WITCHPOLICE RADIO: Welcome to Witchpolice Radio. I'm here with someone that I've been kind of following for a while, and I think that it's kind of cool. If you happen to be watching the video version of this, or if you're even listening to the podcast and you've seen sort of the cover image, you will be maybe partially confused as to why there is an animated character speaking to me on this episode.
But I think a lot of people in the local music scene have become familiar over the past. I'm not sure how long it's even been, but with Bad Gardening Advice and Steve Schmolaris and this whole sort of online local music review empire that you've created.
And I think that it's really cool that we can do this because without wanting to figure out who you are, because I like the mystique behind your sort of persona, I'm very interested in the project and in all the new things you have going on. So I'm really happy to have you on the show. And I think the best way to start this off is if you want to just introduce yourself and give a bit of background about what it is you actually do.
BAD GARDENING ADVICE: Well, my name is Steve Schmolaris, and I am a real person. I'm not a cartoon character, and I'm 70 years old. And for the last 46 years, I've been reviewing exclusively Manitoba music.
BGA: Don't you remember your 1998 Grandpa's Army review that I did?
WR: Right. Because I was on the Internet then and looking at blogs.
BGA: It was a zine back then. Of course, all those records are gone forever.
WR: So I guess, again, without revealing the identity behind the persona here, how did this get started? I mean, what made you want to start writing reviews of local bands? And I want to get into sort of the format of the reviews in a bit, too. But just like, why did you start doing this?
BGA: Why did I start? I really like reading reviews, and I really enjoy writing.
BGA: And I really enjoy Manitoba music, Winnipeg music. And so I mashed all of those together into Bad Gardening Advice. I have no clue why it's called Bad Gardening Advice.
WR: Well, it's a good... I mean, I host a show called Witchpolice Radio. So, I mean, I'm on the same boat as you here. It's a ridiculous name that doesn't really mean anything, I guess.
The format of the reviews, I think that what first drew me to it was when I first I don't even know how I discovered I must have just been following one of the bands you reviewed, I think, and then I saw a link to the review. And not only do I like reading music reviews as well, I used to write them for years. I wrote for Uptown reviews. I wrote reviews for Exclaim, a bunch of other publications, years ago.
But your reviews are a little different. The format is not sort of the standard. Here's my take on the record. You seem to really hone in on things that maybe even the artist didn't think about when making the album. And you kind of extrapolate on that, it turns out, to this really kind of abstract but thoughtful take on a record.
BGA: No. You get to the crystalline center of what the music is, what the album is. Even if it wasn't intended initially, this is ultimately what the musicians wanted out of their album. This is what they meant, even if they didn't intend it.
WR: Right. Well, and you're just helping them kind of realize that. Right? You're helping it dawn on them.
WR: Well, kind of jumping off that. What has the reaction been from artists? I imagine when you first started doing this, now you kind of have some notoriety. You've done the annual prize. People are excited to get reviewed by you. But I imagine at first there must have been sort of just some, like, what am I looking at? What is this?
BGA: Yeah, at first it was, what the fuck is this? But then slowly, it's actually a really good writing exercise as well. And so that's what I enjoy as well.
It may not be a style of music that I'm familiar with, but dive deep. A sort of, like, meditative kind of listening to it, where you try to listen to it forwards, put it in reverse, listen to it backwards. What can you hear? What jumps out at me?
WR: I know say that kind of jokingly, but you do seem to do that.
WR: You do get to the heart of what the music is about, though. I've read some of your reviews that do not talk about anything that I've heard on the record whatsoever. And then I listen to the album again, and it's like, okay, that somehow it makes sense, and it connects. And there's something there for sure that I think is part of the appeal. Right. Like, you're not just writing abstract screeds. You're actually no.
BGA: Yeah. There is always something related to the music. It may be extremely tangential, but something about the music inspired the music review. And so in that sense, it's more of almost like a creative writing kind of exercise.
WR: Yeah. Where do you find the records? And the reason I ask this is because I spend way too much time looking for local bands and local releases. And I often will find one and then a day later, or a day earlier, I realize that you have also reviewed this. So where are you seeking these out?
BGA: YouTube. Now, people follow me on social media, so that's a really good way, because then I look at whoever follows me, I look at all their music.
WR: So do I, for sure.
BGA: And Bandcamp. I use Bandcamp quite a lot. I don't have Spotify. I don't really like Spotify, so I stay clear of that. But YouTube, Bandcamp even like Manitoba Music. I go to that website to see what's in their new releases section.
WR: Yep, yep. I go on there and I look up the Winnipeg tag on Bandcamp and yeah, it's probably a lot of the same stuff.
BGA: Then I just pick an album. Oh, that cover looks interesting. And then I go into that. It doesn't really matter what the album is.
WR: What's the process for you when you find something that you really don't like? I'm sure there's I mean, there's a lot of ones that you clearly do enjoy and there's a lot of great local music, but there's got to be some stuff you've heard that just doesn't float your boat for whatever reason. Do you still want to write about it or do you have to take a different approach when writing to it?
BGA: That's what I try to keep in my mind as I do these reviews, is that there's always something good about it.
And that's an important aspect that I try to incorporate into into all of these, is a lot of the I enjoy listening to or reading music reviews, but a lot of them tend to be extremely critical.
And I've never felt that that was a good way to encourage or let's say I was a musician and I got a terrible review, and it may be an accurate review, and my music may be terrible, but that wouldn't encourage me to make more music by finding that sort of little hunk of gold in what may just be a music about rat farts. Something good has to be in there somewhere.
WR: I find that is that a real example. Have you come across music about rat farts.
BGA: There was a musician, I think he was out of Thompson. He made something called Rat to Rat. And it was just about yeah, it wasn't Rat Farts.
WR: It's a little bit related.
You have this book, and when I first heard you doing the book, I was really excited because I legitimately enjoy reading all of your reviews. Every time I see a new one, I go and read it off the website. And so having the book, which I haven't bought yet, I'll have to do that because I see that it's out now. People have been posting photos on social media with the book, which is really cool.
But when I saw you had this book, it made total sense. It seems like this is a great format for these reviews because they're long form, they're not just little like 100-word capsule reviews. You're actually getting into something with each record.
WR: Was that always the idea? Like, had you always intended to make these into a book?
BGA: No, not initially, but I've always wanted to write a book and so I accumulated I think it's like 800 it's more now, but like 800 reviews over the last five years, not counting the previous, what, 41 years that I've been doing this.
But that's a lot of material to choose from. So I thought, oh, well, here I have all of this already written. I'll compile these into a book and get that printed.
WR And is this a self published book?
BGA: It is, yeah. So I'm not making money on this.
WR: I feel like most people doing something creative in Manitoba are making money anyway. So you're in good company.
What's the goal of the book, then? I mean, is it just to sort of get these out there in a more sort of concrete format for people to read, or are you hoping to just sort of increase the knowledge of the site and of the reviews and.
BGA: Things like both yeah. No, I want to promote all of these guys, especially for something like my Schmolaris Prize.
I love these albums. These are great additions to local Winnipeg music, for sure. I want to promote these artists. I want to write about them. And I also wanted to write a book.
WR: It all works out. Combine all the interests together.
BGA: Exactly. Yeah.
WR: Well, the Schmolaris Prize is interesting, too, because, first of all, the name is perfect. I mean, I'm on the jury for the Polaris Prize and I feel like your prize has a bit of a different procedure for choosing the albums that get nominated. But it's always really good stuff.
Whoever your actual identity is has very good taste in local music, I find, because there's a lot of things that show up on your list that either already were on my best of the year list of what I in my head, or are things that like, oh, shit, I should listen to that again, because that was a really good record.
Is it just personal, just selections of these, the ones that sort of struck you the most throughout the year?
BGA: Yeah, unless they bribe me. Then they get on as well.
WR: Of course. Yeah, that helps. Less structured than the Polaris Prize in that sense, but equally as culturally important and significant for the artist, for sure.
BGA: Yeah, it's tomorrow.
WR: Oh, really?
BGA: I guess both the Polaris Prize, which is the Schmoleris Prize, has been going on for much longer than the Polaris.
WR: Prize for 40 some years. Right.
BGA: But both of them are tomorrow.
WR: Okay, so you've timed it with the Polaris, too. That's kind of cool. And so what do they win? What is the winner of the Schmolaris Prize actually get?
BGA: It's a trophy.
WR: It's a trophy and bragging rights, obviously.
BGA: Yeah. So I mail them a trophy, whoever the winner is. And so the trophy has slowly been getting larger and larger each year. At first it was just a certificate, which I was never actually able to deliver, but then it was a bowling trophy. I think it was a hockey trophy as well.
BGA: So I actually haven't got this year's Schmolaris Award yet, so I'll have to do that soon, probably. Yeah, it's a trophy. And so I etched the name of the band and the winning album on there, and I mail it to them.
WR: That's cool. And I think in a lot of ways, too, obviously, the Polaris Prize has a mean they get a bunch of money. It's very prestigious. It's going to help them career wise. But I think that little things like this are almost equally as just from a point of view of, like, I accomplished something, getting recognized by the little guy who obviously loves local music.
I think it's equally as big a deal. I'd be just as happy, I think, to have that on my shelf than something bigger, because it means that what you're doing is resonating with people.
BGA: Oh, good. That makes me feel good.
WR: But I'm not going to win any. I mean, my bands are always terrible, so I'm not going to win any.
I don't want to get too much into sort of the identity behind Steve Schmolaris, but, I mean, it is a big part of sort of the mystique around bad gardening advice, and I've had a lot of people more. Than you would expect. There's been at least a half dozen people in the past year who I've had on the show who were talking either before or after the interview. And they asked me if I have any clue who Steve Schmolaris is, and I don't.
I've had people think it was me, and I'm like, I wish it was mean. I wish I came up with that, because it's a great idea.
BGA: You are a writer, Sam.
WR: I know. I know. It makes sense, right? I listen to a lot of local records. Obviously I write for a living. But no, it's a mystery. And so what was the reason behind that? Because we're in an era now where everyone wants to sort of promote the shit out of themselves, even if they're not accomplishing anything. And here you are actually accomplishing something interesting. And it's all kind of under this pseudonym.
BGA: I think it gives me a little bit more freedom to write what I write.
WR: Okay, that's fair.
BGA: And to put a face to that may then prejudice what I am able to write about.
WR: Okay, well, that's a good reason. Has anyone figured it out? Are there people out there?
BGA: No one has figured it out. I've heard people guess, but they're always wrong.
WR: Yeah, well, I've heard a lot of guesses, too, and I don't know the answer. But do people around, you know, you must have, like, family or someone who knows you've written a book, right, or is it completely under...
BGA: my yeah, my parents know. They're not going to spill, I guess, the secrets to Steve Schmolaris.
WR: Are you hoping to keep this as anonymous as possible? Sort of in perpetuity? Like, you want to keep it as this character so you don't have to have any of those potentially uncomfortable accusations of bias or whatever you might get if it's your own name and face associated to it?
BGA: Yeah, I do. I would prefer to keep it. And it's fun, of course. Yeah, it has to be fun for me, too, right?
WR: Yeah. Otherwise, why are you doing it? Because you're not getting any fame or fortune. Not that this is the kind of project that's going to get you fame and fortune. I mean, I know that very well, but you're getting attention as this character, and it's cool that this is now it's a published book. It's getting out there and the world people know the name, especially in Winnipeg.
Is there any plan to sort of expand this beyond just writing reviews? Do you want to do anything else with this persona and with this sort of notoriety you now have in the local music scene, such as it is?
BGA: Not at the moment. I'm quite content just listening to music and writing about music. So I think I'll continue this for some time.
BGA: Until I get bored of it and then I'll do something else. But so far, no. Still fun.
WR: Well, that's good to hear. But if and when it ends, do you think you'll reveal your identity or is it just going to be this mystery that no one ever...
BGA: It'll be like one of those long enduring mysteries where there's like a documentary 150 years from now.
Who is Steve Schmolaris? We have this one person, claims to be Steve Schmolaris, so they try to find their DNA, match it to a piece of hair or whatever.
WR: Or someone will get the original copy of the book you said to the printers and they'll check the fingerprints or something.
Well, in that way, though, you're kind of similar to the Famous Sandhogs in that kind of anonymous identity. But I've noticed that the sandhogs again, I don't know who that actually is, even though I have a whole pile of CDs and the board game and everything. But I've talked to a few people recently who have actually met the Famous Sandhogs, and it just seems like that identity is unraveling slightly. Ever so slightly, but you seem to be still just, like, very much in the shadows, which is cool.
BGA: Well, I take great comfort in knowing that imitation is a good form of flattery. Again, I've been doing this for I'm 70 years old, Sam.
BGA: And 46 years I've been able to keep my identity under wraps.
WR: Yeah. And for most of those years, animated Avatars didn't even exist.
BGA: Right. Yeah. A bag over my head.
BGA: That's how I did it.
WR: I guess you couldn't even cut the holes for eyes. Sunglasses on. Yeah. Yeah. So if someone wants to read the book, how do you get a copy of the book? Because I need to do that myself. Like I said, I don't have a copy yet. I'm very excited to read it. How does someone track down a copy of the book?
BGA: They are available through Friesen Press' bookstore. They're available through Amazon. They're available online only through McNally. But I've ordered a shipment of a bunch of hard copies. They haven't arrived yet, but I imagine when this is aired, I will have those. So email firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a message on Instagram or Threads, and I will get you a copy.
WR: Are you actively seeking out artists to reach out to you at this point? Like saying, hey, I have this release. Can you review it, or would you rather discover them yourself?
BGA: Oh, no. Yeah. Plenty of musicians have sent me stuff saying, can you review this? And I always oblige.
WR: So the same thing, email or Instagram or Threads or whatever. How often do you update the website? Because it seems like there's at least one a week. Right? At least.
BGA: I've been taking a little bit of a breather lately, but three to four a week.Three to four a week, and then whenever I write them, I upload them or put it on the website nearly immediately without editing.
WR: Has anyone been pissed off? I mean, it seems like most people are pumped to get reviewed by you, but have you had any bands just, like, not appreciating, sort of the style of the.
BGA: Not? They're not many. Like, a handful. I don't think Pip Skid liked a few. I gave their album Rob Crooks and Pip Skid's 'It's OK'. Yeah, it's a great album. It was nominated for Schmaleris Prize at the time, but I don't think they well, maybe Rob Crooks enjoyed it, but I don't think Skid did.
WR: Did you get, like, an email about it or...?
BGA: Just it was a comment online. Yeah. But I think that was one of my better reviews. I'm very proud of that review, which is a complete history of the use of Ricki Lake in pop music.
WR: Right. I do remember reading, yeah.
BGA: Which is in the book by the way.
WR: Awesome. How many reviews are in the book?
BGA: I think about a hundred. You know, actually, I'm not certain, but it's a pretty decent amount. From A to Z: artist redacted to Zrada.
WR: Was there an artist redacted?
BGA: There was, yeah.
WR: That was another one that they didn't like the review, but you put it in the book anyway?
BGA: I put it in the book, yeah.
WR: So if people are unfamiliar and this weird conversation with an animated character is the first time they're hearing about Bad Gardening Advice, is there sort of a review you would start them off with? Would you just, say, read the most recent one, or is there kind of a starting point to get the tone and the feel of what you're doing?
BGA: Oh, no, just jump into the most recent one and then continue backwards in time. And they're all the way to 1977.
WR: Pre Internet. That was the zine version, right? Photocopied. Yeah. (Laughs) Is there another book in you?
You're still doing these reviews, obviously, and there's never an end to local releases. Do you think that you'll follow this up at some point?
BGA: Oh, yeah, no, I'd love to do another book, compile a whole bunch of reviews, several hundred, and then pick the best ones for a Bad Gardening Advice 2.
I don't know. Bad Gardening Advicer?
WR: I imagine that's a ways off, though, because you just released this recently and I mean, the amount of work that goes into self-publishing a book has got to be pretty heavy.
BGA: It wasn't too bad. Friesen Press was really quite helpful. I recommend Friesen Press for any self-publishing.
WR: Cool. How many copies did you print?
BGA: I ordered 100. To sell or give away. But there's always those options to get more.
WR: Only one more thing. I want to ask you about who you are, because, again, I like the idea that you're anonymous, and I don't want to be accidentally revealing any clues throughout this conversation, but are you or have you been in a local band ever? I don't want to know what band if...
WR: okay, so you have. I figured, I mean, it seems like you're involved enough in the local music scene that, you know, sort of the bands and the reference points and things like that, so that makes sense. It would have been weird if you weren't, I think.
BGA: Almost, well, the one band, and maybe this is something that I should re release to the public is the one and only Body of P album that was my band in the early 90s.
WR: Okay. And then that gets mentioned on the website in various ways. Body of P__.
BGA: So I may have to find those demo tapes and convert them to digital and put them online. And then I can review myself.
WR: That'd be awesome. Yeah, if you do. I'm looking forward to hearing it, because I always like to strange old Winnipeg things, so that's awesome.