by Max Foley
March 15 to 17, 2019
National Music Centre
It’s been said for years now that Calgary’s music scene is world-class, with a number of love letters from all over the world penned in celebration of the talent and culture it’s been incubating. So when rumours of a visit from Red Bull Music Academy started to circulate, it felt like a possibility that was equal parts surprising and inevitable.
Suddenly and sans fanfare, it was happening. Twenty emerging Canadian artists descended on the National Music Centre, supported by the Red Bull Bass Camp war machine. For three days, Studio Bell transformed into a hive of creative exploration, innovation and sometimes deathly-serious experimentation.
Featuring a triple-threat of multitalented industry stalwarts composed of Colombian-Canadian singer-songwriter and Polaris Prize winner Lido Pimienta, American bluesman and boundary-pusher Jerry Williams Jr. (a.k.a. Swamp Dogg), and career experimentalist Gavin Rayna Russom of LCD Soundsystem, Bass Camp’s programming felt like a year’s worth of creative self-exploration distilled into three days. A number of RBMA alumni were invited to support the participants, including Sandro Petrillo (a.k.a. Sergio Levels), future bass polymath Ango, and alt-RnB phenom River Tiber.
All of this talent in one place is bound to make one’s head spin – yet over the span of Bass Camp’s three days, things hummed along harmoniously, with only the occasional distraction wrenching participants away from their endeavours and renewing their inspirations.
CLASS IS IN SESSION
Once everyone was settled in, Swamp Dogg opened things up with a freeform history lesson on Friday morning. Jerry Williams Jr. made his first recording at age twelve. Since then, in his sixty-plus years of activity, he’s estimated to have created over two thousand musical works (including his latest collaborative effort with MoogStar and Bon Iver, Love, Loss and Auto-Tune). As a scholar of the way things used to be, Swamp Dogg had some no-nonsense advice for his contemporaries. “Protect yourself. Ask for money.” The man’s stories of growing up as a musician in segregated America, working with Jane Fonda, and how he ended up on Richard Nixon’s naughty list were a sobering reminder of how drastically the industry (and the world at large) have changed since then. His lifelong existence on the fringes, and his own interpretation of modern trends through his latest album, echoed across Studio Bell’s performance hall when he said “It’s too late for me to be scared.”
Post-lecture, participants were chomping at the bit to make use of the National Music Centre’s one-of-a-kind collection. The half-dozen jam spaces and studios available for use were all bursting at the seams, each a microcosm of a sonic biome.
Legendary monster synth TONTO belted out acidic irregular tones in one room. One floor below, in Control Room A, Text Chunk was putting together a bright but menacing trap beat in Ableton, while fellow Edmontonian Hood Joplin was sharing files with Ashley Velvet. In the background, photographer Allison Seto was shooting portraits of another participant.
In the synth room on the fifth floor, Oberheims, LinnDrums and Moogs joined forces to create a soothing and invigorating lo-fi house beat. “The beat hasn’t changed in twenty minutes and I’m totally ok with it,” noted one member of the Red Bull team.
The halls of the NMC were abuzz with creativity deep into the night.
INTO THE SWING OF THINGS
Sass machine and mother extraordinaire Lido Pimienta opened things up Saturday morning. Raised as a perpetual outcast in Colombia for letting her freak flag fly, Pimienta praised Canada because “[…]there’s a couch for everything here. You can talk things out in a way that you couldn’t in Colombia.” She was a veritable fountain of advice and encouragement (“Only put out music you’re proud of.” “Don’t hide stuff away – you will continue to make amazing sh*t.” “When someone says no, or thinks it’s weird, go for it.”) and premiered some of her latest material with a number of South American musicians. The latter was a beautifully chaotic affair that jumped effortlessly from tempo to tempo, recorded outdoors and laden with authenticity.
That evening, Swamp Dogg headlined the King Eddy with a band he had assembled in record time, including NMC audio guru Jason Tawkin on bass and RBMA alumnus HomeSick on guitar. The man’s decades of experience and experimentation bled into the crowd, a series of moments cryogenically frozen in the 70s and thawed almost a half-century later. To watch him step offstage and individually shake everyone’s hand, without ever missing a beat, was something else – to say nothing of the emotionally charged (and sometimes almost-too-personal) interludes that punctuated every song.
Again, as soon as the show was over, participants returned to the studios. Emotions were high and energies flowed feverishly, almost as if it were our last night on earth. Cutting-edge footwork boomed out of the break room speakers; meanwhile, Korea Town Acid noodled away the night on a synth in Control Room B – blissfully and willfully lost on an entirely different plane of existence.
Things got real cerebral, real fast Sunday morning, thanks to Gavin Rayna Russom’s session in the performance hall. Kicking off with an absolute belter of a track – an enrapturing minimal electro track produced under Russom’s ‘Black Meteoric Star’ alias titled Love Song #1 – journalist Aaron Gonsher navigated three inspiring decades, chronicling Russom’s early years and the birth of LCD Soundsystem. Getting a glimpse of her encyclopedic knowledge of the avant-garde was challenging and eye-opening.
Russom then led an open-ended workshop, question period and synth demonstration, before everyone went their separate ways. Some went to the studios, some outside to catch the first rays of sun Calgary had seen in a while, and some remaining and chatting in the performance hall. There was a tinge of melancholy in the air as the week’s end loomed.
Watching twenty-almost strangers, plus a complement of masters and mentors, leave with new friendships forged made it clear that RBMA is more than just a place for DJs to trade business cards – it’s as close as you can get to pure purpose and artistic focus, if only for a time.
For Calgary to have been chosen is a good omen indeed.
Postscript Edit: Since the initial writing of this article, it has been announced that Red Bull Music Academy and Red Bull Radio’s current iterations will finish in October of 2019.Red Bull Bass Camp, Red Bull Music Academy, Swamp Dogg