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Hitting all the right notes: a report on niche books celebrating Canada’s indie music scene

Tomorrow, the Polaris Music Prize announces this year’s shortlist, narrowing the 40 longlisted Canadian albums down to 10, one of which will win the $30,000 prize. One band on this year’s longlist, Montreal’s The Dears, is also the subject of a new book by music journalist Lorraine Carpenter, The Dears: Lost in the Plot (Invisible Publishing). In Q&Q‘s June 2011 issue, Sean Flinn took a look at the title, along with some other niche music books of the season.

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the JUNO Awards, an event that brought out some of Canada’s biggest showbiz stars. But look beyond the red-carpet glitz of the industry awards show, and you’ll find many overlooked Canadian musicians playing to devoted crowds in sweaty nightclubs. Although the audiences might not be as large or as loud, this season, four small presses are releasing books that put the spotlight on some of Canada’s lesser-known indie rock and punk bands.

In April, two months after Montreal band The Dears released its fifth album, Degeneration Street, Halifax- and Toronto-based Invisible Publishing launched the first title in its new Bibliophonic series. Modelled after the popular 33 1/3 series published by the U.K.’s Continuum, The Dears: Lost in the Plot, by veteran music journalist Lorraine Carpenter, chronicles the band’s role in birthing Montreal’s Anglo-indie music scene in the early 2000s, detailing their maturation and near-collapse as a band, and recent return to form.

The Dears

Carpenter drew from her own ­collection of articles, interviews, and other archival materials to complete the mini-biography. She’s been following them from the beginning, says Sacha Jackson, the series editor. Jackson is also Carpenter’s editor at the Montreal alt-weekly Mirror. Band members responded with open minds to Carpenter’s inquiries, even answering questions about their career difficulties and anxieties, says Jackson, who hopes readers use The Dears as a lens through which to examine the Canadian music scene: I want it to reach beyond Dears fans to people who’ve just read Lorraine’s stuff.

Steve Goof

Many music fans will be familiar with Jennifer Morton’s stuff, too, from MuchMusic programs such as The New Music and TV Frames. In 2004, Insomniac Press published the television journalist’s Belong, which investigates the persistence and importance of music, visual art, and other ­cultural forms in struggling urban neighbourhoods around the world. The Toronto publisher just released Morton’s new band biography, Dirty, Drunk and Punk: The Twisted Crazy Story of the Bunchofuckingoofs. Through her writing and collaboration on the book’s design, Morton shows how the Toronto band’s music and politics “ particularly its anti-racism “ were rooted in the Kensington Market neighbourhood, and how those roots intertwined with the city’s cultural and political history and the evolution of independent music in Canada. I imagine most Canadians, and probably a lot of Torontonians, don’t even know who the Bunchofuckingoofs are, says Dan Varrette, Insomniac’s managing editor.

Morton’s credibility as a journalist also helps with publicity, says Varrette. Because she understands the business and still has many contacts, Morton does her own media promotion, working in conjunction with an Insomniac publicist. Even when there’s great media coverage, Arsenal Pulp Press publisher Brian Lam says music books are a bit of a risk, as listeners aren’t necessarily readers. But Lam believes in Joey Shithead Keithley’s ability to sell the story of D.O.A, the Vancouver punk band he founded more than three decades ago.

Over the years, Keithley has amassed a vast personal archive, including lyric sheets, photographs, and gig posters, of his time in the band. That collection appears in the outspoken musician’s new book, Talk – Action = 0: An Illustrated History of D.O.A. Keithley’s 2003 autobiography, I, Shithead: A Life in Punk, was also published by Arsenal Pulp and had its third printing last year.

Keithley and D.O.A. are currently on tour, with dates scheduled all over North America, Europe, and parts of Asia. Lam says that at every stop, the band sets up a book event. You can’t rely on traditional bookstore sales, he says.

Indeed, successful independent-music titles depend on a writer’s presence off the page. Fans want to talk to the author, says Jen Hale, senior editor with Toronto’s ECW Press. It’s almost like their one degree of separation from the band. Simon Ware, ECW’s director of publicity, adds that readers expect the author to be accessible.

This spring, ECW released musician, producer, and photographer Don Pyle’s Trouble in the Camera Club: A Photographic Narrative of Toronto’s Punk History, 1976“1980 and a revised version of 2001’s Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985“1995 by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack, and Jason Schneider. At the launch for Trouble in the Camera Club, Pyle gave a slide presentation and talk. In the past, he’s exhibited some of the photographs, and he may do so again now that the book is out.

In a similar vein, Jennifer Morton interviewed Crazy Steve Goof on stage at the launch of Dirty, Drunk and Punk, while Lorraine Carpenter DJed during the party for The Dears. That type of involvement is necessary, Ware says. You need an author incredibly invested in the book, but who’s also part of that community.

The Dears: Lost in the Plot book tour:
July 7, Raw Sugar, Ottawa
July 15, Novel Idea, Kingston
July 16, Mercer Union, Toronto