Mastadon Ridge: Excavating the Lost Alt Rock of Sydney, Nova Scotia

Mast(o)don Ridge is a tourist attraction just off exit 18 on Nova Scotia’s Highway 102, it was built in the late 90’s to commemorate the discovery of the remains of a mastodon, or being half way between the north pole and the equator or something. Mast(a)don Ridge are a largely overlooked 90’s alt rock outfit from Sydney, NS who self-released a single in 1996 under an unintentionally misspelled name.

As soon as I became aware of the existence of the Mastadon Ridge Warm Mourning / The Fall 7″ I knew I had to track one down. Unfortunately, no copies of the record were available on Discogs, but after looking up some of the band members on Facebook it turned out that guitarist/vocalist Mike Gabriel lived close enough to my apartment to steal his WiFi connection. Mike was very friendly, happy to sell me a copy for a very reasonable price, and was kind enough to indulge my fascination on the topic of Nova Scotian alternative rock bands that aren’t Sloan from places that aren’t Halifax.

When did Mastadon Ridge start playing? How did it come together?

At some point in the winter of ’95, I had broken two strings on my guitar. Instead of replacing them, I found that 4 strings in an open tuning sounded interesting. So, I started a project with my neighbours Ian Mcintyre and Carter Chiasson to explore some ideas. A few months later, we made some basement 4-track recordings. Five songs made their way onto our first release Welcome to Mastadon Ridge. It was released locally on cassette and was sold mostly to friends and later on at shows. The 4-string guitar was used on all of the early songs. In May or June of that year, we had our first show in the basement of Sydney Academy in the drama room. A funny thing I remember about that show was being found outside and told we were missing our set. Carter and I ran in to find Ian sitting alone on stage at the drums. We were definitely on the slack side in those early days, but it was more fun that way. It was pretty usual for me to forget or to not have actual lyrics for songs, for example.

Is there a backstory to the name Mastadon Ridge? 

That winter, I made a stop with some friends at Mastodon Ridge while returning to Cape Breton from seeing Eric’s Trip play in Halifax. The name had more to do with representing that time and less to do with the place. It just sort of stuck.

It should be mentioned now that we misspelled Mastadon unintentionally. Yeah, didn’t care so much about getting it right, I guess.

Can you give me some insight as to what the Cape Breton music scene was like at the time, Who were the other local bands? Any favorites you think maybe deserve some attention?

The Sydney scene then was largely separate and unaffected by the Halifax of those days. That’s not to say we felt isolated entirely. We just had our own thing going on. I can only speak of the scene that preceded ’95 by a few years and even then can only give you a version of the scene as I remember it.

In high school, there was an all-ages club downtown called The Beat. It opened in the spring of ’93 and was in a converted automobile service shop, an old muffler or transmission shop or whatever. Filtering through the groups outside, you’d wander into this crowded dark, smoke filled room. It was a strange mix of scenes. Until attending shows there, I had no idea a scene of any kind even existed. So, in my mind, this marked the beginning of a somewhat established Sydney scene. Metal giants Pitt and Path were always on the line up along side bands Head Case, The Klingons, and Flack Blag.

The Beat was short-lived though and shows pretty much stopped by mid-summer ’93. But, it had started something. Shows began happening at the Youth Centre in North Sydney soon after. Bands like Mine (later Rakad Ko), Hedge, and Stranger to Julien emerged and a new foundation seemed to have formed. Winter ’95 brought the first ECMA No Cases to Sydney. It is often thought the No Cases started elsewhere, but Sydney was the first. It took place at the Lyceum on George Street: a cultural centre that had a big room with a stage on its top floor. My first band Smiling Uniks played one of the three nights. I remember the shows having huge turnouts with more people showing up at the No Cases than at the official showcases. There was a bit of a lasting afterglow following those shows. We had been exposed just a little bit to the wider world. Rakad Ko’s set still holds a position as one of the best shows I’ve seen. This brings us back to the Winter of ’95 and to an idea for a project of what became Mastadon Ridge.

Where did you play most of your shows and how were the turnouts?

The only place for bands like ours to play in the Sydney of those days was at the Lyceum coffee house, at rented halls, one-song spots on the Underground and In Between radio show, at events like UCB’s Gobblefest or at fundraisers. On occasion, there were the rare invites for local bands to open up for touring acts. Bar shows were an unusual occurrence at that time. Any musicians playing bars back then needed to be in the local Union. Local bands playing bars were almost exclusively cover bands. So, it took a while before bars began to book local bands who wrote their own songs.

In the Summer of ’95, reacting to the desperate need for a local all ages venue,
friends Bill Masters and Gary Hatcher (both of Hedge) opened Le Silver Lodge on Dorchester Street upstairs from where there is now a restaurant called A Bite of Asia and what used to be a bar named Chandlers and many other names before that. It gave a much needed boost to the local indie scene. We had the release show for our cassette at The Lodge and played a bunch of shows there that summer. Turnouts there were always big. Despite it being a huge success, it closed its doors at the end of August after being open only for a few months.

Did you ever end up doing any touring? 

We played in Halifax twice. The first time at a Pop Explosion No Case in ’95 and the second was during the Winter of ’97. That’s it for our off-island shows. Touring was something we wanted to do but it wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Carter was in grade 10 when we started. Ian and I were in university, so the idea of hitting the road was something we kept pushing into the future.

How did the Single come about was it self released do you remember how it was recieved?

We managed to save money by putting on our own shows. We were never paid for playing in those days. So, in order to make money, you had to have a plan. Carter would book bands from neighbouring towns like New Waterford to make sure the turnouts would be large. Amongst the large pool of talent in the local scene of ’96 and ’97, bands that stand out for me the most were The Unwanted Guests, Tilted, Red Noise and Bottle Rocket. Whatever was left over after paying the hall, the sound guy, and security, went towards saving for recording or production. The ‘Warm Mourning’ single came out in Winter ’97, I’m pretty sure. It was self released. I’m still pretty proud of it. Carter arranged the whole thing. We must have had a release show, but I don’t remember the details so well.

Right off the bat it’s easy to tell Eric’s Trip was a big influence on MR. What other bands stick out as informing your sound? 

After the fall of ’95, Ian left the band and Mike Morrison (Flack Blag, Sunfish, Gunk, Rock Ranger, Dog Fight, Fire Valley Fire) joined us on drums. We instantly became a much louder, heavier band. Pieces of ride cymbals and broken sticks would scatter the floor after practices. Mike always seemed to be searching for tougher cymbals, ones that could keep up. We had left behind the slower and lighter songs of the past summer, got Big Muff’s and moved on. Eric’s Trip and Elevator, of course, were a big influence for everyone in my circle of friends. Their songs were the soundtrack to everything that was going on in our lives back then. I know I’m not the only one who felt this way. I was also heavily influenced by bands like Helmet, Fugazi, Pavement, Drive Like Jehu, Sebadoh, the list goes on.

What’s the deal with Cape Breton Pizza? Everyone I’ve met from Cape Breton says Cape Breton Pizza is the best Pizza, do you share this opinion? What’s different about it? 

Regional biases. The same argument exists between Sydney and Glace Bay. Or, New Waterford and Glace Bay for that matter. Napoli and Pizza Den before they both expanded still win, but those are my biases based on who was close by. If you lived in Coxheath, for example, then Eat More Pizza might have been the best. Fat Boys in Dominion and Glace Bay were always talked about as being the best by people from that part of the island. It’s like comparing beer or cigarettes. The most important ingredient in pizza is tradition, that’s it. As for Cape Breton pizza being the best, of course it is!

Listen to Mastadon Ridge on bandcamp. 

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