While Broadway Avenue is more commonly associated with the Saskatoon music scene, plenty of University of Saskatchewan students are doing their part to foster a musical community on campus. I spoke to three student musicians to get a feel for what it’s like being a university student in a band.
For Travis Hebert, third-year political studies and sociology major and drummer in the local punk outfit Folk ABBA, playing in a band offers some unique opportunities.
“Folk ABBA was a pipe dream of our lead vocalist, Emily Migchels,” Hebert said. “I don’t even play drums, but I somehow became the drummer for it — I don’t listen to ABBA either.”
Regarding the name, Hebert acknowledges that while they’ve outgrown the pigeonhole slightly, Folk ABBA remains a fairly fitting descriptor.
“At the beginning, it was strictly ABBA, and now it’s sort of evolved into something else,” Hebert said. “[We played], for the [Arts & Science Students’ Union] talent show 2017, [and there was] huge turmoil within the band about whether [we should] play any ABBA at all.”
Despite Folk ABBA being his first foray into both drumming and the music of Swedish national treasures ABBA, Hebert seems to be making serious gains with both.
“After we did ‘Waterloo’ for the first time live, I didn’t hear the original version for six months,” Hebert said. “I listen to a lot of their songs now, and I’m like, ‘Our cover is way better than ABBA’s.’”
Dylan Cooper — third-year Indigenous studies major and 25 per cent of the mighty Von Jumbo — found that music as a serious passion was a slow-growing process.
“Von Jumbo was formed five years ago,” Cooper said. “Holden [Blue] and I started it, and we’re both university students. We were listening to a lot of Deep Purple and a lot of classic stuff like that, and modern rock bands like Clutch, and it was just pure fun. We were trying to do something that we really wanted to do, and we didn’t have any plan — no future or anything, we just did it.”
While Von Jumbo started out with more modest aspirations, it wasn’t even Cooper and Blue’s first musical project aimed to help balance work and play.
“Previous to [Von Jumbo], we were in a chemistry chem-rock band that we formed in high school called Chemical Castration, and we were a thrash band. We wrote a lot of chemistry-based songs for a high school project.”
There are easier things than being a university student while trying to excel with a band, as Cooper has often found.
“In our specific sense, we’re a rock band, so we’re very loud,” Cooper said. “We need a place that’s okay for us to play, and none of us are really moved out.”
Cooper is grateful that being in a band can offer sanctuary from regular student life.
“I find that doing something I don’t like doing in my life — whether it’s a job I don’t like or an assignment I’m not totally enthused about — it actually helps me focus more on the music, because I want to do that so much more than whatever else is going on in my life,” Cooper said.
When asked about her group’s sound, Laura Civica — third-year Indigenous studies major and one half of The East — suggested that the project occupies its own real estate, musically.
“If they were not familiar, I would probably tell them that we mix a lot of genres and it’s possible that they haven’t heard something like us very recently,” Civica said.
Civica also notes that being active in a band requires a lot more than simply playing shows.
“If we have a show to prepare for and I also have an essay at the same time — which just recently happened — then it can be stressful,” Civica said. “It takes so much time to write a song, just to get it to be something you want to actually perform for people. If we haven’t played a show for two months — they may be the same songs we’ve been performing for months and months — but if we haven’t played a show in a while, we have to practice just to get our vocal cords to the same place.”
Each of these student musicians acknowledges that there are ups and downs to the lifestyle of being a rockstar with homework. The most notable drawback for all three seemed to be organization.
“With five people in a band, it’s very difficult to get everyone together for an extended practice or jam session or anything,” Hebert said. “A lot of times, Sundays are the only days people are available to practice, and Sunday morning is pretty close to Saturday night. We’ve had a few where it’s been, ‘Let’s do 11 a.m. Sunday,’ then a message will come in the group chat saying ‘Let’s do noon’; ‘Okay, one o’clock,’ and then you lose two hours of practice time.”
Cooper finds that music can offer a peculiar break from schoolwork — even if the parallels are sometimes all too noticeable.
“It’s very much a stress relief, and anyone who’s in school knows that it’s an immense amount of stress,” Cooper said. “It takes a lot of perseverance for sure. Everyone who’s in university and been in a goddamn group project knows how difficult those can be.”
When it comes to the U of S musical community, the consensus among the artists seems to be that it could be stronger. That said, they all seemed optimistic about the potential for change in the future. Civica thinks that more opportunities to play on campus could be a potential solution.
“I don’t really think there’s a music scene here,” Civica said. “I wouldn’t even really know how to get involved in any campus events with my band. That might have to do with Louis’ [Pub] having a bit bigger acts, but having small concerts of university students’ bands could be a good start to that.”
Cooper has his own suggestion for how campus culture might be able to better calcify.
“There could be a little more of a culture on campus,” Cooper said. “I actually had this idea the other day, a vending machine with local CDs. Just put it in Place Riel. Walking by, everybody’s got $5 burning in their pocket — give people the easiest option to soak it up.”
It’s unclear what may be in store for the bands in the future, but there’s certainly aspiration at play. Hebert is hoping that a lineup change won’t spell doom for Folk ABBA.
“Our bassist is graduating and moving far away, so after this next show it’s really up in the air what Folk ABBA’s going to be,” Hebert said. “I think we’ll have four of the members sticking around for the next year — but our bassist is probably also our most talented musician — so this could be Folk ABBA’s last show.”
When asked about his hopes for Von Jumbo’s future, Cooper expressed astronomical ambition.
“First band to play on the moon, I guess,” Cooper said. “It’s going to take a lot of good songwriting. At the end of the day, we want to just keep doing it.”
Despite the ups and downs, take it from them — if you’re at all interested, it’s worth it to get involved in the music scene.
“It’s very empowering in a lot of ways,” Civica said. “Getting involved with that scene helped me to express my musicianness when I wasn’t just alone.”
Civica also advocated getting involved with Girls Rock Saskatoon, a volunteer organization and camp focused around the empowerment of female, trans and nonbinary children and teens through music.
“It can be super empowering and I highly recommend anyone who’s interested in music or helping out youth to volunteer,” Civica said. “They also teach about privilege and body image and self-defense and skateboarding and stuff, so it’s not just music.”
Cooper says that making the first step to perform can be daunting but students should make the leap.
“If anybody on campus is reading this that isn’t part of the music scene and looking for a way to get in, I’d probably say the Capitol [Music Club] open mic is the best place to get your start,” Cooper said. “It’s where I got my start, and you can get up there and sing however you want and get those jittery nervous bugs out, because anyone can do it and no one’s judging really.”
Make sure to keep your ear to the ground and don’t miss your next chance to see Folk ABBA, Von Jumbo and The East in action.
Zach Tennent / Opinions Editor
Aaron Brown Photography / Supplied
Von Jumbo / Supplied
Folk ABBA / Supplied