Just before exiting off the TransCanada when driving into Sackville, New Brunswick, an inconspicuous black and white billboard depicting a row of hay bales lets you know that Sackville is ‘The Cultural Crossroads of The Maritimes’. It’s a notion with which I wholeheartedly agree. Though, like the understated imagery of the two-tone hay bales, Sackville doesn’t exactly scream ‘culture’. Like many small communities scattered across Canada, Sackville is enjoying a period of rich cultural activity, earmarked by an inherited air of possibility and a small-town quaintness that allows it’s adopted artists to roam free.
It’s a town that is benefiting from a lot of hard work done over the last few decades by people who’ve put their lives into things like Struts Gallery, a small-yet-mighty artist run centre, the defunct indie label Sappy Records, the burgeoning Sappyfest and OK QUOI?! Arts Festival and the long-running campus community radio festival, Stereophonic. Sackville has also concurrently become a popular refuge for a lot of nationally and internationally renowned artists and musicians (ex-members of Eric’s Trip and The Constantines, musicians like Shotgun Jimmie and Marine Dreams and multi-disciplinary artist Graham Patterson, to name a few).
Thanks to all that, and to a repurposed shed at the outskirts of town, a young collective of musicians going by the name of KILLER HAZE are thriving. Through a lot of hard work, artistic vision, clever branding, punk attitude and all around gregariousness, this small group of 20-somethings are helping to reinforce the idea that Sackville, New Brunswick, a town of about 6,000 people, is home to the most exciting arts scene on the East Coast.
I recently sat down with five of the musicians (who together make up at least three of the bands on Killer Haze’s roster, Yellowteeth, The Mouthbreathers and Go Get Fucked) to get a sense of The How, The What and The Why of Killer Haze’s contagious excitement. For an introduction to the label, I urge you to listen to the appropriately titled Killer Haze Compilations, Rat King and Rat King II. What follows is my conversation with Kevin Brasier, Nic Wilson, Evan Matthews, Josée Caron and Lucy Niles.
Southern Souls: Are you guys all from Sackville?
Evan: No, none of us were born in Sackville.
SS: What brought you all there?
Evan: Yeah, school.
SS: School for everyone?
Kevin: I lived in London, Ontario for a few years and went on a tour out East. That’s when I discovered the East Coast, the whole music thing. I moved to Sackville because it was central and went to school because it was just there, y’know? I mean it’s cool that there’s a school here because otherwise it would just be dead and strange. The school keeps it really vibrant.
SS: Do you think the student population is a big part of your music community?
Nick: Well yeah, the people who come out to shows are students.
Kevin: Yeah I guess. But you have, like, two thousand students and about fifty of them are music fans.
SS: Is there a reason then to have such a close-knit community? Why so much overlap in band members?
Kevin: Not enough people, I think. I would love for more bands to pop up.
Evan: I think it’s starting to happen now.
Kevin: There are new bands popping up. It’s all pretty poppy. I wish there was stranger stuff going on. I wish there were some crazy, weird shit happening. It’s all really accessible, which is great for shows, but I wish there were some real freaks in town just getting really, really fucked up. Do you ever wish that? That you could go to a freak show?
Josée: No, not really.
Evan: Just go to Walmart if you want to see a freak show.
SS: Do you think your bands are accessible?
Lucy: I think if it’s not accessible it’s a mistake.
SS: A mistake?
Lucy: Yeah, I never try to be inaccessible.
Josée: (laughs) Good luck figuring this one out.
Lucy: I just really like it when music is accessible. I want as many people to dig it as possible and I’m not ashamed to say that. I think we could attract as many frat parties as possible and that would be a good thing. I don’t know about you guys.
SS: You guys have been on the road right? Tell me about that.
Evan: We did a two week tour to southern Ontario and back last year.
SS: Who was on the bill for that tour?
Evan: It was Yellowteeth and Mouthbreathers.
Kevin: And Go Get Fucked played one show, too.
SS: What was it like to take your music out of the Sackville context?
Kevin: It was good.
Josée: It was kinda weird.
SS: Weird how?
Josée: It was just really strange to play to people who have no reason to care and try to make them care. Out of nowhere, this band from nowhere.
SS: Was it sort of an experiment or is it part of a plan?
Evan: It was a test to see how we liked it, and to see if we could do it without losing our shirts.
Lucy: I had just read Our Band Could Be Your Life and so I just wanted to go on tour.
SS: What do you think about the idea that you’re working within a framework where you’re just hoping to come home with your shirt?
Kevin: I think it’s total bullshit. Sometimes I hate touring because you put all this hard work into it, like booking the tour, for free and then you have to be humble enough to break even. It’s not like people are out buying your merch every night. And why would they? I think it’s engrained in out heads: why would they come to our show anyway? Why would they buy our cassettes?
Evan: Well, it’s early on.
Kevin: I know, but it sucks to book it, and do all that driving. Kill your car, kill your spirit, just to break even.
Lucy: Man, I thought tour was fun.
Kevin: It is, in the ‘I-wanna-go-on-tour-and-I-don’t-give-a-shit-way’, but you’re asking about the financial side and in that way, it’s total bullshit.
SS: Do you think it’s an important thing for bands to do?
Evan: Yeah, to be in that space physically is really important. The live experience and the recorded experience are two very different but interrelated things. And it’s important to be able to pull off both, even if you’re playing to two people on a Monday night or with two bands that don’t sound anything like your band. It’s important to be able to connect to the performance regardless.
Nick: It tightened us up, too. We booked the tour and then found out that we were going to play Sappyfest when we got back, which was a big deal to us. So we went out and played ten shows and then we were able to come back and play a really good show, in my opinion.
SS: Can you talk about what Sappyfest means to people like yourselves and the people of Sackville?
Evan: It prevents stagnation.
Kevin: It’s huge. To put on a festival with over eighty percent fringe acts is totally rare for a Canadian music festival of that size. At Sappy, you always end up discovering all these bands you don’t know about who are totally awesome because the creative direction is so good. And the headliners are playing it because they want to, not because they’re getting bribed by money and fame. They’re getting paid less than they would from a more commercial festival to be somewhere they want to be. They want to be in Sackville. I mean, the town is the festival. There’s no backstage area.
SS: Do you think that the town of Sackville is helping things like Sappyfest and Killer Haze exist?
Nick: Not necessarily the city’s infrastructure, but it just works because it’s so small and centralized.
Evan: There’s one particular business owner without which none of what we’re doing would be possible. His name is Darren Wheaton and he’s the guy I rent the shed from.
SS: Ah yes, the shed. Did these bands exist before the shed?
Nick: No, not at all.
Lucy: That’s definitely a direct connection.
SS: What does a space like that mean to you guys?
Kevin: It’s everything, really.
SS: Does that kind of place change your creative process?
Evan: Absolutely, you can plug anything into anything there and I’ve found some really interesting sounds that way. We’re able to record there and so it serves every purpose we need to make the music we want to make. And there are people who live close by who hear us jam and they don’t care, which is amazing.
SS: Where does the aggression come from in your music?
Lucy: Oh buddy, let me tell you. (laughs)
Nick: Lucy and I are also roommates and we joke that if either of us ever got laid there’d be no bands in Sackville.
Lucy: I mean, we get laid sometimes.
Nick: Speak for yourself, sister. (laughs) I’ve also just always responded more to aggressive music.
Kevin: Yeah, me too. It’s what I like to see live. It’s more interactive.
Evan: There’s a certain velocity to it.
Nick: Exactly. I’ve always liked loud music because you can feel it. It’s a lot of sound; it’s less passive.
Evan: It’s less of an object. Like, it’s less of an architectural drawing and more of a…
Kevin: It’s like a big, fat angry man sitting on your face. (laughs)
Josée: I just feel like it’s less demanding on the audience. It might be physically more demanding, but you’re not asking them to do anything specific, like sit down and shut up. I appreciate that when I go to a show; that it happens independent of my undivided attention.
SS: Is rock and roll sacred to you guys?
Lucy: What? What do you mean it’s not sacred?
Nick: It’s just rock and roll.
SS: Josée, you say it is sacred?
Josée: Yes. Absolutely. It’s the most important thing to me. Sacred is a tricky word to use, because that implies a certain spirit or something.
Evan: Well, there’s a religious subtext to it, which I don’t think is necessarily apt, but I also don’t think it’s totally wrong. People who are religious define their time through their religion and I define my time through music.
Kevin: Most live music experiences are sacred. Like when you see a gospel show and people are singing together and sharing, it’s about community and this is pretty much the same deal. I know you can go and chain smoke and try to get laid at a show, but you can also share an experience with the people around you at the same time, and whenever that happens it’s sacred.
SS: It sounds like there’s a sense of freedom for you guys in rock music.
Josée: Oh man, for sure. I remember playing blues instrumentals on my guitar on P.E.I. over and over, before I went to Mount Allison and it was so stressful. And then I started jamming with Nick and realized I could shake my head around and jump up and down, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so free!’.
Lucy: You can do things that other people think are stupid and gross and it doesn’t matter in rock. Anytime you have to do anything that’s gross or embarrassing, you can just chalk it up to being punk rock. (laughs)
Kevin: Didn’t you spit on stage yesterday?
Nick: I don’t know about freedom, but I’ve always felt really powerful when I play rock and roll, and it’s a feeling that’s few and far between when I don’t have an electric guitar.