Toronto music: The oral history of The Parachute Club

The Parachute Club, circa 1984.

From The Grid:

In this edition of our Toronto-music oral-history series: The album that spread the musical, cultural, and political vibrancy of 1980s Queen West across the nation.

Thirty years ago, Toronto was a city in transition. After having spent most of its urban life as a lily-white bastion of of staid Protestant values, the city was experiencing a huge influx of immigrants from all over the world, as well as dealing with broader social changes related to the role of women in society and a push for equal rights by gays and lesbians. The Parachute Club, founded 30 years ago this summer, was very much a product of this time and place. They were a massive group of multi-instrumentalists who borrowed sounds from around the globe and held the revolutionary belief that dance music could be political. This is the story of the recording of their 1983 self-titled debut album, as well as the subsequent success of their first single, “Rise Up.”

Prologue

Future Parachute Clubbers get introduced to world music on Queen Street, while their eventual producer, Daniel Lanois, works with Rick James in his mother’s basement.

Lorraine Segato (Vocalist, The Parachute Club): I started playing music when I was 11 years old. I was born in Hamilton, and it was always my dream to be a musician, so I moved to Toronto thinking that this would be the place it would begin.

Daniel Lanois (Producer of The Parachute Club—and a few other things): I made a lot of records in my mom’s basement, for seven years, before I even had a studio in Hamilton, In that time, I recorded everything. Rick James, a lot of Jamaican music, gospel music—It was like a one-stop shop. I delivered vinyl and everything. I never fancied myself a record producer. I was just a guy with a studio who was enthusiastic about music.

Segato: In the early ’80s, there had been a recession/depression. The real estate wasn’t worth anything any more and, on Queen Street, everything was shuttered. What had once been a very productive bunch of warehouse buildings and garment factories was empty. Artists started to move in, because there was nowhere else affordable to live. The most interesting thing about Parachute Club was its explosion onto the scene came along with a confluence of many different streams happening at the same time. It was a city that had this tremendous diversity happening: The Caribbean influx and the Chilean dissidents and all these people coming from all over the world and bringing their music. Then, when that landed on Queen Street, we were there.

Lanois: There was a scene in Hamilton. I was making ambient records; the industry didn’t notice at the time, but there was a lovely little scene. There were a few smart heads in Toronto who would come out to Hamilton if I provided them with a limo and cocaine.

Part I: Mama Quilla II, V, and the formation of The Parachute Club

In the late 1970s, future Parachute Clubbers Segato and Lauri Conger played in an all-female group called Mama Quilla II. The Club’s drummer, Billy Bryans later became the band’s sole male member. His bandmates gave him a t-shirt that read “Token Male.” In the early 1982, Mama Quilla II was asked to play a party at TIFF’s predecessor, The Festival of Festivals. Unfortunately, the band had already broken up.

Segato: After I had been here a couple of years, I was working in film, editing documentaries and stuff. But I was also invited into this group called Mama Quilla. [Billy Bryans] was sort of circulating in the blues world, but he was also playing in a band on Queen Street called The Government. They were only well=known amongst art students, but they were a sort of funk/performance-art band. I brought him in to [Mama Quilla]. Then we started another group called V, which was kind of a mixed-race dub group.

Lauri Conger (Keyboardist, The Parachute Club): I auditioned to join Mama Quilla II. That’s where I first met and worked with Lorraine. Billy joined the band following the departure of Mama Quilla II’s drummer.

Segato: We were asked to play TIFF, but before it was called TIFF. The woman who booked all the parties asked us, “Can Mama Quilla play?” And we said, “No, that band has sort of disbanded.” So she said, “Well, can V play?” and Mojah, our other singer, was out of town at the time, so we said “no.” So she asked, “Well, can you and Billy just put something together?” That was sort of the catalyst that made us move more quickly than we were moving. That was our first official [Parachute Club] gig. We had been playing with our other musical partner in the band, Lauri Conger, in Mama Quilla. She’d been playing with all sorts of people as a session piano player. We knew of certain really hot players in the scene that was emerging.

Conger: We started playing a lot of late-night venues, after hours and things like that. We didn’t have regular gigs; we were doing everything we could to keep it afloat.
Segato: The boozecans were so important. The liquor laws were so strict. You couldn’t drink on Sunday—the bars closed early—so, at these booze cans, you’d have art shows and video performances and bands. We were discovered at a boozecan called The NBC, which was owned by Patti Habib and Richard O’Brien, who later opened The BamBoo.

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