Following the legendary performance by post-punk group Wire at Sled Island 2008, Colin Newman returned as the festival’s curator in 2009 in addition to performing with his other band, Githead. We sat down with Newman behind Calgary’s Warehouse club to talk about Sled Island’s coming of age as a major music festival. Then he introduced us to his wife and gave us chocolate! What a guy. Anyway, this is that:
Discorder: We were wondering about your involvement with Sled Island. How did that come about? Obviously Wire played the festival last year…
Colin Newman: That was pretty much what happened! Wire played Sled Island  and out of the gigs we played last year, it was the most memorable—the Legion show, anyhow. It’s just the energy of the city, really. The event itself is just completely crazy. It’s without any real logic—way too much stuff going on, all at the wrong time, it’s too loud, it’s too hot, it’s too everything—but that’s kind of how a festival should be, really. There was something I really liked about it, although I do have some criticisms. Anyway, there was a thing at the Palomino bar on the Sunday last year, and Zak [Pashak, the 2008 Sled Island organizer] kind of sidled up to me and said, “Um, do you want to be our curator next year?” And I was like, “Are you sure?” And he said, “Yeah!” And then I got formally invited a couple of months later. So I came and spent a week here in April with Malka [Spiegel, Newman’s wife and Githead bandmate who is also a founding member of 1980s Israeli post-punk band Minimal Compact], and just took on a lot of how people think here—what the problems are, what the festival needs to develop, just where the whole thing was going. I think it’s worked out quite well, and I think that the third year is the year that it starts to really establish itself as something more than a city festival of Calgary. It’s starting to take on a greater significance, certainly within Canada. And it is gaining some national attention. You know Q on CBC? I did a bit on Sled Island with them, kind of just talked it up a bit. Made him [the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi] look slightly foolish because he didn’t know who Women were! I didn’t do it on purpose, but if you’re supposed to know about music… [Listen to the podcast here: http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/qpodcast_20090624_17431.mp3. Newman lays the smack down at 11 minutes and 30 seconds.]
D: Did you have any preconceptions of Calgary? Coming from other parts of Canada, we tend to be like, “Oh God, Cowtown.”
CN: Well, we didn’t even have that. I’d never even heard of it. Actually, Margaret [Fiedler, formerly of Laika and current Wire guitarist] had her post-wedding-reception in Banff, and she had been through Calgary, so we knew a little bit about it. Certainly not any sort of judgmental thing about where it stands in the level of… whatever… in Canada. But, um… yeah, it’s in the middle of fucking nowhere!
D: But it has this whole culture of the macho, cowboy, oil-baron…
CN: Of course, but there are so many people here who feel different to that. There’s a hunger—people really want to get on board [with Sled Island] and be represented.
D: That’s kind of what we noticed last year—we came in thinking that we would watch the bands and kind of keep to ourselves, but then there were all these people…
CN: Yeah, I think it’s an effort worth making. It’s becoming a destination festival. The city tourism office is prepared to help them now, as a cultural event. And that’s the other thing that’s really important to me: it’s never sold as a rock festival because it isn’t just a rock festival. There are a lot of good bands on, and some bands you’ve never heard of, and some crap bands as well. But there’s also a load of other stuff going on all at once, and as the festival goes on, that will only grow. It is a cultural festival. And I think that within the context of Calgary, that’s very important, so that the rest of Canada can get an inkling of what’s going on.
D: Have you seen many of the shows so far?
CN: I went to the Factory party last night. Did you go to that? It was… inexplicable! They’d taken every space they could and stuffed something into into—art, cinema, bands, DJs. It was very hot, full of really young kids, all very dressed up. It had that energy to it, like a community discovering itself. We were supposed to judge a dance competition and turned up at 11 p.m., but nothing had happened by half past 12 so we went back to the hotel room! If I was still 20, I would have been up all night. Another interesting thing is that most of these places are not really venues. I think that’s another thing that’s great here: the co-opting of different spaces. It’s really quite important.
D: Since you’re presenting this evening’s show at the Warehouse, can we talk a little about that? Did you personally pick all of the bands? And why did you choose them?
CN: Just picked the five coolest bands. Or the four coolest, and us! Any festival, anywhere in the world, that put on a room with those bands in it, would be guaranteed to get attention. You’ve got Holy Fuck, who are just one of the most wildly talented bands out there—especially in Britain right now, they are the name to drop. HEALTH, who are in a similar position from that L.A. scene; you’ve got [Githead], whatever that means; you’ve got Women, who have done Calgary very proud, without even anyone knowing they’re from Calgary. When they played in London, they got pick of the week in Time Out [ed. Your critical guide to arts, culture and going out in London]. And we got the Sub-Linguals, who are a local band that we discovered in April who play extremely raw rock, and I think probably could succeed in other places besides Calgary. So I think it’s good to have them on that stage. I think it’s a good lineup, yeah.