New Works Magazine: Music In Halifax 1985

3: "None of us gets as
            big an
audience as we want."

Tim Brennan of the Lone Stars, 1985

Steps Around the House, a young new music band, plays almost all original material. Their songs, electronic and danceable, are similar to some of the hit music being played on Top 40 radio, but bass player and songwriter Jim Parker insists the band is playing what they want to play, not just what gets them into clubs. "If we were playing to get into clubs, we'd play covers," Parker says.

Steps has done well in the city. The band won a place on the Q104 Homegrown album and finished second place in the semifinals of CBC's Rock Wars contest. Steps has played several clubs in Halifax and "Just about every university in the Maritimes". This summer, Steps Around the House played the Natal Day weekend Concert on the Hill with Toronto's New Regime, and played four weeks at the Odeon.

"People think a band needs $80,000 in lighting and sound equipment and ten years experience playing covers before it can 'be a band,'" Parker says. "A lot of people seem to get stalled on the Maritimes club circuit."

Parker says the four weeks at the Odeon were great for the band. They made some money and got to work on their music in front of an audience. He says the band improved enormously in those weeks. But while waiting for the video screen to roll up, the band talked about where they'd rather be.

"We've done everything we can do here. There's really no place left for us to play," Parker says.

"We're stagnating. We need new surroundings. Everyone in the band is getting really restless. It's so extreme a couple of the guys are saying they don't want to be here when the first flakes of snow fall."

Parker says he used to think Halifax was the only city where bar managers prefer cover bands to original acts. He says he no longer expects Toronto to be different. But at least there will be a greater number of bars and universities to play. And the national recording and promoting industry, including the band's management company, does most of its business in Ontario.

Brian Hiltz, vocalist and songwriter for the Realists, played in Toronto for a year and wasn't that impressed with the opportunities. "It's not like you go to Toronto and suddenly you've made it." Hiltz says Toronto is full of bands talking about London, England.

Hiltz, however, does think Halifax is too small to support a new music scene. "Ten years from now it might be a good idea to have a new music scene around here, but for now we're going to keep struggling, and that's what it is, a struggle."

Mike Brennan of the Lone Stars, 1985

Hiltz says Steps Around the House and the Realists are, so far as he knows, the only pop bands in town that can play a gig with all original material. "They're doing a hell of a lot better than us," he says. The Realists play an unfashionable style of rock, influenced by underground bands of the late Sixties and early Seventies such as Lou Reed's Velvet Underground. Hiltz describes his band as "relatively progressive."

The Realists don't have much of a following. "Our audience is mostly 15 year olds, it seems."

"I think to myself, I've been playing in this band ... in versions of this band ... for six years. Maybe in 15 years I'll get some attention."

Hiltz doesn't make it easy for himself. The band isn't interested in most bars in town. To play at Secretary's or the Misty Moon would be "Just asking to be kicked around by the audience," Hiltz says.

Hiltz also isn't interested in playing in any place where his concert will be broken into half hour or forty-five minute sets. "To open for a new music band that has a record contract and is known nationally, that would be a good concert for us," Hiltz says. The Realists opened for Jane Siberry last year at Dalhousie and for the Spoons this month.

The band can afford to play only the gigs it thinks will be of artistic benefit, Hiltz says. "It's not my livelihood. It's a purely creative function for me. I don't need to play three times a week to pay the rent."

Hiltz, who has a degree In filmmaking, works full-time for an advertising company. One Realist is taking his masters in physics; another wants to be a mathematician. "Everyone in the band has other things going," Hiltz says. "One thing you learn quick around here, you better have something good to fall back on if you think you're a musician."

Members of the Lone Stars, the Water Street Blues Band, and many other popular Halifax bar bands are only part-time musicians.

Theo Hilfiker, vocalist with blues band Theo and the Classifieds, has lived in Halifax since 1975. Hilfiker worked full-time for three of those years as a solo act, playing music he didn't like playing. Herefers tohis solo act as "a commercial venture" and says it's an experience he won't repeat.

"Some guys can play it and make it sound sincere. I'm not one of those guys. Eventually I just had to say 'Can that shit', put the band together and see what would happen."

Theo and the Classifieds have played at the Middle Deck and other bars in town, but Hilfiker says they haven't had enough work to brag about. Each of the five members either works in other bands or relies on other sources of income. "The thing I want most of all is to be a full time musician," Hilfiker says.

"I think a lot of the realty good players are getting the shaft because they're dedicated to playing something other than Top 40," he adds.

Next: Radio and airplay for local artists