Few cities are fortunate enough to have a label like Sub Pop, an imprint that, at least at one time, successfully represented the best of its home city’s music scene to the outside world. Toronto, fortunately, has several, and one of those labels, Paper Bag Records, is set to celebrate its tenth anniversary starting this Thursday. The three day mini-festival at the Great Hall will feature almost the entirety of the label’s current roster. In advance of the show, I spoke with Trevor Larocque, one of Paper Bag Records’s original founders and its current CEO, about the label’s history. What follows is a short history of the imprint’s history from his perspective.
Broken Social Scene
Photo of Broken Social Scene member Brendan Canning by Flickr User mehan
The story of Paper Bag Records, affectionally shortened to PBR, begins with one of Toronto’s most popular bands, Broken Social Scene, and its co-frontman, Kevin Drew. Larocque, then a sales representative with Outside Music, was tasked with visiting local record stores like Rotate This and Soundscapes and selling them on Outside Music’s latest releases. (It was also visiting Rotate This that inspired the name for the label: Rotate This packages purchased vinyl in brown paper bags.) By 2002, Larocque knew that he wanted to start his own label, but he needed to find willing partners. During one of his regular visits to Soundscapes, Larocque found Drew at the store. He had been a fan of the band’s debut album, Feel Good Loss, and with the kind of music he wanted his future label to release already in mind, Larocque didn’t waste any time approaching Drew with the suggestion that they should work together. Luckily for Larocque, Drew was receptive to the idea.
In September of 2002, Trevour Larocque, Enrique Soissa, and Amanda Newman founded Paper Bag Records. Several weeks later, Broken Social Scene’s sophomore album, the seminal You Forget it in People, became one of the label’s first releases. Almost ten years and a much different local music scene later, it’s difficult to concisely describe the effect You Forget it in People had on Canada’s indie music scene, but Larocque is right to call the album a “game changer,” going on to say, “it opened the door wider for Canadian indie music into America and then around the world, bringing more attention to Canadian music in general. People realized what was going on up here was worth watching and keeping tabs on” (a much more detailed examination of the band and its significance can be found in This Book is Broken by Stuart Berman).
Few independent labels are fortunate enough to start with an influential record like You Forget it in People as their first release, but that hasn’t meant that Paper Bag Records has been exempt from its share of growing pains. After helping Drew and company release You Forget it in People, all future BSS releases were handled exclusively by Arts and Crafts, the label Drew started with his friend, former Virgin Records executive Jeffrey Remedios. In fact, ask Larocque about it, and he will tell you that PBR’s history has been characterized by “that sort of bad luck.” In 2006, for example, Paper Bag Records helped Tokyo Police Club release A Lesson in Crime, The EP that put the band on the map, but, two years later, the band went with Nebraska label Saddle Creek for their debut album, Elephant Shell. Talking about the label’s streak of bad luck, Larocque said,“They [the bands PBR had signed] thought of us as a stepping stone to bigger things. That’s just sometimes how it works out.” Thankfully, things were about to change.
Rural Alberta Advantage
Photo of Rural Alberta Advantage member Nils Edenloff by the author
In 2008, Larocque bought out his two partners at PBR and became the label’s sole owner. He then inaugurated his new job as head boss by going on a signing spree, signing the Rural Alberta Advantage, Born Ruffians, and Young Galaxy all within a short span of one another. The RAA, one of Paper Bag’s most successful post-buyout bands, was an easy sign for Larocque: “The RAA had started to be managed by Dara Kartz, who at the time was already managing 3 bands on PBR, so I heard the music and wanted to work with them — it was a no brainer on my end, they are awesome.”
As for his reasoning for going on such a spree, Larocque said, “I was made a fan of these bands through people I worked with either in the past or at that time – the timing was right and they fit into my vision of what Paper Bag was going to become. It was the first time I had the only say in who would be signed to the label and I feel pretty good about my decisions.”
You Say Party!
On April 16, 2010, tragedy struck Paper Bag Records when You Say Party! lost its drummer, Devon Clifford. The band, then known as You Say Party! We Say Die!, was playing at Vancouver’s Rickshaw Theatre when Clifford collapsed on stage. Clifford was rushed to hospital, but two days later was pronounced dead after having suffered a brain haemorrhage. Larocque is understandably terse when talking about the event, merely stating that it was one of his “darkest days” as head of the label. For its part, the band tried to persevere, but almost exactly a year after Clifford’s death, they called it quits.
It’s fitting, then, that the newly reformed You Say Party have decided to mark their return to the stage with a set at the label’s anniversary show, their first since breaking up. On their website, You Say Party stated the reasons for their return, “Over the course of the last year, we came to realize a simple truth: that the four of us missed making music together.” They went on to say, “We decided to move in a completely new direction, as our lives had moved far beyond the places we had been before. Playing as a four-piece presented the challenge to all of us of playing for the first time without a drummer. Reworking old songs and writing new ones in a completely new style has been exhilarating and transformative for us as a band.”
As for Larocque, he couldn’t be happier that the band decided to use PBR 10 as a reason to start jamming again, “I’m so happy for them, and excited that they’ve decided to use this opportunity to rekindle their friendship as a band.”
Austra performs “Lose It” at the Toronto Standard offices
Of course, as much as the upcoming concert series is meant to celebrate the label’s past and remember the hard times, it’s also about anticipating the future as well. Spearheaded by bands like Austra, Larocque expects 2013 to be the imprint’s most successful year yet. PBR has new records coming out from Austra, CFCF, Born Ruffians, and Sally Shapiro. Beyond that, however, Larocque admits that its difficult to think too much further into the future. With that in mind, here’s hoping to having a drink with PBR when it turns legal drinking age in 2021.
Igor Bonifacic is a simple intern working for the Toronto Standard. You can follow him on twitter at @igorbonifacic.