Sound of Edmonton like one hand clapping

GigCity Sound of Edmonton Carl for BreakfastThe problem with calling your music documentary Sound of Edmonton is that there isn’t one. No one sticks around long enough.

Is there hope in the next generation? Most of the subjects in Evan van Ramshorst’s low budget short film are in their 20s: The oldest is probably Wunderbar owner Craig Martellica, and he’s over 30. The filmmaker himself is 20 years old, spurred into the project as a musician himself in a band called Magnet and The Magnettes. While impressed by the size, diversity and creativity of the local music scene, he says, “I’m not really seeing a lot in terms of it being documented or promoted on a large scale.”

We’ve heard that before. Premiering at the Artery on Sept. 3, with live band performances, this series of conversation pieces interspersed with show footage may be shockingly familiar to anyone in the local music scene older than, say, 35. The issues that come up now are the same that came up 20 years ago, 40 years ago, and in fact as far back as anyone can barely still remember: A sense of unfettered creativity tempered by frustration at not being able to make a living at it. Edmonton had so many next big things that never went anywhere that we’ve lost count. This city never had a sound.

Seattle got a sound, Winnipeg gets a sound, Montreal gets a sound, even Saskatoon is a thing now. Why not Edmonton? What does it take to acquire this “sound” of which we speak?

“It’s a weird thing when cities explode like that,” van Ramshorst says. “It’s never usually for one reason. There are a lot of different factors. Usually it takes one or two breakout artists and then suddenly everyone’s rushing into that city to see what else there is. Edmonton hasn’t had any breakouts, so to speak.”

Consider our most famous artists. Did you know Robert Goulet was from Edmonton? Probably not. That’s because he became famous on Broadway. SNFU earned at least half their fame from Vancouver. K.d lang developed her cowpunk thing here, but only got big in adult contemporary land after she moved away. The smalls and Corb Lund grew up here, but then Corb recently moved to Calgary (for family, not musical reasons). One of the most well-known subjects of The Sound of Edmonton is Christian Hansen – and he moved to Toronto; Cadence Weapon went to Montreal, Purity Ring to Vancouver, Mac DeMarco to New York. What do these people have in common besides not being mainstream? Nothing! Even if these artists were proudly representing Edmonton in their respective new homes, and few of them are, no one would notice.

The filmmaker never really answers the question demanded by his title. What is the sound of Edmonton?

“There’s not really one thing you can put your finger on and say, that sounds like Edmonton,” van Ramshorst says. “It’s way more of an attitude here than a sound. It’s a kaleidoscope going on and nothing really sounds like the last thing.”

GigCity Sound of Edmonton I Am MachiThe film attempts to give exposure to some interesting area bands, like Carl for Breakfast (top picture) and Death By Robot, while airing the ideas and ambitions of the young musicians therein. The husband and wife duo of I Am Machi (right) – another act anointed with the “next big thing” tag – refers to Edmonton as “The Idea City.” Van Ramshorst says the line worked in nicely with the latest round of civic rebranding talk, trying to get rid of “City of Champions” in favour of something else to be named later. “Edmonton is kind of a city without a label at the moment, so everyone’s just trying to figure out who we are as a city as well, so there’s a lot of experimenting going on,” he says.

The Idea City isn’t bad. There’s not much else to do during the long winters except stare into the fire and dream. Plus, as Craig Martellica says, it’s not like you can’t get a day job here, so to devote your life to being a starving artist is admirable. We’re a frozen incubator where artists can develop ideas into a ticket out of town.

If the The Sound of Edmonton has a common thread, it’s freedom. No one’s watching, there are no expectations, no well-worn path to follow. Let’s go all the way back to Tommy “The Senator” Banks (the filmmaker doesn’t know who he is, which is not so much a condemnation of the younger generation as it is a support for the notion that the most famous artists from Edmonton are famous only in Edmonton, and only in their own generation) – and we see a musician who made it up as he went along, did it all himself, and was stubbornly determined to do it himself in Edmonton. We’ve heard a lot of that sort of talk since then.

Van Ramshorst says, “The one thing we keep coming back to is this feeling of it being a very punk rock city, not just it being punk rock like mohawks and jean jackets and that kind of stuff, but a do-it-yourself, don’t-care-what-anyone-else-thinks kind of attitude.”

The Sound of Edmonton, both the documentary and its subject, is a work in progress.