It begins, as all tales of rock ‘n’ roll–inspired insolence should, in a garage.

Tucked behind venerable Toronto Chinatown blues bar Grossman’s, this garage opened its door to the public in 2011 to showcase a decidedly different strain of guitar rock, one as grimy and ugly as its graffiti-strewn, rat-infested back-alley surroundings. The nameless space only held about 50 people, but its warm environment – in both the figurative and literal senses – attracted the best burgeoning indie-rock, punk and noise artists from Toronto and beyond; everyone from Vancouver screamers White Lung to Montreal electro collagist Doldrums made themselves at home there, years before international label deals and European festivals beckoned.

Among those 50 people who routinely sardined themselves into the garage was Ian Chai. He wasn’t a typical patron; for one, he was about a decade older than the venue’s college-aged regulars. But, as he says with a chuckle, “I have Asian genetics, so I don’t look like the incredibly old man at the show.” And while Chai had punk-rock roots and the tattoos to go with them, by day, that inked skin was covered by a suit.

Chai was a corporate lawyer at the time, and had spent much of the 2000s practicing in Europe. Upon returning to his native Toronto in 2011, he came to the realization that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life drowning in documents. Instead, he figured he could combine his astute negotiating skills with his passion for music to pursue a career in artist management. There was, however, just one problem. “When I came back to Toronto, I literally hadn’t been in the country in five years,” Chai recalls. “My knowledge of the scene was very limited.”

So he did what any good legal scholar would do: he studied.  Chai’s Toronto indie education was expedited by Dean Tzenos – a former member of local avant-grunge outfit Ten Kens who was looking to get his more goth-leaning project, Odonis Odonis, off the ground, and needed some legal advice. Upon learning of Chai’s managerial aspirations, Tzenos introduced him to the scene that was coalescing around that Chinatown garage, which was operated by Tzenos’ bandmate Denholm Whale, along with Jude (just Jude) of the scuzz-punk outfit HSY, and the venue’s resident visual artist Stefi Murphy. (The trio each had rotating stints as basement-apartment tenants in the adjacent house, ensuring the favourable lease – and access to the garage – stayed in the family.)

“I was really skeptical,” Chai admits, “because I was, like, ‘Listen, I don’t need to listen to a bunch of 19-year-olds telling me how punk they are!’ But they really had a vision to build a community space, and leverage that into a label. It was clear we shared the same principles.”

Of course, this being downtown Toronto in the 2010s, the garage venue inevitably fell victim to an opportunistic landlord who wanted to convert the space into an extra rental property. After a year-and-a-half of hosting sweat-soaked soirées, the venue – by then, branded as the Buzz Garage – was shackled in 2012. However, if the Buzz crew could no longer present Toronto’s most exciting underground rock bands for a small coterie of downtown feedback junkies, the least it could do was bring them to the world, through a combination of the Garage team’s ear-to-the-ground sensibility and Chai’s business savvy.

“I think that’s why artists enjoy working with us –we have similar values and we love noisy music.” – Ian Chai of Buzz Records

Initially, Buzz Records served the same clubhouse function as their former venue, putting out proudly discordant releases by garage-affiliated bands like Odonis Odonis and HSY. But very gradually, each of the label’s releases became a stepping stone for the next. The 2014 EP from art-pop eccentrics Weaves was the first to make noticeable ripples south of the border, earning them a “Band to Watch” feature in Rolling Stone. Then Sore, the 2015 debut from grunge-scarred misanthropes Dilly Dally spread even further afield, through rave reviews in The Guardian and Pitchfork. And that international attention, in turn, amplified the positive critical reception for 2016 releases from noise-punk agitators Greys and the aforementioned Weaves, who’ve been riding the momentum of their recent self-titled full-length through Europe this summer.

Weaves singer Jasmyn Burke attributes much of that success to Chai and his dogged determination to get his bands heard by the right people. “Ian’s very passionate, and he can be extreme,” she says. “He’ll put pressure on media and festivals to make sure that you’re properly represented, and sometimes you have to be stern with people. But you need those people [like Chai] on your side – people who aren’t afraid to ask questions, knock on doors, and stir things up in order to do well.”

In a sense, the evolution of Buzz is not unlike that of more prominent Canadian indies like Arts & Crafts and Last Gang, both of which began as collaborations between seasoned professionals and idealistic, guinea-pig artists. And like those imprints, Buzz quickly realized that there’s a lot more to being a record label these days than just selling records; in addition to the traditional label arm, Buzz has launched a couple of other boutique, bee-themed services – Beeswax Booking and Hive Mind PR, both of which service the Buzz roster, but also handle unrelated acts.

But where Arts & Crafts and Last Gang have essentially evolved into Canada’s new major labels – with gold records and JUNO Awards on their mantles and FACTOR funding – Chai sees Buzz on a different path. While its DIY philosophy has been flexible enough to entertain (an ultimately short-lived) distribution deal with Sony Music Canada, and though Chai himself briefly worked for Arts & Crafts’ management wing, he’s not interested in institutional Canadian music-industry acceptance. The sort of unapologetically abrasive music he deals in pretty much negates that possibility anyway.

“Yes, I want to pay my rent and eat,” he says, “but the A&R that we’re choosing is not indicative of a label that’s trying to go for the brass ring. That’s not to say we don’t have ambitions to scale up, but I don’t think we’re a FACTOR label.” Weaves and Greys did receive FACTOR funding to help offset recording costs of their most recent records, but, Chai says, “we’re not making label decisions based on what’s going to be most easily attainable, in terms of getting grant money.”

He’d rather have Buzz serve as the central node in an international network that encompasses like-minded U.S. and U.K. labels who can promote Buzz bands in other territories. (Weaves are signed to Memphis Industries internationally, and Kanine Records in the U.S.; Dilly Dally are signed to Partisan Records internatonally; and Greys’ U.S. release is handled by Carpark Records.) The more his acts can tour abroad and cultivate their fanbase in other countries, the more management and booking revenue ultimately trickles back to Buzz, and the more the label’s scrawled logo will be seen as trusted seal of quality. The label’s bands – which now range from the jangly dream-pop of Twist to the strobe-lit electro of Bad Channels – may not necessarily sound alike, but you’re guaranteed a certain uncompromised aesthetic.

“It’s interesting,” Weaves’ Burke observes. “On the road, people will ask us about Buzz, and I’m often surprised – they know every band on the label. It really feels like we’re part of a community. The thing with Toronto right now is that bands are really trying to push forward and do well internationally. So I feel there’s a healthy level of competition within our [Buzz Records] group. You can accomplish more when there’s a group of you. Dilly Dally are on the road as much as we are, and it’s great to have people to call up and ask, ‘How do you deal with being on the road for three months at a time?’ It helps to have people to lean on.”

But as with most labels experiencing their first brush with success, Buzz is approaching a crossroads. The fact that one of the label’s former tent-pole acts, Odonis Odonis, opted to release its latest record, Post Plague, on fellow Toronto indie Telephone Explosion suggests that Buzz is entering that inevitable, evolutionary phase where the needs of individual bands start to diverge from the collective vision. (Tzenos declined comment for this article; his bandmate, Whale, however, is still actively involved with Buzz, overseeing its booking arm.) And, currently, Chai is trying to gauge if Buzz’s small in-house staff (three full-timers, two part-timers) can keep up with the growing global demand for its artists, or if the label needs to join an umbrella organization with greater resources. While Chai won’t divulge any potential plans for expansion, he insists that whatever move Buzz makes will enhance the label’s vision rather than cloud it.

We have six-month, one-year, two-year and five-year plans for every artist we work with,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a lockstep process, but we definitely want to have a bigger vision – otherwise, how can you determine if your approach is successful? We’re not going for the one-for-twenty percentage, where you get one out of 20 acts that breaks. We all know the model that the music industry still uses today is to have one band cover three to five years of operational expenses. We’re not going to base our A&R like that. We’re going to put out the bands we want to put out, and put the same effort behind a noisy, dissonant band like Greys as a pop band like Twist. And I think that’s why artists enjoy working with us –we have similar values and we love noisy fuckin’ music.”

It would be easy to believe that Martin Léon found a way of re-inventing himself by becoming a film composer. This would ignore the type of man he is, the lover of poetic and musical sounds.

“Did I trip on the love of words that steered me towards songwriting in the first place?” he asks. “That was certainly part of it.” The truth is that Léon had been dreaming of becoming a film composer for a long time after studying contemporary music at the Université de Montréal, and a stint with the great Ennio Morricone in his twenties. Trying to explain the fine distinctions between songwriting and film scoring also wouldn’t be much help in trying to understand a thinking musician, for whom everything is inter-related in a way that’s simple and complex at the same time.

“I think that, in the end, I’m trying to identify the narrative elements of music, whether it be through a song or a film,” says Léon. “I’m always telling a story and trying to find sounds that give a colour to what exists in the spaces between words. I’m trying to clothe the invisible.”

When he was at the top of his game with Les atomes (2010), his fourth recording of songs, Léon was hired to score Christian Laurence’s Le journal d’Aurélie Laflamme and Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar. Other publicly and critically acclaimed Martin Léon film scores include Anne Émond’s Les êtres chers and Philippe Falardeau’s The Good Lie and Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre (winner of the Best Original Music award at the 2016 Gala du cinéma Québécois).

“All of this happened more or less at the same time at an incredible pace,” says Léon, “and I could only manage thanks to my musicians, the composition assistants I met in my songwriting days – the arranger/pianist Alexis Dumais and the arranger/guitarist Hugo Mayrand.”

“I believe the composer should take part in the film’s final sound mix. He has something to say all the way to that stage. Otherwise he’s just a content supplier.”

Martin Léon Becoming a film composer was a major move that forced Léon to re-assess his own role as a professional musician. He admits being thrilled with finding himself at the service of other creators. “As a songwriter, I make 90 percent of all decisions,” he says. “Right now, that would be too much for me, it would require too much attention.” Hiding behind a collective undertaking such as a motion picture, and no longer being the sole creative engine, has had a liberating effect on the composer.

The sense of creative freedom of the past has left traces, however, bringing Léon to believe that a film composer must retain a strong musical identity by leaving his mark on the stories he’s scoring, and taking an active part in the various sound-related stages of film production.

“I believe the composer should take part in the film’s final sound mix,” he says. “He has something to say all the way to that stage. Otherwise he’s nothing more than a content supplier, a role I’m not interested in playing. I like to believe that the film composer is chosen based on his capacity to bring along a specific, signature universe of sound: An Alberto Iglesias with an Almodovar; an Alexandre Desplat who doesn’t write for Wes Anderson the same way he does for Roman Polanski. These kinds of composers inspire me.”

Léon has most recently worked on the soundtracks for two movies due to be released this summer, one for Jean-François Pouliot’s comic film Les 3 p’tits cochons 2, and one for André Forcier’s Embrasse-moi comme tu m’aimes. Each film comes with its own variety of experiences, linked to new people and new environments, in spite of the fact that both scores are being produced in the same home studio. At the beginning of each new venture, Léon immerses himself in the director’s visual world, soaking it up like a sponge. He’ll read the script, watch the rushes over and over again, travel to shooting locations, and screen the director’s previous work. This modus operandi proved essential for André Forcier’s Embrasse-moi comme tu m’aimes, a film by a director with a uniquely poetic cinematic style. That total immersion steered Léon in a specific direction, for this film depicting the dark years of the Second World War in Quebec.

The scoring of Jean-François Pouliot’s Les 3 p’tits cochons 2 was a more up-and-down experience. Having been approached by the director once the shooting had been completed, Léon started on the laborious process of identifying that comedy’s theme. After a two-month trial and error period, he felt discouraged, and wondered whether he really was the composer that Pouliot was looking for. Pouliot having confirmed his trust in him, Léon continued to search for a catchy theme. When the time of the final presentation came, he called on two composer friends in order to secretly present two music themes by them, along with his own. “I didn’t know how to get out of that situation,” he says. “If the director chose those pieces, I was going to tell him that I wasn’t his man in spite of what he thought. Amazingly, the only cue he selected out of the lot was the one I had composed. You have no idea what a relief it was!”

Exhausted by those overlapping contracts, Léon is taking some time off to do things right and re-group. He’s planning to write a film script in his spare time and to explore… until Christmas. Though he has no plans of writing another solo album, he knows he’ll return to songwriting when he feels the urge again. “I know the time will come,” he says.

For now, his focus remains on the movies. And also on enjoying life. “My deepest fundamental values are not to be able to say I wrote 50 soundtracks and sold 350,000 recordings,” he says. “That used to be the case, but not anymore. When I’m on my deathbed, I want to be able to look back with pride on the relationships I had with people around me. I’ll want to have been a man who took care of his inner life. I want to nourish others, and myself, with what’s alive around me, no matter what form that life takes. That doesn’t mean embarking on a journey; not at all. My life is right here… I want to embrace this next step of my life, and be genuinely available to it, instead of with a disorienting “sell-sell-sell” approach that keeps me awake at night…”

To clothe the invisible, you must first know how to live.

For a moment, forget your idea of China as a totalitarian and repressive regime. Not that it’s become a paragon of democracy and human rights as a country – far from it – but getting to know the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project will help you discover another China that you wouldn’t be able to find on the map.

“A large bottle of beer costs 50¢, pot plants grow right on the street, and if you’re a foreign musician, you can do just about anything you want,” says the band’s singer/guitarist JP Tremblay. “Over there, everybody wants to have their picture taken with you, especially if you’re white and play the guitar.”

Québec Redneck Bluegrass ProjectThe Chicoutimi-born songwriter knows what he’s talking about, having lived from 2006 to 2013 in the Chinese city of Kunming, where he founded the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project with a bunch of Quebec roommates who’d gotten stuck in Southwest China while travelling through Asia.

“I already played music,” says Tremblay. “I’d survived for three months in Greece as a street guitar player, but in China, it was something else! We quickly realized that foreign musicians were considered as demi-gods in that country. You didn’t even have to be good!” he laughs. “After we created the band, we started doing corporate shows – monkey shows, as we used to call them. Local people working for outfits like Mercedes or BMW were delighted to be able to have ‘exotic’ entertainment at their company functions. We played whatever we pleased. Sometimes we got hired as a jazz orchestra, in spite of the fact that we couldn’t play a one damn note of jazz. Not to worry! The big bosses still wanted to have their picture taken with us.”

Besides corporate shows, the band toured in China, but also throughout Laos, Thailand and India. More than 10,000 kilometers away from “La Belle Province,” the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project rocked the stage with their own songs, and bluegrass covers, delivered with confidence and good humour. A documentary called La Route de la soif (The Thirst Road) was produced to capture the team’s Chinese journey.

“I could tell you a million stories,” Tremblay continues. “We crossed the border between China and Burma through the jungle, followed by soldiers who seemed determined to find out how fast we could run and how scared of bullets we were. We organized a music festival for two years in suburban Kunming while bribing the local army with cases of beer. Let’s just say you had to be able to keep cool.”

The adrenaline-filled early days of the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project are now in the distant past. Whereas QRBP used to come home for brief summer tours, it’s now settled permanently in its native Québec. “The road between Tadoussac and Rouyn may be less exciting than the Burmese jungle – except that, the other day, we hit the ditch near Québec City when a wheel came off our van! What matters is the road ahead,” says Tremblay. “We’re quite capable of making a go of it and have fun anywhere in Québec. Besides, things were starting to get a bit less fun in China. The novelty eventually wears off, and police officers can now raid a bar and have all patrons take a urine test to find out if they’ve been taking drugs. It gets tiring.”

With Nick Flame (mandolin), François Gaudreault (acoustic bass) and Madeleine Bouchard (violin) completing the lineup, QRBP’s transition is in progress. The band’s albums – Scandales et bonne humeur (2014), 3000 boulevard de Mess (2011) and Sweet Mama Yeah! (2010) – have all been available in Québec since last year, and a new one is in the works.

“Out of a population of 1.3 billion people, China only had three bluegrass bands,” says Tremblay. “So expectations aren’t the same here. We’re working like mad on our fourth album, which should be coming out this winter – in time for our 10th anniversary. The songs are great, and I can find inspiration for lyrics in a ton of past experiences.” Like the time you went to jail in China, someone jokes. “That’s one experience, but I didn’t stay in very long,” he says. “Only a few hours for material damage. The cops were cool. They brought me tea and cigarettes.”

Which means that even Chinese prison officers love the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project.