Ruby Coast

Sitting down with members of Newmarket’s Ruby Coast is a different experience from most rock interviews. For one, they’re among the few interview subjects I’ve had that are universally younger than I am—they all graduated from high school in recent memory, and one of them has yet to turn twenty.

Another difference is how completely devoid of pretense the whole experience is. Guitarist and singer Justice McLellan (yes, that’s his real name), the band’s de facto spokesperson, is extremely courteous, self effacing, and maybe even a bit shy. It seems like nothing gets him upset. Well, maybe one thing, but even then he becomes only slightly annoyed.

“Please don’t ask me any Tokyo Police Club stuff,” he requests at the outset. “I just get asked that a lot.”

I can understand why. Journalists consistently lump the band in with many of their Toronto contemporaries, including TPC and Born Ruffians, though to be fair, elements of their sound resemble these acts more than a little. Ruby Coast’s three-chord riffs are dressed up with the same bouncy synths, gang vocals, handclaps, and plaintiff yelps that are paramount to the songs of their forebears. Critics, in particular, seem unwilling to give up on the shorthand of easy comparisons.

But McLellan is hesitant to lump anyone together.

“I don’t think of it as any kind of movement—I’m friends with all these people, but we don’t talk about what kind of music we’re making. We just don’t think about that.”

Looking more carefully at their sound, Ruby Coast clearly share a deep affinity for power pop and dance rock in a way their contemporaries don’t. More than anything else, they’re one of those bands in love with the idea of being in a band in the first place.

“There’s nothing else that gives me that sort of energy,” explains McLellan. “We have a lot of fun on stage, when we’re all up there together. Any anxiety from the day, it disappears when we’re up there.”

It’s hard not to ask the group about their youth in the interview, since their music sounds so deeply connected to it. They make the songs that veteran acts would be criticized for. But Ruby Coast can’t be faulted for sounding like a bunch of friends having a ball making music—because that’s exactly what they are.

“Maybe I’m not copying [bassist] Mark [Robert Whiting]’s notes in English class,” admits McLellan, when asked what’s changed with the pressures of touring. “I’ve learned to develop as a person [around these guys]. And when we get back from touring, we still hang out. We go back to our jam space and get wings.”

But of course, there are normal pressures that come with being in any touring band.

“If anybody had to hang out with the same people day in, day out, and had to sleep in beds with them, and on floors with them, I don’t care who they are, you’re going to get tired of them. But we love each other, so it works out. It’s marriage!”

Between travelling, the band still hangs out in Newmarket, where they live to keep costs down.

“We hang out at this barn and make music there. My father’s a musician as well, and bought this barn—it used to have height on the ground and everything. But now he’s converted it to a studio.”

And how do their barn recordings sound, exactly?

“The barn’s mostly for writing songs and stuff. We’re working in a professional studio…now,” he notes, dryly.

But the guys don’t indulge in all of the frivolities of youth. One thing that sets Ruby Coast apart from many young bands is the sense of discipline they’ve built up. On tour, the band prefers rest to booze almost every time.

“Sleep is something your body craves and needs. If we call it a night and go for breakfast the next morning, it feels great. Don’t include that—that’s not very rock star of me.”

They even have a designated tour dad.

“Mark, the bass player, is sort of a father figure. He kind of takes care of us and lets us know if we’re doing something we shouldn’t be doing. But he’s not too much like a dad. He joins in on the fun, and it’s not weird, like it would be if you were hanging out with your buddies and your dad was trying to be one of the guys. It’s just that we have a set of eyes on us all the time.”

The band is in the GTA for now, recording a full-length album at Chemical Sound Studios (the site which formed the creation of TPC and Born Ruffians’ latest efforts, along with Canadian pop-rock classics like Sloan’s Navy Blues), which they hope to have mastered soon. But this spring, they’ll be back on the road, again with TPC, touring the United States and playing at Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest Festival.

Reaching the end of our talk, TPC comes up again, and I ask the obvious question, largely to placate my torturing music journalist’s temptation to make obvious comparisons: who would win in a fight, Ruby Coast or Tokyo Police Club?

“Definitely us. We have much more hair on our chests. They’re kind of scrawny,” says McLellan, in his sole moment of bravado.

The Varsity’s Off the Record rock show starring Foxfire, Ruby Coast, and Boys Who Say No Thursday, January 22 / Hart House Great Hall / All ages, $5 / Doors 8pm

Palestinians in Toronto enraged at Canada’s support for Israel’s war

“This isn’t really a new war, it’s been going on for a long time,” says Abdel Karim, a Palestinian student studying finance at UTM. “Talk to any Palestinian here and he’ll say, ‘Okay, so they dropped some bombs, in a couple weeks it’ll stop and then it will happen again.’ It’s the same thing.”

The sequence of events following Dec. 27 2008 when Israel launched its ongoing offensive attack against Gaza, was predictable. The Arab-Israeli conflict captured the focus of the international media. As numbers totaling the dead and wounded spewed from humanitarian agencies, calls for diplomacy from the international community went unheeded.

The Palestinian student community here in Toronto has come to expect this usual unfolding of events.

Like most third generation Palestinians living outside the territories, Abdel has spent time growing up in different countries. Born in Croatia, Abdel moved to the U.S. when he was three months old. Just six years ago, his family decided to immigrate to Canada. Despite never having set foot on Gazan soil, Abdel says, “I am Palestinian before anything.”

In the past, when the territories succumbed to military violence, Abdel would contact his two cousins attending Khan Younis University. Any attempt to reach them since December has been futile due to electricity cuts, making communication impossible.

Hamman Farah, a recent graduate of York University, has managed to maintain contact with members of his extended family in Gaza City including his grandmother, aunts, uncles, and other distant relatives. Relaying their sentiment since the attacks, he describes their fear: “They are terrified. There is a shortage of bread, and the water is dirty. They have to boil it to clean it up […] There is a constant debate whether to stay home, or go somewhere else.”

“My family keeps telling me, ‘We are miserable here, we want to leave but we can’t.’ They describe Gaza today as hell on earth.”

Hamman was born in Gaza City, and spent much of his childhood in Gaza and the United Arab Emirates before immigrating to Canada in 1991.

Before the Israeli blockade made traveling to Gaza problematic, Hamman used to spend every summer there. According to him, Gazans lead a “ghetto life,” as most are poor and have little opportunity while constantly under surveillance.

Both Hammam and Abdel find activism to be the best means to cope with the turmoil back home. Abdel is president of the Arab Student Association at UTM and Hamman participates in fundraising and awareness raising activities with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid.

Rafeef Ziadeh, a third-generation Palestinian, activist, and PhD candidate at York University, also identifies with the cause. “Most Palestinians are born into the Palestinian struggle from a very early age,” he says. “Whether they are born in Palestine or a part of the Diaspora, the issue touches Palestinians and non-Palestenians and it is resonates especially with students.”

Ziadeh attests that the general sentiment of Palestinian students in Toronto is directed against the Canadian government and its decision to remain detached from the crisis while supporting Israel. Canada was the only nation on the U.N. human rights council to oppose a motion condemning Israel’s attacks.

At the end of the third week of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, the death toll has passed 1,000. Israel has brought in reserve forces, pushing into more populated urban centers. Meanwhile, the Hamas rockets launched into Southern Israel and blamed for the invasion continue, casting a shadow on the success of the Israeli mission.

A coalition of student groups opposing the Gaza invasion will be meeting today (Thursday) at Sid Smith room 1073 starting at 4:00 p.m.

Boys Who Say No

Boys Who Say No look the part of a Toronto indie band—scruffy, polite, and boyishly handsome, yet pleasantly wry and self-deprecating. But for a while back in 2007, it didn’t seem likely that this charming indie pop/country outfit would even exist.

“I lost my voice,” says lead singer and guitarist Luke Correia-Damude over burgers and coffee at Dundas and Ossington diner The Lakeview Lunch. “I had a cyst on my vocal chord, and had to have microscopic surgery. I couldn’t sing for about a year, so I had a lot of time to think about music.”

Correia-Damude’s inaudible soul searching managed to yield positive results. When he finally recovered, he recruited his old classmates from Etobicoke School of the Arts, drummer Frank Cox-O’Connell and Mike Lobel, who plays melodica and keyboards (among other “doodads”) to form Boys Who Say No. “We were all really worried [about Luke],” admits Cox-O’Connell. “We’d all known each other for almost ten years.”

The Boys’ bond is quickly apparent as they joke about their days in former bands. Correia-Damude and Lobel reminisce about their Latin-reggae endeavor Civilian, while Cox-O’Connell refuses to reveal the name of a project he worked on with Luke. “It’s too embarrassing,” he says. “We were in high school.”

After graduating, the guys followed their own paths. Cox-O’Connell headed to Montréal to attend the National Theatre School, Lobel starred in the hit Canadian TV show Degrassi: The Next Generation, and Correia-Damude opened College Street’s Whippersnapper Gallery. But they held onto their passion for music. “We all like going to see rock shows,” says Cox-O’Connell. “We wanted to put on the type of show we’d like to go see.”

So when Correia-Damude gathered the guys to form the group, there was plenty of common ground. “We all listen to a lot of pop music,” says Cox-O’Connell. Correia-Damude elaborates: “That was a development for me, realizing that it’s okay to write a dance song or a pop song, and it doesn’t make it any less of an achievement.” But Lobel is quick to highlight the band’s cheeky disposition: “We’re being ironic with pop music, sort of poking fun at it.”

With three guys collaborating on material, the group was almost complete. “People would come and see us and say, ‘You guys should have a bass player, like in a real band,’” laughs Lobel. They found one in guitar teacher David Stein, whom they pilfered from Toronto’s Key Witness (Stein now plays in both groups). “Dave is the professional—I’m the least skilled of all of us, musically speaking,” admits Correia-Damude. “We all lean on Dave for the technical stuff,” adds Cox-O’Connell.

The four bandmates integrate unique influences into the group. “We’re not entirely like-minded about music,” says Lobel. “I listen to Goldfrapp and Nine Inch Nails, while Frank is really into lyrical country.” The guys do all cite Wilco’s albums Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth as big inspirations, as well as Toronto band The Sun Parlour Players. “There’s a certain playfulness that I think we share with other bands in Toronto,” says Correia-Damude, as we discuss fellow indie-popsters Born Ruffians and Ruby Coast. “It’s about us having fun on stage and in the studio,” says Cox-O’Connell. “When people come see us, I think they can see we’re four guys having a lot of fun.”

That exuberance translates onto the band’s self-titled six-song EP, which they are celebrating with a CD release party at the Whippersnapper on January 31 with Woolly Leaves, Provincial Parks, and The People of Canada. The guys are also psyched about their appearance at the Hart House Great Hall with Ruby Coast and Foxfire on Thursday, January 22. “I went to [The Varsity’s Off the Record] show last year and I had a great time, so we were happy to be asked,” says Correia-Damude. Lobel admits that he has ulterior motives: “I didn’t go to university, so I live vicariously through college students.”

The band is even willing to answer all the frequent questions about their provocative name. “We are saying no to drugs, saying no to women,” jokes Lobel, but Correia-Damude is quick set the record straight. “It originally came from an anti-draft Joan Baez poster that Frank had.” In an effort to up the cool factor of dodging the draft, the poster’s slogan declared Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No. “But we’re not a political band,” he attests, and Lobel is quick to jump in. “We’re in the politics of romance,” he quips, grinning.

While the boys are busy with their day jobs, they make as much time as possible for the band. “I love playing music, so I’ve been shaping my life to fit that,” says Correia-Damude. While Stein admits the band would love to go on tour, they have to take their schedules into consideration. But overall, Lobel says the band is optimistic about the positive buzz around the group’s catchy tracks and fun-filled live shows: “We’re going to ride this wherever it takes us.”

The Varsity’s Off the Record rock show starring Foxfire, Ruby Coast, and Boys Who Say No Thursday, January 22 / Hart House Great Hall / All ages, $5 / Doors 8pm

Just the Facts: Get on Governing Council

Though cynics might have you believe the big decisions at U of T are made in smoke-filled rooms out of sight and off the record, this has not officially been the case for some time.

The Governing Council, U of T’s highest decision-making body, is holding its annual elections to seat eight elected student representatives. Students, whether they be ambitious resume-padders or fiery reform advocates, have until Friday, Jan. 23 to enter the race.

With students holding eight out of the 50 seats, the student voice has traditionally been muted at best. Despite years of efforts, student representation on the council has been pegged at 16 per cent of the vote ever since 1972, when the university balked at the original plan to give equal representation to faculty, students, and staff on the council. The group’s 50 members consist of the president, the chancellor, two presidential appointees, two staff members, eight students, eight alumni, 12 professors, and 16 provincial appointees. Needless to say, the annual turnover of student governors means many come into the job behind the curve set by the council’s more permanent members.

Despite students being a small bloc, a seat on GC is a serious chance to change the university. Student governors must build alliances if they’re to make their voice heard. However in recent years, even they have not provided a meaningful dissenting voice. Only one of your representatives was opposed when GC voted to increase your fees by a 4.6 per cent on average last year.

Just this year, the university’s controversial 21-year Towards 2030 plan passed without opposition amidst protest from student unions, approving drastic changes to the school’s basic direction and funding structure.

Student governors will vote on everything that comes before the council. Take the time to read the many packages of privileged information you’ll receive about upcoming votes. You’ll have a say about the (very) big money at U of T, and in the policies that shape everyday life on campus.

Any domestic student can run for GC. You can nominate yourself until Jan 23 by contacting GC. They keep a list of rules for running a campaign. and The Varsity will print your statement (basically, your platform boiled down to a paragraph).

To run, or if you have any questions, contact the election’s Chief Returning Officer Nancy Smart at nancy.smart@utoronto.ca.

Top of the class

The prospect of seeing a film in which an idealistic teacher spreads the gift of knowledge to a troubled, lower middle class school is not an enticing one. There are enough “inspirational teacher” movies to fill a whole section at Blockbuster, and not a single one is convincing. Thanks, but I’ve had plenty of fine teachers in my day, and all of them have had the courtesy to a) not stand on their desks, and b) not be Robin Williams.

Laurent Cantet’s The Class, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, is an adaptation of François Bégaudeau’s book about his difficult experiences as an idealistic teacher, starring Bégaudeau as a fictionalized version of himself. The Class begins with François’ struggle to earn the respect and cooperation of his seventh grade class—particularly a troubled, disruptive boy named Souleymane (Franck Keita)—in scenes that practically set the audience up for a French-language version of Lean on Me. But The Class doesn’t take the easy route. This is a film that follows François’ experiences as they would almost certainly occur in real life: uneven, sometimes inspiring, but often simply frustrating as he struggles to control and motivate his class.

Among the greatest virtues of The Class is its authenticity. In contrast to the clichéd school age characters we see in most movies, the children in The Class are deeply rooted in reality. In an interview with Laurent Cantet, I mention that the character of Wei (Wei Haung), a studious Chinese boy whose parents face possible deportation, is particularly vivid.

“Originally in the script the way it was written, there was a Chinese character, except his name was Ming,” says Cantet. “And he was a very shy boy, and he wouldn’t speak for fear of making mistakes in French. And then we met Wei, who was totally the opposite, because he loves to talk, and he loves a good argument, and he loves to speak, period. And there was no point in asking Wei to shut up and become somebody he’s not, so what was Ming in the original script became Wei based on the real Wei.”

Cantet used elements of improvisation for most of the major roles, explaining that he developed characters “by working with the students for a very long time, getting to know them, and respecting who they are. And also by creating the characters on the basis of what the students put forward.”

The drama about Wei’s parents’ deportation takes place largely in the background, operating like an intrusion on the school’s closed universe. “The idea was to show that the school was neither a sanctuary nor a fortress, and therefore everything that happens in the country has an effect on the school,” says Cantet. “The school is a wonderful place because it enables you to integrate these kids into the adult world, but at the same time it excludes a lot of the kids. This co-existence of the two is on the one hand inevitable, but at the same time is tragic. This is what I felt when I made the movie.”

While François means well, he never becomes the “inspirational teacher” he clearly desires to be. I suggest to Cantet that the film is ambiguous in its depiction of François—is he really a good teacher, or does he fall prey to corruption (for example, downplaying his involvement in the film’s climactic conflict)?

Cantet is more forgiving. “François is an idealist. He tries to create a level playing field between himself and his class, but it is the system that’s stopping him. If he’s got a dilemma, for instance, he keeps asking whether there should be a meeting of the disciplinary committee. But ultimately, he knows that he’s got the last word because of the way the system’s set up.”

The Class opens Friday, January 16.

York strikers to vote on latest contract

The 10-week-old TA and contract faculty strike at York University could end as early as next week if a vote passes to accept the latest contract offer from the school’s administration. CUPE 3903, the Union representing the striking employees, is asking the 3,300 striking employees to reject the offer, calling it “substandard.” York admin claim that the new offer effectively increases wages by 0.7 per cent through benefits such as child care and professional development. If the offer is accepted, students could be back in class by the following Monday. If not, the academic year may be in jeopardy for 50,000 undergraduate students. In the meantime, the York Federation of Students is offering financially distressed undergrads $100 each as part of a relief fund.

Jerry Springer: The Opera scandalizes Hart House

Perhaps most wouldn’t normally brag about watching four adulterous lovers shred each other to ribbons before a group of screaming onlookers. But Hart House’s Canadian debut of Jerry Springer: The Opera promises to bring prestige (or at least an inbred cousin or two) to the gladiatorial freak show of daytime television. The opera’s first section is exactly what you might imagine from the title, complete with a high brow musical squabbling between an aspiring stripper, diaper fetishist, and, of course, a dangerously enthusiastic audience. But the play takes a real turn for the freaky when the show’s host is drawn from the world’s underbelly to the underworld. Forced to mediate disputes between Biblical characters, Jerry and his legendary conflict resolution methods suddenly assume roles of Wagnerian grandeur.

So how do Jerry Springer and his guests, who inspire disgust and schadenfreude in all who watch them, become the subjects of such an aggrandized art form as opera? To make sense of it all, I sat down with soprano Jocelyn Howard, who will play such characters as “Baby Jane” and “Peaches” (don’t ask).

“It’s a show to force us to examine our current culture—what we value and what we tolerate, and what we see as entertainment,” she says. “The characters in this show are not just white trash—they’re complex.” One of Baby Jane’s songs, “This is My ‘Jerry Springer’ Moment,” looks into what’s behind their desperate exhibitionism and makes these characters not merely pitiful, but sympathetic. “A ‘Jerry Springer’ moment is your fifteen minutes of fame,” says Howard. “It’s your moment in the spotlight, and you want to make it as sensational, memorable, and shocking as possible. We see that with a lot of these characters. I think of it as a moment where people think, ‘Hey, this is what my mark is going to be. This trashy and tragic thing is the most important, most significant thing I’ll ever do.’”

But soaring arias and quests for immortality aside, the show drops a ton of F-bombs (BBC chief Mark Thompson estimated around 300 expletives in the evening’s entertainment). There’s also plenty of sex and gore. “Nothing was changed or removed for fear of offense,” says Howard. “We are as offensive as possible. In a sense, that’s what the show is about, because it’s forcing people to reevaluate what we put up with.”

Thankfully, it’s clear from reading any of director Richard Ouzounian’s reviews (he is, incidentally, the theatre critic at the Toronto Star) that he has high standards. “I was worried about that at my audition,” says Howard with a big smile. “Not only is he a big cheese in the critiquing world, but he’s a really high-profile director and an artist himself. So I was imagining someone pompous, self-centered, and demanding and all of that. But he is incredible. He is amazingly creative and he makes his decisions so clear to everybody. But at the same time, he knows how to work with actors and singers, because a lot of artists are very sensitive. He really encourages us to explore and experiment on our own.”

The idea of mixing sex, swearing, and song seems to evoke South Park more than Madame Butterfly. However, composer Richard Thomas’ treatment of opera is far from dismissive. “There is definitely some mocking of opera…but in order to mock, you really have to understand the genre,” says Howard, a fourth-year voice student at U of T’s Faculty of Music. “He has a wonderful command of classical composition. Some of the music is more contemporary…but there are fugues and there are really intense counterpoints, and choral settings that are very complex. And so he does knock opera, but he really goes all in and totally understands the form. I think that’s what makes it a successful satire.”

But it’s not just opera that Springer sweeps off its pedestal. The show’s previous productions in London and New York inspired massive protests for its not-so-subtle comparison of prominent Judeo-Christian figures as petty narcissists willing to literally poop their pants to get the attention of the masses. However Howard points out that the purpose of this plot point “is not to be jerks—it’s not to say, ‘Jesus is a shit.’ It’s to put them in a new light, and say, ‘We have to question these figures that people trust without caution.’”

Although it may not be for everyone, Howard encourages skeptics to take a chance on the play. “I’m hoping that lots of different kinds of people come to it. I think it’s really important that we get an audience whom we can challenge.”

Get paid to go to school

Education think-tank says cost of education should consider tax rebates

The full length of the bars (above) represent what each student paid in tuition from the years 1997 to 2008. The Education Policy Institute argues that the real cost is denoted by the black portion of the bar—what students don’t get back from tax rebates.

The cost of education is not rising as fast as your student union would claim, says a recent study published by international think-tank, Education Policy Institute. Adjusted for inflation, Ontario university fees have risen 31.2 per cent on average since 1997-98. That number drops to 22 per cent once you subtract tax rebates available to students. Last year, the rebate for full-time students in Ontario was $2,073. The study argues that the real cost of university education is better reflected in a measure it refers to as the “ENT” or Everybody’s Net Tuition—total tuition with available tax returns deducted. By this measure, Manitobans were paid $51 to go to school in 2007-08.

UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener doesn’t agree that the ENT figure is a more effective measure of the cost of education. “The upfront cost of education is still what students are paying and what they’re seeing on their bills and what’s effecting people and what people have concerns over […] The cost of education’s going up and it’s still going up faster than inflation in a lot of ways,” he said. Scrivener adds that many students didn’t actually go through the procedure of claiming tax returns.