Ben Andress isn’t a morning person. “I’m kind of a grump when I wake up first thing,” he admits, “but when I see that little dude smiling back I’m like ‘oh yeah! this guy’s awesome!’”
Fatherhood’s a new challenge for Andress, frontman of grungy alt-rock group The Smile Case and head of Blacktop Records, but he’s adjusting well. Since departing Niagara and returning home to the Tillsonburg area, new challenges have become the norm. In recent years Blacktop, almost inexplicably, has been working with a handful of internationally known artists, from laptop-rap act MC Lars, to the long-running comedy group Green Jelly, to Wheatus and 90s MTV veteran Lisa Loeb. At the same time, Andress has been hard at work fostering a local music community in Tillsonburg with some lessons he picked up from his time in Welland.
“Welland had a really close-knit scene and a lot of that I took home,” Ben reflects. Originally from Glen Meyer, a crossroad town (“a general store and two churches” he admits), Andress got a taste for the Welland punk and hardcore scene early on. As a teen, he’d catch Rose City bands like the Ceremonial Snips, In These Walls, and A Day and a Deathwish play Knights of Columbus halls in Simcoe and Port Dover. On a trip to St. Catharines during Alexisonfire’s reign, he recounts seeing “three or four hundred kids losing their shit” in the basement of the Hideaway.
Andress moved to Niagara in the 2000s to study broadcasting and TV production at Niagara College. It was here he started to plant the seeds for Blacktop and learn the lessons he’d bring back home. On weekends home he’d set up shows in Tillsonburg, and soon enough was booking at bars and halls around Welland, from The Rex, to a YMCA youth centre, to the Niagara Soccer Club.
His time in town wouldn’t last though. “I ended up getting into that call centre grind and working a bunch of crappy jobs all while trying to write music, play shows, run a record label, be a concert promoter, and just try and juggle everything possible. I got to a point where a lot of people I knew from Welland were starting to move to Toronto or Hamilton, and it felt weird staying there. One day I called some friends back home in Tillsonburg and asked if they wanted to start a band back up. Everyone was into it, and the next month I moved home.”
“It was really dry here in Tillsonburg. Nothing much was going on. When I moved back I built a relationship with a new bar that had just opened, and since then we’ve brought a lot of people into our little town.” Andress considers it less about fostering a scene, and more building a community. “It’s neat seeing these tours announced where you read New York City, Toronto, Ottawa, and then Tillsonburg” on the routing, “Tillsonburg money’s just as good as Toronto money!”
Since moving away Ben hasn’t played much in Niagara, so he’s excited to revisit “the old turf.” This February he’s playing a short solo tour in the US rust belt, and coming back home through Niagara Falls. The Smile Case will perform at the Geekery Pub on Friday, February 16. His set will include material from 2014’s full-length Angel Beach, but also from the band’s upcoming record. The full three-piece, including bassist Shane McElhone and drummer Jackson Cronmiller, will record a new album to be titled Murder Weather with producer Kyle Winkworth soon.