What makes Evenings and Weekends: Five Years in Hamilton Music, 2006-2011 (2016) so great is that Andrew Baulcomb writes not from a detached perspective but as someone who actually lived those five years in Hamilton-music between 2006 and 2011. The deep, rich history of Hamilton’s music scene is told by someone who knows and loves his city – from working at McMaster University’s campus paper The Silhouette and interviewing prominent bands, to seeing the Arkells rise to fame and eventually touring with them. Andrew’s music knowledge shows itself to be extensive and deeply informed.
Evenings and Weekends tells two stories. Interwoven between interviews with Hamilton’s top musicians is an autobiographical snapshot of the author himself, which showcases significant moments in his life like the meeting of his eventual wife and the death of a close friend. At the same time, it gives an accurate and authentic portrayal of Hamilton’s music scene and all of its greats: Arkells, The Dirty Nil, San Sebastian, The Junior Boys, and Monster Truck (just to name a few).
I was lucky enough to sit down with Andrew and discuss the book, music, Hamilton, and his career.
Paper Street Journal: So, firstly, you went to McMaster University, but what did you do your degree in?
Andrew: I did my degree in Art History and Cultural Studies, a double major with Honours from 2003-2008. I took five years because I worked at The Silhouette and the more involved I got at the paper, the less courses I took per term; just to sort of keep the marks up and devote more time to the paper. I stretched it out to five years.
PSJ: And that’s something that you talk about throughout the book. Did you find that your time at The Silhouette provided you with a good foundation for going off and working for The Hamilton Spectator or VICE? I recall reading in the book that you were able to interview some of your favourite teenage bands, like Sloan.
Andrew: Yeah, Sloan was someone I got to do, as well as, Sam Roberts, Joel Plaskett, and Death From Above 1979. I sort of fell into this amazing position where I would get any major act that came through campus; a lot of interview requests went through my desk – even as a volunteer writer. It was a really good proving-ground to learn how to interview people and learn the structure of a feature. In a university setting you’re often just writing academic papers, and this was a totally different style; there’s no journalism major at Mac – so it was really just a great foundation for all of us to learn how to write like that.
PSJ: In the book you talk about how you and Max [Kerman] of the Arkells went to school at the same time. Down the line you were able to go on tour with them. How did that relationship come about?
Andrew: Did you go to their show on Friday night?
PSJ: No, but I wish I did. I’ve seen them probably around ten times. I’ve been watching their progress throughout the years and it’s crazy to see them evolve from this roots-rock, influenced by The Band, classic rock kind of a stuff; and then see them turn into this really marketable stadium rock act. So, I guess my question to you is how did your relationship come about? Was it purely from seeing Max in the early days coming into The Silhouette office promoting his shows and then you always just kept in touch?
Andrew: Yeah, pretty much. Like I said, I was heavily involved with The Silhouette from my earliest days at McMaster and as those guys started playing music more and more around the west end of the city, Max was coming down all the time with demo tapes, show posters and just kind of hyping up whatever they were doing. At the time they were called Charlemagne; they had a different drummer. And this was before Dan Griffin had even joined the group – they were playing as a four-piece. I got to know Max the most, but also, Mike and Nick were around a lot. Yeah, we just became acquaintances and then maintained friendships ever since.
PSJ: It’s pretty crazy that you were there right from the early days. I mean, I don’t think I ever saw the band live in the Jackson Square era. I think the first time full band was during Michigan Left.
Andrew: So, I went to the show at First Ontario Centre on Friday night and me and my wife – who also went to Mac – were reflecting on the first time seeing them 10ish years ago at Quarters, which is now 1280. At the time, there were ten people there. I’d go because I was with The Silhouette and I would cover those kinds of things. To see them play in front of ten thousand people on Friday night was remarkable. It was surreal. I think Max would probably tell you the same thing. It’s just – surreal is kind of the only way to describe it.
PSJ: Just from Instagram and a few Snapchat Stories you could kind of tell by the look on Max’s face that he was happy and shocked to see people still coming out after so many years; and especially in Hamilton where they are these heroes. I don’t want to say that it’s so amazing that a band that big can come from Hamilton because, as you’ve shown in your book, Hamilton has such a rich musical history. For example, in your book you talked about The Band in the 1960s.
Andrew: Yep, Ron Hawkins, that whole scene!
PSJ: Yeah, with the Hawks. While we’re talking about The Band, I remember hearing something about a bootleg of them playing in Port Dover? They were playing cover tunes like “Twist and Shout”.
Andrew: I think so. Rick Danko is from Port Dover or Norfolk County or down that way, if I’m not mistaken. Some of the guys in the group had roots down there, too. I think with all of those little towns, it was just magic for them to play.
PSJ: I guess it’s just amazing to see the Arkells become one of the biggest rock bands in Canada.
Andrew: They’re certainly up there.
PSJ: Could you tell me about when you went on the road with them?
Andrew: Sure. It was in the summer of 2010, and I was working on a summer contract at the The Hamilton Spectator. They had just won their first Juno award that spring – I think it was in Newfoundland. And at the time they were well-known, but they certainly weren’t filling stadiums. So, I pitched going on the road with them to my editor, and sort of getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse at their life on the road. It was their first real American tour – they were opening for Tokyo Police Club. They loved the idea. I literally got a call from Max, and twenty-four hours later I was on the road with them in the States. Yeah, it was amazing.
PSJ: That was still in the pretty humble days; they were driving in a minivan?
Andrew: They had their touring van, which I think was like a fifteen seat Chevy. They had just bought it. I remember Nick Dika saying to me that they’d paid around $24,000 for it. I think he was a little nervous about it, even at that stage because all of these things were really big investments for them. They were investing in themselves.
PSJ: Especially in the States. It can be notoriously hard for Canadian bands to break out there.
Andrew: Totally. And, like I said, they weren’t even the draw on that tour – it was Tokyo Police Club. The headliner was filling the halls and the clubs, but they were only half full when Arkells played their set. Buffalo was a big show because they had a big following there. They definitely had to earn it – they were doing it the hard way.
PSJ: I think I read an article, actually. I remember it saying that this tour wasn’t cushy and the band wasn’t that profitable – they were making under 50k each?
Andrew: It was the opposite of cushy. I think at the time they were still all in their early to mid-20’s at that point. I think at that age the adventure of it, still outweighs the luxury or the comforts of home. I don’t know if they would be eager to go back to that style of touring – I don’t think any band would. If you get used to a certain level of comfort, you don’t necessarily want to go back to sleeping in a van or that sort of thing.
PSJ: Yeah, that’s very interesting because the timing of things can have such an impact on how things turn out. If they were at that stage still as they got older, it’s almost socially unacceptable and much harder unless you have a great passion for the music. Like, just living in that kind of poverty – there is a really big push to get a 9 to 5 job where you can get that kind of comfort.
Andrew: And I think that’s the band killer, you know? I mean, a lot of groups get to that point where you just ask yourself how long do I want to just scrape by versus having a little more comfort and security in my life? I think every band comes to that crossroads at some point. They don’t all make it, unfortunately.
PSJ: It makes me think of The Reason, I remember reading an interview with them. I think the singer was just saying that they’ve been scraping by for some many years; like they had hit singles! And still they were toughing it out.
Andrew: They had big time Much Music heavy rotation singles and they still were struggling – like really, really struggling.
PSJ: So, you are a musician, as well? Tell me a little bit about any bands you’ve played in?
Andrew: Yeah, I haven’t played in a band in a long time; like seriously, probably since high school, honestly. But, I’ve played guitar since I was fourteen; I’m almost 33 now. So, a long time at this point, it’s more just a hobby, a passion of mine. I’ll put a record on at home and just play a long – The Smiths, The Rolling Stones or something. I just play for fun. But, in high school I played a lot with guys like Noah Fralick, who is now the drummer from Young Rival; also, Cam Malcolm from Huron.
PSJ: Yeah, you mentioned jamming with him in the book.
Andrew: Yeah, I went to Westdale Secondary School and it was always a place known for supporting kids in the arts, most especially in music. I mentioned Noah and Cam, but also Ben Caplan was at Westdale when I was there… Matt Paxton, Jessy Lanza. Yeah, it just seemed like there was a constant stream of musicians coming through when I went to school there. Music was always just sort of part of my teenage existence, I guess. I just wanted to play music and there was always a basement available somewhere in Westdale to set up our gear in. We played some of the bars, like when The Underground first opened; Brodie Schwendiman was very kind about having younger groups coming in. I played The Underground, Casbah, Pepper Jacks – lots of spots, it was fun.
PSJ: So what made you go into journalism instead of pursuing music?
Andrew: Almost from day one at McMaster I was working on every issue of The Silhouette. The editor of the arts section at the time was a really close friend of mine; he’s six years older than me but a family friend. He brought me into the fold and it sunk its claws into me. I just sort of chose to devote my free time to writing, as opposed to playing music. Even though I still did both! I just felt like I had more of a knack for the writing side of things.
PSJ: I watched an interview you did with CHCH News and you said that you play guitar every day!
Andrew: Oh yeah, CHCH about a month ago. I do. I’ll come home from work – I’ll get home at 5 or 530 – and we have a sort of music/writing/books room in our house. I’ll just go into and shut the door for half an hour and kind of unwind because I sit in front of a computer screen all day at work. So, it’s just a nice way to unwind.
PSJ: I like how in Evenings and Weekends you talk about your own experiences along with the music stuff. Why did you choose to include these more personal stories? My first inkling is to say that it makes it more authentic to see that you were a guy who witnessed this – you were there getting high and drunk with your friends and going to shows.
Andrew: Yeah, just being young and carefree. Part of it was I didn’t have to step back in time and walk in someone else’s shoes; I wasn’t writing a book about Hamilton in the 60’s or 70’s – I lived all of this firsthand. So my editor and I felt it would be valuable to have roughly half the book told through my eyes – and use that as a way to tie all of these other stories together somehow. It’s more of a coherent narrative as opposed to just fifty band bios back to back, which wouldn’t be a very engaging read, I don’t think. That would read like like a textbook or phonebook or something. I’m a big fan of writers like Chuck Klosterman, Dave Bidini, Charlie LeDuff and even people like Hunter S. Thompson who all walk this line between journalism and a journal.
PSJ: Gonzo journalism…
Andrew: Yeah, I found those books by those kinds of writers to be a lot of fun. And I don’t always read them, but I think in certain situations it’s valuable for writers to just put themselves in the story and add another element to it. And I had never really written anything like that before. I just felt like if I was ever going to do it, this would be the project to do it for. I don’t think I could write a book like that again… probably not.
PSJ: What was the timeline for the actual writing of the book?
Andrew: I started writing the book in August of 2011; at the time I was working as a reporter at a paper called Niagara This Week in Niagara Falls, Ontario. I was literally working on it in my “evenings and weekends”, my free time. I have always had a full-time job while doing this on the side. So, it took 5 years from when I did the first interview to when it was finally published. I probably could’ve done it in a shorter time if I didn’t have a full-time career – I’ve worked at McMaster now since 2011, as well. It took a lot of discipline and a lot of Friday and Saturday nights spent the house, like locking myself in my little office, just trying to hammer this out. It was a lot of just hacking away 500 words at a time whenever I could find the time until eventually it got done. And I did as many of the interviews in person as I could – I felt it was important to try and get a bit of that face-to-face interaction… read people and their reactions to things and see where they took me. I just felt that was important. So that definitely added a lot of time to the process.
PSJ: Yeah, I thought that having those interviews with Max Kerman, Dan Griffin, and Greg Veerman, talking about the early days of Arkells where there was a love triangle going on between band members and a sort of animosity that existed at first, was amazing. That’s really interesting stuff that usually goes undocumented. Like, maybe down the line Arkells will have their own biography – if they become the next Hip or something – but that kind of stuff has been uncharted territory. I’ve never read anything interesting like that before.
Andrew: Thanks, man! I appreciate that. I always like those kinds of details, instead of here’s the next record, here’s when they recorded it, and here’s how they did these tracks… I always liked those little personal details. Musicians, especially lead singers, they’re good storytellers; they’re charismatic people; they’re good storytellers. I think they enjoy spinning a good yarn – telling these tales. That’s why I like interviewing them because they’re so far outside mainstream, nine-to-five culture. It’s fun to sit down and just listen to them talk about whatever they want to talk about.
PSJ: Who are some of your favourite recent artists to come out of Hamilton?
Andrew: Pet Sun, Flesh Rag, Emay, Illitry. Those four for sure come to mind.
PSJ: You talk about Harlan Pepper!
Andrew: Oh, yes Dan Edmonds – his solo record was really, really good.
PSJ: And he just signed with Straight And Narrow Management company, that is the same company as The National, which is a big step for him.
Andrew: What about you?
PSJ: Dan’s album was really good.
Andrew: It was – did you do a story on him for the Paper Street Journal?
PSJ: Yeah, Eric Tarquinio and I worked on that. I was a really big fan of Harlan Pepper growing up.
Andrew: Yeah, same.
PSJ: Seeing musicians my age playing that same kind of roots rock was really nice. I was actually playing in a band too at the same time that played similar stuff. But Dan always seemed like a serious, authentic musician – someone who really respects the craft.
Andrew: I’m going to throw one more name in there, too – Sweet Dave and the Shallow Graves. Does that ring a bell at all?
Andrew: It’s Dave O’ Connor from the band TV Freaks. This band is sort of his alter ego, Sweet Dave. I don’t know… It’s kind of a like a twisted lounge act, Twin Peaks-esque… It’s creepy and good. I’ll leave it at that and let you explore it from there.
PSJ: You mention in the book that Hamilton is beginning to be recognized for our arts scene and some of the progress its made in general. Now others are looking up to our thriving arts community. Within the scope of the five years covered in the book and leading up to the present day, what are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in the Hamilton arts scene?
Andrew: I would say that one of the most significant changes is just the amount of people downtown; like, literal foot traffic. And I think that part of that had to do with the double cohort generation, which I was a part. So, the graduating class from 2003 in Ontario, which included OAC in Grade 12 meant that you had twice the number of people going to McMaster or Mohawk, and these people who wanted something to do and I think that it just coincided with all of these places opening up downtown. It attracted a huge numbers of young people to come back to the core – which I think drew in all of these small businesses and meant more of the galleries, restaurants, and bookshops started to open. They’re the same ones you see down there now. That’s one of the most significant changes: just the amount of people in the core. There was a time even ten or twelve years ago when the foot traffic just wasn’t there; you really had to be going downtown with a purpose. What has changed is that, I think, a lot of people will go just to explore. I don’t know if that was happening when I was younger.
PSJ: Something that you talked about early on in the introduction was how the downtown used to be the hub. Then there was a switch when the mountain became the more popular spot – downtown was very gritty. Now, it’s nice to see this progression back down with places like James St. cleaning up. You have these really cool shops, restaurants, galleries, etc.; you can spend a whole day just walking around and checking everything out – all the way down to Cannon St.
Andrew: The change going on now is pretty remarkable. . But, also, part of me doesn’t want to see it change too much or even too much more because with change comes displacement. People who have lived there a long time, long before either of us had taken interest, have to go somewhere now. So, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. I try to keep that in mind, as well.
PSJ: What are your thoughts on the LRT?
Andrew: I’m all for it! I think it’s fantastic. I am a big supporter of public transit. I think it is great for public health and the environment; it would be such a lift for the city and would add so much more to the vibrancy of Hamilton. I’m all for it. I walk to and from work, or I take the bus, or I bike to and from. And I think it would be a really good thing to have the LRT line in addition to the bus that is already here.
PSJ: It definitely would put Hamilton on another level. Like when you look to all of the other major cities… They have them. And especially the environmental reasons, that’s huge – it’s very important.
Andrew: Well, when I go on holidays to another major city – whether it’s in Canada, or the US, or Europe. I’m not driving around in Paris, or I’m not driving around in New York City, right? You get there, drop the car off or get off the plane and then it’s get me to the closest subway stop and give me a map tell me how to get from A and B – that’s what people do. It’s odd that we don’t apply that same kind of thinking to where we live. It’s such a convenience and it’s so much fun when we go on holiday and take a New York City subway around and then we come home and people just want to drive everywhere.
PSJ: I think that’s very true – it would be convenient for so many people living in the downtown area. But also for musicians – this is such a benefit for the working musician who needs a cost-effective way to get around. This is cheap, affordable transit for them; to get to their show, or to jam, whatever.
Andrew: It’s good for students, elderly people that can’t necessarily drive anymore; it’s good for a lot of people. And I understand the pushback because I think Hamilton is more a car-driver’s town. I get the resistance to it. And for people who bought homes in Ancaster or the South Mountain or something, I understand their hesitation from diving into this. But, you can’t stop the progress (laughs).
PSJ: I understand what you’re saying about not wanting too much change; you do want to be accommodating to all sorts of people in the city. At the same time, this would be a major boost. It would bring in all sorts of investment.
Andrew: I think it would be a huge boost; I think it’s important to hear the concerns of people that are anti-LRT and really listen to what they are saying instead of dismissing them. I find that happens a lot in Hamilton – we’re getting really political here (laughs). But, it’s important to hear both sides of the argument and make the best decision for everyone and not just one stakeholder.
PSJ: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about, that you would like to say?
Andrew: Maybe we should touch on the DJ scene a bit; I mean for me that was such a huge part of the experience for me and people my age. It was going to see DJs at places like Che and Absinthe and having as a fun alternative to going to a rock show. And those were places that you go and see all the rockers in town anyway. Electronic music was so, so popular at the time – Daft Punk and Justice and all these French techno artists. It was just such a huge part of the cultural experience.
PSJ: You talk about the beginnings of No Standards Night or You Say Disco, I Say Punk.
Andrew: Yeah, Motown Wednesdays… Again, we’re returning to our earlier point about bringing people back to downtown. I think those nights had just as much of an impact on that as any rock band did. Because every Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday night all these clubs would put on these amazing events that you knew would be fantastic and you knew you would see all the familiar faces there. It was just this really cool, eclectic collection of people and it was a big part of the scene for me.
PSJ: Yeah, definitely for the younger twenty-something students going to Mac or Mohawk, everyone goes to Motown or to Che – those are some of the better spots.
Andrew: Also, at the time, it offered an alternative to top 40 clubs that would play a lot of the more popular music and were maybe a little more button-down and straight-laced, which were fun from time to time. But Che being in the middle of that club land, it was so reckless and fun and free. It was like a punk rock club that had DJs instead of a punk band playing. So, it was very exciting and exhilarating.
PSJ: For someone who always was more interested in Hamilton bands – that’s definitely what I was more interested in – it was cool to see the backstory of these events and clubs and how they gained popularity. It was something I didn’t know about: to see the early days and see the musical histories of even the DJs themselves.
Andrew: And I didn’t want that part of the history to be lost either. And as bands like Arkells, Junior Boys, Monster Truck, and Jessy Lanza get bigger and bigger – I felt like some of this important cultural history may have been forgotten about and swept under the rug, a bit. I wanted to preserve that moment in time, as well, because I thought it was an important cultural scene in the city’s history.
Be sure to pick up a copy of Andrew’s book, Evenings and Weekends: Five Years in Hamilton Music, 2006-2011 available through Wolsak and Wynn Publishers, Ltd.
Chief Music Editor, PSJ