Canadian Press Poaches Exclaim!

At Exclaim!, we're used to having good ideas before everyone else, but Canadian Press crossed the line on March 24 by blatantly stealing a story from Exclaim! Contributing Editor Michael Barclay.

Barclay's story "The Canadians Are Coming! Behind the Canadian Conspiracy," appeared in our March '99 issue. The tongue-in-cheek piece concerned a few non-Canadian artists who were referencing Canada by their names or subject matter. In a wire story that went out to most of the major Canadian dailies and appeared on the front page of The Toronto Star 's entertainment section, CP correspondent Dennis Bueckert, under his own name, did exactly the same thing.

Barclay's story covered Bloomington, Indiana label Secretly Canadian, Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada, Mark Robinson's latest project, Flin Flon, and Athens, Georgia band Of Montreal. Bueckert's piece covered all these same artists. He also quotes Barclay and Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes from Barclay's original piece without interviewing either. Exclaim! was mentioned in the piece - he interviewed Managing Editor James Keast - but fails to mention the source of his original idea.

When Bueckert first called Exclaim!, Keast was interviewed about Canadian bands getting attention internationally; although Bueckert mentioned seeing Barclay's piece, it was not extensively discussed. In fact, Bueckert was initially unfamiliar with the only act he didn't lift from Barclay's piece - the information about Nirvana engineer Steve Albini's band Shellac was given to him by Keast from a piece that Richard Moule wrote for Exclaim! in February 1998.

Bueckert's boss, Ottawa Bureau Chief Beth Gorham claims that Bueckert's actions do not constitute plagiarism, although she did comment on her writer's sloppiness, saying, "I'm not trying to tell you he did a good job. He didn't."

After discovering that a disciplinary letter was to be put in his file, accusing him of "unethical behaviour," Bueckert contacted Exclaim! again, first to ask for another copy of Barclay's article (he had misplaced his original), and to ask for contact numbers for Steve Albini and Mark Robinson - artists he had already written about in his original piece.

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Published in Exclaim! March 1999 issue. Street date: February 26, 1999

The Canadians Are Coming: Behind the Canadian Conspiracy

By Michael Barclay

In a recent National Post article about the influence of Canadians on American comedy, Martin Short shared a childhood memory about the embarrassing thrill of hearing an American television show mention Canada. In his eyes, the mere acknowledgement was a odd validation of sorts for his culturally invisible homeland. Short was one of the subjects of a mockumentary produced in the '80s entitled The Canadian Conspiracy, which satirically outlined the ease with which Canuck comedians, actors and pop stars had covertly corrupted American culture. One of the funnier scenes involved the subliminal message found in Anne Murray's "Snowbird," which when played backwards - the producers claimed - would say "the Canadians are coming."

If a current trend in underground independent music is any indication, there's a new Canadian conspiracy - one that doesn't involve Canadians. Bands from around the world are claiming to be Canadian, or at least confusing the issue a bit - no doubt to tap into the lucrative Canadian market, or at least to get some hip points (no pun intended relating to a successful Canadian band yet to crack the American market).

The primary culprits are Chris and Ben Swanson, two brothers from Fargo, North Dakota who run a record label called Secretly Canadian. When confronted, Ben Swanson claims that Fargo is "essentially in Canada," and noted that fellow Secretly Canadian executive Eric Weddle grew up in Buffalo - as if proximity gives them the right to latch on to Canada's cultural credibility. "Coming from Fargo, you might as well be from Canada, because no one knows about it in the States," he says. "I have an affinity for Canada. My ears always perk up when I hear about a Canadian artist."

Swanson believes there is a Canadian aesthetic, but that it doesn't necessarily apply to his label's artists. "I think there is such a thing," he says. "It's very hard for me to describe. It's evident in Atom Egoyan's work or the music of Godspeed You Black Emperor! It's a kinda dark, subtle, and melancholy type of thing."

Those words could be used to describe the music of Boards of Canada, a Scottish ambient electronic duo recently signed to Matador. The band claims that they got their name from watching National Film Board of Canada filmstrips in elementary school. Most Canadians wouldn't think that the world's youth grew up making fun of Hinterland's Who's Who as we all did, but it's always surprising which aspects of Canadian culture find their way abroad. If you recall, Kevin Shields named his band My Bloody Valentine after an obscure Canadian slasher flick from the early '80s.

Mark Robinson, an Amer-indie icon best known for fronting the bands Unrest and Air Miami as well as running the Teen Beat label, got his hands on a Canadian National Railroad map a couple of years ago. As a result, his new band is called Flin Flon - if you failed Canadian geography, it's a hamlet of polar bears in Northwestern Manitoba - and all the song titles on their debut album are borrowed from Western Canadian towns ("Kamloops," "Medicine Hat").

Robinson refuses to admit that he was cashing in on Canadian cool when he was naming his band and his songs. "I don't think so," he refutes, "but with a song title like 'Medicine Hat,' you're bound to sell some records."

It seems only geeky Canadians desperate for a story angle are on to Robinson's game. "We had this one high school kid who thought all the songs were named after animals: 'Whitehorse,' 'Red Deer,'" he laughs. "I thought it was a great interview question: 'So, all your songs are about animals!' 'Why, yes they are, because we're big zoo fans.'"

In all seriousness, Robinson says that: "Place names, more than things to do with Canada, seem to be very popular now with bands... I didn't want titles that related to the lyrics, I wanted something arbitrary. A lot of people number their songs or something, but I wanted interesting titles.

"We have some pretty good ones for the next record. They're all in Western Canada as well," Robinson continues, as he reads names off his cherished CN map. "It has all the little stations on there; I'm not even sure if they're towns. We have Tangent, Nasco, Green Court, Malachi, Bloody Fall - that's a good one - South Loop, Minaki."

Those are obscure even by Canadian standards. Kevin Barnes from the perennially cool college town Athens, Georgia, took a more obvious route, naming his band after Canada's second-largest city: Of Montreal. His reason, as he explains by email, was simple. And sappy.

"I fell in love with a girl from Montreal, and I went up to visit her and she broke my heart," writes Barnes. "Montreal is a beautiful city and my experience there really altered my life. I wanted the name of my band to have personal significance... I would like our songs to evoke the beauty and mystery that Montreal impressed upon me."

All the Americans queried seemed to have the best of intentions, but none of them would own up to the conspiracy. It doesn't take a stuffed shirt at the CRTC to realise that what all these people are really doing. What better way to maximize your Canadian radio play, than to convince a 20-year-old campus radio DJ that s/he can tick off the CanCon box on their playlist when they play your tracks?

Flin Flon's Mark Robinson admits that he knew about CanCon regulations, but says it wasn't part of his name-game plan. "No, but that's a good angle," he says. "I'll tell the next interviewer that's why we did it."

Secretly Canadian's Ben Swanson gets downright defensive when faced with the charge. "No, nothing like that! We appreciate our Canadian audience, but we're not trying to infiltrate your society."

Canadian Press Wire Story

Published in The Toronto Star, March 24, 1999 as well as The National Post and other papers.

Cool Canadiana commands cachet: Foreign bands drape selves in maple-leaf camouflage

By Dennis Bueckert (Canadian Press)

Ottawa - Secretly Canadian isn't a secret, and it's definitely not Canadian. It's an independent record label based in Bloomington, Ind.

There are no Canadians on the Secretly Canadian roster of artists, nor is there any business connection to Canada. So why the name?

Ben Swanson, one of two brothers who runs the label, seems baffled by the question. "As far as the name goes, there really isn't too interesting of a story behind that. I don't really know how we came up with it."

Secretly Canadian appears to be part of a trend. A number of Americans and Europeans are trying to win hip points by immersing themselves in Canadian cool.

"There is a certain amount of cachet that is suddenly coming with being Canadian," says James Keast, 28, managing editor of Toronto-based music magazine Exclaim.

He cites the work of Steve Albini, a Chicago songwriter and producer whose biggest claim to fame is producing Nirvana. Canada is one of Albini's favourite themes.

Sample lyrics from a recent disc by his band Shellac: "They should have named a song after you/And called it Canada/Imagine a country so blue/Backwards it's Adanac."

Then there's Mark Robinson, described in the underground press as an Amer-indie icon. He has named his latest group Flin Flon after a certain Manitoba town. All the songs on Flin Flon's debut album are named after towns in western Canada, which Robinson gleaned from a railway map. Yes, there is a song called Medicine Hat.

The phenomenon isn't confined to North America. Popular electronic duo Boards of Canada hails from Scotland. The name was apparently inspired by National Film Board strips the band members watched in elementary school.

Rock journalist Michael Barclay proposes, tongue in cheek, that foreign bands are draping themselves in maple-syrup camouflage to get preferred treatment under the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission rules that govern broadcasting.

"What better way to maximize your Canadian radio play than to convince a 20-year-old campus radio DJ that your tracks meet Canadian content regulations?"

Musician Kevin Barnes of Athens, Ga., had more personal reasons for naming his band Of Montreal.

"I fell in love with a girl from Montreal, and I went up to visit her and she broke my heart," he's quoted as saying. "Montreal is a beautiful city, and my experience there really altered my life.

"I wanted the name of my band to have a personal significance. I would like our songs to evoke the beauty and the mystery that Montreal impresses upon me."

Whatever the explanation for Canada's appearance on the music map, some of the bands drawing from it are making a name for themselves. "I think that the music scene is really exciting right now, particularly independent music," Exclaim's Keast says.

"In any musical culture, the things that are the future of music are the things that come from the street, from the ground, that happened long before the mainstream picks up on it. I think that Canada gets a lot more respect for its music elsewhere in the world than it does here."