Skip to main content

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

Popular posts from this blog

Charles Hsuen

Even after almost 30 years as the voice of jazz in Halifax, Charles Hsuen shows no signs of slowing down. His passion to preserve and promote the genre to listeners of all ages cannot be overstated. Recently we spoke with Hsuen about his roots, and his life-long love of big band, bebop, swing, Sinatra and more.
What are your own roots? My roots derive from a rather mixed background. My father is of Vietnamese / Tibetan / Chinese heredity, but grew up in India, before immigrating to Canada in 1967. While my mother’s roots stem from Indo-China, she grew up in Brunei before immigrating to Canada in 1969. Both extended families ultimately settled in Toronto and my parents met and married in the early 1970's. The last name “Hsuen” (now XUAN), pronounced “Schwen,” comes from the Last Emperor of China Henry Pu Yi who ruled using the name Xuantong from 1909 until his forced abdication in 1912. The story was of a tumultuous reign, his forced resignation and eventual attempt to reclaim his ti…

Danny Bilsborough

Danny Bilsborough, NSCC alumna and owner of Danny B Studios, has spent most of her days consulting various clients on software options for their new business endeavours. 
Although she’s been involved with assessing some really exciting projects, nothing makes her happier than grabbing her brush and splashing colour on a canvas. That’s why she’s decided to take the plunge into becoming a full-time artist.
“I was always so scared to try using colour, but when my daughter was born and the opportunity came to incorporate these new palettes into her life, they quickly found their way into mine,” she says.
Colour brings light to many things and gives people a sense of enjoyment. Markus Maier explained in his academic journal titled Color Psychology that colour carries great meaning and can have an important impact on people's affect, cognition and behaviour.
Bilsborough’s favourite pieces to create are those of nature and animals – a quick look at her online Etsy page confirms this. She be…


Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the passing of Elvis Presley, International World-Champion Elvis tribute artist, Thane Dunn and his Cadillac Kings, will perform seven shows throughout the Maritimes over the coming months. Recently we spoke with the King of Kings about his passion and profession.
What are your roots? I was born in Moncton, New Brunswick. I've lived everywhere from California to Toronto but Moncton always has had a special place in my heart. My musical roots have always been early Rock and Roll and also old Country and Western like Buck Owens and Stonewall Jackson. I’ve always been a huge Jim Morrison fan. He had a lot of similar traits to Elvis.
What first inspired the Elvis tribute? I always loved the man and I’ve had people tell me I looked like him and in early bands I was in people would say I sounded like him. I had a few months leading up to the decision to do it where it seemed every time I turned on the TV there was Elvis, the radio would be playing Elvis…