CONNIE is Southern Ontario’s Avant-Garde Sound

They’re not Wilco with buzzcuts.

I only discovered CONNIE when a friend sent me a video of them performing live from their Instagram story.

“Like their sound?”

It was hard to hear their sound, quite frankly. I could tell they were some type of rock or punk, and I’d have a good time at their show. Honestly, that’s really all I needed to know to say yes.

That friend, Antonio “Toni” Simonetta, said he wanted to film their performance, and it might be a good idea for me to interview them. Luckily, he contacted band member Cameron and arranged for us to cover their set at the Painted Lady.

At that time, CONNIE had nothing on Spotify or Youtube, no music videos, and no live recordings of any considerable length that might allow one to gauge what they’d be like live. I was going in blind.

When I got to the venue the night of their show, I had to explain to the woman at the door that I was attending as a journalist. She was a little confused. “There’s no guestlist,” She said. I had yet to meet any of the band in person, so I needed to figure out who to look for to explain the situation. Luckily, Toni was at the bar and waved me through.

“She’s with me,” He said. I wasn’t really with him, even though we were collaborating on the coverage together. I gave him one of the DIY “press” badges I’d made that said he was a photographer for my website, so according to the badge, he was with me. It was just after 8:00, and CONNIE was taking the stage at 9:45. The band, once I knew what to look for, was hard to miss. Dressed in white dress shirts and black ties, the four present members (guitarist Ben wasn’t at the show) had claimed one of the picnic tables on the patio, littering it with fabric markers and blank white t-shirts. They were making merch: for $10, you could buy a t-shirt, and they’d write whatever you wanted on it. Most said some variant of “CONNIE loves you”. Toni bought one, requesting it read “CONNIE loves David Lynch”.

In the time before the set, Toni and I walked to grab food. We discussed other bands we both had worked with in the past and how they might compare to CONNIE in terms of sound, performance, etcetera. I commented on the similarity to PASTE in that they wore dress clothes. Toni agreed with the visual similarity but said it ended there more or less. They’re kinda like PASTE, but also not at all like PASTE.

We returned to the Painted Lady just as the band was getting the stage ready. What’s interesting about the Painted Lady compared to other, similar-sized venues in the city is that there’s almost an alcove at the back of the stage, where they put the drum kit. Because of this strange layout, the drummer is far from the crowd. It’s neat because it allows more space on the still small front of the stage for singers and guitarists, but it prevents the drummer from interacting as much with bandmates or the crowd. Even then, drummers usually aren’t known for their mesmerizing stage presence. Still, the layout of the stage eliminates the possibility of it.

The floor filled up quickly with screaming fans even before the band had finished setting up. “We’re gonna do a soundcheck real quick, so you guys still have like five minutes to go grab a drink or something,” One of them said. The crowd did not disperse, thinning only marginally. Those yelling, “I love you, CONNIE!” maneuvered their way closer to the stage. I used the time to fiddle with the settings on my camera. The light was dim, and I try my hardest to avoid using flash. I feel like an asshole when I use flash. It’s hard enough to sing and play an instrument at the same time, never mind in front of a bunch of people. Being periodically blinded on top of that doesn’t seem like a handicap any artist needs, no matter how cool the photos might turn out. I wish I could use flash and not feel bad about it, but I do.

When they finally started to play, I was very impressed. Actually, to say I was impressed is an understatement. These kids were built for the stage. They fed off each other’s energy in a way I can’t say I’ve ever seen in person. They made banter with each other and the crowd, danced, and made a point to walk all the way to the back alcove to include their drummer. That stage, probably less than a foot above the rest of the floor, felt larger than life when they were on it.

When their tube amp malfunctioned, the group took it in stride, and what could have been a moment of technical difficulty was a moment of fun – sure, they stopped playing as they waited for the sound guy to make adjustments, but they didn’t stop performing. Leading the crowd in the opening lines of the Spongebob Squarepants theme, the band called out, “Are ya ready, kids?” and the crowd would echo back, “Aye-aye, Captain!”

When guitarist/vocalists Cameron and Church disagreed on what song was next, Church whipped a set list out of his wallet, written on thin cardboard paper, sarcastically apologizing, “I’m sorry, we haven’t played in a while.” And as soon as the list hit the floor, they played again, fast, loud and noisy. While these little moments might have been opportunities to rest for other acts, CONNIE didn’t stop. They kept the energy in the room at 11. Even when they played a slower song, and the crowd whipped out their phone torches and lighters, it ended with an intense punchy outro. People danced so recklessly that it was hard to crouch at the front of the stage without being stepped on. I almost was a few times.

The band took a while to pack up and regroup, but within half an hour, they had all their things and all their members accounted for. CONNIE, their partners, Toni, and I walked a few blocks over to Trinity Bellwoods Park to have an interview away from the calamity and chatter of the Painted Lady and other adjacent bars and restaurants.

The band sat on a park bench, and I sat on the paved path in front of them. I intended to film the interview with my camera, but it wasn’t working correctly. Toni saved the day and filmed the whole thing, even though we both acknowledge it would’ve been better to have both angles. The band didn’t seem to mind our technical difficulties or sitting in the dark while we got our shit together.

The most considerable, and perhaps only, anxiety I have when interviewing people is that they’ll be boring in one way or another and lead to a dull article. I had no reason to entertain such worries with CONNIE. Duo singer-guitarist frontpeople Church and Cameron live together, which is evident when you hear them talk. They bicker like an old married couple, throwing witty chirps at each other as frequently as compliments. RJ, the drummer, was incredibly exhausted after their set. I felt bad keeping him out late for the interview. However, his sleep deprivation added to the chaos of the group’s dynamic. Martin, the bassist, is more reserved than his counterparts (as I find most bassists are) but eloquent when he speaks up. Ben, the other guitarist, was absent from the interview. Still, I imagined he would have added more to the group’s energy. On stage, Cameron described him as his “baby boy”.

The group responded enthusiastically to my relatively standard line of questioning, talking over each other at points. When asked what performing is like for them, Church described it as “practice, with people.” Despite their incredible performance and stage presence, Church said this isn’t something they’d personally ever given much thought to. “Not to sound like it doesn’t phase me, but I just kind of do it as if we’re practicing in front of a bunch of people. We’ve never really thought much about the performance aspects of it. Whatever we think would be fun to do is how the live show ends up.”

Cameron commented, “I also just see it as a big release,” explaining that the stage is an outlet for the group. “In our lives, we are very calm people. On stage, we get to really have fun and let loose.” While they seem like a chill bunch of people to hang out with, I would not describe their energy as calm, on stage or off. There is something vibrational about it. It may just be that they’re all good friends, but watching them perform is an amplified version of watching them interact with one another.

Aesthetically, much more thought is put into the group’s live act. “We wanted the juxtaposition of a very formal-looking band,” Cameron said. “A lot of our favourite bands who shaped who we are always dress in suits or like costumes. We kinda like that, and just having that juxtaposition of a very fast, kind of abrasive, noisier band with these kind of suits on was one of the first pieces of putting together a live show we thought about.”

“The first show we just wanted something,” Church elaborated. “We were musical guests at this festival, and we wanted something to show that we were musical guests, and we kind of just liked the way it looked, so we kept doing it.” Earlier in the evening, during their performance, the band said they would hang up the ties for good and move on to a different stage wardrobe. Still, they didn’t hint whether this was true or what the next uniform might be.

Martin said the amount of fun they have on stage sets them apart from other acts. Church explained in greater detail, “We’re all very close outside of the band. I think even if one of us fucks up on stage, we kind of just get to laugh at it because it’s our friend making a mistake. We razz each other on stage a little bit.”

“Part of the ethos of the band that really plays into our performance and everything we do is community,” Cameron added, “we just want, as much as possible, to get the crowd involved in any way. We will go into the crowd, we will talk to them during a set, we will egg them on, they egg us back on. Really feed off what they are giving us and vice versa. It’s more than watching a band, it’s like an experience, either you’re dancing or in the mosh pit, or at the front.”

In addition to community, cool fits and crowd interaction, the band says they make a point to avoid anything too rehearsed, or that feels like a gimmick. If they think of something to do on stage other than something they would do off-stage, they don’t do it. The authenticity is refreshing, especially at a time when even larger indie acts are telling the same jokes every night. “I think even the stage banter is pretty conversational, mainly because we’re not that great at public speaking.” Church laughed.

In anticipation of their debut single, Joni, coming out on July 27, the band hopes to create a way for people to listen to them without having to make the trek to a show. “We just want to have a concrete version of the live show out there. I don’t really hope for anything above having that to point to.” Church said.

Cameron harkens back to the focus on community. “I just want it to be a big celebration of everyone who’s supported the band up until now. LIke a big, fucking thank you guys for embracing us, thanks for waiting. The show we have booked on the same day the single comes out is going to be a big encapsulation of that. Just a big party to celebrate it.”

Joni, according to Cameron, is the song that, as of now, best summarizes the band. Recorded live on a sound stage in the tenth take, the track draws influence from Sonic Youth and folk music. It was written primarily by Church and Cam but became what it is once Ben, Martin and RJ joined the band: the previous punk-sounding drums were replaced with a swing sound thanks to RJ’s background as a jazz drummer.

Church described the writing process, “The second verse is very wordy and almost scattered in a sort of intentional way, so when we sat down to kind of flesh it out, it just got this kick and drive to it that bolsters up that second verse. The chorus, one of us said the first couple words and the rest just came super easy.” They explain its significance: “It’s always been the first song we open with because we think it’s the easiest litmus test of are you going to enjoy the rest of the set or should you maybe go to the patio with a beer?

When asked to describe their sound, the band was indecisive. Cam and Church deflected to RJ, who was apprehensive. “Besides loud? I feel like whenever we put labels on our shit, it feels not quite right, you know? It keeps us open to just not doing one thing. I’m not even a punk drummer, right? To put label on our stuff, we’re kind of in that punk sphere, but I’m a jazz drummer.”

Martin agreed, “I feel like we haven’t really figured out a way to describe what we sound like. I’d say we have a lot of different influences,” Martin elaborates, “we just jam it together.”

Church sums it up as “a louder, faster version of whatever our favourite song of the week is, is pretty much what we’ll write.” He explained that while Joni was heavily inspired by Sonic Youth and such, another piece, Team Edward, is “pretty much a goth rock song”, and their most recent song “has a twang to it, kind of like, cowboy chords.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a demo or chord progression come to the group and had to turn it down because it didn’t sound like us.” They continue, “We always find a way to make it feel like us even if it’s not a genre that we aren’t that we aren’t super used to. We’re also not, like, a multi-genre band. I think there is some substance that kind of ties them all together.”

“We’re Wilco with buzzcuts?” Cameron laughed.

Church corrected him, “Wilco with mullets.”

When I explained to the group that Wyatt, frontman of Techno Westerns, had described CONNIE as a kind of midwestern emo, Cam’s response was, “Fuck you, Wyatt, we’ll see you in court.”

Church agreed somewhat with Wyatt’s descriptor, “If someone asked what kind of show you were going to, I think that definitely works, but I don’t feel comfortable giving us that label because I don’t think we’re emo enough.”

“What’s midwestern emo?” RJ asked.

Church explained that you can really only call it emo if it comes from the midwestern region, like with wine. After asking which part of Ontario Toronto is located in, Cam declared that CONNIE is southern-Ontario emo. Church wondered how the fuck Cam didn’t know they lived in southern Ontario.

When asked how they’ve managed to play Lee’s Palace without any recordings and have a second gig lined up there for August 12, the band credits good luck and hard work. The first time around, they were affiliated with a charity giving scholarships to queer students. They believe they proved themselves worthy of the stage by performing on it and by being friendly, competent, caring people in the scene that other people want to be acquainted with.

Why should you come to a CONNIE show? It’s a lot of fun, and there’s a sense of community. “We make shows where people can feel safe and embraced and just be who they are,” Cameron says. “That’s the biggest sense of pride I take from all of our shows.”

Regarding inclusivity in the scene, while it can feel like a bit of an ego trip for some people, CONNIE says they’ve found a great group of people in the scene who are very inclusive and accepting. “We love fuckin’ local music, we love fuckin’ Toronto, we love the scene, I just love southern Ontario, but I just really wanna do our part in continuing that and giving back in whatever way we can.”

Church commented, “Not to position ourselves as like, arbiters, because definitely we’re not, but I think we look really hard into people we’ll be working with, and we’ve said no to a couple things we didn’t think would be the best experience for people; or the safest experience for people.”

So, why should you go to a CONNIE show? Because CONNIE loves you.

Listen to their debut single JONI, streaming everywhere July 27

Learn more about the single release show at Bovine Sex Club here

Buy tickets to their second-ever Lee’s Palace show, supporting Techno Westerns, here

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