Decades on from the Halifax music scene’s heyday in the mid-90s, those involved in that era are reflecting on how it came to be, who was left out of the spotlight, and what its legacy is.
Among the guitar-based bands that helped define the time was Plumtree, fronted by guitarist and singer Carla Gillis.
Today, Gillis is a registered psychotherapist living in Waverley, N.S., and still makes music. But her introduction to music started before the mid-90s, with her parents’ love of local music.
“It was always Celtic music. They’re Cape Bretoners, lots of ceilidhs,” she said. “Seeing them go to dances very regularly really gave us ideas about being involved in a music community and just wanting to get out there and do it too.”
Celtic music coming out of Cape Breton was swelling in the early 90s, with acts like the Rankin Family and Ashley MacIsaac helping to pave the way for a poppier sound.
“The Rankin Family really helped establish a music industry here that helped tons of the Halifax pop explosion bands too,” Gillis said, referencing a moniker for the city’s music scene in the 90s.
It was around this time that Gillis, on guitar, and her sister Lynette, on drums, began jamming in their basement and going to metal shows at an old theatre on Gottingen Street. They formed Plumtree in 1993 with three of their friends, Amanda Braden, Nina Martin and Catriona Sturton.
“Back then it was like, ‘hey, there’s an urban voice here with something to say … we can also be loud and noisy and interesting,” Gillis said.
The band brought them out of their basement and onto the stage in the city’s buzzing music scene.
“We couldn’t have picked a better time to start a band. There was so much going on in Halifax at that time,” Gillis said.
‘It was electric, it was alive’
One venue, in particular, was a cornerstone of the scene: Café Ole, on Barrington Street. It rivaled downtown bars for must-see shows despite it being an all-ages, no-alcohol venue. It could fit about 250 people and was always packed.
“Sloan was the first band to perform. It went over really well and we started incorporating more bands along the way and it just went from there,” said Condon MacLeod, who owned and operated Café Ole.
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Everyone wanted to play there and everyone had the chance to, MacLeod said, with the venue showcasing everything from metal to hip-hop to Christian rock.
“It was so rewarding to see some of these bands go on to bigger and better things, nationally, internationally even. It was like an incubator for all this incredible talent coming up the scene in Halifax, it was electric, it was alive,” he said.
“We kind of took it for granted … but Halifax was dubbed ‘the new Seattle.'”
‘The new Seattle’
That was a loaded nickname. Seattle had made grunge go global thanks to bands like Nirvana. In the wake of that city’s success, record labels turned their sights to the East Coast, where that same youthful energy was being channelled into something less grungy and more melodic.
Seattle’s Sub Pop Records signed Moncton’s Eric’s Trip and Halifax’s Jale.
“There was a lot of tenacity, naivete, which we didn’t really know any better. We just kept going and working hard,” said Jale’s Eve Hartling.
“We got a lot of encouragement, we got a lot of support, we got a lot of help from other musicians, other bands … So that was really unique.”
But California-based Geffen Records picked up on the band that would become the defining success of the decade: Sloan.
“We just got lucky. We were in the right place at the right time. We owe a huge debt to what came before us,” said Andrew Scott, the band’s drummer.
Sloan has become one of the best-selling bands in Canada, and Scott says the city they came up in played a role in their success.
“Halifax just has this kind of a special uniqueness to it. There are so many students, so many young, hungry creative heads out there that are looking for outlets,” he said.
Bands began to flock to the city, like The Inbreds, who pulled up their Ontario roots and moved east in 1996.
“We thought, ‘OK, well we’ve always loved Halifax, why don’t we just go there?'” said Inbreds drummer Dave Ullrich.
A different glory days
The 90s scene was dominated by alternative rock — but other musicians active at the time didn’t get the same attention.
Four the Moment were trailblazers in the local music industry, who got their start at an anti-KKK rally in the early 80s.
“The truth of the matter was, there was the white music scene and there was the Black music scene. So sometimes when we say the ‘glory days’ of the music scene, we’re often referring to the white music scene,” said Delvina Bernard, who formed Four the Moment along with her sister Kim Bernard, Jackie Barkley and Deanna Sparks.
“Mind you, there were glory days in the Black music scene, too. But the narratives are different.”
Four the Moment played a vital role in molding Nova Scotia’s gospel, R&B and reggae sound. But Bernard said the band didn’t have the same kind of infrastructure beneath them as the guitar pop acts of the day.
Bernard is still active in the music community, sitting on the East Coast Music Awards board and pushing to make the industry more diverse and inclusive.
“I hope that when somebody comes to interview Keonte [Beals] and when someone comes to interview Aquakultre and Zamani and they say to them, ‘so tell me about the glory days of the 2020s,’ that their story will be inclusive, an inclusive glory-day story.”
The Halifax music scene has evolved from what it was in the 80s and 90s, but its legacy lives on.
In the mailbox at Carla Gillis’s house — almost 30 years after Plumtree’s debut album — she received a Scott Pilgrim figurine. Scott Pilgrim was a single by Plumtree that inspired a popular comic book series and the cult classic movie, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.
For Gills, the biggest impact of that time is that it showed up-and-coming musicians they could make it in the business on their own terms.
“I think the pop explosion showed people how much you can do without huge industry support,” she said. “Festivals have come and gone. But bands figuring out how to do things with very few resources, I don’t know if that’s going to end here, and I think there’s a lot of value in it.”