Convincing a California noise band to drive from San Francisco to Halifax to perform a show for $500: that was the genesis of the OBEY Convention, a Halifax music festival that’s aiming to bring alternative musical voices to the mainstream music scene.
“They were called Bastard Noise, and at the time they had a mantra that was: ‘Obey the Skull,’” says Andrew Patterson, creative director for the OBEY Convention for the last two years. “The original weekend was just a string of shows based around that band coming to Halifax. Hence, the ‘OBEY Convention.’”
From that name, the music festival evolved to its current shape. “In 2006, what was alternative and what it was to be under-represented was understood quite differently,” says Patterson. “It was sort of a reaction against a lot of the pop music that was happening at the time. In the late ’90s, there was a lot of pop bands, guitar rock bands, who were getting a lot of attention in Halifax and a lot of industry happening around them.”
Punk and noise metal was the antithesis to that at the time. But the music scene today is different than it was in 2006, so the festival now casts a wider net. “We’re trying to keep an ear to the ground on what’s happening in Halifax, what we can support and foster,” says Patterson. “OBEY has had a long history of sort of catching people before they blow up.”
Indie rocker Mac DeMarco is one such OBEY alum, who started touring internationally after his OBEY stint. Another is New York rapper Le1f, who now runs his own hip-hop record label. This year, a Portuguese-born DJ from France named Nídia, a rising star in the alternative electronic world doing her first tour of North America, is on the top of their watch list.
Plenty of local acts share the stage. “Somebody I’m really excited about this year is, we’ve commissioned a local composer/violinist named Gina Burgess to write the keynote piece for the festival,” says Patterson. “It kind of functions like an overture in a film.”
Bringing in new, upcoming artists of disparate styles from abroad to share a stage with Nova Scotia talent, Patterson wants OBEY to be a cultural pollinator. “You have an ambience artist doing a performance with a jazz artist,” he says. “We’re really trying to foster new ideas, and to get people excited to hear things they’ve never heard before…bringing people who otherwise would never come here.”
The mission to highlight under-represented talents has transformed OBEY into a different kind of music event. “A lot of festival culture, specifically music festivals, have a very capitalist model,” says Patterson. “All of our shows are pay-what-you-can. We don’t turn anyone away at the door for lack of funds.”
OBEY is also partnering with Halifax Public Libraries to host the EverySeeker Symposium series. The festival-within-a-festival that features free events “based loosely around the idea of sound,” which includes film screenings, artist talks, and workshops.
The goal is to keep OBEY changing as new artistic voices emerge.
“There’s going to be all kinds of stuff that you don’t like at the festival,” Patterson says. “But I guarantee you that there’s going to be at least three or four things that you will really love. Some of those you will expect to love because they align with your tastes and some of them will totally surprise you.”
The OBEY Convention runs from May 24–27. Visit obeyconvention.com for show dates.