Brimming with ideals and civic duty, Guelph, Ontario concert promoters John Pritchard and Brian Schirk debuted their regional emerging music festival Incline/Decline last year in an attempt to fill a rare void in downtown Guelph concert programming. It was intended as a spiritual commentary on the effect of the coinciding, long-established Hillside Festival, one of Guelph’s FAB 5—a handful of exceptional and immersive arts festivals deemed acceptable tourism flagships by the municipality—but also one that annually turns the city’s downtown into what Pritchard calls “a ghost town.” According to Schirk, “Most of the employees at a lot of the smaller local businesses will actually go to the festival, so those businesses will close for the weekend, and it just kind of leaves you with this vacant downtown area.”
Despite good intentions and some positive response to last year’s festival, at a certain point the concept hit a wall; many businesses were enthusiastic about the organizers’ vision, but refused to go on record supporting it. Bowing to circumstance, this year’s festival runs July 15-18, the week before Hillside—an adjustment Pritchard says he and Schirk went with to be “more community conscious”—and it’s got an extra 13 bands, six gigs, two venues, and another co-presenter on last year’s event. Returning to the crawl format of last year’s festival, nights consist of multiple gigs that start on the tails of each other, and apart from its two co-organizers, it’s completely operated by volunteers (they could use some more of those, by the way). The 43-act lineup scheduled for this year’s festival—most of which you can sample in the mix Pritchard and Schirk have prepared—is an impressive bill of emerging artists from this side of the country. There’s a wealth of Toronto acts including Hooded Fang, New Fries, and Dirty Frigs; locals Start Something, Battlewülf, and Pritchard and Schirk’s project, Stüka; a healthy contingent of Maritime groups like Nap Eyes, Monomyth, and Kappa Chow; and Montreal’s Brazilian Money, Kurvi Tasch, and post-AIDS Wolf Alex Moskos project, Drainolith. Hamilton’s WTCHS, Kitchener’s Lifestyle Sub, and London’s Political Seance, S.M., and WHOOP-Szo will also be in town, and this year’s fest marks the first U.S. act brought to Guelph under the Incline/Decline banner with Brooklyn’s JOBS.
This year’s offering is bigger than last year’s in scope and scale, but Incline/Decline has also spent the last year outgrowing its festival clothes, sprouting new appendages as a record label and a vehicle for year-round concert promotion, establishing itself as yet another Guelph institution for new and exciting music. Noisey sat down with Pritchard and Schirk to get up to speed.
Noisey: What was the spark behind the original Incline/Decline festival?
Brian Schirk: I feel like there was a spot for something to happen, and nothing was happening, so we filled that spot. Every year downtown – last year we did the festival a different weekend; we did it the same weekend as another major festival that happens in town, and usually during that festival, downtown’s pretty dead. There’s not much going on; there’s not many people around; most of the employees at a lot of the smaller local businesses will actually go to the festival, so those businesses will close for the weekend, and it just kind of leaves you with this vacant downtown area.
John Pritchard: A ghost town.
Schirk: Yeah, it’s almost like a ghost town. So we just decided to ask a bunch of our friends who play in bands if they wanted to come and play downtown Guelph that weekend, and people were really interested.
Pritchard: We had a pretty good reaction our first year, so even going up against another huge festival, it was cool to see people coming from outside of the Guelph community and supporting the festival and that sort of thing. It helped us this year with broadening our horizons into meeting new bands and booking a bigger festival.
There seems to be an even bigger emphasis on the crawl format this year.
Pritchard: I think that the entire idea of the crawl format is to kind of… a lot of our shows are programmed as… you know, it’s “four punk bands,” and “three electronic acts,” and “two pop artists” and that sort of thing. It’s kind of like if you like punk music, you can just go to the three shows where the punk bands are playing, and if you wanna check out the other stuff, it’s at a different time. It allows people to access the festival a bit more. A lot of times with festivals, you’ll see a huge line-up and you’ll be like, “Woah, this is awesome,’ but it turns out that a lot of those bands are actually playing at the same time and you have to compromise what you want to see and that sort of thing.
Schirk: We’re trying to add to the time in-between shows so, exactly like John said, people don’t have to stress about seeing a band that they want to see while they’re already watching another band that they wanted to see. You can catch all the sets. On top of that, the venues that we choose, we use them in the way that those businesses are usually used, or would like to be used as venues. So the café shows are kind of later in the evening because that’s when they can have live music, and stuff like that. So some of the crawl stuff is like that just because it’s easier, really.
Do you think people play up this festival’s relationship to Hillside too much?
Pritchard: Yeah, because I really think that we’re doing something completely outside of Hillside. We’re much weirder. Obviously there’s some crossover. Some bands who were playing Hillside last year are playing our festival this year, and vice versa as well. But I think we emphasize a specific… not sound, but type of band that isn’t necessarily the top billed band on Hillside that’s going to really draw a ton of people there. It’s a different population that we’re appealing to.
Since last year this enterprise has expanded into a label and a vehicle for year-round concert promotion. How did those changes manifest themselves?
Pritchard: Brian and I were just kind of doing this—we play in a band called Stüka and we were putting shows together for us in the city, and it wasn’t really until we started the band that we really kind of focused on like… well I don’t want to say that that was the beginning of it, but we were doing it a lot more frequently – putting on shows and hosting things—and I was kind of just like, well, I’d like to put this into a different vehicle and have a name to put on this just to… not brand it, but say this is who we are; we’re doing this stuff pretty frequently; it’s not just a stupid show. It wasn’t like we were playing every show that we were putting on, as well.
Schirk: Yeah. I mean, I think it helps to have something that’s identifiable to people when we’re doing something that is similar to what some other organizations in town do. Like, I’ve done a lot of work with Kazoo! Fest in the past and they’re a huge inspiration and support. But we were like, there’s got to be some way to differentiate ourselves. The first way to do that is through programming, but to have something that’s identifiable as us, and our work, I think is important. The label started really as a means to get our music out there. We’re hoping to get that off the ground as soon as the festival’s over and we don’t have to worry about that for the next four months or so—focus on putting some records out.
As far as I know… Brian, you live in Toronto now, correct? And John you’re still in Guelph? Obviously those two cities work on very different levels, but I’m curious if you can offer some insight into what either city can learn from each other, at least as far as fostering a local music scene is concerned.
Schirk: One of the things that I’ve noticed about having moved back and forth between Toronto and Guelph was that… it depends on your group of friends and everything, but I find that a lot of people in Toronto… Toronto is a lot more expensive, most people don’t really have all that much free time, and the free time that they do have, if they’re artists, they’re using to work on their practice—whether it’s creating music or visual art or writing—whatever it is.
In Guelph there’s this really wonderful sense of collaboration. If you’re sitting on the Jimmy Jazz patio having a beer and telling somebody about this band you want to start, that person—if they play an instrument—is pretty much guaranteed to offer to play in your band, and chances are you’ve played in a band with them before. Everybody’s trying to help each other out. John and I have been involved in the music scene here [in Guelph] for a decade, a bit more than a decade now, and the people who have been in the music scene a decade longer than that still talk about that. There’s this weird thing that happens in the arts and music community in Guelph that’s very strange and I don’t think is present in Toronto. I just wish I could describe it better. I think [John] hit the nail on the head there again when it comes to simultaneous programming. It really sucks when three of your friends are playing a show—
Pritchard: And that’s an issue in both cities. That happens in Guelph, too, where it’s like there just happen to be four shows at four different venues and then a show that would have had 150 people at it has 30 because there’s people checking out other stuff.
Schirk: But we all have the same problems. People don’t come out before 11 o’clock here, same as in Toronto.
Pritchard: And that’s a problem we’re going to run into programming 40 bands over four days. There’s going to be shows that start at six o’clock. That’s the only way that we can fit that many bands. It’s like, if you want to see this band, you’re gonna have to be there at this time. We’re not going to push the show back because people aren’t there yet.
Do you have any hopes or dreams for Incline/Decline’s future?
Schirk: It would be nice to get some grants. I would really like to have a larger visual art component next year in which we pay the artists… more than it costs them to get here, I guess. As it is right now, based on our current budget we’re paying everybody enough to come and go and feeding them and putting them up and making sure they’re well taken care of while they’re here, and we’re gonna be splitting the door at every show, but it would be really nice if we were able to get some support from the City of Guelph—some financial support from the City of Guelph would be really cool—even if it’s some type of advertisement sponsorship or something like that. Cam Guthrie…
Pritchard: It would be nice to get some money just to be able to do more stuff with the festival like make it bigger. Not that I wanna make the festival more corporate in any capacity—I don’t want to sacrifice the ethic of it being this run by volunteers, shoestring budget kind of thing—but it would also be cool to not have to be super anxious about.
Tom Beedham is an arts and culture journalist living in Toronto. – @Tom_Beedham