Bursting the Bubble: The Strength of Community in Nanaimo’s Music Scene

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What’s it like to be a band in Nanaimo?

If you ask the members of Sweetdreams and Lovely Grime, you can expect to hear a lot about community support, and a comradery with your fellow local artists that is unmatched anywhere else they’ve been. Add that to the growing number of venues in town and around the island, and it only seems to keep getting better.

One look at the Nanaimo Music Scene group on Facebook and you’ll see it right away. With over a thousand members, it is a buzzing online hub where artists and music lovers can communicate and share what’s going on. There’s certainly no shortage of events, the page is constantly updated (daily, it seems) with new shows all over the city; from The Queen’s and The Cambie downtown to Millstone Estate Winery and the Longwood Brew Pub in the north end. With this much opportunity, one might mistake Nanaimo for a city larger than it is. But that’s how it feels now when you show up to a gig.

On September 4, local band Sweetdreams put on a great performance at The Vault Café, a spot they consider to be their headquarters. The band, comprised of Matt Chesterfield, Jason Felker, Nick Begg, Kendall Patrick, and Raven Woods, offers a self-described nostalgic indie rock sound that is both uplifting and chill, perfect for sitting in a pub or a summer road trip. The café was filled with onlookers, gathered around the stage with their beer and nachos as they bopped along to original tunes like “Half the Man” and “This Is It.” The stage was lit up in shades of blue, and the door at the entrance beside it was left wide open, releasing the music out into the night and inviting curious passersby to peek inside. Although the space in the coffee shop was limited, that didn’t stop a few people from getting up to dance.

A band, four guys and a woman behind a keyboard, perform on a small stage in front of a large window. The window is covered by a red curtain.
Sweetdreams performing at The Vault.

After the show, Sweetdreams took the time to speak to The Nav and share a bit about themselves, and the cross-country tour they just completed. Fun and easy to talk to, it’s not hard to become immersed in their story.

Technically, the band has been together for almost three years now. “Jason and I started it about two and a half years ago,” Matt said, “and we got a drummer shortly after we sorted out some songs. We were a trio for a good while, played probably half a dozen shows [but] then we had a different sound in mind. I wanted a bit more synth, more melodic stuff that a trio at the time couldn’t quite pull off.” So, they brought in Kendall on the keyboard, and found Nick and their third and final drummer, Raven. Raven and Jason go way back from their days at Camosun College, but they credit The Vault and the music community for bringing all of them together.

“Downtown Nanaimo has such a good, close community of musicians and artists, so there’s a lot of familiar faces and names, and sometimes you end up in a band together,” Raven said.

Their creative process is quite spontaneous. “We’ll be rehearsing, and then somebody will go to the bathroom or somebody will have a smoke, and then all of a sudden, next thing you know we’ll have a little riff going,” Jason said. “Then somebody will come back and say, ‘woah, that was cool!’ And then it’s a song.”

Matt started the band with some songs written already, which had a part in forming their sound; but now, between the five of them, it’s collaborative. “We probably have the same amount of time onstage as we do rehearsing,” Nick said, “just because Matt books a lot of shows. He’s a booking machine.”

Matt smiles. “I like to perform.”

And they always say yes. “That’s why we’re doing this, is to play shows,” Jason said.

One of the things they were most excited to talk about was their recent tour this summer. The day before they were supposed to go on tour, their minivan broke down. With the shows they had lined up, they only had an hour to find a new van. Luckily, they did—an amazing, fifteen-passenger van that they describe as “cozy” (“But not too cozy!” Raven assures). 

A man in a blue shirt, sunglasses and red hat leans on the railing beside wooden steps, where three guys and a woman are sitting together. Behind them is a dark brick wall with a Bad Religion poster and some graffiti.
From left: Matt, Jason, Nick, Kendall and Raven, in Montreal on their tour. (Courtesy of Sweetdreams)

The tour was planned seven or eight months in advance, and they played 14 shows in just 20 days. They started in Vancouver, and then went on to Golden, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and drove all the way to Ontario—Sudbury was emphasized, they must’ve liked it there—and Montreal. Jason did most of the driving. They also shot their music video for “Half the Man” on the way to Regina, which you can find on their Facebook and YouTube pages, edited on iPhone Movie Maker by Kendall herself. Kendall has family scattered around the country, so accommodation was easy—and it sounds like they got some great pancake breakfasts out of it (Because we promisedspecial shout-out to the Buchanans!). 

You can read more of Sweetdreams’ funny tour updates on their Facebook page.

Although they loved being on tour, they were very keen to come back home.

“I’ve heard from touring bands, and also in our experience, there’s nowhere quite like The Vault,” Kendall said. “It’s a very special venue.” The guys nod in agreement.

When asked about what it’s like to be a band here in Nanaimo, they immediately give praise to the local talent. “There are so many amazing bands on the cusp of getting picked up, going on tours… the bubble has burst,” Jason said. “It was kind of cliquey a few years back, but now everybody’s supporting everybody’s band.”

“It’s a big family, really,” Matt agrees.

“There’s legends, as well,” Nick said. “Like Dave Read [owner and operator of the White Room and Black Dot Records], being able to give a hand and have connections in the States. Random connections, people who have been other places, hooked us up and have experience in other big cities and small cities.”

“In the last two or three years, there’s been so many festivals in Nanaimo,” said Jason. “There’s the Sinker Fest, the Backyard Fest, Awkward Fest.”

But not only is there stronger support in the industry, there’s the demand and appreciation from the locals, too. “There is a really tight scene of artists and musicians that support each other, but also just people that appreciate the arts and music and just want to come out and show support,” Raven said. “It’s a very art and music-hungry and friendly town.”

They credit the jazz program at VIU as well for attracting aspiring musicians and producing such talent. So, do they have any advice for musicians about to hit the road on their first tour?

“Don’t be scared,” Matt says. “People ask me how I arranged the tour; I literally just phoned venues. Five to 10 in every city, you know at least one’s going to bite.”

“Make friends with the bands you play with, make friends with the people at the venues, learn from the music that other people are playing,” Nick suggests.

Oh, and save money. And give your vehicle a mechanical check-over before you go.

Lovely Grime is another local band that’s bursting onto the scene. With only four original songs so far, they mostly perform covers; and they do a dang good job at it.

On September 5, The Queen’s held their sixth Local Thursday event, a monthly initiative to get people out to enjoy the local musical talent with no cover charge, and a cheap pint of local craft beer.

By the time the show started at nine, the place had a decent crowd formed, and nearly all the seats were filled. For a school night it was impressive, and nice to see.

A band, four guys dressed in white t-shirts and a woman in the center in a black floral dress, perform on a stage lit up in blue and red. A gold sign lit up by bulbs in the letters says “Queen’s”, which is on the brick wall beside them on their left.
Lovely Grime performing at The Queen’s.

After the Teenage Tigers performed (another great band), the Lovely Grime came on, and they kept the place thriving. Along with a few of their originals, such as “Sink,” they played impressive covers of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and No Doubt’s “Spiderwebs,” among others. The friendly five-piece band consists of Daley Jenkins, Ben Wheeler, Benjamin Curwood, Derion Vanparidon, and Andre Kristinsson.

“Oh, that’s not a simple question,” they say when asked about when the band came together.

“Some of us were friends at the beginning—the guys were friends beforehand,” Daley says. “I knew Ben beforehand.”

“We [the guys] knew each other 10 years before this,” Benjamin said.

“The three of us started something, and then we met Daley at karaoke at The Cambie,” Derion said. “So that’s how we built this. And we needed to look for a lead guitarist, and Andre was the best fit. This guy, he can pick up anything and play it.”

They have more of a ritual in their creative process. They get together twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays. Mondays are their creative days when they work on anything new, and Wednesdays are “straight to set,” where they work on covers and rehearse for their shows.

Their first original song was written on ukulele by Daley, which was then built off from there by Ben and the guys. Sometimes one of them might not be there for the songwriting, so they’ll come in and develop from what they are given. Or sometimes Daley will write the lyrics as the others develop the tune and rhythm. 

“It’s like a layered puzzle,” Benjamin said.

Five people are standing in a row in front of a grey brick wall, all wearing white t-shirts. There a four men with a woman in the middle.
From left: Andre, Derion, Daley, Benjamin, and Ben. (Courtesy of their Facebook page)

Just like Sweetdreams, they too feel the community with the bands here in Nanaimo. “How we started out before is we did open jams,” Derion said. “You can pick every single day of the week, and there’s going to be an open jam. It’s amazing; I couldn’t find that in Victoria. It’s tough.”

“The music community [here] is really huge, and bands always pass through here, all the time,” Benjamin notes. “So we’re getting exposed to so much content. It’s been no problem getting people to collaborate with or play with.” 

“Especially growing up in the music scene,” Ben said. “We all went to the local shows all the time and saw the small bands, watched them progress and grow.”

“There’s other bands that show up to our shows, and we show up to theirs as well,” Daley said. In fact, that night The Ticks (whom they met at an open mic) showed up to their gig, hanging out in the smoking area up on the deck while we did this interview.

Any album in the works? “Actually, this was our last show for a while,” Ben said. “We wanted to take a break from focusing on sets and focus more on original content. Actually putting out content that people can hear online. Even if it’s just a couple singles.”

“By the middle of next year, we want to build at least an EP to show everyone,” Derion says.

While they may not be booking gigs, you can still catch them at The Cambie on Thursday nights from time to time. And of course, on their Facebook and Instagram pages.

To keep up to speed on all the local shows and events, the Nanaimo Music Scene group on Facebook is a great resource. It’s public and open to everyone. The bubble has indeed been burst, and it’s time to join in on the fun.