Canadian Music Week is a well-known, yet greatly under-appreciated 7 day event featuring, among other things, the best in underground music from Canada and across the world. While the annual CMW is an event designed to create a networking opportunity for the movers and shakers in the music world, arguably the best feature of this multi-day festival is the platform it provides for up-and-coming artists and bands. One of such bands is Ontario indie/folk four-piece Wild Rivers, who played at the CMW showcase at the Silver Dollar on Tuesday, May 3rd.
The inception of the band dates back to 2012 when the two vocalists Devan & Khalid met while studying at Queen’s University. While in school, they joined forces to become Devan & Khalid, a musical duo with a debut EP This Town that not only enjoyed massive radio play, but also earned them a spot on CBC Searchlight’s Top 10 New Artists list in 2015. Wild Rivers features the combined talents of Devan and Khalid, as well as the musical talents of drummer Ben Labenski and bassist Andrew Oliver. Wild Rivers is among Toronto’s emerging crop of new indie folk talent that draws influences as much from the folk genre as it does from the indie scene.
Only a few weeks after the release of their highly-anticipated debut album, the band played their first show at CMW. In a surprising move, the folk/indie foursome played their debut CMW show at the Silver Dollar Room. I will preface this by saying that I rank the Silver Dollar Room as one of the top 10 live music venues in Toronto…for certain genres of music. The venue setup and acoustics are well suited for high-energy bass, guitar riffs and hard-core punk vocals. It is not one of the first places that pops into mind when you think of the type of mellow ballads that the Wild Rivers’ write and perform. To their credit however, they made it work. The vocals by Devan and Khalid were resilient and powerful. The band performed like a team that has been working together for years, transitioning seamlessly between their slower ballads and high-energy sing-alongs. Playing alongside bands such as Ready the Prince and Lost Cousins, the band’s stellar set at the grungy venue was a great way to start the CMW festivities.
I got a chance to talk with the band before their debut at CMW:
NU- Initially Devan and Khalid was formed when you were both attending Queen’s University. Tell me about how you guys came together and about balancing a full time education and pursuing music full time.
Devan– It started off as a hobby; a fun side thing. We both wanted to involve ourselves in music somehow. School definitely gets in the way, you can’t really commit much of your time to it. But we did as much as we can. Throughout the years we got more and more serious about it, we started playing more and more shows.
Khalid– … became less diligent students.
Devan– True. GPAs went down as the music went up. By the middle of fourth year, we were pretty sure that this was what we wanted to take seriously and pursue after school. Exams in fourth year were just terrible.
NU- How did Devan and Khalid then evolve to Wild Rivers?
Khalid– We were recording our album that we just released. Ben was a friend of mine in University, so we played a couple of times together, just casually. He showed me some beats for some of the songs we were working on and it was at the same time that we were recording our album, so it kind of fit to add in the fully-fleshed version of the songs. Through Ben we met Andrew who started playing and coming up with stuff for songs. And it all kind of came together as we were doing our record.
NU- Your name derives from the poem “The River” by Gregory Orr. Why did you choose this particular phrase from that poem?
Devan– It wasn’t so much that we read the poem and chose the name. It was a long process of coming up with new names. We knew we wanted to change our name and re-brand, and since it was the four of us, we wanted to have something that defined the new band. We were just thinking of lots of different names (for over a year); we knew we liked the theme of nature. From then we kind of stumbled upon the poem and we related to it in the sense that it kind of encapsulated the journey that we had gone through to get there.
Khalid– The line that really spoke to us from that was the last one that said something about plunging into the wild river. It was a fitting metaphor for taking it seriously and taking the plunge into music and going for it.
NU- The lyrics to your songs are very profound. Khalid, as the band’s main lyricist, where do you draw your writing inspiration from?
Khalid– My song writing inspirations are the classics: the Bob Dylan’s, the Joni Mitchell’s and for my writing personally, I think a lot of it comes from a place of sadness or negative emotion that spawns creativity. Very few of my songs, at least the ones that are any good, come from me being in a happy place. It’s usually from my down days; it’s a therapeutic thing. That’s when I find I’ve written the songs that really speak to me. It’s a bittersweet thing that I have to be in a crummy mood to come up with a good song.
NU- Does that scare you a little bit in the long run?
Khalid- I don’t know, maybe sometimes. I haven’t written a song in a while because I feel like I’m pretty happy these days.
Band- We gotta sabotage you somehow (laughs)
Khalid- That’s what I said to my girlfriend the other day, ‘you gotta dump me ‘cause I haven’t written a song in months’.
NU- Tell me about your musical influences.
Khalid– I think I’m definitely the pusher in the country direction, much to the dismay of the rest of us. But I think country is very similar to folk and my influences are definitely in that realm.
Devan– We all have pretty different influences, although we all kind of merge quite a lot. We all have different sides to us with very diverse influences.
Khalid– Which I think comes out in the diversity of our songs. There are songs on the record that sound completely different than any other ones. We’ve got some rock, soul, pop-rock.
NU- What are some band milestones you’ve had so far?
Devan– The CBC Searchlight last year was a huge milestone for us and it was super exciting. It was when we were still Devan and Khalid. But it was right at the end of university and we were pretty upset that we were moving out and leaving Queens and saying goodbye to all our friends. Meanwhile the competition was going on. And I remember mid-move out day we found out that we won for Toronto and we were in the top 10. Me and Khalid were just like in his kitchen and everything was half moved out, it was a pretty sad scene. But then we heard them announce it on the radio and it was so exciting. That was a milestone in the sense that it broke us into Toronto a little bit more because we were primarily based in Kingston, about to move to Toronto, and it was really daunting being in such a big music city. So that was very exciting to have that little positive motivation when we got here.
Khalid– Our first full band show was in Kingston and we opened for Alvvys. I’ll never forget that, that was awesome. And a show we did in Kingston when we announced Wild Rivers as our new name. That was also a really special one.
Andrew– First tour is also a huge milestone, as well as Adelaide Hall. All of this happened in the last couple of months.
Ben– CD release was also a huge deal.
NU- What was that like, the album release?
Devan– It was crazy, we were so scared that we wouldn’t fill the place and then half an hour before we were about to go up, we found out that it was at capacity and there was a line up outside and we just felt…we were happy but also terrified.
Khalid– A lot of people all for us too. It wasn’t just like there happened to be a lot of people in the place. It was our release party. So many people from every stage of our career had come together. It was cathartic. We had this climax of everything we’ve ever done; we released our album and the energy in there was just insane. I was almost sick when we came off stage, it was so intense.
NU- How has living in Toronto affected your music?
Khalid– All of our favourite bands are Canadian. Canada has the best breeding ground for music, in my biased opinion.
Andrew– There are really great systems in place like radio contenting where they have to play Canadian music, that helps. Grant programs and stuff like that create a very supportive environment.
Khalid– Practically, a very supportive environment that has definitely shaped us. The Toronto scene is awesome. There are so many cool bands that are taking off out of Toronto now. The whole synth-pop scene with bands like Brave Shores is definitely cool.
NU- Do you also find, however, that the presence of so much musical talent makes it harder to break out in Toronto?
Devan– I wouldn’t say it’s a problem, but it definitely makes it more intimidating because there are so many bands. Most nights in Toronto, you can probably go and catch a live show. It’s intimidating, but I don’t like to think of it as a competition as much. It’s cool to be able to meet other bands, and network and learn about them. As long as you try to find a unique way of standing out based on the type of music you play and how you promote yourself, it’s good to have so many great bands around you.
Khalid– When you do break through, it’s that much more of an accomplishment, you feel like…amongst all these other bands that you see, you’ve carved out a spot for yourself and that’s kind of cool.
Andrew– Also, if you find your niche, it’s not saturated. It’s not like California where everyone is a musician. Even within our genre there’s not a ridiculous number of bands to the point where we get washed away.
NU- Without music, I would be:
Ben– In grad school
Devan– In grad school for psychology
Andrew– A magician
Ben– I’d also be down to be a magician (all laugh)
“If this doesn’t work, should we just be a troupe of magicians?”