Bleak Life 2 will be launching on April 30th, bringing three days of ear-scorching punk and metal to one of Ontario’s best local music scenes. True to the community-based spirit of DIY, the festival will feature local & regional bands, as well as touring acts, and will be taking place at an eclectic mix of venues around the city. Audio Reckoning recently got together with Matt Hargrove, one of the founders of Bleak Life, to talk about the challenges of putting on an indie festival, the inclusiveness of punk culture, and the magic of doing it yourself.
AR: First off: tell me about Bleak Life Crew and how you all got together?
Matt Hargrove: Bleak Life got started a few years ago, in 2013 by Jer, Sammy, myself and one other. The other person involved had other commitments that prevented her from being fully involved, so Jer, Sammy and I took on the lion’s share of responsibilities. The goal of starting Bleak Life was twofold. First, we are interested in having an active punk scene in Ottawa, specifically one that puts Ottawa on the map as a tour destination when out of country bands do the already too small Central Canadian circuit. Second, our goal was to do Bleak Life Fest annually, which we are in our second year of doing as of this May.
After the huge amount of work that went into the fest last year, and the amount of work we needed to do over the course of each year to raise money, we decided it was time to get other people involved, although good people are hard to find. After much discussion we talked Tim and Thomas into selling their souls to Bleak Life and a covenant was signed in blood which added them to the group.
AR: Blood contracts are always the best way to go. You mentioned “putting Ottawa on the map as a tour destination”. What barriers did you see in the local music scene, as far as drawing touring punk bands?
Matt Hargrove: There were/are a few. Ottawa is not a city known for the arts and that applies as much to the punk scene as anywhere. Also population being lower than bigger cities can affect things. If you look at it in a “so many punks per capita ” way, and the per capita being pretty low, you need a very high population to have a big punk scene. I don’t mean to quantify it in such a cold manner, but it is the only way I can think of to accurately describe it without any bias involved. It is true, a lot of people still stay home or just want to drink outside shows, but that is still only really a problem in a city such as Ottawa where the punk scene is still relatively small for the size of the city. For example, when we do the fest, we rely heavily on out-of-town attendance to make it worthwhile.
AR: Having lived in Ottawa for a few years, and I totally agree. I always felt it had a much more small town vibe than people initially think. Is that why you guys have this expanding culture of house shows now? Because they encourage and are built on this community-based approach?
Matt Hargrove: House shows are an integral part of punk in any city or scene I think. Venues such as Targ are definitely great, since it is a bar that is punk friendly. The owners and staff are mostly veterans of punk and DIY music. Despite having a great venue such as Targ, house shows are important because they allow everyone to attend on a budget for both door and alcohol, all ages is an option, and parties often happen during/after. House shows are DIY venues where the rules (or lack thereof) are set by the promoters/ people who run the house, whereas any bar is going to have restrictions that are unavoidable, mostly due to pesky liquor laws. Punks feel a lot more comfortable, in my opinion, at house shows. On the other hand, for bigger events, the infrastructure (sound, capacity, etc.) you get at a bar is normally unattainable at a house show. The best case scenario in any city is a series of DIY venues combined with one or more punk friendly/ staffed bars.
AR: How did you decide to partner with House of Targ? Did you try any other venues?
Matt Hargrove: The owners are all involved in the scene in one way or another. When we decided on the date of the fest and heard that Targ were opening shortly beforehand, we decided to approach them. It is the most logical venue in Ottawa for something like this. We would encounter more difficulties on many fronts at another venue. They’ve been nothing but the best to us, and they treat their employees well, which is important.
AR: I’m sure having that support was key to being able to stage the event. I was thinking about it and I can’t even think of another Ottawa venue that would be suitable, in terms of the vibe. Tell me about the acts. How did you decide which bands to invite?
Matt Hargrove: It’s a combination between bands we like and bands that will draw, although we would never ask a band to play that whose music we do not enjoy. We try to include as many current Canadian bands as possible.
AR: With all the different sub-genres of punk and metal and underground heavy music, what is it that binds all these acts together?
Matt Hargrove: Speaking in terms of Bleak Life Fest, all the sub-genres we choose to involve are bands with people involved in the punk scene in one way or another, even the metal bands. In fact, we only really book metal bands, for example, that are made up of people from the punk scene. There is a sort of tribal aspect to the music, although everyone who wants to attend is welcome, but it is generally a weekend for punks to get together and celebrate our scene and music.
AR: Makes sense. I think there is a lot of allegiance there, in the sense that both punk and metal are intentionally marginal and based on a grassroots perspective on scene-building. Can you highlight a couple of the acts that you’re particularly excited about?
Matt Hargrove: We are all excited about our two main headliners, Blanks 77 and Instinct of Survival. Blanks 77 haven’t played in Canada in 15 years. I grew up listening to them and so did many of my friends. Insinct of Survival have never played Canada and as a big crust fan, I am also excited about them coming to play the fest. Their first LP, North of Nowhere, South of Somewhen has been on my turntable as much as any other LP in my collection. Other than the headliners, speaking for myself, I am particularly excited to see Mueco, Parasytes, and Absolut.
AR: In terms of promotions, what has the reception been like in Ottawa? Are you finding that the townsfolk are supportive of the fest and your promotional efforts?
Matt Hargrove: We really haven’t promoted the fest outside the punk scene, but within the scene it seems people are very excited. I think everyone likes to travel but having a good fest in your own city is always the best.
AR: What is one thing about Bleak Life Fest that you think everyone should know?
Matt Hargrove: That’s an interesting question. I suppose that the thing we really want to push with Bleak Life in general is the spirit of doing things like a fest and promoting shows DIY. We do it for the scene and everything we do to raise money is to put it back into the fest and the shows we book for touring bands. We hope to grow over the next few years but we will always be DIY, always for the punks.
AR: That actually dovetails nicely into my next question: what advice would you give to other people who want to embrace this DIY spirit and start their own fests or host shows?
Matt Hargrove: Be patient, get ready to be ignored by a lot of people at first – and make sure to be good to those who don’t ignore you. Subsequently, answer your emails. Even if you have no intention of booking a band or dealing with someone, send a polite reply nonetheless. It might not seem like a lot but it will go a long way. That is the main thing advice wise that I have taken out of my experience, I think I’m still too green to be able to give anything else of significance.
AR: Cool! Well, given the whole enterprising nature of DIY and the fact that it really is grassroots, I really do think that it would help people to know that you can do this with little experience, and that common decency and regular communications are important. Ok, final question: in your wildest dreams, what do you want to see happen with Bleak Life Fest in the future?
Bleak Life 2 runs April 30-May 2nd in Ottawa, Ontario. Thanks to Matt Hargrove for speaking with Audio Reckoning.