"This shouldn't be this popular." Improv Karaoke, year 2

Andrea Wong, Mike WT Allen, Spencer Schoening, & Matthew Ariaratnam on their improv jam

"This shouldn't be this popular." Improv Karaoke, year 2
Art from Improv Karaoke poster contributed by Mike WT Allen

Improv Karaoke is an improvised music jam series at the 8EAST artist space, run by Andrea Wong, Mike WT Allen, Spencer Schoening, and Matthew Ariaratnam. The series has run for about a year, was featured at the Jazz Feeds Vancouver Infidels jam session at the Lido on December 18, 2023, and will continue with the next edition on January 31, 2024.

It started when the four musicians got together following a collaboration between Spencer and Andrea at the Firehall Arts Centre, and since then it has run monthly on the last Wednesday of each month. I haven't had the pleasure of attending one yet, so I enjoyed talking to Andrea, Mike, Matthew, and Spencer about the series.

Our interview recorded on January 4, 2024 is below, edited for clarity and brevity,

WILL: So [...] if we start with the Infidels Jam session and the Improv Karaoke component of that on Monday, December 18th, I remember seeing you [Andrea] there, I remember seeing Mike there, and I got to enjoy the first set of the night of that and see how it fit in. And I thought it was really cool and special how that fit in among everything else that happened that night. So starting with you, Andrea, and anybody else who wanted to jump in, I just wanted to hear your perspective of how that night went for you.

ANDREA: Well, it was so fun. Yeah, I think afterwards we were all really thrilled. We weren't sure how many people would sign up for this kind of thing [...] we had two full sheets of sign-ups, and the music that came out was super fun. It seemed like everyone had a good time, and it was just really cool to see different groups of musicians in the same room and enjoying themselves for the fundraiser.

SPENCER: That sounds like Tim's concept of having some cross pollination worked really well. To see some people who are very accomplished local jazz musicians drop in, it was really cool.

MIKE: It started with the straight-ahead jazz, and then we went up for our portion. And our sheet maybe had like a few names on there, maybe like eight to ten names on there. But then after the four of us did an opening [set], then I just saw person after person coming up and signing up, being like, 'I want to do this, I want to do that!' You know, maybe what our secret sauce is, is that we just make that kind of music fun and [that] makes it inviting for people. That's kind of where Improv Karaoke came from, is that we wanted to open up this kind of music that's normally a little bit removed from what you would normally see at a show. We wanted to bring it to people who might not normally know what this kind of music is, and present in a way where it's like, 'Hey, you can also do this. Come make weird noises with us.' And I think that definitely showed at that Infidels gig.

ANDREA: Yeah [...] one of our goals with Improv Karaoke is to make this as accessible as possible. Not necessarily just the music experience of playing, but [so that] people feel welcome to come in and try new things and make different sounds that they wouldn't normally make at a different show [...] Tim kept telling me to tell all the people to keep it short at the end, because we were running out of time. He was like, 'Five minutes, five minutes!'

MATTHEW: I wasn't at that event, but I'm glad to hear it went well from all of you. That's great [...] Over the year, it's been really exciting to see how it's grown after every event. One person will come, and then the next event they'll bring two or three people to come participate, and that's happened at every event. It's also really been cool to see how different scenes of musicians from different places are now mixing together that I don't think always get to mix together, and that has been really rewarding. Our last event that we did in November at 8EAST, we were way over capacity, like over 45 people were there. And yeah, people were just super excited to play some music.

WILL: Nice. Now if we look ahead to the next one, and we think about how would we best tee up somebody who wants to come and participate and hasn't done it before [...] could you walk this person, who's never been, through what happens when they show up and what the typical monthly Improv Karaoke at 8EAST looks like?

MIKE: We take everyone's names as they come through the door, or you can sign up online in advance; and then we just take all those names, throw them in a bowl, and we pick out three or four names at random; and that's your group that you're playing with. You go up there, make some weird noises for five to ten minutes, and then we do it with three or four different people. And we do that through the night.

SPENCER: There have been many times when somebody has shown up and been like, 'I don't know what I'm getting into,' [but] then you just see one group do it, and then you're kind of like, 'Oh, that's it.'

MATTHEW: We have some instruments there, so there's a piano to play, a drum set, and some amps and stuff [...] it's pretty chill. We've been getting more official with online sign-ups, but we also have people just drop in.

SPENCER: If anyone's unfamiliar with the kind of world of music, it's very in keeping with everything that happens at 8EAST. I would highly encourage anybody to check out any show that happens down there, and it'll probably give you a rough idea of that world and hopefully get you excited about it too

ANDREA: Our events have [always] been free. I think that's an important part, that you don't feel any kind of barrier to play and training things. I don't really perform a ton. That was just never something I thought I could do [...] but because of so many other people in the community giving me a chance to play, and this music being so accessible – and that you just come as you are, and you play what you can, it's not about learning a piece of music and preparing a certain style or whatnot – that was very exciting for me. I was like, 'Oh, that takes away so many barriers to doing music, as opposed to being very focused on the end result.' It was just so process-oriented.

SPENCER: Yeah. And it simply came from just wishing this existed, personally just thinking it'd be cool for ourselves to have the opportunity to do it. I think maybe [that] speaks to why it resonates with other people as well.

WILL: Nice. All right, I will open up the floor for you to share some of your favourite, Improv Karaoke memories or experiences that you want to let people know about to show them how fun or humorous or enjoyable it is.

MATTHEW: The relay!

ANDREA: Oh my gosh, there was a theme night where we thought, 'Wouldn't it be fun instead of ensembles, we just like tap people in and out, like rapid-fire?' And Mike just took that sports analogy and went full-on with it. He bought bandanas for everyone. We had colors for everyone. Didn't get Gatorade, so I [brought] juice, I was like a soccer mom [...] and it was so chaotic, but it was so fun. We've gotten so many comments. That was some people's most favorite night. Yeah, it's just a great way to be a kid again, I think.

SPENCER: I think all of those theme nights stick out to me [...] We did a night that was 'not-your-main-instrument night', which was totally chaotic in a different way. But again, really [it's] an environment where you could just go up and play something you were really not good at, in a safe space.

MIKE: I think just keeping it fun and keeping it light, it kind of balances out like the seriousness that this music is sometimes treated with [...] Just doing silly things like, yeah, we're all going to wear bandanas and you don't have to wait for your turn to play, you just go up and tap the other person on the shoulder and then switch. I really wanted to incorporate like an egg race. We have an egg on a spoon, you have to run around the drum set or something. I don't know, we'll see what we do this year.

MATTHEW: We did a graphic score night, or no, it was like cards [...]

ANDREA: Brian Eno's...

MATTHEW: Yeah, Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. That was cool. But also, I think the last event in November at 8EAST was pretty memorable, because I've never seen that many people in this space just all hyped up, ready to play music. It was pretty wild.

MIKE: Yeah, we had people coming up to us on that last night saying, 'Hey, I saw online that you guys are totally sold-out, but I'm just wondering, like, has anyone not shown up, and is there any way that I can still get in and play, maybe even just one round?' We're [thinking], 'Wow, we have a waiting list!' Again, for weird, inaccessible music. That's the thing that keeps blowing me away, is I'm like, 'This shouldn't be this popular.' It's amazing. I'm so happy that people are enjoying it and really connecting with it.