Parallel Play: The Story of How '90s CanRock Blew Up in Detroit

Windsor's 89X turned a host of Canadian indie bands into regional stars south of the border
Parallel Play: The Story of How '90s CanRock Blew Up in Detroit
Photo of DJ Darren Revell courtesy of Scott Vertical
For the millennials waiting to snatch a J Dilla picture disc or the latest Father John Misty 7-inch on Record Store Day 2015, it must have been an odd sight to behold. Throngs of 30- and 40-somethings flocking outside Toledo, OH's Culture Clash Records, waiting to get their hands on a beloved relic from their youth: the first vinyl pressing of 24 Gone's The Spin.

As a long-time fan of the shoegazers' 1990 masterwork, shop owner Pat O'Connor secured the rights to press a limited run of the band's only full-length. But the beloved quartet weren't a long-lost Toledo act, nor did they cut their teeth touring the American Midwest. In fact, 24 Gone hailed from Vancouver, BC. Search "24 Gone" on YouTube, Reddit or across social media and you'll find an overwhelming majority of commenters crediting a Windsor, ON, radio station for introducing them to the band's music — particularly their soaring, kaleidoscopic tracks "Girl of Colours" and "Trust."

Launching on Labour Day weekend of 1990 as an overnight slot on adult contemporary station CIMX, "The Cutting Edge" filled the airwaves with left-of-dial artists like Jane's Addiction, Morrissey, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sonic Youth. Helmed by a mid-30s DJ who recently jumped ship from Detroit powerhouse rock station "The RIFF," Greg St. James placed his reputation on the line to peddle this relatively untested and uncommercial sound.

"The station was my idea. The idea to do modern rock was mine," St. James tells Exclaim! "They were doing CIMX, it was horrible. But they had 100,000 watts and we couldn't get anyone in Detroit to let us do anything, so we went over to Windsor." Pulling together a colourful roster of on-air talent from the U.S. and Canada, St. James helped take the format full-time and, on May 31, 1991, 89X was born.

Despite reaching more listeners in the Detroit Metropolitan region, 89X was still a Canadian radio station and was therefore required to abide to CRTC guidelines — namely, meeting CanCon broadcasting requirements. Despite losing a bid to lower their percentage to a mere 5 per cent, 89X was still only required to play 15 per cent, approximately half the amount required by other FM stations across the country.

Tasked with fulfilling this alien mandate, St. James decided to employ a unique strategy. Experiencing virtually no influence from Canadian rock radio, press, music video stations or even A&R people, the American-born-and-raised program director decided to do it strictly by ear. "Yeah, I knew what MuchMusic was, but I never watched it. And we really paid zero attention to what the A&R guys said. We really didn't give a fuck," says St. James.

But the key to 89X's wildly innovative and diverse sound came from the fact that St. James was able to hire his own on-air staff, as he focused exclusively on his team's musical acumen rather than a smooth baritone delivery. But, according to Greg, it was the addition of two DJs specifically who helped shape the sound of the station: Vince Cannova, a programming assistant from San Diego's pioneering modern rock station 91X, and a young college radio DJ from Windsor named Greg Gnyp.

"Greg St. James looked at me and another guy by the name of the D-Man," explains Gnyp before launching into an impression of his former boss: "All right. Sunday night. You're gonna host 'Out of the Box', it's the new releases show. Just go into the office, everything that is brand new, listen to it and play whatever you want." While MuchMusic and Canada's other modern rock station, Toronto's 102.1 the Edge, were giving airtime to major label fare like Blue Rodeo, Bootsauce, Crash Test Dummies and the Northern Pikes, 89X was pushing tracks from underground artists like pre-Doughboys punks the Asexuals, jazz-folk artist Mae Moore, noisy indie rockers Mystery Machine, and faux-reggae Windsorites ONE.

But even though the station played some crossover from Much and the Edge — helping the Grapes of Wrath and the Tragically Hip score their only U.S. Billboard Modern Rock Chart entries with "I Am Here" and "Courage," respectively — St. James, Cannova and Gnyp would often pass over the latest single from an artist in favour of their own choice, making regional hits out of the Killjoys' "Dana" (while ignoring "Today I Hate Everyone"), Sloan's "Penpals" (rather than "Coax Me"), and the Super Friendz's "Karate Man" (instead of "10 lbs").

As 13 Engines, Odds, Pluto and Rusty were added into regular rotation and began to appear on station-sponsored festivals alongside the Afghan Whigs, Beck, Liz Phair and Urge Overkill, Detroiters didn't see their northern neighbours as "second class" — in fact, many weren't even aware that these acts were Canadian until it became time to pick up their LPs. "Some of the calls we would get would be like 'How the heck do I get this?,'" says Gnyp. "We'd have to always say, 'Well you've got to come to Canada.' But that's when [Detroit record stores] Record Time and Repeat the Beat and all those guys started to get Canadian imports. Then, all of a sudden, Ashley MacIsaac is selling records in Detroit and in the surrounding area, because we added them."

But long before Sloan was filling Detroit's 2,200-seat State Theater and the Hip were recording seminal 1996 concert album Live Between Us at former Detroit Pistons home Cobo Arena, Midwesterners had to cross the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel to catch bands "south" of the border (as Detroit is geographically north of Windsor).

Shane Ward, bassist for Mystery Machine, recalls pulling up to Windsor's spacious Vertigo Niteclub during their first headlining tour in 1993. "I thought, 'Well, this is brutal, who did this to us and who hates us that they would put us in this huge place'? And later, I remember seeing a lineup down the street. I was like 'What's happening here? Is somebody else on the bill?'"

Years after St. James and 89X parted ways, the station's anything-goes mentality was reined in, as alternative rock staples Barenaked Ladies, Finger Eleven, Our Lady Peace and (inevitably) Nickelback, began to push aside upstarts like Blinker the Star, Len, Rufus Wainwright and Bran Van 3000. But the ingenuity and fearlessness that defined the station's early years began to spawn a new generation of musicians weaned on early '90s CanRock, best demonstrated by 2005 compilation One Scene to Another: Plumline Record's Tribute to Canadian Indie Rock, which found 16 Detroit acts covering 89X classics from the Inbreds, Jale, Thrush Hermit and Zumpano.

"My exposure to any Canadian music would have been the indie stuff," says Ryan Brescoe, former guitarist for Detroit band the Recital, who covered Eric's Trip's "Follow" on the comp. "You would hear some Canadian rock over in the U.S. on corporate radio, but I didn't really listen to those stations. So, if I did listen to the radio, my only exposure to anything Canadian would have been 89X."

By the end of the '90s, St. James and his crew helped turn a fledgling, identity-starved radio station into one of Detroit's biggest tastemakers by crafting a parallel universe where the pressures from major labels was nonexistent, where I Mother Earth, Matthew Good Band and Moist were unknowns and where an obscure group like 24 Gone reigned supreme.

"It was great to have a big crowd there every time we played Detroit. It was our favourite place to play in all of North America," beams Ward. "The places would be packed, and people would know the songs. Yeah, it was all 89X."