№ 3

Big Audio Dynamite

Jesse Zubot’s Van­cou­ver record label defies genres

CBC Arts Online

This piece was com­mis­sioned many years ago by Greig Dymond for the orig­i­nal incar­na­tion of CBC Arts Online.

Van­cou­ver vio­lin­ist Jesse Zubot loves every lit­tle shard of con­tem­po­rary music. Get him talk­ing about bands and play­ers and styles — as I did over lunch recently at a lounge in the city’s West End — and he’ll pedal through every cor­ner of his musi­cal imag­i­na­tion. He’s inter­ested in the work of Daniel Lanois, the fabled Canadian-born pro­ducer and singer-songwriter. And Warp, the Eng­lish techno label. He’s an admirer of Billy Bang and Leroy Jenk­ins, the jazz avant-garde’s vio­lin pio­neers, but as a teenager, Zubot remem­bers a time when he was devoted to gangsta rap. Of late, he’s become obsessed with dis­tor­tion and noise music.

The truth is,” Zubot says, speak­ing so low and so dead­pan you might mis­take it for a put-on, “I can’t con­cen­trate on any­thing, really, for long enough, which can be a bit of prob­lem.” It would only be a prob­lem, per­haps, if the weight of it ground him down, or if his chat­ter were merely a stand-in for substance.

This mad-mash aes­thetic is what makes Drip Audio, Zubot’s inde­pen­dent record label, one of the most orig­i­nal musi­cal oper­a­tions in the coun­try. Its 11 releases are located at an axis point in Vancouver’s cre­ative under­ground — a melt­ing pot of jazz improv, indie-rock, ambi­ent music, elec­tron­ica and some­thing you might call 21st-century cabaret. Despite being in its infancy, Drip Audio already feels like a Cana­dian ver­sion of Thrill Jockey or Tzadik, those small yet influ­en­tial U.S. labels devoted to all things progressive.

I’m find­ing I can’t ever really make or record any­thing that really sounds right or proper even within the same genre,” the 32-year-old Zubot observes, call­ing Drip’s ros­ter a com­mu­nity of “out­siders,” peo­ple who “don’t fit any­where else.” It’s a sharp turn for a musi­cian who’s prob­a­bly best known for Zubot and Daw­son, the Juno Award-winning alt-roots group he founded with gui­tarist Steve Daw­son, or for his role in blues­man Jim Byrnes’s band. This fall, the ver­sa­tile Zubot is fea­tured on the new disc by Van­cou­ver trio the Be Good Tanyas. And as the sav­age yet ten­der Demen­tia, his recent multi-instrumental album, shows, Zubot flits nat­u­rally from strings (vio­lin, man­dolin, gui­tar) to elec­tronic sound design.

I think the man is a savant,” says Brian Wat­son, the for­mer man­ager of Zubot and Daw­son and pres­i­dent of Max­i­mum Music Group, the record com­pany Drip has part­nered with since launch­ing in March 2005. “He’s just one of the most intel­li­gent peo­ple I’ve ever met.”

Vancouver’s music com­mu­nity isn’t used to hav­ing some­one like Zubot in its midst. He’s practical-minded and eccen­tric. He has a sense of musi­cal fash­ion that’s urgent and imme­di­ate and makes the term “genre” obsolete.

In many ways, it was an exis­ten­tial cri­sis that gave birth to Drip — namely, the anx­i­ety stirred up by Zubot and Dawson’s suc­cess. With their self-fashioned style, “strang” (“strange” and “string” rammed together), the duo carved out a lit­tle niche. Call it roots music with zip, Zubot and Dawson’s albums are an expertly crafted and easy-on-the-ears alloy of catchy coun­try riffs, neatly mapped-out jams, blues wails, slide gui­tar and hoe­down vio­lin. Their third disc, Chicken Scratch (recorded with mas­ter Amer­i­can pro­ducer Lee Townsend), won the 2003 Juno Award for roots music. Their next project, The Great Uncles of the Rev­o­lu­tion (spear­headed by Toronto bassist Andrew Down­ing), won a Juno in 2004, this time for best con­tem­po­rary jazz album.

Between 2002 and 2003, Zubot and Daw­son were tour­ing almost non-stop in North Amer­ica and Europe. “It was on the cusp of going to a whole other level,” says Zubot, who claims the duo burned out on the road. “I kind of went crazy and lost it,” he says. Even­tu­ally, Zubot declared a need “to play some f——up music for a while.”

A farm boy from Mend­ham, Sask., Zubot grew up in a fam­ily of musi­cians. He was trained as a clas­si­cal vio­lin­ist, com­mut­ing up to two hours each day to a school in Med­i­cine Hat, Alta. His father, Orville, a sax­o­phon­ist and drum­mer and a huge fan of jazz and blues, recruited 10-year-old Jesse for his band. Jesse’s grand­fa­ther, Adolph, joined them on accor­dion. Zubot says they cov­ered mostly “hack coun­try” and polkas, with him play­ing a bit of every­thing: vio­lin, man­dolin, gui­tar, bass, key­boards. When Zubot arrived in Van­cou­ver in 1992 to study music at Capi­lano Col­lege, he very quickly found musi­cians with equally eclec­tic tastes. When he started to pull away from Zubot and Daw­son, he found refuge in the city’s strong impro­vised music community.

I also saw it as an answer to feel­ing con­fused and feel­ing like you’re try­ing to fig­ure out who you are as an artist or as a musi­cian … which is some­thing I could never quite really fig­ure out. This whole area enables a per­son to do what­ever they do and it’s OK,” Zubot says.

He spent a lot of time just hang­ing out: at clubs, lofts, bars. Just talk­ing music and play­ing, in spots like the Rail­way Club, 1067 and, most impor­tantly, the Sugar Refin­ery, the now-shuttered Granville Street room. Prac­ti­cally all of Drip Audio’s ros­ter — from gui­tarist Tony Wil­son to trum­peter JP Carter — first con­nected and became friends there.

They had all kinds of music,” Carter says of the Sugar Refin­ery. “It was a neat place to hang out. When I think about it now, there were a lot of peo­ple around the same age, gen­er­ally speak­ing, that were able to use it as a place to start out and express their ideas.”

Two years ago, when Zubot decided to start a label, he tapped directly into this scene – its eclec­ti­cism, its allergy to tags. Take Carter as an exam­ple. He’s a mem­ber of the Inhab­i­tants, a quar­tet who this year played Germany’s widely admired Moers Fes­ti­val; the band’s self-titled debut sits some­where between, say, elec­tric Miles Davis and Mon­treal avant-rock ensem­ble God­speed You! Black Emperor. Then there’s Car­sick, Carter’s duo with Inhab­i­tants gui­tarist Dave Sikula, an exper­i­ment in processed sound­scapes and spare, sim­ple melodies. Carter is also in Fond of Tigers, a seven-piece co-operative that includes Zubot. Tigers’s sum­mer debut, A Thing to Live with, cen­tres on gui­tarist Stephen Lyons’s nervy musi­cal sketches, a series of grind­ing motifs that morph into sprawl­ing col­lec­tive impro­vi­sa­tions. (Their Octo­ber con­cert at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthro­pol­ogy was billed as “Space Pop/Experimental Jazz.”)

Brian Wat­son, one­time man­ager of singer Den­zal Sin­claire and Cana­dian elec­tric jazz quar­tet Met­al­wood, sees Drip’s artists as part of Zubot’s over­ar­ch­ing affec­tion for all things indie. “Indie is a cul­ture. Indie is wave the flag, go against the grain,” Wat­son says. “For me, I couldn’t care less about that. But that’s Jesse.”
Zubot doesn’t want to hide this stuff away. It’s an implicit part of his mis­sion: to bring cre­ative music to a wider audi­ence. Whether Drip Audio nabs some indie gold dust isn’t the point; the label has put a mir­ror up to this emerg­ing Van­cou­ver scene.

There were peri­ods in the past year where I was like, ‘This is totally ridicu­lous. I have to end this now or I’m gonna lose my mind,’” Zubot says, refer­ring to the load of Drip’s day-to-day oper­a­tion. “But it’s on an upward climb right now and I feel really inspired, just because of the music. I love it when peo­ple notice these albums. For every­body involved, and for every­body who made them, it’s really exciting.”