Inside a former home electronics store in downtown Vancouver, the 15th edition of New Forms Festival, the city's touchstone event for electronic music and multimedia art took place last October. Concert-goers had gathered in the old A&B Sound building, where Club 560's cavernous main room connects to mezzanines, side lounges, and the Satellite gallery upstairs through a maze of stairwells and hallways.
Among the performers was Minimal Violence, the local hardware-based techno duo of Ashlee Lúk and Lida Pawliuk, who were making their festival debut. "That's one of the first things we said when we started playing together," Pawliuk told THUMP over dinner earlier in the evening. "We want to play New Forms."
"It's the coolest thing you can do in Vancouver," Lúk agreed.
Up until then, playing New Forms had felt somewhat unattainable. The previous two editions of the fest had only featured one female Vancouver act apiece. But 2016's bill offered a feast of British Columbian and Canadian talent, including Rosen, x/o, and Montreal's Kara-Lis Coverdale. Minimal Violence, who put out their debut EP on Vancouver women-only imprint Genero, played the main stage the first night, while labelmates D. Tiffany and Yu Su of You're Me played the side lounge and Satellite Gallery upstairs.
It's the strength of the label, which was started by Soledad Muñoz in 2015, that Minimal Violence credit with their ascent to the highly-regarded festival. "Genero really got us to an international level," said Lúk. "Every label deal has come from there. This New Forms booking came from there."
Genero is just one of the many female-forward influencers who have helped diversify Vancouver's electronic scene. More women and non-binary folks than ever before are learning how to DJ, releasing albums, booking shows, and running labels. Last year's New Forms felt like their coronation, hard won after years of unequal representation on the Canadian Riviera. We talked to some of the people leading the charge about the challenges that they've faced, and what the future holds for a new generation of artists.
"Granville Street is hell on earth in Vancouver. It's a war zone on the streets at 2 AM there." - Nancy Dru
Making electronic music in Vancouver has never been easy for anyone. In the past, arts organizations have faced opposition by the city government on multiple fronts. According to Matt Troy, the 2010 Winter Olympic Games was a major impetus for crackdowns on dance events perceived as drug-fueled raves, and the raids didn't stop after the international sporting competition was over.
"Everywhere left, right, and center was getting shut down," recalled the artistic director of nonprofit group Vancouver Arts and Leisure (VAL). "If they couldn't get you with fire, they'd get you with use or with zoning or something else. Dance music is a queer space in the world, and it's not understood very well by a middle-aged, heterosexual fire inspector."
The city attempted to concentrate all nightlife along Granville Street, a major thoroughfare in Vancouver's downtown shopping and entertainment district. They poured $20.8 million into the area's gentrification before the Olympics. But the new clubs had long lines, lousy music, and were generally unsafe for women and LGBT individuals, who were regularly accosted and assaulted in the venues and surrounding streets.
"Granville Street is hell on earth in Vancouver," added techno DJ and producer Nancy Dru, aka Jen Pearson. "It's a war zone on the streets at 2 AM there."
As a result, the underground surged. Parties took place in lofts, cafes, studios, and DIY venues that operated clandestinely, and often not for very long. A new sound emerged from these events hosted by art school students, which combined classic house and techno with elements of jazz, ambient, rock, and disco in a way no one had heard before. This lush, woozy music helped Vancouver's rebrand from "No Fun City"—a long-running nickname earned through years of nightlife persecution—to the "Canadian Riviera," though this new scene was the definition of a boys' club. The labels receiving international praise from the likes of Resident Advisor, Pitchfork, and others, 1080p (currently on hiatus), Pacific Rhythm, and Mood Hut were run by men, and predominantly put out releases by their male friends and collaborators between 2012 and 2015. Mood Hut's lauded Libra Mix series had only one woman—Laura Sparrow of LNS—contribute a mix in their first 50.
"I only knew one other female DJ… And then I started to DJ, and I think people thought, 'If she can do it, I can do it.'" - regularfantasy
Since the men at the top weren't making room for women in the scene, women made space for themselves. Then they opened that space up for others.
"It was really, really hard back then," said DJ, producer, and one half of dark disco duo Bobo Eyes (with Evelyn Mason) regularfantasy. "I only knew one other female DJ…. And then I started to DJ, and I think people thought, 'If she can do it, I can do it.'"
She was one of the few visible women involved in the early Canadian Riviera scene when Bobo Eyes released Midnight Pearl on 1080p in 2014. A lifelong musician, the producer became interested in DJing vinyl after her What.CD account was shut down, and all she had to listen to was her record collection.
"It's really hard to learn to DJ, because you need the equipment," said regularfantasy. "You have to practice all the time. At the time I was like, I can't be part of the boys' club because I wasn't a boy, so I couldn't access the things I needed to learn."
She joined a male-run studio space, where she learned to use their turntables, and spent most of her days there. It didn't even have a bathroom at the time, but she'd stay up all night spinning tracks, making music, peeing outside, and then getting up the next day to go to school. Because she had access to equipment, regularfantasy started teaching others to DJ; one of her students was Sophie Sweetland, who performs under the name D. Tiffany, and today is among Vancouver's most respected house producers and promoters.
The pair soon met and began playing with textile artist, experimental musician, and community organizer Soledad Muñoz, which felt like a novelty. "I remember when I was jamming with them I was like, 'Wow, I've never jammed with a woman before,'" Muñoz Fiegehen reminisced, "and it felt so good." From there she started Genero, first as an event series, and then a label that's since put out releases by D. Tiffany, regularfantasy, and others.
"Genero has had a pretty big impact," said Jen Pearson, who also books shows with Vancouver techno collective Subversive. "I'm sure all those people would be making music no matter what, but having someone local to put it out for them, support them, and help them network has been really good and it's made a big difference." Lúk and Pawliuk are promoters with Sacred Sound Club, which hosts techno, noise, and minimal shows. Both groups are majority female-run with strong roots in Vancouver's queer community, and their influence on the city's electronic scene has been immense.
As for Sweetland, when she's not busy putting out music (the first two female releases on 1080p were both hers: a 2013 split with Bobby Draino and a self-titled album in 2014), she runs arts space Sweetpup. A training ground for many young DJs and producers, the venue was the first in Vancouver to have a policy requiring female representation on every bill (though it's willing to bend the rules until the community develops) .
Sweetland is also heavily involved with Intersessions, an artist-run DJ and music production workshop series for female-identifying and LGBT individuals, started in April 2016 by Rhi Blossom and Chippy Nonstop. Over a year later, the group has hosted events across Canada in Toronto, Edmonton, Newfoundland, and Montreal, as well as in New York, Los Angeles, and Mexico City.
"When I try to put together bills for parties, I keep coming up with all-female lineups by accident. There's just a lot of amazing women… that's such a key part of what's going on in Vancouver right now." - Ashlee Lúk
You don't have to look too hard to see the demographics have changed.
Last year, 1080p put out records by artists including Jayda G, Sweetland (as DJ Zozi), and Minimal Violence. Though Evelyn Mason now calls New York home, she described Evy Jane's excellent 2016 electro-R&B LP Breaking as her "Vancouver album," and THUMP named her collaboration "Court Vision" with Ratking's Sporting Life as one of the best tracks of the year. This January, Mood Hut released Phobiza "Noite" Vol. 2 from Montreal-based RAMZi, aka Phoebé Guillemot, marking the label's first full-length from a female producer. Next month, Vancouver will host the first ever CURRENT, a three-day music and electronic art symposium of workshops, panels, and events hoping to "foster and disseminate feminist content through cross-pollination of ideas and intergenerational knowledge sharing."
Lúk and Pawliuk added that they've noticed a difference when booking shows through Sacred Sound Club too. "When I try to put together bills for parties, I keep coming up with all-female lineups by accident," said Luk. "There's just a lot of amazing women…that's such a key part of what's going on in Vancouver right now."
As a member of this new generation of artists, 19-year-old Intersessions co-founder Blossom offered some insight into its freshman class.
"The older generations are slowly taking more of a backseat, so people near my age who tend to hold more inclusive values and are usually more aware of the importance of diversity and the power of representation are claiming some space and are stepping up," said Blossom. "I think the issue here isn't a lack of talent from LGBTQ+ and girl DJ/producers in Vancouver and worldwide, but rather a constant pushback from men in this industry who feel threatened. As soon as these guys can let go of their egos a little bit, and start booking people solely on their talent without considering their gender, then we'll be closer to where we need to be."
There is a lot of infrastructure involved in gaining visibility as a musician or DJ. Mostly, it's community-based, meaning that no one can do it alone. You need teachers, role models, equipment, venues, promoters, and labels in your corner.
"Role models and networking are key," said Pearson. "The more you see it, the more it happens. I remember playing a show in London a couple years ago and a girl came up to me and said, 'I've never seen a woman on the stage before, ever—ever.' I could see how much it meant to her."
Figures like regularfantasy, Sweetland, Blossom, Muñoz, and many others have created the exact positive feedback loop Pearson described. Of course, there's still plenty of misogynistic bullshit happening around the clock in Vancouver—a year or two isn't going to change everything—but the more you see it, the more it happens. Students become teachers, and both become collaborators.
"We are doing this together rather than competing for that one spot that existed before," Sweetland said. "We're not going to be a part of that—we're going to do our own thing and make our own room."
Cate McGehee is on Twitter.