Laying the Groundwerk

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      Electronic music often happens at a distance. With the rise of the Internet, producers can swap sounds over a global network without meeting face to face. Dissatisfied with how this remote production eclipses the joy of “record-store run-ins”, one Vancouver event is putting the personal back into dance music.

      Groundwerk is the 100-mile diet for electronic-music enthusiasts. Dubbed a “listening party” by its founders, the event has a simple premise: Vancouver’s producers submit their tracks to be played end to end, and an audience that includes Lotusland label reps, promoters, and dance music fans offers feedback. With its smorgasbord of genres, Groundwerk cooks up a feast of local samples.

      Founder Joel Cottingham—a seasoned DJ under the name Joel West—first identified the need for this city-based network. Frustrated by Vancouver’s lack of integration, he created Groundwerk as a hub to connect homegrown talent, firmly believing that community pushes each artist to improve. His event offers a noncompetitive space for dance musicians to hone their skills.

      “In electronic music we’re basically all shy, introverted nerds,” Cottingham says with a laugh, hunched over a table in a booth at the ANZA Club. “We spend a lot of time alone with a laptop—we don’t actually socialize, generally. Especially not with so many of us together. Groundwerk is about cultivation, it’s about sharing, it’s about peer mentorship. There’s the party and the consumptive side of electronic music—and this feels like family.”

      Cottingham practises what he preaches. Along with fellow organizers Steph Parkes and Nickolas Collinet, Cottingham boasts a comprehensive address book and a willingness to call in some favours. Each Groundwerk event features a keynote speaker drawn from Vancouver’s expansive musical network. With past presenters including producer and performer Queensyze, BCIT’s Music Business Program instructor Chris Brandt, and Nordic Trax label head Luke McKeehan, the event brings a wide range of local mentors into the Groundwerk fold.

      “Everybody in the room has something to share,” Cottingham says. “It’s the Bill Nye quote: ‘Everyone knows something you don’t!’ This is a place to be curious and inquisitive, and you don’t have to be a producer to be here.”

      Cottingham is quick to point out how Groundwerk’s ethos of collaboration has transformed its artists’ success.

      “In one of our early events we gave away some studio time—a four-hour session,” Cottingham recalls. “It was a random draw. Karsten Sollors—who recently signed a track to Toolroom Records and is one of Vancouver’s most talented producers—met Sam Steele from [local duo] Diana Boss that night. They hit it off so much they decided that if one of them won, they’d take the other into the studio with them. Karsten won, honoured the pact, and in those four hours they wrote a track called ‘Serve’. And they signed it to Deko-ze’s label in Toronto.

      “Are they both great and should they both be releasing music? Yes, absolutely,” Cottingham says. “But that wouldn’t have happened without Groundwerk.”

      Cottingham’s event might be about connecting local talent, but recent months have seen musicians from Groundwerk’s community gain traction outside of Canada. Now entering its second year, the collective plans to cement its status in the global arena—and it’s off to a flying start.

      The group’s last showcase saw two Groundwerk artists spinning alongside Detroit techno godfather Kevin Saunderson and his son Dantiez. Next month, a number of the society’s DJs will support U.K. legend Dave Angel in two venues across the city. Aiming to capitalize on this success, the group has some exciting news.

      “Groundwerk is going to launch a label,” Cottingham says. “We’ve spent the last year looking inwards, building an in-person network for Vancouver’s DJs, producers, and enthusiasts. Now we have all this talent and wonderful music, and we’re going to send it out beyond our borders. We want to make another tool for our community of artists.”

      Groundwerk’s expanding model is part of a larger movement across the city. Vancouver Art & Leisure’s flourishing event Around B.C. exclusively showcases DJs from the province. Long-standing online group Vancouver Producers Forum has begun orchestrating meetups to swap technical composition tips. And Fortune Sound Club’s new offering Cooking links the city’s premier producers with aspiring Lotusland artists.

      “Groundwerk and all these other exciting events are growing as a grassroots pushback against commercial EDM,” Cottingham says. “The big-room stuff and all the hype was great for a few years. Now the world is ready for local nuance. You see the rise of arts groups and label crews. This is the new thing.

      “There’s so much stuff bubbling up across Canada right now,” he continues. “And we’re starting to make a very connected scene in our region. I think that by building strength in our local area, we can take the ethos of community support nationally. Groundwerk helps local artists. And when we provide a stage for each other’s music, our community can go so far.”

      Groundwerk takes place at the ANZA Club on the fourth Wednesday of every month. Its one-year showcase is at Lost + Found café on May 28.