Vancouver is currently thriving, with a distinctive sound and a vibrant music community. Andrew Ryce surveys the scene.
"I took a nap that night after me and Olivia's set," says Yu Su, a Vancouver producer who has a studio in the back of the building, known to locals as Deep Blue. "When I woke up, Ben was playing this Persian... or some strange kind of music. I was feeling so unreal at that moment. And I walked outside, it was dark and smoky in that room, and I was like—whoa! What's going on here? Everybody was dancing so slowly to the music. I thought I was tripping."
Ben UFO played some unusual music that night, but the locals held their own in that department. Yu Su, who DJs as bb.yu, played a typically inscrutable set of laid-back beats and percussive jams. Regularfantasy, AKA Olivia Meek, sang covers of cheesy pop songs over barebones drum machine rhythms. Young producers have been coming at electronic music from all angles and finding a supportive community. It's been enough to make this remote, mid-sized city in the Southwest corner of Canada one of the world's most exciting dance music scenes.
Vancouver's parties happen in intimate afterhours venues like Deep Blue, the tiny Index Gallery, the smoky Skylight and auto shops on Clark Drive. They have nondescript or silly names like Evening Music Event, Trip Advisor and Club Bozo. The scene is anchored by Mood Hut, a crew and label that counts Pender Street Steppers, Aquarian Foundation and Local Artist among its ranks. Thanks to a chilled-out house style informed by ambient, new age, jazz and rock, Mood Hut and a number of labels in its orbit—1080p, Pacific Rhythm, Genero, Isla, Sacred Sound Club, Heart To Heart—have developed something of a Vancouver sound (though the suggestion of this will likely draw groans or eye rolls from Vancouverites). The early Mood Hut 12-inches even came stamped with a logo that says "It's that sound!" while an ambient EP from Slow Riffs was marked with "The Sound Of Vancouver."
The sound is hazy and usually made with hardware. There's a focus on melody and live instruments, and vocals are common. There's a sense of wooziness that makes the records feel world-weary and timeless. It's music made for staying up late, hanging out and smoking spliffs; music made for lounging on Stanley Park's Third Beach with a carefully concealed beer or two; music made for a drive through the mountains or along the jaw-dropping Sea To Sky Highway up to Whistler and Pemberton. Spanning house, techno, electro and jungle, it's an intensely local style inspired by its surroundings, but it's also a shared musical language that transcends genres, with kindred spirits in DC's Future Times label, the Sex Tags Mania crew and the Melbourne house scene.
That sense of interconnectedness feels new for Vancouver, and it belies the region's long history of isolation. Cut off from the rest of the country by the Rocky Mountains, Vancouver has always had a lone-wolf streak. It's home to a brand of counterculture and left-wing politics that have little to do with other parts of Canada. It was a hippie haven in the '60s. Vancouver has long been a proponent of environmentalism and diversity, and the mayor is an organic juice magnate who commutes via bicycle.
Vancouver, lovingly dubbed the Canadian Riviera by Mood Hut, is also extraordinarily beautiful. Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Mountain range, the city is hemmed in by nature almost everywhere you look. The air is clean, the streets are verdant and offset by gleaming steel-and-glass towers that flank the Downtown peninsula. Skiing, hiking and other outdoor activities are an hour's drive away, sometimes less. Weed is ubiquitous, yoga is a lifestyle, and if you walk around the city on a weekend morning you're more likely to see joggers than ravers stumbling home.
While internationally renowned for its quality of life, Vancouver has a dark underbelly. Poverty, addiction and mental illness run deep here. One of North America's most notorious skid rows, the Downtown Eastside along East Hastings Street, is located a stone's throw from the city's financial centre and a number of gentrified hipster neighbourhoods. It's expensive, too. With a red-hot housing market and an underpaid workforce who can't keep up, Vancouver's beauty and marketable lifestyle mask an increasing struggle for its citizens. Real estate is pricey, meaning clubs have to be money-making machines, with little room for experimentation or risk-taking. Artists often have to work day jobs to afford even the tiniest living space. And the density of housing across almost every corner of the city means there is less and less free space for events to make noise.
The dance music community in Vancouver has seen peaks and valleys over the years. There was a strong illegal rave scene in the early '90s, then in the early '00s a mature, groovy house sound emerged driven by artists like Mathew Jonson and The Mole, most of whom eventually left for Montreal or Berlin. New Forms Festival was established in 2000 and became (and still is) a leading force for underground electronic music in the city. But when it came to regular parties, for the rest of the '00s, dubstep was the dominant sound, thanks to a dedicated group of artists and promoters who tried to book the best talent from the UK. (Kode9 played Vancouver as early as 2005.) But once dubstep began to splinter and move towards house, so did Vancouver's once close-knit scene.
While an older house community and its legacy acts soldiered on, a new crop of parties appeared at venues like Open Studios, W2 and, most significantly, The Waldorf Hotel, a four-room venue that hosted many of Vancouver's best electronic events from 2011 through 2012. Parties such as Love Dancing, Yours Truly and Midnight City brought DJs like Todd Edwards and Ben UFO to small rooms. They pulled in younger crowds who were willing to hear classic-style house mixed with more adventurous new tracks, as opposed to the rigid tech house that had crystallized elsewhere in the city.
Love Dancing, run by Chris "CZ" Wang (who has since relocated to New York) and Jordan Matt (AKA Bluntman Deejay or House Of Doors) was especially important. Through their musical vision and graphic design, Wang and Matt helped establish the scene's slightly kitschy, easygoing style. Their impeccable DJing—which often overshadowed the headliners they booked—connected the dots between crate-digger disco, current house and the music being made by then-unknown Vancouver producers.
Around the time those parties were creating a new appetite for house music in Vancouver, the indie rock scene was absorbing electronic elements. Bands like MT-40, Basketball, Gang Violence and No Gold used ideas from dance music, blurring the lines between worlds. No Gold's 2011 self-titled album featured a track called "Mood Hut," and the band's studio had the same name. Shortly after that track came out, the members went solo: Ian Wyatt became Local Artist, and Jack Jutson and Liam Butler partnered up as Pender Street Steppers, named for the major east-west thoroughfare their studio overlooks.
Mood Hut (who declined to speak with me for this piece) began by issuing a handful of cassettes, with each act exploring their newfound interests. Jutson went chill-out on his beautiful Mother Official tapes. Aquarian Foundation played with meandering grooves and wispy soundscapes on a self-titled release. And Pender Street Steppers dropped the landmark Life In The Zone, 90 minutes of music that established the blueprint for their sound. People outside of Vancouver picked up on the cassettes, especially after Ben UFO began championing the label around 2012.
"I had a few days to hang out in Vancouver after the Love Dancing show, and over the course of that time they were so kind to me," Ben UFO tells me over email. "They took time out to show me around the city, introduce me to their friends and play me their music—of which there was already a lot! Everyone seemed to be hanging out in studios the whole time, collaborating and showing each other music. I think it resulted in Vancouver, or at least this community, having this really identifiable, distinctive sound of its own before any of the producers involved had any kind of profile or even released any records.
"I really loved the crew, and left the place feeling inspired, so I wanted to get behind them as much as possible. I know Floating Points went out shortly afterwards and had a similar experience—when he got home we were both just like, 'These guys need to be letting people hear their music, now!'"
"Vancouver, at that time, didn't really have an identity," says Derek Duncan, AKA DJ D.DEE, one of the city's best DJs and the proprietor of the Pacific Rhythm record store and label. "No one in the Vancouver scene had released music or had anything to stand behind. They were just enthusiasts. It started to develop when people started releasing music. I remember Dane [Brown] referring to releasing records as basically putting out an expensive business card—he was like, 'Then, you're really accessible.'"
I met Duncan at Propaganda, a Chinatown coffee shop, just down the street from the sausage restaurant Bestie where he worked part-time as a line cook. Chinatown, which is rapidly becoming gentrified, is a hub for the city's music scene. It's home to studios and unofficial venues that sit above the clothing shops, Chinese grocery stores and cafes. The colourful atmosphere cloaks the poverty of the adjacent Downtown Eastside, a gentrifying but still rough area that was once home to Vancouver's various underground scenes, thanks to its cheaper rents and empty buildings that could be used as event spaces.
Chinatown is embedded in the DNA of the Vancouver sound. It's the place where it was born, and names and titles are taken from the neighbourhood. Pender Street Steppers named "Golden Garden" after a Vietnamese restaurant across Main Street, while Neo Image took his alias from a Chinese beauty salon down the road. The parties began in Chinatown and adjacent neighbourhoods, amidst great upheaval in the Vancouver club scene. A landlord dispute ejected the Arrival creative agency from the Waldorf Hotel, effectively ending the venue's run as East Vancouver's cultural centre. The city-assisted W2, situated in the basement of a condo tower, closed after an ugly argument with building management. Parties got smaller and moved into quasi-legal spaces, China Cloud, 151, Rainbow Connection and the Red Gate among them, or to the rickety attic above a well-known fabric store on Hastings.
The early Mood Hut parties were therefore crucial for the Vancouver scene. They were intimate and comfortable, with big fans for ventilation and free sparkling cucumber water. They tempered the hedonism of staying out until 6 AM with the serenity of dim lighting. It was a model for a style of party that would come to define Vancouver.
The focus on locals was arguably even more novel. At Mood Hut, you could hear exciting new music from Vancouverites. The crew highlighted the individual personalities of local artists and encouraged them to play their own music. Artists changed names and collaborators at the drop of a hat, leading to a tangled artistic web that only the most in-the-know could keep track of.
"They would play their own tracks which was like—you'd never know what you were gonna hear at the party," says Logan Sturrock, who produces as Flørist and was behind one of the scene's best-known tracks, "Marine Drive." "A lot of the music they played seemed like it was responsive to the audience in a way. They knew their audience."
By the time Mood Hut held their first all-live showcase, at 151 West Hastings in mid-2012, there was clearly something special happening. Bobby Draino, the night's "special guest," was a good example of how quickly the Mood Hut sound spread outside the label's core roster. The burgeoning afterhours scene had lured Draino (real name Bobby Siadat) away from the band world and into electronic music.
"It was the energy of the dance floor and the people there that got me," Siadat tells me over a joint from his balcony. "The way they danced, everyone kind of let their guards down. I saw it was something completely different from the scene I was in."
D. Tiffany, AKA Sophie Sweetland, who also makes old-school breakbeat techno as DJ Zozi, was another transplant from the band scene. She played keyboard in MT-40, who moved in the same circles as groups like No Gold. Sweetland began experimenting with dance music, using delay pedals, live instruments and software. It made for a dusty sound she shares with Siadat and the Mood Hut crew.
"I think it's bands," says Siadat. "Some of us still use gear, certain guitar pedals that we use that scuff shit up. Everyone uses mixers that have been used and worn. That whole thing—it's not what you have, it's what you do with what you've got. Moodymann, you know? That's the shit. So this scuffiness comes from the instrumentation and production techniques."
Siadat's first solo release, Brain Drain, came out in 2013 on 100% Silk, and it typified the sound. The melodies are thick and syrupy, but the music, some of it made in collaboration with Cloudface, has a rough edge. The textures are grotty and the kick drums are distorted, a DIY feel carried over from Vancouver's band scene.
Six months before Brain Drain, Siadat and Sweetland released their first electronic music on a split cassette through 1080p, another Vancouver label. Chrome Split was the label's fifth release. They were pumping out tapes that showcased a wave of young and weird producers from Vancouver and abroad, and earning attention from stores and websites in the UK and US. It was as if a new release infrastructure had developed in Vancouver overnight.
1080p was started by a Kiwi expat named Richard MacFarlane, who once ran an experimental electronic music blog. MacFarlane, like the Mood Hut crew, discovered that there was a whole new world of electronic music being made in Vancouver. In addition to giving Siadat and Sweetland their start, he also released Markus Garcia's Heartbeat(s), the live duo Neu Balance and the rapper Young Braised. But it was Lnrdcroy's Much Less Normal, landing in 2014, that brought the label to a new level of attention and respect.
Much Less Normal might be the epitome of the Vancouver sound. Its slow melodies move with the pace of the West Coast lifestyle, and its colours and textures are smudged and foggy, like an overcast Pacific Northwest day. Tracks like "I Met You On BC Ferries" (named for the company that runs water transit across the province) and "Sunrise Market" (a long-running Chinese grocery store in Chinatown) cleverly folded in jazz and disco. "Sunrise Market" is still one of the best tunes to come out of the city in years, its roving bassline and misty chords making for an earworm that's hard to shake. It was such a hit that another new label, Pacific Rhythm, pressed up an extended version for its first release, before Scotland's Firecracker released the album on vinyl.
Pacific Rhythm started as an online record store, a repository for house records new and old that were impossible to find in Vancouver. Founded by Derek Duncan, Dane Brown and Russell "Early" Cunningham, the store was an instant success, temporarily taking on a physical space in Chinatown, just down the street from another techno-oriented store called Selectors. The stores were a sign of a record-buying renaissance in Vancouver, with new vinyl adding to the older selections available at other shops like Beat Street.
The Pacific Rhythm label has so far released three compilation EPs called Rhythms Of The Pacific. The EPs highlight Vancouver artists—Lnrdcroy, Flørist, D. Tiffany, Neo Image—and blithely reference the local region. "It's where I'm from, it's where I spend my time," Duncan says. "If you're happy with where you are and you identify with it, it's good to associate with that. When I started the label I wanted it to be people I knew personally. You can go to their studios and listen to what they've been working on, and they'll send you tracks every three or four weeks. You can have a rapport with them and a phone call or sit down with them. It just feels way more—maybe—how it used to be. I don't think people in the early '90s were emailing guys in France from Chicago."
Duncan did make one outside connection, about 800 km northeast. Edmonton is Alberta's second city, known for its harsh winters and its proximity to Canada's oil fields. It's home to Dane MacDonald, a well-loved DJ famous for his big smile, dance moves and eclectic DJ sets. His taste in obscure disco and older dance music resonated with his counterparts in Vancouver. He had also picked up a teenage protégé named Dylan Khotin, who was starting to follow in MacDonald's footsteps.
Duncan brought MacDonald and Khotin to Vancouver for a night called DJ Convention at The Hindenburg, a ratty venue that was usually home to S&M parties. The night was a meeting of minds, a raucous party and an important moment for the Edmonton-Vancouver connection. "I thought it was super cool that you could fly an hour and a half away from Edmonton and, like, boom! There's an actual scene, people were going out to parties and staying out late, and you could play techno," says Khotin, who at the time was barely 19, Vancouver's legal drinking age.
Khotin had two releases in 2014, Vitebsk and Hello World, that showed a clear allegiance with the Vancouver sound. Like the artists across the Rocky Mountains, he used vintage hardware and made classic-sounding house. He was more concerned with the fundamentals of rhythm than atmospherics, though he was attracted to that part of it, too.
"Vancouver music had this esoteric feeling that I was drawn to," he says. "Like, OK, people are combining ambient music with a dance beat. I was like, yeah, this is definitely the kind of music that I like, and it pushed me to get more and more into house music."
Khotin moved to Vancouver in 2015. Landing a job at the small Pacific Rhythm store, he quickly became a gigging DJ and found a kindred spirit in Derek Duncan. The two DJ together regularly, including at the adventurous all-night back-to-back Trip Advisor parties—which for my money is the best party in Vancouver right now.
Khotin is one of the many artists with a studio in Deep Blue, where I also ran into Yu Su, fresh from a trip to LA where she was booked off the strength of the reputation of Vancouver's scene. (She tells me the person who booked her had never heard her mixes, and had no idea what style of music she played, but she was well received anyways.) Su is another recent transplant to Vancouver, having moved from China to study at the University Of British Columbia. She immersed herself in music through UBC's CiTR radio station, and eventually stumbled on the Mood Hut parties.
Su's music, both solo and with Juniper Systems' John Gailey as You're Me, takes cues from the scene's textural approach. It's also rooted in her identity as a young woman raised in China—behind the weed fog of her debut tape, AI YE 艾葉, are influences that feel different from the house music of her peers. AI YE 艾葉 came out on Genero, another young label devoted to releasing music solely from Vancouver artists. So far Genero has featured D. Tiffany, Regularfantasy, Francesca Belcourt and the post-punk-inspired duo Minimal Violence, all of whom happen to be women.
Soledad Muñoz came up alongside Genero as a response to "all-male, mostly white" lineups, first by putting on events with all-women lineups and then encouraging women to collaborate with each other (up to that point, Munoz points out, she herself had only ever collaborated with men). She calls the label part of a "greater social gesture" meant to facilitate dialogue and recognition for women in Vancouver.
Though Genero was started in response to inequality, its existence and the artists it highlights shows a strong female presence in Vancouver's dance music scene. I was at a Genero event the first time I heard Jayda Guy, another one of Vancouver's top-tier DJs. She's known for her jubilant disco sets where the obvious (Donna Summer, Earth, Wind & Fire) meets the obscure. Guy has become one of the city's ambassadors, playing club sets around the world and starting the Freakout Cult label with DJ Fett Burger.
Ninja Tune signee Evy Jane, though recently relocated to the US, has also been a strong presence on the scene. She performs her own aching torch songs live alongside ex-Basketball member Jeremiah Klein, while taking part in other collectives and projects like Bobo Eyes, with Regularfantasy. LNS, AKA Laura Sparrow, is another one of the city's finest DJs, and she takes a different tack from the rest, working with retro-futuristic electro and techno. Her fantastic Trushmix from 2015 meshed Vancouver house tracks from Bluntman Deejay and Lnrdcroy with selections from the Victor Dynagroove Ensemble and As One, showing that the city's scene isn't all about house.
"There is no Vancouver sound," she wryly tells me.
Sparrow has a point. As the Vancouver scene has grown it has become more diverse, socially and musically. On one end, you have Jayda G playing Donna Summer records at Index Gallery; at the other, you have LNS digging out deep electro for a heady night at Skylight. This development was most obvious when NTS did a live broadcast from Pacific Rhythm, during the store's last weekend in business. The broadcast, curated by Liam Butler, featured Mood Hut regulars like Local Artist, Bobby Draino and D. Tiffany, but also the exploratory electronics of You're Me, Scott W's ethereal techno and the psychedelic jams of RAMZi. Compare that to the Mood Hut Boiler Room from early 2014, with a smaller group of guys sticking to the kind of music typically associated with the label, and it's obvious the scene has expanded considerably.
While the best parties remain relaxed, mostly safe and mostly underground, international attention has made the scene bigger, for better or for worse. After a two-year hiatus, Mood Hut put on two parties in 2015 that were ludicrously packed, and the crew has mostly avoided staging hometown events under that name since. But there are upsides to the popularity: Blueprint Events, who own Celebrities, one of Vancouver's most well-known nightclubs, have opened up the unused basement for experimental music events.
Meanwhile, Derek Duncan has started Vibe Corridor, a Tuesday night weekly at a small craft beer tavern called the Boxcar. Locals and guest artists are encouraged to dig deeper for "records that don't typically leave the domicile." It's not a wild party but it's a great, comfortable place to hang out and listen to good records. In true Vancouver fashion, it's making the best of what an imperfect city has to offer.
Rather than taking ideas from other places, the newest generation of Vancouver artists are making music that feels intrinsic to their lifestyle and surroundings. "I think it's really important for the generation coming up to see labels like Mood Hut and Pacific Rhythm and 1080p and be like, 'Oh well if I make something and it's good, I can actually just go talk to that guy, and there's a chance he will be interested in it,'" says Duncan. "Before that barrier of entry may have been harder because all these labels are based in Berlin, or in London, so you'd have to go to them."
"The sound definitely comes from the landscape around us," Yu Su tells me. "The city, the glass, all the cobblestones and stuff. And also the environment where people make music, the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown. They're opposites, and all these things kind of layer and mix together."
That idea was on my mind while I sat with Siadat on his balcony, just off the edge of Chinatown. It was a typical Vancouver scene: lush greenery interrupted by condo towers, flanked by the dense Downtown skyline in one direction and the stunning mountains in another. It's the kind of vista you never get sick of, even if you grew up here.
"That whole Riviera vibe? I mean, 'It's that sound!'" Siadat tells me. "I think it subconsciously might have something to do with the vibe here, like, environmentally—in terms of what it looks like, how many trees there are, how nice it is in the summer. Dreaminess."
He pauses, pointing at the sunset over the North Shore mountains. "It's dreamy here. Look at it! If you were a bird you'd be like, 'Yo, this place is dope. Look at it!'"
Andrew Ryce has put together a 27-track Vancouver playlist for RA's YouTube channel.