PAPER BAG RECORDS TENTH ANNIVERSARY Concert series: Musicounts Benefit with YAMANTAKA//SONIC TITAN, THE LUYAS, AUSTRA, ELLIOTT BROOD, PS I LOVE YOU and others at the Great Hall (1087 Queen West), Thursday to Saturday (September 27-29), doors 8 pm. $25. PB, RT, SS. paperbagrecords.com. See listing.&
Ten years ago, the indie rock world wasn't yet aware of Broken Social Scene. Toronto-bred Stars were in the process of tracking their sophomore album, Heart. Mike Bullard was still on TV, Arcade Fire hadn't yet signed to Merge, and no one was using the word "collective" in relation to music or looking to Canada for the next breakout indie band.
That was the context in which Trevor Larocque, Amanda Newman and Enrique Soissa started Paper Bag Records, with the goal of releasing albums by Toronto musicians.
Their first signing was Broken Social Scene, and their first release was the band's debut, You Forgot It In People, which won alternative album of the year at the 2003 Junos. The second was Stars' Heart, which won international acclaim.
Not a bad start. Paper Bag was putting Canada - Toronto specifically - on the new millennium's musical map.
"That was a proud moment for me," says an upbeat Larocque over the phone from Montreal, where eight Paper Bag bands are prepping to take part in Pop Montreal ahead of three days of anniversary shows at the Great Hall. "I would like to take credit for putting Toronto on the map in some way, though I'm not one to big it up."
Larocque is the only founding member still with the company, and says the label is like his own personal mixtape - one he'd listen to all day long on any given day. He got his inspiration for it from the now-defunct Three Gut Records.
"I was a
failed sales rep at Outside selling Three Gut Records to Toronto and the GTA, and I felt like it was offering something that no one else was. Three Gut was a community-driven label made up of mostly Guelph bands who were all part of a scene. I admired that. No one in Toronto was doing it the same way, not to take away from any of the other labels from back then. I thought maybe we could have the same little success. None of us thought we'd quit our jobs or anything."
Of course he has by now, and employs six or seven others, too. Despite ups (numerous Polaris Prize nominations, voted best label in 2008 and 2009 by NOW readers) and downs (the loss of BSS and Stars to Arts & Crafts in 2004, the death of You Say Party drummer Devon Clifford in 2010), the label's current roster is bigger and hotter than ever.
Gothy electronic band Austra broke out huge last year and was nominated for a 2012 Juno along with labelmates Cuff the Duke and the Rural Alberta Advantage. Recent signees Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Tim Hecker, Moonface and the Luyas are some of the country's most talked-about emerging acts.
"One thing I really liked was that when they signed us they trusted us to make a record they could put out," says Jessie Stein, frontwoman for hushed, textural indie pop band the Luyas, whose Animator album is out October 16. "They didn't make us send demos first. Trevor told us to send it once it was done. It was like, ‘Make your art and we'll put it out.' That's not something I've ever experienced before."
Stein also enthuses about the direction the roster is going in, professing deep love for electronic sound artist Hecker, Spencer Krug's Moonface and noh-wavers YT//ST.
Notably, none of Paper Bag's recent signees are from Toronto, but rather Montreal.
"It's not that I've moved on from Toronto," Larocque explains. "It's just that for this period of time I feel like there was a calling here in Montreal. I've homed in on it, I guess."
So what's the biggest challenge of running an indie label?
"Taking a band from nothing and making it something. That's a huge challenge. I love having people discover something that I've helped put into the world. But if there's one thing I've learned over 10 years, it's that not every band works out. But believing in them is my job.
"You know how people say, ‘I won all that money and it was such a rush?' That's what I felt at the beginning - a rush. I'm trying to recapture it, and I've been able to several times. In the past three years especially, I've had that feeling a lot."