Toronto's Tone Bonk Collective Launches with Tribute to 'Big Shiny Tunes'

'Big Bonky Tones' features members of Bernice, Bonjay, Weaves, DIANA and more
Toronto's Tone Bonk Collective Launches with Tribute to 'Big Shiny Tunes'
For Canadians of a certain age (read: millennials), MuchMusic's Big Shiny Tunes compilations were a formative part of a musical education. They were both empowering and extremely limiting: Canadians like Sloan and Sum 41 sat alongside international superstars like Foo Fighters and Radiohead, while the tracklist focused almost exclusively on white (and mostly male) rock bands. It was hardly inclusive, and yet it did succeed in putting Canadian artists on equal footing with more famous artists from around around the world.

More than a decade since the series' final instalment, newly formed Toronto label/collective Tone Bonk is launching itself into the world with an epic tribute to Big Shiny Tunes. The aptly named Big Bonky Tones, due out June 1, features songs from the first five Big Shiny Tunes comps as covered by friends, collaborators and peers of the label's four founders: Bernice members Robin Dann and Thom Gill, drummer Kieran Adams (DIANA, the Weather Station), and Ben Gunning (Local Rabbits).

This includes Marker Starling doing Sloan's "The Good in Everyone," Christine Bougie doing Porno for Pyros' "Tahitian Moon," Dorothea Paas doing Sugar Ray's "Someday," Doohickey Cubicle doing Sum 41's "Makes No Difference," gay hollywood (a.k.a. DIANA's Carmen Elle) doing Wheatus' "Teenage Dirtbag," and Lee Paradise doing the Prodigy's "Breathe." Additional contributions come from members of Bonjay and Weaves, plus the Tone Bonk founders.

Big Bonky Tones will be released on Bandcamp as a free stream and download. Listeners who want to support the comp are encouraged to send donations to Unit 2 Community Space.

Read Exclaim!'s interview with collective founders Robin Dann, Thom Gill, Kieran Adams and Ben Gunning below.

How did you start Tone Bonk?

Kieran Adams: The EX POM album [2020's Much of a Sound] was kind of the impetus for Tone Bonk, wasn't it?

Robin Dann: Yup, totally. Ben and I had finished our last album and essentially, neither of us had the steam to go "label shopping," as they say. I also had been hearing from a lot of friends that the experience of searching for a label or a "home" for a release still felt important, but that the whole experience was just so exhausting and often demoralizing. Tone Bonk felt like a nice solution to that: a self-made place to hold a bunch of music so that these albums wouldn't be all alone in the big internet ocean, and to give the music the context of the community it's coming from.

Adams: We were thinking of finding a way to organize music that is a bit wayward.

Dann: A bit "outside."

Ben Gunning: It came from us agreeing that the slog of trying to find a home for some of our music was not enjoyable, so we decided to carve out our own space for people working on things that they wanted to release with low pressure, and not waste our time on the non-creative aspect of music making.

Thom Gill: The Bandcamp platform has actually done a great job of mitigating the pressure around releasing things. I follow like 3,000 artists and labels on Bandcamp right now. I've noticed that a lot of labels will put out like 15 releases a week, and it seems like whether they have traction or not doesn't matter. It's a nice approach for those who don't want to deal with all the promotion around music release structures.

Adams: Tone Bonk is a safe harbour in between the "too much pressure and a lot of money invested" model and a "totally unhoused formless structureless plopping an album out into the world" model.

What are your personal memories of Big Shiny Tunes?

Dann: I was nine when the first BST came out, so I remember my older brother Nico buying the CD at HMV and hearing it for the first time through his closed door that I wasn't allowed to open. Also, beyond BST, just sitting on the living room floor watching MuchMusic was a big part of finding new music for me and for all of my friends at the time, which is just so different from how that discovery happens now. So wild.

Adams: I just remember the TV ads for BST and that I didn't like most of the music on it.

Gunning: Where I was at, because I was actively touring already at that point, was that it represented a really "commercial" alternative which wasn't something that really turned my crank at the time, though we had some allies on it. I probably would have riffed on it a lot and made fun of it at the time, to be honest.

Depending on how millennial you are, a difference of like six months could really make a difference on the impact BST had on you. I remember I really liked Smashing Pumpkins, for example, but they're not on these comps. The BST era was kind of my parting time with being a MuchMusic addict and, like Ben said, I was starting to encounter non-commercial music.

What is it about Big Shiny Tunes that's so special for Canadians of a certain age?

Dann: I feel like for us "certain age" Canadians looking back at the BST comps, you either love to hate them or you love to earnestly love them, but regardless, you just have feelings about them, which is so interesting to dig around in as a musician. We're old enough that BST hits on some nostalgia for us; we feel like it's "ours." You don't realize when you're in high school that a mandatory percentage of Canadian content in culture is literally written into the law, and that really motivates the industry here. So when these musics came on that were a high percentage of Canadian artists, I don't think it created a sense of pride, necessarily, but there was something that happened — and I don't think that feeling really exists anymore. At the time, it was also centred around the hysteria around MuchMusic, which was really at its height. Music videos and countdowns were so powerful and taste-making at the time, and it's more like what's trending on TikTok and stuff now.

Adams: It's kinda like many things that are big and shiny, where you're drawn to it in a certain way, but it's also hideous and an easy target. Like the CN Tower. With Tone Bonk, we wanted to play with that and had talked about making a tone bonk "greatest hits" before we even had any releases. BBT felt like a fun way to accomplish that.
Gunning: Plus, we had a huge crack up at the title Big Bonky Tones, and thought it would be worth following through, if just for the title alone.

How did you choose who to reach out to about the compilation? What kind of a cross-section of artists were you looking to include?

Gunning: We wanted it to be organic and based on the friendships within our music scenes that exist already. We also wanted to experiment with going beyond our crew out to a wider network of folks who we thought would have an interesting take on the material.

Adams: We approached people we thought would really do something interesting with the songs and reinvent them.

Gunning: Which makes the verbatim Fievel/Ruth Garbus takes on "Fly Away" an even bolder move!

Dann: But the more "straight-up" covers are some of my faves, and are some of the most interesting ones, I think! Sometimes the only thing to do with a song is to cover it totally as-is.

Adams: Yeah, we were open to people either treating it really literally and making it pretty and nice, or really fucking weird. It speaks to what we're looking for with Tone Bonk: a place for all those things.

Gunning: Yes, I think there's a genre-busting taste journey thing that threads a lot of us Bonkers together, and this comp sort of illuminates that. We're all involved in a pretty broad spectrum of projects genre-wise. The releases on Tone Bonk so far show a bit of that: EX POM, Purpose Code & Tony One (a.k.a Thom Gill), and coolhint (a.k.a. Phil Melanson).

What stands out to you about the covers? Are there any tracks that you consider particularly notable?

Gill: It's worth mentioning that, in addition to all the Canadians we recruited, there are a bunch of Americans and they're all from Vermont and their takes are truly Bonkalicious.

Dann: I wonder if maybe because they had less nostalgic memories of BST, they felt more at liberty to really go wild? And/or, they're just Bonkalicious people.

Gill: On the whole, the tunes really run the gamut of approach: Carmen [Elle], Dorothea [Paas] and Doohickey [Cubicle] had more gentle approaches, and then all the way to hard-hitting abstraction like Ko T.C., who did Paranoid Android, or Omeed Goodarzi's "Dragula" by Rob Zombie.

Adams: Amazing.

Gill: But it is fun to note that everyone kind of treated them tonally and to grid beats. Except maybe yours, Robin ("Hero" by Foo Fighters). That's the loosest, most impressionist.

What's the plan for Tone Bonk going forward? Who's involved?

Adams: Our plan is to have no plan and whoever wants to get involved can be involved.

Gill: But let Big Bonky Tones guide your understanding of our sensibility, which is bonked and big and tone-ished.

Adams: Ben is kind of our plan-daddy so maybe he's got a plan?

Gunning: I have no plan. What's the plan?

Dann: We have some beautifully open plans that will reveal themselves in due time. Stay bonked!