It's no secret that Canada's independent scene is alive and well. More bands than ever before are flourishing on their own and breaking down the age old barriers of corporate rock. But it wasn't always this way. Moxy Früvous are one of a handful of groups who have been instrumental in blowing the homegrown music scene wide open. Before signing a world-wide deal with Warner Music, the vocal based quartet sold an astounding 45000 copies of their independent six song cassette debut. Completed in just 40 hours with engineer Doug McClement, the bare bones recording rivals the Cowboy Junkies' famous Trinity Sessions for its simplicity and success.
Now, using the expanded palate that their new deal affords them, the band has just finished self-producing a new release. Slated to arrive in stores by early July, the sophomore effort is a crucial one in the group's young career. "One of the things the band wanted to do with this album was to change any preconceived notions that might exist," says singer/percussionist Jean Ghomeshi. "If anybody thinks we're just an a cappella group, this album is a tremendous departure. Only one song of the 15 is pure a cappella and some of the others have distorted electric guitars and full drum kits. Those people who have seen us live know we use a lot of instrumentation, but if they only know us from 'Green Eggs and Ham" of "King of Spain", they're going to be surprised. Not just because there isn't as much of the fiercely satirical stuff on this album - which was a conscious decision - but also that there's a lot of unique instrumentation."
To help them achieve their expanded sound, the Moxys once again enlisted the trusty ears of Doug McClement. "When they first got the record deal and it was time to make the album we had some meetings and they described to me the approach they wanted to take," McClement explains, "They wanted a little darker sound and we thought of going all digital, but Früvous is very organic. There's a warm-sounding human element to these guys and I felt that using a state-of-the-art analog chain would be more in tune with what the band was trying to do." Ideas about sound and feel are always hard to put into words, so the band used existing recordings to help get their point across. "They started talking about some of the sounds they wanted in terms of the last Suzanne Vega record and the last few Tom Waits albums," says McClement. "It's like you've got this sort of churning acoustical bed track and it's almost hard to tell what some of the instruments are, but you can tell they're not electric."
Mandate in hand, McClement went searching for the unique sonic environment that could deliver the sound they were looking for. "I started thinking, 'okay, we need a studio within a day's drive of Toronto where we can go and live and where they have real neat acoustics and really good analog gear.' That creates a very short list." So short in fact, that he started to have trouble satisfying the criteria. "We'd noticed that several of the albums we wanted to emulate had been recorded at a place called Dreamland Studios in Bearsville, NY, like Suzanne Vega, 10,000 Maniacs and the Bobby McFerrin/Yo Yo Ma collaboration. Then one day we were talking to Blair Packham of the Jitters and he personally recommended Dreamland. He had done some work there with Colin Linden and said there was a lot of interesting acoustic rooms and a lot of great old tube gear and we should check it out because it was just what we were looking for." After receiving a gear list and a video of the location the decision was made and the boys packed up their gig bags and headed off for a three week recording intensive.
Situated in an old church, Dreamland is a singularly unique recording facility. With room choices ranging from the 33 foot high vaulted ceiling of the main room to the full Sonex padding of the smallest isolation booth, this former house of worship offers a motherlode of ambience to the true believer. But the vintage gear demands a certain reverence as well. "One of the main reasons we went there is because they have this 1978, 48-channel API console," McClement gushes. "API is like the American-made equivalent of a Neve. It's got old discrete electronics and ther's no microchips in the audio path. It's all big transistors and big wires - very low tech and very high quality." The chapel's aura had a postive effect on the band as well. "It was an incredible recording environment," says Ghomeshi. "We were tucked away in the Catskill Mountains but it was still only an hour out of New York City. There was a great energy and I think it worked really well for us." Fellow Früvous David Matheson agrees, "the whole thing was very organic, we didn't feel like we were in a hit factory."
With the studio fully blocked out, the band settled into their intense regimen. "We worked our asses off, we spent 14 to 16 hours a day every day," says Ghomeshi. "In hindsight, it's questionable as to whether or not that was a smart tactic because we definitely burnt out a bit. By the end of the second week, there were a couple of days where we were working at half speed, you know, like the Leafs in game six." To keep the sound a fresh as possible, the band, rounded out by Murray Foster and Michael Ford operated with a rotating producer's chair - each of them taking equal time on the other side of the glass. "It was kind of weird taking a band in the studio to do their first album and not having a producer, " admits McClement. "I'm really meticulous about tuning and it's very seldom I run into a band that's more picky about tuning and timing than I am, but these guys were. They had a very clear idea of what they were after and they used my experience to help them get it." Matheson agrees, "At the point of recording the stuff, there's not a lot decisions left to be made. Doug's job is to make sure that it goes to the tape in a way that gives us the optimum amount to play with later when we go to the mix."
To take advantage of the ambient possibilities of Dreamland, a wide variety of microphones and placement patterns were used. "They had a number of these 1940s Neumann U47 tube mics which we used for most of the vocals," explains McClement. "We experimented a lot, but in order to keep the overall vocal sound consistent, we found the spot that sounded best for the main mic and nailed the stand to the floor for the whole three weeks. Then, we went directly into the API mic preamp and hard-wired it straight into the 2" Studer A-820 tape deck with built-in Dolby SR." With a consistent reference in place, they turned their attention to the ambient mics. "There were a pair of Crown PZMs built into the ceiling of the church and then we put a pair of U47s in the balcony of the church. For some of the tunes, there's one vocal track and two ambient tracks for each of the four parts, so we'd have 12 tracks just for vocals." Some other mics McClement used were the East German-made Microtech Gefell UM-70S condensers for guitar amps and a pair of Shoeps MC-61s for acoustic guitars - the latter are used extensively in classical recordings.
For one track, McClement used something called 'The Green Hornet'. "For the song 'Video Bargainville', they were looking for an intercom sound for the talk-over, so I asked at the studio if they had this mic. It's a dispatch mic that's always been popular with harmonica players because its bullet shape is easy to hold while playing harp and when you run it through a tube amp, it has its own inherent distorted sound. I had Jean go into the Sonex-covered room and then I cut it really hot so it would sound distorted." When matched with the sparsely timed delivery of Ghomeshi's performance, the result is perfect for the song's skewed, satirical lyrics.
Because Moxy Fruvous use a smaller drum kit than most pop bands, a lot of experimentation went into getting unique percussive sounds on tape. "There was a lot of percussion instruments that weren't instruments at all in the traditional sense," says McClement. "We used everything from rolled up pieces of tin to hitting a metal stool with a ballpeen hammer." A predominant track on the song "Laika" was actually played on a studio room divider. "I was playing the track on congas with balistics," explains Ghomeshi, "but it just wasn't working, so I started using different kinds of brushes just hitting everything in the room while Dave and Mike and Murray were in the booth listening. Finally, I had these steel-handled plastic brushes by Regal Tip that I was playing on the side of this divider and the way the steel part of the brush hit the wood just before the plastic part did created all kinds of polyrhythmic overtones that sounded incredible." After experimenting with mic placement and moving it around the room to get the right ambient slap-back, they cut the track and used it as the primary rhythm bed for the whole song.
As the project nears completion, the band is looking forward to an extensive touring schedule, not to mention video shoots, interviews and all the other trappings of success. But the knowledge gained in the studio will be felt for some time. "Needless to say, we know our way around a studio a lot better," says Ghomeshi. "But I think we've learned even more about the way Früvous works. For example, we work best if we don't dwell too long on one song, so when next we have a 12-hour day, we'll work on six tunes instead of one. That's something we didn't know before the middle of this project and it's something that will help us outside the studio as well."
By remaining masters of their own fate, Moxy Früvous continues down the road that got them where they are today. Embracing risk and taking chances with an independent attitude, an idiomatic style and a savvy wit.