Hidden Cameras Canada's New Pop Nation

Hidden Cameras 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."

Gibb takes a lot of this to heart, especially the rejection of formal musicality. "I was always interested in asking people who weren't musicians to play," he says. "I even hate using the word 'musician.' It's all in your attitude and how you assert yourself. I never thought of myself as a musician because I was so alienated by the whole tradition or idea of being a musician."

He cites the Cameras' Maggie MacDonald and Mike EB as prime examples. "They really shaped the energy and the performance side. They lead the dances. They have performance charisma. They're not so concerned with the music as they are with what we can do for the show. I always found that aspect equally as important."

"I didn't really know how to play any musical instrument whatsoever," confesses MacDonald. "I was always a lover of music but didn't have the confidence to play it. I sang in a couple of punk bands in high school, but that doesn't require confidence because it's so loud that no one can hear you. At the first show, I didn't know how to play anything yet, so I just operated the overhead projector."

Mike EB, who is an actor with a musical theatre background, adds, "This is folk music. The songs are such that anybody could learn to play them. It's a way of exploring the joy and naïveté of playing music together as something worth doing in and of itself."

Gibb doesn't just surround himself with amateurs, however. Keyboard wizard Bob Wiseman was on board for a while, playing simple, repetitive eighth note pulses instead of his usual improv excursions. And as the band developed, Gibb invited string players Owen Pallett and Mike Olsen to flesh out the sound, both of whom are professionals with extensive training.

But even Pallett and Olsen are tapping directly into Gibb's vision. Pallett, who has done string arrangements for a number of bands, says, "The thing that's unique about my working relationship with Joel is that there's no creative process. He's already got everything figured out, and I'm the nuts-and-bolts guy getting his ideas down on paper so that other string players can read it. When we were in UK last May, I took two weeks of my time to transcribe every Hidden Cameras song on paper, so that now Joel could tour around the world and hire string ensembles in every city and play concerts."

Since the Hidden Cameras have become a touring band, economic necessity has dictated that Gibb pare down the band and choose carefully which members get to go on the road. This has led to some seniority issues and nasty jealousies, and the suggestion that maybe everybody in the band is replaceable — which Gibb admits. "That's not to degrade their contributions, but it's true," he says. "I was never — ever — into the idea of having a small, set band. I play gigs solo as the Hidden Cameras. Or as a trio. The label wanted just me to go to Berlin and open for Adam Green in front of 1,000 people. I said, 'Oh please, can I bring two people?'"

When asked if he and his fellow underlings are replaceable, Owen Pallett says, "They are and they aren't. There was a time when people were wondering if this was a band or a solo project, and eventually it did work out that it is Joel's solo project. The moment of truth for me was when I saw Joel open for [fellow Camera] Gentleman Reg's CD release show. He played by himself, and he was so compelling, and had the audience in the palm of his hand, and his songs shone as being wonderful, terrific songs. I — and everyone else who was present, which was pretty much the entire band — had to acknowledge that the band is Joel. He's what is special about it.

"But because this band has so many amazing musical minds involved, I feel like it could benefit from being a bit more collaborative," Pallett continues carefully. "Joel has a keen ear and a really strong artistic vision and it's tough for him to let go of anything."

"I'm really protective of what I'm doing creatively," says Gibb, who only recently hired a manager, much to the relief of his band-mates. "I also like doing a lot of the work: promoting the shows, cutting out the flyers, controlling the artwork and how our photos turn out. I don't want it to look bad or boring. Having a band is really special because you can exercise so many mediums, not just music. Bands are not encouraged to do that. It's normal to give that to someone else to handle."

"The Hidden Cameras are not really a band in the traditional sense," says Maggie MacDonald. "It's like a happening, or an artistic moment in a community. I think the first moment when everything really came together was when we played at the Metro porn theatre on Bloor St. West, and we had local artists show films and some women did some dances about menstruation, and there were all sorts of masks and costumes. It was a real community event, a very different kind of concert."

For the first two years of its existence, Joel Gibb had no real desire to take the Hidden Cameras out of Toronto. And if he did, he intended to go much further than Hamilton or Guelph. "The idea of playing Southern Ontario is not appealing," says Gibb, frankly. "I'm most happy doing Toronto shows, and producing a show instead of just playing songs."

Now that the Cameras have been forced to become a more professional band, Gibb can't afford to be as choosy. "We played an art gallery in Victoria, and in England we played the Institute of Contemporary Art, which technically is not a bar. Other than that it's just been bars, and there's no time to do anything. A corporate booker is not going to care about that. No one is going to go the extra mile, because there's no incentive unless you really love the band."

That's not to say that the Hidden Cameras transform into an everyday band once they leave town. MacDonald makes it her personal mission to engage the audience, whether through dance, conversation or confrontation. "It's something that's really important to me," she explains. "I don't like art that is about cutting people off. Music is a social art, and it's something that should be shared. If you're going to be at a concert, there should be a shared experience with people through dance and movement. The name of the band itself is a reference to that, not letting a 'hidden camera' control your own movement. The dancing is about celebrating your body, not ignoring it. When we first started playing I felt like audiences were wanting to dance, but there wasn't a high comfort level in the indie rock community. People are kind of shy, with crossed arms and such."

Some of those arms remained crossed. The band's harshest critics decry the peppy pop evident on songs like "Doot Doot Plot," whose chorus sounds suspiciously like Bob and Doug MacKenzie's hoser call. At the band's first show in Montreal, MacDonald attempted to lead the crowd in dance moves a mere two songs into their set, only to be met with confused and cynical stares. "Wow," Gibb was heard remarking into the microphone, "and I thought Toronto was pretentious!"

In Toronto, Gibb has always been very precious about what kind of venues the band plays. He loathes the aesthetic oppression of the typical black-walled, zero-atmosphere rock club. His preferences are art galleries, porn theatres, and churches. Especially churches. When the Hidden Cameras perform in a church, there are obvious connections: the hymn-like music itself, the devotional imagery in the lyrics. There are also the obvious subversions: celebrating sodomy and other taboo topics in an institution built upon rigidly traditional moral principles.

Keyboardist Justin Stayshyn, a former altar boy, recalls the band's first church show. "In the middle of 'Man That I Am With My Man,' I remember hearing the lyrics and looking around at all these stained glass windows, while I was playing the oldest pipe organ in Ontario, and then it all really hit me at that point. It wasn't about, 'Ooh, we're in a church singing about guys pissing on each other and having sex.' It was about celebrating, not about 'screw you and your patriarchal homophobic traditions.' The words aren't profane for the sake of it. It was poetic and emotional and romantic, and in that context it was powerful."

There's no questioning the subtext in Gibb's work — in fact, the greater challenge is to see the greater metaphor beyond the obvious sexual text at the forefront of nearly all his songs. Though there are times when it works beautifully, and others when it's downright clunky and wouldn't pass Poetry 101. "Golden Streams" is a gorgeous song with rich imagery; "I Want Another Enema" is not.

Nonetheless, Gibb is unique among both gay and straight writers in his romantic use of frank sexual imagery. "If you're going to set out to write a love song and it's from a gay perspective, it's going to be sexual," Gibb asserts. "It just wouldn't be honest if you didn't. When you come out, you're asserting your sexuality to your parents or to whomever, but a straight person never has to do that. They never have to say to someone, 'I have sexual thoughts.' There's such a long tradition of euphemising homosexual narratives and language — so that's boring, that's already been done.

"I like the way the music functions on different levels," he continues. "That's important to me. I don't mind it being called a gay band. It doesn't bother me. But it's not gay novelty music where only gay people go to the show because there's one element of it that's good — which is that it's gay. The more we play, there are people who found the music through a similar music community, in which case it's just music."

Justin Stayshyn says, "In the beginning, Joel's whole thing was about the word 'gay' and he was very adamant that it was a gay band. The most shocking thing about being in this band is that when we tour we don't get a lot of gay people. Obviously there are gay indie rock kids, but the majority of our audience is not gay. The Unicorns' audience, on the other hand, is gay — even though the band is not."

Owen Pallett argues, "From a conceptual point, I think the Cameras' greatest feat is that it is absolutely not a gay band. Even Joel may disagree, but it's not. It's a Joel band, and Joel is gay. The music is about all the things Joel is into: gay sex, community, and participation. There's not a single song with the word 'gay' in it, except 'Gay Goth Scene' where 'gay' is an adverb for something else. There are, however, lots of references to piss and cum and cocks."

Surprisingly, the band has managed to avoid any extreme heterosexual reaction, other than foreign critics obsessed with Gibb's occasional references to piss sex. Here in Canada, that topic was mainstreamed in Maclean's magazine by Ashley MacIsaac years ago. It's hard to be truly subversive these days — even when you're booked to play an engineering prom at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

"We were playing on the bill with people who were doing Spirit of the West covers," remembers Pallett. "There was genuine prom drama going on: beautiful, made-up girls splashing drinks in their dunderheaded boyfriends' faces, the whole deal. We got up there dressed rather shabbily, and most of us were barefoot. We were playing in front of an ice sculpture. We played our music and it was out of tune and rushed and we just banged our way through it. At the end we played 'High Upon the Church Grounds' for ten minutes straight. The result was that some girls got up on stage and tried to make out with Reg. After that we all got wasted and went into the hot tub at the hotel and stayed up until four a.m. I actually woke up in a bed I didn't recognise, wearing underwear I didn't recognise, and with a boy I didn't recognise — who is now my boyfriend, but that was the night I met him. If only there was naked women and coke, we would have been Guns 'N Roses."

Stayshyn adds, "Mike EB and I went through the audience making out, which we thought would be funny but most of them didn't care at all. They were more like, 'Get a room!' If it was ten years ago at an engineering prom, they would have killed us. Now it's ho-hum."

Mississauga Goddam is not just a suburban pun on Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam," an angry anthem of the civil rights era. On the beautiful title track, Gibb sings: "I'll be wearing my disguise / until I rid my life / of Mississauga Goddam." When asked if he was out in high school, Gibb replies, "Oh, definitely not. There's no reason to. People called me a fag before I even knew I was one. That was the big issue for me. That was the hurdle to get over, was accepting what other people already knew."

Despite the song's scathing portrayal of the Toronto suburb where Gibb grew up, he figures Mississauga is probably a better place than most to grow up gay. He and his friend Paul P. — now a painter and occasional go-go dancer with the band — had a zine called The Bitch, and would take the bus into Toronto frequently to hang out in music circles.

"I never felt as alienated as someone might feel if they didn't have that outlet," says Gibb. "What do you have if you're living in the middle of nowhere? Brave New Waves and The Wedge and that's it. And in Mississauga I think the teachers are a bit cooler, per capita."

Overall, it doesn't sound that bad. Then why would he sing, "Mississauga people carry the weight of common evil"? "The common is evil," Gibb explains. "The people can be powerful, but they're not because they're banal and apolitical. The landscape of Mississauga is testament to that: 'What? It's ugly? Let's build it anyway. How do we make this building cost less to make?'"

Gibb has shot a film to accompany "Mississauga Goddam" as more of a personal art project than a video. "In my movie, there's a shot of that tiny graveyard near the airport, that's boxed in between highways 427 and 401," he says. "When we got there, the caretaker showed us a whole history book of that cemetery. There used to be a beautiful church there, but they tore it down to build the highway. Even these monuments of the short-lived past that the area has have been destroyed. Even some of the shopping malls had some sort of design to them — but they don't build shopping malls anymore, they build mega-stores, which are shoeboxes built with metal sidings. Then you drive your car everywhere to get to the different shops. It's the death of aesthetics, which is what that song is about, and Mississauga is a perfect example of that. In fact, I can't think of a better example." As a larger metaphor, Mississauga itself would explain Gibb's desire to rise above the common, resist the tyranny of the traditional, and to protect his own aesthetic against the grain of perceived wisdom.

The goddamned city of Mississauga celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Hazel McCallion, the 83-year old mayor of Mississauga, has reigned over the suburb since 1978. Maybe Gibb should send her a copy? "No — she should buy it! Hopefully we'll get racked in Square One."

Never Camera Shy: A Sketch of Side Projects
Joel Gibb is the only full-time member of the Hidden Cameras. This is how everyone else keeps busy.

Violinist Owen Pallet has no fewer than six other bands on the go, in addition to occasional gigs with Royal City, the Arcade Fire, and Gentleman Reg. He fronts Les Mouches, who have two releases of fractured high-drama art rock on Blocks, as well as the solo looped violin project Final Fantasy. There's also a noise rock band called Nifty, and something called Internet with ex-Camera Steve Kado, which he describes as "a strange performance art / dungeons and dragons / a cappella sort of band." In his not-so-spare time, Pallett also plays with Jim Guthrie and Picastro.

Gentleman Reg Vermue will release this third album on Three Gut Records this fall. "It's my best album," he says confidently. "I got away from the singer/songwriter vibe with the help of a bunch of rock boys I've been playing with." Those rock boys include the Constantines' Bry Webb and Whil Kidman, Royal City's Simon Osborne, Sloan's Jay Ferguson, the Sea Snakes' Jim McIntyre, and members of Kepler. Reg is also an occasional performer with Broken Social Scene.

Maggie MacDonald is working on a rock opera called The Rat King with past and present members of the Hidden Cameras and the Hank Collective. She plays in Dating Service, Kids on TV, and Republic of Safety with members of Sick Lipstick, her former band Barcelona Pavilion, and Jonny Dovercourt from Wavelength. Her day job is as a professional election planner for the NDP and municipal politics.

Michael (EB) Edward Berry is an actor who has appeared in Dawn of the Dead, and the Don McKellar films Last Night and Child Star. He's an ex-member of Kids on TV and is starting a punk/funk band with Cameras' dancer Paige Gratland.

Justin Stayshyn says, "Me and Mike EB are going to do this gay folk mosque music project, called Al-Qaeda Man Fur. Christians? Big deal! Gays have been subverting that shit since Jesus! This demographic is huge. We're just phoning each other with guitar riffs right now, but we haven't practiced yet."

Matias Rozenberg plays in the Phonemes and does occasional solo material. Rozenberg runs Consumption Records, a recycled-cassette-only label that operates on a barter system, specializing in home recordings and outsider music. Find out more at www.consumptionrecords.com.

Luis Jacob is an artist and sculptor who has done shows and/or lectures in New York, Vancouver, and San Francisco. He's taking the summer off to attend a retreat put on by the Anarchist Free University, before teaching a sculpture class at the University of Guelph this fall.

Mike Olsen plays cello in Jim Guthrie's band, and just launched his own project Kill Unit, featuring the Cameras' Lex Vaughn on drums. This year alone, he appears on albums by the Arcade Fire, K-Os, Esthero, Ford Pier, Ivana Santilli and the Sea Snakes. He just opened his own studio, Uncomfortable Silence.

In addition to several Camera-related bands, drummer Lex Vaughn is also a mainstage performer at Toronto's Second City comedy troupe and is an installation artist.

Steve Kado is the founder of the Blocks Recording Collective, and a member of Barcelona Pavilion, The Blanket, Lenin I Shumov, and at least a dozen others. He was a Hidden Camera for just over a year, before a falling out with Gibb.

Founding Hidden Camera Magali Meagher leads the Phonemes, who will be recording with Efrim from Godspeed in the coming months and will have a single out on Germany's Tomlab label. Their four-song EP came out on Blocks this year. Meagher also plays in Jonasson with fellow Phoneme Liz Forsberg.

Bob Wiseman just released his eighth solo album, It's True, on Blocks.

Paul P. is a painter who had an exhibition at Toronto's Power Plant this spring, and has also shown in New York, L.A., and Dallas.