More Than Just Burton, Slurpees and Murder: An Incomplete History of Winnipeg’s Indie Music Scene

March 30, 2017 in features

Winnipeg, a city where many band’s third show is also their last (and an EP release show). Winnipeg, a place as known for Chantal Kreviazuk as it is for her brother going around to record stores, telling people how he is her brother while asking about Van Halen records. Winnipeg, a bargain hungry town raised on Slurpees and cable access, and onetime home to Lenny Breau, Neil Young, Tom Cochrane, Crash Test Dummies, Bif Naked, Remy Shand and that bass player who quit Gob to join Avril Lavigne’s band, only to quit that band to play beer league hockey.

Winnipeg is cold, so Winnipeggers make music. We do this, partly because so many major (and indie) bands avoid playing here. Tour routing is difficult, and starting a tour in Winnipeg is almost stupid, so few bands ever escape. Those that do either grow jaded and die, or (in the case of Imaginary Cities) they open for the Pixies. Hey, sometimes the obscure bands get to do that to, as when Frank Black asked for Winnipeg’s least commercial band (arty noise rockers Ham) to open for them in 2004.

Chad Allan and the Expressions – “Shakin’ All Over”

Winnipeg’s ‘60s indie rock scene has been well documented by writer/lecturer John Einarson (especially in his 1987 book Shakin’ All Over: The Winnipeg Sixties Rock Scene), so I won’t waste a lot of digital ink here. Besides, you don’t need me to tell you about the importance of Chad Allan and the Expressions’ “Shakin’ All Over”, the song that took Winnipeg across the pond is still being played on classic rock radio today (and its sound resonated through the local 2000s scene, mimicked by everyone from the Telepathic Butterflies to Novillero).

Though Neil Young attended Kelvin High School, no one ever notes that he did not graduate (or that he was the school’s best dart player) and while Burton Cummings had worldwide hits with “Stand Tall” and “American Woman”, he still found time to fall victim to an assault at a 7-Eleven (and inspire a film about it).

Fahrenheit 7-Eleven

In 1970, a local radio station (which is now our TSN affiliate) put out a compilation called Winnipeg Volume 1. The LP featured two appearances from The Fifth, a semi-psycheledic garage quintet that eventually called itself Next, but did not necessarily define the next big sound. The compilation’s liner notes mention that “each group expresses their own special ingredient of that ‘Winning Winnipeg Sound’”. Unfortunately, not many of the acts in the ‘70s went on to live up to our city’s ‘60s success, but the ‘80s were just around the corner and Harlequin was just getting started.


The Fifth – “You Don’t Seem to Care”

Formed in 1975, Harlequin delivered hits with its second album, Love Crimes (“Innocence” and “Thinking of You” have safely staked their claims on rock radio for all eternity). The band would also spawn everyone’s onetime manager, Glen Willows (who currently manages pop rock boy band Panicland). Two men who made waves in the 1980s – Grammy-winning producer Bob Rock (Metallica, Our Lady Peace) and radio host/documentarian Alan Cross (The Ongoing History of New Music), each got their start in Winnipeg and made big waves in the ‘80s. Rock also produced a 1986 hit single in “Shot With Our Own Guns” for Winnipeg indie rockers The Cheer, a band known for giving us producer Lloyd Peterson (Weakerthans, Los Lobos), who also co-founded legendary Winnipeg recording studio Private Ear.


The Cheer – “Shot With Our Own Guns”

The ‘90s Winnipeg scene has been well documented, from Sheldon Birnie’s book Missing Like Teeth – An Oral History of Winnipeg Underground Rock 1990-2001 to such compilations as Songs From 20th Century Homes (featuring lo-fi Royal Art Lodge collective members Albatross and Alien Hybrid) and the campy as heck Winnipeg Jets fundraiser disc Hockey Rock: Winnipeg Style, featuring the likes of Randy Bachman reimagining his own “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” as “That’s One Hot Russian Jet” (you know, for Alexei Zhamnov).

I would love to shine a light on acts like Propagandhi, Painted Thin, Red Fisher, Stagmummer, Duotang, Kittens, Guy Smiley, Transonic, Duotang, Ballroom Zombies, B’ehl, Elliot, Venetian Snares and JohNNy SiZZle (who also hosted cable access staple Entertainment Watch) as much as big names like Tom Cochrane (who yes, had success in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but reached worldwide fame in ’91 with “Life is a Highway”), The Watchmen, The New Meanies and Crash Test Dummies, but everyone knows that the best band to come out of Winnipeg during the ‘90s was Transistor Sound & Lighting Co. Releasing only the self-titled full length via ViK. Recordings in 1998, Jay Churko’s feedback-laced guitars and warbled vocal delivery are an indie rock wet dream. While Churko has gone on to play solo as Chords of Canada and with a handful of local acts (Boats), it’s Marty Kinack who would go onto major notoriety for his work with Broken Social Scene, Amy Millan and his current act, electro popsters Laser. Transistor’s influence can be heard in local acts like Hut Hut, Eagle Lake Owls and Human Music.

Transistor Sound & Lighting Co. – “Anyways/Mayonnaise”

These ‘90s bands played such iconic venues as The Royal Albert Arms (RIP), Wellington’s (RIP), The Blue Note (RIP), The Collective Cabaret (RIP), The Pyramid Cabaret and the city’s best sounding venue, the West End Cultural Centre. While some of these venues hosted killer shows, others hosted straight up killings – a DJ was found in the walls of the Collective, while the Albert had its share of issues, semi-documented in Randy Frykas’ film A Call to Arms: The Story of the Royal Albert. It should be noted that the Albert re-opened briefly in 2012, its opening night being one of the most bizarre events I’ve ever witnessed. Known primarily as a punk venue, the new management decided to grow its clientele by hosting an “official Sum 41 after-party” involving a fashion show (interrupted by a guy in a trench coat playing guitar solos), fire dancers, DJs, a local band (which sound checked but never played) and the members of Sum 41 sitting on a leather coach in the corner (this was not your estranged uncle’s Royal Albert). A few months later, the co-owner arrived and fired the bar/restaurant staff over a toasted hamburger bun and made them strip out of their work clothes (this co-owner died in 2013 in a snowmobiling accident and the Albert remains closed).

There are a few people who successfully made their way out of the ‘90s and into the confusing 2000s of the Winnipeg scene. These include Doug McLean of Banned from Atlantis, The Bonaduces and Painted Thin, who would go on to front The Paperbacks for a decade, and onetime Paperbacks producer John K. Samson, who would go from playing bass in Propagandhi to penning mournful pop classics in The Weakerthans, arguably the city’s most important musical export. Though The Weakerthans quietly called it quits a few years ago, the band is (mostly) alive and well as John K. Samson and the Winter Wheat (mostly, because while drummer Jason Tait and bassist Greg Smith are involved, guitarist Stephen Carroll is not). Additionally, Nova Scotia-born songwriter Greg Macpherson has put out Polaris Music Prize nominated solo records, fronted acts like Nova and Figure Walking, and has been delivering socially conscious and challenging yet accessible tunes since his 1998 The Year of the Record Break cassette.


All Of Your Friends – “All Of Your Friends Were Liars”

While there were many bands who did big things (Novillero guest starred on Monk, Inward Eye toured with The Who, The Waking Eyes received massive radio play for “Watch Your Money”) it’s the local acts which existed for only a few moments that I’ll remember the most. In the summer of 2007 I saw weirdo seven-piece act All Of Your Friends open for everyone who came to town (and blow away headliners like Immaculate Machine and Memphis), while acts like Quinzy, The Quiffs, Tigerrr Beat, The Papsmears, Hot Live Guys, The Consumer Goods, Shrimp, Vav Jungle, The Details, The Squareheads, The Telepathic Butterflies, Paper Moon and Nathan appeared on stages big and small (and occasionally on the cover of street weekly Uptown Magazine, RIP).

Possibly the most powerful voice of the Winnipeg scene is from a woman who stands around five feet tall, and who I first witnessed belting out “Bury Me Standing” as front woman of The Vagiants at the Albert in 2002. Since, she has fronted such mind breaking acts as American Flamewhip (alongside New Meanie Damon Mitchell and Chris MAMA Bauer), The Angry Dragons, Chica Boom Boom and probably 16 other bands I don’t even know about. Raw, dangerous and cool as shit, JRod is Winnipeg rock royalty that the world needs to know more about.


American Flamewhip – “Gasoline”

Winnipeg has had a few indie success stories in the last decade, including Superchunk enthusiasts Boats landing a deal with Kill Rock Stars, noise rock heroes KEN mode winning a JUNO award and making the best record of their career with Steve Albini (Success), indie rock duo Cannon Bros landing on the Polaris long list, and members of Tele, The Liptonians and The Waking Eyes forming indie rock heroes Royal Canoe. The band to beat might still be Miss en Scene, an indie rock duo-turned-quartet that hasn’t released a record since its brilliant 2012 debut (co-produced by Howard Redekopp, Howard Bilerman and Tony Berg) that is poised to break out at any moment. It should also be noted that underground favourites like Ex Modern Teen, field////, The Famous Sandhogs, Trampoline, Gareth Williams, Twin, Mulligrub, Young Pixels, and Basic Nature have contributed considerably to the creative wellbeing of the city.

Miss en Scene – “Hey Velvet”

Winnipeg currently boasts a number of world class mainstream and underground venues, including The Good Will Social Club, Sam’s Place, The Graffiti Gallery, The Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club, the aforementioned WECC and the legendary Walker Theatre (re-named the Burton Cummings Theatre, but no one calls it that). We’ve also lost a few in the last few years (RIP Lo Pub and RIP Purple Room) but their spirits are alive and well as the creative forces behind them are never resting. That, and campus stations like 101.5 UMFM and CKUW 95.9 FM work alongside local record labels like Disintegration and Transistor 66 to deliver quality underground music to the masses.

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By Nicholas Friesen

Nicholas Friesen is a writer and filmmaker from Winnipeg. He is the editor/host of, a '90s CanRock zine and radio show.

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