By Chuck MolgatIt may sound like a cliché from some desperate tourism brochure, but Winnipeg's Exchange District is where the heart of this prairie capital beats the strongest — especially as far as the city's vaunted and prolific arts community is concerned. Chock full of turn-of-the-century warehouses and ruggedly handsome limestone edifices, the area is a functional testament to preservation through neglect, as decades of civic developers have passed over these cobbled streets and alleyways in order to focus their attentions on Winnipeg's gradually sprawling suburbs. As such, rental space in the Exchange District has remained cheap enough to afford even the most famished local artists a place to hang their inspiration. Celebrated visual artist Marcel Dzama's Royal Art Lodge is sequestered here, along with the headquarters of Propagandhi's politically-charged record label G7 Welcoming Committee and Weakerthans front-man John K. Samson's fledgling publishing house, Arbeiter Ring. Add to that a litany of other creative institutions — galleries, studios, upstart theatre companies, clubs and arts administrative offices — and the cultural bounty of this enclave becomes downright tangible. Historically, the Exchange District derived its name from the voluminous commercial trade that once transpired here. These days, however, its moniker applies more appropriately to the rampant exchange of ideas that takes place here.
This is where Duotang got its auspicious start back in the early ‘90s, in a not-quite-dilapidated warehouse space three stories above McDermot Avenue. It's also where the mod-lodic, power-pop duo of drummer Sean Allum and bass player/vocalist Rod Slaughter ostensibly called it quits just over a year ago, only to reform, refreshed and rejuvenated, for the recording of their third full-length CD, The Bright Side, issued last month by Mint Records.
To understand the recent history of the band's rehearsal space, and its artistic comings and goings, is to appreciate the circumstances surrounding the birth, near death and ultimate resurrection of Duotang.
I've followed the band's progress closely since day one — first as a young Winnipeg entertainment writer, and later, for a brief spell anyway, as the duo's novice manager. (That gig was amicably curtailed when I landed a position at one of Winnipeg's daily newspapers, thus obliging me to withdraw my management services in order to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.)
It was at the warehouse that I first sat down with Rod and Sean to conduct an interview for Duotang's inaugural press piece — a cover story in Winnipeg's weekly street paper, Uptown. Appropriately, the three of us now find ourselves doing the Q&A routine in the same quarters nearly six years later to the day. "We were doing this for years and never really thought twice about it," is how Rod explained the unit's casual genesis to me back in June of ‘95. "It's been in the back of our minds for a while."
At that time, Rod and Sean's respective bands, Zen Bungalow and Bovine, were sharing the same rehearsal space, along with criminally unsung ‘Peg art-rock unit Grand Theft Canoe. After their band-mates had packed up their guitars and headed home, Sean and Rod would routinely stay behind to work on material of their own, with the latter employing a style of bass chording at once rhythmic and melodic, inspired by Joy Division's Peter Hook. Within months, what had long been a less-than-serious side project became a priority for the pair, and both Zen Bungalow and Bovine disbanded unceremoniously. Soon after, an opening slot performance by Duotang caught the attention of Smugglers vocalist Grant Lawrence, who put the wheels in motion for a signing with Vancouver indie label Mint.
"All of a sudden we were touring all over the place, mostly with Cub, and there was this one crazy four- or five-month period where we were basically on the road the whole time," recalls Allum now. "Then we did a really extensive tour on our own, went to Vancouver to record the record [Duotang's ‘96 debut CD, Smash The Ships And Raise The Beams], toured some more with Cub, came back, toured with the Smugglers and it just kept going from there. We had toured so much and then it was time to make another record [the unit's ‘98 sophomore release, The Cons & The Pros]. I still loved the band, and I'm sure Rod did too, but by then it had just become so much like work."