Music journalist chronicles golden age of Canadian music

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Michael Barclay had just finished writing about a renaissance in Canadian music when he noticed another was bubbling up to the surface.

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It was 2001 and the author and music journalist was living in Guelph, Ont. Have Not Been the Same: The Canrock Renaissance, 1985 to 1995 had just been published. Co-written with Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider, it took a deep dive into a particularly fertile period in Canadian music that produced acts such as The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and The Cowboy Junkies.

“As soon as it came out, it was like ‘Wait a minute, something else is happening right now,’ ” says Barclay, in an interview with Postmedia from his home in Toronto. “The New Pornographers had happened. Peaches had happened. Godspeed You! Black Emperor was happening.”

It was all part of what Barclay argues became another pivotal time for Canadian music. It’s the basis for his new book, Hearts On Fire: Six Years That Changed Canadian Music, 2000-2005. A journalist with a history working for alt-weeklies, Barclay also had a weekly CD-review column in the Waterloo-Region Record at the time. So he was certainly better aware than most about what was happening on the national scene. Night after night, he was seeing exciting live shows and listening to stellar records. He kept a personal “gig diary” just so he would have a lasting record of his memories.

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“This wasn’t my youth,” he says. “I was 30 years old by this point; at the point where some of my friends were already stuck in their high school music groove. But I was like: ‘No, this is the most exciting thing in my lifetime so far (and it’s) happening right now.’ ”

Arcade Fire’s lead singer Win Butler performs on stage at Festival Rock on the Seine at Saint-Cloud near Paris in 2005. Postmedia files / Olivier Laban-Mattei, AFP
Arcade Fire’s lead singer Win Butler performs on stage at Festival Rock on the Seine at Saint-Cloud near Paris in 2005. Postmedia files / Olivier Laban-Mattei, AFP Photo by OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI /AFP/Getty Images

But it wasn’t until Montreal’s Arcade Fire won the Album of the Year Grammy for The Suburbs in 2011 that he began thinking about a book.

The 2011 Grammys fall outside the six years that the book chronicles. But Arcade Fire became arguably the most successful from those years, a band that moved from an indie-cool club act to acclaimed stadium rockers with an international profile.

“Arcade Fire, whenever they would win a Juno or the Polaris or something else, would say ‘I want to thank the Hidden Cameras, Royal City, the Constantines, Wolf Parade, the Unicorns and all the bands that made us who we are,” Barclay says. “They were very conscious of being part of a scene that helped lift them up and they were inspired by all those bands. I love Arcade Fire, but I don’t want them to be the only story from this time. I really wanted to make sure that entire moment was captured.”

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One of the biggest takeaways from Hearts On Fire is that this explosion of creative music was not limited to one scene, genre, city, or even region. It was a national phenomenon. The book covers 42 acts from coast to coast. It may have incorporated two decades of personal research by the author, but he didn’t start in earnest until after the release of his 2018 book The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. Most of the 100-plus interviews conducted for the book took place in 2020 or 2021 at the height of the pandemic. All but a handful of the 42 acts agreed to participate.

Barclay hopes the book reminds readers of acts that may have slipped from our public consciousness over the years but were key to giving Canada an international profile.

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“Like Hot Hot Heat,” Barclay says. “I hear people say ‘Oh I forgot about them,’ or The Be Good Tanyas. People don’t realize how well they did in Britain or how unusual they were in that genre of music. A lot of people outside of Alberta still don’t know enough about Corb Lund. I wanted to make sure all that was part of the narrative.”

Tegan & Sara, 2002. Postmedia files / Courtes, Universal Music
Tegan & Sara, 2002. Postmedia files / Courtes, Universal Music jpg

Barclay covers the origin stories and impact of a number of acts from the period: Winnipeg’s The Weakerthans, Calgary’s Tegan and Sara, Nova Scotia’s Buck 65, B.C.’s The Unicorns, Toronto’s Broken Social Scene, hip-hop artist Kardinal Offishall and Montreal’s experimental collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Given the broad scope of the artists and their stories, narrowing in on what set these acts apart is not a simple equation. There were certainly major changes happening within the industry. File-sharing was taking off and Canadian bands seemed to be rewriting the rules of how to succeed, adopting a DIY approach to management and recording that bypassed major labels.

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But the traditional measures of success also changed. While many of the bands mentioned in the book achieved good sales, others were important for laying the groundwork even if they never became household names to the public.

“Godspeed got the kind of press that I rarely saw other Canadian acts get,” Barclay says. “I mean, that’s the bubble I live in and that’s the press I tend to read: the people who love the Velvet Underground more than the Beatles. I think they were quite influential both in their music, I think they paved the way for bands like Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky and other people, but also in their approach to the music business. They came out of the Steve Albini world of keeping the corporations at bay and really focusing on fearless art and keeping the business in their circle of friends.”

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The Unicorns were Alden Penner, right, Nicholas Thorburn, middle, and Jamie Thompson, in back.
The Unicorns were Alden Penner, right, Nicholas Thorburn, middle, and Jamie Thompson, in back. jpg

Along the way, Barclay uncovers the stranger-than-fiction backstories of several bands. The Unicorns are a prime example. A trio of warring misfits that originated in small-town B.C. before moving to Montreal, the act seemed to do everything in their power to sabotage their career but ended up winning a cult following, widespread critical acclaim and selling 100,000 copies of 2003’s Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? They also “paved the direct path for Arcade Fire’s success by taking them on tour across the States the summer before Funeral came out,” Barclay says.

It was a time of sprawling, highly populated collectives such as The New Pornographers and Broken Social Scene, whose very makeup and governance seemed vastly different than the norm. Barclay points out that even in the pared-down world of punk-rock, one of our most successful exports from the period was Toronto’s F–ked Up, which had six members. He says there was this sense internationally that something was happening in Canada that was not happening anywhere else at the time.

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“There really did seem to be this communal bent to a lot of the music, whether or not the band was physically large or not,” Barclay says. “I really think there was a real earnestness or passion, hence the title of the book. I think that in the post-irony-laden ’90s and post-9/11 dread, a lot of these artists were imbued with this passion and this earnestness. And they killed it live, that’s the other thing. In the era of all these instant Internet blogger buzz bands, all these acts were just so good and compelling live in ways that a lot of other stuff just was not. Look at (New York’s) The Strokes. There’s a band that liked to pretend they didn’t care. Arcade Fire f-cking cared. They didn’t want to leave you feeling blase about anything. You were either going to love this band or hate them. I think that’s one common thread that caught the world’s attention.”

Hearts on Fire: Six Years That Changed Canadian Music, 2000-2005 is now available.

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