Jean Ghomeshi comes tearing down the street, just escaping the torrential summer rain. Moments later, David Matheson hops out of a cab, protected by a cycling helmet he's using as a form-fitting umbrella. The two Moxy Früvous members take refuge in a Greek restaurant, debating the latest band matter at hand - which tape width to use for their first major-label video, "Stuck in the 90s," from their debut, Bargainville.
The Früvous fellows, who all sing and play various instruments, are used to overseeing every aspect of their career. "We're kind of a weird group, in that only we know what we're really about," explains Matheson. Since taking to the streets as vaudevillian pop buskers in 1990, the harmony-hams, who also include Murray Foster and Mike Ford, have risen from proverbial Skydrome turf vacuumers to Kings of Canada, to paraphrase from their unlikely hit "King of Spain."
The band's sidewalk sets in Toronto combined satire, politics, theatre, comedy, boundless energy and warm smiles, and by the fall of 1992 a bigwig at CBC Radio had spotted their antics and hauled them into the station to perform on the local drive-home show. While the streets were still their most visible gig, the CBC commissioned some 25 political satire songs on issues ranging from the Toronto transit strike to gambling.
"They didn't so much tailor us as point us in a direction," says Matheson of the repetoire they amassed. "Our satirical style was already in play." When the quasi a cappella unit finally performed indoors, opening for the Barenaked Ladies at the Horseshoe in the summer of 1991, the passersby who had so enjoyed the band's pavement pop followed them inside. Amid the commercial rap, rave and grunge scenes, this unlikely liking developed for Moxy's witty goofiness.
To feed the frenzy and make a few bucks, in February '92 Moxy Fruvous scrounged up some $8,000 to record an eponymous six-song cassette. And the Früvous fever began. They played festivals, clubs and theatres, scored opening gigs for Bob Dylan and Bryan Adams, and finally headlined Ontario Place, just this summer. And along the way, without getting banned, without any media ploys, the EP reached gold status, with sales of 50,000 copies, and remained on the national indie chart for over a year.
"It's remarkable," marvels Ghomeshi at the band's achievement. "It was national, but it wasn't being promoted in magazines the way major label releases were. It didn't, until very late in the process, have a video ["King of Spain"]. We weren't getting commercial radio play, and it wasn't distributed everywhere. You couldn't find it in places like The Bay, which is where a lot of people in small towns find their music. So people were actually going to the bigger stores to get it."
The Moxy monster had got so out of control that the band, which has acquired a manager to take care of business, could not be ignored by the labels. A five-album international deal with Warner CAnada was struck, with releases by Atlantic in the U.S. and East/West in the U.K. "We all had trepidation about signing a major deal, because we had done all this independently and we had called the shots every step of the way, " says Ghomeshi. "But we simply couldn't do it on our own. It's hard enough in Canada. We couldn't take this independent thing to the States. A big part of the deal was creative autonomy."
Ostensibly independent, Moxy Früvous self-produced Bargainville at Dreamland Studios in Woodstock, NY. The album, which includes a mixture of politics ("River Valley," "Gulf War Song"), zaniness ("Lazy Boy, "Spiderman") and beauty ("Fell In Love" and the francophone "Morphee"), shows a number of different sides to the band, which may throw off the naysayers who find the band's "comedy act" wears thin.
"The image of us that someone might have, from not having our cassette but strictly from hearing 'King Of Spain' and 'Green Eggs and Ham' on the radio, is a pretty skewed version," Ghomeshi concurs. "They think we're a goofy novelty act. That's a side of us, but I can't wait for people at large to get a real sense of our musicality, and what we're about. "I think people who have seen our live shows have had a better sense of the group over the past couple of years," he adds. "We were intent on presenting an image of us that was less 'King Of Spain' and Green Eggs and Ham.' If there's one side this album doesn't represent as much as our live show, it's our political satire. We did have to consider that it is an international release, and it has to be accessible."