An Interview with Constellation’s Don Wilkie: The Stars Shine Brightest Together – Jeremy Freeze

Constellation Records

I wait at the back entrance to an unassuming white house in Montreal’s Mile-End district, until I’m greeted by an equally unassuming man who I know has every reason not to be. This small white house is home not only to Constellation Records, one of Montreal’s most well-known and respected independent music labels, but also to Don Wilkie, who co-founded the label with friend Ian Ilavsky in 1997 and is currently showing me to his apartment above the Constellation offices. As we enter, he cracks open the bottle of wine I have brought him as a gift and asks if I’d like a glass. I suppose it would be rude to say no.

As we chat at the kitchen table of Don’s tidy apartment and wait for Don’s playful and somewhat hyperactive dog, Zach, to calm down, I can’t help but take note of his calm, contemplative disposition. This is certainly not the demeanour that one might expect from the co-founder of an influential music label, responsible for releasing acclaimed records by the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Do Make Say Think and Thee Silver Mt. Zion, but as I soon find out, Constellation is not your average record label.

As I press the record button and ask Don to explain the context and circumstances surrounding Constellation’s inception, it soon becomes apparent that the emphasis he places on the label’s role of creating and fostering an artistic community guides all that it does. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that he offered me the wine.

Don begins by describing Montreal in the late 90s as “utterly lacking in infrastructure for any of the things that we cared about. There were no bona fide places for bands to play, all the stages were pay-to-play, all the venues were run by business people who couldn’t have cared less what was on the stage so long as it was selling beer. There were no record labels that we cared about or were interested in, [making] any of the music we were interested in. There were no affordable recording studios, there was basically just a complete lack of infrastructure.”

As Don elaborates on Constellation’s development within this wild-west of the Montreal music scene, he describes the idea of establishing a trusting, meaningful relationship between the label and its artists. “We take pretty seriously that idea of taking people on,” he says, “because more often than not, we’re making some kind of, you know, not forever marriage, but a commitment to say ‘yeah, we’re interested and we would like to work together, and that doesn’t mean we want to just make a record with you. We want, you know, we want to actually explore whether there’s a long-term relationship to be had here.’” This notion becomes further emphasized when he states that “we don’t work, nor have we ever worked with legal contracts, so having the ability to sit down with people face to face and keep lines of communication wide open is crucial.”

The regional focus of the label further reinforces Constellation’s role in the cultivation of a thriving artistic community. “We consciously chose to work on a very local level for lots of very good reasons,” says Don, “not the least of which is wanting real, personal relationships with the people we’re working with.” He goes on to explain that “[w]hat’s nice about Montreal as a music city is that it’s never been kind of a one-hit wonder. The amalgamation of things that happen here is incredibly broad and diverse, and it constantly sort of reinvents itself because there are a lot of talented people here.”

Discussing the early years of the label, Don frames Constellation’s communal development as a natural result of like-minded artists working together. “[There was] just tons of cross pollination, tons of people in multiple projects, because some of these bands were large and all made up of people who had no other vocation in life than to be musicians,” he explains. “It was an incredibly fertile time in Montreal and [there was] tons of great music being made. Not unlike now, just a different time and a different kind of music.”

To Don, it seems, all levels of the music-making process are communal artistic practices, and should be viewed as such. Even the packaging of the albums was an “obvious thing that we wanted to pay attention to knowing that we could actually craft things that were aesthetically pleasing to us and give some dignity to the music that we cared passionately about, that we were releasing.” And, once again, Don reveals his passion for nurturing an artistic community as he states that this focus on artistic packaging allowed the label to “work with local screeners and printers and dye cutters and people that were also trying to forge an existence in a world that wasn’t very friendly to them. So, [we were] able to take whatever meagre resources we had and spread it around.”

Don’s vision expands the conventional notion of an artistic community to include not only musicians, but artists working in a variety of mediums. In some ways, Constellation’s artistic process even involves those purchasing the records, who interact with the label on an intimate, communal level. “For fourteen years, every single mail order that has left here, and that’s tens of thousands of them, has a hand written note in it,” Don tells me. “That’s not a long letter. It’s simply trying to humanize an otherwise pretty clinical and inhumane transaction, all the more so since we’ve moved onto the internet and people are no longer writing us. You know, we’ve saved, for some romantic idea, or some romantic reason, we’ve saved the boxes and boxes of direct mail orders that came, letters and whatnot, which is the only way it happened up until four or five years ago.”

It also becomes clear that fostering an artistic community is not only an important aspect of Constellation’s mission statement, but is in fact much more important to Don and the artists than financial gain: a dynamic that would certainly (and unfortunately) seem counter-intuitive in the music industry. “We’re good businessmen in some ways, but we’re shitty businessmen on the level of caring about what the net profit is. What we’ve always cared about is having a sustainable model,” he says. “We’re just trying to be active in that ways that bring us closer back to the idea of community and human interaction.”

After the interview, I expect to pack up my equipment and hit the road. I know that Don is incredibly busy and has certainly put a strain on his schedule to take the time to talk with me. As I press the stop button on the recorder, however, Don refills our wine glasses and begins to ask me about my own musical experiences. We sit at Don’s table, drinking wine and talking about everything from family (we’re both east-coasters) to humane ways of removing mice from one’s house, until the bottle is empty and well over an hour has passed. It seems the emphasis on community truly does expand beyond the label’s borders.

Jeremy Freeze is a Communications & Cultural Studies student at Concordia University. Between his infrequent ventures into the service industry, he may be found performing with local pop group the Silly Kissers. Although his transition from New Brunswick to Montreal was fueled mainly by a desire for reasonable tuition rates, he has since found greater purpose in his new-found friendships, musical endeavours, and cultural studies research. His main areas of academic interest are media policy, online gaming culture, and race and gender representations in film and television.