It hasn't always been this way. Derisively dubbed the "no fun city," Vancouver's restrictive liquor licensing laws, venue regulations, inexorably high real estate prices and other legal quibbles have long stunted its musical growth. Thankfully, the city has started to ease its iron grip on nightlife in response to its negative reputation, and downtown's Entertainment District—centered around Granville Street—has become a bustling hub for nighttime entertainment, with a rapidly changing landscape due equally to Vancouver's high rents and fickle crowds.
Unfortunately, you're not going to find much culture or music on Granville Street. Popular nightclubs like Caprice, The Roxy and Au Bar play a mixture of top 40, hip-hop, mainstream-leaning house, electro and, increasingly, dubstep, catering to a "bridge-and-tunnel" crowd who are looking for little more with their night than to get wasted. The gay scene in the Davie Village isn't so different: clubs stick mostly to tried-and-tested local DJs who play the usual melange of top 40 and trance. There's little adventure or even musical variety to be had in a traditional "nightclub" in Vancouver.
Part of that is by design: much like a similar hotspot of musical creativity, Glasgow, Vancouver bylaws force most venues to close at 2 AM. Some clubs get a privileged 3 AM license, and special events can go till 4, but the alcohol is likely to stop flowing around 2:30 either way. This doesn't lend itself well to anything but fumbling for instant gratification in terms of both music and consumption. Thankfully, Vancouver has no shortage of passionate people working to provide music fans with good spaces and music. The city's sizable warehouse rave scene of the '90s has bled into the current decade, downsized and compacted to something more manageable.
So what does Vancouver's underground sound like? Like a lot of the West Coast, Vancouver has been enamored with dubstep and its "bass music" offspring for longer than most. The city's LiGHTA! crew has been one of the most visible in the process, while Kuma's Konspiracy Group brought Kode9 to Vancouver all the way back in 2005. Famous for its old Dubforms parties, LiGHTA! had the UK's biggest bass music DJs come through the city for well-attended gigs at spaces both legal and illegal: one night you'd find Distance playing in the back of a shoddy looking art gallery, and another you could find Appleblim playing the beloved Open Studios. Drum & bass has had a foothold on a certain sector of the city's music fans since the late '90s, while hip-hop remains the sort of universal bread-and-butter, soundtracking the tiny side rooms and afterparties of Vancouver.
This surge in activity still needs places to happen, and Vancouver's underground scene is in a bit of a transition stage as the popularity of the music begins to outgrow small-capacity venues. Either way, Vancouver is home to many well-loved spaces that provide an experience you just can't get in a Granville Street club. "A lot of what one would expect to see in a club in London or Berlin happens more in alternative spaces in Vancouver," says Malcolm Levy, who works for the nonprofit arts group New Forms out of Open Studios.
Open Studios has long been the spiritual home of Vancouver's dubstep-and-beyond scene and one of its central venues. "My favourite thing about Open Studios is the music that's played here. The freedom. You see all sorts of people. The autonomy is amazing, and people come from all over to go to the studio. The list of people who have played here is a real who's who of electronic music in Vancouver and beyond. People like Konrad Black and Mathew Jonson have been part of the studio in the past," says Levy. Another part of Open's appeal is that shows there go far later into the night (or morning) than nightclubs—and for the most part, it's all legal.
"Open Studios has a long-standing relationship with the city. They've known about the studio since its inception, and since then it's been about working within the limits of what the city can do. It's an ongoing dialogue but the city has been really supportive considering there's nothing in the regulations that allows us to do this kind of stuff, until just now," Levy explains. "We have no neighbours—the reason we can go till 4 is because they let us. They know what goes on and they allow it, because they have to allow it somewhere. We're able to function as an alternative space because the city recognizes there are no mainstream spaces that can satisfy what people want from Open Studios in regards to a night out, to music, and overall aesthetic. They need spaces like this."
The city's treatment of Open Studios is a unique situation, and noise complaints aren't the only issue: a recent and now infamous case of Vancouver's convoluted licensing laws involved the independent Rio theatre, which acquired a liquor license that due to technicalities actually forbade it from showing movies during evening hours, even when alcohol was not being served. A legal battle—still ongoing after several months at the time of this writing—is indicative of the kind of frustrating bureaucratic situation the city leaves many in the entertainment industry to deal with.
Any discussion of Vancouver's underground has to include more than just Open, however. The Astoria Hotel in the heart of Vancouver's notorious poverty-struck Downtown Eastside neighbourhood is a pure dive inside and out, but catnip to keen promoters like Max Ulis. "It's completely affordable for anyone to go in there and do whatever they want. They have a decent sound system, they pack it full of people, and it's not pretentious at all. It's cheap in every way." With everything from indie rock bands to the long-running Ting! Thursday dancehall night, the Astoria occupies a special place in many a Vancouver ravers' heart, an intimate, unpretentious spot with cheap cover and even cheaper drinks.
Vancouver proper is a small and dense metropolis, and some of its best new venues have been created out of old places. The W2 has arguably defined Vancouver's underground since it opened late last decade out of the remnants of the failed Storyeum Museum. The W2 Storyeum was a cavernous four-room warehouse space with enviably high ceilings and a massive 2000-person capacity. Home to 2010's instalment of the New Forms Festival and all sorts of dubstep, techno and arts-oriented events, the community co-operative and arts-promoting nature of the W2 organization meant it too had a special relationship with the city. The W2 as we knew it ended in April 2011, marked by a massive closing party that over 2,000 people attended. But it reincarnated about a block away a few months later as W2 Media Cafe in the basement of the rejuvenated Woodwards Complex, operating the same pro-arts agenda only with a full service cafe attached and an intimate basement room similar to Open Studios.
And then there's the Waldorf. Located deep in east Vancouver—named "Vancouver's Cultural Oasis in the Middle of Nowhere" by national paper The Globe and Mail—it was, just a few years ago, a frighteningly shabby hotel known for its tacky Tiki-themed bar. But in 2010 the Waldorf underwent a comprehensive renovation, and has since become one of east Vancouver's cultural hotspots. There's a few reasons why. For one, its location is covered by several major bus routes, meaning it's a locus for Vancouver's famously counterculture east side: crowds at the Waldorf are about as diverse as you're going to find in the city. The venue's four rooms mean there's bound to be something for everyone on any given night, whether your thing is jacking house in the sweaty basement Hideaway or classic rock 45s in the Tiki Bar.
The Waldorf's variety and unique location render it attractive to that same pool of promoters who might put on shows at Open Studios or those defunct underground venues, Ulis included. He's a vocal fan: "It's comfortable. It's got warm colours, it's got wood, it has an undeniable vibe. It reminds me of the Hawaiian grandparents' basement that I never had. It's so kitschy, and the sound is unbelievable." Having adventurous programming never hurts either, and Ulis credits manager Kasha Marciniak as "a patron of the arts," willing to take risks with adventurous bookings that most other venues in the city wouldn't touch.
The Waldorf is a place where the underground rubs shoulders with the overground, and as such, it's become a popular spot for shows by "bigger" promoters like Vancouver monolith Blueprint and independent agent Andishae Akhavan, who formerly worked as a talent buyer for megaclub 560. Akhavan doesn't book the kind of big-room, balls-out electro, dubstep or trance acts you might expect from that sort of resume. Since starting work at 560, Akhavan has worked to get lesser-known acts over to Vancouver: "We knew who we were booking were big in other, more relevant cities. It was a calculated risk: whether people showed up or not, it would be a positive thing to just bring these people to Vancouver."
Akhavan is positive about the role bigger spaces can play in Vancouver's music scene, and he's already felt the impact: "The first time we booked Brenmar was at 560, and now he plays Fortune on Friday nights and he's a household name in Vancouver. It happened once, and it can happen more." Another key player in the city's above-ground landscape is Blueprint Events, which puts on shows at Granville Street venues among others. Blueprint books everything from Steve Aoki to Armin Van Buuren to Benga, and makes no bones about its slightly more "mainstream" pedigree: "There's a business element to what we do and I'm not gonna lie about that," says Matt Owchar, their Marketing Director. "If we book mainstream acts, we book mainstream acts. Someone's gotta do it, and the demand obviously exists for it. We book house, electro, dubstep, drum & bass, techno—the bookings we do encompass everything."
Blueprint also has the advantages of avoiding problems with the authorities and having bar, soundsystem and other factors taken out of their hands. But these venues also come with expectations and stigma. "There's no question that if you want to throw a certain event on Granville Street, you can expect that a number of people in this city are actively going to avoid going there. We work within those mainstream venues, but we also do parties at the Waldorf and other spaces. Blueprint actually started in the underground warehouse scene."
A quick guide to Vancouver
Vancouver's main club strip might be lacking, but there's no shortage of interesting bars. The Gastown neighbourhood in particular is a goldmine: if you're a beer drinker, Six Acres and Alibi Room have enormous selections both local and imported, while Guilt & Co has got you covered for interesting cocktails—and board games. If you're into whiskey, look no further than Shebeen Whisk(e)y House or its bigger cousin Irish Heather, both with the biggest whiskey lists you'll see in Vancouver. Looking outside downtown, the Cascade Room on South Main provides a focus on cocktails and decent food to boot, while Commercial Drive's Libra Room makes a mean martini and offers all sorts of art performances from music to slam poetry.
Sushi is a big part of Vancouver culture: you'll find as many sushi joints as coffee shops scattered throughout the city. But if you're gonna try sushi in Vancouver, you might as well get the really good stuff. Tiësto—along with many other celebrities—is a vocal fan of the Fairview neighbourhood's Tojo's, where you can dine on some of the world's freshest sashimi or take your chances and go with the $200+ omakase menu. For something more affordable, Yaletown's JUNO Sushi Bistro offers creative dishes and authentic specials for more than reasonable prices, while Sushi Zero One tucked away near the Waterfront has a no-frills atmosphere and super friendly staff with some of the best fish at the lowest prices you'll find.
Not a fan of seafood? Vancouver's got plenty of other options. With a large Chinese community, there's almost as much Chinese food as there is sushi, and it ranges from authentic—Kirin (several locations) for dim sum, East Van's Congee Noodle House for cheap late night eats—to modern and experimental, like Chinatown's Bao Bei Brasserie. Izakaya—Japanese pub cuisine focused on small plates—is becoming a staple of Vancouver nightlife, and Guu and Hapa—both with several locations downtown—provide the best options for all the deep fried goodness you could want. Kitsilano's Bishop's is one of the city's most elegant fine dining restaurants, and if you don't mind waiting in line for several hours, South Granville's Vij's puts a modern fine dining touch on Indian cuisine.
Vancouver has the highest per-capita number of Starbucks locations outside Seattle. Coffee is kind of a big deal here. Vancouver has a number of independent roasters worth your time. In Gastown, Revolver offers warm wood tones, knowledgeable baristas, soundtracked entirely by a turntable in the centre of the room, while Kitsilano's 49th Parallel roasts some of the city's most delicious coffee. Mount Pleasant's Rhizome offers decent coffee, good comfort food and one of the most "alternative" clienteles you'll find in Vancouver, and East Van's Commercial Drive is dotted with coffee shops from the big chains to tiny independent places—Continental Coffee and Prado are recommended.
Hidden below the Granville Street bridge, the Island is a popular tourist destination with several decent restaurants, boutique shops and a vibrant Public Market with fresh produce, fine cheeses, specialty delis and some of Vancouver's best butchers. The Granville Island Stage offers intimate art exhibitions and performances—and decent drinks—while Bridges has the best dinner on the island with a breathtaking view of downtown Vancouver.
It rains in Vancouver. A lot. If you're here in the summer, you probably won't need to deck yourself out in full rain gear, but you'll want to have an umbrella on hand most of the time, because you never know when it's going to rain. And outside of summer? Forget about it—a typical spring or fall day in Vancouver will offer periods of rain, hints of sun and hail showers, often in the span of a few hours.
Once you've got your umbrella handy, Vancouver has a lot to offer in the way of nature. Downtown there's the enormous Stanley Park which you can easily get lost in for a whole day, while either side of False Creek provides breathtaking vistas of Vancouver. You can go skiing or snowboarding on Grouse Mountain or Mount Seymour, both of which are accessible from the city centre by bus, or check out North Vancouver's Capilano Suspension Bridge for an experience as frightening as it is beautiful.
One thing Celebrities has going for it is sound: the club is well-equipped, and Ulis credits it with having the most potentially powerful sound system in the city. But it has a long way to go to get past associations that might seem unsavoury. As it turns out, the musical underground in Vancouver isn't an audience that likes to mix and mingle with the overground, according to Owchar: "I understand and empathize with people, and I realize I work for the biggest company in Vancouver which owns the majority of the venues, but I wish there was a little bit more awareness. I'm not asking for people to be open to it, but lazily blaming what's popular among the youth... that attitude needs to step to the side a little bit. But that's probably asking too much."
The other thing "legitimate" venues have to deal with is Vancouver's early last call. "I think early closing times have been a problem in the past," Owchar says, "but a couple of a years ago, it used to be a hard everything's-done-at-2-or-3 thing. But I find now there's an active afterparty scene. Most of the venues are illegitimate, but it's something that didn't exist a few years ago, and it's very healthy."
Vancouver has a few legal afterhours venues—Gorg-o-mish, The World—but cover is usually around $30 and there's certainly no alcohol being served. The entrepreneurial spirit strikes, and venues like Glen are born. Located in industrial east Vancouver in an old warehouse, Glen has become an afterhours hotspot, attracting a variety of promoters, including Andishae Akhavan. "People don't even care who's playing all the time, they just wanna keep partying. But headliners have been there—Brenmar and Kingdom have played there twice, Dubbel Dutch, Venus X, Dillon Francis. If you're looking for afterhours parties, you'll find them."
Parties at Glen typically go till 5 or 6, seemingly unbeknownst to the rest of the city, though much like Open Studios, Glen doesn't have much in the way of neighbours. "We've never had any problems with the authorities, but then we don't do anything illegal there. It's just a party spot. The vibe in there can get really, really good. When Kingdom played there he was playing Turkish dance music and everyone was digging it. For a real afterhours, Glen is about as close as you can get. It's a grimy spot, but it doesn't really matter when you just want to smoke and drink and party till 6 AM."
Spaces like Glen, and the promoters who might get involved, represent a widening crossover between Vancouver's underground and mainstream, a promising development that sees the city's rapidly opening underground musical tastes reaching a range of overground and visible venues from which they were once cut off. Whereas it once might have been hard to find your way into Vancouver's music scene if you wanted more than just hip-hop or trance, now you'll see posters up everywhere for every genre you could name, and there's as many intimate spaces to cater to the "rave" vibe as there are more upscale, professional venues for those who feel more comfortable in that environment.
Vancouver still has a long way to go, however: the city lacks a real international reputation, and with a strong roster of local talent, it deserves to be recognized. "There's no one documenting it," Akhavan complains, "we need videographers, people taking pictures, people blogging. There needs to be more. But it's Vancouver, so everyone moves slowly." (Shameless plug: I've been blogging about some of my favourite artists in Vancouver over the past six months.)
Not everyone is so optimistic, and Ulis has a differing opinion: "I prefer to keep the underground underground. I don't think hiding it is the way to do it, but there are only so many people in Vancouver that are interested in music. Most people are interested in going out and getting wasted... [not] having a life changing evening because of some music."
But for anyone who's been following the scene for the past few years or so, it seems like every month brings some new event concept, leaving stacked weekends that makes Vancouverites suddenly spoiled for choice. "If you would have said the phrase 'clubbing in Vancouver' four years ago, I would have said that you were crazy and there was no such thing," says Sarah Cole-Burnett, who works alongside Malcolm Levy at Open Studios. "But now I think it's one of the more exciting places to be when I compare it to somewhere like Montreal where it's already so entrenched in the culture. People here are really open to new sounds and ambiances."