Canada's New Pop Nation
December 14, 2001. The season's first snowfall is blanketing Toronto, bringing with it the melancholy that usually accompanies the holiday season. It's the time of year to ponder your ties to your family, your community, your church, your life as a whole. It's not really the time of year to have an epiphany in a rock club.
On stage at Lee's Palace is a dozen-strong raggedly dressed mild mannered army. In the centre is a Buddy Holly figure with a Morrissey quaff, looking determined but a bit overwhelmed at the joyous orchestral cacophony behind him. On either side of the stage, male go-go dancers clad in balaclavas wave their arms in the air, simulating rapture as they slowly strip to their skivvies. Lyrics projected on an overhead celebrate the good of life and gay sex interwoven with religious imagery. A couple of glockenspiel players attempt to lead the crowd in basic choreography like we're all at summer camp. Shockingly, everyone does it, liberated by the magical spectacle.
It all seems so beautifully innocent, incredibly sexy in the least glamourous way possible, slightly situationist, and absolutely perfect — too perfect. Nothing this pure could ever last.
Two-and-a-half years later, the Hidden Cameras are a different beast altogether. They have just returned from a three-date European trip, playing in London, Greece, and in front of 12,000 people at Barcelona's Primavera festival. They've released three full-length albums, including the new Mississauga Goddam, on the UK label Rough Trade.
Several talented people have floated in and out of the Hidden Cameras during that time, and Toronto gossip circles have spat out more than a few stories about various behind-the-scenes disasters. Yet through it all, the unique artistic vision has remained firm, for better and worse making only minor concessions to music business convention. The fact that the Hidden Cameras are still a band at all is something of a miracle.
The Hidden Cameras begin and end with Joel Gibb. Everything about the band's mandate was immediately evident on 2001's Ecce Homo, a collection of four-track recordings. The semiotic student's lyrics were hymns of devotion to larger forces: God, community, drugs, and explicit gay carnal pleasures. The music aspired to be a bedroom-bound Phil Spector producing the Velvet Underground: otherworldly reverb, a primitive pulse, and droning pop songs. This would be magnified immensely on 2003's fully developed The Smell of Our Own, where — over a vibraphone, pipe organ, tympani, strings and a full choir — Gibb sings, "The whole room was filled with the thunder and flood/ of just one chord, the thrill and clarity of sound."
It speaks to Gibb's natural talents that Ecce Homo was his first experiment with either songwriting or four-tracking, to say nothing of singing or playing guitar. Were there other four-track bands he was listening to? "Not really." Did he know other people who were using one? "No." Did he even have a manual? "No. Somebody sat down with me for 20 minutes and showed me how to work it, and then I was just on my own." Did he know what kind of production aesthetic he wanted? "Reverb. I searched for a cheap reverb unit, and once I had that, then I was on my way. It was really just a guitar pedal with an effect called 'oldies.'"
"People didn't even really know I played music. I was just getting confidence to assert myself in that way," he says. Gibb played clarinet in high school band, which is perhaps where he got his taste for orchestral flair such as string sections and tympani, but otherwise found it rather alienating. "It's the same with all academia," he says. "They try to mystify it so that there's some sort of power relationship: 'We know how to do it and you're going to learn from us. We're not going to accept your playfulness, because there's only one way to play it.'"
In elementary school, Gibb and a bunch of other eight-year-olds took an extracurricular class based on the Carl Orff method. He recalls, "For some reason we had to get into these dance slippers, a bunch of kids parading around playing xylophones, metallophones, glockenspiels. It was just playing around with rhythm and we danced a bit too. I excelled in that — that was the only musical thing I excelled in. That coloured my musical aesthetic more than any academic one."
The Orff method could well be a manifesto for the Hidden Cameras itself. According to an Orff website, "The Orff approach taps the very essence of our beings. Children learn through doing, exploring and improvising. They are active participants in an integrated, guided process, one which allows for differing musical abilities. In the Orff approach, no child is neglected. The Orff philosophy combines the elements of speech, rhythm, movement, dance, and song. And at the heart of all this is improvisation: the instinct children have to create their own melodies, to explore their imaginations."
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