Published Jan 01, 2006Dave MacKinnon and Brian Poirier of FemBots are lamenting lost history. Featuring the Toronto group's richest musical arrangements, the band's third disc, The City, conveys a sense of watching neighbourhoods dramatically change. "In Toronto, they just knock stuff down," says Poirier. "They don't care what's been there. They just knock it down and put something else up. Nobody knows what's been there and there are no remnants of it being there. It's really kind of sad."
The city's gentrification influenced many of the disc's lyrics, says MacKinnon, who formed FemBots with Poirier in 1997. With its accomplished pop songwriting and resonating melodies, The City offers a graceful elegy for rapidly changing urban landscapes.
The album includes a variety of musicians and bears little resemblance to the group's initial junk rock approach. While the new material draws on the band's recent touring and performing skills, FemBots' early recordings capitalised on their inexperience.
"It's far easier to make interesting, weird sounds when you don't know what you're doing," says MacKinnon. "It takes a fair amount of knowledge and skill to get a good-sounding drum recording, but if you can't, you can certainly get a very inspired bad drum recording. Don't go for good. Go for weird and unusual," he says, smiling.
Poirier and MacKinnon started playing music together 17 years ago after meeting in a high school piano class in a Toronto suburb. After two of their bands, Dig Circus and Hummer, ended, they chose to move away from a traditional rock format. Out of boredom, they decided to experiment with writing songs as they recorded them, says MacKinnon.
The two started collecting an assortment of toys, reel-to-reel machines and other inexpensive gear. "It was so much more fun to start with some piece of junk that maybe makes two sounds or a clicking noise that you can just record for five minutes and then write a song around it. There was a huge fountain of ideas from that," says Poirier.
They self-recorded and released their debut disc, Mucho Cuidado, which MacKinnon says was an attempt to make a disc that sounded more like a mix-tape than a full-length album. Their unique instrumentation provided sources of inspiration, but FemBots realised early on that their approach would have to change.
"Dave and I always knew that the found sound, reel-to-reel machine thing eventually was going to be finite," says Poirier. "Every third show something would break down. After we started playing more live shows, the gear just became so undependable that we had to replace it with real people, because there was no way we could keep playing the songs."
The two were also worried about being seen as a novelty band, since their use of toys often drew more attention than their actual songs. FemBots' second record, Small Town Murder Scene, started to move away from the junk rock approach, offering songs that showed pronounced country and pop influences. The disc also featured the talents of additional musicians, including violinist Julie Penner and Weakerthans' Jason Tait, who played drums, vibraphone and saw.
As they did with their debut, FemBots released the disc on their own. A performance at the North By Northeast festival caught the attention of Paper Bag Records, who signed the group and reissued Small Town Murder Scene.
For FemBots' third disc, MacKinnon and Poirier again brought in Tait and Penner, and included more musicians, including Weakerthans' bass player Greg Smith, Lederhosen Lucil's Krista Muir and Royal City's Nathan Lawr. MacKinnon and Poirier credit the talents of these players for enhancing the songs.
Before recording the new record, FemBots toured extensively. In the fall of 2004, Poirier and MacKinnon also performed as supporting players in the Weakerthans on a tour through Canada and the U.S. That group's disciplined approach to music influenced planning for The City. "This is the first album where we've written and re-written a song. Usually we were a very first take, first idea, best idea kind of band," says MacKinnon.
Despite being better prepared for recording, FemBots still managed to maintain a level of spontaneous creativity. "We didn't want to have stuff over-rehearsed and over-thought out. You want that moment when everybody's ideas come together and work for the first time," says MacKinnon.
He and Poirier chose to introduce tunes to the rest of the musicians only a day or two before recording. Most of the songs were then captured in a couple of takes. MacKinnon says, "Even though all the songs had been written before we got to the studio, we were very much trying to keep the approach that the inspiration is happening while you're recording."