Halifax Pop Explosion turns 25, but keeps looking toward the future

October 27, 2017

Twenty-five years is a long time to do anything. In 14th century England, when you blew out 25 candles on your birthday cake, you were usually at least halfway through your entire life. A 25th wedding anniversary is known as the silver anniversary, and we all know silver is just a step away from gold (the fanciest metal). Well, this year, Halifax Pop Explosion turned 25, joining a fairly small club for music festivals. And they’ve managed to do it in a way that continues to bring artists on the verge of breakthrough success into a part of Canada that often gets overlooked by big tours. That takes quite a bit of work.

“The organization has been built on a lot of passionate people who are really connected to the music community,” Executive Director James Boyle says over the phone, just a couple days into recovery mode from 2017’s event. “A willingness to listen and change with the times has been what’s kept the festival afloat. Music’s changed a lot in 25 years. The festival has changed with it.”

Of course, like everywhere, there are some things in the Maritimes that never change. The first show I ended up at kicked off with Julie & The Wrong Guys, Acadian songwriter Julie Doiron’s newest band. Doiron played the very first Halifax Pop Explosion back in 1993 with her band Eric’s Trip, the first Canadian group to be signed to Sub Pop. It was fitting that she’d be there to celebrate this anniversary, especially with a recent return to the ear-splitting levels of volume that Eric’s Trip was known for. Only a day removed from the death of close friend and collaborator Gord Downie, she told the audience: “I just love Gord so much, and I haven’t had time to process it until…now apparently,” with a small laugh between tears. Downie had even previously name-dropped Eric’s Trip on record, singing, “I played Love Tara by Eric’s Trip on the day that you were born/I had to find the cuteness in the unadorned,” on Trouble At The Henhouse’s “Put It Off.”

The soul-seering Tanika Charles. Photo credit: Matt Williams.

But Doiron was playing all tunes from her latest, and the festival was anything but a nostalgic event. While long-established artists like celebration rockers Japandroids and Ohio’s noisy Cloud Nothings were also on that bill, so were The Courtneys, the hyper-catchy Vancouver three-piece. Similarly, the festival’s programming in general made some room for acts that have been around for a while—Patrick Watson, Lee Fields, Elliott Brood, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan—but was mostly looking toward the future. The fest showcased bands and artists that have either recently made a big splash, like 2017’s Polaris Prize winner Lido Pimienta or Maritime post-classic rock stoners Partner, or ones that are on the verge of something big, and here there are too many to list. Toronto’s high-energy rockers Weaves and thrashy art-rock purveyors Casper Skulls both put on fantastic all-ages sets at The Khyber. Megan Nash brought her rousing rock ‘n’ roll from rural Saskatchewan to The Carleton one night, while Toronto-via-Edmonton soul singer Tanika Charles slayed there the next, putting a dancing spell on listeners with her dynamic R&B. A sunny afternoon house show brought on a sweet and dreamy performance from Twist, Montreal’s Silver Dapple shared their fuzzy indie rock at Reflections, and Fredericton’s Motherhood blasted away folks at Gus’ Pub with their experimental tunes. But to Boyle, it was shows at the Marquee featuring acts like RALPH, Vogue Dots, the previously mentioned Lido Pimienta, Charlotte Day Wilson, and the genre-bending Aquakulture & Big Budi Band that made HPX 2017 a success.

“Thursday night was a special show that I think we may not ever be able to capture the energy and the message of,” he says. “It was just one of a kind. I think Weaves put on an incredible performance. And of course, seeing hip-hop really rise to the main stage show, with Tasha the Amazon and Clairmont The Second, and Bambii DJing. It was a really special venue and a really special experience at the festival this year.”

Japandroids setting the HPX stage ablaze. Photo credit: Matt Williams.

Boyle also notes that this year there was a major push to be more inclusive and diverse with the lineup, as well as a very conscious effort to make a commitment to safe spaces. One of the initiatives set in place for the festival this year was teaming up with Project Soundcheck and Avalon Sexual Assault Centre to create the Accessibility Safety Krew (A.S.K.), “an on-site support crew dedicated to working towards providing an accessible and safer environment for all HPX attendees.” A.S.K.’s two goals were to provide those with accessibility needs the assistance they require to enjoy the festival, and watch for potentially harmful behaviour at the shows. As for making the lineup more inclusive—”more women on stages, more diversity amongst the artists”—Boyle says that the main thing the festival had to, and has to continue doing, is listen.

“I think there’s been a lot of great music from a lot of different backgrounds and voices for a long time in Canada, and we took the time this year, in particular, to try our best to seek it out, and talk to music fans and find out what they’re listening to,” he says. “And through those discussions we’ve been able to discover bands we otherwise wouldn’t have heard before. That’s what leads to great lineups. When you seek out new music that’s really incredible that you just weren’t paying attention to in the past.”

Julie & The Wrong Guys. Photo credit: Matt Williams.

Boyle notes that it’s an ongoing process to make sure the festival is listening closely to pay attention to the different voices in Canada’s music community, as well as the world’s. And while listening is the most important step they can take, speaking out about certain issues is also something the festival needs to do.

“We’re taking steps to continually improve ourselves and continually improve the festival from a safer places perspective,” Boyle says. “To continue to combat assault and sexual assault around music festivals and to combat some of the issues that have been around for a long time and were never really spoken about. Now we’re speaking about it, which is so great. And I think the festival needs to do its part to continue to educate and learn ourselves how we can do better.”

Casper Skulls. Photo credit: Matt Williams.

So, although they’ve got a long, fruitful, and fun past to look back on and get nostalgic about, Halifax Pop Explosion has their collective sights set on the future 25 years of the festival. Let’s just hope that rising sea levels don’t kibosh those potential music memories.

About the Author

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a writer and photographer. Born and raised on the Prairies in Winnipeg, he’s slowly made his way farther and farther east, spending a few years covering music in Toronto before running clear out of country and ending up on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. In between, he’s made numerous detours, interviewing and photographing countless artists across North America and beyond. He heads up Amplify’s Instrumental series, where he talks with musicians about the relationships they’ve formed with their most important tools.

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