Vancouver feels like a city on the edge of the world. A distant outpost cut off from civilization by a broad ridge of impassable mountains on one side and the depths of a dark unplumbable ocean on the other. This geographical isolation creates a communal sense of survivalist creativity necessary to endure the months of dark winter rain. This was especially true in the time before the days of the internet and sense of global community. In 1991 Vancouver was still very much a small town where every person was at most a mere one degree of separation away from another and whenever someone new arrived on the scene word travelled quickly.
My band at the time Tankhog had just come off what felt like a decade long North American tour with Vancouver industrial giants Skinny Puppy when Bill Baker approached us about recording a song for a new label he was forming with his friend Randy Iwata. I’ve known Bill Baker since we were teenagers. We even played together in a short-lived band called Pollyanna Slaughterhouse when we were just out of high school. That project disbanded after one show but there may still be a single cassette copy of that groundbreaking event. Bill and Randy asked us if we wanted to record a cover of a Ministry song for a split single with fellow Vancouver band Windwalker. Windwalker submitted Ministry’s “Burning Inside” and we went into the studio and created a mashup of Link Ray, Madonna, and Ministry for our version of “So What”. Released as a 7” on mint green vinyl this was Mint Records’ inaugural offering to the world. In the subsequent decades Mint Records has not only managed to survive and thrive but continues to add talent to an impressive lineage that includes Neko Case, The New Pornographers, Pack AD and countless other instantly recognizable artists.
It was serendipitous when For The Love Of Bands reached out to me and asked if I was interested in writing about this year’s Mint Seasonal Event (Christmas Party). I agreed immediately and reached out to Bill who now lives deep in the interior of the province. It had been several years since we’d last talked and I was interested to get his perspective on Mint’s continuing success.
“The spirit of Mint hasn’t changed,”
Bill said, “We’re never concerned about profiting first. It’s always about working with people we enjoy working with.” It’s this approach that has established Mint as a quintessential Vancouver institution and a touchstone in the global music community.
Mint threw their yearly party at The Astoria which is one of the remaining live music venues in Vancouver to book loud independent artists. Vancouver has been busy over the years shuttering live music venues but the Astoria has managed to escape the systematic culling. I got there just as Mint artists Needles//Pins took the stage. It was an eight-band bill and I was unable to see all of them—I managed 4 out of 8 which I think is pretty good considering my age and tinnitus.
Needles//Pins played behind a festive barricade of bright balloons that lined the front of the low stage. This band is an energetic punk rock force who remind me of the glory days of Stiff Little Fingers complete with anthemic gang vocals. I’ve always seen punk rock as the beauty of imperfection. Passion over virtuosity. A pure outpouring of emotion that overrides aesthetics. Needles//Pins keep their approach loud and simple with tight vocal melodies and guitar hooks. Mint has always had a finely tuned ear for pop and Needles//Pins is no exception. Their talent lies in their ability to write songs that sound instantly recognizable and I found myself singing along enthusiastically to songs I’d never heard before.
After Needles//Pins I found Bill standing off to the side and he introduced me to Ryan Dyck (His Instagram handle is the genius @dyckpycks) who is one of the most recent additions to the Mint staff. Bill and Randy have always spanned the generational divide within their ranks to keep in touch with the immediate musical landscape and Ryan acts as that current bridge.
When I got a chance to talk to Ryan about music in this city he said,
“Vancouver is a hard city to be a musician in and not very many of our BC-based artists make a living from music. They almost always have a flexible day job/career that allows them to tour and record enough to promote their records. For that reason, there is a lot of camaraderie among artists.”
With closing venues and Vancouver’s outrageous cost of living that camaraderie and sense of community is vital in withstanding the ongoing cultural exodus to less expensive cities. Bands have had to get actively involved and creative to find places to play.
“Our bands almost exclusively play in a network of underground and semi-legal venues since most clubs don’t want to give up space on weekends for rock bands when a DJ is cheaper and easier and brings in a crowd with more money.”
There is an extensive history of underground performance spaces in Vancouver that dates back long before the razing of neighbourhoods for condo towers and real estate speculation that led to the now critical housing crisis. Warehouses that used to act as artist studios and performance spaces are now exclusive lofts or divided into 500 square foot condos priced in the millions. Musicians who stay within the city limits are forced to be increasingly inventive in their means of survival. Thankfully Vancouver artists are a resilient breed and there is no lack of creative ingenuity.
Dumb came on stage next embodying a sense of charming awkwardness. Singer Franco Rossino asked the soundman if they needed to check anything in a cautious endearing way. He stood at the mic waiting for an answer and when one didn’t come he just shrugged and looked down at his feet. One of the most appealing things about Mint bands has always been their lack of pretence and Dumb’s self-conscious stage presence makes their sharp angular songs instantly approachable.
When I previewed their most recent album “Seeing Green” they reminded me of Gang Of Four, early Wire, or even of the seminal Vancouver band U-J3RK5. Live Dumb came across as an explosion of pent up frustration released in blasts of shortcutting songs and during those moments the band was instantly at home on stage. Visibly lost in that beautiful moment where self is dissolved in the essence of rhythm and sound. They were noisier and more chaotic than their recordings and that came across well in front of the packed dancing crowd. Their drummer held the set together flawlessly (Actually all the drummers for the bands were outstanding—the fact that Ryan Dyck is also a drummer might not be coincidental). When they finished Rossino thanked Mint, the bartenders, their friends and gave a hesitant wave goodbye.
Something that was remarkable to me was how nice everyone was at this event. The Mint staff, the bands, the bar employees, and the audience were entirely kind and courteous. This is a noticeable shift from when I was going to see bands as a kid. There was no one being beaten up by bouncers, no brawls with psychotic gangs of skinheads, no one shooting drugs in the bathrooms, no one even visibly too drunk to stand—open purses were left on tables when people got up to watch the bands. Bill told me, “We try to work exclusively with nice people”, and this obviously reflects their artists’ fans as well. I’d never felt so safe at a gig.
It was Giles Roy’s from Woolworm’s birthday and when he stepped up to the mic he pleaded to the crowd, “Quit buying me shandies!”. In spite of Roy’s possible inebriation, Woolworm presented their deafening wall of sound interlaced with delicate melody lines perfectly. Of all the bands on the bill, I was most familiar with Woolworm. I’ve played their 2017 album Deserve To Die a lot over the past year. The inherent sadness and melancholy in its sonic density is ideal Winter in Vancouver music.
The sweetness in Roy’s vocals offers hope despite the darkness of the lyrical content. The album reminds me of My Bloody Valentine and this came across even more clearly live as they carefully balanced dissonance and harmony to create an inescapable mood that was both hypnotic and existentially alarming. They play live with more aggression than on their recordings and in keeping with the night’s drummers, Nick Tolliday’s hard heavy hits drove the velocity exposing shades of Woolworm’s hardcore roots. This energy wouldn’t allow for any postpunk shoegazing and kept the audience engaged and moving. By the end of the set, Woolworm had brought comfort and hope to the core of our collective loneliness.
And then there was Lié. And this is where I might start using the word “fuck” a lot. Because fuck Lié is good! Part Minor Threat, part early Sonic Youth, and part I don’t know what the fuck they moved on stage as single animal with a ferocity that tore apart genre and identity. Lié is every reason I started going to punk shows to begin with. Bassist Brittany West plays her bass like a percussive instrument. I was standing in front of her bass cab and the vibration hammered my ribs in a way I haven’t felt since seeing Motorhead as a teenager.
Lié embody why I’m losing my hearing and I don’t give a fuck. They are a clear definition of what it means to be warriors as opposed to soldiers. Soldiers follow external orders whereas warriors are guided by an inner guiding voice and never stop moving to bring that voice into the world. Lié are fucking warriors and their inner voice screams through them in gloriously blinding light and deafening feedback. Watching West and guitarist and co-vocalist Ashlee Luk command the stage as drummer Kati J played almost freeform rhythms I was abandoned to a sense of pure joy in witnessing something musically and spiritually transcendent.
After Lié essentially shattered my delicate nervous system I had to leave. I wish I had had the stamina to see the other four bands. Faith Healer, Kellarissa, Energy Slime, and Necking are all well worth checking out and further demonstrate the musical diversity in Mint’s lineup.
Mint’s current roster is unmistakably strong and perhaps even the strongest it’s been in years. They continue to be a vibrant and musically important keystone of this city’s community. As Ryan Dyck put it quite simply,
“I think we have the best Vancouver bands.”
On my way out I stopped at the merch table to tell Brittany West how much I loved their show. In keeping with the overall vibe of the night she was incredibly gracious and gave me a pack of Lié matches that made me wish I still smoked cigarettes. I guess there’s plenty of time to start again or put them to better use igniting dumpster fires in condo developments. As nice as the people of Mint are I’m sure I’d have their approval.
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