When fourth-year Carleton University music student Hans Vivian-Wenzel was volunteering at Bluesfest in July 2016, a fellow volunteer asked if he planned on coming back the following year.
“Yeah,” Vivian-Wenzel said, “and hopefully I’ll be up on one of those stages.”
At the time he was half-joking, but Vivian-Wenzel could never have guessed what would come to pass in the months that followed, or how true his ‘joke’ would turn out to be.
Vivian-Wenzel is the lead singer for Carleton’s resident alternative rock band the Tackies. When he went to the artist submission webpage in January and signed the Tackies up for Bluesfest 2017 they were hoping to be accepted for CityFolk, which he calls a stepping stone to Bluesfest. But a month after their submission, the Tackies leaped right over that stepping stone and onto the big stage.
“I remember getting the e-mail saying ‘Hi, here’s your offer for Bluesfest,’ and my jaw just dropped,” says Vivian-Wenzel with a grin. “I genuinely jumped up and down with joy. I’ve lived here in Ottawa my whole life and I’m so happy to be playing Bluesfest in my hometown.”
Vivian-Wenzel was quick to share the news with the rest of the band via their group chat on Facebook. The rest of the guys shared his excitement.
“I was pretty ecstatic,” says guitarist Mathieu Malette, a music industry arts student at Algonquin College. “It’s pretty crazy. Two years ago, I didn’t expect that we would be playing one of the biggest music festivals in North America.”
The thought of being in a rock band tends to send glamourous visions dancing through the heads of the average music fan. However, it’s not always about bringing down the house, turning down the constant advances of countless groupies or partying until the sun comes up. In fact, most days, it’s not about those things at all.
Most days, the reality of being in a band is about trying to arrange practices around everyone’s busy schedules, sitting on the phone with venue owners and booking shows, learning how to market yourself, trying to find the right label, juggling work, school and your personal life all while trying to build a solid career in an extremely competitive field.
A lot of hard work goes into being in a band, and a lot of that work is done behind the scenes. It takes patience, dedication and a ton of support from family and friends to be able to live the dream, and that’s exactly what the Tackies are doing.
Hitting the books
All four members of the Tackies are also full time students. Vivian-Wenzel is joined by bassist Galen Cussion and drummer Jamie Orser in their fourth year at Carleton, and Malette is a music industry arts student at Algonquin College.
Vivian-Wenzel says it’s a little easier to juggle work and school since they are all studying music. Carleton has performance classes every Friday where students can play and get feedback from professors and even, on occasion, industry professionals. Much of what the students learn at school is transferrable to what they do with the Tackies, but it’s not all fun and games and sometimes the work load can cut into practice time.
“We haven’t practiced all that frequently as of late; 4th year has kind of been kicking our ass,” says Orser. “So we are working really hard to finish school first, and then I’m sure we will jump back into the room and get writing again.”
Check out the video below to see Vivian-Wenzel and Malette chat about their life at school and how it affects the Tackies.
Songwriting 101: How it really works
When you picture an artist writing a song, you may picture them hunched over a notebook, staring longingly into the sunset on a beach or some similar romantic vision. Usually, however, that’s not how it works. Especially for the Tackies.
The Tackies call themselves a party band, which does come across in their music. A Tackies song is bound to make you want to dance, or at least get your foot tapping. The tone, both musically and lyrically, tends to be playful and energetic.
Each member of the band usually writes their own parts to a song, but they always riff off each other and look for feedback in order to create something that’s going to mix well.
“Either Hans brings an idea of melody and lyric concept forward and we build off that, or one of us has a riff they present and we build around that,” says Cussion. “From my perspective, I like just catchy songs that get people dancing or rocking out. Jamie is key in making both of those things happen in his drumming style.”
The Tackies are hugely influenced by bands like Muse and the Arctic Monkeys when it comes to writing the music itself, according to Orser. This is especially apparent in songs like Do U Want Me 2, which they played at Carleton University’s singer songwriter showcase on Feb. 17.
Vivian-Wenzel says that when he’s writing a song, he feels like he’s teetering on the edge of a fence between observing a situation and actually being part of that situation. This can get complicated for a listener who might not be able to tell the difference, especially a friend or a partner, who might mistakenly think a song has been written about them.
“It’s so weird writing songs when you have a girlfriend,” says Vivian-Wenzel, who writes the majority of the band’s songs from the bedroom of his apartment on his cellphone. “I don’t like to get too personal with songs. So sometimes with a girlfriend, when you’re observing and they think the song is about them, it’s like… oh man. Now I just try to avoid those situations, but I also feel like I need to get over that, because it’s not always necessarily about somebody.”
Taking care of business
When fans go see the Tackies play a show, most times they won’t stop to think about what it took for them to get there. According to Cussion, it takes a lot of work to book a show, decide on a set list, practice and then actually pull it off.
“It’s frustrating when people don’t take you seriously for the work you put in and frequently don’t understand how much off-stage work is involved,” he says.
Cussion says booking a show involves talking to bar owners and finding open slots, or talking to other bands who need another band on the bill.
“The motto ‘if you don’t ask, the answer is always no’ is very true for bookings,” says Cussion.
When it comes to booking shows, Vivian-Wenzel tends to be the mastermind. In January, he and Cussion spent a lot of time applying to play at various festivals that will be held throughout the summer and fall, including Bluesfest. Cussion says Vivian-Wenzel’s connections at Carleton have landed the Tackies a lot of shows in the area at places like Oliver’s Pub and Zaphod’s, which Cussion calls their “home venue” since they’ve played there so many times.
“The comfort on the big stage is so comfortable for the band,” says Vivian-Wenzel. “Playing the small venues, we love it, it’s intimate, but our music fits something like a festival stage so much better.”
According to Vivian-Wenzel, when it comes to booking shows, less is more. The Tackies tend to play fewer shows throughout the year, especially in Ottawa, for a bigger impact among the fans.
“Think of it like Instagram,” he explains. “When someone posts the same selfie five times it gets kind of old, but when that quality is there, it’s more memorable.”
Starting off, The Tackies did a lot of their marketing online through social media. Now, Vivan-Wenzel prefers to connect with the fanbase face-to-face. Having that personal connection with the fans is what will fill a venue, and being able to fill the venue might be the difference between landing the gig and not getting on the bill, he says. According to Cussion, now that the band has some momentum going, the next step post-graduation is going to be for them to find a label so they can really make it. “There isn’t an in-between in terms of ‘you’ve made it’ and ‘you haven’t made it’. It’s one of those two.” says Orser
Sound check, check, check
It’s every band’s dream for everything to go smoothly and according to plan leading up to a show, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. All sorts of technical difficulties can arise, but according to Malette, the band just has to pull through and hope for the best. This was the case at the singer songwriter showcase. “Hans’ pedals stopped working and he forgot his power supply, but you just have to deal with it,” says Malette. “You have to work around it. Sometimes you just have to perform and there’s nothing you can do.”
A little help from their friends
The Tackies say a huge part of being in a band is having a good support network of family and friends. However, the Tackies have a very busy schedule and sometimes when it comes to their personal lives, sacrifices have to be made. Orser is very much aware of the impact his career has on his family life.
“It cuts into family time, and my family is very good at understanding that,” he says. “When shows come up, I want to play them, regardless of the day they are on. Sometimes the shows we get are last-minute and conflict with my family’s pre-planned schedule. But my family is a last-minute plan kind of family, so they are normally very understanding.”
Orser says he’s incredibly thankful to have the support system he does.
“My dad is living vicariously through me, while my mom is super understanding and supportive of all my commitment and shows, the money I spend towards the band, everything,” he says. “My brother comes out to my shows, they show friends our music all the time. My sister is more involved than I think she even realizes, she is right on it when our music is released, when I have shows coming up, she always knows about them.”
Cussion says he also has a supportive family, but also a network of friends who are always willing to come out to shows. However, as with any successful endeavor, it is starting to become clear that having a little celebrity status has its advantages. Or disadvantages, depending on how you look at it.
“I can tell more people come out of the woodwork when something actually happens,” Cussion admits. “As proven by the Bluesfest announcement, there were more people congratulating me than at any point previously, not that I mind.”
Cussion’s 18-year-old sister, Melissa, has always been supportive of his music career. She is currently studying life sciences at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, so even though she can’t always be there in person she enjoys frequent updates from her brother regarding his career and the Tackies.
“Galen and I have had a solid sibling bond for as long as I can remember,” she says. “From the beginning we got along really well, and we’ve been a great support system for each other from a young age, which has only solidified as we got older. I think these frequent conversations have been a great way for me to voice how proud I am of him for following his dreams and desires in music, and I’m able to remind him how proud I always am.”
As for Vivian-Wenzel, he gets a ton of support from his parents and his girlfriend, Gabi O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer, 19, says that when it comes to attending the Tackies’ shows, if she’s not hospitalized or dead, she’s there.
“I’m a pretty big fan of two things: surf rock and partying. The Tackies put those things together in a way that’s pleasing to the ear, but also weirdly intuitive to the listener,” says O’Dwyer. “I try to keep the positivity flowing as much as possible and just be helpful when and where I can.”
O’Dwyer says that it was Vivian-Wenzel’s creativity and drive that drew her to him. The pair has built an extremely loving, supportive and playful relationship. She says she also admires his ambition, and even though sometimes instead of dinner dates she tags along to band practices, it’s all worth it. O’Dwyer met the rest of the band on their second date and has developed a great relationship with them since then. Even when Vivian-Wenzel gets busy managing the band, attending to business and going to school, he always finds a way to make it up to her.
“Shawarma is the key to my heart and he knows it,” she says jokingly.