By the time a band arrive at album three, having achieved any degree of success, some semblance of direction is established. Stylistically, if not aesthetically, a template is in place, making radical departures impossible, or at least unwise. Commercial and artistic expectations are such that veering off course could pose a problem to the band's career and credibility. Leave it to Malajube to strike the perfect balance.
Over the last two years, the band have proven themselves capable of overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers, appealing to audiences both mainstream and underground, and satisfying everyone from old-guard critics to taste-making bloggers to adult contemporary radio programmers. So instead of choosing a direction, either gunning for Quebec's pop charts or receding into the relatively unrestricted indie rock ether, Malajube made Labyrinthes.
The quartet (now minus keyboardist Renaud Bastien) created the record between Montreal and Saint Ursule, Quebec, where singer Julien Mineau has resided since 2007. It opens with "Ursuline," a song about a girl praying to the woman for which the small town is named - the story goes that she was canonized in the fourth century, following a Hun massacre that claimed her life, and those of the 11,000 virgins she was accompanying from England to Germany. Such grim, tawdry subject matter sets the tone for the record's lyrics, wracked with fatalist romanticism, while the song's grab-bag of nursery rhyme sweetness, lush layers of noise and loping prog-rockisms gives an equally accurate sonic forecast for an eclectic album full of unconventional structures. Labyrinthes is more concise than its predecessor, Trompe L'Oeil, but it also aims higher in every direction, all at once.
"It wasn't really a reaction for or against [the last album]," says drummer Francis Mineau (Julien's cousin). "It wasn't a case of 'We can't make another pop album,' or 'We have to make another pop album.'"
"It's still pretty pop," says Thomas. "It's not as if we felt like we had to start making experimental funk. But we'd played the old songs so much that we needed to evolve with new sounds, new ideas. So we jammed a lot, and experimented with a bunch of new things, like Gregorian chanting." (That's right - an imposing baritone harmony leads the way on the record's closer, "Cristobald.")
"The biggest difference [with Labyrinthes] was that we took our time," Francis says. "We barely had a break between [the first and second albums] because we were touring all the time, especially after Trompe L'Oeil, so there was more pressure then to write on a deadline. Whereas, for the first album, we had amassed all those songs over months and years."
Malajube's 2004 debut, Le Compte Complet, is obscure outside Quebec, and the band's origins are murky as well, partly due to a piece of misinformation on Wikipedia.
"The very first sentence says we're a band from Sorel-Tracy," complains Francis, who, along with Thomas, hails from St. Hyacinthe - Julien and bassist Mathieu Cournoyer are indeed from Sorel. "But the band started in Montreal, we're not a band 'des regions' that moved here."
All four members of Malajube relocated to the big city from their respective towns separately, in their teens, to attend either CEGEP (college) or university. Julien and Mathieu went right to work after college, while Francis and Thomas pursued higher education at English university Concordia and all four held down day jobs. (Francis was a bike courier, Thomas a campus computer lab technician.)
Each had ample experience in minor rock outfits, and with both Mineaus in Montreal, forming a band together, with two of their closest friends, was only natural. Once they had ten songs ready, they approached Martin Pelland, then-bassist for the Dears, to produce the album.
"He's from Sorel too," Francis explains, "and we had mutual friends who recommended that we show him what we were about. So we met him, gave him a demo and he agreed."
"The Dears have this image as sophisticated anglos," says Thomas, "but Martin is a real 'Queb.' It was easy to be friendly with him 'cause he's a lot like us."
Despite the amicable atmosphere, Le Compte Complet turned into a laborious undertaking. The bulbous live sound that Malajube were already becoming known for didn't translate well to tape during their limited studio time. As Francis put it, Pelland was "more of an ideas guy than a studio whiz."
"Everything ended up sounding too thin and weak," Thomas says. "So we mixed the record with Martin at my apartment in Hochelaga Maisonneuve," at the time a downmarket neighbourhood in Montreal's East End. "He came over every day and worked really hard, but what could have taken two weeks took two months because we were experimenting a lot - it was a casse-tête, and he liked that.
"Basically, we wound up running everything through cranked up amps, but it didn't work out too well," Thomas continues. "In the end, it's an album that sounds pretty bad but the songs are there and the dynamics are there, so it works to some extent."
His humility is understandable - clearly the record is a document of a band in its infancy. Sonically, it isn't nearly as accomplished as Trompe L'Oeil, recorded by respected musician and engineer Ryan Batistuzzi at Breakglass, a studio almost as renowned as Hotel 2 Tango for the number of fantastic records created within its walls, or Labyrinthes, recorded at Montreal's landmark Studio Victor (literally a landmark) with Pierre Girard, producer to Quebec's biggest stars.
And yet Le Compte Complet showcases most, if not all, of Malajube's trademarks: the heady palette of sharp hooks, hard guitars and drums, touch-of-class piano and harmonized vocals alternately roared, chanted and cooed; the playfulness of the arrangements, time signatures and song structures; and the lyrical juxtaposition of humour and heartache. The first track, after a very brief piano "Introduction," even makes some sense of the band's nonsense moniker - the first line of "La Maladie" is "J'ai peur du jujube sur mon coeur" ("I'm scared of the jujube on my heart"). And the album's hidden track is Julien's one and only attempt at English - accompanied by acoustic guitar, he sings a heavily accented verse about spotting a girl at a shopping mall and "the letters in your mind," then abruptly wraps the take, saying (in French) "okay, that's enough, I'm going to stop this."
Unhappy with the results, Malajube were prepared to bury their debut album by releasing it themselves, entirely under the radar, and focusing on the next record. Luckily, their friend Eli Bissonette, head of the fledgling Dare to Care Records, offered to press 1,000 copies of the record, and hook them up with the management company Bonsound - the band remains with both DTC and Bonsound to this day.
"We got shows really quickly, we got good reviews and we became a touring band," says Thomas.
"We decided to live poor pretty fast," Francis says. "We quit our jobs too early, according to our manager. But the kind of jobs we had, and even our schooling, were less important to us."
"That wasn't our end goal," says Thomas. "It was music."
"Both playful and intellectually serious, trompe artists toy with spectators' seeing to raise questions about the nature of art and perception."
So reads a definition of the trompe l'oeil effect in painting, one meant to mislead the eye into seeing three dimensions, or photographic realism. Though it was neither their intention, nor within the realm of their expectations, Malajube managed to pull an aural trick over on music lovers from Montreal to Milwaukee, Toronto to Tucson, Halifax to Hamburg. Throughout 2007 and into 2008, they toured North America, the UK, Europe and Japan, playing towns where most Québécois bands never venture. In nearly every city, fans greeted them, informed by blogs, press and word of mouth, ready to savour their lovely melodies and melancholy pianos and thick rock riffs, and vocals in a language they didn't understand. In territories such as the ROC (Rest of Canada), the U.S. and the UK, where French is usually regarded with either indifference, suspicion or disdain, building a fan base is a coup for a francophone band, and Malajube made it happen. "It's incomprehensible sometimes," says Thomas.
"There are always people at our shows," adds Francis. "For the most part, we've been really lucky." Of course, it doesn't hurt that Trompe-l'Oeil is a near perfect album. From the first tart notes of "Jus de canneberges" through the pretty pop punch of "Pâte Filo" through the music hall bounce of "Ton plat favori" to the jackhammer drive of "Fille à plumes" to the heartbreaking lilt to "Étienne d'Août" to the sock-hop honey of "La fin," Trompe-l'Oeil is musically sweet, seductive, hard and heavy, and lyrically (for listeners with some grasp of the language) clever, tender, humorous and tainted by malaise. But that's not to say that luck had nothing to do with it.
"The association to bands like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade definitely helped us," admits Thomas.
By the fall of 2006, when Trompe-l'Oeil was released, the Montreal music scene had been dissected in reams of newsprint and glossy stock, megahertz of blog bandwidth and hours of radio and TV airtime, a hype cycle that started in February 2005. Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade had broken the States like few other Canadian indie bands in recent memory, with the likes of the Dears, the Stills and Stars earning enough of a cult following for their mutual hometown to merit international attention.
What was lost in translation by all the journalists descending on the scene - even those from Spin and The New York Times, who actually spent time in the city - was that the majority of those English-language bands have francophone members, and that the majority of bands in Montreal sing in French. Mainstream pop is huge in Quebec, where an American Idol-style show called Star Académie has spawned an entire industry, and is viewed as religiously as the province's Catholics used to attend mass; all manner of metal is massive as well, as is the kind of rock music fit for beer ads and sports channel soundtracks; and there are significant hip-hop, reggae and jazz scenes, along with indie rock rooted in Québécois tradition, be it straight folk, French chanson or the kind of knee-slapping fiddle fare that bears a strong resemblance to Celtic music, save for the jouale. Many Québécois music vedettes wouldn't translate musically outside the province, let alone lyrically, and wouldn't have been considered hip enough to make the cut by those who profiled the Montreal scene. But apparently the francophone factor wasn't considered at all.
"In all the Montreal hype, the whole French scene seems to have gotten lost," says Francis. "It made me wonder if people outside the city would realize that it's 50/50 English/French here. That seemed unjust to me."
After the hype subsided, however, there was enough residual respect for the Montreal scene (and those key comparisons to the big two bands) to catch the ears and eyes of editors, journalists and bloggers all over the world.
And despite the validity of their criticism, Malajube have never been known to champion Québécois rock. In an earlier interview with me, they strained for several minutes to come up with even one francophone band that they liked, finally settling on Galaxie 500. There's scarcely a trace of the province's musical past in Malajube's music, a fact that has undoubtedly facilitated their crossing over to an international audience, without hurting their appeal among fellow francophones who continue to constitute the bulk of their fan base. Unlike many of their peers, Malajube don't speak or sing about politics, or play politically-oriented concerts, though they did invite sovereignist hip-hop outfit Loco Locass to make a guest appearance on Trompe L'Oeil - their rap was free of rhetoric, however, and reportedly heavily edited.
The band's straddling of English and French is reflected, perhaps, in their favourite interview spot, Casa del Popolo. It's one of the city's anglo indie rock mainstays, located on the street that physically divides east and west, and historically separates francophones and anglophones, St. Laurent Boulevard, long known as "the Main" among anglophones, who dominate the street. The francophones' equivalent, St. Denis, runs parallel - it's only half a dozen blocks east, but like the segregation that many French and English (and bilingual) speakers willingly impose on themselves, the distance can feel colossal. Francis cites their latest producer and one of the bands to which Malajube is most often compared as examples of Hugh McLennan's famous "two solitudes" phenomenon: "If you mentioned Wolf Parade to Pierre Girard, he'd have no idea what you were talking about, but the kind of bands that play here [at Casa del Popolo] have never heard of Pierre Girard. It's crazy. In reality, they're so close."
During our interview, Francis and Thomas respond in French to questions posed in English - a typical Montreal scenario. Imperfect bilingualism is par for the course for Montrealers in particular, and the Québécois in general, especially for francophone lovers of anglophone music, and there is no shortage of those - British and American classic rock continues to co-rule the province's airwaves, right alongside Queb-con. As teenagers, the members of Malajube gravitated towards American grunge and indie rock, and away from homegrown fare. This clearly made a mark on their music, but lyrically, they've (nearly) never felt the need or the desire to leave the linguistic comfort zone of their mother tongue.
But while Malajube fans around the world have happily resigned themselves to the mystery of foreign lyrics, they've paid their dues by playing to unreceptive audiences in inhospitable places. One country remains particularly resistant to the band's charms.
"The most problematic place [for us] is the place where people speak the same language," says Francis.
"One problem with France," Thomas explains, "is that they just don't understand why we keep the vocals low [in the mix]. [The French] always say the vocals aren't loud or clear enough. It's just not our focus. It's not poetry and words that we want to emphasize."
Another problem with France is one that's familiar to all Québécois who've travelled to the old country: condescension. French people commonly laugh at the accents of their new-world counterparts, pretending not to understand words if they're not pronounced just so. Add to that the fetish (in some quarters) for the English language, and the resulting attitude inspires feelings of frustration, if not fury, in French Canadians.
"You speak to people there [in French] and they answer you in English! It happens all the time," says an exasperated Francis. "And the [rock] bands in France idolize British and American bands so much that they can't comprehend why, when we're from North America, we're not singing in English."
Malajube has had better luck across the Channel, particularly in London. But the band's tour of smaller towns in England made for a grim start to the European leg of their 2007 tour.
"It was pretty rough for a small band with no exposure at all," recalls Thomas. "Wolverhampton was one of the worst. It was really weird, weird neighbourhood. I was outside smoking a cigarette with Julien and some little 17-year-old guy came up to us, crying, begging us for a few pounds 'cause somebody was going to beat him up. There were crackheads everywhere. And we played in front of about four people, including the sound man and the light guy."
"There was no light guy," adds Francis. "There was, like, a lamp."
Even in support of Wolf Parade spin-off band Handsome Furs, some of the European gigs drew next to no one. But with government funding for the arts surpassing even that of Quebec (Malajube continues to be supported by both federal and provincial grants), they experienced a strange juxtaposition of rock'n'roll excess and epic failure.
"It's amazing when you show up in a place like Oslo and there's massive catering, food piled up on 14 tables, and it probably cost $2,000 to get us there, and then you play for four people.
"It's moments like that," he says (while expressing heartfelt gratitude for the onslaught of grub), "when we're so far from home, you wonder, 'Why am I doing this?'"
If Malajube wanted to, they could stick with their base, and have a comfortable career touring Quebec, occasionally venturing across the border to the safety of New York City, or overseas to the always overflowing audiences at European festivals. But, like the challenge of making an album that's as experimental as it is mainstream, their attempt to bypass language barriers, the pleasant surprise of strong turn-outs in cities such as Detroit, and the culinary perks of even the deadest of European gigs, will keep them on the road for the foreseeable future. And after toiling away in rehearsal spaces and studios for a year, the yellow line is a sweet sight indeed.
"It's not for everyone," says Thomas, "but for us, touring and playing loads of shows is actually getting easier. Especially since, in almost every city, there's always some Quebs in the crowd. Yeah, we're everywhere."