominate chic down-market watering holes like the Sea
Horse Tavern, located just blocks away. Graduates of the school
even own the city's trendiest coffee bar, Caf* Mokka, and one of
its most fashionable restaurants, Soho Kitchen. Kyle Jackson, 33,
a Toronto-born painter who attended NSCAD in the mid-1980s, and
is now co-owner of the Soho, says that "the college brought lots
of people here, but the city makes us stay."

The college of art has been a Halifax fixture since Anna
Leonowens, the British teacher who spent years in Siam and was
immortalized in the classic musical The King and I, moved to the
city and founded it in 1887. But only in the late 1960s did
Canadian-born president Garry Kennedy and a group of instructors
from both Canada and the United States begin transforming the
school into a widely renowned centre for innovative art. "We were
removed from New York, removed from Europe, removed from Central
Canada," says Gerald Ferguson, an Ohio-born painter who joined
the faculty in 1968. "That gave us the distance to pluck ideas
from everywhere."

The international artistic world took notice. A 1973 article in
the influential magazine Art in America suggested that NSCAD just
might be "the best art school in North America." A list of
instructors over the past 25 years reads like a who's who of
contemporary art--including such figures as painter Eric Fischl
and photographer-film-maker Robert Frank, who now lives in Mabou
Mines on Cape Breton Island. "One of my exhibition officers once
told me that having NSCAD is like having Oxford or Cambridge in
the middle of Halifax," said Mary Sparling, director of the Mount
Saint Vincent University Art Gallery.

Time has softened NSCAD's edge somewhat. But students from across
North America still beat a path to the school, scouring used
clothing bins for the perfect combination of the eye-catching and
the laid-back that is the unofficial school uniform. The school's
gallery is a hotbed of avant-garde painting and sculpture. And
its faculty and students continue to enliven the local art scene.
Currently, the Mount Saint Vincent art gallery is holding an
exhibition of work by five immigrant U.S. artists--including
Frank and his companion, painter June Leaf--who were first lured
to Nova Scotia by the college. The wider Halifax community may
remain somewhat indifferent to the school's international
reputation. But without NSCAD, the city would certainly be a
duller place.