In the mid-2000s, electronic music was an underground phenomenon in the Sea to Sky.
Sometimes parties took place quite literally in the shadows; the shadows of towering trees in the Squamish Valley and below the majestic mountains across BC.
In most places the people making the music – a niche hobby that required rare skills and costly setup – was a male-dominated crowd. But as the scene began in the Sea to Sky, some of the best known DJs building it were women, bringing the party to the riverbanks and red cedars groves as the music scene flourished.
The most well-known of Squamish DJs might be The Librarian, also known as Andrea Graham, founder of Bass Coast Music Festival and scene pioneer.
Graham taught herself the basics of music producing while living in Whistler, and borrowed some Technic 1200s from a friend in Revelstoke in 2006. Her first booked gig was at Tommy Africa’s in 2007 – but her first time playing in front of a crowd, at a friend’s birthday in Powell River, makes for a better story.
“Sixty of us boated to a deserted ‘island’ and set up a generator and sound system beside the ocean,” she said. “To our surprise a woman in a four-by-four pulled up just after dark. It was not an island nor was it deserted!”
Since it was too dark to leave, the woman let them stay and continue the party as long as they were out by dawn.
The oceanside concert heralded an early career of wilderness concerts.
“There’s nothing better than playing music on a great sound system out in nature,” she said. “Squamish was a little smaller back then and was relatively undiscovered. It was easy to drive out into the woods and find somewhere secluded.”
Graham and other DJs in Squamish hosted mountain parties in the backwoods – taking care of the land, offering yoga, and “really building a supportive and open minded community.”
For Graham, the outdoor concerts eventually inspired Bass Coast, an electronic music festival that took place on the riverside in the Squamish Valley. Whether it was the festival that got too big for Squamish, or Squamish that got too big for the festival, it relocated to Merritt in 2012.
While her festival may be in the interior, and her turntables accompanying her around North America as a touring artist, Squamish is still home.
“It’s interesting, some of the first settlers to this area have shared stories of their versions of playing music in the woods not unlike what we did. It seems to be a rite of passage for the creative community.”
Another Squamish DJ, who moved to the area to rock climb, started her love of music as a child with a house full of records. She moved on to mixtapes in high school, and then in Squamish discovered the outdoor rave scene and underground dance parties.
“I just decided that was something I wanted to do, rather than someone else, I wanted to play the music,” explains Sheila Cassels, who performs in the corridor as Just Sheila.
It was a tight knit scene, and you had to know who was who in order to get on stage.
Over time Just Sheila became one of those people to know – organizing and playing music for the legendary James Bondage Valentine’s Day party as a fundraiser for the Howe Sound Women’s Centre.
The party – featuring a whole line-up of DJs and skintillating dress code – went on for nine years, sometimes filling a capacity of 600 people.
“People are begging us to bring it back on, but the venue part is pretty hard,” she said.
Big, annual parties become less of a novelty when the town has a nightclub – Cassels said it was once hard to get 100 people out to a party. Now Squamish now has three dance nights a week at The Knotty Burl.
“It’s not easy. Now we have a nightclub, we used to go into the bush and throw underground things. It was sketchy at times. It was very fun, I’m so happy I did all that. Now I like to show up and have the turntables set up.”
After being a DJ for 14 years, Cassels now has a busy life with a young son, but still enjoys bringing the room alive for people who love her carefully crafted sets.
“It’s different, people are more used to the sound, and they enjoy it,” she said. “Now it’s a bigger part of people’s lives, going out dancing and enjoying the music.”
The easy availability of digital music, and it’s growth in popularity, has been a game changer, agrees Terri Kirkham, Squamish-based DJ KitKat.
“That said, nothing beats digging for records, getting to the store early on new release day and the excitement of bringing home a new chunk of wax.”
Kirkham moved out west from Saskatoon, where her friends in the early 2000s were getting involved in the electronic music scene as well. Her parents pitched in for her first setup – and her mom pitched in with the name.
“After about three hours of tossing titles around, I was about to call it quits for the night when my mom asked me what kind of music I play. At that time I was strictly a breaks DJ, so I answered her and she started to sing the KitKat chocolate bar jingle “gimme a break.” Not many people get named by their mom twice in life, but luckily I did.”
With that moniker, Kirkham took her first set from her living room down to Vancouver. She co-hosted a club night and the Lotus Sound Lounge and a weekly radio show.
While she began playing shows in the city, like Graham and Cassels, she says playing music and dancing in nature is one of the best things in the Sea to Sky.
“It has always been a bit of a challenge to be taken seriously as a female artist, but the same could be said in many fields of work,” she said.
She notes that hearing “Wow, you are really good for a girl” is not really a compliment.
“That said, I am very proud of what I do, I have so much fun while performing, and I love feeling the response from people on the dancefloor. There is an air of badassery and empowerment by having a female on the decks and I love every minute of it.”
Tammra Broughton, known as DJ Sprout, had her start in the middle of a surprisingly similiar scene east of Squamish, when she returned to Lake Louise after a trip across Europe that introduced her to rave culture in 1997.
It was the people and the energy that attracted her, and she bought turntables soon after – but not originally with the goal of becoming a performing DJ.
“I just wanted to do it,” she said. “I’m just one of those women who are like, ‘I really like that, I want to learn how to do it.’ I never really thought about performing. It’s like when you pick up a guitar, you just want to learn to play it.”
Around the same time that she moved to Golden, Sprout inherited a collection of 70s records. The mountains were ready for the music, and so was Broughton.
“Obviously my first parties were disco parties,” she laughs. “The early days were epic in Golden, and I’ve heard the same thing was happening here.”
When she relocated to Squamish, Broughton played James Bondage, Shambhala and opened for the Funk Hunters.
There have been breaks along the way – the scene can be taxing, and it takes an incredible amount of personal energy to organize a safe and welcoming event. After all that work, there were times when a gig went unpaid or someone harassed her on stage.
As a holistic health practitioner, Broughton had to reconcile the love of a party crowd scene with her health and life intentions. Now she brings music and dance into her holistic healing practice work with clients, and this brings more balance to her shows.
“I’m very selective now about where I DJ and why I DJ, and it’s taken on a completely new life of its own. I’m loving it,” she said.
“Music is music. Love is love. I’m learning as I go.”
Written By: Haley Ritchie
Files From: Craig Davidiuk