Wacken Metal Battle Canada: Canucks winning their way to an international stage

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Interview by Laura Wiebe

If you’re a metalhead you’ve heard of Wacken Open Air. Founded in 1990, the German festival is a mecca for metal pilgrims, a status immortalized  in Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen’s Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005). But Wacken is a desired destination for more than fans. For a band, playing Wacken must be a tremendous high – a chance to reach out directly to some of the scene’s largest crowds, gathered together from some of its farthest reaches.

Relatively few Canadian bands have had the chance to storm a Wacken stage, though the list includes some of the finest: Annihilator, Kataklysm, Voivod… Beginning last year, a new opportunity opened up, a new trade route for exporting metal CanCon across the Atlantic, one contest and one band at a time. That route is called Wacken Metal Battle Canada, and JJ Tartaglia, the man behind it, spoke with Hellbound to explain the contest’s background and operations, his own involvement, and last year’s high achievement: sending Toronto’s Crimson Shadows to Wacken to compete and win.

JJ, You’ve been described as the man who brought the Wacken Metal Battle to Canada. Before I ask how that came about, can you give us a little background about the Battle? How long has it been going on, for example? Was it initially a German-only contest? Which countries were the first to get involved?

The competition has existed since 2003. It was only European countries back then: Germany, UK, the Scandinavian territories. It was a much smaller scale; there was no record deal at stake and the Metal Battle stage at Wacken was much smaller, from what I hear, compared to the two full-size stages that they have now. It’s really developed over the past few years, now with 30+ countries stretching the globe. Canada joined in 2013.

How did you find out about the contest? And what inspired you to start up a Canadian edition – what’s your motivation?

In 2011 I was on a business trip in Helsinki, speaking on a panel at the Finnish Metal Expo. One of the other panelists there worked for Wacken, and he told me about the Metal Battle. Over some drinks, we spoke about bringing the battle to North America, and to Canada specifically. I knew we had the talent to be a contender. The metal scene in Canada needed something like this. So that was the initial spark.

I’ve been a strong supporter of Canadian metal for a long time. It’s a passion for me. I’m fighting for metal’s rightful place in Canadian heritage! And the Metal Battle ties in nicely with all of that.

How long did it take you to get things going? What was involved in the initial stages of planning and prep?

It took a good two years to make the vision become a reality. 2011 was already a write-off, and by the time we re-established communication, plus logistics, we were too late for 2012. So we got everything figured out for the year after – website, venues, publicity, round system, funding, promo, etc. It was key to get the right partners out in Montreal, and we got exactly that with Asher Media and Dungeon Works Productions.

What’s your own background in terms of metal and the music industry – I understand you’re a musician as well as being involved in distribution? What were you able to bring to the organization of the competition that has helped it to succeed?

I’m a bit of an anomaly when it comes to the music biz, because I play both sides. I’m a drummer, first and foremost. I’ve had some success with past/current projects, and I’ve got some higher profile stuff unfolding in the next couple months, which I’m very excited about. But the business side always appealed to me as well, which led to starting up Boonsdale Records five years ago. 80% of our releases are metal. It all channels to the same goal: pursuing music. It’s a lifelong commitment for me.

Seeing things from both angles has many advantages. Perspective is important. I wanted to make Metal Battle a success, but also for it to be a great experience for bands. I didn’t want to sacrifice integrity, honour. Which is an easy trap to fall into when money is at stake. Band battles typically have a bad rep and I wanted to set ourselves above that.

How do you feel last year’s competition went – what were some of the challenges and some of the highlights? Sending Crimson Shadows and having them win must have been hugely validating…

We had our share of challenges for sure. Setting something up from scratch is tough. We weren’t able to secure any sponsor funding, nor a backline provider. But we made it work. The best possible outcome we could have hoped for was to have Canada win at Wacken, and we accomplished just that with Crimson Shadows. It was definitely a testament that we mean business, and it’s earned Canada a great deal of respect.

I was actually a judge for the international final at Wacken so I saw every band, all 28 of them. And a lot of them were top calibre. I think Crimson’s genre really worked in their favor. They have the death vocals, but also the clean melodic parts. That combined with their power metal style works really well. And they deliver it excellently.

What made you choose Toronto and Montreal as the locations for last year’s competition?

Mainly because they are Canada’s two largest cities, and as a result would have the best representation of Canadian metal. But also being based in Toronto, and Montreal not too far away, it made things easier.

What enabled you to expand to Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver this year?

Expanding to the West has been the plan from the beginning. I attended Noctis back in September, which is an all metal conference and festival held in Calgary. So I was able to make the necessary connections out there to make the expansion possible.

Tell us a little about the logistics of the contest this year. What’s your process for selecting the competitors from all the possible submissions?

We go through all of the applications and rate the bands on their recorded music, any videos, past accomplishments. The top bands are chosen for battle.

How many bands do you expect to compete in each city?

The number of bands competing will differ from city to city, but to give you an idea there will be about 25 in Toronto, and probably 16-20 in the other cities.

What’s the strategy for organizing all the competitors into the various rounds?

Bands will play 1 qualifying show, if successful they will play 1 semi-final show, if successful again they will play the final. The winner at the final goes to Wacken.

Are bands required to buy/sell a certain number of tickets to participate in each round?

The ticketing system will be different depending on the city. We are working with the respective promoters in each city to decide the ticket price and system that works best for their local scene. For example in Calgary there are no advance tickets for bands to sell. In Toronto advance tickets will be made available for bands to buy/sell but it is not required.

How do you go about recruiting judges?

The judging panel will consist of respected music industry folk who either specialize or have a passion for metal. We look at their past work, and their contributions to the metal scene.

Where will you be holding the finals this year?

The finals will be held at The Opera House in Toronto, on June 7th.

I understand money from ticket sales goes toward bands’ travel expenses – is that where all of the profits are channelled, or is this a financial enterprise as well as a showcase for Canadian metal talent?

The bulk of the profit is used to pay for the winning band’s trip to Germany. On top of that Wacken takes a hefty percentage for using their brand. So we just about broke even last year.

 On the “About” page for the Battle you list a number of significant Canadian contributions to the international metal scene – important bands, publications, films, events… What are your thoughts on the current state of Canadian metal – the music being produced, the scene as a whole, its potential future…?

The recognition is really starting to come around. For our population I think we do more than our part in contributing to metal and upholding metal culture. We have the quality bands, we have the fans, we have the beer and the cold (haha). More outdoor festivals are happening that feature metal, and I think the demand is there for a few more. Metallica shot that 3D movie here, I think that says a lot. Canada already has a pretty solid ‘metal image’, so all of these things are helping to reinforce that. The best is yet to come.

Band submissions for Wacken Metal Battle Canada are open until January 31. You can more more info, including how to apply and show schedules, at www.metalbattle.ca.

Laura Wiebe

Laura is associate editor of Hellbound.ca and co-host of weekly metal show Kill Eat Exploit the Weak on CFMU 93.3 FM. She loves doom, prog, cats and basketball, believes in equity and social justice and is not cool with any form of discrimination, marginalization, harassment or oppression.