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Beauty and Mayhem at the City Limits: An Interview with Justin Snikkar

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A dear friend of mine welcomed me into his apartment. I’ve visited him many times before, but this time was different. On the morning of Wednesday, December 1st, Justin Snikkar woke up to chaos. (See the news story here.) The building next door set on fire. When firefighters arrived on the scene, they found a large marijuana grow-op, with a rottweiler guarding the whole operation. The incident was one of the biggest news stories in Toronto that day, and new Mayor Rob Ford was sworn into office.

Justin mentioned what was happening on his Facebook profile, and within minutes many of his friends were messaging him, wondering what the hell was going on. Some of those people discovered the news on the radio, and were curious about how close he really was. He was right next door, and as surprised as everyone else!  Justin Snikkar

Justin chose his apartment because it was one of the only places he found that would allow him to make noise in the middle of the night. As a musician, being able to practice at night is vital.

Justin’s apartment is a treasure trove of musical instruments and computer equipment. After I checked out the crime scene next door, he showed me his newest acquisition, a series of cymbals and gongs he bought during his trip to China last August.

“This is all I need to feel happy,” he told me, while whacking the gongs like a master percussionist.

“Let me try it,” I said. Bong! It was quite a rush.

Tell me about what happened yesterday.

It was interesting being woken up by firefighters using their radios and megaphones. I went outside to take a look. I was only wearing a t-shirt and shorts. There was a lot of commotion. There were also a lot of cops, and they shut the street down. I was supposed to evacuate, but I was sleeping pretty hard. I tuned into the news reports online. No one said anything until I went out to look. It was interesting seeing all the action around.

All kinds of new CDs come out every year. What stands out about your new album, City Limits?

Mostly, the songwriting, I think. Jazz is hard to stand out in, everything technically has been done I think. The only way to get originallity is through arranging and songwriting. I think they’re strong melodic sounds, the players are very good. There’s some moods created with the songs.

How long did the songwriting process take?

That varies. At least one of the songs, “The Machine” came out pretty quickly. Some of the songs were written twenty years ago. “Winter (First Storm)” came out instantly, with a few minor changes here and there. “City Limits” was my first theory project in college, now twenty years later it’s a song. Some songs take very quick, others you write over and over.

What were your influences?

Within jazz, Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk. Outside of jazz, Frank Zappa, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, and Public Image Limited. Diferent types of world music, and sound in general. Even though the songs are more typical bass, I just love sound.

Do any particular tracks reflect ideas, experiences or emotions of yours?

“Winter” stands out the most. I wrote while staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning, looking at the snow on Humber College’s campus.

Describe your approach to jazz.

I consider myself more of a jazz dabbler, because I don’t play in the jazz circuit, and I don’t practice jazz all the time. I do like improvising. I’m just not dedicated enough to consider myself a full time jazz musician. There’s a lot of melodic ideas. I guess it’s a way of expressing yourself. Coming up with cool variations of notes and sequences.

Tell me about your band. Why did you choose them?

Well, it’s not really a band per se, I hired four people I’ve played with. I know I like their sound. We recorded in seven hours with two rehearsals. I knew their abilites. It pretty much came out the way I heard in my head. The songs were hard, but the guys did a really good job.

Justin Snikkar

What do you hope to achieve with City Limits, other than make money?

Money! Ha! I don’t think I’ll make much money. I did it more for myself. I thought they were good songs. Before I turned 40, it’s an important personal achievement. I’d like to get attention, if that happens, that’s good. We’ll just have to see how it goes. If anything, it’s just a statement of what I can do. I would like to get playing live.

On that note, do you have any plans to tour with your new album?

Ah, yes. The jazz scene’s not the easiest. I called the booking guy at The Rex (the most popular jazz venue in Toronto). I may gig in the spring, and do a CD release party. I’ll try to find some other gigs. I’ll approach jazz festivals, too. I’m gonna hit them all with applications. I’ll even try the Montreal International Jazz Festival. If we can get to the gigs, I’d do it. I played the Brantford Jazz Festival last September.

Tell me about your busking years.

Busking, that started in 1990 or so. I was tired of working in factories doing labor. I met buskers at Yonge and Dundas (one of Toronto’s busy corners). With one of the drummers we started playing drum and bass. Then, we found a guitar player, we played some open funk kinds of jams for a year. I split, hooked up with some guys from Humber, did a jazz thing. We played by the SkyDome (now called the Rogers Centre) most of the time. I played with various groups until the city shut us down. The city banned us from using amps. So, for two to three years, I was playing drums until I got tired. I had about six years of doing it. It was great, I had freedom, no bar owners, no rules. I find bars have a lot more middlemen, owners, and agents. You’re expected to play certain things, it’s much more contrived.

If you weren’t a musician, what would you do?

Be a bum. Ha, ha! Who knows? I’d find a way to do something, I guess. I thought I’d be a carpenter at some point. Maybe a computer tech? My name Snikkar is derived from the Norwegian word for carpenter. My grandfather immigrated to Canada with his Finnish name, Nikkari (also means carpenter). The customs agent changed his name to Snikkar.

Why did he do that?

I’m not sure why.

Is that why your family are the only Snikkars in Canada?

Probably.

What do you love most about Toronto?

Toronto’s my hometown, so I have a soft spot there. I’ve grown up here most of my life. There’s lots of things to do, many cultutres, things to eat, and live music. There’s anything you need to see or do.

Is there anything you hate?

I don’t know if there’s anything I hate! It’s a pretty conservative business city overall, I guess. I don’t really hate anything. Maybe the way people drive, they drive like idiots! I have a perfect driving record.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Yeah, a question I’ve been trying to avoid all of my life. Hopefully I’ll be out playing more. I’d like to be playing my upright (double bass) more. I’d like to be more established playing my upright, playing music and still loving doing it. I’ve gone this far, I haven’t stopped. I’d like to be more successful, just trying creating. It’d be nice to have a house someday. As long as I can do it with some sense of creativity, it’s all part of the journey of life.

Do you have any final words for my readers?

I hope that if anyone listens to my CD, they like it. Support live music!

Justin Snikkar’s City Limits can be downloaded from Amazon, CBC Radio 3, and emusic. CDs will be available soon. Visit Justin’s Myspace to sample his music.

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