PACKS Should Be Taking Toronto by Storm — Instead, They're Leaving It for Good

"The amount of luxury condos that are being built has turned Toronto, in my eyes, into a playground for the rich"
PACKS Should Be Taking Toronto by Storm — Instead, They're Leaving It for Good
In any other year, PACKS would be one of Toronto's most notable bands to watch. After enjoying moderate success over the last few years with a routine slew of local shows, the rock quartet formerly known as PAX kicked off 2021 by signing to local label Royal Mountain and Brooklyn's Fire Talk Records, becoming labelmates with the likes of Mac DeMarco, Alvvays, Dreamcrusher and Dehd. Their debut album Take the Cake, released in May, displayed a band grappling with today's many soul-beating crises by way of charmingly rendered scenes, biting commentary and guitar rock histrionics reminiscent of Pavement and Sonic Youth.

Typically, they'd be the toast of the city's music scene. Instead, bandleader Madeline Link is leaving it behind — seemingly indefinitely.

"The amount of money that you can save by not paying Toronto rent is ridiculous," says Link to Exclaim! "We already had our bassist out living in Victoria from the pandemic, so I had already reconciled in my mind [that] if we need to really go hard and practice for a tour of some kind, we'll all get together in Toronto — we'll stay with friends or we'll sublet a place for those months. And practice, you know, do the tour that we have to do. And then we can decompress back where our homesteads are."

Hearing Link talk about the band's plans and needing to work remotely sounds as if the band was designed to be picked up from across the world. But before the pandemic, she says, "A thought of this nature never even crossed my mind."

Though the pandemic has not been kind to Toronto's viability as a hub of Canadian music industry and culture, it certainly isn't the only contributing factor. The city's concert venues have been closing as proprietors have struggled to keep up with rising rent prices, exacerbated by a lack of rent control for businesses and the habit of developers tearing up the city's amenities for yet another condo tower. These rising rents have also extended into Toronto's residential rental market, forcing musicians further and further out of the city's core.

Not that those who stay have much to take advantage of. PACKS' practice space in one of the seven Rehearsal Factory buildings across Toronto and the surrounding area has been sold, and that location's renters have been forced to relocate their gear to one of the company's other buildings. And those locations aren't in any less danger of closing down — their building in Etobicoke is publicly on the market as of press time, three more were on the market in May, one is allegedly being pursued by international megachurch C3, and the last was already sold a few years ago and continues to be rented out by the Rehearsal Factory for use.

Link only moved to the city in 2014 to pursue a BFA in Integrated Media at OCAD University, but in that time had already noticed a change that destabilized the city's artistic potential.  "The first day that I arrived in Toronto back in 2014, I looked on Google Maps, I typed in 'music venues' in the [search bar] and went to the website of every single one. And there was more than I could keep track of, I was so overwhelmed," she remembers.

Since then, the city has lost so many venues, including the Silver Dollar Room, the Orbit Room and the Hideout, and those that remain are subject to skyrocketing insurance rates that have led Horseshoe Tavern owner Jeff Cohen to "consider moving [the venue] to another province." Though Link does say, "I can't deny that I wasn't part of the gentrification, as a student moving in with student loan money and patronizing new businesses that drive up prices," she adds, "The amount of luxury condos that are being built has turned Toronto, in my eyes, into a playground for the rich. More and more every day, I was getting that vibe. And it was very disheartening."

Link is still committed to keeping PACKS tied to Toronto in some capacity (during her chat with Exclaim!, she was in the city working with her bandmates on a livestream performance set for tomorrow, July 9, to coincide with Take the Cake's vinyl release) but she notes that there are certainly more options available these days to keep the band going remotely. Link currently uploads her guitar-and-vocals skeletons to a Google Drive folder, and leaves it to her bandmates to record their parts on top.

It's a process, she says, that yields largely similar results to their pre-COVID routine, except "my weird chords stay in there," says Link. "It's not super detrimental to the way that the songs are coming out." Half of the songs from Take the Cake were conceived and recorded this way, not that you can tell from the album's cohesive sound.

That being said, the quartet's in-person chemistry is certainly endearing. It's documented in the newly released music video for Take the Cake standout "Clingfilm," filmed before the pandemic, which finds the quartet in getups fit for a Renaissance faire as they partake in dubiously authentic activities such as playing cards, shooting hoops and chugging Old Style Pilsner.

But no matter how fun the music video shoots may be, there's a forward-thinking freedom to a future where musical collaborators are free to roam the planet depending on their needs. Last November, Link spent a month at a papier-mâché residency in Mexico City, and when asked where her next move will be, she offers a variety of ideas: the UK, South America, a farm. "My dream job would be to plant vegetables and have an apiary," she says, a far cry from her gig as a set dresser for commercials, which helped Link pay the bills in Toronto.

But for all its status as the centre of the Canadian music industry, a permanent relocation to Toronto is not in the cards. "The fact that I've left Toronto is like a metaphor for the fact that I've prioritized traveling over paying Toronto rent," says Link. "Leaving Toronto for me has granted [me] the freedom to actually do what I want and not constantly be searching for the next job that's going to get me enough money to pay rent and save up to do the things that I actually want to do."