Photos by Amanda Fotes
Toronto has been somewhat of a success story these days. Not that it wasn't before, but it's hard to deny that the fervour, pride and quantity of exports, both material and immaterial, from the city are climbing and climbing. Part of that visibility is no doubt attributable to the wonderful, wooly online world; campaigns like #WeTheNorth, the Blue Jays' incendiary playoff runs and just Drake in general have spread via meme, stream, tweet and Facebook post, cultivating a distinct, modern identity for the city.
Another line of wildfire expansion is running parallel to this tidal wave pop culture, and it's been happening for years. People who have been there from the start, like concert photographer Amanda Fotes, will tell you it's been a long time coming.
"This really exciting stuff is coming out of Toronto, and it's great that people are taking notice of it." Neither a spotty connection nor shitty cell phone speaker can filter out tone of respect and genuine pride in her voice; equal parts excitement and gratification. "They've been working for this for a long time. It couldn't happen to a better bunch of bands."
"They" in that sentence refers to the vibrant, intimate, inclusive community that's solidified around Toronto's accessible punk rock scene (I'm using Toronto and geography loosely here, don't yell at me.) Rallying around groups like PUP, The Dirty Nil, Greys, and PKEWPKEWPKEW, a culture has been ratified and constituted not by aesthetic signifiers (see Steve from PUP's unremovable Raptors jersey, which is ironically a long tradition in punk) or attitudinal snobbery (it's okay to like punk rock and baseball cards) like it might've been in the Hebdige days. Of course, this one wasn't necessitated by the same sort of social circumstances. But it's a more positive, friendly, welcoming thing, predicated in the mid-2000s footprints of bands like The Flatliners and Moneen.
If, like me, you're not from Toronto, maybe you've been following this from afar, ogling at photos from cramped shows at the soon-to-be-defunct (or maybe not?) Silver Dollar or massive blow-outs at the 1500-cap Danforth Music Hall. These names have probably taken a spot in your popular romantic imagination; maybe you can now recognize the ornate setting of the Opera House, or the coziness of the Dakota Tavern. These venues are now the stomping grounds for this community that stormed out of DIY and independent performance spaces, and Fotes, along with her contemporaries like Sarah Rix, Riley Taylor and Stephen McGill, have been giving us a glimpse into this world with their photography.
What's immediately and explicitly clear is that for both Fotes and the bands she covers these are pursuits of passion. Fotes recalls with clarity the very first show she attended, and later, the first one she shot, a secret Moneen show at the Horseshoe (circa 2008). She had just dropped out of university two years into a criminology degree. "I took my tuition money and bought a camera," she says simply. "I had seen Moneen hundreds of times before that, but I had never done it as a photographer.
"I didn't really know what I was getting myself into," she laughs. Like most people in music journalism (and music in general, for that matter), Fotes didn't start off on a living wage. Or any wage at all. "The first couple years, I was buying tickets to small shows at the Horseshoe or the Dollar," she explains. Not only was she not paid; she was paying to do this. Fotes isn't bitter though: "At that point I wasn't very good," she shrugs.
She's not in that position anymore, but it didn't just end with photography; Fotes got accepted into Ryerson University's film program ("It took me three or four years to actually get accepted into it," she explains). And being a film student has it's perks. "When you're in film school, people know you have access to stuff, and then they start asking you to do little projects for them," she chuckles, only half-resentfully. "So ya know, I talk about free work? I did a lot of free video work for a very long time."
And so began a new adventure: making rad-ass music videos for Toronto bands, which was new territory for her. "I don't really watch a lot of music videos," she confesses. "I'm just trying my best." One of her first videos was with Toronto noise-punks Greys, whose 2016 Carpark Records release Outer Heaven was the recipient of some coveted Pitchfork-stamped glow. Fotes tells me frontman Shehzaad Jiwani told her about the idea for the video years before its' creation. She recalls the pitch fondly: "I told him it was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard." But she changed her mind.
Through making videos, Fotes discovered another tool in the Canadian music industry's arsenal: MuchFACT (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent), a fund generated by Bell Media through MuchMusic to nurture Canadian musicians, specifically through music video production. "The first one I applied for, I got," she admits, no small accomplishment for someone going it alone. "A lot of people have the support of a production company who handles the writing of [applications]. I went into it blind." That process involved Fotes bombarding the administrative staff at MuchFACT with questions, and "fucking up a whole bunch." But it all turned out: "It's really, truly remarkably that somebody will give you money to make a skate video." For newcomers, check out this handy dandy guide on how to get a grant with MuchFACT.
Other bands in Toronto took note. Dundas, Ontario trio The Dirty Nil, who also scored P4K praise with last year's Higher Power, asked Fotes to do a riotous, Who-inspired video with them. It was another in a string of friendly, and familial, collaborations. "My little brother built that whole set in a day," Fotes marvels. Graham Wright, the keyboardist for esteemed Toronto indie rockers Tokyo Police Club, helped out at the shoot, almost being crushed by Nil frontman Luke Bentham's flaming guitar amp. "Luke actually bent down to blow it out as if it was gonna help," she laughs.
The name dropping here might seem exhausting, but those mentions are necessary to illustrate the nature of this group. That's the story of this circle; a giant puddle of friends helping friends (or friends of friends). It's enough to make someone wish they were part of it (not me I'm fine I have a million friends whatever). That connection and mutual appreciation led McGill, Rix, Taylor and Fotes to put together "Down In Front," a gallery of their concert photography being hosted at Black Cat Artspace in Toronto. Running from February 10-15, the showcase is a space for the group to share their work on their own terms. "There are other music photo gallery things that happen in the city that are not super accessible," Fotes says. Aside from spending money to have their work displayed at those events, they'd also be forced to share a handsome commission if their work sells. It was easier, and smarter, to do it themselves, "instead of paying someone else a lot of money to put our photos into a room."
The bands that have had this spotlight shone on them are entirely comprised of dudes (if you look outside that spotlight, you'll find all the incredible female-identifying bands that are surely headed for the same recognition). "There is a skew definitely towards men making music," Fotes remarks. This week's Juno Awards announcement betrayed a similar skew, prompting some to call out the Canadian industry's white cis male bias. Fotes maintains theirs is not a machismo-drowned wasteland. "[Those guys] are definitely outspoken feminists. That's not just a thing that they say, it's a thing they believe and it's really important to them," she asserts vehemently. Indeed it seems to be another binding tie; via his Twitter bio, McGill identifies as a "Capital F Feminist." These assertions are as important and valued in this community as a "Fuck Norm Kelly" pin. "I shoot a lot of punk shows. It's very safe and very inclusive," she reassures.
Similar communities built on these ethics of inclusion and safety seem to be appearing elsewhere, too. Philadelphia's indie-punk community seems to match the DIY, friendship-based ethos of Toronto's, with bands like Cayetana, The Menzingers, Modern Baseball, Sorority Noise, and more making the city a thriving, inclusive and socially-conscious music hub.
The spaces that cultivate this sort of thing are under attack. Following the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland, 4chan users have been plotting to shut down independent and DIY spaces. Brooklyn's legendary Shea Stadium announced a (hopefully) temporary closure last week. Toronto is no exception; the past month has seen DIY institutions like Soybomb announce that they'd be closing their doors. For Fotes, this hits close to home. "If I didn't have all-ages spaces to go to as a kid, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing right now," she laments, a sentiment that echoes, almost verbatim, a mid-show speech PUP offered last July at all-ages venue the Vera Project in Seattle. But she's not resigned to despair; no one is. "It's not gonna end the scene, it's going to evolve. It's gonna change into something bigger and better, and it's always going to be like that."
So perhaps now, more than ever, we need to celebrate these gatherings, these small victories. Whether or not a community wants to admit it, it comes together not necessarily for the promise of gain, but from a lack of something. What purpose would we have for gathering if we felt better on our own? The only logical explanation is that we feel that lack less when we're in this community. We do work for free, and we stay out so late that late loses meaning, and we get beer spilled on us, and we lose our hearing night after night, for little inches toward gratification and warmth. We're selfish utilitarians at heart.
If you go to the show at Black Cat, you'll perhaps be struck by a realization that from that first show until now, these photographers have been some of the world's only glimpses into the sweaty, loving world of Toronto's independent music scene. It's an inspirational thing; a breathing testament to the power of community, and to music as a catalyst to all this good shit. From friends playing music with friends, to friends taking pictures of their friends playing music, to friends making music videos for friends, the tale of Toronto's spotlighted punk rock scene is very much one of friendship first and foremost. It's one of mutual respect and support.
At one point, Fotes is reminiscing about the bands she's photographed from METZ ("If a music photographer is stupid enough to put themselves in the middle of a METZ crowd, then they suffer the consequences") to Taylor Swift ("I had to fuckin' shoot Taylor Swift. I was very drunk"). She pauses on mentioning her friends in local bands, as she posits candidly, "I've been really lucky to have access to those specific bands," and I can't help but be struck by how lucky they are to have Amanda Fotes.
Luke Ottenhof is a writer living in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter.