Not your typical festival: How Sled Island is making its mark on Calgary’s music and arts scene

Story by Jessica Melnychuk
Photo by Mike Tan

Eleven years ago, Sled Island founder Zak Pashak decided to organize a new alternative music and arts festival from the living room of his Sunalta home. In its first year, the festival showcased more than 90 bands including locals like Chad VanGaalen (who has since gone on to become a multi-JUNO Award-nominated and Polaris Prize shortlisted musician) and international musicians including Cat Power and Spoon.

Today, Sled Island is an internationally recognized independent festival, growing in size and scope every year. It has grown from an audience of 6,000 in 2007 to more than 30,000 attendees. This year, it will showcase over 250 acts across downtown Calgary, including guest curator Deerhoof, The Flaming Lips, Thundercat, Cherry Glazerr and locals like Lyrique, Bebe Buckskin, Slut Prophet, Miesha & the Spanks and more.

From the beginning, Sled Island has always been more than just a music festival. With an array of comedians, films and visual art exhibitions complementing the music lineup, there is something to discover and love for just about anyone.

That spirit of discovery is what Sled Island is all about, says Maud Salvi, the festival’s Executive Director. Though many people might look at the lineup and say, “I haven’t heard of most of these bands,” Salvi says that’s more than okay – that’s what the festival’s organizers want.

“Many of the acts we book are on the verge of becoming really big, and we get them right before it becomes almost impossible to see them,” she says.

Some of the other aspects of the festival – like film, art and comedy – help break up the pace for festival goers. Salvi says the non-music components were born out of the many side projects musicians tend to have.

“It’s a good reflection of a lot of the artists we work with, who do different things and express themselves in many different ways,” she says. “It really emphasizes the festival experience as opposed to it just being a series of concerts. All these things complement each other very well.”

In fact, most of the film offerings in particular tend to have some connection to music, like this year’s collaboration with Berlin-based artist community Videokills, The Explorer Series: Invisible City Symphonies. This unique cinematic and musical experience (which you can check out June 19 at HiFi Club) combines international short films with original scores performed live by local musicians.

This year, the festival is making a bigger effort to celebrate inclusion of Indigenous artists and attendees with special programming in collaboration with Indigenous Resilience in Music and others on National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21.

“Representation is important,” Salvi says, noting also that each year the festival receives more and more submissions from female artists in all the disciplines. “We want to create spaces where everyone feels welcome to participate, whether as an artist, attendee or volunteer.”

Salvi says one of the great things about the festival is having local artists benefit from sharing the stage with other national or international artists. “People will come to see a bigger headliner, maybe being unfamiliar with the local scene,” she says. “We want them to be aware that they really don’t need to dig much further than their own neighbourhood to find people who are really talented.”

Learn more about some of the Calgary musicians playing this year’s festival here.

Salvi thinks the inclusion and celebration of the local scene is part of what makes Sled Island stand out from other festivals. Having previously lived out east, working as artistic producer with POP Montreal, she says the community in Calgary is very special.

“[Music and arts] sort of started a little late here compared to other major cities like Toronto or Montreal,” she says. “But because of that I feel like there is an enthusiasm that people have and a willingness to support anyone who’s trying to create something good for the city, that I haven’t really witnessed anywhere else.”

Sled Island runs June 20 – 24 at venues across Calgary. Check out the full schedule at www.sledisland.com.