Sunday, May 31, 2015


When I first read that the 331/3 series (Bloomsbury) would be releasing Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack, I immediately (and paradoxically) wanted to warp to a world where I could hold the book between the controller blistered forefingers and thumbs of my seven-year-old self. Nostalgic impossibility aside (I mean what remembered seven-year-old is going to tackle music crit when there are cartridges full of hopping, fireball shooting plumbers set to the 8 bit tune of Ba-dum-pum-ba-dum-pum-PUM!), I was wired to see how Andrew Schartmann's departure from 33 1/3’s template of classic album studies would transfer to the side-scrolling page. A pianist, composer, and music theorist Schartmann expertly connects the cultural contexts and note-by-note mechanics of Kondo’s inventive score. Carefully arranging detailed interviews, musical notation, clear accounts of Mario’s visuals, and bits of Nintendo’s history, he achieves a counterpunctual balance that gambols into a forward thinking homage to Kondo and his enduring work. I don’t think Schartmann will have to bash his head into many bricks to mass coin or critical life for this title, yet I couldn’t resist seeing how he approached each level.  

He was totally game.

- Brad de Roo, who suggests listening to Kondo’s themes as you read on

Are you an avid gamer? What systems do you own or enjoy or wish you owned? Have you or will you ever own a power glove?

Yes! 100%. At present, I own an NES, an SNES, an N64, a Wii, and a Nintendo 3DS. Next on my to-own list is an Atari 2600; I’m looking forward to playing E.T.the game that ruined everything. Speaking of ruining things, I did own a Power Glove. It’s an awful thing. I’ll let the Angry Video Game Nerd take care of answering why...

What other game soundtracks do you think are worth full-length study? What about them is salient or special?

I’m not sure any other individual game could sustain a full-length study. After all, a good portion of my book is about the unique context that allowed Kondo’s music to thrive. Video game series, however, are a different story. It wouldn’t be hard to fill 150+ pages on music from The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Castlevania, and a number of other series. A favorite of mine is the original Mega Man series for NES (Any interested publishers reading this? Please get in touch!) Those 6 games have some of the catchiest video game tunes ever written. What interests me most, though, is that all of the games have a common sound to them—they all belong to a common “sound world”—despite being composed by different people. Untangling the details of that sound world would be a rewarding project.

Do you have some you hum in transit or play on piano?

I’m a classically trained pianist (my composer of choice is Beethoven), but I play a lot of video game music by ear at the piano. As for which tunes... There are too many to name, but I love improvising variations on the Tetris theme that everyone knows (“Korobeiniki”—a Russian folk tune).

You compose music yourself. Would you ever consider composing video game music? Is there a difference in attitude or aptitude between ‘classical composition’ and video game music writing? Are these traditions held unnecessarily apart in some artificial high and low art binary?

Absolutely. It would be a welcome challenge—very different from writing classical music, which brings me to the second part of your question: yes, there is definitely a difference in attitude between the two styles. Video game composition is dictated as much by the on-screen goings on as it is by the fantasy of the composer, and perhaps even more so by the developers, who might want a particular sound. For this reason, among others, it is often viewed as a trade rather than an art. That said, the binary you speak of is artificial. Well... At least it is today. In the nascent years of video game music, “composers” weren’t trained musicians, so there was a distinct difference in aptitude between practitioners of classical music and those of game music.

You speak of the technology limitations of the early NES 8 bit sound. Your exploration of the limitations (in terms of channels, memory, timbre etc.) that Koji Kondo – and other game music composers – had to embrace gave me a better appreciation of how ingenious these compositions can be. Is there a sense in which technical limitation pushes creative solutions?

Limitations do push creative solutions. NES composer Neil Baldwin bring this out nicely in my interview with him. As he explains, because the sound capabilities of the original NES were so limited, composers had to make the machine sound as though it was doing more than it really was. This spawned a wave of innovation, whereby composers simulated a variety of effects (e.g., echoes) with only bare-bones technology at their disposal. Perhaps more interesting is that solutions from the 1980s continue to define video game music, despite the lifting of technological restrictions. In other words, features that were inspired by limitations have become an integral part of the genre itself.

Your contribution to the 33 1/3 series is the first to depart from the Classic Albums template of past offerings. Did this add pressure to your endeavor? Do you feel akin to various titles or the series despite this apparent difference?

As I wrote in the preface, “This book had its detractors long before a word of it was written.” So yes! Deviating from the 33 1/3 template added a fair bit of pressure. But that was a good thing. The unorthodox nature of my project forced me to raise the bar—to not be satisfied with a run-of-the-mill product.

Regarding my book’s kinship with other entries in the series... Sure. Like many of the fine authors who have written for 33 1/3, I was inspired to write about a selection of music by a single artist (or group) that has touched a large number of people. I feel less kinship, however, in my approach to music criticism. One of the first things a person will notice when flipping through my book is that it’s filled with musical examples; I really wanted to dig deep into the notes themselves. If I’m not mistaken, this is a first for the series.

Do you foresee a flood of studies on classic soundtracks and jingle campaigns now?

Ha! I wouldn’t be surprised if someone pitched one of the obvious games, such as The Legend of Zelda. And given the current interest in retro gaming, I could see Bloomsbury considering another video game title. Then again, it’s tough to write a monograph on such small amounts of music, so perhaps people will opt to write about broader topics—music from an entire video game franchise, for example. Jingle campaigns, on the other hand...

I sometimes hear the term ‘leitmotif’ bandied about in discussions of soundtrack music or opera. Is this a helpful term in describing or understanding the music in Super Mario Bros.?

No. I don’t think so. At least not in the first Super Mario Bros. game. There’s no clear mapping between characters and musical fragments in Kondo’s original Mario score. That fact alone precludes discussion of leitmotifs à la Super Mario, at least in my view.

You touch a bit on later incarnations of Mario. I was raccoonish in my love for Super Mario 3. What do you think of its music?

It fits the game well, but it’s too eclectic to achieve the same widespread recognition as the original score. Of course, this isn’t really Kondo’s fault. If you think about it, in Super Mario Bros., all of the Worlds are more or less the same, so the exact same music could be used throughout the game, thus giving the player time to internalize it. Super Mario Bros. 3, on the contrary, introduced themed Worlds (e.g., a desert world, a cloud world, a plant world, etc.). Kondo had to compose different tunes to reflect each of these distinct areas. Four tunes were no longer enough; Kondo needed 8 (one for each World) in addition to the music for different environments (e.g., underwater, castle).

Why doesn’t Luigi get more love as a character? Is Mario in some way more of an every person?

Mario was inspired by a real-life man. Luigi was an afterthought (he didn’t come around until well after Mario had his debut in Donkey Kong). These troubled beginnings (at least for Luigi) account for the lack of love, I think. Nintendo’s marketing also plays a role—the game is called Super Mario Bros., after all, and Mario is always the first character you can select. Let’s just say that Nintendo “nudges” (Nudge is a great book, btw) us to love Mario. 

In your research did you determine whether or not blowing on the cartridge helps the game work?

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, would like this example. Blowing on the cartridge has absolutely no effect on the game’s functionality (well...over time, doing so can actually damage the contacts), but we’re hardwired to think that it does. It’s actually the pulling out of the cartridge and reconnecting of the pins in a sightly different position that makes all the difference.

In a blip, why is Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. such a cartridge of ear-worms?

If I had a definitive answer to that question, we’d be drinking Diva Vodka on my 100-foot yacht.

Monday, May 25, 2015


There's a misconception that today's teens don't write as much as previous generations did, but there has probably never been a time when so many teens have spent so much of their surplus time reading and writing. Conservative estimates suggest that the average teen texts in excess of a 350,000 words annually. Even at half that many words, most teens are writing the equivalent of a solid novel each year. This is in addition to writing for school and other activities. Clearly the problem isn't getting teens to write. It's offering them the opportunities to write that they find meaningful.

This is why Vocamus Press and the Guelph Public Library have begun collaborating to revitalize the library's long-running Teen Writing Contest. Last year we began by having the collection of winners and runners-up rebranded as The ETCH Anthology, a professionally published volume that marks a first publishing credit for most of the teens involved. We also ran a launch party that included appearances by local authors and musicians. The event was such a success that submissions to the contest almost tripled in 2015.

This year we've added an element to the program where the winners and runners-up are paired with local professional writers to do an editorial pass on their stories. Not only will this improve the overall quality of the collection, but it will offer the young writers a chance to experience something of the process involved in submitting to journals and magazines.

The resulting collection, The ETCH Anthology 2015, will be launched on Saturday May 30 at 1:00 PM in the main branch of the public library. Local authors Kira Vermond, Valerie Senyk, and Douglas Davey will be on hand to announce the winning entries, and Miriam Snow will provide music. There will also be refreshments available through the J.O.E. employment program, and people will have a chance to buy their very own copies of the collection, fresh from the press.

Next year, we'd like to launch a website that will function as a hub for teen writers in the Guelph area, not just for the GPL contest but also for high school writing courses, extra-curricular writing clubs, other library programs, or even community groups. The site would allow teens to share their work with each other and with the broader community as well.

If you're interested to know more about the program, please contact Elissa Davidson of the Guelph Public Library at or Jeremy Luke Hill of Vocamus Press at

- Jeremy Luke Hill


For the past year the marquees of Guelph (and it’s constellating surrounds) have winked and shimmied with the name The Femmes Rebelles. It could be that this bloggish paparazzo just has a starry-eyed – if not slightly boozy – way of arriving on the scene but the appearance of burlesque at the top of downtown’s bill is a welcome bump to our somewhat prudish daily grind. Shedding as many feminine cliches as fine costumes, these Rebelles tease a timely yet classic distinction between strictly choreographed entertainment and ironic gender performativity. Framed within the storied arcs of the silver-screen, Lilith Lemons, Ruby Moon, Olive von Topp and Co. will restage some iconic roles for this Friday’s anniversary show. Not keen on projecting my maybe misdeveloped views, I requested some further direction from Olive von Topp. 

-Brad de Roo, who thinks that catching a film at the Bookshelf cinema before trying to catch up to The Femmes Rebelles (Friday May 29 at 9pm in the eBar) is good for local show biz

Okay. Opening Credits. Who’s starring in this production? How does each Femme enter the scene? What do we immediately know about them?

The Femmes Rebelles

Lilith Lemons
Ruby Moon
Olive von Topp

Guest Performer

Maria Juana (Toronto - The Harlettes)


Sassy Ray (Kitchener)

Also Starring

Chai Bella
Marilyn St. Evans
Mona Sirens

Ruby enters somber and sultry. Immediately you know she is an artist and her performance is going to be on the darker, more dramatic side. Often her acts tell stories of longing, desperation, and fantasy. She’s an incredible dancer and her epic numbers will entrance you.

Lilith enters coquettishly and confidently, though you never know what character you’re going to get. However, immediately you know you are going to be entertained. She invites you into her acts, yet she still manages to pleasantly make you feel like a voyeur. Her acts are a well-balanced blend of adorable, coy, sexy, and funny. It’s evident through her acts that she went to school for theatre.

And Olive probably enters by tripping over something or with a lewd gesture. Her acts are often brazen, humourous, awkward, and usually tell a story. She’s kinda in-your-face and doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination. She’s known for using a lot of props and extras, but is trying to do less of that because it’s a real pain in the ass.

What sets a Femmes Rebelles show apart from the movies?

Besides a much lower budget? 

There is no take two. In live performance, you don’t have the luxury of multiple takes. Anything can happen, but I think that is part of the excitement – knowing anything can happen. Mess-ups can happen at anytime and a lot of the funniest stuff I have seen in burlesque comes out of improvisation, costume malfunctions, and people feeding off of one another’s energy. It’s a lot harder to get that in the movies.

What happens behind the silver screen? Do you have a director, producer, costume designer? Or do The Rebelles take care of all the business?

Mayhem. The show production is all The Rebelles; set list, performer bookings, show concepts, promotion, logistics, group choreography, and group costumes. Ruby does a lot of the costume design and performer bookings and handles music and set-lists, Lilith handles a lot of the stage management and promotion, and I do a lot of the promotion and venue booking, etc. Usually we all contribute to the choreography, though there are certain numbers that are more heavily choreographed by one person. We sort of all contribute different skills and work really well together.

Oh, and we hire a stage manager for the night-of, Coco, who is amazing and we have very helpful "stage kittens" who pick up clothes, help with props, etc.

What movies are on Olive von Topp’s night-stand?

Ha! Currently Boogie Nights and Purple Rain. Literally.

For the quiet censors and prudish advisory board types, what rating will Friday night’s show get?

Oh geez, depends on your level of comfort: M for mature audiences (though arguably a lot of the content is pretty immature). Of course there are boobs (with pasties) and very suggestive content, so viewer discretion is definitely advised.

Music is essential to film for relaying character emotion, for creating suspense, for emphasizing humour or fear, for controlling pacing and so on. How does music work in burlesque? How is it selected? What does it give to the scene in action?

Similarly, music is essential to burlesque, for conveying emotion, humour, anticipation, tease, etc. Usually punchy music with big hits is really great for performing burlesque. Pauses are good for creating suspense or anticipation; slow, sultry music for tease.

Every performer has a different method for selecting music, I’m sure. I often come up with a concept, character, or theme, and find music that fits in terms of feel, lyrics, etc. The rest of the time I find a piece of music I love and choreograph a number to it. A lot of choreo starts off as a love for a song. And you have to love it, because by the time you listen to it 4000 times and break down each phrase, count out each beat, etc, you may not love it the same way.

Hollywood definitely still traffics in gender stereotypes. Many stars and their characters might as well be CGI tweaked super-hero deities of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. How is burlesque’s approach to gender different?

I think in one way, burlesque is a highly sexualized performance that subscribes to gender stereotypes of ‘ultimate femininity’. But that’s exactly what burlesque is, a performance. It’s not suggesting, like many movies, that this is what women should look like or act like, it’s playing with these stereotypes, enjoying them, owning them, and transforming them. In some ways, it’s a satire of this (totally unachievable) societal expectation of what femininity should look like. And the power is in the hands of the performer. I think most performers are aware of gender as a performance (both on and off stage).

In a lot of neo-burlesque, gender is often turned on its head, as lines of gender and sexuality are blurred and stereotypes mocked; women playing men, women playing men who are playing women, performers juxtaposing ideals of femininity and masculinity and mixing them together, etc. It’s fabulous! There’s definitely a lot of parallels to drag, again in that gender is a performance. I’ve done one ‘gender-bender’ where I transformed from man to woman, and am doing a drag number in this next show. Actually, there are quite a few drag numbers in this show. I love playing with the lines about what a woman or man is supposed to look like, how they’re supposed to act, making fun of ‘ultimate’ femininity and masculinity, gender binaries, what’s considered conventionally attractive. It’s a lot of fun.

Does burlesque lend itself to method acting?

Ha. I guess so, in a way. I like to think about what my character is like, what they would be thinking, how they would behave, so it’s consistent throughout the act. I also like to think about what they’re motivation is for taking their clothes off. Do they know they have an audience? Are they trying to be sexy? Powerful? Funny? What are they do they want the audience to know?

Ever pitched political satire scripts to the troupe?

Nothing really political, though we do throw around silly ideas or social commentaries, some of which come to fruition. That did just give me an idea though, so thanks!

How should an ideal show leave an audience feeling?

Confident, sexy, inspired, and satisfied. They should for sure leave in a good mood.

What’s next for The Femmes franchise? Sci-fi burlesque? TV-themed? Sock-hopped? Senate-scandal inspired? Climate Costume Change?

Well, our reality TV show hasn’t taken off yet, so I suppose more shows. We’re hoping to put on a bigger soft-seater Victorian-themed show either at the end of this year or the beginning of next. That and trying to perform as much as possible in other people’s shows. We’ll be performing in some shows coming up in the summer as well as in the Toronto Burlesque Festival in August. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015


Massing images of the tar sands’ environmental impact now go for a mouse click of a month’s internet bill a barrel. Moonscapes and toxic pools of extraction are attended by slick flocks of infographics dawn-chattering about species displacement, water shortages, and carbon overload. The spillover of Canadian oil is renewably inking newsprint and spiking protests from Burnaby to Quebec City. While surprisingly not unanimous, the ecological case against a continued reliance on oil seems well-sedimented. What seems underpublicized to this carbon-based life is the good evidence that Canada’s rampant pursuit and championing of oil is also economically unsustainable. Economist Jeff Rubin’s new book The Carbon Bubble: What Happens to Us When It Bursts (Penguin Random House of Canada) drills home just how much cultivating an oil-based economy ignores a growing global trend away from non-renewables. By countering the ideological marketing campaign of Harper’s fossil-friendly Conservatives with proof of dismal returns (compared to other fossil fuel powers) and in highlighting the missed economic opportunities (manufacturing renewal, hydro-electric development, and agricultural renaissance) of our current changing climate, Rubin pokes bank-sized holes in the inflated claims of Canada’s energy supremacy. I ran some of my speculations by him.

Brad de Roo – who thinks you should invest in a ticket to Jeff Rubin’s visit to Guelph, May 27th at 7:00pm, Lakeside Hope House

In your writing, do you have to take unique precautions or adopt special strategies to get the economics across?

I try in my writing to relate economic concepts to the reader in a way that does not presuppose any prior acquaintance or formal knowledge of the field. I try to create pictures that are readily recognizable in terms of everyday life experiences that, at the same time, convey key economic principles that are germane to what I’m discussing in my books. Hopefully my writing crosses over technical barriers and allows the material to be accessible to a much wider audience than simply other economists or, for that matter, a business audience. At the end of the day economics, for all its jargon and its technical nature, is something that matters to everyone.

What are the biggest myths about oil in Canada? Why do they persist?

The biggest myth about Canada’s oil sands is that they are a viable commercial source of energy. How much oil is buried in the oil sands is not the issue. The issue is what price is needed to cover the cost of extracting it and provide a reasonable rate of return to whoever is doing the extracting. And therein lies the problem. The bitumen (heavy oil) contained in the Alberta oil sands is one of the most costly sources of oil in the world. New projects typically top the global charts insofar as development and production costs are concerned.

At high enough oil prices the oil sands make economic sense, but those same prices that make the extraction and refinement of bitumen viable turn out to be the same kind of prices that kill economic growth, hence fuel demand. We now have a decade of experience with triple digit oil prices. During that time frame the global economy has witnessed the deepest recession in the post-war period followed by one of the most anemic recoveries. Economic growth and triple digit oil prices don’t mix very well. The paradox for oil sand producers, as well as for other high cost sources of high non-conventional supply like fracked shale formations, is the same prices that makes production viable kills the demand for their product. That is the hub of problem with the high oil prices that the oil sands are so critically dependent on.

Why does the mythology of the oil sands being a great economic resource persist in Canada?

When was the last time you watched a hockey game, or read a newspaper or were browsing on the internet that you didn’t see an advertisement telling you that TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline was good for the economy and good for the environment? In my twenty years as a chief economist on Bay Street I can’t recall an industry advertising campaign that has been so dominant, so pervasive, and so unchallenged in the Canadian business media.

And of course let’s not forget the leading contribution that Prime Minister Harper has made to propagating that mythology. Ever since coming to power in 2006 he has championed the resource and has argued that its development, along with new pipeline approvals, was as important to the future of the Canadian economy as the building of a transcontinental railway was over a century ago. Unlike much of the cheerleading heard in the business media, which is motivated mostly by the need for advertising dollars, I believe that Prime Minster Harper is genuine in his enthusiasm for the resource. I just happen to think he is sadly mistaken about its economic value.

What is a bubble in economic terms? How does the carbon bubble compare to bubbles of Canada’s past? Are there lesson teaching, confidence inspiring instances of burst-avoiding recoveries in our economic history?

A bubble is a speculative phenomenon based on false underlying assumptions. The most recent example was the sub-prime mortgage market where credit rating agencies assigned the same credit rating to securities backed by mortgage payments of unemployed homeowners as they did to the sovereign debt of countries like Canada and the United States. And banks and other financial institutions all over the world ended up writing off billions of dollars on defaulted debt as insolvent homeowners mailed in their keys instead of their mortgage cheques.

Financial bubbles are of course nothing new. History is replete with them. The Dutch tulip bulb bubble of the 16th century, or the South Sea Trading Company bubble of the 17th century are two of the more famous ones. But the carbon bubble is going to hit particularly hard in Canada given how leveraged the Canadian economy has been to the massive expansion of the oil sands.

Why are Conservatives often painted as sound economic managers, when the facts of the last decade (deficits, missed economic opportunities, diminished industrial diversity) often counteract this impression?

I suspect because Canada went relatively unscathed in the last financial bubble and avoided some of the worst consequences of that bubble like failed banks and insurance companies requiring massive public bail-outs. Canada’s economic growth, while modest by historical standards, was superior to Europe’s and Japan and was as good or better than the US.

Harper’s attachment to Canada’s future as an Energy Super Power is disarmingly monological in presentation and focus. Why hasn’t he taken advantage of Canada’s vast resources in other power sectors (hydro-electric, natural gas etc) while also developing oil? Is there something about his economic philosophy that predicates this tunnel vision?

Well, I think you have to understand the temper of the times which molded Harper’s vision of the country as a oil power. At the turn of the millennium, Canadians had seldom felt more backward or provincial in the shadow of the IT revolution – seemingly the same hewers of wood and drawers of water that their forefathers had been. When the dot-com bubble burst, all of a sudden the engine of economic growth shifted from Silicon Valley to the rapidly industrializing economies of the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). These economies needed resources, not software programs. And the resource they needed the most to sustain their booming economies was oil.

Thanks to their thirst for the fuel, world oil demand soared just as conventional oil production peaked, which incidentally it did in 2005 – a year before Harper first articulated his grand vision of Canada becoming a petro-power. The world was to become even more dependent on high cost unconventional oil, whether it came from deep water fields, oil sands, or later shale formations. And during most of the last decade we saw triple digit oil prices, that seemed to confirm Harper’s dream of Canada becoming the Saudi Arabia of high cost oil.

You suggest that increased growing seasons, robust water supplies, and a rise in global food prices will put Canada in an advantageous position to become a bread-basket for the world. The chapter devoted to this topic is a book waiting to be written, especially considering serious water shortages in agriculture-rich California (a major Ag. supplier to North America). What challenges are there in growing this area of the Canadian economy? Would you consider writing the book?

By far the biggest challenge of becoming the world’s breadbasket will be water. That may seem odd considering that the country holds between 7- 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater supply, depending on whether you want to include fossil water into the measurement or not. But most of Canada’s water flows the wrong way insofar as agriculture is concerned, draining into either Hudson Bay or the Arctic Ocean, whereas the bulk of Canada’s food production comes from the prairies. With the decreasing snow pack in the eastern Rockies and hence declining spring run-off we are going to see heightened demand for major inter-basin water diversions, or waterworks as I call them, in the not too distant future. While they are not likely to be as dramatic as past schemes that I discuss in my book, like the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) or the GRAND Canal scheme, they will invariably involve significant inter-basin water transfers. And any time you do that, you pit downstream interests against upstream interests. Only in this particular case downstream versus upstream interests are going to involve different provinces.

I feel like I merely scratched the surface of this subject in The Carbon Bubble. Climate change will provide all kinds of economic opportunities as well as challenges and adjustments. The subject is certainly is worthy of another book but I’m sure my publisher Random House would like to sell a few copies of The Carbon Bubble before they ask me to write another one.

A 2014 study by the Conference Board of Canada notes that age is the new income divide in Canada. The average disposable income of Canadians between the ages of 50 and 54 is now 64 per cent higher than that of 25-29-year olds, the report found. How does this disparity factor into your observations in The Carbon Bubble?

I think the Conference Board’s observation is part of a larger trend toward an increasingly skewed distribution of income, with a small proportion of the population accounting for the lion’s share of the economic pie at the expense of the lower and middle classes. Globalization is certainly part of the story here. It denudes local labour markets and government of their ability to bargain with footloose capital that seeks the lowest wages and the lowest taxes. Much slower economic growth is another factor. You simply don’t have the same income generation and job creation as you did in the past. As I argued in my last book, The End of Growth, we are going to have to see some major changes in the way labour markets operate, like job sharing, if we are to provide the employment opportunities to future generations that we once took for granted.

Besides buying your book, what is the smartest thing an investor can do in 2015?

Divest from oil stocks. Major coal stocks in the US like Peabody Energy or Arch Coal have already lost about 90 per cent of their share values over the last three years and I suspect something similar is going to happen to oil stocks, particularly oil sands producers, who carry some of the highest production costs in the world. So before you save the world from further carbon emissions, you might want to save your portfolio from further loses from carbon stocks. 

Monday, May 11, 2015


I have this idea that some albums have settings, that, like a narrative, they happen in a specific place. Listening to Nick Craine's first album in fifteen years, Songs Like Tattoos, I picture a cavernous room with only Craine in there, joined from time to time by an impressive line-up of pals. There's a way Craine lets his voice sustain until it becomes ambient, even gaseous, seeming to fill up and enliven that empty space. The performances here are sparse, but Craine gives room for the sounds he does make to resonate, to take on extra meaning, extra feeling in that resonance, finding all the nooks and crannies of this huge space I like to imagine the album taking place in.

Fans of Craine's previous album, November Moon, might pout some upon finding a cover album here. Craine and Friends tackle the likes of Bruce Spingsteen, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder, but don't settle on the sources so much as they use them as jumping off points. Classics have a way of becoming restrictive, but Craine imbues each track with a crooning and noodling that's uniquely his, each sounding like a denizen from the same source.

- Andrew

Monday, May 4, 2015


After I shut off my recorder, Cam Fryer reflected a little further on the brew schedule ahead of him. Royal City's Smoked Honey was about to hit the LCBO and, he'd heard, a "honeymoon period" of demand was bound to follow. It was an overcast Friday when I sat down with him in Royal City Brewing's storefront/front of house/brewery on Victoria St., but there'd already been enough summer preview that I couldn't help but think of my own time spent in breweries – the emotional and physical bolstering every employee goes through leading up to the busiest time of the year; that joyful sort of resignation. The more people want to drink your beer, the more you have to make. It's a success and approval that you rarely get to pause and bask in.

Royal City launched in June of last year and, from the sound of things, Fryer hasn't had much of a break since then. I asked him if the reality of owning and operating, along with childhood friend Russ Bateman, his own brewery had sunken in yet. When you're up against the tank all day, he tole me, it's hard to see the forest for the trees. But from time to time someone will point out to him that he's "living the dream." Indeed, working in a brewery has, over the past few years, become pretty romanticized. Fyer doesn't disagree, cops to feeling fortunate, but I get the idea that his idea of that dream is a bit more realistic. In the background of our talk a pump was whining and kegs were constantly clattering and there was that sweet buttery smell of yeast being bled onto the floor. As we got closer to the end of the day, the end of the work week, the storefront started to fill up with people grabbing growlers, here maybe for the first time and rightfully asking after each of the nine Royal City beers chalked up on the menu board. The math of it's simple: every bit of beer that leaves the space needs to be replaced. In this sort of work there aren't really such things as breaks; there's just waiting to get back to work.

- Andrew

Did you start out home brewing?

I started out in Great Lakes in Toronto. I was a delivery guy. I’d fill in on the line if they needed me; box beer, do a bit of everything. That was where I learned to brew. The first beer I ever made was with Mike Lackey, which was kinda awesome. That’s a good way to start. The next day I went out and bought a [home brew] kit. I knew I wasn't going to get to brew at Great Lakes as often as I wanted to.

When was that?


Five years ago… What year is it? 2015? So, yeah, five years ago. Time flies these days…

I’ve been a beer nut my whole life. Russ and I grew up in Aurora drinking Guelph beer. We grew up stealing Wellington from our dads. Sleeman Dark and Wellington County Ale is what the supply was at the time. Both of our parents I’m sure knew we were ripping beer off of them. I mean, I’d miss beer all the time if my kid was taking it from me...

But that’s neither here nor there. I’ve been a beer nerd my whole life, and had done everything to do with it except make it professionally up til a year ago. I’ve delivered it, I’ve cleaned it up off floors, I’ve served it. I’ve made it in my basement. This was the next logical step.

I feel like for years that was the trajectory in the industry. You start by loading bottles and, if you had the interest, eventually learn the whole process on up to brewing. Now, with programs like Niagara College, there seems to an increasingly academic entry into brewing. Do you think it’s a different experience starting in school instead of from the ground up? 

For me, it doesn’t matter so much how you come to making beer. There’s definitely a lot of value to doing an academic program that’ll give you a grounding in the basics, but I think there’s a lot of value in experience as well. We’re the sum of our experiences. That’s who we are. Whether that experience is throwing kegs around or being in a classroom, there’s value and benefit to both those things. A person who has both is probably the better brewer.
I was a history teacher before I started making beer, so… The reason I didn’t look at the Niagara program was I had three degrees already and didn’t want to go back to school – that’s enough. I’m done. For anyone who’s thinking about going to school, I’d say be sure that brewing is absolutely what you want to do before going. Try to work in a brewery before doing it. It's not sexy work. Brewing's hard, it’s hot – it’s not like there are Oompa Loompas filling the tanks. People have this idea…

“I’ll just drink beer all day!”

Yeah. That they can show up at noon, prance around, drink some beer, somehow the tanks will get full, and they'll go home at the end of the day. But this is dirty, hot, heavy work.

Don’t make any weeknight plans.

That’s it. I really recommend people get a grounding of what the actual job looks like. Not everyone who walks out [of a program] gets to be a brewer. I get to be head brewer because Royal City’s my brewery. But not everyone can walk right into a position in a brewery where they can be creative, or get to make recipes, or get to guide or direct the way the beer works. A lot of them might start out as a shift brewer. You start at eight at night and work until four in the morning. It’s not always glamorous. I've been home for about 365 hours in the past year – awake, at least.

So did you and Russ sit around a campfire when you were kids and make a promise that you’d open up a brewery before you were 40 or something?

Russ and I grew up together. I’ve known him 22… 23 years? 24 years maybe. What year is it?

I started home brewing, and Russ thought he wanted to make beer too. So we started brewing together and it got to the point where we decided, What the hell, let’s do this for real. We did a fair bit of research, looked at where the industry was and where we were, and decided that Guelph had a lot of room. In the overall percentages, craft beer is still very minimal. There’s a lot of room for growth. We live in Guelph, it’s our town and our home, and this is such an awesome place for supporting local things. I happily tell people that there’s really not another place like Guelph. This is a two degree of separation town. If you know one person, you pretty much know 130 000 others. It’s a very special place. I came here the first time as an undergrad and stayed.

There’s a saying: you’re either a Guelphite by birth or a Guelphite by design.

That’s pretty much it. After I graduated, I moved abroad. Then I moved to Toronto and quickly got out of there, came back here. Based on how the landscape looked, Guelph was the perfect place for something like Royal City. It’s a craft beer town. You don’t need to sell anybody on craft. Everyone’s eager to try it. With Welly expanding right now, we thought there’d be a bit of a vacuum. As they grow out, there’s a bit of space behind them for us to step into.

We really want to be Guelph's brewery. That was our intention when we sized ourselves. We wanted to focus on being a brewery for the local market. I think Oakville is the furthest away we go, but that's just because they come here to pick it up.

How’d you land in the location you're in now?

We spent probably five months looking for a spot. That was one of the biggest headaches we had, finding the place. We had two models we were working off. One involved a lot of walk-in traffic for the storefront. The other involved the production facility and licensee sales. The problem with working in Guelph is the city deems brewing to be a light manufacturing, which means the property must be in an industrial area. There are very few of those areas close to downtown. Here is one of the closest areas would could have got to the centre of the city. That’s why the other breweries are way out on the periphery
where space is cheaper and easier to come by. But this is a good spot, just on Victoria, pretty busy, it’s in the Ward, the Ward’s awesome.

Did you use consultants to set up the brewing system?

Nope. We did it ourselves. Part of what we’ve did for the past two years was visit every brewery we possibly could, see what they’d done, why they’d done it. We sized our tanks off what we thought Guelph’s volume would be, what we’d be able to provide for the local market. We were a little conservative. Really, would should be twice the size we are.

How many fermentation tanks are you working with?

We have 9000 litres for fermentation capacity – 90 hectolitres. We only have a five hec beer run, which means I brew a lot. A lot. We have eight fermentors – five 1 000 litres, three 500 litres. We have a bright tanks for each beer run and 10 one hectolitre tanks for pilot beers.

Just looking at the board now, you’ve got, what, nine beers on?

We try to run nine at any point in time. That’s the goal, to always have nine beers on. The four regulars we always have: the Dry Hopped Pale Ale, Smoked Honey, 100 Steps Stout, and Suffolk St. Session. We strive to always have those on. We try to have about three rotating and a couple pilots available at any point in time.

Royal City's house board as of May 2.

How did you establish those standards?

We knew what boxes we had to check. Smoked Honey I’ve been making for the longest time – probably three or four years now. I’m probably happiest with that recipe. It’s our flagship beer right now. It’s just different. It’s a dark beer, but it drinks fairly light. The honey gets fermented out, so it’s not sweet at all, which is different from a lot of honey beers. And it’s very conservatively smoked. My thinking was, we’ve done some IPAs in the past, and certainly everyone’s looking for IPAs right now. Assuming we could make a fantastic IPA, we’ll be throwing that on the market with a hundred other fantastic IPAs. Where would we be standing out? We have our Exhibition IPA right now, which has been fairly popular, but otherwise we don’t do much on that spectrum.

Two things that I personally like to drink are English ales and German lagers. Those are my two favourite styles, or umbrellas, of beer. And I like to make stuff that I like to drink.

Most of your recipes come from your own home brewing?

Mostly yes. The Suffolk St. Sessions was not. The Dry Hopped, 100 Step, and the Smoked Honey are home brew recipes. Everything else are pilots that we’ve tried since opening this place.

There's been this hop craze the past few years that sort of reminds me of that period where every indie rock band had to have a string section. Do you see that starting to change?

Why I think the craft brew movement this time is here to say – and there’ve been some other minor craft brew explosions in the late 80s, as soon as it was legal to brew beer other than Molson and Labatt.

I don’t know if people really know that prohibition was on the books in Canada for so long...

Yeah. 1985 is when that was lifted. Most of Ontario’s liquor laws were written in the 1910s, so there’s still a whole lot of stuff that needs to be substantially overhauled.

But why I think the craft brew movement is different this time is because people’s pallets have really changed. Previously with all these breweries popping up, they were making mostly light lagers. Now they don’t. People are looking for different things to try now. And a lot of that was driven by the IPA boom. People were used to drinking light lager, or American lager, or an English ale or dark ale, but all of a sudden there was this whole other area of beer. Unexplored, uncharted territory for what beer could taste like. The ones who were adventurous, who wanted that, went to craft brewing quickly.

People were no longer ashamed to ask what the difference between an ale and a lager is.

And brewers were as keen to explore new beers as drinkers were. It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People expect beer to be hoppy now, they’re seeking it out maybe because it's what they think they’re supposed to be drinking. That’s the first step into craft. And then you step beyond that. You try Belgian wheat beers, sours, or the next up-and-coming thing.

Do you feel that demand? Do people keep an eye on Royal City knowing you guys will be trying different styles?

One of my goals is to not become complacent. I want to constantly be trying new things. Different ingredients, different tastes. One of the eye-opening moments for me was going to Dieu du Ciel in Montreal as a young craft beer drinker in the early 2000s. They’d been around for 20 years at that point in time, but I showed up and decided the world had changed, walking in there are seeing their blackboard with thirty beers listed. When they run out of one beer, they just turn the page in the recipe book kind of thing. They’ve got that big resource to draw from to keep things changing constantly.

Changing consistently, do you keep an idea of identity? If we were talking writing, I'd call it "voice," I guess.

Yeah. For one, all the beers are unfiltered. The reason is... I like unfiltered. Unfiltered beer tastes substantially better. More vibrant, alive. So we get a lot of yeast character in everything we do. There's also a couple of little things that I like to sneak into just about every style that we make. Stuff that's not necessarily orthodox. I won't say what those ingredients are, but they make for a house flavour.

Is there a prize offered to anyone who can put their finger on those ingredients?

I'd never admit it if someone guessed right, and a couple already have! I think for us right now it's a lot of us trying to develop what that "voice" is. In nine months we've done 87 different beers. A lot of those were pilots, brewed on a very small scale, but that's a lot. Some of them aren't ever going to see the light of day again. We're not even a year old yet, but given enough time I think we'll arrive at something that's distinctly us. I guess right now what's distinctly us is we're all over the place, and we're happy to be here!

Doing our part to make sure Cam and his crew never get too comfortable, we've got – ahem – two taps set aside for Royal City up in the eBar. Just saying...


May 1 - 10 is Pride Week in Guelph. Along with a raft of other events around the city, the Guelph Pride Committee will be hosting their first book discussion, Pride Lit, in which anyone's welcome to come out and share their favourite queer-themed books. The Committee shared some of their top picks ahead of the event on May 6th.

Check out full event info HERE.

Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing Up with a Gay Dad
Alison Wearing

A heartfelt, beautifully written memoir about growing up with a gay father in the 1980s. A tribute to the power of truth, humour, acceptance, and familial love.

Adult Onset
Ann-Marie MacDonald

Ann-Marie’s new novel is a semi-autobiographical drama about motherhood, the undercurrents that break and hold families together, and the power and pressures of love.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Jeanette Winterson

When Jeanette finally left home, at sixteen, because she was in love with a woman, Mrs Winterson asked: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ This book is the story of a life’s work to find happiness, belonging, and identity.

Far From the Tree
Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon’s proposition is that diversity is what unites us all. As a gay man himself, he writes about the experience of difference within families, including families coping with children who are transgender.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Emily M. Danforth

This YA novel follows the life of a young girl struggling to be her true self in the face of family prejudice. It is a story about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.