Canada's biggest city has seen an explosion of new talent emerge in the past few years. RA's Andrew Ryce profiles the wave coming up behind Art Department, Basic Soul Unit and the like.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened, but there's been an explosion of intriguing new dance music talent emerging from Toronto over the past few years. You know some of the names: Art Department, Basic Soul Unit and Azari & III, for example, are acts that have broken through on an international level, and there's plenty more behind them. Outstanding producers of all ages are emerging and bringing raw, passionate sounds with them, from the bedroom-techno of Kevin McPhee to Gingy & Bordello's unleaded machine funk to Nautiluss' Berghain phantasms and Jesse Futerman's gorgeous downtempo meanders. It's even rejuvenating the older crew, with canonical Toronto names like Mario J re-entering the scene more vital than ever before.
It would be impossible to highlight all of the good music coming out of Toronto at this very minute, and they come in all shapes and sizes. There's Egyptrixx, who comes from an indie rock (and black metal) background and now finds himself aligned with the neon-rave of Night Slugs. Nacho Lovers, a weirdo-house duo who keep most of their stuff under wraps, are one to watch. So is Bwana (currently residing in Leeds), who makes soap opera sagas out of dubstep overflowing with heartsick synths. XI, the dubstep-turned-house producer who acted as a mentor and role model for so many young artists before relocating to Berlin in late 2011, is also on a huge hot streak at the moment. (Look for an EP from him in collaboration with former Toronto resident Adam Marshall at some point in the future.)
So take the selection here as a mere outline of the inspiring new guard, the future of Toronto as the clichéd phrase goes, helping to redefine the city's underground party landscape and even more so its musical output, through their inspired and original productions.
Brian Wong (Gingy) and Anthony Galati (Bordello) met in university in the smaller town of London, Ontario, where Wong was courageously throwing techno parties in a wasteland of what he calls fratboy house. "Anthony was always the guy whistling in the back of the DJ booth, and I told him to stop doing that. Through that we became friends," Wong recalls with a laugh.
Galati is quick to credit their relative isolation in London, Ontario as necessary to developing their own sound. But they now feel more at home in Toronto. "There's lots of cool guys here like Basic Soul Unit, but it's only over the past year or so that it's been a more encouraging environment for the music we like to play." Wong adds that "a lot of dubstep kids have gotten into techno, and dubstep is huge here. It's the James Blake effect—'post-dubstep.' All the kids are going to James Blake and Mount Kimbie, and now they're making D'Angelo and Ostgut-Ton mashups. They're Shed fans now."
While it might not be fair to call it retro, there's something roots-y and approachable about the duo's hearty techno, which they say has opened them up to Toronto's fussier scene of OG ravers. Galati explains: "Toronto's a little fragmented. You have your true ravers from the '90s who are still doing that if they're still alive, and then there's the older crowd who're into Crosstown Rebels, kind of in their own world, and then there's guys that just love techno." The fragmentation is physical, not just musical, with Wong blaming the lack of a "real hub" for the absence of crossover between musical generations.
Tiga's Turbo label—the imprint they've exclusively released on so far, and where Galati previously interned—is certainly a player in the rising prominence of techno in Toronto, though the duo aren't sure who gets the credit. "We liked a certain type of music before we had a track on Turbo, and now the people we're trying to bring into the label are more reflective of that sound, not necessarily the same Turbo of two years ago," says Galati. The association certainly hasn't hurt, however. The duo are now playing places like London's fabric, Paris' Social Club and an upcoming gig at RA's Horizons date in Vancouver.
"The way things are looking [in Toronto] is quite encouraging. When we go to a party where Prosumer is playing and it's fucking packed, that's a great sign. Everyone wants to be super real now, 'purists' who didn't know who Levon Vincent was a year-and-a-half ago." But maybe that's a good thing. "There's an innocence, a naivete, about the kids we party with. When they're really getting into stripped-down techno for the first time and everybody's losing their minds, there's a certain magic to it. We played a very mainstream club in Toronto a few months ago, and we were playing Woody McBride tracks, and people were losing it—that was a good feeling."
Evan Doyle is another somewhat recent transplant to the city, having arrived five years ago for university education—though he admits he picked the school he did just to get to the megacity, knowing it would nourish his musical side. His roots are largely removed from dance music; he picked up all sorts of instruments as a child, settling on the guitar, before seeing Animal Collective live circa 2007 quite literally changed his outlook. "I had to know everything about the equipment they were using. I read up on the history of samplers, got myself an MPC1000 and have been at it since," he explains. Fast forward a bit and he was accepted into the Red Bull Music Academy 2011, which later led to a Canada-wide tour with fellow alumni Martyn and Egyptrixx.
Exeter's sound doesn't quite fit with the Turbo-related artists in the city, nor is it easily applicable to post-dubstep house or other bass-oriented music—instead, his music takes influences from hip-hop, funk and the glistening yet pillowy sounds of modern R&B. He calls it "hip-hop techno" himself, and you can hear where he's coming from with tracks like "88MPH," recently released through Scion Sessions. It teeters around a gentle R&B melody, exploding into sheets of neon-filament sound, meshing house hi-hat patterns with a hip-hop swing. His stuttering edit of The-Dream's "Fast Car" is another highlight, turning a simple cut-and-paste job into a joyfully jittery anthem that elevates the original's giddy Prince-isms into something otherworldly.
"I love it in Toronto," he says. "We have a lot of promoters doing a lot of different things... there aren't many weekends [where] an artist I love isn't coming through, [and] I've felt nothing but welcome since the moment I played my first show." Despite his relative paucity of releases so far, he's already got an accomplished live set, a DJ/live hybrid where he guts his own tracks and plays percussion live, mixing them in with bits and pieces of his favourite songs from other producers. With a bevvy of new material ready to send out to prospective labels and a live set that's gaining in reputation, Exeter looks to be one of the most interesting and unpredictable names going in the city.
OK, so maybe we're cheating a little bit here. Milano is the new alias (actually his middle name) of Mario J, a Toronto veteran who founded the enormously influential Industry Nightclub, started a label with Kenny Glasgow and Murat, another label with DJ Sneak, and also had an ongoing project with Glasgow called Method Men.
Though he admittedly doesn't spend a lot of time in Toronto these days due to a busy touring schedule, his view on things is a little different. "In the '90s, promoters seemed more creative with marketing and venues. The scene was new and infused with lots of fresh sounds and ideas. These days it seems harder for a young promoter to get started as they are not competing with large independent and major concert companies," he explains, also emphasizing the lack of venues. He's quick to credit the intimate Footwork club—which reserves its Friday nights exclusively for local talent—as his favourite spot, claiming it's "infused with spirit," and admits that Toronto "does seem to be producing artists that [outside] people are interested in, which is a very positive thing for the city."
The music Mario makes as Milano is rough-and-tumble, raw and dirty. "I don't like to think too much or overproduce tracks. For me it's about the primal energy in the moment." It shows in tracks like "Wasteland," which sounds like it's getting swallowed whole. His tunes consist of more white noise than your average techno banger (which is saying something), and his output on Turbo thus far has aligned him nicely with the younger generation of techno talent that seems preoccupied with the same jagged sound palette. Not having released much music since 2000, the Milano project puts him firmly alongside the new breed of Toronto techno.
"I became fascinated with turntablism and I wanted to be a scratch DJ. That failed terribly; I would invite people over to my house to hear me scratch. They'd stare at me. It would be very awkward," remembers Jesse Futerman. As you can tell, the Toronto DJ/producer is more rooted in hip-hop and especially Ninja Tune-style downtempo than the other producers here, but his music is easily as vital and hungry. Futerman makes slow and deliberate tunes based on the typical rare groove fare of jazz, funk and soul, but there's something in his beats that feels extra taut. Just ask Gilles Peterson, who first picked up on his music when he was still producing under the name Supertoaster.
Futerman makes no bones about how being located in Toronto has affected his musical career. He met a local Ninja Tune employee who helped school him in Ableton, and crossing paths with Kevin McPhee was an important moment as well: "He set up my turntables, and started mixing house for me, and I'd never seen anyone blend house like he did. That was really influential for me and the way that I mixed... it was an eye-opening experience. When I was 15 or 16 years old, I didn't know there was anyone else in Toronto making beats, I was just sitting at my computer. But there's quite a community here."
Even so, it's been hard for Futerman to find an audience, especially with what he called, initially, "a very bad live set." It didn't help that audiences didn't know how to react to downtempo at peaktime. But partly due to the influence of McPhee, Futerman has started to incorporate house into his sets to much more positive effect. That, and his recent move to "jumping around like an unkempt gentleman and sweating a lot. I guess people liked that," he chuckles.
Crowd reception and word of mouth not only earned him agency offers for future gigs but also attention from underground electronic juggernaut R&S, who signed a forthcoming track of his to their ambient/downtempo subsidiary Apollo. "It's almost like a house track but without a 4/4 kick, so maybe not," he explains, "and that release will be that uptempo, funky boogie track mixed with my downtempo stuff. It's still very surreal to me. I make this in my basement, and I have a really good time doing it. For R&S to contact me and want to sign me to Apollo is a dream come true."
If you're familiar with Graham Bertie, chances are it's through his work as one-half of Thunderheist. He spent most of the past decade in a drunken touring haze with the band. Like Milano, though, he's an artist well into his 30s with plenty of history, so it's almost no surprise to hear the change in direction he's made with releases as Nautiluss on Hemlock—showing his softer side—and the storming Alpha EP on Turbo, four slices of rip-roaring techno infused with a sly swing and bass-wise barbarism.
Bertie moved to Toronto about five years ago, but he's found the scene hard to completely settle into. "Our Thunderheist shows were always packed. I thought 'yeah, I'm gonna live here, I'm gonna DJ, and I'm gonna make all this money,' and then I started a residency at the Drake Hotel with Andrew Ross from Nacho Lovers, and it was just dead for most of the shows," he admits, "I realized that I was a local, and nobody here gives a shit about locals." Despite the apparent proliferation of local talent, the Toronto that Bertie speaks of isn't exactly appreciative all the time, at least not outwardly: "there are some good things here—it's just like everyone has their own posse, and they rarely intersect."
When asked why that is, Bertie isn't so sure: "The city's huge. There are a lot of people here, there's a lot of shit going on all the time, but there's very little common ground. I went to a Thoughtless party at this basement spot, and the crowd was dancing to the kind of stuff that I would play, but they've got their residents and their out-of-town headliners, and in this town you can only go till 2, so how many DJs can you fit on a bill?" Indeed, that 2 AM cutoff that plagues much of North America is still an issue in Toronto, leaving less room for local talent—"it's a headliner-heavy town, and sometimes it's hard to see this bigger thing that we're all a part of."
Nonetheless, Bertie belongs to a diverse community that all has something in common: a love for house and techno. For Bertie, this interest was kindled during a stint in Berlin. "I started experimenting pretty heavily with techno in early 2010. But I wasn't able to play it while I was in Thunderheist. I had to trust other people who were playing 'Mixed Numbers' out that it sounded good," he says with a chuckle. "I showed it to Kevin McPhee first, ten minutes after I bounced the first version, and he was like 'I'm gonna press it into a dubplate,' so I thought that was a good sign and sent to it to Gingy, who asked to send it to Bordello, who sent it to Turbo's label manager Thomas, and then half an hour later Turbo wanted me to hold the track for them. It all happened within an hour of when I bounced the song."
Despite his issues with the scene, Bertie sounds optimistic about the city's current state. "People are open to the idea of this music. I don't even think it's techno, I think it's just danceable stuff with elements in different genres. People are just doing their own thing. Toronto is finally being accepted as a place that can make music that isn't just seen as derivative of other places."
Jokers of the Scene are the duo of Linus Booth and Chris Macintyre. The two initially met in Ottawa (about 450 km away from Toronto) at Booth's former record store and began a series of parties in the Canadian capital called Disorganized (assisted by Bonjay member Pho). The smaller community allowed them to develop naturally, and "the best part of establishing ourselves in Ottawa was that we lived in our own bubble," Booth explains, "we started [Disorganised] by playing the music we wanted to hear in a small forty person loft."
Disorganized soon swelled in popularity and "turned into the trendy night that [it had] initially started to be the alternative to." They then turned their attention towards their original productions—which they originally created for the party—and found themselves with plenty of label interest, namely A-Trak's Fool's Gold empire which has released most of their discography to date. Where to go next? "We thought about Berlin and LA... but with as many friends and peers and family in Toronto, it was the easiest and most obvious choice to make. The forward-thinking approach [of local promoters] was not only a draw for us but I feel is attractive for the younger and new members to the community as well," Booth says of his current hometown.
Despite occasionally lighthearted song titles like "In Order to Trance," the duo's sound is tough and techno to the core, just dressed up in pretty synthesizers and hummable melodies. Their latest EP J0T5 is easily their best work, overstuffed with ideas but with tracks long enough to let them bloom in full splendour. They have a fondness for overwhelming synth sounds and intense layering, as seen on the shoegazey "Killing Jokes II" and the bulldozing "Organized Zounds," while earlier work like the nine-minute epic "Joking Victim" saw them trying on their space disco hats to just as potent effect.
"Toronto is the perfect environment for us to refocus on what we do and reflect on where we're at with our career," explains Booth. "We're not on the road as much as previous years, which has allowed us to focus on branching out as musicians." The duo have even found time for side projects, including the post-punk disco of Blank Capsule, as well as Bohemian Groove and a new project called Neighbourhood Watch that Booth promises will "bring together various members of the community." They're quick to credit Toronto's scene with helping to encourage and maintain their musical inspiration. "Toronto has essentially allowed us to regain some of the experimentation and excitement and recapture that early spirit that [we] felt when starting all of this more than ten years ago."
There's probably no other artist in Toronto who so neatly defines the growing crossover between house and bass music than Kevin McPhee. His debut release was the crumbly, heartbroken 140 BPM weeper "Get in with You," followed by rickety house on Idle Hands and the world-weary Blue Organ EP on Hypercolour. Lately his attention has turned towards a rollicking, forceful sort of techno with heavy traces of Blawan, as evidenced by his recent RA podcast.
McPhee was introduced to electronic music through hip-hop, making rudimentary beats in Reason and noodling guitar over them, which eventually led him to drum & bass. "I grew up hearing loops and stuff, but I had no idea how involved Toronto was in the scene in the '90s. I would go to the record store Play de Record to pick something up for sampling, and the guys who worked there stared to put stuff aside for me because I was going there often enough, and it became more dance music-oriented than sample-based stuff."
He eventually started going out in Toronto, though, to dubstep nights. "I would only go to specific shows, but it was a strong community, you'd see the same people over and over again. There were plenty of nights where I wouldn't talk to anyone. But you often start to talk to people as a result of standing alone, and Toronto was certainly a friendly community." His productions earned him attention abroad and close friend XI set up some gigs for him locally, and suddenly he found himself part of the scene.
"There's a lot of production talent coming out of Toronto which is getting people more attention. I know when I first started going out, going to a locals night had a stigma. You'd just hear songs you'd heard a million times played pretty poorly, but now it seems like that because there are more producers, going out to a locals night you're going to hear more 'forward' music." It's safe to say that McPhee is a part of that himself, having started his own night Threshold with Nautiluss, Nacho Lovers' Andrew Ross and his close friend Ronnie Falcon, whom he regularly claims is one of his favourite DJs. "There's always variety [these days], I don't have to hear 4/4 all night... I usually come out of a night in Toronto hearing stuff I didn't expect."