That’s the basic question at the centre of The Radius Project, the new documentary by local filmmaker Michael Hurcomb. What is it about Peterborough that has led to such an active, and often successful, music scene?
From Neil Young and Ronnie Hawkins, through Jackson Delta and Washboard Hank, and into the modern era with Lonely Parade and Nick Ferrio, Peterborough has an unusual history of great music, particularly for a city its size. In the late 90s and early 2000s alone—the period the documentary focuses on—Peterborough and the surrounding towns produced I Mother Earth, Thousand Foot Krutch, Serena Ryder, Three Days Grace, My Darkest Days, Royal Wood, and USS, as well as major record producers and songwriters Greg Wells, Rob Wells, and Tebey.
“I think Peterborough’s always had really interesting cultural movements,” says Hurcomb, “but we’ve never been able to say ‘This is what Peterborough sounds like,’ or ‘This is what Peterborough does.’ Every bar, every venue, every school, every scene is unique.”
Hurcomb comes to the documentary with a long history on the scene. He is a former musician turned professional photographer who has shot many bands. Along with Ryan Lalonde, who assisted with the documentary, and Dani Stover, formerly of The Wolf, he created the Bandwagon series of live performance videos (many of which have premiered on Electric City Magazine’s website). He draws on this considerable experience (and rolodex) to put together a who’s-who of local and Canadian talent to interview about what makes Peterborough so special.
It is, perhaps, a question with no answer—or at least no single answer. Many in the documentary note Peterborough’s isolation from Toronto or Ottawa as an important factor in the city establishing its own unique identity. There is also the vibrancy brought by Trent and Fleming, and the quirky open-mindedness of the arts scene.
But as the documentary continues, it starts to feel like the most important factor in creating great musicians, is the great musicians who came before. The guys from Three Days Grace talk about growing up listening to I Mother Earth, knowing they were from the area and seeing the possibility of success. One excited fan recalls going to high school with Serena Ryder with the kind of giddy I-remember-when tone that many of us use when talking about our own brushes with fame—though this particular fan is Josh Warburton of July Talk, who’s gone on to his own considerable acclaim.
“I have a daughter who went to Edmison Heights,” says Hurcomb, “and to see that Greg Wells or Neil Sanderson walked their hallways and sat in their desks and dealt with what they did…. People are going to realize that success isn’t that far away. They’re in Peterborough, but it’s there. It’s as real here as it is in Toronto or New York.”
Indeed, the documentary isn’t only about success or fame. It also spends significant time on bands that never achieved international acclaim, but were still essential to the scene at the time—in particular, the Spades and the Silver Hearts. “This easily could have been a documentary about people talking about the Silver Hearts,” says Hurcomb. “As a band they just had this wealth of talent and influence—and so it’s a different type of fame.”
And that path continues to this day. Though the documentary is mainly centred on this turn-of-the-century era, one of the most intriguing parts comes near the end, as focus shifts to the present and future of the local scene. WayHome Festival co-founder Shannon McNevan and Cross Dog’s Tracy Ashenden serve as ambassadors of the now, namechecking a laundry list of current Peterborough artists, including Garbageface, Mokomokai, Melissa Payne, and Kate Suhr.
Says Hurcomb, “The hope is that people across Canada will want to dig in more. ‘I love the Strumbellas, but I didn’t know about the Burning Hell,’ and then, ‘oh that got me into Jill Staveley, which got me into Rock Camp For Girls, which got me into Lonely Parade,’ and so on. The hope is that people do the work.”
But this section is also tinged with sadness, noting that many of the venues where these stars of the last era got their start have closed: the Trasheteria, the Montreal House, the Pig’s Ear, and the Spill, as well as organizations like the Peterborough Arts Umbrella. There is a note of uncertainty about the future of the scene – the same uncertainty that many of us on the scene are feeling today.
Hurcomb remains optimistic. There’s a continuity of talent here, and great music begets more great music. “I think we’re good,” he says. “I think there’s going to be a whole new resurgence here.”
However, Lalonde cautions, “people need to realize that the infrastructure needs to be there. Look what it created when it was there. There was an investment into this, and amazing things happened, and we’re still feeling the ripple effects of it—but it’s up to everybody to make sure that continues.”
The Radius Project has its world premiere at Market Hall on February 3 at Market Hall (more info).