Andrew Hood on Jim Guthrie's unlikely musical revolution
UNBEKNOWNST TO ME at the time, downtown Guelph—the small city an hour west of Toronto, where I grew up—was a fecund place to be in the 90s, busy with as many rock shows then as it is with fistfights and ticketings for public urination now. Weiner that I was, I’d mostly venture down to get my hair cut at a salon in the shopping centre or exchange some singlebased CanRock CD I’d got from Columbia House at whatever long-since-closed record store. The high school hardcore scene of the late-80s and early-90s had kept on keeping on but as the explosion of Nirvana and this new “alternative” music lent light to less-explored tunnels and tributaries of the underground, the lone farting-around of individuals like Jim Guthrie—a musician whose meanderings would become a map for a generation of artists—was brought into a new, more organisable context.
“When I first bought a 4-track and started playing shows (’92 – ’93),” Jim wrote to Wavelength, a weekly showcase that served as a launching pad for some of the best music to come out of Toronto since 2000, “the underground local music scene [in Guelph] was incredible. Everybody was making music and everybody had their own sound. It was weird because at any given show you would hear some of the craziest rock you’d ever heard and nobody was selfconscious, everyone was really into what they were doing. It was a lot of hard work but nobody cared because we all felt like we were sharing something more important.”
“It was kind of a resurgent hippie generation,” admits Stewart Gunn, member of that scene and half, along with Colin Clark, of the Sonic Bunny cassette label. “Everybody was just trying to love everybody else.
“There was a really wide range of music being made, and a lot of good music. A lot of people got involved because they had the support to get involved. So there were lots of people making music who had no long-term musical ambition or no particular musical skill. And in the centre of that was a guy like Jim, who was obviously a skilled musician who had honed his craft and was continuing to do so. But he would have been doing whatever whenever; you got the sense that he was driven by something more than the convenience of it.”
A CD released as a fundraiser for CFRU, the University of Guelph radio station, The Goods: A Guelph Compilation amounts to something of a class photo of that scene. Genrewise, you’ve got your folk, traditional, post-rock, pop, hip hop, punk, spoken word, and whatever heartbreaking plinking you want to call Jim’s “How we get old.” It gives you a good sense of how varied such a small scene was. But when you take a look at the personnel, do a head count, the players don’t vary as much as the sound.
If you’re a collector of Canadian indie rock, The Goods is full of rookie cards. You find Aaron Riches here, Tim Kingsbury, Jamie Thompson, Reg “Gentleman Reg” Vermue, Liz Powell, Noah 23, Evan Gordon, and Megali Meagher. As members of and contributors to the likes of Arcade Fire, the Unicorns, Islands, Land of Talk, the Hidden Cameras, and Broken Social Scene, these are kids who would go on to help articulate a sound and an energy that repopulated the sere fallout left by—amongst other factors—major label mishandling of an earlier generation of artists.
“I think we were all naturally skeptical of that sort of ambition [to be successful],” says Tim Kingsbury, now of Arcade Fire, of Gentleman Reg and the Stealth Cats and the Stewart Gunn Band then. “It was really more about having fun and looking for interesting things without an end in mind.”
But if we’re calling The Goods a class photo, let’s specify: it’s a graduation sitting. These shaggy-haired, grinning kids mostly had one foot out of town. And what was special about Guelph’s output, that tangible verve and perspicacity that you can find laced into so much of what’s happening in Canadian music now, was already stressing the seams of the place itself.
Properly exploring the parentage of this scene would turn into the worst kind of Maury Povich episode. Everybody was influencing everybody in that hot tub of 90s Guelph—“A super soup of influence,” as Jim calls it. But to source the spirit of the scene, we can microscope the idea of “home rock,” a phrase and an ideology that animated these pockets of Guelph.
Addressing a lack of women programmers, CFRU put out a call for new hosts in ’91. Still in high school, Beate Schwirtlich got herself a slot. The Screaming Virgins Radio Show aired Friday nights from 12 – 2 a.m. Beate had been to the station plenty for parties or rock shows before seeing the ad. “CFRU at the time, honestly, you went there and partied,” she says. “You smoked and brought booze. If you had a late-night show, there might be a scene going on.”
“It was a great place to hang out,” Stephen Evans agrees. “Goof around, get drunk, get high, discover music together.”
The 10 p.m. show leading into Beate’s, Rock Show, was hosted by Gord High. A few years older than Beate, Gord was a Fine Arts student. “He had a genius IQ,” she says, “and had a way of believing in people and would motivate you to have confidence to do [things] and to want to do it, and make it seem fun. We started having these Tuesday night rock nights. I didn’t know how to play guitar, so I learned jamming with him.”
Gord recorded these sessions on his 4-track. A home version of a studio multi-track, the 4-track made it possible to record, as the name implies, four different tracks onto one cassette.
It was through Beate that Jim met Gord. “He was totally different than anyone I knew,” he remembers. “You almost feared Gord. He was this grumpy guy who smoked a lot of cigarettes, but was super intelligent and played guitar like nobody I knew. He taught me how to do-it-for-yourself, and how a lot of other people who are famous did it for themselves, how every scene started from nothing.”
“In his apartment,” Beate remembers, “he had this stupid poster that said HOME BAKING. He got it from a thrift store and it was meant to be in a restaurant, with pictures of pies or something like that on it. The idea was store-bought versus homemade. Home baking, home fries, home rock. His thing with home rock was to motivate people to just do it yourself, and do it cheap.”
“Gord was one of the first people who truly hit home [to me] how little of a plan you needed to make music,” says Jim, “how little you needed. There’s just something about the creative process where you have to throw yourself into it. You just turn up the amps and go. I was maybe a little bit more careful with my own ideas. Whereas Gord was more like, ‘Don’t even talk about what you’re playing, just start.’ He was way more experimental, and taught me how to go with an idea with no real idea of where it’s going.
“It was really hard to figure out what would please Gord, but the whole time [he] was only asking you to be you. That’s a big part of understanding the whole Home Is Where The Rock Is philosophy: just stay home and be yourself. Don’t chase the rock, let it come to you. I could split hairs, but let’s just say I didn’t know anything [before] I met Gord. I had my own little sliver of indie rock figured out,” Jim explains, “but he turned me on to so many things musically, technically, and philosophically.
“One day, up at CFRU, Gord was going on a tangent about how you should just stay home and make music. ‘Why do you need to go out and buy things? Just stay home and play guitar.’ And I was like, ‘Well Gord, you know why? Because home is where the heart is.’
“And he was like, ‘No, Jim. Home is where the rock is.’ He totally blew my mind. I think it’s safe to say that Gord is the Godfather of the Guelph Home Rock scene and I was one of his children.”
“It wasn’t long before everyone owned a 4-track,” Jim told Wavelength, “and a tidal wave of home rock left us waxing up our surfboards. In an attempt to preserve all that was happening I hosted a radio show up at the University of Guelph.”
A jewellers case for this scattered output, The Royal City Home Rock Eruption1 aired on CFRU, Wednesdays from 3 to 4 p.m. Jim either already had the tapes, or they were sent to the station, or stuffed into his mailbox. He put up anything these kids were laying down.
“I sounded like a total turd,” Jim admits. “I had nothing intelligent to say, but I guess that wasn’t the point. If you were 14 I might’ve sounded like I knew what I was talking about, but I was struggling.”
Lucky for Jim, plenty listeners were in that age range. Local lore has high school kids tuning in at the back of the class, putting a varnish on Jim’s influence and importance in the eyes of a younger crowd.
“I was nervous,” he says, “but it was another one of my self-therapy tactics. It was like I was working on my fear of public speaking but I was alone in the room so it was cool. But mostly it was fun and important to me, not to mention the group of people who listened every week. Never making a note, never having recorded anything in your life and then having someone play it on a radio station… [It] got people to come out of their shells.”
“There was always cool stuff,” remembers Tim Kingsbury. “People would send him stuff that they’d just cooked up. It was pretty great. Now you can just post stuff to a message board, but at the time you had to tune in to listen to homemade stuff.”
With acts and artists like Sebadoh, Pavement, and Ween increasingly visible, these surges of DIY were happening in small-town Petri dishes all over.
Punk’s legacy has mostly been reduced, culturally, to a sound and style. And as much as it turned into a recalibration of how music is played and what people look like while they’re playing it, whatever punk was and continues to be is essentially an ongoing granting of permission—a constant reminder that what’s being done inside a pre-existing system can just as easily be done outside of it. To be a musician, all you have to do is make music. It’s a fascicle switch to flip, sure, but finding any switch can be tricky and embarrassing when the room’s dark.
The availability of home recording technology, like the affordable, lap-sized 4-track, and a mid-80s surge of experimental and sonically loose rock flipped the switch for less-obviously talented kids, giving them a sort of cheap, idiot-proof way to muck around with music. You could just turn up your amp and go.
Talking about his cornerstone lo-fi submission, The Freed Man, Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow wrote, “This record was intended to be a mess. A stinking garden of delights.” High levels of unencumbered creativity defines lo-fi as much as low levels of sonic clarity. These albums tend to be generic grab bags, albums poured to the meniscus with the sort of vim and risk that rarely survives the demoing stage. They’re wildfires compared to controlled burns of studio albums. And while the sound might not always be for everybody, it announces that anybody can do it.
Upon first hearing pre-“Loser” Beck, put out by K Records, Stewart Gunn recalls that shift in understanding: “This guy doesn’t have any more than me. He’s got a 4-track and a shitty old guitar and this guy is actually making a living doing what I do—granted with a little more fineness. For me, the whole idea of a tape label became viable when I realized that there were people around the world [doing this]. It wasn’t just me and Colin [Clark] with our 4-track.
“Jim’s radio show, as far as what was happening in Guelph at the time, was sort of the glue that, in many ways, was holding the whole independent music scene together,” says Stewart.
“For us it was personal,” Colin stresses. “Anybody felt like they could put something on tape and Jim’d play it. And he’d put it up with other great indie rock. He’d play it even if he didn’t like it. I think he understood the ethic of what it meant to make something in your bedroom and send it outside. I think he understood, having done it, what it meant to make something and share it.”
“I don’t know why we even started a tape label,” Colin marvels. Both from rural parts of slightly Northern Ontario, Colin Clark and Stewart Gunn met at summer school in Barrie. “Stewart was a punk,” says Colin, “and I was just kinda angry.”
In 1995, at 15, Colin moved to Guelph. Stewart wasn’t far behind. The first few tapes in the Sonic Bunny catalogue were just the two of them, together or apart, and leaned towards the more cacophonous, Sonic Youth-y end of the lo-fi spectrum. “We made stickers and stuck them on telephone poles downtown. And then, about two weeks later, we got this bizarre letter [written] in marker—about three different colours of marker: ‘Hi. I’m Jim Guthrie. I make indie rock. I have a radio show. I’d like to meet you guys. Maybe you could come on the show.’”
“Yeah,” friend Darcie Clark confirms. “He used marker. And he would address his letters to me ‘From Poopy Pants.’”
A punk and an angry young man, Stewart and Colin went onto The Eruption as guests and tried to upturn the love-filled apple cart. “We were like, ‘Fuck indie rock. We’re doing it real.’” Jim’s response was to gang up with them, in spite of their “awkward attempt at polemics,” as Colin calls their guest spot. “He was like, ‘I really like the idea of a cassette label in Guelph. Would you like this album that I’ve already made and shared with people? And you could put it out?’”
“I vaguely remember Stewart and I freaking out, like ‘Holy shit! This is the real deal.’”
“To us, [putting out Jim’s tape] did mean some sort of legitimacy,” says Stewart. Selling tapes at rock shows, Jim’s were always the first to go. “Because it meant that we had on our label an artist that people actually wanted to buy. The other music was very, very scattered. There’s not a whole lot there that I could go back to without feeling a little embarrassed. But Jim’s music was direct, and it had passion, and he was taking it seriously. So it gave us a feeling of actually having a purpose as a label. And, for Jim, I think the fact that Colin and I weren’t shy, and we were really in your face, really hyped up on the ignorant passion of youth, I think Jim maybe saw that as a way to balance his own natural reluctance.”
Built from recordings made between ’92 and ’95, Home Is Where The Rock Is blends nicely into the copse of its influences, and, to a certain extent, takes a major load off on its lo-fi laurels. But when we’re talking first volleys, the tape’s listenable as hell. A collection initially made for friends, it’s a friendly tape. Like a lot of Jim’s more polished work to come, you feel like you’re being included in something small and personal, a quality in itself that’s an almost subliminal element of lo-fi. These are albums being made in bedrooms, living rooms, basements—domestic, real spaces, as opposed to the manufactured, arguably fictional spaces of a recording studio. The phone rings, cars drive by, cats mewl. You feel like you’re over visiting. And while Jim’s moved away from what is audibly lo-fi, he’s always managed to maintain the homey, home rockiness of it.
“Home Is Where The Rock Is is the one I can’t listen to,” Jim confesses. “That’s the one where I hear the identity crisis. Every [tape] after that, I hear the struggle and progress of an individual trying to find themselves and artistically, you know, give voice to what they’re wrestling with. But that first one is maybe too earnest. I just hear the innocence, which makes me uncomfortable.”
Jim’s discomfort aside, that first tape amounts to a sort of Big Bang of his universe. So many of the core elements of his sturdier creations are present here, even if they’re nascent and scruffy. There’s the guilt-free interest in the hook, in ear worms, that will go on to feed Jim’s more pop-oriented “singer-songwriter” sallies as well as his shot to the ad world’s arm. If he doesn’t quite know how to make a song sound good, the McDonald’s employee on that tape knows what a good song sounds like. Most impressive, though, are the sound experiments that weed up out of Jim’s AM radio sidewalk. On this first tape, as limited as his means might’ve been, there are inklings of an interest in what sound and noise can convey that chords and lyrics can’t.
“You listen to so much music,” says Mark Goldstein, now poet and then drummer for By Divine Right, who would play Jim’s tapes constantly in the tour van, “and then you hear something like that, and you’re like ‘What the fuck is this? This is awesome.’ I remember instantly loving Jim’s sensibility, his nervousness, his exploratory energies. Hearing Jim, I realized that he was drawing on a world of American avant-garde, especially at a time when people were uptight about that shit, leaning more towards Seattle. For me, Jim felt like an anomaly.”
Through the 90s, Jim played live on his own so rarely I wouldn’t be surprised if kids made wishes on his solo shows. As a contributor, though, you couldn’t huck a rock in Guelph without hitting an act that Jim was in. Of the 15 bands featured on The Goods, Jim appears in roughly a quarter. And if Jim wasn’t playing in your band, chances are he put you guys to tape.
Kids started quitting their own basements, going to Jim’s to record. Dubbed The Roksac that place was and remains a dumpy brick house in a Guelph neighbourhood called The Ward, about a 10-minute walk to downtown across the river. “Another real shit hole,” in the words of Stephen Evans. I popped by there just after moving day, July 2014. By the side of the road there was a purple and black Legend snowboard and, fittingly, a box of pots and pans that weren’t good for anything other than drumming on. Being a guy who doesn’t uproot himself that easily, it took being nearly killed in a car accident in October ’95 to get Jim out of his parent’s basement and into that so-called shit hole.
“He got blown out of his fucking shoes,” chuckles Beate, with some remnant disbelief. She was in there with him. “It was in the early days of the SUV rollover. We roll, and everyone who’s wearing their seatbelts is still in the car, and there’s no Jim. When we found him he wasn’t wearing any shoes. They were in the car because they weren’t done up properly.”
“I was out cold and bleeding. As I’m known to do.” Says Jim. “So I don’t remember anything.”
“He was moaning a lot,” remembers Darcie, who was in the car ahead. “Falling in and out of consciousness. We kept saying his name over and over again: ‘Jim Guthrie, are you okay? You’re going to be okay.’ He kept saying ‘I hurt real bad,’ and his one eye was just going crazy. The side of his face got smashed.”
“He has a plate in there,” Colin chimes in. “Titanium.”
“His appearance changed.” Darcie laughs some. “The hair cut stayed the same.”
“Shortly after that he moved out [of his parent’s house],” says Colin. “That was huge. For him to change locations, it’s a big deal. Jim doesn’t move much. Even though it was the same city, it was a big deal.”
James Ogilvie—who, with his sister Nancy, played as The Tidbits, was a bassist in By Divine Right for a spell, and appears on The Goods with The Valentines—moved in shortly thereafter. Like Jim, James was disinterested in college and had put school money towards turning the basement into a recording studio.
“The environment itself was pretty dingy,” remembers Jordan Howard, now enlisted as a shredder in Jim’s baseball team-sized live band, but at the time in the high school-aged Stranger Rocket, who recorded at the Roksac. “It wasn’t finished. I was still living with my parents and we had a finished basement… It felt like I was going into a weird dungeon. It looked pretty sketchy. There were mouldy, musty carpets, but for me it was the coolest thing ever.”
The Roksac became host, along with plenty of other unassuming, shabby houses in Guelph, to rock shows chock-ablock with “some of the craziest rock you’d ever heard.”
“I would come back [from university],” says Beate, “and there’d be all these people that I didn’t know, a lot of younger people, over at Jim’s house. Before I left, he just had these goofy songs that we’d play together. It was super low-key. But I’d come back and there were all these fans, and all these shows going on. Guelph was popping.”
Away at school himself, Simon Osborne was getting reports back. “I was talking to Jim all the time and he was telling me about all this exciting stuff going on. Basically, he was starting his own scene. It was building up around him. Suddenly this whole town of kids, a little bit younger than him, were inspired and buying 4-tracks and doing the same thing.”
On the topic of his citywide influence, Jim is characteristically humble and shruggy. “I got the feeling that people looked up to me,” he says, “and I’d never felt that before. It was really special and important in a way that I didn’t understand. When I was younger people would look at me because I was stuttering, doing something that I was ashamed of. And then I had this group of people who looked at me because they liked what I did, looked at me in a really kind light that I wasn’t comfortable with [at first].”
Jim’s humbleness isn’t an act. He was never a leader, but, rather, a facilitator and a participant and essentially a peer to whomever looked up to him—playing in their bands, getting them shows, luring them into his basement. If he was leading at all, it was solely by example.
In asking Aaron Riches about his relationship with Jim, a relationship that had them playing borrowed instruments for two people in Baltimore, to touring the U.K. as part of the Rough Trade roster, what sticks out most to him is just one random time he swung by the Roksac.
“I went to Russia in 1996,” he recalls, “and before I went, I stopped by Jim’s. I guess he was 4-tracking some stuff. I don’t really remember all of why I went there. We played some music, Jim made a curry… There might’ve been other people there. It’s very foggy to me. But I remember that it was more important to get together, than it was [to make the music]. If it all worked out, and the sound was good, great. But that was for somebody else to worry about. The real beauty, for us, was just getting together. At Jim’s house, at the Roksac, making the curry and smoking a cigarette on the back porch was as important as the music being played.
“The thing is, that the music was not that important was what made the music so important. Because then the music—at least, from our point of view—became a testament, or a witness, to the experience we were sharing.”
ANDREW HOOD is the author of Pardon Our Monsters (2007), The Cloaca (2012), and Jim Guthrie: Who Needs What (2015), from which this is excerpted.