While enjoying breakfast on Beaubien Street in Montreal, most don’t expect the conversation to turn to the enslavement of the musical world. That, however, is exactly what tops the list of aspirations of Sebastian Cowan, co-founder of Montreal’s Arbutus Records.
“It’s definitely about world domination,” he says jokingly as he sips his coffee, a sly grin breaking across his face. “We’re very happy in our little Mile End box-community, but we are always thinking about how we can grow.”
To say that Cowan, at only 24 years of age, has his priorities straight and his game plan organized would be an understatement. After his graduation from the Gateway School of Recording in Kingston Hill, England, Sony Entertainment came knocking at Cowan’s door with hopes of signing the Saltspring Island native as the newest addition to their music and sound design team.
“That was a substantial contract that would have built a career for me with the Rock Band video game franchise,” says Cowan, showing no remorse. “I just didn’t want to do that though. I wanted to do my own thing.”
Lab SynthÃ¨se (The Lab) was Cowan’s first endeavour upon arriving in Montreal. He found an apartment in the Mile End region, moved in, and for two years, he and his flatmates would host loft parties in which they would invite friends and budding Montreal artists to play live music.
“Lots of my friends played their first shows at The Lab. We would take a meagre percentage of the admission price, but that wasn’t even enough to pay our rent,” says Cowan, speaking of the tribulations of trying to turn his home into a music venue. “Eventually, weird shit started to happen and I was dealing with more and more crap, so that spelled the end of The Lab’s two year life.”
With the death of The Lab came the birth of Arbutus Records. Cowan’s reasoning for starting the label was simple: create a music scene within his own Mile End community, and help him with the recent bout of musical boredom he was suffering from.
“This thing happened to me some time after I moved to Montreal: I stopped listening to music,” says Cowan between bites of his breakfast. “When you flip through a hundred records and don’t want to listen to any of them, there’s a problem. So the only music I listened to was music my friends made.”
Using the skills he acquired at Gateway School of Recording, Cowan began the recording process with a few of his artist friends. Many acts that had played their debut shows at The Lab were added to Arbutus’s lineup, and this gave a family-esque vibe to the label.
“All of the bands on the label may not sound the same, but it works because we are all friends,” says Cowan. “We all live in the same neighbourhood, we hang out and we help each other.”
At this point Sean Nicholas Savage &- one of the artists on the Arbutus label &- takes a break from eating his toast to pipe in.
“If I make a great record, there’s natural feelings from the others to get jealous and work harder on their next song,” he says. “We feed each other new ideas, inspire each other, and give feedback. [It helps] when everybody lives in the same community.”
Savage was attracted to Arbutus Records due to the do-it-your-way approach that the label permitted.
“When I was little, I had enough of an imagination to create my own action figures,” he said. “I could put fake blood on them, rip their arms off in battle, and I didn’t have to worry about only buying what was carried in stores. That same ideal transgressed into music, and I began to make my own as I got older.”
“Listening to other music is very enjoyable, but I’m not going to spend all day helping and promoting people I don’t know,” adds Cowan. “Very regularly I get emails from aspiring artists who want to be part of the label; a lot of it is good, but it goes against our policy and how we are doing things that are very specific to our scene.”
So what’s next for the label whose pulse is nestled in the heart of the Mile End community?
“We’re always thinking about breaking out of our box, even though it’s quite comfortable,” says Cowan. “The box is just where we live, but we want to work everywhere else now. We are thinking about going down to New York and eventually getting international distribution for our artists.”
With bands such as Blue Hawaii, Grimes, Braids and the Silly Kissers — who were chosen as one of Spin Magazine’s top five indie acts from Montreal — under the Arbutus Records label, don’t be surprised to see Cowan’s team of artists set the globe alight in pursuit of global prestige. No need to fear, however. If they stick to their guns, you can rest assured that they will take the most family-friendly approach.