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Interviews Vol. II

Adam White of Some Party in Discussion 28 Oct. 2020
Interview and Illustration by Raymond Biesinger

Welcome to 2020, a year in which live music is in an indefinite coma, a Canadian music email mailing list puts out compilations, and a weird record label-type thing interviews people between projects. Pretend it's a decade earlier and the preceding sentence seems nonsensical, but here we are; Pentagon Black is interviewing Adam White, Punknews.org's unofficial managing editor and founder/sole contributor of the Some Party weekly email newsletter, a publication that has shared information about "the latest independent Canadian rock'n'roll" in about 170 instalments. Given we’re all sitting around on computers, it feels like a good interview to conduct right now. Things discussed in this article include:

1. Some Party (http://someparty.ca) 2. Flemish Eye (http://flemisheye.com) 3. Punknews.org (http://punknews.org) 4. “E-mail Newsletters are the New Zines” (http://medium.com/email-newsletters) 5. Under the Circumstances (http://someparty.ca/store/under-the-circumstances) 6. Bloodstains Across Ontario (http://mammothcave.bandcamp.com/album/mcr017) 7. Constantines (http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantines) 8. Niagara Falls (http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Niagara_Falls) 9. Warehouse Concert Hall (http://warehouseniagara.com) 10. Motorists (http://motorists.bandcamp.com) 11. the Beguiling (http://beguilingbooksandart.com) 12. Tough Age (http://mintrecs.com/artist/tough-age) 13. TJ Cabot (http://tjcabot.bandcamp.com) 14. Deathsticks (http://buysomedeathsticks.bandcamp.com) 15. Barnacle (http://facebook.com/barnaclemtl)

RB. A long, long, time ago I had a discussion with Flemish Eye founder Ian Russell in which he said there were 500 people in Canada who could be interested in the kind of music he was making, deeply enough to commit to buying a record of his or go to a show. It wasn't a defeatist thing, so much a practical consideration when pressing records, doing media, booking tours, etc. Has Some Party broken the "Russell Barrier"? Can I ask how many subscribers Some Party has, or is that secret?

AW. It shouldn't give me any pause to reveal the subscriber count. There's a privacy-focused, anti-commercial, sentiment to the whole project that should spit in the face of the entire notion of privately held audience metrics, yet here I am. Pausing…. I suppose just for the sake of my own fragile vanity. It's a kingdom built on layers of sunk cost fallacy and my stubborn inability to walk away from things. I'm hesitant, perhaps wrongly, to shine too much of a judgemental light on my wasted years.

As of writing this, Some Party is four or five subscribers shy of 700. There's relatively little churn in that list, as well, just a slow but constant creep upwards. There's some more of an audience that looks at the website without subscribing to the mailer, but I don't know their number. They have their reasons for hiding, I'm sure.

That said, Ian's hypothesis feels pretty damn close to reality, particularly if you're looking at it from an underground rock standpoint. It's probably safe to assume that number becomes a lot less meaningful if you expand into other genres, but the idea of that limit is kind of neat and relevant to what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. 

Like, it makes no sense, geographically, why a festival like Ottawa Explosion (RIP) would pull the bands in that it did, (with people driving in from Halifax or flying in from Calgary and Vancouver just to play tiny bar shows over a weekend) unless the community surrounding this music really is that small and tightly bound. I remember watching people shouting along to Needles//Pins outside of Club Saw at Ottawa Explosion a few years back and being floored how many in that crowd knew those lyrics. That's not a big band, by any means, and they're from 3500 kilometres away. I could wander that crowd and recognize the same faces you'd see at Sappyfest in New Brunswick or showing up to watch Fucked Up play the Horseshoe. Shit, I was flown seven hours north to Rouyn-Noranda once to cover FME, and I ran into familiar faces even there. It's not that big of a community, but I relish pointing out the connections between the people within it.

RB. How did Some Party start?

AW. Existential crisis on a cruise ship! I used the name back in 2012 for a little Canadian punk podcast that went nowhere, but the real germ of it came together on a lounge chair of a Royal Caribbean boat while my wife and I were on vacation. I was burnt out on what I was trying to accomplish with Punknews.org and spent much of that trip trying to figure out a way forward. 

There was a time, let's say in 2004, when I could sit on a couch at my parents' house and churn out 8 or 10 good Punknews stories a day, genuinely engaged with the comings and goings of Fat Wreck and Epitaph, Hopeless and Asian Man. It absolutely felt like the work we were doing was helping the bands and labels we covered. It's a vast genre, though, and the more I tried to keep up with Southern California and Chicago, the more I found myself gravitating to the music I could see locally, punk or otherwise. Exclaim and CBC Radio 3 grew essential to me. I was gushing over the New Pornographers and the Sadies and the Three Gut Records roster when everyone else got into emo. As the years went on, I was increasingly and exclusively using Punknews as a means to shoehorn in stories about weird, not-exactly-punk-except-maybe-in-spirit bands like Jon-Rae and the River, Bruce Peninsula, or the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir.

There was also a lingering issue with Punknews from a responsibility standpoint. I was the longest-serving contributor, other than the owner (who's spent the better part of the past decade in a hands-off capacity, editorially). I was nominally referred to as the site's managing editor. My time was increasingly devoted to fighting interpersonal fires from label owners or PR vets who felt that their long-running past relationships with the site inferred a certain amount of reciprocity in coverage. Staffing issues started to feel uncomfortable, as well. Punknews is and was entirely volunteer-run, myself included—in many ways, it's a holdout from the wild west of pre-social media hobby blogs. It was one thing for us old-timers to keep it going, but I couldn't bring myself to farm new contributors into an environment where they'd have those relationships thrust upon them. Not for no pay, not these days. While I never felt my labour was exploited by Punknews, at the same that time I couldn't just naively run HR and ops management for a publication I ultimately have no real control over. That's too fucking fraught, even if everyone has the best of intentions. 

So I found myself wanting to do something I had ownership over—that would live or die by my own biases and require nothing of anyone else. All that's predicated on the fact that I couldn't just recognize that 15 years was a "good run," quit, buy some video games, and live my life like a goddamn normal person. 

RB. How did you settle on the format? Email lists are usually a branch of something bigger, rather than a thing in themselves.

AW. Before I settled on email, the plan was always to do something weekly. I wanted to free myself of the pressure to have news posted when it was fresh and relevant. I'd often stumble across some song I wanted to share on Punknews, but we fancied ourselves a journalistic organization, so if it wasn't something I could frame as “news” I'd have to set aside. We were always scrambling to react to things as they happened, and if we didn't, we'd get blowback. Heaven forbid someone notable die, and our unpaid contributors wait a few days to post about it. We'd get eaten alive by the commenters.

After that cruise, I stumbled across a blog post on Medium.com titled "Email Newsletters are the new Zines." It used photocopied punk zines as a colourful analogy for the resurgence in newsletters. It was actually arguing that newsletters were filling the long-form writing itch previously occupied by personal blogs. I'm not that sophisticated, so I guess I took it at face value.

The cool thing about newsletters is that they free you from much of the Search Engine Optimization bullshit that's homogenized the rest of the Internet while catering to big tech. All that nonsense prose you have to sift through to find a good cooking recipe online is the direct result of publishers over-applying these Google-fostered practices at the expense of the reader. A newsletter is so old school that you have to reject much of contemporary content strategy to do it right. That's freeing for me.

RB. Tell me about the Under the Circumstances compilation you put out in the Spring.

AW. I grew up mainlining ‘90s punk compilations, the Punk'o'Rama, Give ‘Em The Boot, and Fat Music standards, of course, but also Canadian sets like Stomp's All Skanadian Club. Hell, the freebie comps you used to get with magazines introduced me to more essential music than I'd care to admit. 

The Bloodstains Across Ontario 7" that Mammoth Cave put out in 2011 felt like the pinnacle of the form, in terms of aesthetic, and I can't deny that the Pentagon Black comps were top of mind as well. Not to kiss too much ass here, but the role those collections play in sonically documenting a time and place in the scene are pretty much unequalled. From my perspective, ever on the journalistic end of things, releasing a record is like creating a primary source when all you've ever done is cite others' work. That there's a Discogs entry for Under The Circumstances feels almost salacious. It'll exist in some collectors' database long after I've burnt myself out on the newsletter itself.

The format was very much a result of me attempting to navigate a way to do this fairly and cheaply. While I'd love to do vinyl, that's not something I wanted to gamble on with an entirely new property. Cassettes are cheap and fun, very much in the spirit of the kind of scrappy underground bands I tend to write about. Only looping in five bands allowed me to give each a big enough chunk of the run that it felt substantive.

We did a few over-the-top silly hip-hop styled mixtapes with Punknews over the years, full of dumb skits and shout outs between songs. I didn't go overboard with that aspect, but I definitely dipped my toe in that. Steve Lambke from You've Changed Records graciously appeared on the intro, in which I retroactively ask him for permission to name the Some Party newsletter after the Constantines song. Steve's public persona's pretty strait-laced, so that he chose to take part in my dumb little joke was wonderful.

I'll do more of these at some point, but they're certainly not paying for themselves. The 500 people interested in what we do divides down to a pretty small number when you add "cassette comp" to the Venn diagram.

RB. How has the COVID changed what you do? I'm asking that on a few levels. Have you been able to dedicate as much time to Some Party as before? Have other people become more (or less) interested in what you're doing, or changed how they respond to the newsletter?

AW. I am fortunate enough to have a day job that can stay open remotely during a lockdown. I'm a software developer, so I could quickly transfer to working from home, although having two bored kids at my heels all summer wasn't ideal. I imagine that Some Party certainly would have benefitted from a bit of isolation and idle time, but I'm hardly going to complain about how good I've had it.

What absolutely fell apart during the lockdown was any sense of a rhythm I had. Even with the weekly schedule, Some Party takes a fair bit of time to assemble. I figured out where to steal a half-hour here or there before the shutdown, but since I've been home all the time, everything's been a blur. My Sunday column's oozed out to become more of a Wednesday-or-Thursday thing as a result, and I'm continually racing the calendar. With the letter focused more on media than touring, my inflow of content hasn't dwindled one bit with the lack of shows. Those Bandcamp artist support days have, if anything, made for some long nights trying to capture it all.

RB. Even pre-COVID, I didn't get out too much on account of two kids and being a bit of a depressive. I have a theory that a lot of musical institutions are operated by old people who feel the need to stay engaged with music but can't stay awake past 9:30 PM. Anyway, you're in Niagara Falls. You've been writing for Punk News for two decades. I suspect you might be "old" too, just like I am. How often would you go to shows before this virus thing happened? What did you tend to check out, when and where?

AW. It's been a struggle. The early Punknews crew used to joke with each other using this #oldpunx hashtag. Figuring out how to navigate music while ageing out of youth culture is undoubtedly a central theme in my life. If I had to guess, I was hitting up on average just a couple shows a month before the pandemic.

Living here shows always involve driving somewhere, 90 per cent of the time solo. The notion of being part of some hyperlocal bar scene where one could see live music with a regular social circle then transit on home afterwards always felt like a decadent fantasy to me, even before I had two kids. That's the road I didn't take after university. That's “Toronto Adam White”, but “Toronto Adam White” doesn’t own a house either, so it cuts both ways.

Niagara can be a bit of a cultural desert for the kind of music I write about. From a touring perspective, it’s in between two markets, so most bands don't stop here even though they drive through it. If a show's not happening in St. Catharines (about 20 minutes from Niagara Falls), that means I've got to commit to getting myself to and from Hamilton or Toronto. For years I would absolutely do that: truck up to see a band play the Horseshoe or the Garrison a few times a month, then hop in the car and cruise on home. I can't do it anymore. The notion of dozing off on the Queen Elizabeth highway just feels too irresponsible and too damn likely as I get older. If I'm up to Toronto for anything these days (pre-COVID "these days"), it means I'm there for the night, and that gets expensive. 

The Warehouse Concert Hall in St. Catharines, run by Erik Dickson of the old IndoorShoes label, is home base for me. It's the only game in town most nights. In the past few years I've also found myself up at This Ain't Hollywood in Hamilton. While it’s now, sadly, shuttered, I still foresee a lot of Hamilton in my future. The artists who've been priced out of Toronto all seem to be setting up shop there.

Even for shows in St. Catharines, though, I'm always fighting inertia to get out of my house. By the time we get the kids down at night, I'm pretty much obliterated. It's a struggle, to be sure, but a primary motivator for me is that I've not once regretted a show that I've dragged myself out to. I suspect, post-COVID, I'll appreciate those opportunities all the more.

Festivals have become more essential for my wife and I as we get older. By making the trip to Sackville for Sappyfest or Ottawa for Side by Side, we can responsibly binge our way through as many bands as possible over a weekend without needing to worry about the commute. Last year we even took the kids along with us to Beau's Oktoberfest in Vankleek Hill, and they had an absolute blast watching dumb punk bands and taking part in that carnival atmosphere. I'd love to make more of that happen.

RB. What was the last show you attended?

AW. Early March. It was to see Motorists, a slick little power-pop group featuring Feel Alright's Craig Fahner on vocals and Jesse Locke of Tough Age drumming. They played a release show for their first cassette in the basement of the Beguiling, a Toronto comic store where Jarrett and Penny from Tough Age work.

In a lot of ways, it was an ideal "last show" for me. I had just started taking my 7-year-old daughter to a few Beguiling gigs. I'm pretty sure I reached the pinnacle of cool, in her eyes, and it's all downhill from here on, as she gets older and realizes how out of touch I am. We'd leave my son and wife at home, drive up in the afternoon and make a whole day of it. The ritual was to hit Sneaky Dee's for a big plate of nachos and an irresponsibly sized milkshake, go people-watch in Kensington Market, then buy some comics from upstairs in the shop before the show. Both times I've taken her, she's fallen asleep on her feet while the last band  played, but she still talks about these outings constantly. I can't bring myself to tell her that Sneaks may not be long for this world. So if that's it—if the last live music experience I have until who-knows-when was playing Cool Dad—I’m ok with that.

RB. Wow. I know the overlap between my kids and my music has been limited, but I’ve found a few golden moments like that. Thanks for sharing yours. And well, this feels like a very cheap question to follow up with, but here goes: what are your go-to sources for new music?

AW. My sources are entwined with the fact that I've been with Punknews for 20 years. My inbox there is an unusable mountain of mostly-ignored PR garbage and coverage reach-outs, but I'm so used to it being in my life I take for granted that ordinary people don't have that. When I started the newsletter, I forced myself to get back into the habit of skimming Exclaim daily. My Some Party inbox and the general ambient chatter of my music circles on social media are where I see most things, though.

RB. A few years ago the Famines were on a long drive and dissected an issue of Exclaim. We estimated that more than 85 per cent of the bands covered in their print edition were represented by professional publicists or accompanied by a paid advertisement. Gross. How does a band get covered by Some Party?

AW. I certainly can't deny that publicists impact my output, but it's usually a matter of them catering to a niche I was already following. I saw The Dirty Nil open Niagara shows for five years before any label gave a shit about them, so their inclusion in what I cover was baked in from the start. That’s Dine Alone money making my job easier, but it's not creating intent. A group like METZ fits that bill too. Sonically, and given their history, they're hardly a band I can ignore, but that Sub Pop PR representation certainly makes getting a pull quote easier.

I'm not sure that most publicists know how to work with me, though. Their whole system is tuned towards maximizing the impact of new media as part of a time-focused campaign. I publish weekly, in giant unsegmented columns, and often run things a week or more after their initial push. I also have this stubborn habit of ignoring Spotify links. I don't feel it respects my audience to assume they subscribe to this-or-that walled garden, however ubiquitous it is. Whatever numbers the publicists are trying to gauge likely get chewed up by the newsletter's rhythm and my general intransigence.

Now I feel like I'm giving away a secret here, but I'm subscribed to literally hundreds of Bandcamp mailing lists. That "follow" button on each band's page is invaluable. I'm often writing about a new song before the band's even started pushing it, and often they don't. Musicians can be remarkably poor self-promoters, even with the free tools at their disposal. 

Here's a direct example: through the Ottawa Explosion, I became online acquaintances with Matty Grace (of Halifax's Future Girls and a dozen other groups). Through her, I assume, I saw mention of a bedroom demo compilation of east coast bands credited to “Martha Stewart's Prison Cell” (whatever that is). I blindly followed every group involved, and some weeks later, in my pile of emails, there's a Bandcamp notification of new music from TJ Cabot (whoever that is). Cabot puts out this EP of wild Ramones worship that's so low-fi and gnarly that it almost sounds like Spits outtakes. To top it off, they're mostly written about this absurdist Boularderie Island independence movement. You couldn't invent a more Some Party-relevant piece of strange Canadian punk art. So that week, the Some Party led with TJ Cabot. No publicist involved. Vancouver's Industrial Priest Overcoats, an Indigenous-perspective weird-punk solo project from one of Bedwetters Anonymous' members, took a similar route. I do the same thing with the support acts playing with bands that were already on high my radar. If you really want Some Party's eye, open for Tough Age.

RB. Can you name three people in Canadian media who would actually listen to a "Some Party" kind of band if they were emailed a link? LOL. I know. Kind of a bleak question.

AW. That's funny because there's a surprising number of people from the major newspapers with Some Party subscriptions. So while I'm reasonably confident I could convince someone who writes for the Star to listen to PEI's Antibodies, I'm not sure they'd have any mandate to do anything professionally with that information. As soon as you start tying money to eyeballs, there's little business case for anyone to cover this stuff.

By and large, the media people in my circle all fall within that 500 person cohort we were talking about. They've already congregated on ventures like Dominionated or the New Feeling co-op, that or they're pulling double-duty in the bands themselves. So, no? Let's say no. I can't name three.

RB. What does the rest of your life look like? Outside of Some Party, I mean.

AW. What a terrifying question. These days, in particular, I have no idea. But let's face facts: even without the pandemic clipping my wings, with two school-age kids, a day job, and the newsletter, there's not much left to go around. I take a fair amount of solace in cooking and tend to plan our lives around these once-a-week, high-effort, dining room table meals. If I could spend all day in the garden or the kitchen, avoiding the Internet at all costs, I'd be perfectly content. I suppose I'm on a long-term journey to become an old Italian grandparent. 

RB. If you had to join a Pentagon Black band, which one would it be?

AW. From a practical standpoint, I feel like Deathsticks would have room in the van and could use some low-end, but I've not touched my bass since high school so I'm probably not of much use. You know that guy who's nominally part of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones but just dances on stage in a suit? I reckon I could do that for Barnacle…. With a snorkel, of course.