What does George Stroumboulopoulos bring to the party? Ear plugs, and the dude buys them in bulk.
It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon when the vowel-buying television and radio personality, back from errands, shows up at his downtown house with a box of ear protection. His front courtyard is filled with musical-equipment cases, and the tour bus for the British rockers the Cult is parked across the street. The band isn’t around just yet, but their instruments are set up in Stroumboulopoulos’s living room, a place currently crawling with roadies straight out of central casting. The door to the house is open, stray guitar riffs are flying around and you can’t swing a dead corgi without hitting a black-clad Englishman.
“Crazy,” says the likable man known as Strombo. “Just nuts, right?” Well, crazy is relative. And Strombo isn’t out his mind – he’s actually having the time of his 43-year-old life.
The event that’s happening is an intimate concert by the Cult, taped for Stroumboulopoulos’s 11-year-running Sunday-night radio gig on CBC 2, The Strombo Show. It’s the program he stayed with when he left CBC television (as the face of the Gemini-winning talk show George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight) to take over as host of Hockey Night in Canada on Rogers in 2014.
He’s operated the radio show out of his house since 2014, and just recently he’s begun inviting friends over to enjoy the live musical performances. The idea to hold the house concerts came to him when he walked past his old stomping grounds, the old CHUM-City building on Queen Street West where a younger Strombo once talked and played videos for MuchMusic. The place isn’t the same – not the music-fan hub of Canada any more – and the loss bothered him.
“You have to honour your airwaves, man,” he says, making eye contact. Opening his house is his way of creating an intersection for music and its fans. “Where can you go,” he asks, “that’s free and kind of cool?”
Well, you can go to The Strombo Show, an eclectic, sprawling three hours of music – “We believe in Metallica, the Cult, Merle Haggard, Bettye Swann and Miles Davis, and we believe they belong on the same show” – and long-form interview.
Stroumboulopoulos knows not all his listeners will dig every song he plays, but he doesn’t care. “I just know that there’s one kid, who’s 17 years old, who’s having a bad day. He’s going to put on his headphones and we’re going to play one song that they’re not going to hear anywhere else, and that song is going to get them into the right spot.”
The spirit of radio? A safe haven? “Exactly, and I think it matters,” says Stroumboulopoulos, who on air often refers to his listeners as a congregation. Because you’ve been there? “Yeah, I absolutely have.”
After our chat, Stroumboulopoulos’s inner 17-year-old walks into his house, now full of friends and fans enjoying beer and pizza – supplied out of pocket by Stroumboulopoulos; the mini-concert expenses are not covered by CBC – while waiting for the Cult to rev up its heavy-electric goth-boogie.
The music-biz crowd which I’m familiar with isn’t in attendance, except for veteran publicist Rebecca Webster, who speaks for many of her colleagues when she vouches for Stroumboulopoulos’s interview chops and musical authority. “He has an ability to ask questions about the creation of music and what’s going on inside the artist’s head,” Webster says. “He has respect for the musicians. You can’t say that about everyone out there.”
Getting an interview spot or having a new song premiere on the The Strombo Show is a big deal to artists and labels, Strombo’s stamp of approval being so prized. One of Webster’s clients (the inimitable Chilly Gonzales) recently appeared on the show, even though logistically the timing wasn’t great. “We were all tired,” Webster says. “We had done Massey Hall and we did a ton of press in Montreal, and we were pretty much done. But we came back to do George’s show. It was a priority.”
For that taping, Gonzales played Stroumboulopoulos’s grand piano in the living room, but nobody’s tinkling any ivories here at the moment. The Cult, led by excellent eighties rock stars Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy, are now in full arena-rock mode (complete with dry ice), surrounded by a jam-packed crowd.
The charming Broken Social Scene guitarist Brendan Canning, one of about 60 people in the room, opens up a beer bottle with a plastic water bottle – “my only party trick” – and is dismayed when the Cult plays a new song among the five we hear. “I didn’t sign up for this,” he says. He wants to hear something off 1985’s classic album Love, and he gets his wish when singer Astbury, wearing dark sunglasses indoors, throws his baritone at She Sells Sanctuary.
The band finishes with the thudding boogies of G O A T, which stands for “greatest of all time,” an acclamation the singer applies to the afternoon’s host.
As the crowd slowly files out of the house, Stroumboulopoulos stops me and asks if I enjoyed myself. I tell him I had, while letting him know that I had a good story as well. He smiles and says he doesn’t care about the story. “I just wanted to know if you had a good time.”
And now you know what he bring to the party with The Strombo Show. Some kind of sanctuary.