Canadian bands from the '90s enjoying digital era freedom

Rock bands that first gained prominence in the 1990s are turning up again with increasing frequency.

Acts like Big Wreck, I Mother Earth and Treble Charger onstage again

Newly reunited Big Wreck will hit the road for a Canadian tour to support their new record this April. (Richard Sibbald)

Looking at upcoming Canadian concert listings might give music fans an acute case of déjà vu.

Canadian bands that first gained prominence in the 1990s are turning up again — both Treble Charger and I Mother Earth are playing at Canadian Music Week, which runs in Toronto until March 25.

Meanwhile, Big Wreck recently scored its first number one single (Albatross) – 15 years after releasing its debut album.

A casual observer might dismiss these reunions as a simple cash grab, but the artists themselves would tell you that they feel much freer now creatively than in the ‘90s, when radio pressure and record companies dictated the terms of their success — and that this freedom is a big part of their return.

"When you're making a record and realize that you have to have three or four songs that are made for [radio], it boxes you in," said Jeremy Taggart, drummer for Our Lady Peace, who first emerged in the early '90s, but have continued to release new music into the 2000s.

"Now, there isn't necessarily a radio to cater to. And we can just make a record for the sake of performing it."

Bands that emerged in the '90s were among the last to feel the oversight of major labels, radio play and music television. The internet revolution has made those cultural gatekeepers increasingly irrelevant, as fans go straight to iTunes, streaming services like Grooveshark or an artist’s BandCamp page to hear their favourite music.

"In the era of the internet, we've never been able to create the kind of consensus that we used to when the supply of music was controlled very tightly by record labels, radio stations and video channels," said Alan Cross, host of the syndicated radio series The Secret History of Rock.

Juggling music and industry

Taggart said that Our Lady Peace long endured oversight from people in the business who were trying to "cater to both the beauty of art and the beauty of commerce."

Our Lady Peace will be releasing a new record, Curve, in April, and it harkens back to the eerie mood that marked earlier releases like Naveed and Clumsy
CanCon stalwarts Our Lady Peace's new record "Curve" hits shelves this April. (Warner Music Group Canada)

In recording the new Big Wreck album, Albatross, guitarist and lead singer Ian Thornley said he wanted to get away from a formula that had marred some of his previous efforts.

"I've been there, and seen behind that curtain – and it's not for me," he said, referring to studio work and parts of his post-Big Wreck project, simply called Thornley.

"There was a lot of compromise on the Thornley records that I can hear and feel – it makes them difficult to listen to sometimes." 

Big Wreck rose to prominence in the mid-‘90s on the back of rootsy, hard-rock hits like The Oaf and That Song. The group’s new album features the familiar sound of Thornley's chiming 12-string guitar and gritty vocals, as well as a renewed interest in searing, intricate instrumental work.

"Is it self-indulgent to have a two-minute guitar solo at the end of a song? Absolutely. But if you don't like that part of it, skip to the next tune," he said with a laugh. "This time I just thought, Why not? I usually never put down really ripping licks on a record."

In describing the tone of the new Big Wreck album, Thornley said, "The new record sounds free. It doesn’t feel self-conscious, worried or compromised – I can really hear the joy."

Letting it flow

Taggart said ideas and songs should be left to flourish as organically as possible, instead of trying to force them into a strict formula.

He said towards the end of the '90s, the "tail started to wag the dog."

"Music and musicians are performers first, and their record should be a representation of that person playing live. It got so out of control with big records that it turned into the band trying to recreate the album," Taggart said.

Treble Charger frontman Greig Nori said the oppressiveness of the record industry led to his band’s break-up in 2003.

"A big reason we stopped playing was because things were starting to get messy," Nori said. "It was right at a time when file-sharing was starting to blow up, sales were way down, record companies were freaking out, and it just wasn't a great environment to be in."

"Now it's nice to come back and really do things on our own terms."

Nori recently hosted Disband, a reality show on MuchMusic, which he said has helped Treble Charger's music connect with a contemporary audience.

"I started noticing the amount of kids that would walk up to me on the street," he said, adding that this was a big impetus for his band to reunite.

"Suddenly, there was this renewed interest of discovery and who we were."