When Toronto a capella quartet Moxy Früvous found itself opening for Bob Dylan at Massey Hall last week, it marked the kind of achievement usually noted in the pages of The Guinness Book of Records. In this case, the entry might read "Fastest Climb From the Street To the Concert Hall." for indeed, it was only about a year ago that the precocious quartet was busking on corners outside local landmarks and theatres. "Friday nights outside the Bloor Cinema, that was sort of our regular gig" explained group member Murray Foster. "Three complete sets every Friday night."
Those Friday night gigs plus those weekends outside Harbourfront, for example, may well go down in local showbiz legend, especially if the Fruvous star continues to rise as it has in the past year. For indeed, Moxy Früvous is currently just about the hottest thing on the local entertainment scene. Although the group has yet to sign a recording deal, sales of its independently produced six-song cassette have already topped the 10,000 mark, and although details have yet to be finalized, the group will soon be head-lining one and possibly two nights at one of Toronto's tonier concert facilities. As well, it is about to embark on a national tour, performing in clubs, universities and festivals across the country. All quite astonishing, considering that Moxy Früvous is hardly your average rock band.
As the four members (Foster, Jean Ghomeshi and David Matheson, all in their mid-twenties, and Michael Ford, 30) noted in an interview at the amiable jumbled "Moxy Co-Op" in Toronto's Riverdale neighbourhood (home to two members), Moxy Früvous is not, as some critics have suggested, merely a cross between The Barenaked Ladies and the Nylons. They met in high school (Thornlea Secondary) in the early eighties, and had kept in touch ever since. There had been stints in traditional rock bands (Ghomeshi and Foster were both part of the local funk/rock band Tall New Buildings) and also more wide-ranging dabblings in musical theatre, drama, film and video.
But it was only at the end of '89 that the four decided to work together. "We had a meeting at a local restaurant," recalls Ghomeshi, "and while we all agreed that it would be fun to play together, we really couldn't agree on a format. No one had any real desire to get stuck playing just one instrument, so we ultimately decided just to start busking." Incredibly, Moxy Früvous has no real experience with classic a cappella (the one group credited as an influence was neither The Nylons nor even The Persuasions, it was Take 6, a black-American gospel/a cappella group). But the one thing they were all committed to was doing something that hadn't been done before. "We were all tired of what we would hear on commercial radio," said Ghomeshi, "our agenda from the very beginning was to do something totally different."
And a Früvous performance certainly is different. It might include a rap version of a Dr. Seuss story (Green Eggs and Ham, for instance); some oddball cover material (such as Gordon Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain and the theme from Star Trek); and something timely and Cancon (a song called The Sabre Dance about cross-border shopping and another titled Hockey Night in Canada). Members of the group share writing credits on their songs, which tend to by lyrically complex, topical and clever. "A good chunk of our set," explained Ford, "maybe a third to a quarter of the songs, were originally commissioned by the CBC. They would direct us to create a song about Harbourfront or (former mayor of Toronto) Art Eggleton or the constitutional crisis. We'd keep them in the set because they were good songs."
Questioned about the fact that songs about Toronto mayors or Canadian politics might restrict the group's chance of acceptance outside the local arena, Ghomeshi noted that it wasn't something that particularly bothered the group. "The biggest groups in the world can be accepted singing about experiences in Athens, Georgia or Dublin, and nobody questions it. I think people do want to hear about particularly Canadian concerns. The few Americans who have seen us, for example, have reacted very positively to our set."
Added Ford, "If we have to airbrush out Canadian references to make it in The States, then I, for one, am in the wrong business." For now, though, one would be hard-pressed to suggest that anyone in Moxy Früvous is in the wrong business. The group is currently being courted by several major labels (they hope to record their debut album early next year) and interest in the band continues to grow exponentially. And what all four members seem to be committed to is the concept that Moxy Früvous is still very much an evolving project. As the members all have varying degrees of theatrical experience, there is a strong desire to take the group in a more theatrical direction. "Working on the streets was a great experience for us, noted Ford. "It was an atmosphere of total freedom, and it really helped us strengthen our voices. But now we're ready to take it to the next level, to make the show more of a continuous theatrical experience."
"We ultimately want to play in theatres large and small," he continued. "Ultimately the show our audience will see will not just be 24 songs or whatever, but something with more of a flow, maybe three- or four-song thematic packages as part of the overall show. "We want to take our audiences on a bit of a journey," interjected Foster, "But cuddle and coddle them as we do so."