Pity City (Matt Weaver)

Pity City: Saint John’s All Ages Boom and Bust

It’s one in the morning as I sit on what feels like the end of the earth. In reality, I’m looking out into the vastness of the Bay of Fundy from Tin Can Beach in Saint John, New Brunswick; the divorced Father of Confederation. The smell of sulfur and sea salt give the city its charm and, when coupled with it’s rich history, it makes Saint John a truly unique place to live. Music created here is just as distinct as the city itself, and has struck a chord with the teenagers who call this place home. Unfortunately, the vast majority of performances often occur in nineteen plus establishment – licensed bars and restaurants which make it difficult for youth to see live music. There is an alternative though: Saint John’s all ages music scene. While it has never been perfect, it means the world to the young bands grinding to get their voices heard, and those who crave the thrill of seeing adolescent chaos unfold before their eyes.

Moshing at Mount Olympus (Sati Byers)
Moshing at Mount Olympus (Sati Byers)

“Young musicians are a lot like young politicians, while maybe not fully developed, their ideas are raw and pure.” – Kenneth Fury, Trophy Kill

If you’re underage in Saint John, you have very few options for live entertainment. Bars are next to impossible to sneak into, house parties become more of the same, and anything extensively supervised doesn’t allow for the freedom a teenager craves. The all ages scene here aims to fill this hole with unpredictable, yet personal, performances and with safe places to see them.

“I think it gives you something to do for a couple hours; you don’t have to sit at home and smoke pot; you can go to a show and know that you can get in. It’s all some people have,” says Will Jordan, an active young musician who plays in four local bands.

This is why Mount Olympus was a godsend. Mount Olympus, more commonly known as “Mount O”, was an all ages venue situated in the loft of a community center on Saint John’s Union Street, that had previously been used only as a junk room. Most of the money generated from the door went directly into the hands of performers, while a small portion was invested in new rain buckets to catch water from the leaking ceiling.

“The place just came about from frustration of the lack of resources available to us,” says Yurgos Elisseou, guitarist and vocalist for Street Light Parking Lot and a key figure in getting Mount O up and running. “People could come together and just enjoy the music we all love.” The venue held show consistently throughout the summer of 2016 and doubled as a practice space for underage musicians until it was closed in late August due to the usual complaint: liability issues.

Say hello to Yurgos! (Matt Weaver)
Say hello to Yurgos! (Matt Weaver)

“The community is a family, and family is everything.” – Dawson Cole, Trophy Kill/Cassette Tapes

Going back even a couple years, these young musicians could cut their teeth at shows put on by the Saint John Arts Center, the Shark Tank, and by the Teen Resource Center. Each of these locations is either no longer active as a venue or has suffered the same fate as Mount O and had their doors closed. It seems to be a trend among such venues in the city.

Even through these losses, the music scene in Saint John retains a strong sense of community. It’s one which continues to encourage young people to get out and express themselves, with more experienced musicians doing what they can to support these wide-eyed teenagers.

“You have to be playing for new people, and young people care. Once they find something they self-identify with they care about it way more than most casual listeners,” Says Gavin Downes, guitarist and vocalist in Little You Little Me, “I think it’s important to come together and foster a scene, together.”

“I went to a show at the TRC and saw how intimate it was. I felt like that might be something I want to be at least a small part of, if I could.”- Bruce Torrie

Youth involved in the scene live it and breathe it; if they’re not creating music they’re enabling it by organizing shows, or running their own venues. It’s never a paid gig, but the sweat equity of a passion project. Many hours were spent cleaning up a junk room at a community center in order to bring Mount Olympus to life: mopping the floor, heaving heavy furniture out of sight, and decorating to make it look somewhat presentable. While people are willing to put the time in, it’s all the things that are out of their hands that cause the most grief.

“It’s harder because in high school you can’t save money, or have a full-time job. You can’t tour, and you can’t play bars and that kind of limits you and makes it hard to build a following,” says Sam Roach, guitarist and vocalist for Provincial Camps.

Being in high school makes doing anything a band should do infinitely more difficult. Even if a show can get booked for ten o’clock on a Wednesday, drawing in a younger audience means an added uncertainty about what attendance will even look like given that a good portion of those will have to get up for school the next morning. These issues ultimately help to prepare these budding artists for what lies a head of them.

“The challenges turned into skills,” says Corey Bonnevie, guitarist and vocalist in Little You Little Me and founder of Monopolized Records, “That’s how I got into recording, for my first band I wanted to hear things that we were doing so I went out and bought an interface, knowing nothing about recording.”

Show At TRC (Jake McIntyre)
Show At TRC (Jake McIntyre)

“Just keep doing it. And always be willing to ask questions and learn from your elders (…) There are so many musicians willing and able to help you out. Be friendly, ask questions, be confident and positive.”– Erin Muir, WROTE/ Usse

There is more to the all ages scene in Saint John than most people realize. It isn’t a bunch of lost teenagers making sad music about their sad city; but a community of artists that will proudly say where they come from, and what it means to them. For most, it is a place they feel they belong, for others it provides a way to get involved in their community. It is not an easy path to take; it is one full of twists, turns, and plenty of dead ends. It takes a group of extremely dedicated people to support this kind of community and they do so knowing that all their hard work could be washed away at any moment.

 “People get lost and they don’t even know why they’re lost they don’t know where the hell they are. You know how you get lost: you lose your love, or you lose yourself,” – Josh Hicks/ Thirsty Camel