Groundwerk Vancouver recently celebrated their one year anniversary and are now entering their 14th installment of monthly Listening Parties, where artists from all over come together to share and listen to each other’s music. It’s shown to be a simultaneously safe and progressive community where artists can feel comfortable sharing their work while also being supported and challenged by other artists to grow. They’ve also recently launched their own label, Groundwerk Recordings.
To learn more about the movement we met up with Groundwerk founder, DJ, and producer Joel Cottingham aka Joel West. Grab yourself a coffee and join the conversation as we talk about his path as a musician and the importance of community in the arts.
RENDRD: Where has your background in music grown from?
Joel: I’ve been lucky to have a strong musical background. As a teenage actor, I was in musical theatre and I was in a couple choirs. I went to theatre school and I did a year at McGill as well. Aside from being an appreciator and consumer of music, and eventually a practitioner, I’ve always been around people that are working on music in some capacity. But the whole time, never considered myself at their level – I would say “they’re good, and I’m not.” I think it comes down to being lazy. I had a guitar, and I could play some stuff, accompany myself while I was singing a song. But I wasn’t great. I always saw people that were better at those things, and I would use that to diminish what I was doing. To me, that seems to be a really common artistic problem – comparison. You aren’t celebrating your own gains at that level, all you’re doing is seeing what’s missing.
You’ve been producing your own tracks, but you started as a DJ first, right?
DJ’ing, for me, was really the first thing I found where I could perform complete songs that, unlike what I was making at the time, sounded good. And also where the whole intention of it is driven towards dancing and made for groups of people to enjoy. That’s the immediate reaction you’re going for, and the ethos behind the performance. You aren’t going to a DJ set to sit and listen, you’re going to express yourself through dancing and to feel free! I experienced that power in my early 20’s DJ’ing for my extended friend group, and I thought “I HAVE to do this.” That was the first thing that allowed me to have the discipline to keep working and working at it, until I was good enough to play out. And within a year I was playing out, and maybe I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was making money for playing records!
“You aren’t celebrating your own gains at that level, all you’re doing is seeing what’s missing.”
At the start of Groundwerk I had spent years as a DJ playing other people’s music, but I hadn’t really collaborated with other artists in any capacity. It’s easy to play big label tracks from Beatport or songs made by well-known artists. And that’s okay, that’s fine. But when your friends are making music that’s just as good without the global recognition, why would you not choose to support them and play their music out? I want the music I play to be an expression of my experiences: where I’m from and what’s around me, which happens to be the music that my friends were making.
When did you start producing your own music then?
I think I got Logic in 2007, that’s what I’ve been using. I had some mentors helping here or there, but for the most part I was working at it alone. It’s really been in the past couple of years using online tutorials that my production has taken big steps of improvement. That’s the first step, to develop your actual production skills. Another aspect is networking and sharing your creations, and that’s what we’ve put in place with Groundwerk. So for me, now interfacing with real people and having people pushing me out of my comfort zone helps learning things that you didn’t even know you were missing out on. That’s the greatest value of having people around you that are on the same path but have different experiences, bottom line.
What have you, personally, learned from others in the community?
Someone I’ve learned a lot from is Chris, who performs as The Goat. There was a point while we were building Groundwerk where I was spending a lot of time on Groundwerk and a lot less on my own music. And he saw that and called me out on it. He said “you’re coming over on this day, at this time, and we’re making our own samples and your music is going to sound way better.” And it did! He made a track where he sampled the ultrasound of his baby’s heartbeat, which is crazy, and you would never know unless someone told you. It doesn’t have to be you by yourself doing everything alone when you can have everyone in the community contributing and helping each other out.
You’re a big fan of the music coming out of Groundwerk, and I think that’s a mutual feeling among everyone there.
I find myself more excited when I see Diana Boss hitting 200k plays on Soundcloud, or Iain Howie paying the Commodore, or The Goat hitting #8 on the Beatport charts. I get fucking excited when I see that. And that’s not about me, right? Our tagline is Art Over Ego, and that’s really it. I want people to take this thing they wish they could get started or begin to grow, and help them go as far as they can. When I see people taking action and finding success, that’s what excites me - the joy of creating something out of nothing with a small group of people.
Groundwerk has become associated with some fairly notable artists and events over the past year. Has it all come through reaching out to as many artists as you can, or are they reaching out to you?
It’s a combination – sometimes it’s a reach out, sometimes it’s someone who already has a connection and we find a way for them to connect us. We’re far enough along and we’ve done enough things with our partners that there’s a certain amount of immediate trust. When we launched there was a certain amount of excitement that got us so far, then we’ve leveraged that into doing some pretty cool things with interesting partners. We’ve talked at Bass Coast, we had a booth at TedX, we did a thing for Seasons Festival with Blueprint. Sometimes I have to slow down and tell myself “it’s okay,” because I’m one of those people who keeps a to-do list right in my face - I’m always looking at what we haven’t done yet. But when you take a moment to stop and look back and say, “You know what? We’ve done a lot. So now, there’s been a shift where we’re being approached by artists and event planners. It’s just another level of growth.
Why should someone brand new to all of this music production come and check out Groundwerk?
If you’re someone brand new to music production with a cracked copy of Ableton or whatever software, and have no idea what you’re doing, come out to one of our events and talk to some people. Tell them where you’re at and someone’s going to say “Come over to my house for a couple hours, I’ll get you started.” That’s what’s going to happen. And there you go, that’s your beginning, you’re off to the races.
Coming out to these events, it’s a face to face thing, it’s a personal thing. We connect so much through our phones and online, and we do network with people that we might never have met otherwise through Instragram or Snapchat or whatever, but in our overzealous acceptance of these platforms and how much time we give to them, it’s easy to lose understanding of the power of personal connection. Building that backbone of community is what Groundwerk is all about.
Also, we have someone coming likely within the next six months that I’m pretty excited about. I just got a response back this week, so stay tuned.
Submit your own track, or just come out and meet some new faces at the next Groundwerk Listening Party October 26th at the Anza Club