Television Rd: The Threat of the Weird

A strange and defiant alchemy

Television Rd (photos by Karol Orzechowski)
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As you listen to more and more new music—or, even worse, if you write about new music for a living—more and more of it tends to float by without making much of an impact. Some of it may be good, or even great. You may appreciate its artistry; the particular skill of one band member or a lyric that rings particularly true. But so much drifts away into the swarm of a million other bands that all sound the same, and becomes lost in the ether.

For me, Peterborough’s Television Rd forever avoided drifting away with the second song they ever released, “Burial Ground.” The song, like much of the band’s first two albums, juxtaposes a playful, jazzy piano line and groovy rhythm section against a sneering punk guitar. Over top of that, the witchy and wildly expressive vocals of Sara Shahsavari tell a gleefully villainous tale about taking down an unnamed rival by using a “computer robot” to bury them underground. “You don’t know how cruel I really am,” she cackles. “All my mom knew how to cook was badness ham.”

TVRD_ECM-1986It’s been three years since I first heard that song, and to this day I can’t make up my mind about it—whether its fantastically clashing musical elements meld into any kind of whole, whether its gonzo subject matter makes any sense for a song, whether I’m at all ok with the phrase “badness ham.”

But I do know that I’ve never forgotten it, and that I’ve watched Television Rd closely ever since. They’ve continued to surprise, delight, and confound. They’ve brought ebullient poetry to “Lavender Town (hula hoop dream),” they’ve explored colonialism on “Vision Hill (Nogojiwanong),” they’ve built disorienting intersecting guitar lines on “Frunk Night,” they’ve explored dystopian worlds on “The Squares.” And they’ve paired it with a wild and captivating live show, too.

Behind this strange music is a unique assemblage of five musicians from different backgrounds who met in university and became fast friends, developing a deep trust and a shared musical vocabulary, even as they themselves struggled to define what the fuck Television Rd is exactly—or if they can simply be confident in their strange indefinableness.

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The origin of Television Rd dates back to first year at Trent University’s Lady Eaton College in 2011, where Dan Collins met Dan McNally.

McNally had trained in classical piano as a youth, but soon gave it up in favour the hard drum lines of classic rock and punk, while an appreciation for Elton John led him back to the piano. For Collins, an interest in the classic rock of Queen and Supertramp led him to explore bass guitar and then keyboard. Grade 9 jazz band got him into Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and John Coltrane. And, “I remember the first song I loved was Shakira’s ‘Whenever, Wherever,’” he says with a smile.

Television Rd (photos by Karol Orzechowski)“We jammed together and clicked,” says McNally. “I thought he was a great piano player, and I think he thought I was a good drummer. We found the same things funny and had the same perspectives. That’s when we fell in love.” He laughs.

Bassist Jay Mackinnon soon joined in, and they formed a jazz-fusion three-piece called Winghorns, centred around Jay and McNally’s solid rhythm section and Collins’ playful jazz piano lines. Collins met a German exchange student, Sarah Link, and asked if she wanted to join. She brought a bright pop sensibility to the band, who had some early success when they came first at the Trent Battle of the Bands. They won studio time and recorded an EP, The Promised Land.

But Link returned to Germany at the end of the year, and the remaining three were forced into a bit of an experimental phase. “We were an r&b band,” recalls Collins, “and then we had another Sara and almost went country-pop. She was only in the band for two weeks or something? And then the third Sara was the charm.”

“I wasn’t sure why Dan even asked me to be in the band,” says Sara Shahsavari. “No one knew this side of me.” Sara had been a music fan all of her life, first listening to the traditional Iranian music of her father, and then branching into ska, punk, and rock. She had immersed herself in the local music scene since arriving in Peterborough, but never performed. “When I came to Trent I had long, poofy hair and crooked bangs and a big mouth full of braces. I was very shy, and I didn’t go out and talk to anyone.”

Collins knew Sara from Trent Radio, where he co-hosted a feminist rock show, and she hosted a show about ska, polka, and punk. “I think mainly it was her taste in music,” he says. “I knew her speaking voice and what kind of things she was into. I knew her attitude, and I was looking for someone who could bring some attitude into the band, but I’d never heard her sing. I put her on the spot for sure, but I just thought it would work.”

Meanwhile, Jay’s brother Duncan Mackinnon also joined the band. Duncan’s musical history had ranged from grunge to jazz, and he played with the prog-folk ensemble Bedsheets in high school, who released two albums before breaking up. “Duncan is the stoic,” says Sara. “He’s the indie kid, the jazz kid. He graduated with philosophy and math, and he’s doing graduate studies in math—so he’s that kid. But he’s a softy. He wears skirts and tells everyone he loves them.”

The band slowly began to coalesce, and soon booked a gig. “Dan had all these songs he had written,” recalls Sara, “but it wasn’t until we booked a show that it was like, oh shit, we all have to be there, and these songs have to be finished!”

Television Rd is undeniably a live band. It’s there that the band’s disparate influences and skilled playing really come together, and where Sara gets to really perform. While some of the other members are content to stand in the background, “Sara needs to be on stage,” says Collins. “She needs to be unleashed on the world.”

Television Rd (photos by Karol Orzechowski)“I literally am having the most fun I ever have when I’m on stage,” says Sara. “It’s our weird combination of collective consciousness and moods and influences, and it just amps you up. I feel possessed; I go on autopilot. Every time we have a show, I feel it. We’re all here for the same reason and we’re all tapping into the same energy.”

At the same time, the band started releasing albums, all recorded at Acrylic Studios by Collins’ high school friend Harley Butt, in frenetic, single-weekend recording sessions. 2014’s Character Splatters was an unusually ambitious debut: nine songs in a wide range of genres and styles, full of complex arrangements and sudden left turns. “I feel like reviews of the album were mixed,” says McNally. “We are criticized for [the wide range], but people said they liked that about the album as well.”

The band continued to evolve. 2015’s Banshee Cypher saw a more mature band, with more ambitious structures and subject matter, and less goofy humour. 2017’s TV RD pt. 1 is the band’s leanest, most focused album yet, with only four songs and a sparser, more rock-focused sound.

“We’re still a little bit confused on our exact genre or whatever,” admits Sara, “but it’s a more mature attempt. TV RD pt. 2 isn’t going to sound exactly like pt. 1. If you listen to “Celestial” [one of the new songs], it’s an r&b rock psychedelic song. Like what is that? It’s not the post-punk we got pegged with on TV RD pt. 1.”

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The music of Television Rd goes off in strange directions, but it’s the product of a group that’s remarkably tight. They hung out together throughout university, socialized together, and found a house together, where they can regularly jam out and rehearse. (Sara lives elsewhere, but spends much of her time at the band house.)

“We make jamming a priority,” says Sara. “The jams sometimes sound so not like what we do; they’re their own thing. Sometimes I’ll walk in and I’ll hear a really Broken Social Scene kind of jam, or it’ll be so freaky and dissonant, or it’ll be a hip-hop/jazz thing. Through the jams, we channel these different things.” Some jams are ephemeral and go away the moment they stop playing, but others are recorded, repeated, and slowly turn into new Television Rd songs.

Television Rd (photos by Karol Orzechowski)It’s not hard to see the band’s jazz influence in these jams. “To me, what I like about rock and what I like about jazz aren’t necessarily that different,” says Duncan. “In both cases, it’s the improvisation, the idea of spontaneously creating something with other people, to have a dialogue with someone until you find a groove.”

This kind of anarchic structure is perfect for Television Rd, but it didn’t start that way. Originally, Collins was the sole songwriter. “Dan brings something and we all get excited about it,” says Sara, “and that’s how the band really got into it. On Character Splatters, there were just so many songs that it was exciting, and when you’re excited it spurs more ideas.”

“I feel like Dan’s generally pretty confident about what he writes,” says McNally. “He’ll write different musical parts and bring them to the band, and we’ll generally approve because we think he’s a good artist.”

But as the band has progressed and gained in confidence, songwriting has become more collaborative. Says Duncan, “Spending more time with each other, we found more specific things: this is working, or this is fun to play and jam to. And after doing that, it sort of converged more.” Other members have brought songs to the band, and Sara is now co-writer on many of the lyrics, lending an authenticity and directness to her vocals.

Television Rd (photos by Karol Orzechowski)This also requires a level of trust and patience. If one member disagrees with a choice in a song, it’s scrapped. “I feel like people are hard-headed enough in this band that it wouldn’t work to not do that,” says Duncan. “We’d kill each other or something if we tried to do something that someone wasn’t ok with.”

“There’s definitely a vibe you get sometimes when you’re jamming a song,” says Sara. “When we’re all just clicking with it. That’s how we know it’ll be a Television Rd song.”

As university ended, the band was forced to adapt. Some have gotten jobs. They see each other less. Jay left the band to pursue a master’s degree and Queen’s, and Colin “Doug” Russell came on. Duncan also left for his master’s, but has stayed with the band, returning regularly to Peterborough for jams, practices, and gigs, though “it’s been definitely hard to go from living here and being able to just go downstairs and jam, to really needing to plan,” he says.

But this distance has forced the band to expand their horizons even further. Duncan is exploring jazz while in Guelph. McNally writes solo songs. Sara has explored side projects: a solo effort, Shirazi, and “mystic rock” band Kitty Pit, where she has taken on the senior songwriter role.

“There’s a lot of positive about it, I think,” says Duncan. “I’m very partial to the idea that arbitrary change can be good for anything. It forces you to adapt, see things differently, gain new skills. Being away and learning different stuff has probably influenced the way the songs sound when we’re together.”

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Despite the playfulness and joyful energy, there’s a real dark streak to Television Rd. In songs like “The Squares” or “Hivemind,” the band constructs dystopian worlds crushed under the heel of conformity and, as they put it in “Hivemind,” the fear of “the threat of the weird” that comes from other people, and from within.

Television Rd (photos by Karol Orzechowski)“The Squares” was written after a New Year’s party Collins attended: “I was thinking about how I met all these great idealistic youth that were so full of life, and I was thinking, is the world going to crush that out of them? Is there a place for that?”

But Television Rd has managed to maintain their hope, their ambition, and their strangeness. “It’s not that we just want to be different,” says Sara. “We want to make stuff we want to hear. We have all these influences, and we want to make our own unique version of it.”

So, I ask her how you face a world like “The Squares,” where “the squares have written the blacklist” and it’s been “a thousand years since freedom died”?

She responds by repeating the song’s chorus: “Catch your dream, man. Catch your dream.”

 

Borderless Music & Arts Festival

This month, Sara Shahsavari is starting a new project: a music festival. Borderless Music & Arts Festival runs September 8 to 16, with event stretching across the Garnet, the Spill, the Red Dog, Catalina’s, and various spots at Trent University. It will unite spoken word, visual art, speakers, and music in a wide variety of genres, as well as events tied into Peterborough Pride and the (in)Sites Performance Series. Says Sara:

It’s specifically addressing lack of women and diversity in festivals. It’s not a dig at Peterborough, but it is a dig at Peterborough festivals. If you’re only putting on events that speak to a certain kind of person, you’re going to have a lot of people who aren’t compelled to participate. Participation is how communities build. It can’t just be a thing every once in a while. It’s gotta be a continuous flow of energy.

This festival is supposed to bring together a lot of different art communities. Peterborough offers a lot of great music, but it’s a lot of the same music. We’re trying to bring more music that I think is great and is around, together under one thing: hip-hop, ska, indie, punk, rock, jazz, folk….

I feel a strong pull here. I feel better than I have ever in my life here. There might be some small imperfections, but for a lot of people they come here and it’s like, whoa, I have shit to go through and this place lets me go through it. There’s a community for it, which is why it keeps sticking together. So I’m hoping to build off of that, and bring a lot of people together.

Festival passes are $30 general admission, $20 for students and under-waged.

 

Photos by Karol Orzechowski.

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Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock is Editor-in-Chief and co-Publisher of Electric City Magazine. He is a Peterborough-born freelance writer and editor who has covered Peterborough music and culture since 2012, first on Electric City Live and now in its magaziney successor.