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Justin James: Love, hate and everything in between

Hard work pays off. Whether the results of our drive lead to an untellable feeling of personal triumph, or whether they turn into something more concrete, our efforts have power. Effort has a way of making things real. It lives in action.

Hard work pays off. Whether the results of our drive lead to an untellable feeling of personal triumph, or whether they turn into something more concrete, our efforts have power. Effort has a way of making things real. It lives in action.

Even if we at first hesitate to act, it’s important to eventually move forward. For if life is a game of inches, it’s the journeys of a thousand miles that begins with the very first steps.

Though he describes himself as subtly ambitious and somewhat hesitant at times, Justin James Vany, front man of local rock group Stereo Playground, has plugged his way through the trials and tribulations of learning an instrument, and the fun, frustration and difficulty of honing his musical craft.

Along with his bandmates (Warren Kendrick - lead guitar/vocals, John Sanders - bass, Troy Wildeman - erums), he’s put in the hours learning to play live in front of an audience, and he’s learned how to collaborate properly to create new music. When the band practices, there’s no ego. No one gets possessive or defensive over how they play. Everyone is open to constructive criticism and is happy to change and adapt in order to best serve the song, bringing their different flavours and musical backgrounds into the mix.

It’s all a part of the creative process.

Justin knows the process well. He’s gone through the frustration and joy of learning an instrument, and other musical skills. A sometimes humbling experience. Sitting in the basement of his Battleford home near the 29th Street Market, looking fondly back in time Justin says, “I think if someone really wants to play guitar they’re going to do whatever it takes to play.”

On the couch next to him sits his grandfather’s acoustic. It’s one of his cherished possessions. It was passed down to his mother, and then to him. To this day he writes most of his songs with it, before he brings them to the band to be made into full creations.

He sneaks glances toward it as he speaks. Like Justin, the guitar has an interesting history. It has stories in it and Justin wants to make sure he gives it more stories to tell.

Justin’s first connections with music take us back to when he was only eight years old. He first started getting into music because of his two older brothers Mike and Jason. They bought all sorts of music growing up and so Justin was exposed to all these CDs scattered around the house. He remembers the family having a CD player with a dual tape deck. He used the contraption to copy from his brother’s CDs onto cassette. These cassettes he would later use to learn songs in his room after school.

He remembers, with a smile across his face, being especially struck by one particular album when he was a bit older. He discovered an album called Nimrod by the punk group Greenday. “Wow! What is this?” is the way he describes the first time he heard their sound. At that time, he didn’t know what a power chord was, what distortion was, what their whole sound was, but he experienced these things through the music and wanted to know more about what he was hearing. “I remember thinking, this is the best! This is the coolest thing ever!” Justin describes his musical roots as being heavily influenced by punk rock.

Luckily, when he was 10, Justin had a cousin visit with his family during Easter break, and that 12-year-old cousin could play guitar. He was talented. He played things like Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry.

During that weekend, using his grandfather’s guitar, his cousin taught him how to read tablature and how to play the intro to Crazy Train by Ozzy Osbourne. Justin was hooked. He had this instrument in his hand, and rather than playing nothing, he knew he had the beginning to something. He could play something that was real.

Laughing as he looks back on those moments, he gazes up towards the ceiling, a slight gleam in his eye, and reminisces about one of the funnier anecdotes from that learning period. 

He describes how when he first started, before the time of cellphones, he didn’t have a guitar tuner and so would phone his cousin Dan using the landline. Over the phone, he would tell his cousin how he thought his guitar wasn’t in tune. Dan would instruct him to play each string one at a time into the phone’s receiver, and tell him to either tighten or loosen each string by turning the tuning peg.

“Now, it’s just on your phone and you open an app and it’s there,” Justin says laughing about how much easier things have become.

He would also make picks by folding up pieces of paper into small, square, thick chunks. There was no music store in Wilkie and so he made do. Anything to play and learn.

Currently, Justin practices at least once a week with his band, travelling from the Battlefords to their jam space in Wilkie. The band usually practices for at least three hours at these sessions, from 8 to 11 p.m.

Because of their dedication and hard work, Stereo Playground has recently won two Best of the Battlefords awards. One for Best Band and one for Best Local Band Made Good. They also won the BOB for Best Band in 2017. Stereo Playground has two EP four-song albums to their name: Music to Feel in Your Plums and Buffalo 409. These albums can be found on Apple Music, or whichever music application you use.

“We are aiming to get plans together for a third release before the end of the year,” says Justin speaking about the band’s future.

Besides his involvement with Stereo Playground, Justin works full time at Sound City Audio Video in North Battleford and is also involved as one of the voices, and founders, of The Beaver Podcast. 

Like everything in life, Justin talks about the love-hate relationship with anything important to someone, especially if that thing takes persistence, passion, and practice. Whether it be music, career or being a part of a locally produced podcast.

“I’m humbled by music every time I play,” says Justin. He goes on to explain the juice is worth the squeeze, meaning the frustration someone may go through with music, or any other endeavour, will eventually pay off if you keep at it. He explains you have to be ready to be humbled. It’s just a part of the learning process. It can be frustrating, but the desire, joy and fun-love always outweigh the struggle.

For anyone interested in seeing Stereo Playground live, they often take the stage at Gutters Bowling and Game Centre. They’re not guaranteeing anything, but are hoping to be playing there sometime this fall.