Day 6

1 minute to midnight: Brent Bambury reflects on the 35th anniversary of Brave New Waves

Brave New Waves premiered on CBC Stereo Feb. 6, 1984 and continued until March 2007. Brent Bambury was host of the overnight alternative music show from 1985 until 1995.

Bambury hosted the overnight alternative music show on CBC Radio 2 for a decade

Brent Bambury, now host of CBC Radio's Day 6, took over the reins of Brave New Waves in 1985 from original host Augusta LaPaix. Brave New Waves was hosted from a basement studio at Maison Radio-Canada in Montreal, Que., from 12 a.m. until 6 a.m. (CBC Archives)

At night, I'd walk from the Metro through Montreal's gay village and up the long drive to Maison Radio-Canada, a skyscraper shaped like a J Cloth box that towered over the working class neighbourhood.

Crossing Rue Dorchester, there was no one around. The building was silent, elegant — a '70s concept of 1984.  

Alan Conter, the founding producer of Brave New Waves, said it was built as a fortress to withstand civil unrest, and in the '80s, with Quebec suspended between referendums, I believed him.

The studio was in the basement and everything was analog.

We had a stack of vinyl that had to be replenished halfway through each six-hour live broadcast. The mic made a clunking noise when you turned it on. The audio board lit up like an old pinball machine.

Augusta LaPaix, pictured circa 1984, was the first host of Brave New Waves. (CBC Archives)

On the table there was a clock. Augusta LaPaix would open her mic and you could hear it tick.

Sometimes before she spoke, she lit a cigarette and exhaled.

Augusta was the original host from Feb. 6, 1984, until I took over in the summer of 1985. She was funny, dry, goofy, vulnerable, confident, comforting and sexy. I was a fan and I worshipped her.

She worked it out: how to navigate 30 hours a week of live, overnight national radio. I would never have known how to do it if she hadn't drawn the map.

Brave New Waves hit radios across Canada on CBC Stereo Feb. 6, 1984. 0:58

It was eclectic beyond belief and every night was a marathon. There was an hour or two of alternative music — hardcore, electronic, anarcho-syndicalist, queercore, post-punk, hip-hop, ska, industrial, neo-folk, minimalist, maximalist or just uncategorizable — and then, later, a conversation, which was also live.

Kathy Acker, Angela Carter, Genesis P-Orridge, John Zorn, Greg Curnoe, Joyce Weidland, Skinny Puppy, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Gil Scott Heron, Sun Ra, Jaki Byard, Laurie Anderson: those guests were actually sitting at the table as were hundreds of young Canadian musicians, actors, and subterranean subversives.

I imagined them connecting with our listeners.

No one thinks they're the only freak in the world when they hear Throbbing Gristle.

I'd been on that side of the radio — most recently as a fan of Augusta — but I remembered when CBC's stereo transmitters clicked off at 1 a.m. and I was still up writing essays in silence, wired on coffee and ephedrine.

Now those expensive transmitters blasted through the Canadian night into dorm rooms and art studios, trucks and taxis and bedrooms.

Fans fell asleep as they logged the show on cassette. They heard music commercial radio would never play, that college stations couldn't access, that you couldn't buy at the mall.

Music by avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson was included on the original demo tape for Brave New Waves. Anderson performs in concert circa 2002. (Scott Gries/Getty Images)

Those cassettes are still out there, analog relics of our intimate relationship.

A Montreal newspaper once published a list of the 10 most stressful jobs. Number one was "Host of a late-night radio show on Radio-Canada when you know no one is listening".

But I knew our tribe: a nocturnal army of listeners. Today, when I meet new people of a certain age, some of them are still compelled to tell me how the show connected with them in Brandon, Man., or Ann Arbor, Mich., or Moncton, N.B., or Salmon Arm, B.C., and how that connection was vital.

Patti Schmidt, pictured in the 1990s, led the show from 1995 until 2006. (CBC Archives)

I was there for 10 years. It was a weird way to live and the world felt screwed-up.

You could hear it in the music. Crass, The English Beat and The The raged against Thatcher. Test Department hammered away at a divided, neurotic Europe.

In Canada, the anarchist collective Black Wedge lampooned the yuppie culture that newspapers celebrated in the style section. The AIDS crisis grew and the Doomsday Clock stalled.

It always seemed like one minute before midnight.

An excerpt of host Brent Bambury from an Oct. 1994 episode of Brave New Waves on CBC Radio 2. 1:42

But it felt great to be alive. No one thinks they're the only freak in the world when they hear Throbbing Gristle.

It was thrilling to play Husker Du and hear the part where Bob Mould stops singing words and just screams. Or listen as My Bloody Valentine obliterates sound. I had the best job in the land.

A few months before he died, John Cage came into studio. Cage was brilliant, an icon, and the embodiment of the ethos of a show where you could hear anything.

Cage remained silent. The microphone tried to zone in on the sound in the room and all it found was the clock, so it amplified it.

I was nervous. I don't remember my first question, but I know Cage didn't answer it. Instead, he told a story about why he eats macrobiotic food.

I remember it going something like this:

"I was taking the kind of aspirins that explode in your stomach like a shotgun and I was walking down 8th Avenue and a black limousine pulled up beside me and Yoko Ono got out and said 'John, you look terrible.'"

American musical director, composer and author, John Milton Cage is pictured in November 1966. Cage was known for his experimental approach to music. He died Aug. 12, 1992. (Victor Drees/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

I didn't know that Cage liked to use interviews to proselytize for macrobiotics; I just didn't want to mess up my chance to talk to the man who played chess with Marcel Duchamp.

But then, his advocacy complete, Cage joined the conversation, smiling slightly, his eyes wise and unblinking. It was good to be with him.

I do remember my final question.

"Who was your greatest teacher?"

Cage remained silent. The microphone tried to zone in on the sound in the room and all it found was the clock, so it amplified it.

Tick. Tick. TICK.

If a period of silence exceeded 30 seconds, the old computers that oversaw the network patched in previously recorded music, as inappropriate to our show as Brave New Waves was to the network.

It felt tense.

Cage, serene, smiled at me.

TICK. TICK.

"I haven't met him yet."


Brave New Waves premiered on CBC Stereo Feb. 6, 1984 and continued until March 2007. Brent Bambury was host of the overnight alternative music show from 1985 until 1995. Patti Schmidt was host from 1995 to 2006.

About the Author

Brent Bambury has had a deep connection to radio since he launched his career at CBC as a teenager, working in Saint John, Halifax and Montreal. Brent hosts Day 6, a show that blends journalism, current affairs, comedy and opinion together on the radio. He thinks radio should be kinetic, full of life, fun, outrageous and thoughtful all at the same time.

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