Winnipeg’s hefty population of over 600,000 has spawned a heady, grindy music scene. Actively inclusionary, its politics swing leftist, boasting a pro-LGBT, feminist and anti-racist bent. Partially thanks to the continuing influence of Propagandhi, which can be most overtly seen in the influential noise mongers Head Hits Concrete’s lyrics, a space has been carved in an outsiders scene that actively supports difference.
To identify a singular cause for such a movement is not easy. Winnipeg lies at a canoe route crossroads and First Nations persons have occupied the area since prehistoric times. Later, Francophone and British traders arrived and the Métis people – who were the offspring of unions between aboriginals and Europeans – became a vital part of the Western fur trade. Given its ideal location, Winnipeg is a hub for commerce and the working class, facilitated by the eventual arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Rather than adopting conservative ideals typically associated with blue-collar work, the city has a history of socialism and boasts a young, university population of more than 40,000. Today, over 100 languages are spoken in Winnipeg, it boasts the highest aboriginal population of any Canadian city, and is one of the least expensive locations to do business in the nation. Add to the mix bone-chilling, disproportionality long winters and ample support for film, theatre, and music, and you’ve got the groundwork for art that addresses social issues.
“I’m of First Nations descent, I understand what marginalization looks like in the context of racism and whatnot, and sort of grew up having to really understand what that meant in terms of my life and my safety,” says vocalist Mike Alexander, who formed Head Hits Concrete in 1999 with drummer Brad Skibinsky. Alexander previously ran his own label, Bad Food for Thought Records, wrote many fanzines throughout the ‘90s, and, for two decades, has been promoting DIY shows as Mount Elgon Productions. Alexander and Skibinsky, alongside guitarist Darcy Bunio, who joined HHC after their first demo was released, have been playing music in Winnipeg for over a decade, although they took a break from 2004 to 2010. Before and after, they’ve been grinding out abrasive, aggressive, hostile noise with a strong sociopolitical bent.
“When you have that attitude, you meet like-minded people who either are dealing with similar situations… While maybe totally different from my own experiences, I felt like I was able to emphasize with different people who were being mistreated and discriminated against,” says Alexander. “I got into punk rock at a fairly young age, where I saw a lot of bad shit going on around me, and always felt like the best bands were the ones expressing their thoughts on socioeconomic realities on capitalism, racism, white supremacy, and the whole bit.”
Early Winnipeg and area bands to address those issues include infamous punk rockers Propagandhi, who formed in 1986. As aggressive music percolated in the underground, members of Propagandhi formed the G7 Welcoming Committee, following the mantra, “To create a label that politically radical bands and speakers could unflinchingly support and call home; where the driving force behind the label’s output was social change and radical thought…”
“Music is healing. It is. This is healing for us obviously… Playing with all that energy and having it so intense, it’s obviously very freeing.” — Darcy Bunio, HHC guitarist
Acts from across the music spectrum were signed: jazz, rap, rock, hardcore. On the pummelling end were Malefaction and Alexander’s former project, the revered Swallowing Shit. They formed in 1994; the band’s lyrics obliterated the status quo, questioning and lambasting existing social structures. On their dissolution, Swallowing Shit members formed or joined hugely important Winnipeg acts, like I SPY, Kittens, KEN mode and Propagandhi. Musically and thematically, their legacy continued on with Head Hits Concrete’s formation, which occurred in May of 1999, “in a basement on Jesse Street.”
In the five years that followed, the band recorded a demo, three EPs and two splits. Then, they went on hiatus. Sociopolitical music was not nearly as prevalent; the members of Head Hits Concrete worked on other projects. Alexander played “huge, fat, dumb, party metal, gory riffs kind of thing” with Putrescence. Skibinsky did a stint in grind machines Archagathus and played an important role in Wolbachia and Kursk. Bunio played with Prague and, to this day, is a member of distinctive rock project, Big Trouble in Little China, alongside playing in Elephant Ensemble.
It was 2010 when the offer to open for grinddaddies Brutal Truth rolled around. Head Hits Concrete was reinvigorated. In 2013, they released a 7-inch via Winnipeg’s Mercy of Slumber Records, dubbed Hollowed Out Human Husk. In the three years since reanimation, the scene changed again, though the inclusionary mentality remained strong. Negative Space, a venue that enforced a one woman per bill rule (much to the chagrin of some scene members), was hosting a myriad of underground gigs. Sadly, they eventually shut their doors on June 30, 2013. In 2014, shows are frequently hosted at The Windsor and The Frame Gallery, and festivals like Arsonfest and Foul Copse are well attended. Bands from the noise/grind/punk spectrum – sociopolitical, apolitical, and inflammatory – include Archagathus, Violent Gorge, Plague, Solar Coffin, Parfumerie, Flash Out, Cetascean, Zombie Assault!!, Solanum, Loutish, and more.
“I don’t think it’s as active as maybe it once was,” muses Skibinsky. “That whole thing has changed, too: their ideals haven’t changed, but the whole landscape of that scene has changed, and not every band is coming out trying to be as PC as possible anymore… I think I take more of a nuanced view of it than I would have before, where I would say any band talking about political things is good. Now, I think it’s on a case-by-case basis.”
Head Hits Concrete remains aggressively political, spastic and disharmonic in the face of a changing scene. For the trio, it’s a coping mechanism for facing what Skibinsky dubs “the redundant stupidity that keeps propagating itself.”
“I look at music as a coping mechanism for the anger that I feel, that I sometimes don’t know what else to do with… I know that people are pissed off and people that relate to this kind of stuff maybe are angry, and maybe they don’t agree with our views, but I think it’s a pretty good start, to offer an outsider perspective to things that, in the larger society, never get checked, never get questioned,” says Alexander, acknowledging the issues the Winnipeg PC scene has encountered regarding unspoken inclusion and exclusion. “This is a great place to do that, and I think it’s a healthy thing for people to be around to sort of check their own head space and check their own hearts and their language.”
As for upcoming new material, the trio plans to record again and will have a tape with “our last 7-inch… as well as demo stuff” on time for the upcoming Western Canadian tour, the band’s first tour since 2004. This music carries on the tradition of Head Hits Concrete: it’s fast, furious, and fucking bleak, with of course is cathartic for its creators.
“Music is healing. It is. This is healing for us obviously… Playing with all that energy and having it so intense, it’s obviously very freeing,” explains Bunio. “Creating energy in a room, and letting it flow out of you, it really does make a difference in your life.”
Whether your politics run left, right, or in every which direction inconsistently, we can all get behind that.
See Head Hits Concrete at the Stabmonton DIY Fest Round 2 on Saturday, March 22 at The New Wunderbar Hofbrauhaus//the Creative Club House downtown; address will be announced the day of the show. In Calgary, see Head Hits Concrete, Cetascean, and Sea of Dead Serpents at Tubby Dog on Sunday, March 23.
By Sarah Kitteringham
Photo: Jessica Canard