Usually at Halifax Pop Explosion it’s the out-of-town headliners that are the big draw, and this year’s lineup has some doozies from the experimental pop sound of Oregon’s Japanese Breakfast at the Marquee Ballroom on Thursday to SXSW faves ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead who play downstairs at the Seahorse Tavern later that same night.
Or maybe you want to complete your 2019 Polaris Music Prize shortlist bingo card by catching superb Toronto punk band PUP at the Marquee and Snotty Nose Rez Kids at the Seahorse on Friday and Northern Quebec folk-pop artist Elisapie at St. Matt’s Church on Saturday. There really aren’t any wrong choices, nobody would blame you if you just wanted to hole up at Bearly’s House of Blues & Ribs with Ryan Cook & Sunny Acres on Friday, and Alan Jeffries Band (matinee) or the Hypochondriacs (evening) on Saturday.
It’s worth noting that some of the hottest tickets are local acts like Rich Aucoin, who presents the full multi-media version of his new album Release at St. Matt’s on Thursday night, and the lysergic sounds of Walrus, who present a brand new set of songs from the long-awaited second album Cool to Who on Saturday at the Marquee with winsome New York pop-punk duo Diet Cig.
Relaxing with a beer at the Gus’ Pub/Taco Lino complex at Agricola and North, Walrus co-founder Justin Murphy is fairly fresh from the road after shows with Wintersleep and the briefly reformed Thrush Hermit. He’s also feeling upbeat about the new record which he and his bandmates — including brother Jordan Murphy on drums — recorded over two long days (and two sleepless nights) at the Old Confidence Lodge in Riverport, with studio cohort Charles Austin and Lodge honcho Diego Medina helping them shape the sound.
To some degree, you can hear the sound of the room on the record, which sports the reverb-drenched guitars and layered vocals found on the debut album Family Hangover, but with more space and variety, and a stronger sense of melody.
Cool to who
Murphy says there was an element of a creative pressure cooker to the making of Cool to Who, from the writing to the recording, that may have tempered his expectations but yielded surprising results.
“We had a couple of days booked at the Old Confidence Lodge, because we got a grant to work on one song, but I was in a bit of a writer’s funk and I felt like I really didn’t have anything,” he recalls. “But then Jordan said if we’ve got these days booked and it’s going to cost X amount of money, why don’t we just try and do as much as we can?
“I didn’t feel like I had anything, but then we went into Jordan’s attic and jammed acoustically, and I kept pulling out all these half-songs and random stuff that I had, and everyone kept saying it was amazing. So that boosted my confidence completely, and all of a sudden we had 10 songs, so let’s do them all.”
Austin, the former Super Friendz guitarist and Echo Chamber studio guru has become something of a musical godfather to the band, thanks to similar tastes in bands and an ability to capture the kind of middle ground between garage and shoegaze that they inhabit with relative ease.
Murphy says it makes for a comfortable environment while recording, even as the clock is ticking, but in self-deprecating fashion he sometimes questions Austin’s faith in the band’s abilities.
“He’s not going to bullshit you into making something you don’t want to make, but at the same time he’s the ultimate confidence booster,” he explains. “Even if you have the worst take, he’s like, ‘Oh, I dunno man, sounded pretty killer to me!’
“You just want him to lay the bad news on you for once. Like, my voice will crack and he’ll go, ‘Oh man, you sound just like John Lennon!’ And I’ll just say, ‘Oh, do I?’"
On the road again
No doubt the results will go over well with audiences once Walrus is back on the road and retracing its steps to reconnect with fans. Especially considering how widely the band toured after the release of the debut album Family Hangover, with overseas trips to the U.K., France and Germany.
But Murphy considers playing the Estonian city of Tallinn, on the Gulf of Finland, one of the band’s most unique experiences, and wonders what other nooks and crannies of the Old World may hold in store.
“Tallinn is a fun city, and it’s weird; it’s almost like Quebec City because it’s divided into this really beautiful old sector with amazing architecture and winding roads, and then there’s this new part that’s really progressive and technologically advanced, with this new Eastern Europe, new Soviet country kind of vibe."
He says the best part of playing overseas — besides getting compared to bands they’ve never heard of before — is getting a raft of messages from new fans on social media wondering when they’ll be back.
“They’ll ask you to come back to Switzerland, or Germany, and you wonder, ‘Wow, were they really that much into us?’ It’s amazing to see how far you can send out your music or your art, if you have the opportunity.
“A lot of bands never get the chance to play outside of Halifax, and when you get over to a place like that, you’re so bright eyed and bushy tailed that even if you’re playing a show and there’s no one there, it’s still the best (thing) ever.”
For HPX festival and conference info, artist lineups and the schedule lowdown, visit halifaxpopexplosion.com.
Halifax Pop Explosion isn’t the only festival taking place in the city this weekend. There are a couple more worthy of your attention, starting with Dartmouth Flood II, named after another disaster that hit the city, but filling the basement of Jacob’s Lounge with music instead of dank overflow from the Shubenacadie Canal.
Thursday through Saturday features artists like Cousins’ Aaron Mangle, Vulva Culture, Botfly, Ghost Pills, the return of the Motes, Moon, Fantasy Eye, Kestrels ... and more goodness besides. Check the event Facebook page for a complete listing.
If you’re looking for something more acoustic, or you missed out on getting up to Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton, Re-Jigged will be in full swing Friday through Sunday at Christ Church Hall, First Baptist Church and MacPhee Centre in downtown Dartmouth.
It starts Friday night with the Re-Jigged All-Stars Concert at Christ Church Hall, featuring Wendy MacIsaac, Mairi Rankin, Mac Morin, Cormac Begley and more, with workshops, demonstrations and concerts galore over the following two days.
For fiddle tunes, stepdancing, bagpipe blowouts and Gaelic singing, check out the schedule at www.rejiggedfestival.com for more info.