Art Department aren’t the only Toronto act making waves internationally with dark, depressing dance music. See Sidebar.
If you want to hear Toronto's best electronic artists ply their trade, you have to go to Europe. That's where people like Art Department (aka Jonny White and Kenny Glasgow) tend to relocate to make it big. They spend so much time touring overseas that they only play their hometown a couple of times a year.
For that reason alone, Saturday's homecoming gig at Footwork is special. But don't assume they'll stay away forever. The unexpected whirlwind success of electro-dubstep acts like Deadmau5 and Skrillex in North America might mean the tables are turning.
Yet White makes a point: "The stuff we're doing has more in common with a fucking Bob Marley record than with a Skrillex record," he says on the phone from a Paris hotel room.
"I'm not knocking Skrillex, though. His success is good for everyone. And there are people who will be introduced to us through artists like him.
"It feels a bit like what happened with hip-hop over the past decade might be starting to happen with dance music. It's crazy to watch, because this music has been so under-the-radar in North America for so long."
Maybe, but Art Department are an incredibly hot commodity in the global scene right now. They hit the ground running with their 2010 debut single, Without You, which was exactly what the underground dance world was waiting for.
Without You is built around that familiar four-on-the-floor thump, but it's relaxed and sensual in a way that sounds more like the 80s than the 00s. It's anchored by a huge, melodic bass line you could actually hum, but paired with a mournful minor-key mood almost reminiscent of goth (see sidebar).
When it hit the street, it felt like a breath of fresh air, and ended up on countless year-end charts, including the number-one spot on the influential Resident Advisor list.
While few could have predicted the success of their oddball formula, it worked, and the hits kept coming along with their critically well-received full-length album debut, The Drawing Board.
But as the old story goes, they quickly realized it made more sense to relocate to Europe (Glasgow to London and White to Barcelona). For their kind of dance music, that's where the gigs are, where the labels are and where the mainstream radio support is. The duo even did a prestigious BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix last year.
Pinning down Glasgow was a challenge even before he became an international dance music star.
The first time I interviewed the DJ/producer/vocalist for NOW in 2001, I ended up in the parking lot of his studio, waiting forever in a car with two of his old DJ partners because he didn't recognize their phone number.
You learn to plan for Glasgow to go AWOL when it comes to press, but his huge talent makes you willing to work around that. Still, the lack of a firm interview time for this story has me worried. This time though, White has a novel suggestion.
"I'm pretty sure he's in his hotel room right now. Just call the front desk and ask for him. If he doesn't know you're calling and he answers, then he has to do it."
It works, and, as always, once you get him on the phone, he's charming, relaxed and more than willing to talk about anything.
"Toronto is my home, and I love it, but travelling from there to come to Europe every weekend doesn't make any sense," Glasgow explains wistfully. "It's not cost-efficient. If I wanted to take it seriously, I needed to move here."
His international profile may have skyrocketed recently, but he comes across as the same happy-go-lucky dude who was a familiar fixture in the Toronto party scene for 20-something years.
And "fixture" isn't an overstatement. In the early 90s, the JMK Family Tree after-hours warehouse parties (the K referring to Glasgow) were pulling big numbers to desolate corners of the city for long nights of soulful house music.
Glasgow later fell in love with techno and ended up being one of the residents at the legendary legal after-hours Industry Nightclub, which is where his current partner-in-crime, White, realized he needed to be involved in the exploding underground dance music scene.
"My first real experience with house music was partying at Industry," says White. "It was about two weeks after my first time there that I bought my first turntables. I always thought this was what I wanted to do for a living, but I was a bit timid about producing. I was afraid I was going to find out I wasn't any good at what I wanted to do."
As the big-room techno scene died down in Toronto and Industry closed its doors, Glasgow started exploring the then-emerging sounds of electro while also finding a home for himself in the tech-house scene. His schedule locally was busy enough that he was one of the few Toronto underground DJs who could live relatively comfortably without having a hit record to promote on tour.
But in some ways he was too comfortable.
"I was a big fish in a small pond. I was content to live like that but not to see the younger kids coming up and starting to get more gigs than me. The only logical thing for me to do was to get back into making music and hope the right people heard it."
Luckily, White wasn't about to let the guy who helped introduce him to dance music give up on his musician aspirations. He'd been carving out a place for himself in Toronto throwing late night warehouse parties and DJing, and was starting a label called No. 19. After some prodding, he convinced Glasgow to record his debut solo album, and that set the stage for their coming together as Art Department.
"There's no beating around the bush there - I lit a fire under his ass," White says. "He was comfortable where he was, but I thought it was a huge waste of his talent."
White's push not only led Glasgow to fire up his studio again but also got him to revisit singing. It's not obvious from the dense, deliberately awkward melodies he vamps on with Art Department, but some of his first musical experiences were in a gospel choir, and his long-forgotten early 90s recordings on the Toronto label Jinx featured his vocals.
"I guess I'm still pulling from gospel, but on a twisted and dark tip now," Glasgow admits.
There are few traces of the hands-in-the-air, lift-yourself-up positive energy of classic soulful house in what Art Department do, but as the cliché says, house is a feeling. And as it turns out, dance floors don't mind contemplative lyrics about heartbreak and the depressing, seedy underbelly of the late-night life.
"I was into house music in the 80s when it hit Toronto, and that's where my sound has come from. Techno DJs play a certain way, but I've always played it like house. I've just adapted those roots to the moment.
"Toronto does have a sound right now that's hard to pin down, but basically it has one foot in the past and the other in the future."
Both Glasgow and White are thinking hard about their own future, but the pair need to find some way to take a break from the constant touring to get down to business. Glasgow is starting up a label of his own, White is looking to ramp up the upcoming release schedule of No. 19, both are eager to finish preparation for the full live set they've been planning forever, and somehow they've also got to start work on the next Art Department album (not to mention individual solo work).
Maybe it's time for the pair to take a sabbatical in the relative calm of Toronto before the scene blows up on this side of the ocean, too.