Canada’s hidden rock history: Interview with Vincent Tornatore of Lion Productions

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What is the dope-smokiest song that everybody needs to hear?

Canada has a hidden history of amazing recorded music. Sure, the country is known for churning out some hot jams over several decades, but there is a weird, seedy underbelly of rock ‘n roll that only a smattering of vinyl fanatics know about – and pine after.

Bands such as The Plastic Cloud (Bay Ridge, ON), Nihilist Spasm Band (London, ON), and 49th Parallel (Calgary, AB) released albums in the 60’s, and lately, collectors have been shelling out as much as $3000 for a single copy of any one of these acts. But now, thanks to reissue label Lion Productions based in Geneva, Illinois, these records are now available at affordable prices and available to a much wider audience.

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We recently talked to Vincent Tornatore, the owner of the label, about Canadian psych, vinyl reissues and the dope-smokiest song that everybody needs to hear:

OM: I feel like 2014 was an awesome year for Lion. You reissued albums by three legendary Canadian bands (The Plastic Cloud, 49th Parallel, and Nihilist Spasm Band). Record collectors were shelling out thousands of dollars for rare original pressings. Can you tell me how you came to know about each of these albums and why you felt it important to reissue them?

VT: We’ve been deep into Canadian psych for a long time, through work we’ve done with Canadian reissue label Pacemaker. They released a CD comp of 49th Parallel ages ago (fifteen years?). At some point, roughly eleven or twelve years ago, Lion Productions and Pacemaker started collaborating on CD reissues of Canadian rarities: The Plastic Cloud, 49th Parallel, Folklords, Christmas (their debut album), Souls of Inspyration, A Passing Fancy, Jarvis Street Revue, and two volumes of rare Gaiety Records singles. The rights to all of those albums—plus a few more from the Allied catalogue—became available several years ago; so, we bought them (we being one of my friends from Pacemaker and myself). Crazy! That certainly makes the task of licensing them for reissue a simple one.

It’s difficult to recall the arc of my Canadian psych education. I first heard the Folklords “Release the Sunshine” album via the Void label LP reissue… loved it first time I heard it. It’s such an out-of-time album, sounds more 1980’s and 1960’s, which makes it fascinating to me. I can’t remember how I first heard the Plastic Cloud album, but it struck me from the start as an important psychedelic cornerstone. Although all the “psychedelic gurus”, the Acid Archives crowd, rate it as one of the top ten psych albums all-time, it’s still relatively unknown, it still needs to be noticed more, in my opinion. Nihilist Spasm Band “No Record” was re-released in Japan around the time I started working in reissues… that was my introduction to their inspired madness.

The last part of your question is the most difficult to answer. It’s circular, I own them, therefore I reissue them, but I own them because I had already reissued them and didn’t want to lose the license; and I reissued them in the first place because I thought the music was excellent and deserved to be better known. But how did I come to that conclusion? That’s how it is with music. It’s a type of romance. Who knows what makes you love one song or band and not another? I’ve always had great sympathy for the under-appreciated in music. An example: jazz saxophonists Hank Mobley, Ike Quebec, and Tina Brooks, or pianist Herbie Nichols (all on Blue Note, by the by). As a side note, when I first heard them, not many people gave a damn about Blue Note, it was well before the surge in interest. Sure, you’d hear about Coltrane, but not these others. Thanks to cheap cut-out Blue Note CDs, I found these other players who in many ways were better than Coltrane (and in other ways not). That same process comes into play in my choice of what to reissue. If it seems like the quality is there, then I want people to hear the music.

OM: Is there anything about the bands I mentioned that feel distinctly Canadian to you? Is there anything about the compositions that ring of the particular regions?

VT: Often, national characteristics in music are rooted in folk traditions. That is certainly true of the Cambodian and Korean and Uruguayan music I’ve released. But it is not the case with the Canadian bands. If anything, the only unifying characteristic is their lack of concern with being commercial in their sound. Maybe they thought that they were making “popular” music, but I doubt it… it’s certainly not what Nihilist Spasm Band were out to accomplish! Even the most successful Canadian artists I can think of, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen, are known for their self-actualized anti-commercial actions. So, if creative independence is a distinctly Canadian trait…?

On the bright side, I think the success of recent acts from Canada like Arcade Fire, Feist, etc. has shifted the public perception of Canadian music. For years, store owners would tell me that Canadian music wasn’t “exotic enough” to reissue. But I did it anyway…. and now that prejudice seems to be fading away.

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OM: Lion also partnered with Kreation to reissue Canadian metal/prog band Warpig’s debut album. Would you tell me about your discovery of the band, and what is was like to work with another record label?

VT: I’ve known about the Warpig album for some time. Kreation approached me about doing a combined LP pressing, and I was glad to do it. As long as Lion Productions has been around, I’ve worked together with other labels. It’s a long list: Light in the Attic, Pacemaker, Rockadrome, Get On Down, Obscure Oxide, Thermionic, Acme Grammophone, Color Tapes, Musea, Hallucinations. I might even have forgotten one or two (hope not). It’s easy for me. And it makes it easier to get more releases out, and have them be released the way I would like to see them made available.

OM: You seem to have secured great distribution. Why did you give birth to Lion Productions? Has it been sustainable?

VT: I hope so. For a label that’s been around more than 10 years and with nearly 150 releases, I’m still very underground—and my sales reflect that fact. Lion Productions was born out of difficult circumstances. I was working for a niche distributor, selling this same sort of music. The owner of that company wanted out, as his parents were aging and needed care. I had spent a few years writing and self-publishing a novel. Then 9/11 happened. Things looked bleak, and I realized I needed to do something, to make a move. I had many friends in the psych music world, including people at labels, so that’s where I decided to put my energy. Lion Productions existed (and exists) first as a niche wholesale distributor of obscure music. From the start, however, I wanted to have my own label. As soon as I could line up some releases, I started as a label. It’s sustainable, but only just. The distro side of things works to create cash flow to make the reissues. Unlike contemporaries like Numero or my pals at Light in the Attic, though, I’ve not broken through with anything. One or two strong sellers can really set up a label to do more than barely survive year after year. But there’s a strong element of luck in that sort of thing; luck and a promotional budget that does not exist in these parts!

OM: Are there any Canadian bands past or present that you feel more people should investigate?

VT: We’ve recently released Ptarmigan on LP, with a new version coming on CD (we first did it many years ago) in a couple of months… an intense and spectacular mystical album. Soon we’ll be releasing LP and CD versions of one that most people won’t have heard, bpNichols “Motherlove”, one of Madlib’s favorites. We’re going to finally re-release Christmas “S/T” on vinyl and CD, with detailed notes and photos from Bob Bryden’s archives. That’s a classic psychedelic album, and would be rated as one of the best from all of North America if the cover art didn’t make it seem like something other than what it is. Happily I’m also close on the still very much under-rated Souls of Inspyration album, with full history, photos, and bonus tracks for the CD version. I think people should check out the “Cool Aid Benefit Album” 2xLP we did with Light in the Attic and Regenerator. Some of the best music I’ve heard from Canada is on there, plus some very interesting oddities. Oh, and Dewline’s ‘Ode to a Cucumber’ is one of the dopest (and dopiest, and dope-smokiest) songs I’ve ever heard; everyone needs to listen to it. There are plenty of others, but I’m trying to license them, so I’d rather not name any just yet.