The Sounds of Unification

Sled Island has developed into a full fledged cultural hot spot, drawing people from the farthest reaches of Alberta, across Canada and around the world. Acts such as Calgary/Toronto’s Feist and Japan’s the Boredoms on the same bill as Lethbridge’s Fist City, Vancouver’s Korean Gut and Edmonton’s Travis Bretzer shows the diversity of the program. This year, Sled Island is also featuring a full film lineup in the week leading up to the music festival and several visual art exhibitions that will run for the entirety of the festival.

Drew Marshall, the Marketing and Communications Director of the Sled Island administration, is also rather excited about the “green island” initiative that will see multiple bike racks placed at venue sites and a bike rental program.

Marshall initially become involved in 2007, Sled Island’s inaugural year. “Part of the reason I was attracted to it, it definitely was something that didn’t exist prior to Sled Island, ” he recalls. “There has always been a lot of great music out of Calgary and Alberta and overall in the region, but there wasn’t any big event that was bringing that whole community together.”

While Sled Island was initially the brain child of Zak Pashak who was inspired by the Pop Montreal festival and is still involved as the Creative Director; the festival now is organized with the help of over 400 volunteers and, in Marshall’s experience, “has always been a real collaborative effort to make this whole thing happen.”

“There is a community that exists in Calgary and surrounding the festival,” he explains. “It might be something where not everyone is connected, or not always represented. During Sled Island you have this flourish of activity with all these great bands, performing at all these venues—small, intimate unconventional venues, large outdoor ones—and it really becomes obvious that there is this incredibly vibrant music scene going on in Calgary, in Canada, in North America.”

In Marshall’s view, Sled Island changed things. “For the first time there were these big international acts that for the most part would never come to Calgary,” he says. “The first year we had the Boredoms from Japan play, and it was one of the most mind blowing shows for anyone that was in attendance. We had Cat Power in the first show she had played at in a church in Calgary—that was just a beautiful show. Sled Island represented all these things coming together.”

For people like Paul Lawton, a central member of the Lethbridge garage-rock scene and co-owner and founder of Mammoth Cave Records, Sled Island offers something different than SXSW or NXNE, which are “very industry centred.” Lawton believes Sled Island has created a new kind of multi-venue festival, that is very artist focused. The industry presence has been very small for the most part. It has engendered a very DIY spirit and community.”

For Lawton, Sled Island not only provides the opportunity to expose hundreds of people to the bands hosted on Mammoth Cave, the label he co-owns, but, as with many regional musicians, the impact of getting to meet promoters and booking agents and to play a showcase every night—especially being from a smaller city in Alberta—is worth a great deal.

“There was a long time where it was hard for Alberta bands to book outside of Alberta,” he explains. “It took a lot of time and work to get people from the bigger centres to care about music happening in other parts of the country. Sled Island I think is the key player in that.”

Aaron Levin, founder of Weird/Wyrd Canada and a former music director for Edmonton’s campus-community radio station CJSR, believes Sled Island’s success has everything to do with the way the festival was initially set up.

“Sled Island is a very interesting case of a festival with a very large mandate and goal,” says Levin. “It has both embraced the fringe DIY while managing to attract a huge massive audience. This is what separates from some of the festivals, say, I do, and some of the festivals where this doesn’t happen—like the Edmonton Folk Festival, for example.”

For Levin, what is truly special about Sled Island is how it embraced the DIY culture of the local music scenes in Alberta right away. “SXSW (a festival Sled Island is oft compared to), for example, has definitely embraced that, but they didn’t start embracing that. When all the showcases started there was actually a negative reaction from the leadership of SXSW. Being bold, and embracing the indie local music scene was very important for their success.”

Levin, like Lawton, recognizes the avenues Sled Island has created to connect bands to promoters to booking agents to bands. “The opportunity for having a large part of the west coast music community under one roof and talking to each other is something that doesn’t happen,” Levin points out. “Sled Island has really provided for that by embracing all this fringe DIY music.”

Levin’s own music site, Weird Canada—named by CBC Radio 3 as the “Best Indie Music Website in Canada” and his travelling Wyrd festival benefited from Sled Island simply because “they were so open armed when it came to working together. (They were) incredibly encouraging for any sort of creative idea I had. That helped Weird Canada get a larger voice out of the city I was working in.”

Lawton and Levin, as festival attendees and programmers, clearly see Sled Island’s biggest strength in its commitment to the local and regional acts. One thing they do very right in Lawton’s eyes is that “every year after they do Sled Island, they send out a questionnaire to all the bands and it is very clear they have listened to the local and regional musicians who have given input. Every year gets a little better.”

For Marshall, that community building is what Sled Island is all about: “Bring together all these people for these four days and really create all this momentum and placing spotlights on the incredible music community that exists here. Really, in Calgary and Edmonton we are removed from so many parts of the world or even North America that sometimes we are off the radar when it comes to live music and touring bands and that kind of thing.

“The resource of talent in Alberta is so vast and there is so much potential that Sled Island is essentially a small group of people that work in this office doing our best to connect these communities that already exist.”

Originally published in VUE Weekly, June 14th 2012, issue #869.

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