Tranzac Club: an oral history – EYE (11.17.10)

Australian expat club, folkie coffeehouse, Caravan site, Fringe Festival venue and a hotbed for Toronto’s punk and avant-garde music community — Tranzac Club has been meant many different things to many different people. These are their stories

Walking past the Tranzac Club, you’d be unlikely to peg it as an iconic hub for Toronto arts and music. The tucked-away building on Brunswick Street just south of Bloor — kitty corner to the uber-rowdy Brunswick House — had previously housed an industrial dry-cleaners in the 1950s. Inside, it boasts all the charm of a basement rec room — mismatched tables and chairs, the odd threadbare sofa and shadowy lighting.

Yet, since 1967, the Tranzac Club has fostered countless notable Toronto artists, actors and musicians — including many who have gone on to international acclaim, like Owen Pallett (a.k.a. Final Fantasy) and Fucked Up. A not-for-profit space that runs on membership fees, meagre beer sales and volunteerism, the Tranzac has a long tradition of celebrating music and art that’s not necessarily commercially viable. When word went out recently that the Tranzac, under threat of closing, was kicking off an “emergency fundraising campaign,” we took it as an opportunity to celebrate the venue’s rich history — before it becomes history.

1967
John Sladek, former Tranzac president: [The space itself] was built as a laundry, and the dry cleaners went in the 1950s. And then the Tranzac club started renting it in ’67 and bought it in ’71.

1970s
Alistair Brown, member of decades-old folk ensemble Friends of Fiddler’s Green (he now lives in the UK): I can’t remember exactly when the local folkies started using the Tranzac as their base. Before we knew it, there was the Flying Cloud Folk Club every week in the big room, or in the front bar when the drama group had a production going on. Then the various groups started practising Morris dancing there, or at least having their post-practice recovery at the bar. The Toronto branch of Comhaltas [an Irish dance group] used it too, for their weekend sessions.

1970s-1980s
Colin Puffer, the Tranzac’s long serving soundman: Caravan was a multi-cultural festival in Toronto that ran for about 10 or 15 years until the late ’80s. There wasn’t Harbourfront and the multicultural city we have now. So there were pavilions set up all around Toronto, and the Tranzac was the Australia-New Zealand pavilion. You’d get your passport, get your stamp on it, come in and see sheep shearing and have some shrimp on the bar-b. What they made in those 10 days would keep the Tranzac going for half the year. Right at the end of the Caravan days — when it folded up its tents — that was the start of the financial decline.

1989 was probably the first time I stepped in the door; it was a Mariposa show. It was a vastly different place when I came here in 1989; it looked in some ways to be at the peak of its existence as an Australian club. If you came in here in 1989 or 1990 on a Tuesday night there were Maori dancers on the stage, there was the Flying Cloud Folk Club. The NAGs Nomads Acting Group was here.

1990
Ben Cook, guitarist for Fucked Up: My family all came from England and I guess they were friends with some of the Tranzac people and we would always go and see the [NAGs] pantomime every year. They’d go up and do their version of Little Red Riding Hood or whatever fairly tale they chose that year and make it this hilarious, British-rude, crowd interactive performance.

The Fringe Festival, in its second year, added the Tranzac as one of its venues. The Tranzac would figure prominently in the festival for nearly two decades, serving as the socializing destination known as the Fringe Club.

2001
Ben Cook: When I was in a band called No Warning as a teenager and people were talking about doing shows at the Tranzac, I was always up for it. And I ended up playing some of my best Toronto shows there. Being on that stage 10 years after seeing Little Red Riding Hood was weird and really cool. But seeing the pantomimes there with my grandparents on a Saturday afternoon, that’s my best memory of it. That’s probably the first thing I said when I got on that stage to play with No Warning, I was like, “This will never be as good as the pantomimes, but let’s try it.”

2002
Damian Abraham, frontman for Fucked Up: The first time we played there was April the 6th, 2002, we did a show with No Warning headlining. It was the first time we’d played to a big sold-out room. That show was almost like the birth of our era of Toronto hardcore. Prior to that, it felt like all the shows were really small and the same 50 people. It was only like 200 people [at the Tranzac], but it was huge. To me it’s like hallowed ground now, because when we did the benefit show there a few years later, it felt like returning to the site of this great historical moment. That April 6 show was such a weird turning point for us. It’s like it wasn’t even a serious band until that point.

Colin Puffer: One of the first bands in the new Tranzac era was Saint Dirt Elementary School. And somehow [band member] Myk Freedman convinced Bruce [the manager at the time] that they were a Dixieland band. And it just sort of grew from that. A whole bunch of people found it to be a comfortable place to play and told their friends about it.

2003
George Reinblatt, writer of acclaimed off-Broadway show Evil Dead the Musical: I remember when we first went in, I’d never been there before and I went to scout it for Evil Dead and they had a trap door built into their stage. In Evil Dead, a whole lot of the show relies on a trap door, so I was like, “That’s it, we’re doing it here, no matter what.” There have been some magic times there; we had no formal ticketing system so we had people lined up down the street all the way to The Bloor to get into the show.

Owen Pallett, multi-instrumentalist and winner of the first Polaris Prize as Final Fantasy:
The reasons why I would go there the most is when it became the favourite haunt of the Rat-drifting [label] guys, like Deep Dark United. I’m friends with all of them now, but at the time I would just kind of lurk there and listen to them.

Chris Eaton, bandleader of Pitchfork-lauded group Rock Plaza Central: As a band, we wouldn’t have grown the way we did [without the Tranzac], and we wouldn’t have been able to play the shows we did in many places in Toronto. Certainly there was no pressure on us in the early days, but even if no one shows up we probably would have drank enough to make it worthwhile for the bar to be open. We played a show there once and some guy comes in who had just moved into town and he was passing by and heard music playing so he came in and he says something like: “Is this an open mic?” And I say: “It is now.” and we got him up and let him play whatever he wanted and we just played around it. And it was really fun.

2004
Lina Allemano, DownBeat Magazine-approved trumpeter and bandleader: The Tranzac is my favorite place to play music in Toronto, hands down, and it has been ever since I discovered it, something like six or more years ago. As my music evolved into a more improvised or “avant” nature over the years, I found the Tranzac to be a welcoming and very comfortable place to experiment, take musical risks, and have total artistic freedom to do what I wanted to do. I have felt nothing but total support, encouragement, and enthusiasm for my music from everyone who has ever worked there — and that is not something you can say for very many venues anywhere.

2006
Steve Kado, founder of collective-run record label Blocks Recording Club: The interest initially in housing Blocks at the Tranzac came about because some Blocks acts were very involved in the Tranzac. The other thing that made it seem like a good match was that the Tranzac was the only venue in Toronto that operated on something other than exclusively business-minded ends. Up until that point, Blocks had been run out of wherever I was living, but with the Final Fantasy record spiraling up and out of our control it was getting to be impossible for me to keep living in a house full of records all the time. So we had to move Blocks out of my house but we couldn’t put it just anywhere. The Tranzac made sense to us then.

Richard “Friendly Rich” Marsella, vaudevillian bandleader and creator of the Brampton Indie Arts Festival: I have incredibly fond memories of the Tranzac, and evolving our absurd cabaret show The Friendly Rich Show on their stage. I cherish the fact that they provided me with a clean slate to soil, and we did just that, leaving everything from crushed watermelons to an organ on their stage and they’ve always just accepted it and never given me grief for being a weirdo who makes messes. The Tranzac is one of those venues where I can say that I’ve left a few stains as an artist. Some may say that stains are materialistic, but I can’t help place incredible importance on every one of them.

Casey Mecija, leader of indie-pop ensemble Ohbijou: The Tranzac has always had an open door policy and I started playing there by myself in front of very small audiences. It was just a safe space to try new things. There were also a lot of community activist events that I used to attend. It became a centre for a lot of different things. There were nights like Colour Me Drag, in support of the queer-persons-of-colour community in the city. They really just let you create and play music as you wish. You always feel very welcome there.

George Reinblatt: I wish Evil Dead could stay in a place like that forever. People just loved it. There were people who went to [see it in] New York — and they’re right in the middle of the theatre district —and I remember people pulling me aside saying, “I wish it was still at the Tranzac.” It was a crazy place to be and I wouldn’t be where I am without it.

Bummer in the Summer was a weekend-long avant-indie festival dreamed up by InYrDisk label boss and former EYE WEEKLY contributor Kevin Hainey. For three nights in August of 2006, the Tranzac played host to everyone from noise-mongers Oneida and Nadja to art-popsters Laura Barrett and goth-blues troubadour Timber Timbre.

2007
Stuart Duncan, founder of record label Out of This Spark: For me personally, the Friends in Bellwoods show was kind of the birth of our label but it was also an interesting time. When we did that first Friends in Bellwoods show, it was, like, holy shit, this was a crazy moment in time. It wasn’t such a massive lineup of bands but there was a lineup of 400-500 people. They were down the block and around the corner before we’d even opened the doors. And it was surreal to think that a show like that could generate that much of an audience.

Simone Schmidt, singer/songwriter for One Hundred Dollars: There was a period of my life where I spent so much time at the Tranzac that I could not isolate one moment as my first. It was a good place to see roots music in a setting that was a bar but not super bar-like, which is a challenge that roots musicians face when they decide to play outside of their home. Like, you can’t always play in your house, but it’s nice when you are in a place that feels a little like your house.

2010
Colin Puffer: The other night, David Woodhead’s Confabulation was playing, which includes David on bass and Doug Wilde on keyboards and in the audience were two members of Spiral Beach: Doug’s daughter Maddy Wilde and one of the Woodhead kids.

Owen Pallett: The thing about it is that it isn’t just about bands. You go there for craft fairs. People go there for fiddle lessons. I think I went there for a therapy session once. There’s so much stuff going on there, and they also serve beer. But just the fact that it is a non-profit is something that’s really important. It’s really going to be the place to support this sort of community. There’s something otherworldly about the Tranzac; it feels like a combination of this very Canadian community centre sort of thing crossed with this European atmosphere.

Bob Wiseman, musician: What makes the Tranzac a unique place is the fact that it is like a small town within the corporate landscape of Toronto. In the course of running a business, many places primarily focus on profit but the Tranzac negotiates this while also building of community and fostering volunteerism.

John Sladek: I think one of the things that people like is that if you said you were going to open a club that was going to be indie rockers and hipsters and folkies and noise bands, people would have thought you were a nutcase. But it works here.

Read the full article here.

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