A Look Back At The Halifax Pop Explosion

When the major-label signing of Sloan suddenly opened an international audience for bands in Halifax, the excitement fueled a four-year burst of musical creative energy that hasn’t been equaled—and laid the foundation for two decades of music that followed.

Sloan might be most famous for taking a pass on being Geffen’s next Nirvana—quitting the label rather than re-recording the spare, retro-shaped Twice Removed—but it remains equally true that next-Nirvana hype was the whole reason they were signed so early in their existence. It so happened that September 1991, the month that Chris Murphy quit the Halifax roots-rock concern White Pool to focus full time on Sloan, was also the month that Nirvana dropped Nevermind on a unsuspecting public, and saw it go platinum by November. The A&R feeding frenzy that this ignited caught up with Sloan in the ensuing spring of 1992, when a Music West appearance paid off with a signed contract with Geffen.

The sheer velocity of Sloan’s rise fueled much of the excitement around the Halifax pop explosion in 1992, but in truth, a number of other elements came together at the same time to create a coherent scene. Greg Clark started booking bands in March at the Double Deuce Roadhouse, and turned it into the first local club whose main business was showcasing local, original music. That summer’s Halifax Independent Music Festival (a precursor of the following year’s Halifax Pop Explosion) yielded a live compilation CD, Cod Can’t Hear, featuring some of the bands that, along with Sloan, would come to be seen as core to the local indie phenomenon: Thrush Hermit, Jale, and Cool Blue Halo. Local campus/community radio station CKDU-FM released the Hear and Now compilation that featured studio tracks from many of the same bands.

To release its debut Peppermint EP, Sloan would create its own Murderecords imprint, but 1992’s hippest new Halifax label was Cinnamon Toast Records—a coloured-vinyl 7” single collector’s club of sorts, on the Simple Machines model. The label’s first release that fall was Jale’s Aunt Bettyfeaturing “Twisted,” the song for which they would make their first video (won’t someone please upload it to YouTube?). By year’s end, the nascent scene had its first major-label release in Sloan’s Geffen debut Smeared, two notable locally-based indie labels, a busy, popular live venue, an established recording studio in Soundmarket, and the support of the local underground radio station.

The parallel rise of Moncton’s Eric’s Trip led to a series of Halifax gigs in 1992, and in October, two key shows further afield: the Sub Pop Vermonstress Festival in Burlington, Vermont, and an opening slot for Sonic Youth in Toronto. When the Peter EP became the first non-Sloan Murderecords release in early 1993, it certified the importance of Eric’s Trip for an eager audience—an audience thirsty for authentic, scrappy pop, entranced rather than put off by the rough home-recorded feel of the record.

Signing Eric’s Trip as well as Jale, Sub Pop would first release an East Coast four-song/four-band compilation Never Mind the Molluscs before releasing Eric’s Trip’s EP Songs About Chris in May. The debut LP Love Tara followed in the fall, a record that was embraced as an instant classic.

1993 was undeniably the peak year of excitement and anticipation on the scene. The alternative weekly The Coast launched, creating an accessible print platform and voice, and putting a series of key artists on the cover. By the summer there were more than 30 bands competing for attention and audiences, compared to 10-ish just a year before. Cinnamon Toast had released 7” singles not only by Jale and Thrush Hermit, but also local live favourites Bubaiskull, and respected bands Leonard Conan, Les Gluetones, and the Quahogs. Hardship Post competed with Bubaiskull for the mantle of most exciting live act, and the first Halifax Pop Explosion was held in September, with notable visitors like Sub Pop buzz band Velocity Girl, and Sebadoh frontman Lou Barlow, along with local stars.

This was also the year that the Halifax scene was written up in Harper’s Bazaar, branding it with the “potential next Seattle” label that was also being applied to other North American college towns like Austin and Chapel Hill. The first Halifax alternative music scene compilation, Out of the Fog, was an important milestone in 1986, but the bands represented had either left town or broken up. The dream that took hold in the early ’90s, as naive as it looked in retrospect soon after, was that artists in the cultural outposts would not have to come to the centres for success—the centres would come to seek them. Josh O’Kane, in his new book about Joel Plaskett and Thrush Hermit, has written poignantly about how in Halifax this vision of things had exceptional power for a community that was used to its best and brightest going down the road to Toronto to achieve success.

Naive or not, the fact remains that this dream was the creative spark that generated a bumper crop of creative musical output. However, early in 1994, the ideal of taking a self-directed path in the music business would be put to the test when Sloan ended up in a standoff with their label. They had resisted pressure to rerecord/grunge-ify their sophomore LP Twice Removed, and had insisted on a democratic band identity with rotating lead-vocal and songwriting duties, rather than putting forward one clear frontman.

The immediate result was that the label refused to properly promote the record upon release in August, but Sloan’s approach was already a template for other bands, and their stand served to ratify it with their peers. Eric’s Trip, Jale, Thrush Hermit, Plumtree, and later, The Super Friendz were built to varying degrees on this Beatles-esque band model, and even Hardship Post, driven by the songwriting and charisma of Sebastian Lippa, would nonetheless later release a Sub Pop debut LP that switched it up on a couple of Iggy-Pop-esque songs by bassist Mike Pick.

Along with CD-EPs by Hardship Post (Hack) and Thrush Hermit (Smart Bomb), Sloan’s Murderecords label would also release Game Tight by Stinkin’ Rich (Richard Terfry, who would rebrand as Buck 65, among other monikers), and Trailer Park Hip Hop by Hip Club Groove, giving new visibility to the hip hop scene that had been pioneered in previous years by DJ Jorun and others. The label also released the Arhoolie cassette and Brave Last Days CD from local folk icon and inspiration Al Tuck, demonstrating that the label had a vision beyond promoting bands from Sloan’s own genre.

The second annual Halifax Pop Explosion was stacked with Sub Pop bands from elsewhere in North America—Sunny Day Real Estate, The Spinanes, Zumpano, and Six Finger Satellite. That summer the Seattle label also released Eric’s Trip’s EP The Gordon Street Haunting—a tide-me-over until fall’s sophomore LP Forever Again—and the impressive full-length debut for Jale, Dreamcake. Sub Pop made their Eastern Canada roster a trifecta by officially signing Hardship Post. Cinnamon Toast released a CD compilation of their 7” releases. The trickle of scene releases had turned into a flood.

Sloan played a “farewell” show in May 1995 in Toronto, but it was more of a hello than a goodbye—the band would eventually all move there, starting with Andrew Scott that year. Meanwhile Hardship Post, delivering their excellent debut LP Somebody Spoke, would flame out rather than take off, shedding their drummer six weeks before their tour and trying to make a go of it as a two-piece, then as a three-piece (“The New Hardship Post”) with Alyson MacLeod (who had left Jale) before calling it a day.

The two powerhouse local labels soldiered on—Murder released the debut LP Mock Up, Scale Down by The Super Friendz, and Thrush Hermit’s The Great Pacific Ocean EP, while Cinnamon Toast countered the bro-centric Murder lineup, releasing debut records by Rebecca West (the project of Allison Outhit, formerly of Bubaiskull) as well as Plumtree, who would continue to release strong records that would take years to reach their widest audience. Halifax’s State Champs and Truro’s The Motes were playing shows, releasing singles and EPs—members of both bands would form North of America a couple of years later.

1996 was in many ways the end of the Pop Explosion cycle of bands, but it certainly offered a bumper crop of records. The towering achievement of the year was of course Sloan’s One Chord to Another—their first independent LP, their final Halifax record, their best record to that point, and their first to go gold within months rather than years of release. But the two final Sub Pop releases of the scene were also arguably the best LPs by the respective bands—Purple Blue by Eric’s Trip, and So Wound, by Jale. Power-popsters Cool Blue Halo started to emerge from the shadows with their Kangaroo LP, which would gather additional buzz the following year for the “Too Much Kathleen” video. And Kingston’s fine duo The Inbreds moved to Halifax, releasing It’s Sydney or the Bush before joining the Murderecords roster and becoming an essential part of the scene.

“I don’t want to get a job,” Joel Plaskett told me in March 1996, as I interviewed him and his fellow members of Thrush Hermit in a downtown Halifax café. “I want to rock it up full time.” He said that he would keep playing as many Halifax shows as people would come out to see. While Plaskett went on resourcefully to shape a career in music on an independent basis without leaving home, the dream that everyone could do that necessarily faded. But starting a band, starting a label, making live shows happen—it was all now accepted and supported by local fans. The foundations of a scene had been laid.

By James Covey

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