YES IN MY BACKYARD: GUELPH
By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Laura Stanley (Clockwise from top left: Luyos MC by Hong Lam, Vertical Squirrel, Nicolette & the Nobodies by Devic Fotos, Lisa Conway by Arden Wray, M. Mucci, Brad de Roo, Hymns57, Exi, Elaquent by Ryan Antooa, Cots by JG + SHI)
How do you keep a scene alive when the city loses nearly a fifth of its population in its warmest months when students head home from university? In Guelph, Ont., several factors help, including a healthy festival ecosystem (Hillside, Guelph Jazz Fest, Kazoo! Fest), a concentrated downtown, small venues that incubate new projects and welcome experimentation, a supportive media landscape (campus community radio, alternative newspapers), access to other major hubs (Toronto is 100 km away, Hamilton and Kitchener are closer), and good will from local businesses. But perhaps its most generative element is a lax attitude toward musical inbreeding—the degrees separating one act from the next are typically minimal, family trees tangled like spaghetti.
Steph Yates spent years exploring scrappier energy in Guelph’s noisier spaces. Cupcake Ductape, her delightfully bratty punk duo with Alanna Gurr, stemmed from breaks Scott Haynes took when the pair were providing Shopkeeper’s rhythm section, while Esther Grey’s tiptoed garage pop regularly accommodated guests and textural impulses. Now straddling Guelph and Montreal, Yates steps out for her solo debut as Cots, enlisting a murderers’ row of session musicians (Blake Howard, Josh Cole, Karen Ng, Ryan Brouwer, Sandro Perri, Thomas Hammerton) to turn wide-eyed wonder about travelling through the universe and the gentle, awesome balance of celestial mechanics into bossa nova-infused folk jazz.
Whether soliciting patient, downcast melodies from his weathered guitar or droning alongside Guelph’s resident hurdy-gurdy man Ben Grossman in Snake Church, M. Mucci proves himself a rare torchbearer, finding hope in bleak and barren landscapes. On an April 2021 split with Jon Collin, Mucci offered up eight tracks of sparse but affirming guitar music, notes shivering, then shimmering, pushing forward against the march of time. You could cry.
NICOLETTE & THE NOBODIES
Nicolette Hoang picked her deferential band of Guelph locals (Ian Bain, Nicole Gulewitsch, Emma Howarth-Withers, Daniel Paillé) from pop, punk, and surf acts, but the outlaw-inflected country western that poured out tipped a 10-gallon hat to Dolly, Loretta, and Tammy, boots firmly rooted in the present. On 2019’s Devil’s Run, Hoang finds a place for herself in a town that’s not big enough for another university degree, and now that the band’s double vaxxed, they’re back in the studio, banging out new ones for a road that’s never been dustier.
Weaving psychic impulses into radical collective blasts at the intersection of free jazz, post-rock, minimalism, raga psychedelia, and kosmiche musik, Vertical Squirrels originally formed in 2008 as an experiment in group-improvisation. In recent years, the core of Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, Lewis Melville, and Ted Warren took on a residency at grassroots experimental venue Silence, recontextualizing the project as a living improvised community expression with an open-door guest policy. A sample of those experiments lives on new offering Le gouffre / The Chasm, documenting the events of October 23, 2019, when the group invited Dong-Won Kim and Gary Diggins into the fold.
Save for private parties and hushed events in secret locations, Guelph was admittedly lacking in the techno department even approaching the pandemic, but with just a single, scant-on-details EP uploaded to Bandcamp, mysterious producer Exi fills the vacancy, summoning throbbing kicks and stuttering, bone rattle snares that penetrate lonely atmospheres like a ghost of the city’s ’90s rave scene trying to manifest a haunted chill out room.
A prolific producer and beatmaker, Sona “Elaquent” Elango has cultivated a devout international following but remains relatively unknown locally. Across handfuls of records spanning instrumental hip hop and chilled out jazz and neo-soul, J Dilla is a returning point of reference (to be sure, this past February, Elaquent paired up with Austin’s BoomBaptist and Denton’s Juicy the Emissary on a tribute to the late producer called Komfort Food), but Elango’s refreshingly in the moment. Never idle, quarantine has found the producer two EPs deep in a Bedtime Stories series, Elango’s emotive dreamtime beatscapes locked in and loose like watercolour paintings, swiftly and serenely expressionistic.
Having studied under kulintang master Danongan Kalanduyan in San Francisco, the music MaryCarl Guiao makes as Luyos MC engages with the Filipinx gong tradition from a decolonial consciousness raising standpoint. A typical performance opens with traditional kulintang compositions, then branches into more modern and experimental touches like spoken word and live electronic sound manipulations. Increasingly welcoming collaborators into her practice, Guiao has also turned her attention to her contemporaries, “Lake Agco Droplets” draping a vertically-hung web of gongs over respectfulchild’s “drops” and its hypnotic violins.
Smeared with the dust of so many tape loops, the tracks Steven de Taeye makes under the Hymns57 moniker have an immediate sepia quality to them. Taeye coasts through endless varieties of glistering, glassy landscapes with guitars, synths, field recordings, and found sounds fed through any number of effects; the project lends itself to a unique versatility, all the more captivating with the brevity Taeye typically favours over drone’s endless drifts. There’s an economy to Taeye’s work that allows him to address seemingly endless impressions, each track functioning like an emotional polaroid.
Best known for her solo project L Con, Lisa Conway has leaned into commissioned work throughout the pandemic, contributing full scores for film and theatre, as well as an experimental sound piece for MaerzMusik’s 27-hour livestreamed speaking clock. Harbinger, a contemporary dance work featuring Conway’s sound design and live mixing in collaboration with Victoria Cheong (New Chance), is set to premiere in Paris, and 2021’s Guelph Jazz Festival will feature a sound and light installation of Conway’s in the Goldie Mill Ruins. Sound installations have previously corresponded with Conway’s songwriting practice (2015’s Moon Phone was created in dialogue with L Con’s Moon Milk), so perhaps hints of work to come.
BRAD DE ROO
Brad de Roo scratches an obscure region of dopamine receptors. Joined by Marmalade Duplex bandmate Tyson Brinacombe, each successive outburst expresses an urge that might have occurred to many but few have had the impulse to appease, let alone document; dig through the discography and you’ll find everything from Eno-centric comedy roasts to party albums for no one. On most recent offering No Wave Exotica, de Roo channels the stripped down aesthetic violence of New York no wave through a bass VI while Brinacombe seizes the guitar pedals and uses them like an instrument, naked expression turned warped wonderland.