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EDM fans beat the cold at the Brrrrr! Winter Music Festival

- February 2nd, 2014

A little snow never hurt anyone, right? Thousands of electronic dance music fans embraced the winter at Toronto’s Echo Beach on Saturday night, as EDM artists like Wolfgang Gartner, Bassjackers and Felix Cartal performed at the second annual Brrrrr! Winter Music Festival. Here are a few of my photos from the event.

photos by Sean Fitzgerald

Toronto’s PUP prepares to bring their punk rock to the world – after they finish their laundry

- January 30th, 2014

Stefan Babcock fronts Toronto’s most-buzzed about punk group, but at the moment, all he can think about is laundry.

Over the next few months, his band PUP – which stands for Pathetic Use of Potential – will travel to the U.K., Germany, Holland and Belgium, and then embark on a U.S. tour. Before they fly out, they’ll also perform in Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal.

“Today is our last day off for several months,” he says from his home base in Toronto. “During the past few weeks, I’ve been going to bed early, waking up early and doing laundry regularly. I’m trying to get all my downtime in before I never have it again.”

His laundry timer even goes off during the course of our interview.

PUP

A lot of things have changed for the quartet in the past half-year or so, when they decided to switch their name from Topanga – a Boy Meets World reference – to PUP, and infuse their tunes with a more aggressive sound. Their raw, energetic live show has earned them opening slots for bands like Hollerado and Billy Talent, and their hilarious video for the single Reservoir has garnered tens of thousands of views on YouTube.

In terms of PUP’s frenzied performance style, Babcock, 25, says he wants to give fans something more than just a recreation of the group’s recorded output.

“When we started this band, that was kind of like our M.O.,” he says. “There are so many terrible, shoegaze-y indie rock bands from Toronto that just stand on stage and don’t do anything, and just play their songs. To me, that’s pretty boring.”

The Reservoir video recreates a PUP live performance, and features bloody, exaggerated injuries to every member of the band – which also includes Nestor Chumak on bass, Steve Sladkowski on guitar and Zack Mykula on drums. Babcock says that the video’s directors, Chandler Levack and Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, felt inspired to make it after watching the band suffer through mishaps at nearly every concert.

“There was one show where my amp literally caught fire and smoked out the whole show. There was another show where a guy was crowd surfing, but it was a house show – and there was a ceiling fan going – and he got all cut up in the ceiling fan. There have been shows where I smashed my guitar through my face by accident because I was rocking out too hard.”

PUP released their self-titled debut album in the fall through Canadian indie label Royal Mountain Records, and they recently scored a U.S. distribution deal with SideOneDummy Records. The group worked on the album with producer Dave Schiffman, who is known for his work with Weezer, Vampire Weekend and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

So, big things are obviously happening for these guys. But for the next day or two, Babcock says he plans to “lead a banker’s life,” which will consist of getting enough sleep, staying away from alcohol and packing for the months to come. And finishing his laundry, of course.

“I’m doing the exact opposite of the punk rock thing right now,” he says. “I’ll be like, ‘Sorry guys, I’m not coming out to party tonight. I think I’m going to drink some tea and go to sleep at 10.’ ”

How did so many fails happen at the 2011 Grammys?

- January 22nd, 2014

The 56th annual Grammy Awards are around the corner. This is true. The performance by Daft Punk and Stevie Wonder should be awesome. But before we celebrate the year in music, let’s jump back in time, to three years ago. Don’t worry – this will be a fun history lesson.

Most people remember the 2011 Grammys as the year that Arcade Fire surprised everyone by snagging the Album of the Year award, or the year that Esperanza Spalding enraged hordes of Beliebers by winning Best New Artist, or the year that Lady Gaga hatched from an egg.

But it should also be remembered as the year of the fail.

Was there something in the air at the Staples Center that night? Even though cringe-inducing moments happen at every awards show, there seems to be a deluge of Internet-famous examples from that event. Here are my three favourites.

GrammyStatue2

CHRISTINA AGUILERA
It was tough week for Christina Aguilera. She had just flubbed the lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl. And after delivering a powerful tribute to Aretha Franklin at the Grammys – accompanied by Jennifer Hudson, Yolanda Adams, Martina McBride and Florence Welch – Aguilera lost her balance and nearly fell to the ground. That epic final note was just too much.

JUSTIN BIEBER’S BACKUP DANCER
Wow, Justin Bieber’s grown a lot in three years. Remember when he wasn’t making it rain at strip clubs? Three years ago, the then-16-year-old delivered a medley of three songs at the Grammys – Baby, Never Say Never and Usher’s OMG – that will forever be remembered by Bieber bashers as the performance where his backup dancer fell off of a stage riser. My back hurts just watching this. Little did Bieber know that he’d grow up to face much bigger issues in the future (note to Bieber in 2011: Stay away from mop buckets, spray cans, eggs and rappers with the word “Lil” in their names).

SERENE BRANSON (REPORTER)
She had the look and the enthusiasm, but not the words. Reporter Serene Branson became immortalized on the Internet after she slurred through a live TV hit about the Grammys. Her embarrassing moment – using nonsense words like “burtation” – resulted in some hilarious online parodies. It feels slightly wrong laughing at this, though, when it’s obvious that Branson was having some sort of medical emergency at the time. It turns out that she was suffering from “migraine with aura”, which produces stroke-like symptoms. She’s okay now.

One thing’s for sure – watching people fail while wearing fancy clothes is entertaining. Why else would the 2011 show have the best viewership numbers in a decade? Let’s pray for more wince-inducing moments on Sunday.

From Katy to Feist to Bieber, author Ben Kaplan shares his ultimate celebrity running playlist

- January 13th, 2014

KaplanBook

So, you’re a few weeks into that 2014 running regime, and your playlist already feels stale. You need some new music to propel you out into the cold winter air. The solution? Call Ben Kaplan.

Kaplan, Toronto-based journalist born in Brooklyn, seems perfectly suited to this situation. After making a name for himself as a pop music writer – contributing to publications like GQ, The New Yorker, Spin, The National Post and others – he’s slowly crafted a new identity as a running author.

This week, the 39-year-old writer releases his first book, the unconventional training manual Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now: The Rogue’s Guide to Running the Marathon.

“It’s real personal,” says Kaplan. “It’s all about the birth of my child, and it’s about my love-hate relationship with alcohol. It’s got everything. It’s training, it’s memoir, it’s interviews, it’s anecdotes. A real labour of love.”

I should mention that I’ve ‘ran into’ Kaplan a few times in my life – in the National Post newsroom, in the stands of a Toronto Raptors game, and on small-town running trails two hours north of Toronto. The man loves to run. I’ve seen first-hand evidence.

In his book, he includes running song recommendations from various musicians he’s interviewed throughout his career. Here, he gives us a sample of that. And, in a little twist, he salutes the artists he’s interviewed by picking one of their tracks for his own personal playlist:

Paul Simon

Paul Simon recommends: The Delmore Brothers (any song)
I Let the Freight Train Carry Me On by The Delmore Brothers on Grooveshark

Ben Kaplan recommends: Paul Simon – The Boxer
The Boxer by Paul Simon on Grooveshark

Kaplan on his pick: “Because when you’re out there, 32k into a marathon, it’s good to remember that you’re in the fight of your life.”

Selena Gomez

Selena Gomez recommends: Britney Spears – Toxic
Toxic by Britney Spears on Grooveshark

Kaplan recommends: Selena Gomez – Come and Get It
Selena Gomez-Come & Get It by Selena Gomez on Grooveshark

Kaplan on his pick: “It’s a monster radio jam. Remember: When making your mix, diversify genre and tempos!”

Moby

Moby recommends: Black Flag – Damaged 1
Damaged I by Black Flag on Grooveshark

Kaplan recommends: Moby – Natural Blues
Natural Blues by Moby on Grooveshark

Kaplan on his pick: “There was a time around the release of Play when I had stories on Moby going in about eight different places. I still listen to this album and miss New York.”

Jack White

Jack White recommends: The Who – Baba O’Riley
Baba O'Riley by The Who on Grooveshark

Kaplan recommends: The Raconteurs – Steady, As She Goes
Steady, as She Goes by The Raconteurs on Grooveshark

Kaplan on his pick: “I can’t believe I didn’t recommend this tune in the book. There’s no artist I prefer more – well, maybe Kanye or Feist or Neil Diamond – but there are few musicians I’ll take over Jack White, the king.”

Feist

Feist recommends: J.J. Fad – Supersonic
Supersonic by J.J. Fad on Grooveshark

Kaplan recommends: Feist – Mushaboom
Mushaboom by Feist on Grooveshark

Kaplan on his pick: “When Julie and I got married, we walked into the party to this song. Can you listen to this without smiling? Not me.”

Katy Perry

Katy Perry recommends: Willow Smith – Whip My Hair
I Whip My Hair by Willow Smith on Grooveshark

Kaplan recommends: Katy Perry – Roar
Roar – Katy Perry by NewThingRadioWeb on Grooveshark

Kaplan on his pick: “I don’t know. If this comes on the radio, I might change it. But if it comes on at 36k, I might turn it up. It’s a new tune and untested. Play it with care.”

Will.i.am

Will.i.am recommends: Boogie Down Productions – My Philosophy
My Philosophy by Boogie Down Productions on Grooveshark

Kaplan recommends: The Black Eyed Peas – Where is the Love?
Where Is the Love? by The Black Eyed Peas on Grooveshark

Kaplan on his pick: “The most important thing to consider from a running song, to me, is how good it makes you feel. This song makes me feel good.”

Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber recommends: Michael Jackson – Dirty Diana
Dirty Diana – Michael Jackson – General Pop – Bad by Michael Jackson on Grooveshark

Kaplan recommends: Justin Bieber – Baby
Baby (feat. Ludacris) by Justin Bieber on Grooveshark

Kaplan on his pick: “This is a tough one, but I do like this song. It’s light and soft as the heel on a sneaker. A nice rap from Ludacris makes it complete.”

bookcover

My 10 favourite musical discoveries of 2013

- December 23rd, 2013

breakout

I love it when I get that feeling. I’m sure you get it, too. You’re sitting in your car, or in a movie theatre, or in front of your laptop, and a stellar new song from a stellar new artist hits your ears. And after fiddling with your phone to find the Shazam app or waiting for the radio DJ to give you more information, you’ve got the title. Welcome to my life, new song.

I experienced that feeling a number of times in 2013, but here are my 10 favourite examples, listed in alphabetical order:

ATLAS GENIUS – TROJANS:
While Trojans utilizes an age-old chord progression and features a common lyrical theme – trying to forget an ex – Australia’s Atlas Genius still discovered a way to make dance rock sound new again.

Trojans by Atlas Genius on Grooveshark

ALT-J – FITZPLEASURE
Following a successful 2012, English indie rockers Alt-J found a larger audience this year after solid sets at festivals like Lollapalooza, Coachella, Governors Ball, Glastonbury and Osheaga. The spooky synth bassline in Fitzpleasure will make any moment in your life feel cinematic.

Fitzpleasure by alt-J on Grooveshark

CHVRCHES – GUN
I love it when band names make you do a double-take. Scottish synthpoppers Chvrches discovered a way to stand out on Google – and luckily, their music is worth searching for. Gun features Lauren Mayberry’s shimmering vocals floating over keys and beats from bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty.

Gun by CHVRCHES on Grooveshark

FIDLAR – AWKWARD
FIDLAR transported me back to the mid-‘90s with this song. Awkward’s fuzzy guitars, anxious lyrics and loud-quiet dynamics recall the best of Weezer’s early years.

FITZ AND THE TANTRUMS – OUT OF MY LEAGUE
I slept on this band for way too long. Thankfully, Out of my League finally turned me onto the nostalgic soul-pop sung by Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs.

Out Of My League by Fitz and The Tantrums on Grooveshark

HAIM – FOREVER
This was the year of the Haim sisters. After growing up in a musical household, they exploded in 2013 with energetic live shows, charismatic interviews and a fresh take on pop music that combines ‘90s R&B with ‘70s folk-rock. And you can’t beat those dance moves in the Forever music video.

THE MOWGLI’S – SAN FRANCISCO
While that unnecessary apostrophe will always bother me, the modern hippies in The Mowgli’s have written the best sing-along song I’ve heard in a long time.

San Francisco by The Mowgli's on Grooveshark

THE ROYAL CONCEPT – WORLD ON FIRE
This song – written by Sweden’s version of Phoenix, The Royal Concept – works as audio espresso for me. I should make it my alarm clock.

World on Fire by The Royal Concept on Grooveshark

SKY FERREIRA – YOU’RE NOT THE ONE
How could someone born in the ‘90s remind me so much of the ‘80s? It was only a matter of time until Sky Ferreira broke through.

WILDLIFE – BORN TO RUIN
Toronto’s Wildlife released one of the most celebratory songs of the year. The shouted gang vocals, confident lead guitar and atmospheric keyboards combine to create a live-show feeling in your headphones.

Born To Ruin by Wildlife on Grooveshark

These songs travelled with me on chilly morning runs, accompanied me on commutes to the office and freshened up my stale playlists. What were your favourite discoveries of the year? Who should I be listening to in 2014? Let me know in the comments.