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Other Views From The 6: Dilly Dally’s New Remix EP Shines Light On Toronto’s Thriving Punk Scene

It was a school night in 2011 at Toronto DIY punk venue the Garage. Dilly Dally were scheduled to play dead last, and they were only supposed to do 20 minutes. They played for 35. If that’s not punk as fuck, I don’t know what is.

“Back then we just didn’t know that there were any rules in the scene,” says the band’s frontwoman, Katie Monks.

It was the Rob Ford era, so rules felt absent from Toronto anyways. Except for strict noise curfews — those were ruthlessly enforced. Which explains why bands playing last at the Garage, a residence-cum-venue, couldn’t push their luck. DIY venues were in short supply, and tenants at the Garage were very protective. The wider world wasn’t giving a shit about Toronto’s scene. Cutesy indie pop was dominating the Canadian airwaves. The last local breakout album was released almost a decade prior, with Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People. But slowly you could begin to hear a noisy anxiousness that mirrored the city’s political and musical identity crisis.

The frustration paid off. Within the past year, Toronto’s underground has given birth to several outstanding full-lengths, attracting international recognition. In particular, Dilly Dally’s acclaimed first album, Sore, could be considered a document of those dark ages in the Garage. Released last October, it has stayed strong after repeat listens, thanks to several pleasure-inducing hallmarks: surreal lyrics, existential noise, hooky choruses and hypnotic rhythms. Today, exactly one year later, Dilly Dally is releasing fkkt — an EP of songs from Sore, remixed by Toronto pals, UK electronic act Crim3s, and Portland electro-poppers Force Publique. At first, it doesn’t seem right to cut and paste from an album that, on the surface, draws from straight-ahead rock epics like Nevermind and Doolittle. But at heart, Dilly Dally is actually a bricolage band: To arrive at their guitar-driven pop songs, they’ve drawn upon hip-hop, noise, industrial, and punk subcultures.

You’d think this approach would’ve had a clear path to success. Truth be told, though, Sore almost didn’t get past the border. For one thing, there’s an idiosyncratic Canadian music industry that often puts limitations on budding indie acts. And there’s Drake, who exercises overblown control over the local landscape. He’s the self-appointed king of musical mythologies about modern Toronto. Thankfully, Dilly Dally have gotten more than a little help from friends in carving a name for themselves and their city. To understand the story behind their smashing debut, and why it lends itself to a remix, you have to step deeper into that sweaty garage.

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In 2011, on Chinatown’s Cecil Street, there was a defunct grand piano inside of a garage, and inside of that piano was the broken note of Toronto’s discontent. The instrument was removed, a mural was thrown on the walls, and bands were invited. Lots of bands. Every show was recorded on cassette, and so was every bit of scene drama and gossip within mic range. On one tape, the cops make a late night appearance. Turn it down, ya punks.

Eventually, the Garage had to turn it down for good. After the venue started to pick up local press attention, the secret was out. “One day when a show was scheduled, sometime in 2012, I walked in and there was a big hole in the ground where the bands played,” says Erik Jude, who was living at the adjacent house. “That’s where the landlord was putting the toilet for a refurbished apartment. I said, ‘Well, I guess that’s it.’”

Dreams flushed down? Not completely. Several here will tell you how hard it is to maintain DIY spaces in a gentrifying city that’s allergic to noise. But Denholm Whale says the boom and bust was inevitable for other reasons, too. At the height of its popularity, the Garage became a designated venue in the popular summer music extravaganza known as North By Northeast, launched in Toronto two decades ago as a sister festival to Austin’s South By Southwest. The scene was growing up, and Whale decided to co-found Buzz Records with Jude, Dean Tzenos, and Ian Chai, “as something that could continue the Garage’s legacy.” (Whale also plays with Tzenos in Odonis Odonis, who remixed Sore’s first single, “Desire.”)

Around this time, along came a band called Metz. Jude recalls it as something of an early flashpoint for Toronto’s underground scene. Metz were formed in Ottawa’s hardcore climate, but relocated to Toronto, and had scored a deal with the storied Seattle label Sub Pop. Their self-titled debut was a dark but slickly produced work that easily short-listed them for a Polaris Prize, which is annually awarded in Toronto in the fall. This time, Jude felt, word was getting out in a good way. “Metz deciding to move here was a huge deal,” he says. “I knew Chris [Slorach, the bassist] from work and I was constantly asking him to play the Garage. I think Metz started turning me down just because I bugged them so much about it.”

Metz frontman Alex Edkins says he was inspired by “the diverse and fertile musical environment” represented by the Garage. Indeed, several interviewees have affirmed it was “the right time, the right place” to start a label for fringe acts that could be the new face of Toronto. Eventually, Dilly Dally would be asked to support a Metz tour — poetic justice, perhaps, because it was Jude who had told Monks to play only 20 minutes, on that fateful night in the Garage. (For the record, Jude says he’s still a big fan of Sore.)

It would take several years for Buzz Records to get off the ground, though. Meanwhile, Dilly Dally was antsy to put out an album, having been around since 2009, before Rob Ford even took office. But lacking the help of a dedicated underground label, what transpired was a comedy of errors.

Here’s Josh Korody, who produced Dilly Dally’s debut and remixed another single, “The Touch,” for fkkt. In tandem with Monks’ recollections, his comments reveal a lot about the genesis of Sore and how the Canadian music industry can prevent bands from breaking out:

KORODY: Even after people started becoming aware of Broken Social Scene, it felt like the conversation couldn’t move forward. Copycat bands could rely on CANCON [broadcast quotas to play Canadian content]. Or even good pop acts like Alvvays would take off so fast, they got sucked into this circuit of touring across Canada, all year. So when Dilly Dally approached me and Leon Tahney in 2012, I was really struck by how this was their first band. You really have to build up a campaign to get outta here: a solid record, an awesome live show, committed members. So we recorded some great songs, and I knew it couldn’t be this thing that 100 people in Toronto listened to and forgot about. But then it just sat around on Bandcamp — no one picked it up. They didn’t really fit in with the aggressive bands doing cassettes and whatnot. They weren’t that cute ukulele indie pop, either, which was on the radio. They didn’t have the proper support. I thought for sure they would give up.

MONKS: Things definitely started to seem anticlimactic. I was calling home a lot and thinking of going to school. So I went to hang with Liz [Ball, the lead guitarist], and I said, “Yo, the band’s just not gonna be my main thing anymore.” I explained all the many reasons why it wasn’t working. Liz listened to the whole thing, and then just nodded and said: “I totally get it. But we haven’t even tried yet.” And I’m thinking, “What the fuck.” Thousands of dollars on a record; playing local shows for years; going through drummers and bassists; doing everything we thought we could do and try. So we thought about putting out the record ourselves.

KORODY: There were glimmers of hope during that time. North By Northeast was doing incredible things by showcasing small local bands. Or even American bands that meshed with the edgier trends. It exposed a lot of people. You’d have families just rolling up to free shows at Yonge-Dundas Square [a prominent public park] and they’d see Swans, fucking Swans, or Iggy Pop take the stage. My own band, Beliefs, got signed to a UK label after someone saw us at NXNE. But not everyone was getting noticed. You were fighting against this risk-averse mindset, which seems to be in full force now. A lot of the time you see Canadian bands that are just versions of American bands. The trend toward crowd-pleasing projects is supported by grants, which are a big part of the Canadian music industry. But I don’t really see a lot of that money being bet on small projects.

MONKS: A couple more years passed of just playing for our friends, and in 2014 we started working with a Canadian label to put out our album. They kept trying to turn us into something we weren’t. I remember they took Liz’s guitar and tried to play it for her. They wanted to package us as this art punk sound, with black and white artwork. Look, Metz is an awesome band — but the point is, they exist already, and we want to have our own thing. Thankfully, all of the fucking sudden, we got some exposure in the States. Someone streamed “Next Gold,” which we had up on our Bandcamp.

KORODY: It was such a random thing for some guy to stream that song, which brought all of this attention. So then they put out a single on Fat Possum, got signed to Partisan and decided that Buzz should do Canadian distro. They came back to me and Leon, and said, “Hey, we wanna redo this album we recorded with you.” The thing that sticks out to me from that session is how everybody got behind it with good vibes. There was no ego. They also had a new drummer and bassist [Ben Reinhartz and Jimmy Tony Rowlinson], who added so much, especially to the live shows. Still, they had to go through some shit, cancel their tour with Metz, because their visas got denied. I think their heavier sound came out of feeling unappreciated, of constantly facing these kinds of situations. They just refuse to be disposable. Toronto can do that, you can get stuck here, assigned to your corner.

MONKS: I remember going over to Sterling Lofts, where their studio was, and Leon whips his head around the door, with his long hair, looking like someone from Lord of the Rings. He was wearing this shirt with an eagle and lightning bolts. I shortly thereafter found my own lightning bolt shirt, but with a tiger. It kind of felt like Leon a bit. What’s that whole thing, when the student becomes a master? Not saying I’m better than anyone else. But after that second recording, yeah, it was like, we want to reach people outside the Toronto noise punk scene. Reach all the loser kids out there — all the people out there — because ever since we started, that’s what we wanted to do. That dream is only stronger now. Because if it wasn’t for meeting all the people that we did, we wouldn’t have been given the ammo — the love ammo — that we needed.

To free themselves from Canada’s deeply self-conscious music industry, Dilly Dally didn’t need a completely hands-off approach. They needed help honing their sound and image.

Jasmyn Burke is the frontwoman for Weaves, another Buzz band that’s earned widespread success, although from an artier, more cerebral angle. She met Monks before Weaves started, while performing in Rattail and as a solo artist. “I was figuring out what I wanted to do next,” she says. “The Garage became a mini-establishment pretty quickly. At that point, there were just a few DIY venues that were actually functioning, and you’d get kind of sick playing the same ones. I think the scene was really searching for some legitimacy. I remember Katie invited me to play at Holy Oak, this little café in the west end. We were trying all sorts of things, like playing solo sets.”

Because the internet remembers everything, there’s a good chance that set wasn’t long before another Burke solo show, this time with Dilly Dally fully plugged in and amplified. In January 2011, they played together at Parts & Labour, a basement venue with a gourmet restaurant at street level. In a series of black-and-white pictures from that night, Burke grips a hollow body guitar, looking fierce as usual. Dilly Dally, however, are nearly unrecognizable — they’re also clutching hollow bodies, not their current Fender Mustangs, and there are plenty of flared collars and disheveled blazers.

But what shone through then, shines through now. Following that show, someone posted a flyer on Facebook for Dilly Dally’s appearance at an upcoming NXNE showcase. Here’s the description: “It seems to me it’s inevitable that sooner or later Dilly Dally are going to be the next big thing in Toronto. In the meantime, enjoy every small club set we get of this band.” Why did so many, from this Facebook poster to Josh Korody, have similar premonitions so far back, even before the band fully formed their endearingly crunchy sound and image?

In retrospect, a lot of it did — and does — depend on how hard Dilly Dally have woven Toronto into their identity. No little guy had done that before, says George Stroumboulopoulos, host of The Strombo Show on CBC Radio. Strombo is Canada’s version of Carson Daly — but cooler, and more respectable. He was a veejay for Much Music TV back in the ’90s and also exposed hordes to new music with his live punk sessions at Edge Radio on Yonge Street. In his view, “Drake just exploded everything, so someone else can come in and get behind the city. I think Dilly Dally can do that, because in an era of oversharing, they have an ability to work consciously with mythology.”

Now, if you scroll through Dilly Dally’s social media accounts, even back to those early days, it might seem hardly mysterious. It’s mundane in a totally charming, William Carlos Williams kind of way. There are hashtags like #SpewsFromTheSix and mentions of Tim Horton’s. There are pictures of quirky Kensington Market convenience stores, or of cats that have probably inhaled their fair share of second-hand bong smoke. It does possess an uncanny vibe, though. By constantly parachuting people down into a fantastical version of day-to-day Toronto, it feels as if the band was already preparing a documentary for their future selves. This is essentially the ethos of hip-hop culture: repping your big house, your dope car and your outsize reputation before you even have it. It’s a form of self-fulfilling prophecy that’s baked right into the modern art of social media.

As the band slowly folded themselves into the Buzz Records scene, this vicarious plaything took on more spiritual undertones:

“I sent our original cut of the record to one label, a dream label or something, and was like ‘WE ARE FROM THE LAND OF TORONTO,’ in all caps, in this intense email,” Monks says. “Cute, huh? But actually, and I’m gonna fuckin’ say this shit, ’cause I want to set the record straight. It did always feel like we were outside the Toronto scene. I had that weird falling out with Jude after playing too long at the Garage, and the Buzz Records guys were all so cool, we were fans of them. And it was hard to penetrate, because it was this very specific thing that they were into.

“It was their scene, though, that gave us the final inspiration we needed,” she continues. “And I wanted to show that to everybody and rep it. We always had the songs, but we didn’t know how to show them to people in a way they could understand.”

That friction pushed Dilly Dally to alchemize what they loved about Toronto. So the hollow bodies and Strokes-esque blazers were given a farewell, and Monks put together one of the most memorable record covers of the past year: a tongue studded with a kaleidoscopic piercing, as a small trickle of blood rolls down a woman’s chin. That became a touchstone for other memes: a vanilla ice cream cone marked with a tear of blood (suggesting innocence and maturity); soft feathers falling around dominatrixes (ditto); and sugar-glitter falling through fingers (uh, ditto). Over the past year, these surreal memes got spliced with those mundane references to Toronto in social media posts or music videos, reinforcing why locals felt so early on that Dilly Dally would eventually become ambassadors of the city. Strombo is right after all. More than any other local act besides Drake, the band understands how to mythologize Toronto. Despite their reliance on guitars, verses and choruses, they were always already a cut-and-paste operation.

Speaking of Drake: he’s the ball and chain that Dilly Dally inevitably seem to carry. Everybody asks them about Drake — on tour, in interviews, even at home. That’s probably the most telling thing about how people have received Sore. They’re aware, perhaps subconsciously, of how Dilly Dally has turned Toronto into a canvas, just like Drake. But while Drake has scored so much hometown love by projecting Toronto as a glittering mecca, Dilly Dally has exposed the city’s polarities — and ways to transcend them. One of the most brutal ways they’ve done this is by covering “Know Yourself,” from Drake’s 2015 album, If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late. Played live, it’s an immediate head-turner that basks in the spotlight, which is precisely the opposite effect that fame-weary, demure Drake goes for. Toronto, after all, is known for its repressed politeness.

Check out this video, for example, of Councilor Norm Kelly flashing the shaka sign while attending a small Dilly Dally show. Strombo hosted the band at his home last December. He recalls this dialogue with Kelly (who’s a major Drake fan), just as Dilly Dally was tearing into their righteously distorted cover of “Know Yourself.”

KELLY: I like this. Would you call this grunge?

STROMBO: They just rock, man.

Kelly is a bit of an outlier in his appreciation. While the city is currently lapping up opportunities to promote its #PersonalBrand, it doesn’t exactly have a great recent track record with embracing fire-breathing attitudes. This has only reinforced Dilly Dally’s commitment to the city’s overlooked subcultures.

In the early days of Buzz Records, NXNE dispensed a budget for label showcases. Several say that support started to taper off, though, as did the quality in general, when new fest staff began to ignore this quarter of Toronto. It’s gotten so bad that Denholm Whale started No Fest this year, after management turned down his showcase pitch and demanded he pay advertising fees. He described No Fest to Aux magazine as “a throwback to what we used to do with our garage shows.” Digging deeper, Josh Korody commented on how the gigantic success of Drake has turned NXNE’s attention towards hip-hop instead. Complicating the matter, NXNE’s choice of hip-hop acts have been less than well-received by Toronto’s indie music community, which according to most measures could be called a politically progressive scene.

In June 2015, there was a kerfuffle over NXNE’s pick of rapper Action Bronson, who several locals consider misogynistic. Originally, NXNE responded to 37,000 petition signatures by refusing to budge. But continued pressure from protestors caused NXNE to cancel Bronson’s show, prompting festival directors to announce in a public letter: “We hope that this series of events does not foster some type of artistic chill in Toronto and its public spaces.” Artistic chill? This is being told to a scene that routinely suffered noise violations? Rather, let’s translate: We’re riding the publicity wave that Drake’s brought Toronto — guys, he’s a global ambassador for the Raptors — so don’t kill our vibe, thanks. NXNE had also been forced by another petition to cease telling small local bands this: If you’re billed on a fest showcase, you can’t play any shows in Toronto 45 days before NXNE.

Yes, lots of industry insiders and policy pushers see huge economic reason to ride Drake’s wave. NXNE’s former director, Mike Tanner, now heads a 36-person volunteer board called Toronto’s Music Advisory Council. Boosted by Drake’s mythology of Toronto as a chrome kingdom, the council is charged with turning the city into the next Austin. So no higher up wants the boat to be rocked, and they’re fiercely aware of who controls the narrative about post-Ford Toronto. But as those summer months of 2015 turned into fall, dissent struck again.

Here’s the second thing that happened. Viet Cong, a post punk band from Calgary, had their self-titled debut short-listed for a Polaris Prize. Coinciding with last September’s Polaris award ceremony, Viet Cong was denied entry to Double Double Land, a Toronto DIY venue that they had requested to play. Op-eds decrying the band’s racist name were published. The fracas generated enough attention that boycotts began spreading across US venues where Viet Cong was scheduled to perform.

Even though the Polaris Prize didn’t go to Viet Cong, the award ceremony was supposed to at least be nice pomp and circumstance for Torontonians. Because let’s face it, the Polaris Gala is pomp and circumstance. Drake has been nominated four times, shortlisted for three. He was practically a one-man PR machine for Toronto on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Thing is, pretty much everyone commented on the gala’s tense atmosphere, and Johnnie Regalado later penned an article titled “I was a Polaris Juror, and it sucked.”

By the time 12/4/2015 arrived, Toronto’s name was showing up in the press — a lot. The whole Viet Cong debate had reached an apex. Scheduled for two nights at Lee’s Palace on Bloor Street, the band was supported by a slew of Buzz Records bands: Weaves, Greys, and Mexican Slang (the latter band featured label co-founder Denholm Whale and Dilly Dally’s bassist, Jimmy Tony Rowlinson). Protestors ran another op-ed in Now Toronto. Whale says he had friends on both sides of the argument. Greys frontman Shehzaad Jiwani had just been on tour with Viet Cong and said, “the homecoming experience was pretty sobering. As a brown guy, I don’t know if I could experience that level of dialogue in any other city.”

Looking back on it, this is what Sore dropped right in the thick of, locally speaking. Not into any kind of shiny urban paradise or perfect CANCON campaign, but into a storm — an intense transition period. Or maybe it’s best just to say a period, as in menses. Dilly Dally was purging Drake’s shtick and embracing change, with their diary of exploring Toronto through altered states, romantic relationships, confusing conversations, menstrual cycles, youthful idealism, shitty jobs and shitty apartments. The album’s raw, visceral narrative is about embracing the constant metamorphosis that comes to everyone’s doorstep these days. It’s not the airless, vacuum-sealed world of Drake. It’s a snapshot of Toronto in the throes. It’s a picture of a city that’s almost majority immigrant (Monks herself is a first-gen Irish immigrant), and whose six municipalities were only recently fused on 1/1/1998.

This is not to say that Polaris jurors had a reason to not shortlist Sore. But considering the precedence of Metz’s and Viet Cong’s debut nomination — well, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher for why Dilly Dally was left off this year. Perhaps it didn’t work out because, based on over a dozen interviews with separate sources, Toronto is still owning up to the fact that it’s in the thick of an identity crisis. Sore put that in the spotlight, and tried to transcend it through an unapologetic, gender-bendy coming-of-age story. Perhaps that’s the most un-Canadian thing you could do: to celebrate the friction, without being self-deprecating.

That beautiful friction gets magnified on the single from fkkt, a remix of “Desire” by Crim3s. Tension builds over machine gun rhythms and rubber band bass lines as Monks’ voice is looped in. Then ghoulish synths start to ooze over each other, like half-melted sundaes, until the final stanza, when Monks’ voice bursts through, screaming: “LADIEZZZ!”

It’s fitting, then, for the EP’s cover to be that familiar blood-streaked ice cream cone — except this time it’s smashed to bits beneath a star-studded sky. That’s Dilly Dally’s love ammo. Pieces of Toronto’s music scene, deconstructed again and ready to be remixed. Samples and fragments of memories, of garage shows, of time passed, ready to be reborn.

Dilly Dally

fkkt is out now via Partisan. Buy it (and Sore) here. Also, Dilly Dally are going out on tour behind fkkt. Here are the dates.

10/05 Las Vegas, NV @ Brooklyn Bowl
10/06 Oakland, CA @ The Fox Oakland Theatre
10/07 Hollywood, CA @ Hollywood Palladium
10/10 Vancouver, BC @ Commodore Ballroom
10/11 Victoria, BC @ Lucky Bar
10/13 Portland, OR @ Rosalind Theatre
10/14 Seattle, WA @ Croc
10/17 Salt Lake City, UT @ The Complex – Grand Room
10/18 Denver, CO @ Ogden Theatre
10/21 Kansas City, MO @ Uptown Theatre
10/22 Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
10/23 Madison, WI @ Orpheum Theatre
10/24 Davenport, IA @ The Village Theatre
10/25 Indianapolis, IN @ Egyptian Room at Old National Centre
10/27 Columbus, OH @ LC Pavilion
10/29 Royal Oak, MI @ Royal Oak Music Theatre
10/30 Toronto, ON @ Danforth Music Hall
10/31 Montréal, QC @ Corona Theatre
11/01 Philadelphia, PA @ The Fillmore
11/03 Boston, MA @ House of Blues
11/04 Brooklyn, NY @ Warsaw
11/05 New York, NY @ Hammerstein Ballroom
11/07 Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle
11/09 Washington, DC @ Echostage
11/10 Norfolk, VA @ The Norva
11/12 Nashville, TN @ The Cannery
11/13 New Orleans @ House of Blues              
11/15 Dallas, TX @ House of Blues
11/16 Houston, TX @ House of Blues
11/18 Austin, TX @ Stubb’s
12/02 Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace