Joe Strutt is a prolific hobby archivist and creator of the blog Mechanical Forest Sound, where he posts live recordings and reviews of literally hundreds of Toronto concerts a year. On any given night of the week you might spot an unassuming man discreetly wearing a lapel microphone, at the Music Gallery, the Harbourfront Centre, The Great Hall, at an unadvertised gathering in someone’s backyard...seriously, the word ‘prolific’ doesn’t really do justice to Joe’s commitment.
I thought it fitting to meet up with him at a recent Wavelength show, a small outdoor affair in a Regent Park courtyard where I found him recording incredible sets by Bizzarh and Weaves. Unbeknownst to me, fifteen minutes into our long and interesting chat my recording device stopped working. I caught up with him online a few days later.
HENRI FABERGE: Hi Joe! Sorry about the failed interview attempt. It is hilariously ironic that my interview with an audio archivist was thwarted by my shoddy equipment.
JOE STRUTT: No problem. Despite being fairly diligent, I still have a small fail rate.
H: What was your relationship to music pre-Toronto? You hail from Winnipeg, Manitoba correct?
J: I was at U of W as a philosophy and polisci major, my head filled with the most intense abstractions. That was countered by the fact that I was generally working when I wasn’t at school. The now long-gone days when you could work part-time and that would be enough to generally cover an undergrad education with no residual debt!
I was busy enough with all of that that I wasn’t involved with the music scene too much. The U of W had a radio station, which was, at that time, a closed circuit operation only, “broadcasting” via speakers in various locations on the campus. By coincidence, there was one in the dank basement where I had my locker and hung out a lot -- so when I was starting university I recall being exposed to a lot of mind-blowingly weird stuff. There was one DJ who played Negativland’s “U2” single over and over -- enough that I went to HMV and found it as in import cassette. Which was probably the first time I discovered the “alternative” section.
H: Did you know any local musicians performing original material at the time? Did the U of W station feature any Canadian indie music of note that stayed with you?
J: I had a classmate who was in a really cool band called Grand Theft Canoe, and I remember him bringing in gig posters to classes. They were a jangly/psych kind of bands, but the posters would include veiled references to the then-mayor’s fascistic tendencies, which I thought was pretty cool. I don’t remember hearing that many Winnipeg bands over-the-air, but they also had Stylus, a program guide/magazine that featured a lot of local/Canadian stuff. One of the first things that I bought based solely on a review from it was Nomeansno’s Wrong album.
H: I remember Nomeansno. I was on Vancouver Island at the time, not even sure how I heard about them.
J: And at that time (before the internet!) there was also Exclaim! magazine, which gave you an overview of cool bands from across the country, as well as Brave New Waves, which I’d listen to while working the night shift. Those gave me a lot of clues, and I saw some pretty cool out-of-town musicians in the last couple years I lived in Winnipeg. That was the time of the “Halifax explosion”, and I fondly remember seeing bands like jale, Super Friendz, The Inbreds and stuff like that.
H: What prompted your move to Toronto?
J: I came out here for grad school at York, which -- long story short -- didn’t really take. Between that, and then working to pay off the student loan, I was really a homebody for quite a while. I kept up with eye and Now, so I knew about things like Wavelength when they were starting up, but I wasn’t really a part. I went to a gig or two a month, mostly touring bands, just like regular folks -- I would be more likely to go out to a movie or a ballgame in those days.
I think it was when the Constantines’ first album came out that I really started buying stuff from local bands -- there was Three Gut and all that going on. And then, when Broken Social Scene and all that hit, it was at a time when I was starting to go to more shows, and that led to a ramping up of me paying attention to local music.
H: Did you start making recordings of live shows just for yourself, or did you think that Toronto deserved an archive of the current music scene?
J: It was a combination of a number of things. I was going to more and more shows -- from ‘06 to ‘08 it doubled from about 40 to 80 per year, and it was getting to the point where having a list of what I saw wasn’t enough, and I needed notes to remember all those telling details that make shows memorable. Summer of 2008, for example, I saw Mary Margaret O’Hara at a free Luminato show on McCaul Street, celebrating OCA and the art and music it inspired. At the end of the year, I was doing a sort of wrap-up of my favourite concerts and I was wracking my brain to remember the telling detail from that show. I googled around, and managed to find it in someone else’s account: she had a little picture of Handsome Ned pinned to her shirt.
That led to me starting the blog, which at the start was really just a sort of “notes to self” thing. It existed as something that other people could find, but really, almost no one did, and I wasn’t really trumpeting its existence.
The recording side also came from a long, slow build. Once torrents started to be a thing, I was really into downloading full live shows. There’s a whole ethos behind “taping”, which stretches back to the Grateful Dead and tape trees and all that, so there was a whole dedicated culture with its own rules and ethics and ways of doing stuff that I discovered. At the time, I remember I was really into Wilco, and it blew my mind that I could basically download any show they ever did. And then I found out I could have, say, every Replacements gig recorded, or, say piles of Miles Davis shows from his really crazy early 70’s cocaine years.
As I got more and more into that, I felt a gap between the music I downloaded and the stuff I increasingly was going to see, and I wished there were more recordings of small, local bands. Especially because bands at that stage would usually have way more songs than they’d ever record -- so they’d put out a single or an EP and break up, and all those songs would disappear. There were a few places that were following this kind of music -- there was a site called B(oot)log out of Kingston, where a guy was doing recordings of all the indie bands passing through. I remember being overjoyed when he posted an entire Jon-Rae + The River set. So all of that put it in my mind, and I started reading up on recording gear and keeping my eye out on eBay. It was spring of 2009 when I got my hands on an old iRiver and also bought my first pair of microphones, and then I was off to the races.
H: You have a disclaimer on your site that you will happily take down any recordings that people might not otherwise want online. Have you considered the ethical conundrum of recording an artist and putting their work online, whether you should introduce yourself and let them know your intentions? Have you had any negative feedback in that regard?
J: This was something I put a lot of thought into when I was starting to record, because I don’t want to make an artist worse off. Like I said, I read a lot about the tapers’ ethos, and I put it to as many musicians as I could, and in the end, the consensus seemed to be to just go ahead. I’m not trying to make money, and when I can I try and get recordings back in the artists’ hands, but basically I kinda just plow ahead.
I’ve posted more than 1500 recordings, and I’ve never (yet!) had an artist ask me to take something down on ethical grounds, like “I don’t want my music shared like that.” I’ve had a handful of artists get in touch and say, “I don’t like that specific recording”, like they were having an off night, or singing out of key or other having some other technical problem, and I’ve always pulled the post right away, even if it’s something that a regular listener might not notice.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the music I dig as being part of a “folk” process instead of a commercial relationship, and part of that idea is that the music belongs to the audience as much as the performer. I think that feeds a lot both into the issue of the ethics of posting recordings and the idea above of being a “contributing member” of the arts scene. Everyone in the audience is part of it -- good music needs good listeners as much as it needs excellent performers. It follows that the most important part of the music scene is that it helps make a community -- and having someone documenting the history of the community is a good thing, even in this age of pervasive (self-)documentation.
Thinking of music as “our” kind of folk art also undermines this whole insidious celebrity culture that we’re surrounded by. I think we have to get rid of this whole notion that musicians are playing a giant lottery where one or two might be able to parlay some sort of ephemeral “buzz” into a viable career. I have no large-scale answers here, but if anyone asked me what the music scene needs more than anything else, it would probably be more and better day jobs, so people can be mostly self-sufficient and be able to make art without having to worry about paying rent. getting groceries, etc. I guess in my ideal world, they’d be fewer stars and fewer starving artists -- but the artists that you appreciated would be people that you could see in the street and stop and say hello to.
J: iRiver is a brand of MP3 players that never really took off here, but they’re big in Korea and a few other places. They’re prized by recordists because it has a good line-in for recording and you can overwrite the firmware with Rockbox, an open-source program that gives you more control of recording levels, etc. My second-generation recording device is an Edirol R09-HR, which allows me to record to 24-bit wav files. Sometimes I can use both of those at once.
My microphones are from an outfit called Church Audio -- a guy who lives down Hamilton way and sells hand-crafted audio equipment online. They have a really good rep, and he sells them to people all over the world. The mics are insanely compact, relative to their small size. My gear gives me pretty good sound, especially considering how portable it is.
H: Do you mix the two feeds? Or choose the best one?
J: There’s quite a range. My “default” mode is just a straight-up recording from the concert floor. When I get the opportunity, I’ll get a feed from the soundboard, and when I have that, my output is usually a mix of mics and board. Especially because in a smaller room, you’re not getting everything on a board feed -- the guitar amps will often not be mic’d, for example. But the board feed is great to have, because it gives a stronger vocal than you’ll usually hear “live”.
I’m not a trained audio engineer or anything. I’ve just been figuring things out as I go along. There’s fancy software that you can use for mixing audio, but I get by with Audacity, which is a free + open-source audio program. Anyone can do it!
H: You attend a crazy number of live performances. How do you decide what shows to check out in any given week?
J: I’m at a happy point in life right now where I’m not tethered down to a career or kids or artistic projects or anything, so I have time to go to shows. There’s always way more good gigs than I could go to, and a lot of nights there’s two or three shows I’d like to see. For a long time I’ve had a rule of thumb that says the best tiebreaker is to go to the show in a smaller venue -- I’d always rather go to The Horseshoe, say, than to the Phoenix and by extension, I’d rather hang out in the front room of The Tranzac than go to The ‘Shoe.
I try not to go to shows out of some sort of sense of historical obligation, like “this must be archived!” I still want to go to shows to be entertained, and have a fun time, and run into friendly faces, and that’s generally the #1 consideration.
I’m also trying to challenge myself, and broaden my horizons, and try and discover things I didn’t already go to. It’s really easy to trap ourselves in this little ‘indie rock’ world and think that’s the be-all-and-end-all, but there’s so much else going on in this city. Over the past year or so, I’ve been trying to learn more about new music/contemporary classical stuff, and I’m increasingly into weird/out/free improv stuff. Plus, Toronto has amazing musicians who come here from all over the world, and the stuff they’re playing is often excellent and nearly unrecognized. For example, Afrafranto, who play Ghanaian palmwine and highlife music are hands down one of the best bands in Toronto, and they’ve never gotten their due.
H: Do you get recognized now more than before your blog started to gather an audience? Any sense of preferential treatment as a “contributing member” of the arts scene, or do you try to downplay that?
J: Yeah, I am recognized more these days, especially within some of the smaller sub-strata that I travel in. And I do feel a sense of belonging to the music community, and that’s something important to me. But I try to trade on that as little as possible. Most importantly: the large bulk of shows I go to, I pay at the door just like everyone else. There’s precious little money in the music scene, and I’d feel like a jerk if I were elbowing my way in on the guestlist just because I’m the guy who shows up with the recorder. The first way I show appreciation to artists is by giving them money... al the “exposure” in the world (and I’m not really a big fish in that regard anyways) isn’t going to pay their rent or even buy their beer.
H:What’s the turnaround for getting your posts online? You’re attending and documenting so many performances, you mentioned that you’re pretty consistently backlogged.
J: Yeah, my timestream is getting a little schizophrenic these days. At the outset, my intention was that I was going to document every show I went to. That involves both the write-up and doing the back-end work of processing the recording (a few audio tweaks, and then breaking it down into individual tracks and so on). But I have found that when I’m going to so many shows - plus, of course, sleeping and relaxing and hanging out and going to work - there’s no way that I have the time to stay caught up with all that.
Most people’s response would be to settle on being more up-to-date and less comprehensive, but I decided to go the other route: I’m willing to be increasingly behind, figuring that I’m not always going to be going to this many shows, and in the long-long run I’ll get caught up. My inspiration here is that Simpsons episode where Marge sends her painting to Ringo Starr, and we learn that since the Beatles have broken up he’s been diligently catching up on his fan mail in the order it came in, telling Marge how good her painting was a couple decades after the fact.
The internet makes us want to be so “fast” about everything, so I’m sort of reacting against that, too. I feel more like an anthropologist: I’m out doing my fieldwork right now, and eventually I will retreat back to my ivory tower to gather some sense from all of it.