Thursday, September 22, 2011

Futureproofing Vancouver: Prison Garde + Eames

Though he's only been in Vancouver for two years, for me, Prison Garde is the epitome of the city's current inspiringly wide-open outlook on dance music.  He defines what Vancouver's club music should be like: witnessing one of his live sets -- particularly in the past year -- is to witness an hour plus of unfiltered, unleaded, unpretentious dance music: drums, bass, synths, all hitting the right places at exactly the right moments.  On the one hand it's almost simplistic, on the other hand it's bewilderingly genius.  He's produced as part of the outfit Megasoid and formerly as Sixtoo, with a long and storied history in his hometown of Montreal, but his material as Prison Garde might be his best yet.  With roots in hip-hop, his sound has been moving all over the place in the past year, and the free album he released just prior to this year's Bass Coast festival -- Systeme Hermes Vol. 1 (which I reviewed for FACT Magazine) -- is an excellent showcase for his diversification, spanning BPMs from 74 to 150.  House, hip-hop, dubstep, techno, whatever, you name it and it's probably swimming somewhere in the Prison Garde stream.   (He also runs the Catalog Gallery in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood.)

Then there's his recent partner in crime, Eames, aka Kevin Ehman.  Ehman as a DJ is maybe a bit more of a house head but shares the same appreciation for both hip-hop and a wide swathe of dance music.  A mainstay in Victoria's bustling scene (soon to be profiled via Victoria kingpin Chris Longshanks) for the past year, he recently relocated to Vancouver and has used the opportunity to maximize his collaborations with Squire, and the result is a wealth of tracks under the name Garde + Eames, subtle but devastatingly effective tracks that pull bits and pieces from each producer's musical personality and turn them into streamlined, purified slabs of silky seduction.

The one thing that defines their current sound is hardware; hardware, hardware, and more hardware. The duo are currently working on a practical way to have a completely hardware livePA -- no computers, no digital --  and you can tell from the mix they've provided here.  Part of the reasons these tracks sound so confident and streamlined is because this is no-bullshit stuff: like I said before, drums, synths, basslines.  Crisp hi-hats, lush chords, pulverizing kicks, everything in hi-fidelity for maximum impact.  There's something almost melancholic about these tunes: they're no holds-barred but they're utterly classy and restrained, not giving into the dumbed-down dancefloor dynamics (or lack thereof) that the duo openly decry in the interview below.  Smart, sexy, and sleek, this is vintage dance music for the future, and it's honestly some of the most exciting Vancouver has to offer.  If you like any of the California abstract hip-hop scene, any of the London/Bristol house axis currently on the rise, or any of Berlin's bass music flirtations -- you get the idea -- you need to hear this mix, the West Coast's take on it all that stands up just as well to the likes of any big name UK megastar you can think of.



RYCE: How did you two meet?

Garde: Kevin and I met in Montreal through mutual friends of ours. We had both spent some time there, and then both coincidentally ended up on the west coast. Him in Victoria, me and Vancouver. It was about four months after I came that that Kevin decided to move to Vancouver, and we’ve been working together ever since.

Eames: I met Rob in Montreal, and when I was moving back to Victoria he had already taught me a bunch of stuff that I was trying to develop.  I figured Victoria would be a middle ground “somewhere else,” and so when I moved here -- sort of inevitable at that point --  I had a bunch of synths and my apartment’s not big enough, so it really made sense to put them here [Prison Garde’s gallery].

Why did you move to Vancouver?

Garde: I don’t really know.  I wasn’t planning on staying.  I came because my sister was having a baby. I came out here and then when I saw what some friends of mine (all east coast transplants) were doing in Gastown I wanted to be a part of it.  It was just exciting. It reminded me of a lot of places that I’ve moved to at the inception of their 'gentrification' (although I wouldn’t really throw that word around here because I think this neighbourhood has had the hardest fall from grace of anywhere in North America). This neighbourhood was being rejuvenated by independent, hard working people that respect its history.  So seeing what my friends were doing, being offered an opportunity to be a part of it, and to have my own business was enough to keep me here.  I have always felt like Vancouver’s music scene needs some nucleus personalities to start taking the reins and responsibilities for something that could be amazing.  Not to say that I’m the person to do that, but I have a lot of experience throwing parties, booking, running labels, curating, and things like that, and feel that I have some experience to add. 

How did you find the music scene when you first got here?

Garde: I’ll have been here two years as of October.  It’s a different thing.  Vancouver is a very young city, it’s got this illustrious history of a lot of really good techno producers and the rock scene here is really healthy, but I think the places where new music meets people makes it seem a little bit insecure. I think there’s definitely room for club culture to expand.

The techno scene kind of dropped off in the mid-2000s and was overtaken by dubstep.

I think that one thing that has led to a really interesting development in cities like Toronto, New York, Montreal, is that there’s this really strong sort of mentorship, you learn how to do shit from old-school guys if they see the potential in you.  Whereas here, a lot of the techno guys got to a certain age and maybe felt that what they were doing became too sophisticated or adult and negated youth culture in some way, which made it ripe for new music to just change the landscape.  My mentality about it is very different than that, I think that when you see potential in people you embrace it and create real communities out of it instead of feeling threatened by it, and have music that aligns itself with the history it has come from.

Eames: I can’t really speak to the scenes here, I haven’t really been part of any specific scene in Vancouver firsthand, I’ve only heard about various venues that have had runs and what not.  I can’t speak to the demise of the RedGate or any number of other illegal venues... those venues are the most important thing for an underground scene to exist that is actually semi-profitable or at least breaks even.  It’s so healthy to be involved in things outside of nightclubs.

What do you think about Vancouver’s venue situation? It’s notorious for restrictive laws and licensing issues...

Eames: People talk about it so much that it stays this thing.  In any interview about music in Vancouver inevitably the venue discussion comes up, and the same points are made by the same people.  It doesn’t make the problem less extant, but...

Garde: I’ve seen a ton of venues that have been independently run and operated, promoted, kind of fall by the wayside or places that have had these illustrious histories -- like the Cobalt, the Rickshaw -- get absorbed by Clear Channel or some other bullshit.  First of all, American media outlets have no fucking business being here in the first place, but taking these places with these histories and turning them into puppet venues for big business as it relates to arts and media and culture... it is bullshit.  Even with the gallery and what I’m doing as an arts programmer -- I run a creative agency behind my gallery to fund it, because the art scene is really polarized in this city -- much in the same way that genres polarize music here. I think people just need to think of new ways to solve the dilemmas of whether having good live performance venues or places with good sound or even a code of etiquette for your parties.

Eames: That’s what’s been great about the W2.  There seems to be an unspoken code of ethics. It’s reflected by the staffing they run there; there’s no infrastructure for douchebags at W2, there can’t be any douchebaggery.

What do you think of the ongoing underground infiltration into real nightclubs?

Eames: Regardless of content, there’s such an essential feel to a venue, even if you’re running the most underground programming in a club, you’re still in a club.  You have to buy expensive drinks, even if they’re cheap they’re still expensive.  There’s bouncers and shit... it vibes me out.  But cool shit still happens in clubs, not trying to say that by any stretch.

Garde: The problem is the programmers themselves don’t have a scope on what actual global club culture is.  That’s a problem when you have places like the Waldorf that could be running one underground event with two mainstream events simultaneously, or something like the Fortune Sound Club which is one of the best sound systems in the city but you never get to hear anyone push a live P.A. through it. In my opinion it’s just really short-sighted.  Vancouver presents itself as an international contemporary to many cities but it’s still very young.  Vancouver doesn’t need to be a contemporary, it should just be itself and not worry about how it is seen to the rest of the world.  There’s this wanting to fit in, or thinking that every saturday night you have to have a hip-hop DJ or a house DJ where the fact of the matter is that a lot of people just want to hear new fresh shit.

Eames: I think the bum rap that Vancouver might give itself -- or at least the arts communities gives itself -- is compared to some other cities through some non-existent competitive level.  I don’t give a shit. Make your fun.

Do you find it hard to get crowds in to shows that aren’t focused around one genre?

Eames: Promoting is one art form I am not a master of, and have never claimed to be.

Garde: I think maybe there’s just a lack of awareness about what’s actually up.  I think we’re trying to do that through DJing or throwing live sets and throwing parties.  We just started the Yours Truly party so it’s hard to gauge that.

Why is Yours Truly necessary, what makes it special?

Eames: I like the mix of residents. Aleem and Zeeaa are super cool people and have great taste as selectors.  I like the venue and what we did with it last time was really cool in terms of setup, and we got Ryan Lindow running sweet visuals.

Garde: Good music, a great environment to dance in, and world class talent being booked, with a focus on real club culture.

Eames: I’m with Rob with on the club culture thing.  That is my shit -- dark, loud, good people, illegal space. Cans of beer.

Do you feel like “interesting’ house is starting to make a comeback in Vancouver?

Garde: I think worldwide house is kinda cracking right now.  Really, music is wide open right now, the genre gates are just bullshit right now.  Being the purist about one end of it is just.. yeah. If you listen to the best house music being produced right now, I think some of it is being made by people who haven’t traditionally been from that scene.

Eames: It’s all in the eye of the beholder in the ear of listener. I would go to a Kompakt night, but that night couldn’t really exist in Vancouver... maybe like a guy like Wolfgang Voigt would draw in Vancouver because there’s a knowledgeable crowd here, but the kind of dance music you hear in the club these days -- e.g. dubsteppy type things -- has ruined people’s attention spans so badly that they cannot appreciate nuance in music.

Garde: Or anything that doesn’t have a vocal in it.  If you look at the landscape of big tunes right now --

Eames: Everything has a fucking vocal!

Garde: -- or a vocal sample.  Sometimes you don’t even wanna fucking hear a vocal.  Sometimes you don’t want to hear a vocal for two hours and you want to have the lights out and have it fucking loud. [laughs]  I think there’s a time and a place for all that stuff but I think that vocal music has always been catered towards top 40 and I think that it’s infiltrating pop music is cool, but it shouldn’t have to be that way.

Eames: You should be able to play more than three songs without a vocal and not worry about losing the crowd.  

If dubstep could be said to be the sound of Vancouver’s underground back in the day, what is it now?

Eames: It’s wide open.

Garde: I literally play everything from 70bpm to 150, 160.  I think when you’re dealing with a night like Yours Truly we’re pushing club music primarily, but you will hear some rap, some footwork, whatever.

Is it hard to get bookings when you don’t stick to any one style and have so much variation?

Garde: If you're booking me, you know what you’re gonna get.  And if you don’t, you can fuck yourself.  I don’t really need the bookings, I’ve got other shit to do. Hah.

Eames: I think the bigger thing is trying to figure out this tour.

Garde: Yeah… It’s been three months and we’re sitting on all these songs... maybe twenty songs.  We gotta get the hardware set going.  You get sick of pushing buttons on a midi controller in Ableton.  Nothing sounds better than a drum machine and a synth plugged into a live PA.

When did you guys start working together as a musical unit, Garde + Eames?

Garde: Pretty much as soon as Kevin arrived.  Kevin and I gelled immediately in Montreal.  We weren’t throwing parties together or anything, but we were kicking it and swapping tunes and stuff.

Eames: It just took me a while to work with both the computer and the synths on my own time to get to the point where I could have a good workflow with Rob because he works quickly and knows how everything works [laughs] so if I was going to be of use and contribute in a meaningful way... that time in Victoria was good for me, Chris Longshanks taught me a lot and I just got down to business.

Do you now want to be seen as a unit together?

Eames: I think we should promote them under a different name but everyone’s telling us there are too many aliases.

Garde: I think it’s cool to have it billed as a collabo thing -- I mean we’re both writing tunes outside of this but I think the strongest stuff I’m doing right now is definitely involved in this.

What kind of stuff is coming out of this project?

Garde: It’s primarily club music.

Eames: It’s a bit all over the place, but we’re definitely trying to write danceable music. Creepy guy dance music.  There’s definitely a blending of our two sounds for sure.  I forced Rob to write more 4/4 and he forces me to write more broken stuff.  I like writing 4/4 stuff a lot.

Garde: I like writing rap music but lately I’m burnt out on writing rap music so.. I’m writing other music.

Do you think your live set, when it comes together, will it be well received or will it be a challenge? Especially in Vancouver...
Garde: I think it’ll be just fine.  Judging by the last time I played, the last Yours Truly with Jacques Greene, the stuff that garnered the best responses were dubs of mine and Kevin’s.  I’m not really worried about people responding to it especially when they see a live hardware set attached to it.

What’s your favourite thing about Vancouver, in general? Why are you still here?

Eames: I just love the West Coast!  I like the outdoors a lot, I love beaches, getting on my motorbike, getting away from shit.  I love the food here, the air, I love my west coast people.

Garde: I don’t know, haha. 

Eames: You gotta like something about Vancouver!

Garde: I find generally what Vancouver lacks in terms of in those places we were talking about.. you know, as an international contemporary.. it makes up for in landscape.

Eames: It’s inescapable.  It really is. It’s so goddamn beautiful here, you just can’t help but cut it some slack in other departments.  And it’s been the story of Vancouver forever for people, and that’s why I think the arts and music scene has been known for being a bit self-defeating.  “Oh, it’s just so goddamn beautiful.” I’m not the first person to pitch that theory, and I won’t be the last.

Garde: It’s just stunning.  Riding your bike around the city, going to work in the morning, there’s nothing better than having fresh sea air and the ocean beside you and a fuckin’ blue Heron looking at you.

Do you find the music scene right now, as you can see it, to be healthy?

Garde: Oh yeah! There’s a ton of dope dudes in the city that are doing all kinds of shit.  I went to New Forms this week and the dude that I sold a synthesizer to had the best live set of the whole damn thing.

Eames: There’s a lot of people here with amazing taste. You’re always gonna get people promoting against each other in a weird way -- I’m not saying we have to have some circle where we all hold hands, but it seems like if we all communicated a little bit better, something could for sure build.  There’s a lot of dudes killing it right now.
Garde: The main thing is having a place for all of those people to come together, whether it’s a club or a warehouse or a fuckin’ park, whatever.  The dialogue of music is the thing that’s exciting about it at all times.  Whatever your individual contributions are to that conversation, there should be a place that nurtures those conversations, and that to me is really what we’re trying to do with our club night.  As a mandate, as DJs.  Create a conversation, make people talk about music, get into it -- or hate it, you know, who cares.  

Eames: I just want people to rave. 

Prison Garde + Eames are playing at this weekend's Rifflandia Festival in Victoria.  You can download Systeme Hermes for free here.

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