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Looking Back On 10 Years Of Light Organ Records

Owner Jonathan Simkin walks us through the last decade of his indie-focused side label’s biggest moments. 

by Ben Boddez

Vancouver-based indie alternative label Light Organ Records initially began as an offshoot to the more radio-oriented successes of 604 Records — You know, the folks who brought bands like Nickelback, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Marianas Trench to the mainstream. As the music business continues to evolve and “indie” music bleeds into the mainstream with genre labels become a thing of the past, Light Organ finds themselves celebrating 10 years in the best possible way: with the music that got them here.

As the label plans to hold their first annual Summerlight Festival on August 20, with a lineup that finds Light Organ mainstays The Zolas, Sleepy Gonzales and Desirée Dawson taking the stage in the heart of Strathcona, we caught up with label head Jonathan Simkin to look back on his label’s biggest milestones over the last decade.

According to Simkin, Light Organ began at a time when genres were a lot more rigidly defined. While he’ll always throw his support behind one of his first major 604 successes in Nickelback, in a strange turn of events, the growing public bandwagon of disdain for the pop appeal of rock music’s biggest act led to the creation of something new.

“The Zolas were the band that caused me to start Light Organ, because it was enough of an issue that they brought it up,” Simkin says. “They said, ‘given our kind of music and fanbase, maybe it doesn’t make sense to be on 604.’ We even talked about putting it out on an anonymous label, but that’s when I said ‘I don’t want to have to hide to put out alternative music.’ That’s very much where it was born.”

Since then, the boundaries have blurred. In a world where an artist like country-tinged indietronica act Coleman Hell can score a #1 hit in “2 Heads” and one of 604’s most global success stories in Carly Rae Jepsen becomes more of an acclaimed indie figure beloved by music nerds, the original circumstances evaporated while both labels prospered. Still, Simkin believes the main goal of the label has remained the same in many ways: to fight for the spirit of alternative music. Now that listening audiences are getting more and more compartmentalized, it’s more important than ever.

“Sometimes there’s no doubt at all, a band is absolutely a Light Organ band. We go, ‘I can see this living on alternative radio, not necessarily because we’re going to go to radio, but just as a kind of guide,” Simkin says. “People don’t listen to the radio the way they used to, but it’s still important. It’s still the quickest way to get an artist from where nobody knows who they are to where everybody’s talking about them. But it’s all completely changed, and the number of alternative stations in North America has shrunk.”

As Summerlight Festival approaches, Simkin mentions that the location of the festival was not only because he could see it out his office window, but because the neighbourhood itself aligns with the alternative ethos he’s striving to preserve.

“This is a part of town that’s very artsy, and I think this festival is very proudly Strathcona and East Vancouver,” he says. “It’s a bit of a lo-fi bill. Nothing highly produced, no pop bands. We’ve really encouraged the businesses in the neighbourhood to get involved as well, and we’re hoping to get people from all over Vancouver to give them a feel of what this area is like.”

Light Organ’s Top 10 Milestones

2010 – Light Organ “Our First Christmas” record released featuring The Fugitives, Adrian Glynn, We Are the City, Adaline and the Zolas

Released only a month after Light Organ officially registered as a business, the label’s first ever compilation project was released in November 2010 and featured a variety of local acts getting together in the holiday spirit. The tracklist included some classics like “Blue Christmas” and “Silent Night,” but also a handful of lesser-known tracks and even some originals. 

2012 – The Zolas’ Ancient Mars album released on Light Organ Records

The label’s first big success story was by the band that has been a major part of it from the beginning and is still releasing hits under the label today. “The Zolas are what I would call the flagship band of the label,” Simkin says. “I created the label in large part because of my desire to work with them. They’re so representative of Vancouver, and if they didn’t exist, Light Organ would likely not exist.” 

2012 – Early signings included Fake Shark, Louise Burns, The Matinee, The Shilohs

The label was stocked with talent from its earliest days with acts that continue to make waves in the scene, including the IDM and electro-pop band Fake Shark (then under their original name, Fake Shark – Real Zombie!), indie-rock singer and producer and two-time Polaris Prize long list presence Louise Burns, six-piece roots-rock band The Matinee and pop-rockers The Shilohs, whose frontman Johnny Payne is still signed to the label. 

2014 – Released Thrash Rock Legacy from Canadian supergroup, Mounties

It only makes sense that the label would land the band with the most Canadian name – not to mention the fact that Mounties was a supergroup made up of some of the biggest names in alternative music at the time, featuring pop-rocker Hawksley Workman, Ryan Dahle of Age of Electric and Limblifter and Steve Bays of Hot Hot Heat. Their paths converged at the 2009 Junos and eventually heralded a project that cemented their legacy. 

2017 – The Zolas nominated for “Breakthrough Group of the Year” at the Juno Awards

After the success of their 2016 project Swooner, which featured singles like “Molotov Girls” and the title track which reached a top five position on the Canadian alternative charts, The Zolas’ dedication to the label paid off when they were nominated alongside acts like The Dirty Nil and Bob Moses for the Breakthrough Group of the Year Award. Getting a nod in one of the top categories meant their name appeared alongside Canadian royalty like the night’s big winners in Leonard Cohen and the Tragically Hip. 

2017 – Sarah Jane Scouten’s When the Bloom Falls From the Rose nominated for Folk Alliance International Album of the Year

Seen as the world’s largest gathering of the folk music community and held annually in cities all over North America, Light Organ artist Sarah Jane Scouten was able to achieve some representation from north of the border when her 2017 project competed against albums from Rhiannon Giddens, Lankum and Offa Rex at a ceremony held in Kansas City, Missouri. 

2020 – Hotel Mira’s song “This Could Be It For Me” reaches #4 on Canadian alternative radio

The single from the band’s 2020 project Perfectionism was yet another breakout onto the radio waves from the alternative label, charting for 13 weeks on Billboard’s Modern Rock airplay charts with their reflective track about mental health. I’m very proud of the radio success that a lot of our bands have had recently,” Simkin says. “Hotel Mira is doing incredible on radio, we just got a new single that’s already gotten a bunch of adds.”

2021 – Push Button Radio album and podcast released, featuring conversations with Bruce Cockburn, Hawksley Workman, The Stampeders, Andy Kim, Alan Cross and others

Bridging the gap between two generations of Canadian songwriters, the label’s latest compilation project features the roster of bands covering 1970s CanCon hits with an accompanying podcast featuring conversations with the original artists. “That was a real labour of love for me personally, because I’m a kid of the 70s. I sort of go on ad nauseam in the liner notes about it,” Simkin says. “It was a lot of music that I grew up on, and hearing it played by newer bands who weren’t even in some cases alive when that music was first played on the radio was pretty awesome.” Read More

2022 – Fake Shark nominated in three categories at the 2022 Independent Music Awards in Toronto

Another of the label’s very early signees was able to achieve breakthrough success earlier this year with their latest project, Time For The Future. They competed for Alternative Artist of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year against Felix Cartal, Half Moon Run, and Snotty Nose Rez Kids. “I’ve been working with Fake Shark for a decade at least, and they have a massive hit this year,” Simkin says. “When you’ve worked with a band for that long, and then to have that breakthrough? And especially when it’s people you really like, that was amazing.” 

2022 – James Younger and Zolas member Zach Gray nominated for WCMA Award for Producers of the Year for The Zolas’ “Yung DiCaprio”

The Zolas’ impressive Light Organ run continued in 2022 with their nods at the Western Canadian Music Awards, this time being recognized for their work behind the boards producing the band’s ode to Romeo and Juliet. One of the only two B.C. representatives in the category alongside Dear Rouge’s go-to producer Ryan Worsley, the ceremony will be held in late September in Calgary.