In 1999, Toronto was adrift. Indie rock was dead. Every band was an island. The industry didn't care, and neither did the rest of Canada. Compare that to the Toronto of today, and it really does seem a millennium away. A number of people and events transformed the situation primarily the weekly live music series Wavelength but Three Gut was the record label that maintained consistent quality and a small but stellar artist roster (Constantines, Royal City, Jim Guthrie, Cuff the Duke, and Gentleman Reg) that helped define the time.
When Three Gut began in Jim Guthrie's living room, it was only a name to put on his first CD, A Thousand Songs, which collected his lo-fi cassette work of the late '90s. Aaron Riches, his friend and new bandleader in Royal City, suggested turning it into a real label. Aaron had a decade of experience as a teen punk (Burn 51, Minnow) and promoter. Their friend Gentleman Reg, who had just assembled a Guelph compilation called The Goods, was also invited. Aaron brought his manager, Lisa Moran, and graphic designer Tyler Clark Burke into the fold.
Three Gut was ostensibly the name of a record label, although it was always much more than that. Everyone involved will tell you it was about community. It's a cliché, but Three Gut practiced it on every scale. For starters, there was the living/working environment that five Three Gutters have called home, located on a hidden back street in the shadow of MuchMusic's Queen Street studios. This would be host to family dinners, numerous house parties and shows, and the centre of operations for the label that also booked shows and handled publicity and business affairs for its artists. It was about keeping it in the family.
Three Gut was also interested in building other communities. Their first big splash occurred when Tyler threw massive parties in the courtyard of her loft space. All sorts of DJs and artists would be involved in the production, and all the bands were put to work constructing props and decorations. The parties attracted up to a thousand people 99 percent of whom would be bewildered when a cardboard spaceship would descend at some point in the evening, full of Three Gut paraphernalia. The label's second anniversary party involved circus acts, burlesque, a Three Gut Family Band playing rock'n'roll revival songs, and a headlining set by soon-to-be label-mates, Brooklyn band Oneida a set that concluded with the Constantines' Bry Webb naked on stage, screaming and preaching.
The irony is that early Three Gut albums were the antithesis of party music. They were quirky, fragile bedroom affairs, and in the case of Royal City's At Rush Hour the Cars, adorned with minimal artwork that looked like it was drawn in pen. This was music that would have easily been lost in the shuffle and bustle of Toronto's music scene were it not for Tyler's promotional flair. One Royal City show featuring opening act Leslie Feist, who was briefly also one of the band's guitarists was promoted with wax-sealed "invitations" strung up with twine and clothes pegs outside record stores on Queen Street; the band would painstakingly repeat the gimmick every night of one American tour.
Nothing, however, prepared the label for the arrival of the Constantines in February of 2001. When the Constantines became the hottest band in Toronto after only their second gig there, they were already signed to the label. The meal that sealed the deal was a spaghetti dinner with the whole family at the Three Gut house.
This launched the label's golden period. Royal City's Alone at the Microphone set longevity records at campus radio. Gentleman Reg came into his own on Make Me Pretty. Jim Guthrie emerged as more a full-fledged songwriter than merely a lo-fi creative genius on Morning Noon Night. A new band from Oshawa called Cuff the Duke casually dropped a classic debut album of their own. Royal City signed to Rough Trade. The Constantines signed to Sub Pop. Both bands kept Three Gut as their Canadian label. The label that knew nothing about the Canadian music industry ended up with 25 percent of its output (four out of a total of 16 albums) being nominated for Juno awards.
In 2002, Tyler started to retreat from the label to focus on her own artwork, leaving Lisa to deal with increasing business demands; Tyler formally announced her departure a year later. Two new signees, Toronto's Sea Snakes and Brooklyn's Oneida, put out decent records, but didn't excite people like the rest of the roster. In 2004, Royal City put out an underrated final album that many considered a disappointment; they've been on permanent hiatus since last fall.
Last month, Three Gut Records announced that its next release, the Constantines' Tournament of Hearts, will be its final one, though the back catalogue will be maintained. Gentleman Reg and Jim Guthrie are looking for new labels. Aaron Riches is doing his doctorate in theology in the UK. Tyler Burke continues to be successful with her artwork and party promotion. Lisa Moran is tour-managing Sufjan Stevens and Oneida.
Three Gut leaves Toronto a different place. A better place. There is no shortage of labels that can point to Three Gut for inspiration: everything from the love-in family atmosphere of the major-label-affiliated Arts and Crafts to the totally DIY, hand-assembled CDs of the Blocks Recording Club. Acts that the label helped out early on Feist, Sufjan Stevens, Hidden Cameras, Arcade Fire, Final Fantasy have gone on to international acclaim and even stardom.
Not that any of this was ever Three Gut's goal. It was always about helping out your friends. That one community begat many, and it didn't matter if you're in Guelph, Toronto, Brooklyn or Montreal: home is always where the rock is.