The School of Rock
Above (l to r): Anastasia Winterhalt, The Sheepdogs (Currie second from left)
Literacy and songwriting do not always go hand-in-hand, but wherever you find university students who study hard and need to blow off steam, musical notes are sure to be wafting—or roaring—close behind them.
By Craig Silliphant
Perhaps there is a stronger link between the two than meets the eye. After all, there are musical genres like college rock and art school rock, universities offer music degree programs, and of course, there’s good old rock ’n’ roll—an ever-present part of campus social life. In fact, many professional musicians on the prairies were drawn into their careers while attending the University of Saskatchewan.
Chris Morin (BA’07) has toured internationally with the Saskatoon band Slow Down, Molasses and other punk acts like The Eyebats. His music writing can also be read in Planet S Magazine and heard on CBC Radio from time to time. He even started his own mostly music-themed website, Ominocity.com. Morin started with the trombone in elementary school, well before his time at the U of S, and eventually graduated to the guitar.
“The decision to play the trombone was mostly out of being forced to choose something for the mandatory music program,” he says, “and the instrument itself seemed to personify me at the time: long, awkward and vaguely obnoxious. The guitar was a bit more of a no-brainer—every kid with rock ’n’ roll dreams plays the guitar.”
What started at a young age for Morin picked up speed in college, and this experience was simpatico for musicians like The Sheepdogs’ frontman Ewan Currie (BA’11), as well as opera singer Anastasia Winterhalt (MMus’11). Both started playing piano as children, and both had evolving trajectories by the time they reached university.
Winterhalt, the founder and director of A Little Opera on the Prairie, pursued music as a course of study, eventually getting her Masters of Music (vocal performance) and an Artist Diploma in Opera.
Currie’s path, on the other hand, was not so deliberate. While pursuing his Bachelor of Arts degree, he sort of fell into playing in a band that would go on to, as the song goes, grace “the cover of the Rolling Stone” after winning the magazine’s Choose the Cover contest in 2011. But it was not always touring the world and playing with his hero John Fogerty.
“I had a pretty full course load, played on the football team, and usually worked one or more jobs on the side,” remembers Currie. “For me to go and add [playing in a band] that would end up being pretty all-consuming was maybe not the best scheduling move. But it ended up okay.”
Slow Down, Molasses (Morin second from right)
photo by Patrick Schmidt
Being a musician comes with sacrifice at the best of times, especially while juggling school. It goes without saying that one’s education can suffer if you don’t keep your eyes on the prize, but in fact, the music can be impaired as well.
Rock 'n' Roll at Louis'
There have been a few eras for Louis’ and all the great music that has passed through Saskatoon, but one of the golden epochs was the ’90s. It was a time when students would gather in the wonderfully dank college pub vibe that predated the renovations of the last decade. There was a prominent DJ booth, and after class, you’d wander down to meet friends and partake of cheap beer and even cheaper arteryclogging fare. Heck, you could even smoke in there then.
In those pre-internet promotional days, the walls were adorned with the glossy black and white 8 x 10s that dominated the press kits of the time. I remember a lot of now legendary gigs from those days: a Dears show where there were only about 11 people there, but the band gave it their all anyway; the Jim Rose Circus, a travelling sideshow who did all sorts of horrible things to themselves; and shows from Sloan and Dread Zeppelin to Six Finger Satellite and Herbalizer.
But memory is a funny thing, so I put a message up on Facebook to see what reminiscences others have. Among the more interesting are a Misfits show where Michael Graves appeared in a straightjacket and cracked his head on an amp before diving into the crowd, the lead singer of Guttermouth exposing himself, and even seeing juggernauts Nickelback perform before they were the world’s most famous and polarizing love ’em or hate ’em band of our time.
The Louis’ tradition continues today, with the sonically sublime, the tonally terrible, and the just plain weird acts that hit the Louis’ stage. But one thing is for sure—there’s nothing quite like getting out of class and hitting a show at the city’s campus bar, an institution that has been around for several generations of music loving U of S students.
Share your favourite Louis’ memory on the U of S Alumni Association’s Facebook page (facebook.com/usaskalumni).
“[When] you’re living off student loans,” explains Morin, “it is obviously far more difficult to tour, both financially and time-wise. And my [collection of music] gear certainly suffered during my tenure at the U of S.”
That being said, not too many people with their heads screwed on straight get into music for sacks of cash and more free time. Most musicians do it because they are compelled to, which is incredibly rewarding in its own right.
“The payoff of having the opportunity to make music on a daily basis outweighs all of the sacrifice,” says Winterhalt.
Thankfully, education and music are not always at odds. As with any other discipline, university can give one life skills beyond what is taught in textbooks. It can be the beginning of all things, a place where one meets like-minded people, and the time that a person becomes the adult that has been slowly percolating within.
“I could not do what I do today without my studies,” explains Winterhalt. “I found mentors that have guided me and helped cultivate how I am as a singing actor. I have learned about myself as an artist and also about what I have to offer the music community.”
“One positive that came out of my university experience in relation to music,” says Morin, “was being able to work for the campus newspaper, The Sheaf, as an arts and entertainment editor. It was an awesome way to get a foot in the door with both the local and national scene, and it was great introduction to managers and public relations people, many of whom I still work with professionally today.”
It is especially important on the prairies for a musician of any kind to pick up the expertise and confidence they will need to pursue a life in the arts. Saskatoon is small and geographically isolated, which means that one has to be especially resilient to persevere.
“[A prairie musician learns] toughness,” says Currie. “You can’t just sit back and let things come to you, you have to go out and earn it. Musicians in Toronto don’t learn that like those in Saskatchewan.”
“[Being] from the prairies,” adds Morin, “gives you an appreciation, and the stamina, for long drives—a boon for touring musicians.”
And on the really positive side, musicians in Saskatchewan, including those at the U of S (and often those touring through), do notice certain advantages.
“Because of the amount of people,” says Winterhalt, “we have an opportunity to truly support our artists by providing friendly and intimate performance venues.”
“Saskatchewan offers local musicians the chance to belong to a supportive and tight-knit community,” agrees Morin, “something that can be challenging in larger Canadian cities.”
Growing into being a professional musician at U of S may differ from doing so in a larger urban centre, but one thing is universal—the old adage about thrifty students living off Kraft Dinner. The oft-sacrificing life of a musician can mean they are prone to eating with as much frugality as a student. So when did our intrepid musicians eat better—in university or now that they are professional musicians?
“I eat much better now,” says Winterhalt. “I married a brilliant chef; [Gold Medal Plate ‘Bronze Winner’] Anthony McCarthy.”
“[I ate better as] a student,” admits Currie. “I lived at home so I could raid my mom’s fridge.”
“Even now that I am gainfully employed,” says Morin, “I still eat a lot of crap as a touring musician. It’s all about the endless smorg of gas stations and late night hot dog stands. At least when I was a student I could generally scrape together enough change for a few pieces of fruit from an actual grocery store.”