Vancouver’s vibrant independent music scene is hiding in plain sight.
It’s the bass that nudges at your feet on a walk through the city’s streets in the evening from a venue whose name you can’t recall. It’s the tonic chord of a keyboard echoing from a bedroom window. It’s the blend of voices that makes you rethink your route just so you can step into holes in the wall for impromptu concerts. It’s the second-hand instruments that insert yesterday’s sound into today’s ideas.
Across Vancouver, musicians are honing their craft and finding their sound. The city has always been a hub for music as a vehicle for shared experiences and is in the midst of a metamorphosis that is providing the ideal platform for emerging artists to help define the city’s newfound musical identity.
Whether the music is POV: Indie, Bedroom Pop or another genre, it all shares one thing in common — the DIY music scene which provides artists a way to create music without the constraints of the mainstream music industry.
Many of these musicians are from UBC.
Nonarchy’s roots are in a simple love story
Lead vocalist Kate Cunningham and drummer Liam Jagoe were jamming in Cunningham’s brother’s Dunbar basement. Before they knew it, they’d written a song together.
“We were like, ‘That’s awesome,’” Cunningham said.
“And we were falling in love at the time,” Jagoe added.
“It was a love thing,” Cunningham laughed.
Cunningham and Jagoe began writing songs during the COVID-19 pandemic with a nationwide songwriting circle led by Manitoban musician Natalie Bohrn. Nonarchy was backed by the Safe at Home Manitoba grant, which supported projects to help Manitobans stay active and engaged with their community while adhering to public health orders, according to the Government of Manitoba.
Bohrn tasked Jagoe and Cunningham with recording and submitting a song each week, leaving them with nine recordings.
Cunningham said the song could be about anything as long as it was original.
“It was a super helpful exercise during a really uninspired time where, even with so much free time, it was hard to get motivated to use it for anything cool,” said Cunningham.
After COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, the duo got to work performing alongside Thomas McLeod on the keys.
Being bound to UBC gave Nonarchy the ability to associate with a defined home base, especially while the trio were all students. Jagoe and McLeod are now alum.
“Beyond music, the way UBC functions can be very isolating. [UBC] can feel like its own city separate from Vancouver,” said Jagoe. “For a lot of UBC students, like the ones who live on campus, UBC is their community.”
But the band said this comes with drawbacks.
Some UBC-based bands might face challenges when infiltrating the cultural barrier between the campus and the rest of the city, as UBC has developed its own niche musical identity.
“Arguably, people who are from Vancouver and who didn’t go to UBC, for example, are less excited by the idea of UBC bands because we are usually not from here, but that has been changing,” said McLeod.
Vancouver’s live music venues are in the midst of a post-pandemic shift. Venues are moving underground, finding new artists for smaller audiences. This transition made these spaces more readily available to DIY student-based musical projects.
“I think that we were very readily absorbed into the music community,” McLeod said.
But being part of Vancouver’s DIY music community isn’t the only challenge for student musicians. It can also be difficult to find time for music between lectures and exams.
“[Music] can get stressful because you have to make these concessions somewhere. You only have so much time,” Cunningham said. “You have to organize time to go and do the thing you love the most.”
Despite school and music sometimes being opposite forces, Nonarchy’s UBC roots come directly from the classroom.
Cunningham said some Nonarchy songs were first written in her creative writing classes.
“Some of [my assignments] end up becoming Nonarchy songs. [It] is really useful to have that kind of overlap where it’s not like, ‘Oh, I have to write this essay, and now I’m switching my brain over to go do music,’” said Cunningham.
“No Visible Horizon (Whiteout)” from the band’s upcoming album was born this way.
“In the class, I was pushing myself to write lyrics from someone’s point of view that wasn’t my own, so I chose to write from the perspective of someone I know very well, my mom,” Cunningham said.
The song narrates a treacherous road trip Cunningham’s mother took in rural Ontario.
“I was inspired by her willpower to push through heavy snow, severe winds and road closures,” said Cunningham. “I took on the persona of my very determined yet exhausted mom on this epic, brutal road trip.”
And that’s not the only influence family has had on Nonarchy. Jagoe’s father inspired the band’s name when Jagoe asked him if he was an anarchist.
“He rejected it,” said Jagoe. “He said, ‘I’m not an anarchist. I’m a nonarchist.’”
The name stuck, and the band embraced it as a symbol of everything outside systems of authority and expectation.
Tiger Really calls on chaos and catharsis
Listening to just one Tiger Really set won’t convey the band’s ability to surprise.
One of the first Tiger Really shows featured band lead Lian Shao heating a hot pocket with a microwave on stage — he wanted to hand it out to whoever in the crowd moshed the hardest, something he said originated as a “shower thought.”
“I feel like the most genuine version of myself when I’m on stage,” Shao said.
“It’s an opportunity for you to actually see the impact that your music has on people.”
But Tiger Really didn’t start with moshing and hot pockets. It started as an idea Shao had while not paying attention to a lecture. Instead of the material, he was thinking about what type of music he wanted to make. He was in another band at the time.
“I had to switch it up,” said Shao.
Before starting Tiger Really, Shao was involved with the UBC Jazz Club. He recalled hearing them jamming in the Nest.
“Wow, these are some really, really sick musicians,” Shao thought. Over time, he started to jam with them to develop his skill.
While in isolation in 2020, Shao explored his personal experiences musically through a blend of emo and jazz. His home studio is where the influences of Mother Mother, Car Seat Headrest, American Football and My Chemical Romance began to infuse themselves into Tiger Really’s distinct sound.
Now, Tiger Really is made up of Shao, Matty Sproule, Rowan McDonald and Amogh Rao.
University, according to Shao, is the best time to start a band.
“Music is, at the end of the day, a language,” said Shao. “So you really have to have people around that also speak the same language to make the most of it.”
Shao described watching his growing fanbase of UBC students sing his lyrics at performances as “cathartic,” since, to him, the songs don’t exist outside of his head until then.
“I usually try to write exclusively about my own experiences,” said Shao.
He said his writing focuses on growing up as an Asian Canadian.
“I just tried to write about things that I think would be interesting and relatable,” said Shao. “‘Rites of Spring’ is about my relationship with my parents and how Asian parents are very emotionally detached, and the whole song was just my way of trying to understand that.”
Oogway’s mad scientist faces paranoia
Oogway is the funk tangent of Tiger Really’s Matty Sproule.
“[When] I got into music, I had no friends and I thought I would have more friends if I played music,” said Sproule. “That part wasn’t true … I kind of fell in love with the process and playing live.”
Sproule said he fell in love with music’s “vast range of emotions” and the different ways it can be interpreted.
“Regardless of what the music is, you can probably connect with somebody else [through it].”
After being part of a different band, Sproule wanted the challenge of starting a musical project by himself from scratch. This gave birth to Oogway, a musical project that blurs the distinction between genres — music that’s as shower-cryable as it is disco-danceable.
Sproule said he also wanted to adopt a more individual persona for the project.
“On stage, I want to be a mad scientist,” said Sproule. “It’s a matter of presenting myself as an individual as opposed to presenting myself as an event.”
Sproule said the project is about the battle between a version of you that wants to improve and the version that doesn’t.
“[Oogway] is focused a lot on that dilemma that somebody faces when they go to therapy for the first time and they don’t want to cooperate,” he said.
He also said a negative experience with health care at UBC made him understand how difficult it is to navigate the system.
“[It’s] a big inspiration for me,” Sproule said.
Sproule said writing for Oogway is like splitting his personality in two — if it’s Oogway, he takes on the role of the frantic patient, if he’s Dr. Brian B. Blue, he’s the “doctor who is incredibly jaded.”
“Trying to make those two things work together is a real frickin’ challenge,” said Sproule. “But trying to keep my mind open to different types of music [which] blend eclectic influences together has helped me quite a bit.”
When it comes to breaking into the band scene at UBC, Sproule said people just need to try.
“If anybody’s gonna laugh you out of the room for not being a good enough musician, then they don’t deserve to be in the same room as you,” said Sproule. “I think the most important thing any musician can do is be humble and open to learning.”
Ramen Fog is made of smooth and jazzy R&B broth
Ramen Fog started when Amy Tan and Rowan McDonald met through the UBC Jazz Club. One day, they started dreaming up a band.
Little did they know, drummer Adam Gold was “eating pizza and crushing a Dr. Pepper” nearby.
A matter of happenstance brought Gold — who attributes his love of music to him being “big into pots and pans as a toddler” — to the band, and the trio was later joined by Ben Rossouw and Josh Collesso.
Ramen Fog combines jazz and R&B and is growing into a staple of the Vancouver music scene. The band played their first gigs in March 2022, in a music scene recovering from a hiatus of live shows during the pandemic.
They embody the fact that Vancouver’s underground music community is created by the artists themselves and community connections.
“We need to keep [the DIY music scene] very diverse and friendly for everyone and never infringe upon the space that people fight for because it’s really difficult to find places to play,” Gold said. “I hope that [mentality] never erases itself.”
For Tan, being a Sauder student means music allows her to pursue something outside her degree.
“I learned a lot of things [at Sauder], but they never pushed creative industries,” said Tan. “That’s something that I want to pursue.”
Finding time for music is challenging, said bassist and biophysics student Collesso. With just a few free hours a week, Collesso said it’s important to think closely about how to spend that time.
“Music is always just the best way to do it,” Collesso said.
“When you share that ability to just get out of your studies and play music with people … it’s a good feeling.”
Thomas McLeod was The Ubyssey’s 2021/22 opinion + blog editor. He was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.