Weird Saskatoon Part 1: Scotch Tapes – Al Bjornaa

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Scotch TapesThe following is part 1 of a series on the burgeoning Weird Canada scene and Saskatoon’s place within that scene. Last month, Weird Canada had the distinction of being voted the winner of CBC Radio 3’s Searchlight 2011 competition. With more media types, musicians, labels and fans starting to take notice, Weird Canada – a loosely-defined movement – is becoming something of a new trend. Weird, especially considering that the CBC doesn’t play the majority of “Weird Canada” bands.

Scotch Tapes – Al Bjornaa

It’s nothing short of amazing that one of Canada’s most prolific and engaging labels that promotes punk and other weirdness – Scotch Tapes – is based out of Batchawana Bay in Northern Ontario. Yeah, you should probably go ahead and Google map that shit right now.

Even better, despite being confined to a geographical locale that most associate with endless highways, endless trees and moose with laser beams for eyeballs, the music of Saskatoon has somehow managed to infiltrate this esoteric scene.

For those who don’t know, Al Bjornaa, owner and operator of Scotch Tapes, rules. When not a part of a Great Lakes fishing team, Al makes love to his cassette tape duplicator and his vinyl record lathe. In addition to releasing the like of The Famines, Dirty Beaches and Shearing Pinx to name a few, locals Night Danger and The Eyebats are among the latest Saskatoon bands to be featured on the label – their split cassette was just released this month on Scotch.

The following is a short interview with Al Bjornaa, shortly after the whole Weird Canada/CBC debacle.

Ominocity: As someone who is running a label – a business – why do you embrace cassettes, which to 98% of the population are essentially a dead format?

Al Bjornaa: I like cassettes because it’s something real. A CD is simply digital renderings of a recorded product. It’s ripped to a computer or mp3 player and discarded. It’s basically a worthless medium with no value. A cassette is something that you need to have in order to listen to the music. I also like the collectibility of such items. Limited run tapes and records make the customer feel like they are getting something special, not just some cluster of 1’s and 0’s that’s available to every living soul on earth for free. In a small community that is comprised of independent, marginal music, I feel CD’s are the dead format. Cassettes and vinyl are king.

OM: Why do you think there has been a huge rise in the Weird Canada scene (which is tied to the cassette movement) despite many of the bands that adhere to the loosely defined movement being more or less anti-mainstream success?

AB: I think people are just fed up with “music” being rammed down our throats. Everywhere you look you see Justin Beiber or Lady Gaga. They represent what some old douchebag in the corporate world thinks is cool… or at least profitably cool. The whole Weird Canada/ marginal scene has grown because it focuses on art, music and community. All of us (small labels, lesser known bands, people willing to part with money for music) try to help each other. We have stopped buying crap from the iTunes store in order to support each other. We are all music lovers and want to help create good music by starting a band or a label, by buying a limited tape of some band on tour instead of a Drake album or by helping book tours. There are far more of us out there than corporate music realizes. We are just starting to come out from the shadows.  And it’s not that we are anti-mainstream. But we all want success on our terms. I really hope bands from our scene can make a living at what they do but we are all cool knowing this is unlikely to happen.

OM: Saskatoon has perennially been known as an underdog music centre, a scene that harbours unknown talent. How did you discover the bands from there? Or anywhere for that matter?

AB: A few of the bands actually held me hostage at gunpoint for 6 days until I relented and said I would put out their music. But that’s just Saskatchewan. I normally find cool bands on sites like Weird Canada or by actually paying $5 to see bands play live. Plus I get a fair amount of demos in the mail. The Internet has made it easy to find bands. In the 60’s-70’s-80’s a label had to have an A&R crew who would go to shows and look for new talent. Now it’s as simple as checking out some blogs and paying attention to changing scenes. I think the entire Canadian landscape is scattered with unknown talent. It’s not just a Saskatchewan thing, although I do think the prairies, especially Saskatchewan and Manitoba, are overlooked. Maybe it’s a lack of venues. Maybe it’s the bands just not looking to reach out more to other scenes in Canada. Maybe it’s the fact that most people on the prairies are morphed into 6 foot blocks of ice for 5 months a year. But I agree that there are loads of talent in Saskatchewan. I hope that by releasing a few, the other unknowns can be heard.