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The Pale Air Singers, pictured above will hold their official CD release at the Flemish Eye Ball May 16.
courtesy Killbeat Music

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Local label Flemish Eye Records turns five years old

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The eye is a complicated organ integral to our very being, yet we think about or appreciate it very little. It captures light and sends signals to our brain, detecting shapes and colours, enhancing the way we experience our surroundings.

There is a particular eye within the heart of Calgary's musical scene that has been capturing the light and essence of a few of our finest musicians and transmitting them to Canada's indie masses, altering the way music and art is viewed within Calgary.

With artists such as Chad VanGaalen, The Cape May, Women and the newly-formed Pale Air Singers, Flemish Eye Records is undeniably one of Calgary's most sacred and important organs within our musical scene.

With 2009 marking its fifth year as an independent record label, it's time to celebrate with a big gala event.

It's been a long road for Flemish Eye to arrive where they are now and they're celebrating that creative journey on May 16 with a musical soiree featuring some of Calgary's finest talent.

The event, cleverly titled "the Flemish Eye Ball," will follow much the same philosophy that has gotten the label to where it is today: a bunch of friends playing music for each other and the community that has supported them, in what Ian Russell, Flemish Eye founder, describes as "approximated chaos."

This chaos began in early 2003 when Russell and his like-minded musical band of brothers embarked on a symphonic journey that would change the way Canada, and Calgary itself, viewed the music scene within this city. It all started with one-man musical wonder Chad VanGaalen.

"I was a big fan of Chad and had talked to him about putting something out for a long time," recalls Russell.

Describing VanGaalen's first CD on the label, 2004's Infiniheart, Russell reminisces about a musical development of improved disorder.

"It was quite a transformation from what it was originally, which was at first a lot of instrumental," he says. "Chad came to me one day and said 'I think I can actually sing.'"

Audiences around the world are grateful for the discovery.

The celebration coincides with the highly-anticipated self-titled CD release of the commanding alliance of two of Canada's most cutting edge bands this side of Saskatchewan -- Victoria's Run Chico and Calgary's The Cape May -- in their new group, Pale Air Singers.

The Singers show what Flemish Eye has had at its core for five years: the somewhat chaotic collaboration and friendship between creative entities that want nothing more than to deliver amazing music to audiences.

The two groups had been long-time touring friends, sharing beers, music and couches to crash on.

"Initially it was supposed to be a project but now it is a band," comments drummer Jeff Macleod. "We're just some friends who wanted to make a record together."

Members from both groups discussed the collaboration and quickly decided to mix their sounds in a grand musical experiment. Macleod recalls a unanimous response of "hell yeah, let's do it."

The debut album features a convict motif, the band weaving an elaborate tale of prison escapes, murder and justice. The sound on the record is as unique as the imaginative forces behind it.

"There's a lot of insanity," Macleod states when explaining the concept of the album.

He further describes their sound as "a disaffected misfit who gets a ride on a free love hippie bus."

"The Cape May was a brooding romance, and this [band] is more of a romantic comedy," he adds.

The Pale Air Singers demonstrate that excellence doesn't always take a lot of planning and genius, and can sometimes be the result of improvisational artistic visions over two weeks of fierce collaboration.

Macleod describes the recording process as a "very big haze," recounting stories of sleeping next to instruments, waking up and immediately playing and throwing out random ideas for the record.

"It was just a bunch of people jamming with a lot of intuition and first takes . . . that's why it feels so fresh and lively," he explains.

One can't help but see this recording process as a direct reflection of Flemish Eye trusting their artists to produce magic from spontaneous ideas. Macleod's description of the process illustrates the freedom that every artist longs to enjoy at a label.

Flemish Eye's success in the last five years can be attributed to hard work, great music and, as Macleod points out, being the antithesis of what a label is typically all about.

"I don't know what it really feels like to be on a label," he laughs. "Flemish Eye is a handshake label and it's run by good friends putting out music by good friends . . . it is the perfect situation."

He goes on to describe Russell's qualities that add to that perfect situation.

"Ian is super enthusiastic about music," he says. "He's competent and trustworthy."

Russell admits that there is no set philosophy to his success.

"There is no cohesion of any sort," he jokes. "There is no long-term strategy with Flemish Eye, it is about how we feel it out . . . I'm at ease with the fact that it probably wont be a full-time paying job."

This is apparent when Russell further addresses the deep and important connection between the label and VanGaalen.

"From day one with Chad we were planning to do this for the long haul. Decisions were not based on quickly making money or immediate career boosting . . . he will be making records for a long time."

Russell can recall some tales of adversity from the label's past five years, but despite these tribulations the good undoubtedly outweighs the bad.

"There are so many ridiculous incidents surrounding airports and missing flights," he says.

He goes on to tell of VanGaalen missing a flight to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas due to the combination of an angry border guard, a dispute over a wristband, a raw unedited video and a projector.

"We had been prepping for three months for SXSW and Chad had a dispute with the border guard over whether or not the show was a paying gig," he says. "We rented a video projector and projected a performance of Chad on the wall. It was really weird and the sound was terrible . . . everyone seemed to like it."

In the end nothing can hide the talent that Flemish Eye projects onto the music scene, even if it is on a wall and the sound is bad.

As for other struggles throughout the years, Russell luckily doesn't have too much to tell.

"Sometimes there are conflicts and I question why I do certain things," he says.

Many stories of woe deal with the bureaucratic side of the label, undeniably a huge part of the industry.

"Money is always, and will always be, a concern," asserts Russell.

Paperwork is perpetually on the verge of drowning him in his quest to deliver the fruits of his labours to Calgary.

"At any given moment there are several stacks of papers . . . every small development is followed by at least five pages," he says.

It's well known that Calgary isn't viewed as the glorious center of artistic culture in Canada. But Russell has observed the city's musical landscape expand in tandem with Flemish Eye.

"I think artists like Chad and Women are really inspiring people to see that you can have a career in Calgary playing music . . . Calgary is really collaborative right now, with lots of artists playing together . . . there isn't a lot of competition, everyone's goal seems to be making music without strategically playing music."

Looking back on the growth of the scene and Flemish Eye in such an oil boom city, Macleod shares this sentiment with Russell

"There are some great things happening that are kind of mind boggling," he says. "It's weird to have such support for a label like Flemish Eye in Calgary."

The future of Flemish Eye is clearly dependant on the driving force and hard work of its founder, as MacLeod is quick to point out.

"Ian is a great fan of art and is competent enough to have the foresight to put this label together," he says. "It is great that there are people like Ian keeping culture strong in Calgary."

Russell, through both language and attitude, indicates he is pretty content at this point.

"I'm comfortable with the size of the label right now," he says. "I'm devoted to see the artists we have grow."

The strong, family-like collaboration is what keeps this label alive, according to Russell, and is what will keep it growing in the future.

"That's really the core of it," he explains. "I will keep going as long as there are people around me who are still excited about music. If not then sometimes I think I've always wanted to paint."

He adds seriously.

"First and foremost these people are my friends. As long as it is possible to do so and beneficial to the artists, I'll continue to do it."

Looking at the enthusiastic musicians surrounding Russell, it's obvious that he won't need to pick up those paint brushes any time soon.

The Flemish Eye Ball takes place Sat., May 16 at 8 p.m. in the Legion.

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