Sask. band turns prairie skyscraper into a rehearsal space and venue where local musicians can hold private concerts
ASQUITH, Sask. — Nearly a century of grain dust and chaff has been loosened by the thumping rhythm of an electric bass guitar inside Asquith’s last standing grain elevator.
Not since thousands of trucks and millions of tons of grain passed over its weigh scales has the old wooden sentinel resonated with such purpose.
Nicknamed The Vator, it has become a second home of sorts for the rock band Fusarium.
For Mike Vidal, 26, Owen Gerrard, 26, Brett Arnelien, 26, and Darian Dutchak, 24, it’s a place to jam and a place to grow as musicians. The four friends have been playing together since high school.
“The first time we brought our big setup in with the giant bass amp that looks like a fridge, (the dust) started snowing down and it was even hard to breathe,” said Vidal, who plays guitar and vocals.
Added Dutchak, the band’s drummer: “It was just like a powder coming down on me. But it’s gotten better because every time we have the big setups, it rattles more and more and less falls each time.”
Vidal’s father, Joe, chief executive officer of Bioriginal, the company that owns the elevator, created the opportunity for the young rockers to have a long-term space in which to make some noise.
The Saskatoon-based company supplies nutritional ingredients to the food and nutraceutical industries.
Bioriginal bought the elevator in 2001 from Viterra to store flax seed and borage but it’s been sitting empty as a result of new food regulations imposed about eight years ago.
“We debated about what to do with it and this popped up. Why not let them play their hearts out? They took it and ran with it,” said Joe Vidal.
A major cleanup was needed before the band could have a proper jam in the new digs.
“There were barrels of old grain samples and they had a bit of occupants inside them. There was dust and mice, a bunch of old scales and equipment and phones,” said Vidal.
Enthusiasm soared as they imagined the possibilities of a vertical elevator as a recording studio.
“Every time we looked at the main elevator building and thought, ‘that’s a really cool room. You’d have to go to Abbey Road Studios to get a nice and big wooden building like that to record in.’ Eventually we spent the time to clean all that out. That was quite the process,” said Vidal.
“There’s some ambiance that comes from the sound reflecting off the wood and filling up this whole room, like a cathedral sort of sound. It almost acts like a giant speaker. And when you’re in there listening to these bands with the big setups, it fills up this whole space and the sound is reflecting off all the wood. It’s not a sterile studio where everything’s sound treated and dampened to absorb all the sound. It reflects all the sound right back,” said Gerrard, also on guitar and vocals.
The men soon found that dislodging dirt from the building’s hundreds of nooks and crannies was a gargantuan task but their electric instruments were up to the job. The vibrations from their instruments loosened the dust that sifted and settled like fine khaki snow.
They spend some days cleaning and other days practising their music, which includes song writing. In fact their day jobs have come in handy for getting the old place ship-shape. Vidal trained as an engineer, Arnelien a building material specialist, and Gerrard and Dutchak are journeymen plumbers.
The band reports that local residents are pleased the elevator is being repurposed and maintained, but there were a few hiccups at first.
One late-night jam session caused a concerned neighbour to call the police about strange comings and goings and a lot of noise.
“In the middle of the song, we just hear bang, bang (on the door). Police, police, open up,” said Vidal.
He suspected the RCMP were expecting to bust a meth lab or grow-op but it didn’t take long to resolve the matter. Neighbours have become fans and friends since then.
“They’re really awesome. They’re just excited that this elevator is getting used for something else in the community and that young people are here doing something with it.”
Other local fans include a small herd of curious cows that mosey over when the music starts cranking.
The Prairies, particularly Saskatoon, have a vibrant music scene that attracts a wide range of talent. However, as COVID-19 shut down most music venues, the band saw the opportunity to share their prairie cathedral by showcasing other musicians.
This summer they hosted several Vator Sessions, a series of private concerts where local bands performed while being filmed and recorded for YouTube. Microphones and cameras were also brought outside to incorporate the audio and visual of trains passing by.
“It’s a way to bring that to the live music scene that people might not otherwise get this year. People can now see and hear these bands playing on YouTube in a grain elevator in a cool space,” said Arnelien, who plays bass.
“At the end of the day, we just want to show people these awesome bands. We’re fortunate too because we’ve been able to have nine of these private shows that we’ve been able to go to and watch, and to do it in such an iconic Saskatchewan location and bringing that back to life. That’s a pretty cool opportunity we have for sure,” he said.
While it’s too cold to play their instruments now, Fusarium is eager to get back into the prairie cathedral this spring and lay down its first recording demo.
Three years of scraping and sweeping away a century of hard-earned western Canadian dirt and debris has them poised to focus on making their own unique sound in an iconic space.