Much about Music with Mike Campbell

Mike Campbell is a Canadian music icon. With a bevy of backstage stories, the co-owner of Halifax’s best live venue - The Carleton Music Bar and Grill – still has his ear to the ground. In this exclusive interview, Campbell opens up about his personal and professional life.

What do you like most about living/working in Halifax?
I like my house and my neighbourhood (Young & Dublin area), I (mostly) like the weather when it's cooperating, and I like the proximity to so many other cool places - the other Atlantic Provinces, the American eastern seaboard, the UK, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa - nothing is very far away. The people are genuinely and generally friendly. Water - the ocean or lakes - is minutes from anywhere in the city. I like the history of the place, which is something a city just cannot buy (despite what Vegas thinks), and I think there is a distinctive culture founded in the maritime tradition of immigration, travel and the possibilities those things suggest. Music is a way of life here and people know how to appreciate their surroundings and are fiercely protective of them. I moved here from Toronto because I thought, of all the cities in Canada, Halifax had the most untapped potential. Despite how its growth has been egregiously mismanaged over the past decade, I still believe that to be true.

What inspired you to open the Carleton?
Honestly? I was at a career crossroads and didn't see a lot of options in my previously chosen fields of music business proper and television. I always thought I'd like to own a cool bar/restaurant some day but figured that might occur in my "retirement." Obviously that isn't what happened. Over many years, I've had the opportunity - thanks to the jobs I've had - to frequent a ton of bars, restaurants and live music venues everywhere in Canada and around the world and I figured I probably knew enough about what makes a good one to open something up. Now that's it's been open awhile, in tough economic times, I realize it's not as "easy" as I thought it would be!

How is the venue different from others in the city?
Beyond the fact it's located in the third oldest (and oldest residential) building in Halifax, I think it's our attention to everything to do with music that sets us apart. Our sound system is unorthodox but perfect for our space, not only for live shows but for the ambient sound in the club when we don't have live music. The playlists are populated with songs from my fairly extensive personal library built on 35 years in the business, not a canned service of some kind, and features a ton of local music. Our listening policy for live shows also sets us apart. For quiet acoustic shows, I insist on a respectful silence in the room while an artist is performing. That isn't to say other venues don't have respectfully quiet audiences but, as far as I know, we're the only place that insists on it and has been known to remove customers who refuse to abide by the policy. It's a small, intimate space (about 115 seats) and folks pay good money to see great artists there. I don't think the experience of the majority should be compromised by the social inadequacies of a few - and the artists who play there truly appreciate that attention to detail. Which brings us to the artists, I guess. We get an inordinate number of acts that rarely - if ever - play rooms as small as ours. That's partly because, after so many years at MuchMusic and other music business-related efforts over my career, I've gotten to know a lot of artists personally and they know what I'm trying to do and support that vision; and partly to do with the fact that we treat artists well when they play the room. Booking is a very subjective thing but I try to make sure that anyone who appears on our stage is accomplished enough to be there, I won't book something simply because I have an opening to fill and someone's available.
What's the best show that you have seen, and-or put on there?
That's impossible to answer! There have been so many great ones... Occasionally, a performance is so powerful it brings me to tears (and that's happened a lot over the years) so I can give you a few of those moments... Ron Sexsmith, Jim Cuddy & Greg Keelor, Joel Plaskett, Willie Nile, Steve Poltz, Oysterband, Matt Andersen, Laura Smith, Lloyd Cole... there are a lot of them!

Are there any particular shows coming up that people should not miss, no matter what?
There are a bunch that I can't announce yet, including some pretty cool stuff for this year's Halifax Urban Folk Festival, but there's one in particular I think anyone who's into rock music shouldn't miss - Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown - on Friday, April 6th. Tyler's the kid (he's still just 20) who opened Jeff Beck's last North American tour and the first opening act since Stevie Ray Vaughan that Beck has asked to play in the encore with him. I saw him opening for Beck in Halifax and made a point of meeting him. This Halifax date is with a full band and it's going to be off-the-hook good. I was lucky enough to see The Black Crowes in clubs in Toronto before they became successful and Tyler's band is that kind of good. Trust me; you're not going to be able to see this band in a 100 seat club, never mind one in Halifax, EVER again.

Who are your fave bands/artists of all time?
Another tough question! Judging by the number of songs I have by certain artists in my iTunes library, apparently my favourite 10 artists are: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Guided By Voices, John Hiatt, Steve Poltz, Graham Parker, Jackie Leven, Ian Hunter, Joel Plaskett, The Kinks and Paul Westerberg/Replacements.

What are you thoughts on the state of Canadian music today?
There's no shortage of great artists out there and, judging by the amount of new music I'm listening to, that's not going to change any time soon... Like everywhere else in the world, Canadian artists are going to have to make most of their living on their live shows in this digital age and while most cities in this country seem to have burgeoning live music scenes, Halifax is going in the opposite direction with the closing of many of our live venues. For obvious reasons, I hope that changes dramatically in the next couple of years.

Why do you think Atlantic Canada enjoys such a strong music scene?
Music is a very large part of our Atlantic Canadian culture thanks to the musicality of the largely Scottish, Irish and French immigrants who first settled this part of the world. The other thing that's helped to make our music scene strong and cohesive is our relative isolation from other major population centers, so we've been able to grow a sound that's organically distinctive.  We also shouldn't underestimate the currency our provincial governments place in supporting programs to encourage the musical arts in the region. Without that very real support, it would be far more difficult than it already is for our artists to have viable careers outside this part of the world.

What's on tap for you, and the Carleton, in the months and years to come?
Personally I'm going to continue my work on the boards of Music Nova Scotia and the Unison Benevolent Fund and look forward to being part of the team for the ECMA's 25th anniversary celebrations in Halifax in 2013. I'm also heavily invested in making the Halifax Urban Folk Festival bigger and better this coming year (August 26th - September 3rd). As for The Carleton? We want to become a fixture in the city, synonymous with great music, great food and great Haligonian hospitality. We're well on our way but there's always room for improvement!

Photo: Chr!s Sm!th

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