Why We Love Arbutus Records

A couple of weeks ago, NME ran a feature bigging up our favourite breaking acts from Canada. Here, writer Jazz Monroe delves a little deeper into the scene, focussing on Montreal and taking a closer look at what’s quite possibly the world’s most on-form label at present, Arbutus Records.

Living in warehouses, ecstasy is raining from the sky, and it’s beautiful.

So says Airick Woodhead, the man behind genre-chopping Radar tips Doldrums of the raucous goings-on in Montreal’s thriving warehouse scene. He’s not alone. From Grimes’ all-conquering year to the seemingly never-ending stampede of newbie Canadian acts like TOPS and Sean Nicholas Savage, there’s much to shout about. We spoke to Arbutus head Seb Cowan to plunder his label’s fascinating history, as well as a couple of the finest acts on its roster – starting with more from Airick.


NME: Describe your music in a sentence.
AW:I make songs but instead of notes on a guitar I use pre-made materials.

NME:You shy away from the term sampling. Why’s that?
AW:The term goes around a lot – I prefer just calling it collage or something. So many bands have a sampler, but that’s not what I wanna be lumped in with at all – so the stuff I’m listening to is like, Negativland, who were famous for doing that U2 chop-up album they got sued for. Or more recently I guess Girl Talk or something. But I don’t listen to Girl Talk, because I don’t like the attitude of it – I like the idea!

NME:As well as being hooked up with Souterrain Transmissions in Europe, you’re Arbutus’ first new signing since the label’s inception. How did that come up?
AW:I met most of them through playing in bands and being a Toronto kid. But once the DIY warehouse space that I was running in Toronto was shut down, I just moved to Montreal. The infrastructure is far more adaptable to this kind of lifestyle, basically because it’s way cheaper and there’s less crime. So I moved out here, and the people I was hanging out with were the Arbutus guys.

But it’s more than a record label. It’s really unique. These people have come together from all the way across Canada. The fact it’s constellated the way it has is really beautiful.

Sean Nicholas Savage

NME:You’ve released nine albums on Arbutus, so you’re obviously really lazy… What do you have going on besides music?
SNS:My friend Angus and I are working on a musical that I’ll be starring in. It’s written – he needs to do his half of it now, and then we’re gonna do a soundtrack in September. It’ll be a 10-11 song thing.

NME:Any names?
SNS:Blue Peels. But I’ve also been calling the album I’m working on Sad Cat Number Nine. You know, cats have nine lives. Hahaha!

NME:And you’re on your ninth?
SNS:I guess I was just feeling that way.

NME:Care to share any musical influences?
SNS:I have pretty silly influences. People can say, ‘I’m gonna list a lot of classic artists’, but a lot of people don’t listen so close. It depends. I really like Joni Mitchell, and I like Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye. And then there’s other artists I hear all the time, I like some of their songs. But I wouldn’t list them. I like singles – I’m into 80s singles, and 60s singles. And new music singles. I like that Usher song, and that Gotye song.

NME:Is there an ideology shared by Arbutus artists?
SNS:There must be, but it’s not too musical. There is though – there definitely is. Maybe some of it’s musical. I mean, I wrote with TOPS on Arbutus (TOPS are also signed to Hooded Fang’s DAPS label). But, like, Grimes, she doesn’t mix.

Everyone’s got their own little thing going on. There’s freedom.

Sebastian Cowan, head and founder of Arbutus Records

Influenced by labels like Warp in the 90s, Seb dived headlong into the music industry in 2007. Based in the UK for university, he topped his Audio Technology and Music Industry class, going on to work out of offices for Beggars and XL. Aged 21, before he moved back to Montreal, he even turned down a five-year contract forging a career with major label big guns Sony, telling us now:

I didn’t wanna have such a creative time in my life sucked away, working for someone else that I don’t even know if I really believe in. I thought, ‘When am I gonna have my adventure?’

NME:What did you take from working for Beggars and XL over in London?
SC:It was a revelation. It blew my mind how many records they were able to sell, and I realised selling records was something that I’d never thought about before. I’d always just wanted to help my friends.

NME:So you came to Montreal from London. How did Arbutus come about?
SC:I’d been to a warehouse loft party in Vancouver, where I grew up. I was like, ‘Wow! This is really cool! But it’s just an empty room with a couch at one side, and a shitty band playing at the other.’ I really saw the potential in it. And I knew that Montreal and Berlin were the two places you could do that.

NME:And being Canadian…
SC:Yeah. We found a loft space – Lab Synthese – and the label grew out of that. It wasn’t a plan I had in mind, it was just making CD-Rs and biking them to the college radio station and downtown to the weekly periodical to try to get a review. And at Christmas and summer, all my friends would go home from university to their various cities, so I’d give them 10 CDs and be like, ‘Can you put this in a couple of record stores?!’

NME:It was really that easy?
SC:Well, eventually it came to the time where we had to close the venue. Not everyone was invested as I was, the rent was doubling, and the whole operation was illegal. So you’re suddenly getting fines for things you didn’t know you could get fined for. After that I tried focussing fully on the label instead.

NME:Where did all these spaces come from?
SC:Up until the 60s Montreal was a huge manufacturer of textiles. And then, as logistics and shipping became more economical, people realised that you can manufacture these in third world countries, and ship them over and save tons of money. So all these manufacturing warehouses became vacant. And then, in the 80s all the banks left for Toronto, and there was this huge economic crash. People started moving here in the early 90s, with labels like Constellation (Godspeed You! Black Emperor) starting up. They moved here in the early 90s and paid $50 a month for rent. If it wasn’t you, it was either a junkie or it was empty. I just cruised in at a time where the people before me had done a lot of hard work to make this fertile neighbourhood. And everyone’s moving to the city.

If you wanna live in a major Canadian city and don’t want a job or an independent source of income, this is your only option! There’s good music on Arbutus because it’s a cultural melting pot.

NME:Is is true that a lot of venues are shutting down now?
SC:Well, ticket sales for a touring band are terrible because no one has any jobs or money. I mean, I would feel uncomfortable paying $10 for a local show, and I’m the one putting them on! The thing is, there’s only a couple of decent venues here. So that has allowed the loft and warehouse culture to take their place. But none of these places really last. Maximum a year. You can make money if you run a bar, but you can’t get a license in a place like that. So we had a bar in the first year, and we were raided and had a bunch of fines. They were like, ‘It’s fine if you do your parties, you just can’t sell alcohol because it’s not fair for people who run bars and get the permits’. The police are always very reasonable!

Listen to a selection of Arbutus artists below, and pick up next week’s issue of NME (on shelves August 1) to find out what happened during Sean Nicholas Savage’s first UK tour.