10 years of Bug Incision

Photo of Chris Dadge by Cody Oliver

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say Bug Incision has been one of the most important elements of Calgary’s music community over the last decade. The music isn’t for everyone — Bug Incision founder Chris Dadge programs an eclectic mix of improvisational, experimental and often completely bonkers music that can take a trained ear and an open mind to truly appreciate — but its tendrils have reached into many more listener-friendly corners of Calgary’s musical output.
There’s a reason that so many artists in this city have at least some affection for noisy experimentation and unorthodox expression, and I think a lot of that comes from the culture that Dadge has helped create. From early days with the various Bent Spoon ensembles through what’s now a full 10 years of Bug Incision concerts and releases, Dadge and Bug Incision have certainly been responsible for much of my exposure to that realm of musical exploration, and I know many others who’d say the same.
I spoke to Chris for an interview in Swerve, but our half-hour conversation about the origins of Bug Incision couldn’t really fit into that style of condensed preview. For those who are interested, here’s the full transcript, with details on the first failed Bug Incision show, it’s first reachings outside the confines of Calgary, and the motivation behind its newfound society status.
Don’t forget to check out the anniversary shows this weekend. Oh, and congratulations, Chris, on an impressive first decade.

Do you remember the very first Bug Incision show?
It’s very interesting you should ask this. I have been meticulously compiling a history of the years leading up to the start of Bug Incision over the last couple months. I’ve been writing it out and I just finished the first draft — well, like the final draft that my buddy’s going to edit, and I’m going to make a zine for the show.
So, yes, there is going to be a free zine at both shows, and it will hopefully come with a CDR. There’s very limited numbers, but free for people who come to the shows.
And yeah, the first show, it was either at Koi or Beat Niq of all places. The reason is, I know that it was after January of 2006 that I started doing Bug Incision, because the last time that I did an improv show that wasn’t Bug Incision was in late 2005. And then I did this thing called Colours Without Names, which was this big — I’d written a piece for eight musicians, and I chose a bunch of people who were some of the older guys and some of the younger guys. I really wanted to do a mixed group. And that ensemble having that characteristic is what informed what I consider to be the official start of the series, which is July of 2006 at the Soda.
But, as historical evidence has pointed out, there were two Bug Incision shows which just, as I’ve written in these liner notes, it just wasn’t quite fully formed. We were just kind of playing the field with venues. We were going around and trying to find out, what was the place. There seemed to be some obvious choices, and we were exploring some non-obvious ones, too.
There was one at Cafe Koi, which just doesn’t have a program. The first couple years of Bug Incision, I did programs for every show. I typed out a program. So that was really helpful in finding all that stuff.
The Beat Niq one had a program, I just don’t know which one was first, Beat Niq or Koi. I have a feeling it was Koi, but officially in my mind, the first documented, more heavily promoted show was July through December, 2006, at the Soda.

Soda seems like a much more natural fit, though. I mean, nothing against those other venues, but it feels odd to picture a Bug Incision show happening at Beat Niq.
Absolutely. The funny thing about that is we actually got, the second night through our Beat Niq engagement, we’d been hired for a Friday/Saturday, which is the way they used to do their bookings around then, and previously, leading up to that, I’d played there in some other groups with Scott Monroe and Aaron Leaney and Simon Abbot and Bent Spoon Ensemble had played there before, and me and Simeon Abbott did sort of a free piano/drum duo around that time, too. And so I’d booked this quartet of me, Jay Crocker, the late Dan Meichel, and then Mark Limacher who’s actually this piano player who, he came back to the city a few years ago and he’s really been making a lot… he’s got a show on CJSW called Unprocessed and he’s been making some waves in the community. He’s a really interesting guy, and I met him years and years ago, around that same time, when he was 18 years old.
That one was at the Beat Niq and we got fired during the second night of our show. Or let go, I guess you could say. It was an unfortunate series of circumstances leading up to it, but eventually, halfway through our second night they were sort of like, “well, you guys can stop if you want to.”
It was an interesting, awkward night. They’d booked a birthday party for an older man, and it was filled to the brim with his friends. And they were there to have a nice birthday night, and I guess the club had forgot they booked, you know, not the most easy-listening jazz. It wasn’t all skronk and banging, but it was definitely towards the Miles Davis-y, ’70s sort of ECM records vibe, and they weren’t having any of it that night. So halfway through, they just said, “you guys can play some Ellington tunes or you can pack it up, and we’ll turn on the stereo.”
That was one of the beginning moments in the Bug Incision trajectory, but yeah, officially Soda. And that place was, it had seemingly no identity. So I thought, this is perfect, nobody’s going to expect anything from it, and nobody’s going to show up expecting to hear county music and be annoyed. I thought the programming’s so eclectic that we could easily blend in there and not be too annoying to anybody.

What was the initial philosophy behind those Bug Incision shows? Because I was looking through some of the old bills, and you’d see these very experimental artists alongside someone like Aaron Booth, who was billed as a “singer songwriter singing songs.” What was the original idea?
Initially it was, and it has morphed over the years, but initially it was really just a way to create an environment that we could be comfortable to do what we wanted in. And just not have to worry about having specific expectations about the results for the music.
So we were doing that, and we were exploring all that, but of course during this time I was playing with Aaron Booth, I was his drummer at that time. And I think [Chris] Vail played at one, too. We’ve always had those kinds of people pop in here and there, and Vail I was playing with at the time, too, so for those ones, I was purely like, hey, let’s get some Vail fans out to the free jazz show, and lets show Vail to the free jazz fans. Because I was like, this guy’s sick, he’s great, more people should see him, he’s fantastic, so it was that kind of idea.
But then as the years wore on, I would never make — there’s almost something perverse about that line-up, right? It’s a little bit strange. And so, down the road, I still welcome having someone who’s working with some experimental mode of techno working next to a solo saxophone set working next to, I don’t know, a laptop guy. That’s all fine. But when I choose things that could be construed as more like pop music, I would then try to apply an idea of how their pop music sat on the spectrum. Like, is it trying to be very conventional pop music with a specific end, or is it something like Jordan Hossack back when he used to do Free Nude Celebs, where he would almost insist on playing with no PA, and he would just sit in the middle of the room. And that, to me, that wasn’t going to work at Broken City necessarily, him sitting down and that whole thing. So I was like, there’s something about this performer and the music that’s making it fringe-oriented.
Again, it’s just a matter of like, if you don’t know where you can play, you can probably play here. That was the problem that we were trying to solve initially. And now that it’s become, it has its own context a little bit now, I like to think of it as an outlet for people. So now, if you want a place to do a certain kind of music, this is where you can do it, and there’ll be people there who are supportive and educated enough to maybe even talk with you about it; audience members and stuff like that. You’ll have those kinds of interactions.
And then simply because other, bigger cities have people doing this as well, it’s a great outlet for that sort of geographical cross-pollination. If there wasn’t a Bug Incision, sometimes certain people wouldn’t be playing here, and that seems like it’s a shame.

Now, the label side of Bug Incision originally started as a way of documenting the Calgary scene, right?
Definitely, the label initially was fully a self-publishing thing. The first thing that I ever did that wasn’t just me, or just me and people I played with, was a compilation of stuff that was recorded at CJSW. Following the first six months at Soda, we did a monthly, or maybe it was every two months, we would do a show on Paula’s show, on Noise, and we would have a group from the meetings that had happened in that first six months at Soda.
The Soda shows, I would invite ten people out, and I would not tell them who they were going to play with. I would just get them to tell me what instrument they were playing, and come down, and at the beginning of the night I’d be like, ok, you’re going to play a duo with you, and you guys will be a duo, and the next night it would be trios, then quartets, and then we got into bigger group things.
That’s where Jay and Eric got to know each other a little better, so No More Shapes came out of those sessions. And the Musk Cup was a group with me and Monty and Dan Meichel, and Lyle Pisio, Cody Oliver and Peter Moller had a group that came out of that, the MOP Trio. So that was all a bunch of cool stuff that happened.
So then a bunch of those groups played on CJSW. The Fleishhaker/Monro duo actually too is one of those. So they would do a performance and we would all talk about it — Paula was always great at guiding those discussions. It was awesome.
But that was the first time the label did anything that wasn’t just me. And then it stayed sort of like a Bent Spoon-focussed concern for the next four or five releases, until I hit upon the idea of being like, you know, there’s other people like me across the country and Europe and the States who are operating on the same level, sort of making similar kinds of music. It’s like, why wouldn’t they want someone to make them some merch?
So if I can show them I make a sweet package and it looks good and it works, the music plays and all that, so I started just cold-calling people like, “Love your music, got a label.” And it was also a way to promote ourselves, too, because inherently, I would send out some Bent Spoon stuff, me and Monty, I’d send that out to these guys in Detroit and England, wherever it was. It was great. I’d show them about us, and our scene here.

Do you remember who the first person was to take you up on that?
Yeah, it was Ben Hall. He’s an amazing drummer, he’s a great writer and he’s also kind of an amazing visual artist as well. I only recently learned the extent to which he’s quite accomplished in that world. He’s maybe best known for being a part of a group called Graveyards, which has John Olson from Wolf Eyes in it? And so it was him and John Olson and another guy named Hans Buetow.
Ben had a bunch of projects going on, and I just said, have you got anything from any of your projects? And he sent me these three records. One was a duo of him and Mike Khoury, a violinist. One was a trio with Hans Buetow from Graveyards and this other guy, Chris Riggs, who would go on to figure quite heavily in the Bug Incision world in the next several years. Chris Riggs actually ended up coming here for the Calgary 2012 series.
And then there was one other record, which was a trio as well, with Hans and another guy, Jack Wright, who actually eventually came here as well. So that, actually, just meeting Ben and having that explosion of contacts and familiarity with those people, that was huge. The reaching out was great, ultimately.

For the show this weekend, were the artists picked specifically for the anniversary? Do they have a historical connection?
Some of them are. The two headliners on both days just happen to be coming through town on those two days, and often when I have two offers that are days apart from each other, I’ll try to convince them to go on the same day, for obvious reasons. But this one I was like, they’re two days apart, it’s a Saturday and a Sunday, and I’ve been liking doing shows on the weekend. And there was another time that I did a sort of, not a festival, but I called it a festival the other time. I just did two nights in August, and this was probably back in, I would guess 2008 or 2009, and I just called it the End of August Festival; so it’s sort of a call-back to that, which is a very specific sort of unknowable thing.
So I thought it would be great to have them over the two days, and then the other people on the bill were selected because they’re excellent. There’s different reasons. For instance, Rebecca Bruton, she’s one of the most interesting people I’ve reconnected with from a long time ago, since she’s been involved in this music, and we’ve played together and we’ve done some shows together and things like that. And her music is really amazing and unique, and I just thought, whenever she plays and whenever she does something, it’s always really good, so I thought, who can I get that’s really going to deliver?
She lives in Vancouver right now and she travels a lot, so I just said to her, any chance you’re in Calgary this weekend? And she said, well, no, but why? So I explained the show, and she said, I’d like to come and do this, so I’ll try to make it work. She did it, so she’s doing a solo performance which I think will be special for this show. I’m not exactly sure what, there’s a description on the event, but it’s hard to know what it’s going to sound like.

That sounds like a pretty good summary of Bug Incision shows in general, actually.
That’s the whole point, which actually, in itself, I feel like is radical. It’s basically getting people to buy into a brand in a way that you would any type of brand, but the brand is — people buy brands because they know what they’re getting, whereas this brand is knowing that you don’t know what you’re going to get. Which, I love it. I think it’s weirdly subversive.
And I feel like it’s important. Even more so now than ever, I feel like it’s really easy to just be getting exactly what you want all the time, and just pressing the button for what you want and you will get it right away, and you won’t have to rub against any things that you don’t want, necessarily. But I think that the idea of being exposed to things that you’re not in control of is important, and it probably makes you a stronger person to have to deal with that stuff. Or at least more interesting, anyway.
So that’s Rebecca, and then Whitney, of course, is just awesome. I feel like, Whitney’s organized shows over the years, he of course has the Unit Structure Sound Recording label, which is fantastic, and he’s been a great person to have as a peer in this world that we’re both working in, so it was a natural fit. And he’s also just, he doesn’t do bad sets. He’s one of those guys.
And then the next night, I had to throw myself on there somewhere, and I figured, who better to do it with than the guy who has been helping me out the most with Bug Incision the last couple years, which is Jonathan Wilcke. And he not only is a ripping sax player, but he’s been the right hand man of Bug Incision these days, taking care of lots of aspects.
He got us registered as a society recently, which is something that we haven’t fully started to exploit beyond the easy —

Oh, thank you. It was just, he did it and we’re still working on it, I’d say. We’re approved and it’s registered, it’s cool. It makes getting a liquor licence really easy. That was actually the — there’s many other implications that will be beneficial and had been in the pipeline for a while, but Jonathan was just like, we need to deal with the liquor license situation, so I’m going to deal with the society status and then we’ll see what else it can do for us later.
So me and him will play, and it’s great to play with him, he’s a ripper, and he prods me along while we’re playing, so that’s nice.
And then the other guys are exactly the kind of thing that you would see at a Bug Incision show. They’re members of the community; Jason [Philip Wierzba] is at every Bug Incision show that has happened in the last couple of years, he’s easily tied for first place with people like Cody Oliver and Jonathan and people like that. He’s a great person to have around there, and he’s playing with Dan Wilson, who’s known for his work in many local rock combos, especially bands with — he was in Beija Flor and a bunch of Paul’s bands, and then he’s also done some other stuff with other people.
They’re doing a thing where, Dan’s normally a drummer but I think he’s mostly playing guitar on this one, too. And Jason was active as a songwriter I believe, maybe seven or eight years ago, and now he’s come out of musical retirement as a ferocious, improvising guitar player. It’s full-on stuff.

You mentioned Dan overlapping with the more pop-focussed side of Calgary’s music scene, and then there’s people like you (with Pre-Nup, Lab Coast, Crystal Eyes, etc) and Monty (Preoccupations) and Jay who cross over all the time — is it common in other cities to have that much overlap between the experimental and pop music scene, or is that unique to Calgary?
It’s hard for me to say because I know so many of my contemporaries, so for me, it seems normal. But I kinda think, I don’t think it’s uncommon generally for pop people to be also involved in some sort of other kind of music. Whether it’s experimental music, or they’re a free-jazz guy as well as playing in pop bands. Because I feel like now, there’s less young free-jazz people right now. I don’t know that I’ve met a ripping free-jazz player in his early 20s in a while. They’re out there, definitely, but I just feel like they aren’t as prevalent as they used to be.
So, I feel like now you might get someone who plays in an improv-y no-wave style band, or does laptop stuff, or something like that. And it could be just because this is how it is in Calgary, but I feel like there’s less people involved in instruments these days — this is sort of a weird tangent I’m going off on.
Calgary does have a lot of those people. We’ll put it that way. Calgary has a lot of people who do the crossover and do it intensely in both ways. That’s true for sure. Maybe another way to phrase it is Calgary encourages it more, because you can’t get lost in the free jazz scene in Calgary, and only play free-jazz gigs. It’s hard to get lost in the indie-rock world, and only play indie-rock gigs.
If you want to really play a lot, you can’t be sticking to one thing. And that’s another thing that accounts for the eclecticism of the Bug Incision programming, is again, my personal favourite kind of music to watch in that scenario is not something you see very often at Bug Incision because it doesn’t exist very much, like acoustic free improv. It’s almost a genre, but it’s just a very specific time of experimental or free improvising. But because of that, I’m going to book a pedal noise guy, and I’m going to book a rock band that plays weird songs, or laptop sample stuff — it has to be eclectic, because otherwise there won’t be enough of any one thing.
If I lived in Montreal or Vancouver or Toronto, maybe I could feel like I’m busy enough just playing improv, but that’s not possible here.

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