Raising up the local scene: Blessed’s Drew Riekman on the band’s success, and paying it forward

Music, Off The Vine

When Blessed first took to the stage in December 2014, opening for MALK, the Abbotsford-based four-piece had no idea they would one day be at the centre of the Abbotsford music scene. But as 2016 rolled around, the band found itself being noticed by publications like Stereogum and Noisey (Vice), which urged their readers not to “waste their time: listen to [Blessed’s single] ‘Waving Hand.’”

A rise to success

That first EP, which came out in May 2016, heralded the rise of one of Abbotsford’s more prominent bands. But lead vocalist and guitarist Drew Riekman says that’s not the whole story.
“From the outside, it looks like we’re taking a lot of initiative and appropriate steps,” he explains, “but that’s just a product of so many projects before this failing, and [the band] learning from the mistakes before starting this one.”

That experience, though crucial, did little to prepare Blessed for the wave of recognition that followed. The coverage of the EP in Vice and Stereogum was an unexpected success, which Riekman says is virtually unprecedented among local bands.

“None of our bands have ever had an immense amount of success. Oh No! Yoko toured with Said the Whale, GSTS toured the country, but nothing like this.”

Blessed’s debut EP came across as sleek and polished. Unlike many debuts, it didn’t sound as if it had been recorded in someone’s bedroom. Hearing this, a smile peeks out from behind Riekman’s beard. He chuckles sheepishly.

“Why, that’s funny … it was put together in a bedroom,” he says.

Although unexpected, Blessed’s success with their debut was won through their experience and work ethic. Riekman notes that despite the appearance of a quick rise from the outside, it doesn’t feel that way to the band. Riekman and fellow guitarist Reuben Houweling have been in other projects that toured across the country, and Blessed played its first show back in 2014.

“[Now,] I think we just know the steps that make sense to take,” Riekmen says.

Next steps for Blessed

Looking forward, Blessed will release a second EP on April 28 this year, with a slightly different approach.

“We want to be more nuanced in how we go forward. The new EP has parts on it that are fully electronic, but they’re subtle. I’m interested to see how people react to it, because we definitely took some chances on it.”

In October, the band will record their full-length album. While the EP will feature Blessed’s current line-up, the album will include a new member of the band.

“Compositionally we’re starting to get more ambitious,” Riekman says. “We have a sound in mind that we want to hear, and it requires somebody else to play live.”

Matt McKeen will join Blessed’s shows starting in August as their third guitarist and keyboard player. McKeen moved to the Fraser Valley from Edmonton. After mentioning he was thinking of moving, potentially to Vancouver, he was invited to move to Abbotsford instead, and join Blessed. Riekman says McKeen is a natural addition to the band.

“He’s an incredibly talented guitar player. He’s got a degree in sound engineering, and we’re trying to put together more electronic passages. You don’t have to expect a techno album from us, but we’re experimenting with synthesizers and drum machines, and he’s very well-versed in that.”

Building the local scene

Along with the other members of Blessed, Riekman has been part of the Abbotsford music community in various capacities over the past decade — both onstage and in front of it. He and other members of more established local bands like Blessed, Loans, Cheap High, and Little Wild, have the benefit of historical context looking at the future of the local scene. In particular, Riekman reflects on a lack of performance venues, and the benefits of mentorship.

“After the Del Boca Vista closed,” he says, referring to a frequent spot for house shows in the 2010s, “there was a really weird period where there weren’t a lot of places to play. There wasn’t an all-ages, central venue, kind of like Carport [another house show venue] is starting to feel.”

Playing local shows and connecting with other bands plays a huge part in driving the music scene and the development of individual bands and musicians. Riekman says his first show, with Spread Eagle and You Say Party We Say Die! was 12 years ago, and had an early impact on his career.

“I was really lucky that people like Stephen O’Shea from You Say Party!, Jason Nicholas of The Progressive Thinker, and a bunch of community members saw GSTS [of which Riekman was a member] play early on when I was in high-school. They were really helpful in guiding me and helping us make decisions. I don’t think I would be making art at the level I am today without guidance from older people in the scene really early on in my life.”

Years after GSTS’s first gig, Riekman says he and other local bands who already have the swing of things want to see new, younger bands entering the scene. He encourages emerging musicians to reach out.

“I remember being a 15-year-old, not wanting to message Fun 100 or You Say Party and ask, “what do I do?” Because it’s weird. You place someone on a pedestal that they’re not on at all. Blessed isn’t on it. Loans isn’t on it. None of us are. We’re all Abbotsford bands.”

Riekman says one of the benefits of talking to him and other bands in the local scene is a fast-track to playing locally.

“We can help them get shows. That’s regardless of genre. Loans just had a show at Captain’s Cabin with gold gloom [an emerging lo-fi pop duo] opening. The Blessed release which hasn’t been announced yet will have Jenny Banai opening.”

Nerves are inevitable, Riekman says, but if there’s one thing he wants to make clear to younger performers, it’s that they are welcome.

“If anyone reads this, and does have songs they’re thinking of putting out: no one would judge you if you came and played your first show. We all remember what it was like.”

On the other side of the equation, Riekman says, other bands and patrons need to come to shows and be involved. He cites a recent show with a touring band from Saskatoon as an example. The show was poorly attended. While Riekman acknowledges it was not held on a peak day for concerts, he stresses the importance of showing up in support.

“The thing that people need to start doing is coming out … Don’t stay for the whole show, even. But go out and pay your five bucks.”