Ottawa Explosion brings the pit to the capital city

by Julia Dickens

June 17, 2016






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Bands, food, record store tips, and more for the sixth annual Ottawa Explosion.

Photo: Wet Brain

From the perspective of a former Ottawan turned Torontonian, I have witnessed Ottawa exploding from afar. My hometown has come a long way from its primarily punk roots, and the scene appears from a distance to be thriving. In a city under constant threat of its creative peers leaving for the seemingly greener pastures of Montreal or Toronto (including yours truly), it can be difficult to keep a scene afloat. Now in its sixth year, the annual Ottawa Explosion festival will take over the capital city with over 80 bands in seven venues, over half of which are all-ages events. The little city that could has come a long way.

I came of age as a teenager in the era of venues like The Underground and Bumpers, witnessing bands like Fuck the Facts, The Ripcordz, and D.O.A. grace some seriously dingy stages. All the while community centres and venues like Club Saw fostered a strong all-ages emo and hardcore scene. The website linked the community together in a pre-Facebook online space, featuring updated band and show listings, member profiles, and an infamous message board. My early 20s saw the popularity of the indie dance bar at events like Zaphod Beeblebrox’s Wednesday nights, Babylon’s Mod Club, and the now legendary Rock and Roll Pizza Parties which, unbeknownst to its founders, became sort of ground zero for what OXW has now become.

Though Pizza Party often hosted early evening bands before the shimmy shaking dance party took over, the basement show continued its reign as the top alternative venue space for local and touring bands. Ian Manhire’s White Wires (featuring OXW co-founder Luke Martin and Peach Kelli Pop’s Allie Hanlon) grew in popularity as did Manhire’s label, Gaga Records. A new crop of garage-punk bands spawned a scene that would culminate in the little music festival that could, The Gaga Weekend, which would then evolve into what we now know as OXW.

It’s difficult to track the evolution of a scene, especially from the periphery. There is so much I’m likely missing, and so many more perspectives to consider. A weirdo contingent ran a parallel and overlapping trajectory from the power-pop party. The house venue on Argyle (what was that address again?), bands like Fucked Corpse, and Holy Cobras created noisy and psychedelic sounds. This led to the inception of Bruised Tongue Records, still going strong today.

Lately, the Ottawa all-ages scene is booming. The live show series Debaser, helmed by Weird Canada’s Rachel Weldon and Emily McQuarrie, has been running for over two years. Rolf Klausner of The Acorn, has created a veritable institution with the Arboretum Festival. In the meantime, heavy discussions of race and gender have been at the forefront, led by community members not limited to but including the promotion / music / art collective Babely Shades.

There is likely so much more I’m leaving out. How do you track the events that lead to the formation of a scene you have witnessed both firsthand and from afar? I hope that I can do justice to the work that’s been put in, to the key players and the trajectory that created the current community, one that is never static but always changing, evolving and growing. I can’t, and that’s the struggle. But I will always love my hometown, its unapologetically punk rock core, and the energy of the people who have spent years keeping a scene afloat in a city that, from an outsider’s perspective, appears boring and conservative.

This year’s venues have changed slightly, with the unfortunate loss of Mugshots and what I can speculate to be a wise decision to skip on Avant-Garde Bar’s less-than-ideal space and sound issues. St. Alban’s Church plays host to the Friday and Saturday Debaser shows, the never-changing punk hang spot The Dominion Tavern is once again in the mix, Vertigo Records has its own showcase, staple venue Pressed hosts a Sunday all-ages show and brave festivalgoers can make the trek across the bridge to Hull venue Le Temporaire.

The Club SAW Gallery remains the headquarters for most of the action, and while Ottawa is not a large city, venues can seem disparate and spread out, just out of walkable distance at times. Hop on your bike or borrow one from a pal. Need a break? There are many parks, snack spots, record stores, and some of the best museums in the country.

Grab your JJ, cram in a slice, it’s time for five days of maximum rnr. Here’s what we’re excited about: bands, venues, shows, and more.

Wet Brain

Last year’s band I most regretted missing was Baltimore’s Wet Brain, a real hit according to 2015’s festivalgoers. I shan’t be missing this foursome’s snarky, sometimes sludgy, always catchy brand of garbage-punk. Two bass players? Say no more, say no more.

The Lonely Parade

The lazy hazy jangle of summer’s melancholy. This Peterborough group brings sad slacker vibes.


I’ll admit I’ve seen these ladies more than one or two times but I can honestly say every time it gets better. Fans of women who know their way around a sludgy riff and who luv 2 snarl, this one’s for you.


Oh so perfect minimal dance punk. Simple catchy and repetitive bass lines flirting with a groove but never quite crossing that line. This is the possibly the buzziest band on the bill at the Babely Shades / Debaser co-presented show. Taking place at St. Alban’s Church with Plasmalab, Bonnie Doon, and FET.NAT, this entire lineup is bangin’.

Slow Dawn

The new project from the legendary Dan Druff of Holy Cobras infamy. For those who loved the noisy psychedelia of the Cobras’ sound, this new project will bring you further into that madness. A dark trip.


Take a walk on the prog side with these Guelph-based experimental rockers.

The Drearies

Those disappointed to be missing OXW staples Tough Age might be delighted to catch the band members’ new project Peak Freens or guitarist Penny Clark’s band, The Drearies. You may have heard her belting out Drearies single “Guess Not” during one of Tough Ages’s sets and if you liked that, well, let me tell you you are in for a treat, my friend.

Sonic Avenues

In a festival jam-packed with garage-punk and power-pop sometimes it can be hard to find standouts in the line-up. These Montreal dudes sure have nailed it down, reminding us all why the genre is so irresistible.

Mick Futures

Mick Futures return with their brand of synthy punk rock from the brain of Strange Attractor‘s (also playing the festival, also a must-see) Mitch Houle. Dystopian dreams from the weird crater of Sudbury, Ontario.

Ottawa Beat

This new local music focused print publication is the latest project from the unstoppable Luke Martin, co-founder of Ottawa Explosion, owner of Capital City Rehearsal Studios, and the Gabba Hey venue and record store. Keep your eyes peeled because there’s a new rag on the block.


OK, here’s the rundown, as this question comes up a lot with out of towners. Again, I might be missing some new places but here are a few crucial snack spots. Pizza Shark wins for best worst pizza en route to Pressed (also a good brunch / lunch / snack spot) and Bronson Pizza wins for delivery at any late night after parties. Ottawa is overloaded with shawarma and pho restaurants if that’s your speed.

For delicious comfort grub and the coziest sitdown atmosphere, take a break at The Manx, head over to OZ for slightly more upscale eats, cocktails and great DJs, or grab a taco from the to-go-window of El Camino, all within spitting distance on Elgin Street. Herb and Spice delivers up healthy snacks for good prices, and Bridgehead, Ottawa’s local organic fair trade coffee chain, is just across the street.

Breakfast you say? The Manx will have you covered but bands on a budget might want to go for the Bramasole Diner experience (skip Elgin Street Diner and Zak’s – overpriced). And if you are headed to the Dominion Tavern, make sure to grab a poutine from Sascha’s Chip Wagon next door (also known as the Fry Nazi, and no I don’t remember why other than the obvious Seinfeld reference).

Record shopping

The Band Whose Name Is A Symbol at Birdman Sound (Photo: Andrew Carver)

Vertigo Records is a hop, skip, and a jump away from the action at Club SAW, remaining an Ottawa staple for a wide range of genres. They will cover all your bases, and I’ve grabbed a couple of excellent sought after gems at extremely reasonable prices.

For the super head that doesn’t cringe at spending $30 or so on some truly fantastic cult records, Birdman Sound is a diamond in the rough, an immaculately curated lil gem tucked away in the Glebe neighbourhood on Bank street. When I was young and green I used to go peruse the crates at Birdman in between my high school classes at Glebe Collegiate, recognizing only the staples on the wall (i.e. The Stooges) and nothing in between. It was a revelation, a deep world of psych, garage, post punk and experimental music I knew almost nothing about. This store is truly a special place.

In between, The Turning Point is a digger’s delight, with bins of cheap, cheap used records. If you feel like venturing out west, the aforementioned Gabba Hey stocks plenty o’ great records, leaning heavily on the punk side of things, but a particular highlight is the local tapes, 7″s and zines!

The Drearies (Photo: Christa Zags)

Punk for many people is the gateway drug of alternative music, an entry point into subcultural realms. It’s a genre that has been debated to death, documented, dissected, and declared dead since nearly the moment of its inception. Nevertheless, it perseveres as the voice of youthful energy, of anger and of hope. It is the voice of becoming something in the world, of struggling to find meaning in life.

Punk can be simple, minimal even, or crushingly complex. It is birthed from suburban boredom, working class struggle, and existential angst. Punk cries out against the political and oppressive injustices of our world, or the injustice of a broken heart. It is the soundtrack of friendship, of recklessness, of youth, the brief bursting soundtrack of all summers that must end, and our own desperate mortality. Punk is the flawed desire to feel and to be heard.

Every energetic punk song will reach its pummelling conclusion. We are all mere mortals on this earth, and there are limits to our own existence. Punk lives in my aching teenage heart and its spirit and hope carries me into adulthood and my short life. I return to Ottawa and OXW every year to remember myself of my youth and its sadness and joy. Punk rock is the background to my memory.

It’s June, and summer is just beginning, friends. See you in the pit.

Tags: Music, Lists, mick futures, ottawa beat, ottawa explosion, plasmalab, slow dawn, sneaks, Sonic Avenues, the drearies, The Lonely Parade, tough age, wet brain, white wires, whoop-szo






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