The Spill: Local Pirate Ship of Art and Culture Sinks

The Spill sign at 414 George street North.

With additional reporting by Leina Amatsuji-Berry.

With special thanks to Nick Ferrio for the photos and to Garbageface (Karol Orzechowski) for indispensable guidance.

Crafting an accurate report on The Spill’s closure is almost as hard as it is to bear the news itself. The Spill was one of the (if not the singular) premier location(s) for live music and local bands in Peterborough. On Wednesday October 18, unexpected to many and heartbreaking for most, The Spill closed for good. On its Facebook page, The Spill is described as a “local pirate ship of art and culture.” Now this ship has sailed, if you will.

To be absolutely clear, this article will not conjecture on the “why” of what has occurred, but rather will focus on The Spill as a cultural institution, what its loss means for the Peterborough community, and what the future holds. Dave Tobey, the owner of The Spill, had his reasons for closing, reasons that are not ours to know in intimate detail or tease out from those that lack complete and transparent knowledge of the situation. Unless Tobey is willing to speak himself, it would be irresponsible to make guesses or draw from incomplete information. That being said, it is still very important to illuminate the community’s response to The Spill’s closure, and outline what this means for the future of Peterborough’s arts scene.

Old friends, new friends and strangers came together on a Wednesday night and early Thursday morning to mourn the loss of a Peterborough music institution. The unexpected news that The Spill was closing was met with a quick response by the community that held the bar dear. Within hours of the news that the bar’s closure was imminent, the weathered floor of the Spill was filled with the footprints of locals, musicians, and community members. Obviously, this wasn’t a night to be missed, with many individuals catching the last bus, leaving work early, or travelling frantically to catch a glimpse of The Spill’s dimmed lights and open stage one last time. Even on extremely short notice, the bar was completely packed. By 9:30, the space was shoulder to shoulder, the music overpowering, and the ability to order a drink stifled by the mass of humanity that leaned on the bar’s counter.

A full house swarming the stage for The Spill’s last night open on October 18, 2017. Photo via Karol Orzechowski (Garbageface).

The influence that Dave Tobey and The Spill’s stage had on the community is incalculable. Dave Tobey’s stage was open to almost anyone, in that it provided a space for those that might not be able to play elsewhere. Laura Klinduch, from local band Deathsticks and formerly of Watershed Hour, summarized by stating, “The Spill was unique in that it allowed young musicians, musicians playing their first show and musicians playing weird music to have a stage to grow, in a supportive environment.” Many of the people approached for this article stated similar sentiments, speaking on the endless amount of support for Peterborough’s music scene that The Spill provided.

Dylan Burrett, a Peterborough-born musician and a former member of many local bands, described The Spill as “the ultimate exemplar of the increased inclusivity and DIY attitude that has become the norm today with young people. It was the only real platform for underage kids, and newcomers to Peterborough to easily make their voices heard.” He insists that he would not be on a national tour with Scott Helman without his experiences at The Spill.

Wayne Kennedy, local musician and former promoter of his $2 punk shows, also highlighted the importance of underage venues, stating, “The Spill was a great place for young musicians to experience a smooth and safe transition from all ages to the bar scene. Bar/19+ shows are very much different from an all ages show. Jumping right into a bar show as a young band can be overwhelming and depending on the bar, fucking scary.” Not only did The Spill provide the main space for musicians, artists, and patrons to thrive and enjoy great music, it did so in a unique way, being inclusive to all, and providing a starting point for those that would have a hard time finding one elsewhere.

The crowd in The Spill on October 18, 2017 extends to the back of the bar. Photo by Nick Ferrio.

“The Spill was without question the major laboratory and clearinghouse for musical talent in Peterborough,” stated Michael Morse, musician and Trent University Cultural Studies professor. “Performers learned to perform, developed their ideas, and audiences learned to listen and appreciate.”

Morse’s point about The Spill’s audience is an important one to elaborate upon. While this article strives to outline the artistic and musical talents emerging from this space, individuals without artistic or musical inclination still found in The Spill a place to exist without fear or reproach. For many, The Spill wasn’t just a venue to perform, but one of the few spaces where a person could be themselves, in whatever unique and special combination that might be.

Raz Khan, from the Trent University band Modest Apollo commented, “It was a place for expression and freedom; an escape from the bullshit that existed outside the confines of that space.”

Scott Somerville, a Trent University performer known musically as his St. Homer moniker, echoes a similar point, “[Venues like The Spill] are the most important venues because they hold up the local scene and pull so many more people in who would have otherwise stayed home.”

The music, performance, and audience on The Spill’s last night accurately demonstrated these observations. The lineup consisted of Nick Ferrio, Rhys Climenhage (Stacey Green Jumps), The Venisons, Stacey Green Jumps themselves, Wayne Kennedy, Garbageface, Mary-Kate Edwards, Rob Hailman (No Pussyfooting), and St. Homer. Each of these performers either began their musical journey at The Spill, or cultivated their craft within its walls.

Just like the night itself, the music and its order was a last-minute process. Many of the aforementioned musicians performed spur-of-the-moment sets, asking for patch cords, instruments, and capos, while facilitating the audience in the process. With no set line-up, each performer jumped on stage at a moment’s notice, ready to play The Spill one last time. Almost every artist thanked Dave Tobey for his dedication to the Peterborough music scene, and his help in launching the careers of local performers. Some acts were visibly moved, seeming to hold back their emotions only through their focus on each chord, note or melodic line. The audience’s energy was incredulous. In some ways, it felt like any other night, with familiar acts playing familiar tunes. However, underlying this familiarity was the imminent future, the fact that within a few hours, the culture of Peterborough’s music scene would be forever changed.

Garbageface performs on October 17, 2017 at The Spill’s closing. Photo via Karol Orzechowski (Garbageface).

In an increasingly hegemonic Peterborough bar scene, one wonders what will fill the void that The Spill has left. Peterborough has oft been praised for its unique downtown arts culture. But with the closure of The Spill and earlier this year, The Pig’s Ear, uniqueness and ingenuity seems to be moving out of town, or worse yet, disappearing all together.

So who fills this void and provides the obviously-needed outlet for new, young, and less-inclined individuals to try their hand at music and perform? Most individuals approached for comment relayed their fears and apprehensions towards a Peterborough without The Spill. Rhys Climenhage said, “I’d love to say that anyone could pick up The Spill’s slack, but if we want to keep our music scene alive and well, it needs to remain a community effort. We all need to pitch in.”

Nick Ferrio relayed his feelings, stating, “I feel like the Spill’s closure will be devastating for the local music scene. They had music 6 nights a week, and they were one of the only places consistently booking all ages, inclusive shows. It will leave a big void. Gabe Pollock, Co-Editor of Electric City Magazine, told me that he figures nearly 30% of the live music a month happened at The Spill. So that leaves a considerable void.”

Mary-Kate Edwards, local musician and life-long resident of Peterborough is also quite fearful of the town and music scene that will emerge from The Spill’s absence. She stated candidly, “I am depressed and scared. It is scary that an incredible venue that fostered the development of almost every Peterborough musician in the last 15 years has closed.”

While many of these quotes evoke anxiety and trepidation, there is always light in this darkness. Many of the people approached for comment as well as a brief statement on The Spill’s Facebook page focused on the fact that while The Spill facilitated much of Peterborough’s vibrant arts and music culture, it is the individuals within our unique city and scene that created the content for The Spill’s facilitation. That is to say, it is each unique artist that has helped to cultivate this community. The Spill is a part of this vivid culture only by the means of the scene’s vibrant individuals. Without them, The Spill could not exist.

Stall scrawl from one of The Spill’s washrooms on October 18, 2017. Photo by Leina Amatsuji-Berry.

With any loss, memory is a key step in the healing process. In approaching the many individuals that frequented The Spill, memories and anecdotes shown through much of the sadness and anxiety to shed a light on the numerous beautiful and personal connections that people had to this little rough and tumble cafe. While some individuals stated that there were too many memories to relay just one, several people told accounts of their first shows at The Spill. Mary-Kate Edwards summarized, “I had my first show at the spill when I was 13, and then just in September I saw an all-girl rock band made up of three 12-year-olds play their first show.” Almost cyclical in nature, one can reflect on The Spill through memories of both their own, and other’s first shows.

Nick Ferrio also reflected on his memories of The Spill, stating, “It was the first place I saw when I first came to Trent to do a campus tour before I started going to school here. It just looked like a cool place to hang out. Later on, I worked there for many years. I made so many friends through that place. I truly developed as a musician and as a person there. I even lived above the bar for a few years.”

Many of the memories relayed were of this broad nature. No single anecdote could adequately summarize all that The Spill meant. Rather, the bar was a place to grow, meet others, feel at home or simply hang out. It was a place for students, older folks, and everyone and anyone in between.

Having said that, however, one of the most poignant memories was told by Natalie from the band Prime Junk. She stated, “I saw someone comment that they would miss watching the snow fall behind The Spill’s stage. That evoked such strong, amalgamated memories of forcing myself to leave my house in -20° weather, seeing snow fall peacefully as a really loud band fogs up the windows to only 10 people in the audience, and then walking outside to mostly empty streets and an orange cloudy sky, the ringing in my ears sounding so loud compared to the silence outside, being broken only by the crunching of our boots in the snow. The nostalgia I have for that feeling is unreal.” This is only one memory of The Spill, a memory that is almost too beautiful to be believed. However, anyone that has walked into The Spill’s doors can easily recognize memories such as this. Novels could, and very well may, be written about the place. It does not suffice to say that the place will be missed. It lives in our memories now, evoking nostalgia, and leaving us continually wishing for one last show, one last set, or even, one last drink.

It is only fitting to end this piece with a statement by those that knew the bar most intimately. Members of The Spill’s staff put together the following short statement in light of the closure.

“The closure of The Spill has left a huge hole in our hearts, and the hearts of many in our community.
Dave Tobey built a space with the attitude that it was there to foster community, creativity, and respect. That vision, which his staff shared, made it a space worth going to. Without that vision, and the community, The Spill was just an empty room.
Please keep being creative, and looking after each other, in all you do. Take action, and continue to support all of the communities that made The Spill great. They’re all still out there.
—- The Staff of The Spill”


Are you an artist or community member looking for the contributions you were approached to give for this piece? Fear not! Tyler and Leina collected statements in varying lengths from artists near and far. They simply could not include them all after the drafting and editing processes which produced this article of nearly 2100 words. Rest assured, it was nothing personal! Your contribution will be posted within the week in a compilation article, as well as featuring more complete statements from those quoted here.

About Tyler Majer 73 Articles
Tyler works out of Peterborough, Ontario, and reluctantly attends Trent University. He loathes deeply, while drinking often. The cigarettes will soon consume his life. Read his poetry while you still can at while reading his journalistic work at this very site. I would say that he would be appreciative, but that may not be the truth.