No one knows where exactly the nickname came from, but Vancouver has become known in recent years as “No Fun City.”
“It’s kind of an urban legend,” says Melissa James, who co-directed a 2010 documentary of that name about the struggle to keep independent live music venues open in Canada’s third largest city. “When you see it from the outside, it looks like a sleepy mountain town – but there are a lot of parts that are rotten and decaying.”
Blame the bad rep on Vancouver’s sky-high rent prices, consistently rainy climate, frustrating lack of public transit options and the province of British Columbia’s outdated liquor laws. Just this month, it was announced that the Waldorf Hotel, a beloved local venue, will be closing its doors after being sold to developers to make way for new condominiums.
Yet despite all these factors, a tight-knit music scene has managed to form in the city, with many bands playing shows in abandoned warehouses, illegal spaces and parking lots. And several local acts have begun attracting serious attention outside Vancouver – including Japandroids, whose second album, Celebration Rock, drew rave reviews, and White Lung, whose album Sorry made Rob Sheffield’s list of the 10 best releases of 2012.
“We’re isolated,” says White Lung lead singer Mish Way. “Everyone has to work really hard to pay rent, buy provisions and survive – so I think everyone has this ingrained work ethic where we all feel really stupid if we’re not producing something.”
In 2012, Vancouver was ranked as the most expensive city in North America – ahead of Los Angeles, New York and Toronto. As a result, there has been an exodus of many local artists to Montreal and other cheaper cities. “The first record was about being stuck here and wanting to get the hell out,” Japandroids singer-guitarist Brian King says of the band’s 2009 debut, Post-Nothing. “For the second record, we actually did get out. I consider the first record to be a very, very, very Vancouver record, and then I consider the second one to be more of a leaving-slash-left Vancouver record.”
When Japandroids returned to their hometown in 2011 after a long tour, they felt like outsiders in a city that had been transformed by the 2010 Winter Olympics. “The Olympics changed a lot in the city,” says King. “A lot of the music venues we used to play at were gone, most of the bands we used to know and play with were gone.” The duo ended up going to Nashville to finish recording Celebration Rock, and they spent only a few days in Vancouver in all of 2012 – though King is quick to cite albums by local veterans Destroyer and Ladyhawk among his recent favorites.
Today, Vancouver’s music scene spans a diverse range of sounds. “People just want to play shows with their friends,” says White Lung guitarist Kenneth William. “So you’ll have really aggressive bands like Nü Sensae on the same lineup as pop bands like Peace.”
Members of Nü Sensae say they’ve met a surprising number of American fans of Vancouver rock. “It’s funny to be playing a show somewhere like Florida, and kids come up to us who know about the Vancouver bands we’ve known for ten years,” says drummer Daniel Pitout. “It makes us realize we’ve got something here, whatever it is.”