Meet the residents: The Banff Centre expands its embrace of indie rock

Arriving at The Banff Centre late on a Wednesday evening, the complex feels undeniably spooky. Due to a major construction project, the usually open expanses of the centre have become a series of pathways lined with construction fences in Halloween orange. A perfect setting for the October 31 concert that marks the conclusion of The Banff Centre’s second annual Indie Band Residency, maybe, but it’s hardly the warm, collaboration-friendly atmosphere I had expected.

All that changes when the sun comes up. It’s only the third day of the residency and already three of the four bands are palling around at the centre’s breakfast buffet, discussing their plans for the day. Toronto singer-songwriter Basia Bulat is getting ready to finish mixing a song she recorded the night before with guest engineer Steve Albini, who has manned the boards for acts like The Pixies, Nirvana and The Jesus Lizard, as well as Calgary’s Hot Little Rocket and The Cape May. The mixing was supposed to happen the night before, but there was trouble with the tape machine used for the recording — Albini is a purist when it comes to technology and the machine, borrowed by the Banff Centre from Calgary’s Audities Recording, is a bit fussy.

Meanwhile, Mark Hamilton and Foon Yap of Calgary’s Woodpigeon are talking with Chris Leitch and Colin Cowan of Vancouver power-poppers Analog Bell Service about how to best use their morning. Hamilton has recruited Leitch and Cowan to back him up on “An Entanglement of Weeds,” a sombre eight-minute ballad he’ll be recording with Albini later in the day. He and Yap want to buckle down and work a bit more, while Cowan says he can’t work without a steam session — another luxury the centre provides for its residents. He’s mostly joking, of course, though that doesn’t actually stop him from indulging in the sauna.

If that all sounds a bit, well, indulgent, it isn’t meant to be. As an institution devoted to creativity, The Banff Centre provides for its artists and other residents because it expects a lot of them, and the musicians recruited for the Indie Band Residency are no exception. The program, the brainchild of the Banff Centre’s director of music, Barry Schiffman, and the director of audio, Theresa Leonard, is a bit of a departure for the institution, which typically has focused on classical and jazz for its residencies.

“Historically at the Banff Centre, there have always been a lot of classical, contemporary and jazz musicians,” she says. “The only time we would bring in pop musicians would be through the audio [production] program, where we would need to offer training in all styles of music. So Barry was open to turning this into not just a band coming to record with us, but make it an integral part of what Banff does by including indie bands into the life and history of music programs at the Banff Centre.”

Since the program grew from the audio production side of the centre — a work-study program with an international reputation — it’s only natural that the Indie Band Residency has been able to attract world-calibre talent in only its second year. In addition to Albini, the residency also includes sessions with Howard Bilerman, a former member of Arcade Fire who runs the Hotel2Tango with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor; Husky Höskulds, an Icelandic engineer who has worked with the likes of Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke and Tom Waits; Claudio Vena, a conductor and composer renowned for the quality of his arrangements; and Graham Lessard, an engineer who was also with the program in its first year.

What this means for both the engineers and artists is access to some of the most talented professionals in the industry, and Woodpigeon’s afternoon recording session with Albini is proof of the value of that. He seems to know instinctively which mics to use and where to put them, and is more than happy to explain his choices to anyone who asks. For the most part, though, he works quietly, talking to the band only to find out exactly what they want out of the recording experience and to do the occasional bit of trouble-shooting. He’s relaxed and friendly, even outgoing when he’s off the clock — some of the engineers strike up a conversation about his penchant for wolf-related clothing — but when the tape is rolling, he’s strictly professional. In a matter of minutes he takes a rough mix of a performance that the band isn’t entirely satisfied with but has to use due to time constraints. He transforms it into a version that sounds almost like a studio master. It’s clear both the band and the other engineers are impressed.

By early evening, Woodpigeon has its song in the can, Analog Bell Service is ready to record its second track in three days, and all four bands (including Montreal’s The Witchies) are getting ready for a concert on the weekend. The program itself culminates in a performance on Halloween, but Leonard doesn’t think of that as an ending.

“I think it’s leading to new thoughts, new ideas,” she says. “The goal of these programs isn’t for the students to leave with a full-length CD, but to gain experience and to leave with a few tunes recorded, but it’s the drawn attention [of] other bands who might want to come to the centre and become part of a residency…. I think it’s really enriching to be able to not completely change what The Banff Centre stands for and what it has done for years, but to bring a new element to the centre.”

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