By Miranda Krogstad, August 2 2016 —
The Calgary Folk Music Festival not only attracts musicians from around the globe, but also features world-class acts from our own backyard. The Gauntlet spoke with a few of the local talents that have risen above the walls of our city to impress crowds on national and international stages. We asked these four pros to share some stories and advice on making it in our city.
Kris Demeanor is Calgary’s former poet laureate. Besides being a mean lyricist and songwriter, he’s a skilled musician and storyteller.
The Dudes are a rock band that, despite their tough appearance, have gained the love and support of Calgarians through their witty and light-hearted lyrics. Band members Dan Vacon and Brock Geiger have made serious strides since their humble beginnings, now touring and playing on radio stations across the nation.
Michael Bernard Fitzgerald is a pop-folk musician who got his big start in our city through songwriting contests put on by local organizations like X92.9 and the Ship and Anchor. He has since travelled around Canada and the U.S., spreading his music to wider reaches every day.
The Gauntlet: What was your life like before success?
Demeanor: In high school, my buddies and I got together and formed a band called Alchemy, which is a pretty embarrassing name. We were entertaining and we put it all out there, but at a certain point, after five years of just plugging it out through high school and university, we just all had to look at each other and go, “It’s not gonna happen.”
Vacon: I went to Mount Royal [University] and took broadcasting ‘cause I wanted to be just like Dave Coulier and John Stamos from – what’s that stupid show? – Full House. They all wrote radio jingles, and I was like, “that could be me, I like musics! Look how fun their lives look!”
Fitzgerald: I went down to the University of Lethbridge and was taking theatre. And then I like to say that I “workshopped” at the University of Calgary after that. What that means is I took a full course load of general studies at the U of C, and I dropped all of it. So I only spent two weeks at the U of C. I call it a workshop.
G: What did you major in?
Demeanor: English Literature.
Geiger: Film Studies.
G: Can you tell me about education outside the classroom?
Demeanor: [Busking in Europe] was probably the formative time, because that’s where my style came in — my kind of more aggressive, jackhammer-style guitar playing. Stomping my foot, projecting a lot vocally, being able to play with other people, knowing when to back off and when to step in — it was like education by jumping in the deep end.
Vacon: When we “started” started, where the Drum and Monkey is right now used to be a bar called The Works. We sucked and they knew it. We had no fans, we’d mostly drive people out of the bar. But they knew that we lived wicked close, so if a band cancelled, or if they had an opening, they just had my phone number and were like, “Ah, let’s whip the Dudes up. I know they’ll be here in 15 minutes if we need them.”
Fitzgerald: The best education I receive on the daily is subtle stuff. Sometimes there’s something you need to hear that’s in your interaction at the coffee shop. Often they don’t even know what they’ve opened or unlocked in you. So that’s something I’ve tried to adapt to and adopt in my life. That learning can happen anytime.
G: What is the worst day job you’ve ever taken?
Demeanor: I was doing the midnight to noon shift in this northeast industrial park where they make plastic wrap on this thing called the “extruder.” [It was] this big green machine that you’d feed with these plastic pellets into a big funnel, and then it would heat them up and it would turn them into giant, industrial-sized plastic wrap and it would put them onto spools and then you’d have to pick up the spools and take them off and stack them in the corner. And I remember I made $5.50 an hour to do that.
Vacon: I was a mailman for two years. I understand why mailmen go insane. Like, it’s cool, I love doing things where you work physically, and then when you’re done you have a thing to show for it, like, “boom, done.” But when that happens with the mail, it just starts all over again the next day, it’s the exact effing same. It just never ends, there’s no closure, you know?
Geiger: I made pizzas for about a year, and pizzas don’t stop either, man. Everyone wants pizzas. There’s no end game to that. People want pizza.
Fitzgerald: I worked at a call centre. And yeah, the people were so nice to me, but like, trying to sing songs for a living and being on the phone all day, it was not conducive. So in 2008 I stopped, period.
G: What was making the switch to music like?
Demeanor: I remember one of my last shifts at Community Natural Foods, standing there in the stocking aisle with the soy milks trying to organize them so they were all faced out nicely and stopping and going, “OK, that’s it. I can’t do a day job anymore.” I hit a weird wall where I felt like every hour I was spending not working on [music] was becoming a waste.
Vacon: I think [going to college] was mostly other people’s negative vibes pressing down on my shoulders, like, “You better have something for real, you can’t just have fun your whole life.” And then at some point you’re like, “Or can I?”
Geiger: I did high school, I did one year of university, and then I joined the Dudes. And then I started playing more music and that seemed more important. And it still very much is.
Fitzgerald: After about a year and a half of school, I kind of came to an impasse. I had to do one or the other, so I went with music. I found that, since I’ve started this, it’s always had movement. And I promised myself that if it didn’t have movement, that positive force about it that moved forward, that I would think about it a little. So I transitioned out of school, and it’s been great.
G: Is formal education important?
Demeanor: I think that’s such a personal … not decision, but evolution, finding that perfect balance between how much formal education you need and what you want to accomplish. I think you really have to have that idea of “What am I trying to do?”
Vacon: It just turns out rock and roll doesn’t cost anything or take any sort of education. Just go do it if you want. When I started to simplify my life and pare everything down, I found out what I actually needed just to survive, which is not very much. So once you take care of your bare essentials, you have so much time to work on fun or your personal self. Like, everyone told you, “You’ll never have a house.” It’s like, “Yeah, but I rent a sweet house. And when the toilet backs up, I don’t have to deal with it, that’s the landlord’s problem.”
Fitzgerald: I think a formal education is totally important. As I get older, I am more in line with the idea that your formal education is an incredible accomplishment. But I think anyone that inspires you is a great teacher. And thankfully there are a lot of those people who are professors. But there are a lot of those people who are not professors, you know?
G: What are your final words of wisdom?
Demeanor: Get out of your own head a little bit, because no matter what you write it’ll still be about you, it’ll still be from you. But tell other stories. Tell stories of the world. Especially in this culture, realize how privileged you are, be grateful and don’t be selfish or greedy or inward. Really think about how your work can reflect bigger truths. And I know that sounds a bit flakey, but it’s true.
Vacon: Fucking find something that you love and just do the fuck out of it for the rest of your life. Don’t spend one minute doing something you hate. If you hate it and you know it and your heart tells you, just stop doing it right away and do something different.
Fitzgerald: Do what you’re doing. The times that I feel like I’ve made mistakes or the times I feel like I’m not where I need to be are the times where I’m focusing on what I don’t have. Or what’s upcoming, or what’s already done. So do what you’re doing. And that’s not to say you can’t plan something, but at the same time, set it and forget it. Do what you’re doing.
Edited for brevity and clarity.