Thursday, February 27, 2020

Strange Animal, I've got to follow

Gowan at the Danforth Music Hall, Feb. 26, 2020.
Last night I went to see Gowan, 35 years after one of his shows at the Ontario Place Forum was my first live rock’n’roll experience. Both shows were amazing. And I owe Gowan an apology.

Twenty years ago I co-wrote a book about Canadian music of my youth, the years 1985-95. I’m very proud of it. It turned out to be influential on younger writers and musicians; people still mention it to me all the time. But the opening paragraph contains a sentence I’ve regretted the rest of my life:  

“Some would argue that the youth of the early 80s had no opinion of their country’s culture, but they most certainly did. They thought it sucked.”

I wrote that, as a 29-year-old, as a way of setting up the book’s thesis: that a new generation of punk-influenced Canadian music was poised to assert itself, standing apart from the heroes of the baby boom, classic rock, hair metal and vapid pop. A statement like that is necessary to establish a generational divide. But it’s also wildly incorrect.

In 1985, when I was in Grade 9, Rush were still massively popular. Bryan Adams and Corey Hart were bona fide, million-selling superstars. Platinum Blonde’s first album was thrilling. Some of those things were guilty pleasures for me for a while, but all that music has held up remarkably well—although you’ll forgive me if, after years of ubiquity, I never need to hear Adams’s music again.

Then there was Gowan.

In 1985, he released his second album, Strange Animal. Rob Quartly’s video for “A Criminal Mind” was incredibly vivid and captivating (its use of animation similar to, but not as extensive, as A-ha’s “Take On Me,” released the same year). The song was an odd single, to say the least: a first-person character narrative, a seven-minute piano epic in which the Linn drums don’t appear until almost the two-minute mark; when the real drums kick in at 3:23, it’s almost as powerful as Phil Collins’s entry on “In the Air Tonight.” But the lyric, the voice, the arrangement, and that melody all made it a smash hit. The whole album was recorded with Peter Gabriel’s band (bassist Tony Levin, drummer Jerry Marotta, guitarist David Rhodes); while undeniably rooted in a specific era, the album easily holds up due to the songs, the players and the performances.

Or… does it? I bring a lot of bias to this situation.

Strange Animal is very personal to me. Yeah, it’s a great record and that Ontario Place show remains one of the most exhilarating musical memories of my life. But Gowan, a Scottish-Canadian Catholic boy from Scarborough, means more than that to me, a Canadian with a Scot name who grew up Catholic in Scarborough—a block away from the Gowan family.

I didn’t know the Gowan family, but my classmate Mike Farr did; he lived next door. In Grade 7, Mike brought Gowan’s first album into class for show and tell. We were all star struck by proxy. I’d heard “Keep Up the Fight” on 1050 CHUM; I had just started clipping out the CHUM charts from the Toronto Star and pasting them on my bedroom wall, for whatever reason. We learned that Gowan had gone to the same elementary school as us, and probably had the ancient Mrs. Pereira for Grade 2, because she’d been there since the dawn of time. (Gowan is 15 years older than me.)

This made a huge imprint on this young music fan, along with the time that Bram—minus Sharon and Lois—played for my Grade 1 class before the release of the stone-cold classic One Elephant, Deux Elephants. Rock stars lived in our midst. The music that meant the most to us, music that could influence the rest of the country and the continent, could be made by that guy who came to play at our school or even the guy who went to our school.

1985: Strange Animal came out, and everyone went apeshit. The press loved the Peter Gabriel angle. The singles were all over radio. The video was played practically every day after school. Girls in my class started styling their hair like Gowan (shout out to Rochelle Smith, who was best at it). The guy was a star. And here’s the funny thing: he still went to our local church every Sunday with his family, where he’d be mobbed by teen girls. But that was our little Scarborough secret; can you imagine what that scene would be like in the days of Instagram?

June 1985: Gowan plays the Ontario Place Forum, a uniquely rotating stage by Toronto’s waterfront where admission was either free or minimal (it fluctuated during that decade), where anyone who showed up early enough could get a front-row seat. This venue would come to define my teenage years, as one of the rare all-ages venues a kid could see artists who usually played licensed venues. My friends and I showed up sometime around three in the afternoon, hours before show time. I have no idea what a bunch of 13- and 14-year-old squares did to fill that time. Doesn’t matter. When Gowan took the stage, he was nothing short of electrifying. High kicks. Leaping off his grand piano. Cool/ridiculous dance moves. Killer band, including brother Terry on bass (who might have been playing a Chapman stick, à la Tony Levin; I can’t recall exactly). Thousands upon thousands of screaming girls. It took us 90 minutes to get back to Scarborough by public transit, but we were buzzing all the way.

Flash forward 35 years. Several friends, both old and new, have somehow gone to see Gowan in recent years and raved about it. The man has been embracing his 80s legacy, rather than running from it. You can still call him Larry, but he’s going to play a lot of songs he released simply as Gowan. He’s been paying his bills for the last 20 years by performing with Styx ever since that band’s lead singer, Dennis DeYoung, bowed out for Broadway. I’ve never given two shits about Styx, but more power to him, I thought. Now I figured it was time for me to revisit the man who gave me my first rock’n’roll thrills. My friends all saw him play in secondary markets around the GTA; to my knowledge, he hadn’t had a big Toronto show. When this one was announced for the Danforth Music Hall, promoted by Massey Hall, tickets disappeared quickly. I didn’t think any more about it.

Yesterday afternoon I had an appointment on the Danforth and saw the marquee. Felt a slight pang. Later that day a friend posted about seeing the show in Belleville the night before, and she had nothing but rave reports. I checked StubHub; say what you will about the evils of authorized scalping, but three hours before showtime I was able to get a seat at the back of the hall for considerably less than cost. I was now going to see Gowan.


The pre-show music was all British new wave of the 80s: Level 42, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Big Country, Icicle Works. When was the last time you heard Icicle Works at full volume? In a public place, anyway. Other than some progeny, every person in the audience looked to be between 45 and 55. There was a very clear target demographic in play here.

When the lights came up on the stage, Gowan was perched on top of his keyboard, posed like Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. I was somewhat disappointed when he didn’t leap off it with a high kick, but a) that would have been perilous, as the keyboard was on a rotating stand that allowed him to spin it at random points in the show; and b) then he wouldn’t have been able to begin the show with the cascading chords that of Strange Animal’s opening track, “Cosmetics.” That was following by “Walking on Air,” from the same record. Then “Awake the Giant,” which my teenage self figured out was about boners.

The man was in great form: vocally, physically. None of his charisma had faded over the years. That helped when the set then dipped into his 90s material, which I ignored completely at the time; hearing it now, it’s better than I thought it would be, but I don’t think I missed that much. “Keep Up the Fight” was a nice surprise. A cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” tacked on to the regrettable “Moonchild’s Psychedelic Holiday,” was not a nice surprise. Still, I’ll grant points for covering one of the least likely Beatles songs to hear live in 2020. The set closed with “Criminal Mind.” The ladies next to me were tempted to leave at intermission. “I guess that’s it!” one said. Another lady in front of them chimed in, “But ‘Strange Animal!’ ‘Moonlight Desires!’” Later, this same lady could be heard yelling to the stage: “I love you Gowan! Play more 80s! I love the 80s!”

That’s better than the schmuck who kept requesting “at least one Styx song!” “Here’s the deal,” Gowan finally responded. “When I play with Styx, I play Styx songs. When I play a Gowan show, I play with myself. No, wait…” He later threw the heckler a curveball by playing an instrumental piano piece he wrote for the most recent Styx record, which made every other rock’n’roll pianist I’ve ever heard sound like a classically ignorant chump. The guy has serious chops. [EDIT: I've since discovered he has a live solo piano record from 2008, and it's quite good; you can find it on streaming services.]

That’s the thing about watching veterans: if they’re still at it, they’re likely really fucking good at what they do. Music evolves and standards change, but there’s a lot to be said for watching really great performers with decades of experience play music that you struggle to pull off in your hobby cover band. I don’t go to see a lot of oldies acts, but when I do I’m rarely disappointed: it doesn’t matter if it’s Heart, Dolly Parton, Men Without Hats, Shadowy Men, you name it. Sure, no one is there to hear the new material, if there even is any. So what? I’ve certainly gone to see shows by legacy acts because I’m hoping they play something off an unusually good new album (Paul Simon, Tragically Hip), and I’m usually one of only 10 people in the audience with the same wish—and I leave somewhat disappointed. Last night I was there to hear Strange Animal. And Gowan delivered. He played seven of the album’s nine tracks.

Throughout, the veteran performer was warm, self-effacing and funny: “Here’s a song from 19—well, that says it all, doesn’t it, if the year starts with a 19.” Lots of Toronto and Scarborough jokes. Apparently guitarist Bob McAlpine, who played that Ontario Place gig in 1985, also grew up in my neighbourhood. Gowan poached his current drummer from Styx, and his keyboardist from his son’s metal band. MOR hit “All the Lovers in the World” sounded much better live than it does in my doctor’s office; the melody hasn’t left my head in the last 24 hours. The 90s songs in the second set fared better generally. Maybe it was because brother Terry changed into red pants and Gowan sported a kilt, or maybe I was just acclimatized by that point. After an excellent drum solo by Sucherman—that was nonetheless about 10 minutes too long—the second set closed with most of side two of Strange Animal, including the title track. He sent us on our way with “Moonlight Desires.” They haunt me, they haunt me. They weave a spell that puts me under.

The encore opened with Gowan alone at the piano, talking about how “one of the best things about growing up in this city is its history of great music,” before launching into a solo piano version of Rush’s “Limelight” and dedicating it to Neil Peart. Remember in 2016 how Bruce Springsteen paid live tributes to David Bowie and Prince? That’s how this felt to me, in 2020, to the Scarborough boy who’s now pushing 50. Yes, I got teary.


So: I’m sorry, Gowan. Sorry I subconsciously tried to write you out of Canadian musical history. There are a lot of 80s records I’m happy to leave buried under dust. Strange Animal has never been one of them, and nor will it be. I won’t wait another 35 years to see another Gowan show (and besides, you’d be 98). That first one changed my life, for which I’m eternally grateful.

Gowan plays in Richmond Hill on Feb. 29. He has a few Quebec dates, including Gatineau, in March, where he’ll probably play his Harmonium cover.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Owen Pallet on Les Mouches reunion

ˆThis week, Wavelength Music celebrates its anniversary with a weekend festival. They do this every year. This year, however, being the 20th anniversary—along with current pillars (Haviah Mighty, Kaia Kater), some Montreal imports (Yves Jarvis, Little Scream, Lou Phelps) and plenty of largely unknown local talent that has always been their focus—they’ve pulled in some ringers from their earliest years. 

Electro duo LAL are performing their 2000 album Corners. Sandro Perri, a consistent presence in Wavelength circles from the beginning, put out two of his most acclaimed records in the last two years. Hidden Cameras, a band who arguably helped launched the so-called Torontopia scene of the early 2000s, makes an extremely rare local appearance; bandleader Joel Gibb decamped to Berlin years ago.

The most interesting Wavelength act of the weekend, however, might be Les Mouches. This band only lasted a year, 2003-04, before Owen Pallett became better known to the world as Final Fantasy and as a contributor to Arcade Fire’s Funeral. Drummer Rob Gordon also played with From Fiction, who recorded an album with Steve Albini and were signed to Last Gang. Guitarist Matt Smith went on to perform as Prince Nifty. Together, they were a combustible unit whose songs shifted between delicate beauty and jarring explosions, with lyrics filled with longing, sexual confusion and crude jokes. 

There was nothing remotely commercial about Les Mouches, even though they covered a Carpenters song on 2003’s Blood Orgy EP. It’s often uncomfortable listening. But it’s undeniably unique. And it left enough of an impression that the sole full-length, 2004’s You’re Worth More to Me Than 1,000 Christians, was reissued on vinyl in 2015. 

I talked to Owen Pallett this week about many things, for another project; this excerpt is just about Les Mouches, then and now.

What was the genesis of Les Mouches?

After I graduated [from University of Toronto's music program], I wanted to record some songs I had written. I was involved with Hidden Cameras, I was dating Gentleman Reg, and I was friends with a lot of Three Gut people, so I decided to record with Andy Magoffin in London [who made albums for all those people]. I wrote brass arrangements and recorded what I called The Polite Album. Nobody heard it. I think I burned five copies, but [Blocks Recording Club’s] Steve Kado somehow had one. He came into the Free Times Café where I was working, and said, ‘Dude, your album is awesome!’ He was so excited. I was playing some solo shows but it wasn’t doing anything for me. I wanted to start a band. I had seen Matt Smith play a set at the Free Times, doing improv, with a guy name Dane who has since passed away, and Owen Marchildon, who would later be in From Fiction with Rob Gordon. I had known Rob in second year. I don’t remember the early rehearsals that well. [Matt and Rob and I] had long discussions about how we wanted the music to be focused on epiphanies. There would be these moments where it would all make sense. We were all really into Xiu Xiu, especially me, and it was changing the way I wrote lyrics.

You had said you wanted Les Mouches to sound like U.S. Maple meets the Carpenters.

Exactly. That was basically it. We were trying to have that free, Storm and Stress aesthetic, but have it married to—not necessarily conventional songwriting, but really pretty songs. Our first show as a trio was April 21, 2003. It was in Guelph. Our second show was in Toronto with Lungbutter. We started playing a bunch. I didn’t have a concept of what our fan base was, but by the time 1,000 Christians came out we filled the Music Gallery until it was beyond packed. We asked everyone to wear white clothing—and they all did! Matt Smith said, ‘Thank you all for wearing white. Congratulations! You’re all racist!’ (laughs)

And Bell Orchestre opened?

Yes, and Wooly Leaves.

How did you know Bell Orchestre? Had you even met Arcade Fire by that point?

I had met Arcade Fire through Jim Guthrie. [Jim’s band opened for them at the El Mocambo in January 2003.] I remember Regine saying, ‘Bell Orchestre is my favourite band on the planet.’ I didn’t know Sarah [Neufeld] very well at all. Richie [Parry] I kind of knew. But I mostly was just friends with Win and Regine, and not close friends at that point.

Richie wasn’t even really part of the band yet. He wasn’t until spring 03.

It was Bell Orchestre’s first show in Toronto. Then we put out Blood Orgy around Xmas 2003. Those songs were done in the same session as the songs for 1,000 Christians; there was one other session where I did the songs with brass on them. There’s one Matt Smith song we left out because it just didn’t fit on either release, which is too bad because it’s an amazing song. Then we wanted to tour, but I didn’t know anything about touring or how it worked.

Did you tour much with the Cameras, or just around southern Ontario?

I toured Europe with the Cameras in 2003, after Smell of Our Own came out. I didn’t know how DIY touring worked. With the Cameras, we had a van, a tour manager, hotels, it was all set up. But I wanted to book shows for Les Mouches. I was also playing with Liz Hysen in Picastro and she was always talking about how she booked her own tours. Reg was always talking about how he booked his own tours. So we booked five dates. But we never played anywhere other than Guelph, Toronto and Montreal. We opened a few Montreal shows for Arcade Fire in the spring of 04, in the lead-up to Funeral’s release, at the Corona Theatre. But our last show was [in September 04] at a Pop Montreal showcase for Blocks, at Casa del Popolo. That was with Hank, maybe Barcelona Pavilion. The band had a second recording session for a pile of new songs we’d written. Not enough for an album, but I thought we could make things work with four songs that were in our set. We thought we could do more writing in the studio, but it went really bad.

Do you think the creative partnership had just run its course?

No, not at all. We just went into the studio with four or five songs, and afterwards we were just feeling an ennui. We did it at Tantramar Farm [outside Guelph], where they used to have Track and Field. While I was up there, I was wearing this fanny pack that had my birth certificate and my passport and everything. This was a week before we were supposed to go on tour. I lost the fanny pack, and I had no ID and no way of getting anywhere, so we scuttled the tour. I was pretty depressed about it. This was also the summer I had no money. I was also playing more Final Fantasy shows, which had started that spring. In August, or late July, that I played CineCycle and Stuart McLean [of the Vinyl Café] was there. He said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I said, ‘I actually need a job. If you know of any, let me know.’ He hired me on the spot as a music programmer. I did a really fucking good job.

No job interview, nothing?

I think he just said, ‘What would you program on this show?’ I sent him some stuff, and he said I was hired. I was now working at the CBC and loving it, making money for the first time in my life. Not a ton of money, but certainly more than I’d ever made. From Fiction were doing their thing. Rob was mad at me for a reason I still don’t know. It was hard to book rehearsals and play shows. After that Pop Montreal show, Rob was so focused on From Fiction [who had recorded with Steve Albini and signed to Last Gang]. By the end of the year, Arcade Fire said they were going to do their heroic, life-changing US tour, and asked if Les Mouches were interested in opening. I said, ‘You know what? I want to bring my solo project instead—which you guys haven’t heard, but trust me.’ I showed up at the Great American Music Hall and hadn’t told them that I’d broken my ankle at an AIDS Wolf show. I show up with a cane and a walking cast, got up and played my set with my looping pedal on a stool, and I brought the house down. It was great. After that, Les Mouches really drifted apart. I didn’t really understand the resonance that band had. It was a surprise to me that [Deep Dark United's] Alex Lukashevsky liked it, [Rockets Red Glare's] Evan Clarke liked it, these people I thought were way cooler than I was, and fantastic musicians. I don’t think I got it at the time.

One of the best things about that band was the tension in the music.

Oddly enough, we never felt at odds with each other on a musical level. Rob and Matt always played exactly what was necessary. Robbie tried to explain it to me once. He told me his parents preferred the music he made with From Fiction, only because they could understand it.

Because it’s more linear?

It’s aggressive and complicated. But when they were confronted with Les Mouches music, they were like, ‘We don’t get this.’ After Blood Orgy came out, his dad used to make fun of him by quoting Les Mouches lyrics at the dinner table. He’s say, ‘Well, Robbie, you know, I never had a woman inside my dick.’

That’s an interesting parental dynamic.

I think they were like, ‘You’re in a gay band, Robbie!’ But it’s fine. I love his parents. My parents definitely didn’t get Les Mouches.

It’s not music for parents!

My stepfather had a very negative reaction to it. I think my mom told me that after hearing it he had to lie down or something. He went to my mom and said, ‘I think Owen may be seriously disturbed.’ My mom was like, ‘Oh, really!’ Then she listened to the record and said, ‘Nick, he’s joking! These are fucking jokes!’ Which was true. I was making fun of this shit.

What were you making fun of?

Depends, on song to song. ‘Daddy Needs a Daddy’ is making fun of tropes of gay male desire, while at the same time being very emotional. ‘I want to hold him in my arms and cradle him until his hair turns grey.’ That was pretty much how I felt about who I was falling in love with. ‘Carload of Whatever’ was satirizing bugchasers, which I didn’t know was a thing until I met one.

One of my favourite musical moments is the string arrangement on “Divorce the Ones You Love.”

Oh, really? I think it’s annoying. I don’t have a wide breadth of knowledge of classical music, compared to most classical music heads, but certain works really resonate with me. One of those is Charles Ives’s ‘The Unanswered Question.’ The backdrop of plaintive string chords, with these increasingly aberrant woodwind gestures, really had a profound effect on me. The beginning of ‘Divorce the Ones You Love’ is meant to recall that a bit, this very bucolic guitar thing with increasingly violent string gestures that try to interrupt this stillness.

How do you feel about playing this music now?

There are certain songs I’m not going to play, because I don’t think there’s much to commend them. A song like ‘Luci on Her Birthday’ I’m kind of amazed exists. That may be the fifth song I ever wrote. It’s on The Polite Album. It’s exquisitely sad now, when I listen to it. Other songs, I’m really into and really proud of. ‘Love Song to an Empty Room’ in particular I think is great. ‘Requiem to the Victims of Frankfurt’ I’m going to be playing at the Wavelength show—we haven’t played it since 2004—I’m really excited about. It’s so fun to sing this shit, like ‘My dream has a title: cunt marries asshole.’ It’s like—I don’t know. Maybe they’re just bad jokes, like Tim Kinsella in Joan of Arc. But I have a lot of affection for it.

For me, that music is very much situated in that time, which held great possibility. It was either you or Kado who once told me that it was a time of ideas: some projects were better ideas than they were bands, but they were great ideas so it worked. And of course there were also great ideas that were also great bands. There was an audacity to try things, musically or lyrically.

The environment was perfect. Rent in Toronto was so reasonable—

Okay, let's talk about that magical time in real terms. What were you paying?

At 19 Major, I was paying $350 for one room of five. I then moved into a larger room there and paid $400. Then $400 on Queen Street ... Later, [then-boyfriend] Patrick and I moved into a place at Dupont and Ossington, the building Will Munro lived in. Team Macho was based there. We were paying somewhere around $1,200. So rent was reasonable. We had also had the best form of social media back then, which was message boards. People were getting involved in local discourse. Twitter is too broad and international. Message boards were magical. I still post on message boards. It’s how my brain wants to interact with the outside world. I was there very early on in the Toronto message board thing: Anti Antenna.

That was before StillePost.

Anti Antenna was before Secret Arcade, which was before 20hz, which then became StillePost.

Anti Antenna was also a label, wasn’t it?

Yes. Post-rock stuff. The only people I knew posting there were [Feuermusik's] Jeremy Strachan and Shaw-Han Liem [I Am Robot and Proud]. And Jonny [Dovercourt], but I didn’t really know him then. StillePost became a hotbed of discussion. Everybody was on it. Just like Facebook would be today, but this was a much more interesting place because everything was compartmentalized.  It was not designed to be addictive, but meant to accessorize real-life social experiences. Facebook is designed to addict the consumer, to keep you at your computer. Message boards were not. On top of that, there was this new influx of attention. And people were still making money. If you put out a shitty CD and folded it together yourself, you could easily make $2,000 by selling 200 of them. It was a reliable source of instant gratification and income. Blocks made sense at the time. In 2004, we were having discussions about if we should put our stuff up on iTunes, and I was a vociferous ‘no’! I believed the packaging was part of it. I couldn’t foresee that 10 years down the line there would be no CD drives on laptops. I mean, I just recently took my CDs to a store, got money for the ones they wanted, and threw the rest out. Thousands of dollars worth! I kept the ones I play on, and my friends’ CDs, but I threw out my deluxe edition of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. It had a really nice booklet! But I don’t have anywhere to store it anymore.

Les Mouches’ two CD releases on Blocks Recording Club are out of print, although 1,000 Christians received a 500-copy limited-edition vinyl reissue on Orchid Tapes in 2015. Bandcamp link here.

Full lineup and details for Wavelength's 20th anniversary weekend festival, Feb 13-16, can be found here