By Tony Martins / Photos by Jamie Kronick
The jury, as it were, is still out on globalization.
Hailed as an economic wonder through which the entire world would prosper, the “global marketplace” concept has arguably served only to make the rich richer, spawn mega-corporations, and weaken the self-determining powers of communities and third-world nations.
As a force for cultural exchange, however, globalization has given life to many new possibilities not rooted geographically. Roland Robertson, professor of sociology at University of Aberdeen, defined globalization in 1992 as “the compression of the world and the intensification of the consciousness of the world as a whole."
The Ottawa-based recording label and musical collective called Pop Drone offers a sonic journey into that global consciousness. Formed in fits and starts, through happenstance and happy coincidence, Pop Drone follows no logical or economically sound model. Rather, the international entity exists largely for the sake of music-making that intelligently blends genres and is, most of the time, freely shared online.
Belgium-born and Ottawa-based bass player Greg Clark is a communicator by trade (he does marketing for the Ottawa Fringe theatre festival) and as Pop Drone co-founder he is well-versed when articulating the collective’s decentralized ethos. While many of the musicians (they hail from Canada, the U.S., and Europe, and are all in their 20s) had known one another or worked together going back decades, a slightly more formal structure began to gel about three years ago.
“It’s 2010, and to share a new release, the name Pop Drone first appears as an email address created for pitching to music journalists, editors, radio hosts and producers,” Clark recalls. “The thought being that such pitches will be taken more seriously if made by ‘Pop Drone’ rather than coming from the band’s bassist.”
“These days the façade is down and we’re pretty open and deliberate about our intentions to share music,” Clark continues. “In a year since our first album releases [Yuri Bakker’s Florestan and Eusebius EPs], Pop Drone has shared six albums. Today it’s looking like at least another six are on the way in 2014.”
While only five of the musicians are professional in a strict sense, the rest are pros because “they run a good hustle to pay living expenses and to facilitate their art,” explains Clark. “Among them are a filmmaker, a self-employed graphic designer, one rock climbing instructor, two field biologists and two engineers, a government research auditor, and a theatre festival communications manager.”
Dialoog performing at Café Nostalgica in November
Bands of Pop Drone (popdrone.ca)
Pony Girl (Ottawa): Original alt-rock compositions inspired by imaginary films. Members are Pascal Huot – lyrics, vocals, guitar, samples; Julien Dussault – guitar, vocals, samples; Yolande Laroche – clarinet, vocals, keys; Cameron Hill – tenor saxophone; Isaac Vallentin – guitar, vocals, drums; Gregg Clark – electric bass, double bass, trombone; and Jeff Kingsbury – drums, samples.
Ryckholt (New York):Julliard piano grad Yuri Bakker, aka Ryckholt, uses synth, keys, andsamples to create hi-style electro/jazzhop.
James and Blackburn (Toronto): Moody and melancholic art rock featuring Owen Edwards – guitar, vocals; Landon Kotchapaw – bass; and Sebastien Button – drums.
Josef Pollock (Ottawa): Richly layered folk band led by Isaac Vallentin - lyrics, guitar, vocals, featuring Gavin Dyke – guitar, vocals; Jenny Nasmith – keys, vocals; Conor Conway – trumpet, flugelhorn; Gregg Clark – elec. bass, upright bass, trombone; and Jeff Kingsbury – drums, samples.
Dialoog (New York): Experiments into trip hop, swag jazz, classical music and electronica improvised by Yuri Bakker – keys, synth, samples and Michael Powell – drums, percussion, samples.
Doper shit on Soundcloud
In history and still today, most bands are formed by young people who live within walking distance of one another. Globalization, however, brought more accessible travel and much easier content-sharing, opening up many new ways to co-create music.
Not surprisingly, one of the founding musicians, Julien Dussault of Pony Girl, calls Pop Drone a collection of “global friends."
“While visiting and living in different places around the world, I’ve met a solid bunch of awesome musicians who have a similar open-mindedness about music as and many things beyond,” Dussault explains. “After many of us moved in different directions, the need to play music together still felt very strong, but somewhat expensive thanks to travel costs. So Pop Drone was that entity to allow all these great musicians to converge. The music to come of it has often included novel, fresh elements given that we each have unique backgrounds—not only musically.”
The most fruitful innovation, they say, comes from self-directed groups that balance healthy diversity with similar skill-sets and levels of sophistication. Case in point: Pop Drone. While only about half of the musicians involved are classically trained, they all share similar musical values.
As Pony Girl clarinet and keys player Yolande Laroche points out, “Classically trained means almost nothing when only half of the music is written out. We have great listeners in the bands. That’s how we make music. First we listen to what the others have to say with their voices or instruments, and then we imitate, counter or otherwise add to that music. We are constantly listening and responding to what others are suggesting.”
This collaborative, flat-hierarchy ethos may be rooted in jazz improv, but Pop Drone has taken it far beyond any one genre, marketplace, or nationality.
Says Yuri Bakker of Dialoog (who was raised in the Netherlands by a Korean mother and Dutch father): “I suppose our international backgrounds have most of us making our music with the thought that what’s being created is for a global audience.”
Bakker further contends that because of the little development called the Internet, “any new art—and past art, for that matter—has a worldwide standard to live up to. It no longer matters if your music is ‘better’ or more popular than another's in your town. If there’s doper shit on YouTube or Soundcloud, that’s going to be listened to first.”
When being sized up against the world’s best, it helps that many of the Pop Drone musicians are part of the emerging global citizenry that identifies with many cultures at once.
“Several of us are what some sociologists would refer to as ‘third culture kids’,” says Clark. “That’s to say, a child to have grown up in a culture foreign to that of his or her parents. Third culture kids tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality.”
Clark, who was raised in Belgium by Canadian parents and lived in France, Italy, and England before moving to Ottawa in 2006, adds that for him “any sense of belonging is in relation to people, and not places. Wherever friendly paths intersect, the whole world seems home for a while.”
Dussault, who was raised in Quebec and lived in the Netherlands for four years, concurred: “Despite nationalities, we share similar values and a similar culture—or more accurately, a similar detachment from any particular culture. Nationalities don’t matter at all. We simply try to group talents and make global music that, by nature of being released digitally, transcends borders. Damn that's cheesy, but it’s true.”
“An important thread is our individual knowledge of specific repertoires—a definite advantage of having a group that fluctuates from six to twelve people,” adds Jeff Kingsbury, drummer for Pony Girl. “Between each other we can share the music to have affected us, which does include the likes of classical and contemporary orchestral music, early and late jazz, big band, rock and roll, indie, progressive, rap and hip-hop, soul, electro, you name it. We share respect for each other’s taste.”
The almost entirely self-taught Isaac Vallentin of Pony Girl appreciates the openness that permeates the bands: “Those who are classically trained are incredibly patient and gracious to have me involved.”
Pony Girl in rehearsal
Oddities in Ottawa
As Canada’s capital, Ottawa is an international city, though it’s hardly known as a hotbed for globetrotting musicians. Pop Drone became based here mostly through circumstance, but the players have grown to be advocates of the local scene.
The core of Pop Drone met in Europe. Around 2002, Dussault, Bakker, and Cameron Hill were studying together in Den Haag, Netherlands, while Clark, Jordan Downing and Drew Zaremba were at school in Brussels. Later, all six played in the same big band jazz ensemble and eventually made their way to North America to continue studying.
“Over the next few years we’d find time to visit each other or when home for holidays in Europe,” recalls Clark. “Without ever speaking about it, Ottawa made sense for a home base. Between Kingston and Montreal, it suited those of us living in Canada. Close enough to Boston and New York that we could find jazz gigs with Yuri and Mike or club dates for their electro duo so that their travel costs would always be covered. It’s here in Ottawa that Yuri and Mike debuted their electro-jazzhop duo, Dialoog.”
But are Pop Drone ahead of the curve in sleepy O-town? Powell contends that the city has more to offer than most residents realize: “Ever since I’ve been visiting Canada, Ottawa natives seemed surprised and tend to ask ‘why?’ in a way that first caught me off guard. I even get the sense that some buy-in to the notion of Dialoog being at all cool is based on the fact that we’re from Europe and based in New York City. There’s strange talk about Ottawa having a ‘weak’ scene or little going on. Perhaps that explains some reactions to Dialoog but that’s just whack.”
Pop Drone members have enough confidence in Ottawa as a place to make music that they have collectively begun to produce and record remixes of local bands that they like. Remix Ottawa, Volume 1 is the first official collection and was launched in conjunction with this edition of Guerilla magazine. Find the exclusive remix online at . Each remix keeps the original song title and credits the remix artist.
Powell explains the impetus: “With this remix project we’d like to turn others onto the music and musicians in Ottawa that we’ve come to discover and enjoy. This volume of remixes only scratches the surface.”
Remix cover art by Isaac Vallentin of Pony Girl
The collection started with a Ryckholt (Yuri Bakker) remix of a track called “The Astrologist” by the local progressive rock band High Waters.
“For the High Waters remix, we decided to just focus on the vocals,” said Bakker. “In the end, the few lines of lyrics are exactly the same, but we chose to pitch them in numerous pitch-shifted ways in order to create a completely new melody, harmony, arrangement and ultimately, a new work.”
“One main reason we are doing these multinational remixes and collaborations is to create a global network of artists,” Powell points out. “Eventually, we plan to release records that feature artists and producers from all over the world. Guerilla magazine’s Remix Ottawa is only the beginning.”
Adds Clark: “It's been a great way to reach out to more artists—specifically vocalists and producers—and to make friendships. It can be sort of like a first date. We’d love to continue collaborating with many of these artists, in ways beyond remixing.”
Nurturing a collaborative network is hugely important in a globalized music world. Although Pop Drone is based here, Clark points out that busy schedules mean “we’re fortunate to spend a couple months out of every year together at once in Ottawa. We keep in touch and collaborate electronically, otherwise, but nothing matches the sharing of a stage, studio, and rehearsal space.”
Response to Pop Drone’s recent flurry of activity has been strong and far-reaching, spurring the bands and individuals to find more time together. The first official release by Pony Girl was launched with a concert at La Petite Mort Gallery in November that saw a total of nine musicians on stage.
“Feedback exceeded any of our expectations,” Clark reports, “with the release story being picked up by Apartment 613 and The Globe & Mail, Chartattack, the CBC and countless blogs. Suffice to say, it’s an approach we’d use for our next release and friend’s releases, too. I suppose those would be the first albums able to legitimize Pop Drone as any sort of music label.”
In a globalized world, legitimacy is such a fickle thing. Musicians make it big overnight and go broke within a year. Few of the old music production formulas offer much yield—and even multi-talented and multi-national groupings such as Pop Drone know that most of their efforts will go without much financial reward.
“Sharing your music with many is more important to me than making some money on fewer transactions,” reasons Dussault, who is, fittingly, a former accountant. “Give your music away to as many people as possible, offer them albums, artwork and things to purchase … if your music satisfies them, they might like to attend your concerts. Free music spreads more quickly than paid music.”
Becoming known by initially giving it away—far and wide—seems the new model in an age where anyone with a computer can record and anyone with a cell phone can make a video. The people of Pop Drone are embracing that—but they’ve also got the talent and drive to become big draws, perhaps sooner rather than later.
In globalization it may be that the economies sucks, but the kids making the music … those kids are alright.
Dialoog at Café Nostalgica