Canada invents a new school of art rock
Loosely defined by their Montreal label, Alien8 Recordings, as having created an “indescribable mix of demented electro-noise-post-punk backed up with their own invented language,” Les Georges Leningrad (LGL) seem determined to subvert the micro-categorizing tendencies of the music-industry press, characterizing their own sound with the markedly vague descriptor, “petrochemical rock.” That this taxonomy is essentially meaningless is fundamental to the LGL project, an anything-goes collision of music, performance and promotion, that in its live manifestation speaks more to the influence of Dada than any rock-historical referents. Combine this with a desire to create a specific aesthetic that favours the handmade over pop gloss–through the design of costumes, merchandise, posters and CD covers–and it becomes clear that with Les Georges Leningrad and their loosely affiliated cohort of like-minded bands, a new 21st-century version of art rock has emerged.
Yet the term art rock comes loaded with connotations and misconceptions and proves slippery when you try to pin it down. For example, at a recent performance by fellow Montrealers the Besnard Lakes, a disgruntled audience member dismissed the band’s output as art rock, suggesting perhaps his displeasure at having stumbled upon something other than the straight-up rock show that the presence of guitars and amplifiers had promised. The Besnard Lakes, despite the absence of costumed onstage theatrics and the inclusion of conservatory-trained musicians, are led by former art student and photographer Jace Lasek, a self-taught performer who obsessively controls every aspect of the band’s sound and image. Yet an attempt to find other commonalities–musical or otherwise–between the Besnard Lakes and a band such as LGL proves next to impossible, suggesting that time served in an art institution is not the sole criterion for the classification of a band under the art-rock rubric.
Perhaps these lyrics from “Rock Show,” by Toronto-born, Berlin-based Peaches, can be of service: “Rock show/You came to see a rock show/A big gigantic cock show/You came to see it all.” With its tongue-in-cheek homage to the stadium cock rock shows of the 70s and 80s, the song plays as an insider’s wink to Peaches’ loyal fan base about a demographic for which art is a dirty word. If art embodies all that seems pretentious and threatening, this is a frustration made worse by a band such as LGL, whose members are intentionally obtuse in their interviews and press materials and have described their project as “un-understandable.” Yet Peaches, with her sometimes literal appropriation of cock rock’s appendages and postures, seems able to bridge this aesthetic gap, drawing the frat boys and art boys in equal (and large) numbers.
Despite its opposition to being labelled, if there is such a thing as a contemporary art-rock scene in Canada in 2005, it is possible to trace this current movement back to Toronto in the late 90s, when musician Merrill Nisker negotiated the boundary between divergent worlds–through her collaborations with artist/illustrator Shary Boyle, the experimental filmmakers Kika Thorne and Kara Blake and the 2-4-5 Collective–working on the concept that would eventually become Peaches, a process which involved much more than the writing of songs.
Montreal’s latest live-music venue, the dungeonesque Zoobizarre, is a curious but appealing addition to the city’s already eclectic collection of bars and performance boites, with its 70s-era echangiste dub decor and unlikely location on a decidedly un-hip outdoor shopping thoroughfare that runs for blocks along the northern end of rue St. Hubert. A crowd, adorned with dollar-store masks and tickle-trunk interpretations of Mardi Gras finery, awaited the arrival of LGL, who headlined the evening’s event–a fundraiser for displaced New Orleans musicians Quintron and Miss Pussycat. LGL is part of what Exclaim writer Lorraine Carpenter has termed Montreal’s “schizo synth scene,” which includes the Bowie-inspired Echo Kitty, the Heidi-esque children’s entertainer for grownups Lederhosen Lucil and former Peaches collaborator the World Provider, of whom I won’t say any more as I am both married to him and a member of the WP backup band.
When Les Georges Leningrad, or Les Cajun Atlantis, as they called themselves for this one special event, took to the stage, frontwoman Poney P was sporting a homemade dress of a vaguely Flintstones-esque design, as is her wont–the caveman look being a quintessential part of the LGL aesthetic. Bobo and Mingo were equally snappy in straw hats and jacketless suits with rolled shirtsleeves and vests. But what was most striking and certainly not expected was the fact that they were also in blackface and doing their best to behave in a manner appropriate, or at least consistent, with the postmodern minstrel show they had decided to put on.
Described in their artist profile on Pitchforkmedia.com as “more mischievous than malicious,” LGL has a reputation for creating controversy with their live performances, though their gimmick at the benefit engendered few, if any, negative or angry responses from the assembled crowd other than some raised eyebrows and the occasional sidelong glance. And I had to wonder what kind of conceptual thinking had led them to make this audacious and arguably questionable creative decision and whether it was their collective pedigree as visual artists within the Montreal community–Poney P’s alter ego, Dominique Petrin, is an established multi-disciplinary artist whose paintings and illustrations, outside of those created specifically for LGL, have been exhibited internationally–that offered them the creative latitude to engage in this absurdist interpretation of the old shuck ‘n’ jive routine. What is impossible to know is whether the reaction garnered would have been different if the band had instead emerged from a more traditional rock background.
LGL keeps their fans and critics on their toes with purposely mystifying descriptions of their musical and thematic preoccupations. When asked, for example, to comment on their shift from a four-piece to their current power-trio set-up in an interview with Seattle Weekly, band members would say only that they were “four heads screwed onto a crab body. Now we are three creatures.” They are steadfastly committed to their project, refusing to break character even as, in the sweltering heat of Zoobizarre, the black pancake makeup began to run and slide down their faces and arms, causing Poney P to hold tight to the top of her tube dress and allowing hardcore front-row fans the giddy opportunity to retrieve the drumsticks that were flying out of Bobo’s greasy hands.
But the LGL project is not just a Dadaist performance piece–it is also a band that makes music and records that people buy and listen to. A gaggle of adjectives culled from a host of reviews and articles does little to describe the music. Words such as spastic, chaotic, abrasive and bombastic are thrown around, without actually answering the question of what it sounds like or what it might be compared to. In the end, the answer might be nothing … or rather, a noisy form of nothing familiar–which may also be the point. Like most of the bands discussed here, LGL members were trained as artists rather than musicians, and while what proficiency they have acquired after months of exhaustive touring is evident when listening to them play now, they tend to subvert the traditional hierarchy of sound over image that is maintained by more conventional performers. And while the music is elemental to the project–“one does not go without the other”–and you can dance to it (as their fans will most definitely tell you), it seems somehow secondary to the visual extravaganza taking place on stage. Perhaps it’s as simple as acknowledging that visual artists think differently from musicians and so bring new priorities to their work with an emphasis on aesthetics that doesn’t take a back seat to sound.
There have always been bands coming out of art schools–Talking Heads, Devo and GWAR are three that come immediately to mind. Paradoxically, when you type “art rock” into Google you find a plethora of sites devoted to the appreciation of progressive rock–to bands such as Genesis, Rush and Yes–whose music is delineated in part by its intricate time structures, the varied instrumentation of the orchestrations and the virtuosity of the musicianship (in addition to the theatricality of the performances). Traditional art rock is known for being self-important and overblown, a hugely different sound from the autodidactic electronica that characterizes much of what is being created here, in which a lack of musical training is seen as a strength–as an opportunity for a wider range of experimentation and expression unhindered by the burden of what works and what is expected–rather than a weakness.
Joel Gibb, founder of Toronto’s the Hidden Cameras–referred to by Stuart Berman in Eye Weekly as a “solo-art-project-turned-queer-chamber-pop-choir”–states in an interview with Exclaim’s Michael Barclay, “I was always interested in asking people who weren’t musicians to play … I even hate using the word musician. It’s all in your attitude and how you assert yourself … your performance charisma.” Poney P echoes Gibb’s sentiment when she describes the early days of LGL, with its “elaborate setups, pie fights, magic tricks, anything that would obscure their lack of technical expertise.” The band soon realized there was a need to grow beyond the limitations of the electrotrash moment, describing their current incarnation to Pitchforkmedia.com’s Brian Howe as “less comedians, because that can be super-kitschy, and going into more powerful and danceable things.” Still, LGL’s Mingo strives to maintain the impenetrable public facade, declaring to Carpenter that LGL are actually “professional musicians … [who only] play like primitive people.”
That there is an element of conscious pretension in art rock may be inarguable, but this is not necessarily a problem, especially when the aesthetic sensibilities of the band are matched by a keen sense of humour and a tangible desire to connect with the audience–a desire that is perhaps more easily met through the populist and immediate medium of music. As Maggie MacDonald, singer and keyboardist for the Hidden Cameras, explained in the same interview, “I don’t like art that is about cutting people off. Music is a social art, and it’s something that should be shared.”
I first saw The Hidden Cameras play at Pavilion, the temporary gallery space and curatorial project of Robin Simpson and Maryse Lariviere that adorned an empty storefront on lower St. Laurent for a few months in the winter of 2004. Following a brilliant set by the then-less-well-known Arcade Fire, who, if it were not for the plethora of material written about them of late, would have probably garnered more space here, the Hidden Cameras crowded into the small cleared square that was standing in for a stage and blew our minds, as the much-lauded, underwear-hooded and half-naked male go-go dancers flanked the band and Maggie commanded us to dance. The Hidden Cameras sound is much lusher in tone and more complex instrumentally than the stripped-down new wave-ish electronica that characterizes much of the Montreal scene and the music of fellow Torontonian art rockers Dandi Wind and Pony Da Look, the latter who opened for The Hidden Cameras on their last mini-tour–more on par perhaps with the bigger sound of bands such as Broken Social Scene, Stars, the Dears and the aforementioned Arcade Fire. Still, the band fits the art-rock bill, playing art galleries and church halls and collaborating with other visual and performance artists, such as the Toronto Dance Theatre, who teamed with them for a series of shows this November.
Of course, the original and consummate art rocker is David Bowie, who, along with the other art-schooled members of the British glare-rock scene characterized his work with a sense of performance and persona that set him apart from his American counterparts. But unlike the serious pretension and post-glam posing of bands such as Echo Kitty or the prefabricated Boy, what distinguishes the work of the Hidden Cameras, Peaches, LGL and their ilk is a cheeky posturing and pop-cultural savvy that lacks the arrogance one might expect from so self-conscious a project.
That an emphasis on performance–and the community that it can help to create–unites these bands comes as no surprise. As one of the Hidden Cameras’ lead musicians, Maggie MacDonald’s performance charisma has been on full display every time I have seen her play with the Cameras or with her side-project, Republic of Safety. Maggie has the unique ability to engage fully with the audience while on stage, whether speaking, singing or simply staring out into the audience, dancing. Her face is a study in candour, lacking both the self-centered angst familiar to the emo-rocking shoe-gazer set, but equally free from the type of ironic mock-rock grimacing of Peaches and Poney P.
According to Maggie, a Hidden Cameras performance is “like a happening, or an artistic moment in a community … a very different kind of concert.” There is a sense of the prankster, of a playfulness that does not, cannot, find a home in the earnestness of the indie-rock scene. As MacDonald notes, “I felt like audiences were wanting to dance, but there wasn’t a high comfort-level in the indie-rock community.” Krista Muir, a.k.a. Lederhosen Lucil, echoes this sentiment in her interview with Carpenter, describing her performances as distinct from “most shows, which you’re supposed to watch passively.”
The importance of dance is also an imperative of Hank, whose members–the Hank Collective–not only entice audiences to engage with the performative elements of their project, but enable them to seek better lives through Free Dance Lessons, an ongoing performance or public intervention spearheaded by Hank members Day Milman and Paige Gratland, in which passersby are invited to spontaneously dance with other people on the street.
Fronted by native Brit Cab J. Williamson, Hank is the latest band to enter into the art-rock fray. Armed with 500 copies of their latest CD, How to Prosper in the Coming Bad Days (2004), each with a one-of-a-kind cover handmade by Gratland–drawn from a culturally rich repository of found pictures and magazines whose images brush meaningfully against the thematically oblique album title–the band played Pop Montreal this October and wowed the audience with its exuberant showmanship and catchy karaoke-esque beats.
Purposely mysterious and mock-epic on its Weepingtruckers.com website, Hank purports to have no manifesto to guide its project–they’re “not bloody U2 or anything”–but speaking on behalf of the Hank Collective in response to my questions on the subject of art rock, Williamson was dogmatic in his position, stating explicitly that they “don’t really understand the term and … do not belong, nor are aware of, an art-rock scene” in Canada.
Containing the requisite band information, the Weeping Truckers site also doubles as a gallery. Each copy of Hank’s first CD contains a single-edition handmade work with Polaroid images taken by Williamson. To build a showcase of all 500 covers of the new CD, the band asks those who had bought CDs before the process was begun to scan their covers and submit them to the site. But what is perhaps the most significant aspect of Hank and the Hank Collective live experience is that the show is one hell of a good time.
From the perverted vaudevillian antics of Vancouver’s Canned Hamm to the tortured wails of Halifax’s now-defunct Rick of the Skins, the catalogue of bands who in their own way straddle this border between art and rock are too numerous to include in one article. “There is an exciting art-rock synthesis going on in Canada,” says Maggie MacDonald. “I am really proud of the stuff Joel is doing with the [Hidden Cameras’ Evil Evil] label.” Evil Evil has released the band’s CDs as weft as those by Scandinavian, Stephin Merritt-esque crooner Jens Lekman and, most recently, the debut CD by Winnipeg artist and Royal Art Lodger Marcel Dzama. Explained on Dzama’s website as beginning “as a Yoko Ono and Lee Hazlewood cover band with Marcel’s 10-year-old sister, Hollie Dzama, on vocals,” Albatross Note (2005) is the type of collaboration that makes an art-rock synthesis manifest and aurally tangible. It succeeds in furthering the project of those who desire to blur the distinctions between the mediums, stepping into the rock spotlight for a moment and producing the kind of art that you can dance to, despite the fact that for many it may be the first time they have ever picked up a key-tar.