Inside Vancouver’s underground music scene

Illustration by Sophie Bakos

Vancouver’s underground music scene has sat fairly dormant in the post-punk era years, giving way to more established live music venues such as The Roxy, Biltmore Cabaret and newer establishments. However, a local organization called Vancouver Grotto is aiming to showcase the talents of young DIY artists by organizing and promoting events, injecting new life into the underground scene.

Initially based around visual art including photography and spoken word poetry, founders Lexi Xajia and Zoe Kompst have found themselves leaning further towards live shows involving local bands over time. Though their focus has shifted away from planning workshops and gallery events, the purpose remains the same –providing independent Vancouver artists with the leverage they deserve.

Upon meeting through a mutual friend in 2016, the two bonded over their interest in music. “Zoe and I were both a part of the music scene in the sense that we attended shows in our free time, but it was really Zoe who got me interested in the idea of promoting shows and her encouragement that brought the Grotto to fruition,” said Xajia. She additionally noted that though music had always been a main interest, she had never tried her hand as an artist therefore she felt that promotion was the best way for her to get involved. The organization’s first live show was at the Red Gate in January 2017, and the duo hasn’t stopped hustling ever since.

Through channeling their collective passions, the two have been able to craft a respectable network of creative individuals embedded in the scene. “The DIY scene is one of my favourite places to be. The people in the scene have been some of the friendliest and most creative people I’ve ever met,” said Kompst. “There are so many passionate people that are given an outlet to do what they love because of this scene, which I think is what makes it thrive,”

Nearing their one-year anniversary on Jan. 20, the Grotto plans on celebrating with a live music show. The duo discussed the positives of reaching out to other members of Vancouver’s arts community, allowing them to network and nurture bonds between the bands they represent and the venues they work with. Xajia added that the two still feel a great sense of reward when they get bands who they haven’t yet worked with, reaching out to them for show planning, and seeing how far they’ve come in just a year. Their anniversary show will be at Vancouver’s ultimate underground venue, 333. The lineup consists of DIY Vancouver musicians including Insecurity Cameras, Kai Bravewood, The Jins, Dante’s Paradise and Wax Cowboy.

The event will bring some of Vancouver’s emerging underground talent to the scenes surface. This includes Dante’s Paradise, a jazz-infused alternative rock four-piece, who have pulled from inspirations such as Basement and the emo and indie rock genre. “I went to their first show and I think Wind-Up Birds were playing, and they’re friends of mine. I remember thinking they put a lot of effort into that show. Not a lot of promoters take the time and energy to put that much effort in,” said vocalist and guitarist Justice Cote, recalling his first encounter with Vancouver Grotto.

Upon signing with Sun Soft Records, the band partook in a two-day live music event put on by the organization in October 2017, and experienced the close-bonded community within the DIY music scene. “I like that the DIY scene is a lot less based around partying. I mean obviously, it still holds that aspect to it, but if you’re playing big club shows, lots of people there are going to drink and then you just become the background entertainment. With these shows here, the music is the focus, the people support you,” he said. As a student in the Jazz Drums Performance program at Capilano University, Cote has found himself finding collaborative efforts through the school and from the scene. “There are also a lot of artists that come to the shows and offer to do artwork for us so that’s really awesome.”

Another band performing at the anniversary event, showcasing their passion for music and their appreciation for the Grotto is Wax Cowboy. The group held their debut release ‘darcy!’ through the Grotto this past June with a “bumpin’ DIY show at 333,” said drummer Eric Sanderson. “They’ve been the organizers of a majority of our most successful shows. We’ve been working with them for a year now as of this show and consider them good friends,” he said. Though Sanderson and bassist John Domenici agree that the scene could use more venues that have a “good vibe and reputation.”

Working alongside other bands while on a collaborative record label, Soft Sun Records, and collectively welcoming touring or local come ups has garnered unique experiences for the group. “Once I showed up to a show where a different drummer was supplying a kit and he didn’t have a drum throne so we had to sit on a lawn chair with a brick on it instead,” said Sanderson. “I work in construction outside of music so that takes up most of my time. But other than that it’s beer and video games. Chilling at grunge mansion with homies from Dante’s paradise,” he said, additionally acknowledging the sense of community built by the scene.

From the outside looking in, the DIY music scene can seem like another world — one that is hard to get into. The lack of an online presence for many venues and artists seems absurd to the media-saturated environment we often find ourselves, and what we’re told will help us get word out. However, when evaluating what community is and building on a level foundation of close-bonded connections, the minimalistic media approach makes sense. “We find that you learn about venues only really by attending events and creating connections. The only reason that the venues are so hard to contact is because a lot of the music that we promote is very underground, as are the venues,” noted Xajia. Kompst added that “having an address that you have to ask around for helps build a sense of community. It keeps everybody connected, and stops the wrong people from finding it – example, my grandma wouldn’t have a good time at 333.”

Xajia and Kompst plan on continuing to work together on the Vancouver Grotto, expanding it into something much larger. They hope to grow the organization, eventually owning and operating their own venue space, bringing out bands from all over North America and possibly working in tour management. The inspired duo noted that they currently have many ideas rolling around in their heads, and can’t wait to see which ones become a reality.

The Vancouver Grotto’s all-ages anniversary show is on Jan. 20 at 333. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets will be available at the door for $15. To learn more about the Vancouver Grotto and the bands involved visit the event’s page @vancgrotto on Faceboook.

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