The first time a bunch of musicians met to make the No Label Collective, it was the Toad In The Hole, because so many of Winnipeg’s best ideas start over a pint and a dim view of Osborne Street.
There were seven of them there that night to talk about starting a collective, not a music label but a “skills sharing co-op” of like-minded folks. And it was February 2012, and it was right about the time that Canada learned that Neil Hope – Wheels on the original Degrassi series – was dead.
Right about the time we learned he died alone in a rooming house in Hamilton, Ont.
Right about the time we learned that he’d been dead for five years, and that for all that time only some police ledger knew the thing for sure.
So that night at the Toad, since the news was on everyone’s Tweets and tongues, Ex Modern Teen guitarist Charles Granger turned to the other six musicians and said: “we have to do something.”
Something for Neil, something for Wheels, a tribute album maybe, though at first it wasn’t clear if the idea wasn’t just a little musician’s pillow talk. “We were talking about it, and it’s ‘are you joking? Or are we for serious talking about this thing?” Nick Friesen recalls.
Long story short: yeah, they were totally serious.
Now they have an album to show for it too. It’s called Songs In The Key of Hope, and it’s for Neil, and also for everyone else.
Flashback a minute, come on give it a try, and let’s talk a little about Degrassi High: for almost every Canadian kid of a certain age, it was the ark of adolescence by which we lived and died.
That was never supposed to be literal, though.
Of all the original Degrassi characters, Derek “Wheels” Wheeler seemed to get it the worst. His adoptive parents never really understood him; his biological father was kind of a dick. He slept on Snake’s porch, he hurt, he got lost in the darkness of booze and regret.
As this fictional life was unfolding, Neil Hope was struggling, too. His parents were alcoholics, and Degrassi’s producers became something like surrogates. His father died of liver cirrhosis, and the show’s writers killed Wheels’ adoptive parents in a car accident.
“The parallels were pretty intense,” Friesen says of Neil and of Wheels, inextricably intertwined in our memory and so in his own life, forever.
According to his former fiancé, Hope loved being remembered for being Wheels. But good memories don’t pay the bills, and life after Degrassi was hard to digest, so Neil Hope retreated from the spotlight. He worked at a Money Mart, he drifted, he slept at a Salvation Army. He drank and struggled with diabetes, some combination of which is believed to have triggered the heart attack that claimed him.
When it did – or rather, when we found out five years too late that it did – it stunned. True, we didn’t really know Neil Hope, not the man himself. But in his death we saw a stark reminder that like Wheels and his friends, none of us were just playing at being grown-ups anymore. What happens now is indelible.
So no wonder then, that when Nick Friesen and Charles Granger put out a call for musicians to write fresh songs for Neil (for Wheels, whichever way they saw it), oh-so-many replied. In fact, the project’s organizers had more offers than could fit on the final album.
“Everyone felt like they knew Wheels, right?” Friesen says. “And I think that’s what drew a lot of people to this project. Everyone wanted to help, whether it was to do something in memory of Neil Hope, or one more time to help our friend Wheels.”
Everybody wants something they’ll never give up.
Oh, but Songs In The Key of Hope couldn’t be a funeral album if it tried.
Of the 19 original songs on the album from just as many eclectic Manitoba artists, most of them jangle and chime off the speakers.Yes, it is a tribute album, and a charity album – all proceeds from sales will be donated to the Canadian Diabetes Association – and there are serious moments, including Gareth Williams’ heartsick acoustic ballad “Car On A Track.” But heard as a whole, Songs In The Key Of Hope rolls, it plays.
In short it sounds, Friesen says, like a Wheels mixtape: right from the first crunchy riffs of Ex Modern Teen’s “Wheels, Our Hope!” to Crusty Cat’s bittersweet indie-pop confection, “Wheels’ Dad Has a Bad Moustache.”
A bit of a balancing act, that, but it makes sense that it should be that way. “I think that’s because Degrassi itself, the series always walked that line so well,” Friesen says. “The title itself is kind of funny, it’s kind of sincere, it’s a pun. And I think that with something like this, you want to be a little lighthearted about it.”
Lighthearted like how Friesen’s band, Merch Table Delight, just wrote a song that “talked about stuff” that happened in the tangled relationship between Wheels and Stephanie Kaye. (Always know your pharmacist, folks.) “I guess people that are better songwriters are able to be more subtle about things,” Friesen says, and laughs.
Now, subtle or not, it’s all getting out there: when the album went up late last month for online download, the first purchase came from Texas. On Jan. 4, fans will swarm the Windsor for the official album release party, and mullets are encouraged. A music video is coming soon, this one for the Eardrums’ hooky homage, “A Little Bit of Wheels in All of Us.”
Two days before the album’s formal launch, Friesen heard from one of Hope’s own family members. “She said that she knew that Neil was smiling down,” Friesen says.
And probably, turning it up.
The No Label Collective is releasing Songs In The Key of Hope on Friday, Jan. 4 at the Windsor Hotel in Winnipeg. Can’t make it to the show? You can download the whole album here for $9.99. All proceeds go to the Canadian Diabetes Association. In Winnipeg, hard copies of the CD are sold at Music Trader and Into The Music.
Melissa Martin is the entertainment editor at the Spectator Tribune, and loved Wheels because she’s an adopted kid too. Find her @doubleemmartin or at firstname.lastname@example.org.