Spotlight On: Laura Barrett

Uof T alumnus Laura Barrett plays the Tranzac, Sept. 27 for the festival’s opening concert. The Varsity caught up with her in Kensington market as she spilled the beans on calimbaplaying and robot ponies.

The Varsity: So how did you get started with the calimba?

Laura Barrett: It was just a product of coincidence… I was making electronic music at the time, searching for something portable on eBay and I bought one on a whim. There was this Weird ‘Al tribute show at the (now defunct) Bagel that I heard about and I decided to prepare a cover. The next theme was “robots” and I wrote “Robot Ponies.” It just took off from there… I finally feel like I’m starting to tap into new aspects of the instrument. Before, I was still trying to work it into this 4/4 pop convention and now everything’s like 12/8 and divided in different ways. I’m having a lot of fun with it.

V: Where do you get inspiration for songwriting?

LB: A combination of cognitive science and sociology… I’m pretty academic. I’m drawing on personal experiences more, but I’d rather look at things from the more universal way … I’ve never done confessional, therapeutic song writing, although I could try. I generally look at things around me, and either try to turn a large-scale idea into a small metaphor, or vice versa.

V: Are you excited about playing Ladyfest?

LB: I’m just happy to play on a bill that has more women on it…just in terms of numbers. I talked to Liz Piesen from Picastro and we commiserated about always being on these bills loaded with dudes. And there’s nothing wrong with it, except for the perception that it spreads. It perpetuates just this idea that they’re the only ones who can, or are sustainable. Some people even feel like girls can’t play guitars, I almost feel a little frustrated that I’m not out there playing in a thrash metal band just to prove everyone wrong. But it’s not really about pitting genres against each other. It’s just important to continually have events like Ladyfest that raise awareness.

Shadow sheds light on lunar exploration

The British documentary In the Shadow of the Moon was made for people like Sherri Shepherd. Last week, while co-hosting an episode of The View, Shepherd stated that she didn’t know whether the earth was flat or round, citing her need to “feed her child” as more important than thinking (or learning) about the nature of our world.

Shepherd, along with other lunatics like Bill Kaysing and Bart Sibrel—who both deny that man has actually walked on the moon—are the people who need to see this moving doc the most, but almost everyone can benefit from a reminder about the amazing scope and accomplishments of the Apollo program.

From December 1968 to December 1972, NASA launched nine spacecrafts on the longest voyage of human exploration ever attempted. 24 Americans journeyed the 500,000 miles from the Earth to the moon and back, and of these, 12 actually walked on the lunar surface. These 24 men are to-date the only humans to ever travel beyond Earth orbit, and the only people to see the Earth from an alien world. In the Shadow of the Moon features archival footage (brilliantly re-mastered in HD) cut together with present day interviews with nine of the Apollo astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin (LM pilot on Apollo 11 and the second man to walk on the moon), Jim Lovell (one of only three astronauts to make the voyage twice and the ill-fated commander of Apollo 13), and Harrison Schmitt (the first scientist, and last human, to set foot on the moon as LM pilot of Apollo 17).

The film chronologically covers all of the incredibly risky aspects of an Apollo moon-landing mission, from the blast off a top the mighty, three-stage Saturn V rocket, where the capsule is accelerated to speeds exceeding 30,000 km/h—bullets, by comparison, only travel 5,400 km/h—to insertion into lunar orbit, the lunar landing, walking on the moon, lunar blast off, lunar orbit rendezvous, and finally re-entry through the earth’s atmosphere where temperatures outside the craft reach a staggering 11,000˚C. Hearing interviews with people who actually endured all of this, and lived to tell about it, is nothing short of remarkable.

Shadow also gives special pause to important moments in Apollo history: the fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1 during a launch pad training exercise, Apollo 11’s history-making moon landing, Apollo 13’s close brush with death, and the premature cancellation of the Apollo program by the U.S. Congress. It also combats the sad reality that anyone under the age of 35 is not old enough to remember a manned lunar mission firsthand.

In our current stunted state of space exploration (the space shuttle and International Space Station have kept manned missions tethered to earth orbit since Apollo) and with our less-than hopeful view of major American projects (the “re-building” of Iraq), it is inspiring to revisit a time when major risks were taken with vigor, and lofty, peaceful goals were achieved in the name of all mankind.

So, just as Dan Quayle received a dump-truck full of potatoes after misspelling the word at an elementary school spelling bee in 1992, let’s hope someone sends Sherri Shepherd several copies of this film, just so she can watch Bill Anders, Frank Borman, and Jim Lovell videotape the first recorded earthrise, shot as Apollo 8 emerged from the shadow of the moon and saw, for the first time, the full splendour of our strikingly spherical planet.

Lewis: ‘the work means everything’

Stephen Lewis has come a long way from his days as a U of T student back in the 1960s. The former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa gave a sold-out lecture, Africa: Our Responsibility in the 21st Century, at Hart House Monday night. The talk, also featuring American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger, was presented by presented by Hillel of Greater Toronto.

“This is an issue that has really been brought to the forefront,” said Devora Schwartz Waxman, director of social justice at HGT. As the event was Stephen Lewis’ third lecture at U of T, it marked a milestone for Hillel.

“We’re always hoping to raise the bar,” Waxman said.

Lewis spoke passionately, asking the audience how the world could allow calamities like the genocide in Darfur and the pandemic spread of HIV. The statistics are indeed frightening: as of 2005, HIV has infected some 70 million people worldwide, of whom 24.5 million are in sub-Saharan Africa. From that number, 59 per cent are women.

Lewis said that gender equality continues to be the greatest problem facing the continent, with male sexual entitlement a common mindset and spousal rape occurring in an astronomical 71 per cent of couples.

If the forecast seems grim, it does come with some small hope. With new technologies such as crop rotation and drip irrigation brought to parts of Uganda by the American Jewish World Service, said Messinger, women of that country can finally grow enough food to sustain their communities. Women formerly drove to Dakar six hours away to work, she said, “as maids if they were lucky, or as prostitutes if they were unlucky.” Messinger believed the greatest chance for success was working at a grassroots level, within communities. And Hillel student Rebecca Schwebel, who volunteered in Uganda this past summer, agreed.

“We’re not like some great white saviour swooping in,” she said. “We’re helping them help themselves.”

The problems ravaging the continent are indeed great, and will take time to eradicate. Corruption and poor governing, as well as a lack of international funding, have contributed to the proliferation of the disease in the last 25 years.

In his closing, Stephen Lewis implored students join the fight against HIV/AIDS, through both volunteer work and donations. Though it’s a difficult fight, said Lewis, “It’s a fight worth making.”

Ulrich Schnauss keeps it dark

Ulrich Schnauss could very well be a vampire. While speaking to The Varsity by telephone last week the German electro-shoegazer artist had this to say about touring: “I find it difficult to adjust to this much daylight. When I’m at home I switch into a night rhythm where I sleep during the day and work during the night.” It sounds possible, no? “Why do you like the night so much?” I ask, looking for more evidence.

“It’s much nicer to work when its quiet and there are no distractions. I just generally really like nighttime, I find the atmosphere very nice, and very inspiring.”

While Schnauss may prefer the isolation of his London home studio to life on the road, his oneman live show has been turning a lot of heads in both the ambient-electro and shoegazer sets.

“I’d rather focus on studio work than playing too many gigs. But it’s not like I’m suffering out here, at the end of the day I do manage to have a good time,” says the well-spoken 30 year-old in his charming, German-inflected British accent.

In fact his accent is actually a pretty good indication of his musical style, which is inspired in equal parts by gothic German synths and British shoegazer ambience.

Interestingly, Schnauss, who was born in the northern port city of Kiel, describes his introduction to the shoegazer genre as a direct product of the Second World War.

“When I grew up in the late 80s, early 90s there were British and American troops here in Germany and they had their own radio station, and some of the shoegazing stuff made it into the top 40. That’s how I first got the opportunity to listen to that kind of music.”

Shoegazer, a short-lived guitar-driven rock movement in the UK during the late 80s and early 90s, essentially filled the gap between the chart dominance of Baggy and Brit-Pop. Despite its inability to cross into the North American mainstream, Shoegazer managed to find a small niche of young, dedicated fans, many of whom— like Schnauss—are now in bands of their own and leading a resurgence of the genre.

Schnauss’s newest record, Goodbye, which he says is the third part of “an accidental trilogy,” is packed with nocturnal soundscapes, ghostly vocal-lines, subdued beats, and strong songs and structure. At times, some of his dirtier synth patches bring to mind a hybrid of later Radiohead and the Cocteau Twins, or Hot Chip and My Bloody Valentine.

While a number of musicians are credited as performing on Goodbye, Schnauss’s live show is a one-man affair. In an effort to keep his performances fresh, he’s done some re-tooling since his last tour, trading backing tracks for loops.

“I was a bit unhappy with the way I was playing live previously. I was basically just playing backing tracks from the computer and keyboard on top. In the last couple of months I’ve put a lot of work into developing a new live setup where I spilt up all the songs from the album into small loops that I can improvise with, so the good thing is that this time its a bit more live and spontaneous than last time, which hopefully is going to create some interesting results.”

Ulrich Schnauss plays an intimate gig at the Rivoli on Wednesday, Sept. 26 with Madrid and Millimetrik. Cover is $15.

Where’s Kate?

Missing: one candidate for MPP Trinity-Spadina.

That was the sign the Liberal Party might as well have been running Monday afternoon when their candidate in Trinity-Spadina, Kate Holloway, failed to make it out to an all candidates debate arranged by the Canadian Studies department.

Around 100 students, three candidates, and one embarrassed-looking prof waited around for 20 minutes before starting the debate sans Holloway. Professor Todd Gordon, who hosted the debate in his class, said he had made arrangements with Holloway’s offi ce weeks ago. When Holloway didn’t show, Gordon tried calling her office—where no one seemed to know where she was.

According to a representative from her campaign office, the problem was that Holloway’s Google Calendar lost several of the events she had agreed to attend. The offi ce tried to recreate the calendar based on old emails from Holloway’s Gmail account and from her website, but to no avail.

While Dan King, Tyler Currie, and Rosario Marchese tossed barbs at one another and responded to students’ questions, Holloway was apparently out canvassing and gracing other events—presumably ones she made after her calendar crashed.

As of press time, the Liberal riding association had not answered The Varsity’s request for comment.

Navigating Nuit Blanche

Scotiabank Nuit Blanche is only in its second year in Toronto, but already it feels like a city tradition. This year’s “free all-night contemporary art thing” promises to be just as fun and just as cutting-edge as it was in its inaugural year.

Last year, despite rain, huge numbers of Torontonians came out to experience free contemporary art created by artists from Toronto and around the world. It was wonderful to see so many people of different ages out to experience fog in Philosopher’s Walk or floating lanterns at Victoria College’s Pearson Garden of Peace and Understanding. For this night, the city was alive all night long with people out to appreciate the latest art. Queen Street West looked like rush hour on a Friday night: bars and galleries were full of people enjoying art and the community that comes from viewing it with others. It was both an artistic and a civic experience, and it promises to bring even more art (and more people) this year.

Nuit Blanche in Toronto centers around three zones: A, B, and C, which host 195 destinations. Each Zone has a curatorial theme. Zone A, which includes U of T and Bloor-Yorkville, is curated by Rhonda Corvese entitled, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” All the exhibits in Zone A will attempt to alarm you or unsettle you by producing an effect that is unexpected. I have high hopes for “Departure” (Mircea Cantor 2005), playing at the Isabel Bader Theatre on Vic’s campus: a 2 minute, 43 second loop of a wolf and a deer in a room together. It promises to be an unnerving experience that forces the viewer to confront the possibility of watching a slaughter. Also in Zone A, don’t miss your chance to get inside of Lower Bay TTC station in “The Ghost Station” (Kristen Roos 2007) for low-frequency sounds. The concept sounds flighty, but take the opportunity to get into this hidden part of Toronto while it’s open to you. And in room 066 of the Faculty of Architecture there will be an exact replica of Toronto’s nuclear fall-out shelter, “Aurora Readiness Centre” (Annie MacDonell 2007)!

Zone B extends west from Spadina out to the Distillery District, and from College south to the waterfront. Michelle Jacques curates with a focus on the heterogeneity of the neighbourhoods, entitled “At the Corner of Time and Place.” Of particular interest will be “What Will You Do?” (Nina Czegledy et al. 2007), which invites participants to interact by sending an SMS text message saying what you will do to help stop climate change. Responses will be posted to the board in minutes. Be sure to check out “Where There Are Trees Standing in the Water” (Hannah Claus 2007), a light installation on the historic George Brown House.

Zone C is located in Queen West. Camilla Singh curates a dream world in our city entitled “Supernatural City.” There are plenty of wonderful exhibitions here, but be sure to stop in to the local galleries that will be open all night and see what Toronto artists have to offer. If the galleries aren’t your thing, check out “Locust” (Noboru Tsubaki 2005), a giant inflated locust in Lamport Stadium on King West.

The TTC has extended service for Nuit Blanche, so remember that a day pass is good for two adults on weekends. Don’t miss this chance to encounter contemporary art that may move you, unnerve you, or just piss you off. More important is that the rest of the city will be out with you. For more information visit:

Commuters Kick Back

University College’s commuter students have a room of their own today, with the opening of the Leith Centre, a space dedicated to the needs of off-campus students. The centre, which includes lockers and a kitchen, with lots of space to study and hang out, has been in the works since 2004. Nona Robinson, UC’s Dean of Students, has been involved in the project since the beginning.

“I think all of us know that offcampus students don’t get the students, so this is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time,” she said.

The centre finally came together this year thanks to money from the university’s $20 million Student Experience Fund, with some funding by the college. Though it is shiny and new, the room itself isn’t one of a kind—Vic and New College both boast spaces and social programs for commuters. Still, the centre comes with a campus first: UC’s Commuter Don program, which will be housed there.

Deena Dadachanji, one of the two dons who will serve UC’s 3500-strong commuter population this year, discussed the new position.

“I wanted to be a don, but I didn’t really like living in residence. I really prefer living off campus, so I’m passionate about commuter issues,” she said.

The dons will be available to give advice to commuter students on academic or social issues, and they will also organize programming for the centre along with the UC Lit’s University College Off-Campus Commission and UC’s coordinator of student life, Renu Kanga. Ideas for the coming year range from a Thanksgiving social, to Bike Week activities, to career workshops.

With four times as many students living off-campus as in residence, University College is typical of U of T. A recent National Survey of Student Experience report highlighted the problems this majority faces in almost every area—commuter students are less likely to work with faculty outside the classroom, less likely to participate in co-curricular activities and more likely to “experience a sense of alienation” in first year. UC aims to close that gap, though the Leith Centre is open to everyone.

“We have no problem with non-UC students using it,” said Robinson. “There will be a lot of UC-specific events, but nobody is going to be asking for ID at the door or anything.”

Drop by and check out the Leith Centre (79 St. George Street, on the main floor of the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse) at an open house all day today.

Calculating Caribou

Be careful the next time you silently curse the person next to you in class for chatting too much or hogging the armrest— they might just turn out to be a rock star. This dream is slowly turning into reality for U of T alum Dan Snaith, who performs under the name Caribou and has just released his fourth album.

The new record, Andorra, is Snaith’s first release on Merge Records, recently tipped by Rolling Stone as a potential breakout—not bad for a guy who spent the late 90s hanging out at University College and making music on a computer in his dorm room.

“I made my first and part of my second albums while I was a student at U of T,” said Snaith. “This was the first album I’ve made while I wasn’t a student at the same time.”

He looks back fondly on the time he spent pursuing not only a career in music, but a Bachelor of Mathematics as well.

“I was always doing both, which I really liked, because being a student is a flexible lifestyle. For example, I was a TA at U of T and didn’t have to work apart from that, so the student life was good to be able to make music without having to worry about working.”

Snaith released his first two records under the name Manitoba, but hit a major snag in 2004 when he was hit with a lawsuit by Handsome Dick Manitoba, singer of The Dictators, a 70s punk band from New York.

Snaith explained, “We were doing a gig in L.A. and I got served with a court subpoena just before we went on stage by a private investigator that the guy had hired. I couldn’t even believe it.” Choosing not to ring up the $500,000 legal fees that it would cost to fight the suit, Snaith decided to change the band’s name.

Ironically, it was on a trip through the province of Manitoba that he settled on the name Caribou, and the band’s profile has been rising ever since.

While his first few records were electronica-based, featuring heavy percussion and sparse vocals, Andorra is Snaith’s first venture into the pop realm. The record combines the percussive elements of Snaith’s electronic beginnings with a quickly developing pop sensibility.

“I felt I had never written proper pop songs before, so the real focus for me was making melodies and harmonies that were really strong.” Andorra sees Snaith singing more than ever before, and he stressed the importance that he placed on vocals when crafting the album.

“The voice is a totally unique instrument for conveying emotion and connecting with people. I wanted to give the compositions I was writing as much emotional weight as possible.”

The result of this new direction is an album reminiscent of 60s psychedelia, with an element of the Beach Boys’ baroque- pop compositions.

Despite the fact that he explores new territory with each Caribou disc, Snaith is determined to continue writing, performing and recording every part of each album by himself. He claimed that working alone simply comes naturally to him, saying, “I’m so used to working this way. It would almost be strange for me to be with a band in a proper recording studio. I’ve never really recorded in that environment at all.”

Having completed his Ph.D. in Mathematics at Imperial College London, Snaith is now living in England, and it appears he has put academia aside, at least for now.

“It was really hectic when we were touring a lot more and the albums were getting a higher profile, taking up a lot more of my time. Being a student was getting to be a bit crazy at the end.”