A & E MUSIC | All Hail the Unyon
Peelin' back the years of Hamilton's seminal indie record label
BY James Tennant
Kids who start a rock band usually envision themselves going in one of two directions – they'll either make a career of it or they won't. The founders of the Sonic Unyon Recording Company, Hamilton's longeststanding and most successful record label, wound up doing both. Their band, Tristan Psionic, recorded three albums and garnered plenty of accolades and fans. Yet 20 years later, it's not the band itself that endures, but the company it spawned.
The operation began with three lads – Sandy McIntosh, Mark Milne and Tim Potocic – dubbing cassettes in their parents' basement. Since then, Sonic Unyon (that's "onion," by the way, not "union") has grown into an award-winning imprint with international distribution. They've released material by Hayden, Treble Charger, Simply Saucer, Frank Black/The Pixies, Voivod, Eric's Trip – names well-known to thousands and thousands of independent and alternative music fans around the world. Tristan Psionic began inauspiciously, jamming in suburban living rooms and basements. The seeds of the Unyon were sewn when Tristan decided to lend a little legitimacy to a promo package they had created; having a record label would make them look like a "real" band. They chose the name Sonic Unyon, from a quote by My Bloody Valentine guitarist Kevin Shields about "peeling back the layers of the sonic onion."
Yet 20 years later, it's not the band itself that endures, but the company it spawned.
"I literally went upstairs to get a Spanish onion out of the fridge," Milne recalls. "I brought it downstairs and [McIntosh] drew it."
That rendering of an onion is still on the sign at Sonic Unyon HQ, 20 years on. "I think the lesson learned there is if you grab your spontaneity and inspiration, it can be something that lasts," Mc- Intosh says.
Sonic Unyon began to release friends' albums – bands with different styles and unusual names, like the ethereal Gleet, the pop-punk Sponge and the sonic punishment of Shallow. As Tristan Psionic toured Canada, they brought the label with them — pushing not only their own band, but all the label's bands, nationwide. Their business was based on inspiration, perspiration and improvisation — there were few Canadian indie labels after whom they could model themselves, so they learned as they went. Over time, much to their surprise, the label became as important as the band .
"We didn't even talk about it," Potocic says. "We just sort of ended up being there every day."
"There" was the basement of Milne's parents' house, where tractor trailers would pull into the suburban cul-de-sac and drop off skids of CDs. Eventually, the label moved to an office on Ferguson, and then they purchased the former Sam Manson sports building on Wilson Street, Sonic Unyon's current HQ. In the early days, however, the basement was all they could afford. In fact, it was Christmas '96 before they were able to pay themselves (after receiving $1,000 each, they were slammed with a $75,000 tax bill).
Sonic Unyon soldiered on, breaking into the Toronto market and signing Hayden and Treble Charger, two of their most successful signings to date. In the late '90s, they started Sonic Unyon Distribution, which saw them distribute releases from dozens of labels and over 30,000 titles.
"Having your business grow by a multiple of ten overnight is great," Milne says, "but it was really hard to deal with."
As a result, music began to take a backseat to business, and in 2001, McIntosh decided to leave to go to architectural school.
"It was a huge decision for me," says McIntosh. "It needed to be something big, for me to leave something I really enjoyed." The decision was clearly the right one – McIntosh is now a successful architect.
Milne and Potocic remained at the helm of Sonic Unyon, and a constantly changing musical landscape meant they had to improvise along the way. They started sub-labels; then sold them. They hit the internet early, offering downloadable music even before iTunes existed. Later, when physical forms of music began to lag in sales, they sold the distribution wing. Somewhere in the midst of it all, Hamilton recognized the label, when Milne and Potocic were named Young Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2004 by the Chamber of Commerce.
The future of Sonic Unyon will likely be as diverse as its history. Recently they've investigated the live music business, as evidenced by their tender to operate Hamilton Place and by their success with the Supercrawl festival (see sidebar). Their recent active involvement in the James St. North community isn't a sudden pro-Hamilton stance. From the get-go, Sonic Unyon was loyal to the town McIntosh dubbed "Donut Rock City"; throughout the '90s, they never relocated to Toronto, though many thought they should.
"Hamilton has spawned so many with respect to industry, art, communication, transportation…it's crazy if you look at the talent on every level," says Potocic. "Hamilton is in a resurgence and I want to be part of that. We're doing it through events, and through the company. It's always been fun to go to work but it seems more fun now."
Through it all, there is still music. This year will see releases from new bands such as Kestrels, a Mystery Machine reunion and name bands like Voivod or Grand Duchy. The label also has great success with sub-label Sonic Unyon Metal; this year, Potocic and publicist Sean Palmerston successfully lobbied the Canadian Music Industry and CARAS to introduce a "Metal" category at the Juno Awards.
As for the band that started it all, Tristan Psionic reunited for the Sonic Unyon Christmas party in 2010; future reunions are not out of the picture. The entire band was reminded, viscerally, why they let this hobby get out of control in the first place.
"You're jamming in a basement with no windows, struggling to remember things, and then this moment of magic happens," says McIntosh. "This little spark where everyone looks at each other and thinks, 'That was a good moment.' I think it's about those little moments."