Friday, November 10, 2006

Bad Bands Revolution, part three: Better Than Everyone

The final installment of the Bad Bands Revolution discussion comes courtesy of Toronto band Better Than Everyone. While preparing my radio piece for CBC Radio 3 on this phenomenon, I wanted to have a naysayer’s perspective—someone who thought the whole idea was ridiculous. God knows there are more than a few hundred of those floating around. But Eric Warner of Dollarama suggested I contact the band Better Than Everyone, which turned out to be a perfect choice.

Better Than Everyone are on the Bad Bands Revolution CD, but don’t feel a part of the stated aesthetic, to say the least. And the fact that they’re friends with Dollarama doesn’t lessen their loathing for that band in particular. Not having seen Better Than Everyone live, I’m not sure how their theatrical approach enhances the music, which still sounds green—there isn’t a readymade gimmick or specific sound to latch on to, so instead they sound simply like nerdy, goofy guys trying anything they can. Judging by this conversation, they’re obviously serious enough about what they do that it will likely evolve into something bigger some day. In the meantime, however, they’re welcome dissidents in this debate, precisely because they’re active participants, not knee-jerk naysayers.

Not having heard them before, and conducting this interview a month later after this long-delayed piece got going, I approached it with more a sense of duty than any kind of anticipation. But after meeting them, both gentlemen were intelligent, warm and funny, and helped the piece immensely.

But speaking of Bad Bands, this week for my decidedly more mainstream column in the K-W Record, I’ve been forcing myself to listen to new albums by Meat Loaf, The Who, and My Chemical Romance. It makes the Revolution seem even more urgent.

Again, this was conducted for a CBC Radio 3 piece, hence the clunky, expository line of questioning.

Better Than Everyone
Michael Rosenberg and Professor Lindy
August 21, 2006
Locale: Ellington’s CafĂ©, St. Clair W./Christie, Toronto

Can you introduce yourselves for the record, please.
M: I’m Michael Rosenberg from Better Than Everyone, aka Dr. Motorcycle.
P: And I’m Professor Lindy from Better Than Everyone

How long have you been around?
M: We were asked to do something at a Halloween party, maybe four years ago. Someone had made me a mermaid costume. That’s it, that’s how it started.
P: Then we played together at a U of T talent show and realised that our forces could come together.
M: We were also in actual bands for many years, and still are. But we found at practices that we were the funny ones.

How do you differentiate actual bands from what you do in Better Than Everyone?
M: These days there is no separation. We were doing Better Than Everyone while trying to get an actual band going, but then Better Than Everyone was taking up too much time, so we just merged the two, and that’s what we’re doing right now.
P: In our lingo, when we say ‘actual band,’ we mean the band that’s a traditional serious band, where you play with a blank stare on your face. We realised that our personalities need to put humour into the music as well. What connects us to all the bad bands is that we share the need to put humour into music without it just being silly.
M: It’s a lot scarier making serious music, because people can make fun of you and you have no excuse at all.

Does self-deprecation take the wind out of any real criticism you get on stage?
P: You can be criticised in different ways as a joke band. If you criticise a serious band, you can use the excuse, ‘It’s not your taste in music.’ Here, you can say, “It’s not your sense of humour.” It’s all more light-hearted. Then again the bad bands thing has a lot of people up in arms.
M: It’s a little extreme.

How would describe the music of Better Than Everyone to someone who hasn’t heard it?
M: We’ve always wanted to make the recorded stuff sound different, because we can actually play our instruments—I guess, whatever. When we go to record, it’s more of a real song. Live, there are skits and stuff. Usually when we have a theme it works better. It’s just stupid keyboard songs and overly dramatic sad bass songs. Really moody, stupid kid stuff, I guess.

What are some of the theme shows you’ve done?
P: A friend of ours had a birthday party, and he’s into—I don’t know if we can say this on the radio—but he’s into medicinal aids of certain sorts. So we themed all our songs to that regard.
M: For me, the highlight was playing a friend’s baby shower, so it was all baby-themed material.
P: (sings) ‘Who’s gonna drop the baby bomb!’ The highlight for me from that set was when we incorporated Lamaze breathing into the songs.
M: Yeah, then he went freestyle with the breathing.

Freestyle Lamaze, you mean?
P: Oh yeah. [demonstrates] You can imagine.

So the band’s been around four years now, so obviously it predates the current discussion…
M: Yeah, we were before MySpace.

Oh, that discussion too, I suppose.
M: We’re a LiveJournal-era band.
P: We’re the self-described underappreciated grandfathers of this scene.

How did you hear about the bad bands and what links you to them, if anything?
P: It happened at the baby shower night, because Matt and Kat Collins were there. They saw us play and asked us to be on the CD.
M: Though he had heard a song of ours and put it on a mix tape for his friends. He put the Creeping Nobodies cover on there. An old band of mine played with Ninja High School years ago. Being in real bands too, you can’t help but know people from around.
P: Nearly all the bands in the bad bands scene have the duality of being in both a serious and a humourous band.

What did you think when you saw the manifesto?
(collective groans)
P: Ah, the manifesto! I’d say that’s the source of it all.
M: It’s a problem for me.

What about it?
M: I don’t have it memorized, so…

Well, take a moment to read it. (Pause while they read it again.) So what do you say?
M: It’s a little bit upsetting that we’re lumped into it. When they’re saying it doesn’t matter how much effort or skill you put into it. It’s a problem for us because we sound like a bad band, but we put so much thought into every stupid little detail. It takes forever sometimes. Not to mention, I feel like sometimes when we’re playing in real bands we’re being a little bit technical, and then in our stupid band we’re being just as technical sometimes…
P: Technical with stupidity!
M: Yeah, and in that context, we’re not even being taken seriously. Therefore, it’s like we’re not even playing our instruments. But sometimes, those bass lines are pretty good, you know? If I had a crazy singer and a drummer doing their thing, it would be totally appreciated, like, ‘sweet bass line!’ We work out every little detail, like here’s a bit of improv, this joke, this punchline. It’s so well-planned and thought out and strategic.
PL: It’s so amazing!

Do you think the moniker itself implicitly means amateurism? Do you disagree with the Bad Bands credo of embracing amateurism?
PL: That’s where my problem comes in. I have no problem with embrace. I’m all for embrace. But with bad bands, I’ve found that it’s a pretty selective embrace. If you go to a bad bands show, you get the sense that all of the bands and all of their friends are really into it, and they all support each other. But for the people who are outside of that limited circle, they’re lost from that embrace. All they have is music that is made to sound bad to them. Their reaction of feeling excluded is actually the butt of the joke for a lot of the bands. Dollarama, you get what you pay for, because they always do free shows. If you don’t like it, that’s the point. I prefer to make everybody the butt of the joke, and let that be the embracing factor.

So it’s exclusionary for you. It’s not inviting people in.
PL: It’s inviting people who are in on the joke, and the people who are out of the joke, are really out of it.

Dollarama told me that their first gig was at an open stage where they tried to get kicked off.
M: That sounds about right.

And they were shocked and confused when the plan backfired and people liked it.
P: Everybody wants to be liked.
M: Maybe that’s how it started off, but they were telling me about the recording, and Aaron said, ‘This may be stupid, but this is totally a record I would buy and listen to.’ It’s a bit more serious now.
P: Don’t get us wrong. They’re all our friends, they’re all great people, and they’re all nice to us. But I hate Dollarama with a passion inside of me.

I believe you have a song called: “Everyone is (Better Than) Dollarama”
M: The ‘Better Than’ is in brackets, so it’s also saying “Everyone Is Dollarama.” That goes with their philosophy that they’re doing something that everybody can do, therefore everyone is involved, everyone’s included.
P: Anyone can join their band.
M: But to tell you the truth, if you yell something like, ‘Get off the stage, you suck,’ someone who’s really into the bad bands revolution might kick your bum.
P: Part of the reason we were upset with Dollarama is because when they came out they were getting a lot more attention and we’d been around. So we decided to start an internet feud with them, because we’re all friends and it wouldn’t get personal.
M: Yeah, I played in a band with two of them.
P: At the Bad Bands CD release show, we set it up where we would charge the stage and accuse them of having caviar with them, which is well over $1.
M: We paid four bucks!
P: But as we were going onstage, members of other bands grabbed my hand and twisted it and all of the sudden the joke was off. ‘Seriously man, stay off the stage.’
M: They thought you were a regular person.
P: Right. And we’re better than everyone, right? RIGHT? (laughs)

The whole notion of that show, the fact that it was free, and the fact that people were angry that it was going on, and apparently people went up to take the mic…
M: That might have been us.
P: No, there was a lady, too.

It fascinates me that people take it personally. People really get their back up.
P: Bands like Dollarama do want to be hated, and people do hate them. They’re going for that strong reaction, they’re creating that strong emotion and that will polarize people. If you think it’s hilarious, you’re going to fight for them. If you don’t, you feel violated and sad.

Have you had extreme reactions at your shows?
M: We’ve had personal insults. Let me just segue here: We’re a bit offended to be a bad band, but we’re also offended that we’re a bad band and we’re not being mentioned for some things. Pyramid Culture were in the paper and being touted as the first bad band to venture into a mainstream show because they opened for Of Montreal. But we opened for Of Montreal a year before them, as a bad band, and we opened for The Books and for the Unicorns. It was because we opened for these bands before the genre was established that we didn’t get any recognition. So anyways, when we opened for Of Montreal, we had people yelling that I looked Napoleon Dynamite. I was acting stupid too, so I guess I deserved it?

Every band has hecklers, though.
P: We don’t go for that reaction, though. We go for a whimsical feel. We want everyone to be happy. We’re not ashamed of that.
M: I think we win people back. They hate us, and then they think we’re okay.
P: I think the only thing can be angry about is our low technology. We use Casios we got when we were kids, which can be grating. But that’s only if you have a bad sound guy, in which case it’s his fault. Or soundwoman. Sound person.

Does the greatest art always offend someone?
M: Hmm. Not bad.

And mediocre art pleases everybody?
M: Maybe that’s true, but here’s my problem: I don’t feel like everything is art, that’s the problem. Partying with your friends in a dorm is not art to me. Just because you’re putting that on a stage doesn’t make it art, it just means you’re doing it in front of people.

If you put a urinal in an art gallery, does that make it art?
M: Well… it depends on who put it there!
P: It’s all the context. For me, if the urinal was fully functional and was being used in the art gallery, I think that would be a broad statement.
M: Also if it had been thought about, and served a purpose. The manifesto says ‘we don’t believe in a quarantine theory, that people should do it now.’ But I believe that at all. You should hesitate before you do things. You gotta filter your ideas. Not every idea is good.
P: Okay, going back to your last question. I think good art needs to create a reaction of some sort. Not anger, necessarily. I’ll take pure euphoria anyday. It’s easy to get someone really angry. It’s the easy way out, the laziest thing you could ever do.
M: I totally agree.
P: There is a joy in craftsmanship. We’re old men, that’s our thing!

How old are you?
P: No, in spirit. We’re not actually old. We’re too old for these young kids hitting each other over the head with their keyboards or whatever they’re doing. It actually descended into a real live mosh pit at the [CD release] show. It was a regression. We’re all about a regression to childhood, but they stop at 13, 14, 15, the aggressive years. Whereas we go back to pre-puberty, before you get confused and angry at things.

Do you think some of these bands are a reaction to the kind of indie rock that People magazine would write about? A reaction to the fact that indie rock is now lucrative, and how that might create a new conformist model? Part of what appeals to me about this movement is that it doesn’t have to be about that. It’s okay to make music that doesn’t aspire to that, that won’t get love from Maclean’s magazine.
P: To me, it’s the opposite. The real bands we’ve been in, the serious bands, since we’re playing music that we thought was serious, it was never music that our parents would like. Whereas this, I really like the fact that my dad likes what we’re doing. We’re coming from the other direction. We want to write songs that people love, that make you tap your toe.

We’re picking on Dollarama here, but you can certainly sing along to Pyramid Culture songs.
M: I like Pyramid Culture
P. We both love Pyramid Culture, and there’s lots of bands on there we love.
M: Well, a couple.
P: Yeah, a couple.


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