Moxy Früvous are hardly household names in Britain - not even in Folk Roots reading households - but one lives in hope. In their native Canada they've been Top 20, drawing enormous audiences, and they're also beginning to crack it south of their border in a big way. So far they've only made a few flying visits to the UK. The first found them busking in Convent Garden, whilst this summer's had a somewhat higher profile, including successful sets at both the WOMAD and Phoenix festivals.
They're a four-piece, all songwriters, consisting of Mike Ford, Murray Foster, Jean (pronounced 'Gee-on') Ghomeshi and Dave Matheson, though these personalities are clearly subservient to the Moxy whole - their individual name don't even appear on their second or third CD's. They play instruments - guitar, banjo, accordion, percussion, all the usual acoustic folk stuff - but it's their vocal harmonies that are the focus of the band. When I reviewed their first album in these pages, I described it as a combination of barbershop, doo-wop, Phil Ochs, REM and Billy Bragg, and they can't have disliked the idea since it now appears in their press kit!
And they're one hell of a live act. At WOMAD, the audience was baying for more by the end (mind you, they were one of the few acts where they probably understood all the lyrics!). Later that same day, we found a bit of shade and batted through Moxy Früvous - The Movie.
Although they've known each other from High School days around 1980, and had worked together in various permutations doing everything from playing in a funk band to writing school musicals, it wasn't until 1991 that they en-Früved. Dave Matheson takes up the tale:
"We were all familiar with each other and tended towards the artsy side - if you know what I mean - and then at the end of high school, midway towards the end of various university careers - this'd be 1989 - we got together in the summer to busk acapella, have some fun, take a drum out onto the street and sing a bunch of songs. And that's how Moxy Früvous was born. We did it once or twice a weekend and gathered larger and larger crowds and realised we had something here."
Jean: "The summer of 1991 was the first time we started taking it from being a hobby because we were all finishing our university and that type of thing, and it was the first time we played indoors. By that time we had been spotted by a couple of CBC radio producers and they got us to do political and social satire little songs on daily issues."
"It was really good practice. That's how we got to be communal songwriters in that they would commission us to do a song virtually three days before... for instance there was a transit strike in Toronto - do that; there was provincial politics or there would be a national issue, and of course that's where the Gulf War Song came from, which was an international issue. By early 1992 we released this little independent cassette of six songs that we really honestly thought we were making for our families and some friends, and six months later it had gone gold."
That was some achievement. A cassette-only release in these shiny digital days, it not only went gold but stayed at No. 1 on the Canadian Indie charts for a year. How on earth did they achieve that?
Jean: "The nice thing is that we didn't do it, it just kind of snowballed by itself. It had a lot to do with starting to play folk festivals that summer - Winnipeg and Vancouver in Canada, and people getting to know us through the festival scene. But we were kind of coming at people from all different angles. Alternative radio, rock radio was playing us. We were getting a lot of television exposure. We were doing satirical things on the radio still, we were obviously getting a lot of play on the campus level, that type of thing, and our live show was quite theatrical and something different. So it just kind of took off, and as the story goes, the summer of 1991 was our first indoor gig and the summer of 1992 was opening for Bob Dylan, which was obviously a big thing for us."
"It was wild. It was all happening so quickly - this is the way the music industry works. We're obviously a very different group in terms of the fact that we don't play the status quo music that is easily marketable. Literally six months before, we had been this group that had just come off the streets, and although there was this buzz about us, and we were getting some media and everything, record companies and the industry as a whole were going 'Who the fuck are these guys? Pass. This is novelty crap. Who's the real rock band that we want to sign next?' You know... And then by the summer of '92 the flurry had started of all these major labels fighting over us."
"We actually got the Dylan gig because there were competing promoters - another promoter had put us on opening for Bryan Adams, the Steve Miller Band and all these people, so the other one tried to outdo them with Dylan to win our allegiance. In 1993 we signed a deal with Warners and put out Bargainville that summer, and then 1994 was the first time we went to the United States where really now things are going quite well for us. Ironically, we never had the hit songs and videos, like in Canada, in the United States, and yet now, almost because of that, we've had an incremental growth in the United States. Now we have a very strong and serious Moxy Früvous following there, whereas in Canada it was a lot more..."
"Meteoric", injects Murray. "Yeah", agrees Jean, "but in all the negative ways that meteoric can be, in all the flavour-of-the-month ways... We had this base of fans but all of a sudden our shows went from 500 people to 5000 people in Toronto, all of whom were coming out because they'd heard one or two songs on the radio. And we were kind of going 'Wait a minute. Do they actually get what we're doing here? We're this kind of weird alternative folk band, you know. We're not about screaming teenagers and that kind of thing'. So that was a strange state and if Wood, out second album, was a more serious kind of record - in some ways it was our own backlash against ourselves. Almost to want to stop that movement. To deal with being musicians and not deal with the hype machine and everything."
The first time I encountered the band was at Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1993, sharing an acapella workshop with the Fairfield Four and my Malagasy pals. I promptly bought their CD in the merchandising tent, and for a brief few hours that day lived under the misapprehension that they were an acapella group pure and simple. I was contentedly impressed with that, so their main stage set that night quite set me back on my heels. These guys were pros...
Mike: "The live show always is, and we're pretty sure it always will be, more like a variety show than anything. There's satirical political stuff, there's goofy, humorous stuff, there's straight acapella, there's rocking out and there's the ballads and the stuff with the banjo, so it's always going to keep on growing, you know. We may tour a little musical theatre project one day."
How do they feel some of this stuff translates outside Canada?
Dave insists that "there are not too many songs in our repertoire that we perform live that don't work overseas. There are not many Cano-centric things that occur in the live set. The only stuff that we can't do is stuff that we wrote specifically for the CBC, stuff that's over the top with Canadian references that people obviously just wouldn't get."
Jean: "It seems that in the United States, this new-found success that we're having has to do with the fact that really seem to get it. The kind of audience that's coming out to see us is a wide variety of people but generally a little bit older. They're not necessarily young teenagers, and are interested in lyrical kind of songs. A lot of what we write about, at least in terms of lyrical material, has to do with the United States, has to do with being Canadians sitting on the border of this monolith. We have a song about Rush Limbaugh, for example, who is a big media figure there, or Stuck in the 90's, one of the singles from Bargainville, which was really about America almost more than it is about Canada. And so that works."
Mike: "Jean mentioned some of the exciting stuff that's happening in the States, and part of it is that we're just coming into this really good folk festival phase. It's something that we mentioned was really important in Canada, and now last year we did Philadelphia and it was huge, it was great for us. We did some smaller ones. In the spring we did the Nassau Folk Festival which was real nice, and this summer we're doing Rocky Mountain which is supposed to be really cool, and Newport, some really neat ones, so we're really excited about that. Our experience at Vancouver and Winnipeg and some of the smaller ones in Canada has just been superlative."
Jean: "There's still a stereotypical attitude about folk festivals in the pop community, especially in places where they're not thriving like Toronto, sadly. Winnipeg, a city one tenth the size of Toronto, has 30,000 people going to the folk festival. But it seems to be, right now, the best place to see a wide variety of music from around the world, of any kind of festival. We're sitting here at WOMAD right now, and it's fantastic - the best parts of it remind me of a folk festival." (In fact, WOMAD with its multi-cultural programming, workshops and backstage facilities is much closer in feel to the big, exemplary Canadian events like Winnipeg or Edmonton than any other UK festival.)
The vocal harmonies are obviously the important focus of what they do. Are they naturals or do they really have to work hard at that aspect? They've all got oars to put in about that.
Murray: "We've worked really hard to become naturals. We spent the first two or three years of the band really practising our vocals very intensely. We would sit in Dave's bedroom with a pitch-pipe and a lot of determination and just practice. Try and make those chords. Try and get all those four notes to happen at the same time. Doing whole note scales, things like that."
Dave: "There's a special thing that can happen, right. There's getting it, there's getting it in tune, four guys identifying four different notes there, and then there's a special magical thing that can happen when you really make a chord."
Murray continues: "It took about four years before we were really ringing those chords, getting all those four notes in tune. So, yeah, we worked very hard at it, but not, in terms of a creative tool, we do go to it very quickly, almost as a reflex. We will arrange songs with four-part harmony, because we can and we know how to arrange them and we know how to sing them. It's a valuable tool. Now, actually, because we've moved from a vocal band to adding instruments, we can take the vocals for granted to a certain extent and now we're exploring the instruments more."
Jean: "It's so automatic, choosing the arrangements for vocals. One thing I think that happened is that we weren't just learning how to be better harmony singers, we were learning how to match each other's tones. That's why brothers or sisters sing so well together, because they don't have to work on getting the tones together. That's already there. We've done some work about that."
"Last week we met some musicians here in Britain, and I was jamming with one of them who's a singer-guitarist. We were singing parts and we were doing harmonies together, and he's a great singer, in an up-and-coming band, but it was quite a frustrating experience because I couldn't just look at him and get him to do the harmony I wanted. It was laborious, it was like 'Why don't you try this part?' and I'd sing it to him and he'd sing it back, and I realised how much I take it for granted working with these guys. We literally look at each other, and move our head or whatever, and know who's going to take the fifth or whatever."
Murray: "And on stage it plays itself out. The four of us can look straight ahead on stage on our four microphones and sing completely in synch without any visual cues. It's all breaths and half-breaths, that we listen for and just instinctively we all come in at the same time. It's at that point now, but it's taken a long time."
I turn the conversation to the political content of their repertoire. We get into a mild debate about whether political songs ever achieve anything. Mike jests that "we wrote some pretty wisecrackin' anti-Tory songs in 1992 and in 1993 the Tories were swept out of power in Canada!" (clearly a band we need in Britain right now) but I wonder whether they really believe it, or if the songs just serve to get something off their minds. Mike explains:
"I think when we go up and do something like the Gulf War Song, I would hope that it would touch a percentage of the people in a way that resonates with their political side. Certainly from comments afterwards, that's the case."
"There's a constant debate; does this belong in my art? Do I want this in my music? I think what we aspire to do is not be too over-the-top. There are artists who would say 'John Major is a bad man, and these are the reasons and here is my song', then you either agree with it or you don't and there's not much more you can take from it. We kind of aspire to say that without saying it. So we'll use satire to celebrate the person to such a ridiculous extent that we're obviously taking the piss, we're obviously not being serious. That's one angle we take. We try not to be hitting people over the head so much as being a little wise and getting across. Certainly with the Rush Limbaugh song there were a lot of people commenting on it in the United States. Even a song like My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors, which isn't a political song, but has these references in it, we get people coming up and saying 'My three-year-old is walking round talking about Gabriel Garcia Marquez', so that's a victory of sorts. It's a little bit better than Gumbots, or whatever the latest cartoon show is."
Jean has the conclusion. "Political music obviously doesn't do anything, but I think it can galvanise sentiments in people's heads and bring together some otherwise vague opinions or impressions into a more cohesive whole."
And then there's the songwriting itself. Do they write communal? Is it a team effort?
Murray: "The satirical stuff is quite often; we'll hash out the music around the piano or guitar and then each go off in their corner and come up with a verse or chorus, bounce ideas off each other, like we need this middle eight here to convey this idea, or to move the story ahead in this way, so we'll go off, and we'll each present an option and fight until it's decided who has the best one. But a lot of the stuff on the albums is solo written."
Jean relates how sometimes people impose all kinds of ideas about what their songs are about, that aren't actually there. "There a song called I Love My Boss, which is kind of poking fun at employers. But that's pretty much it - it's not really a sophisticated song, and yet there was a review that said 'and the brilliant anti-bourgeoisie diatribe I Love My Boss exposes the class divisions...' Well, I guess we're smarter than we think! And B.J. Don't Cry was Baby Jesus - two pages of the Nativity, Shakespeare underpinning the Nativity."
Dave remembers that they chatted with the fellow who wrote that. "We said 'Wow, we read your B.J. Don't Cry interpretation. That's pretty wild.' And he said 'That's it, isn't it? I haven't missed something have I?' So sometimes you've just go to leave it with people. They can do what they want with your songs."
Or as Jean says, "You feel kind of embarrassed saying 'No, it's just a crap song I wrote in three minutes, dictated by rhyme more than anything else'".
And so the talk inevitably turns to product. They've had a mini-album - a 10-tracker of satirical songs and Früvous oddities - out recently which has a special purpose, according to Jean.
"It's more for the Früvous fans who are looking for the satirical stuff. We have a kind of dichotomy when it comes to our satirical material. We're interested in creating albums that are going to remain topical, that people will be able to identify with over a longer period than just six months when as issue is hot. It kind of creates a situation where we're going 'Well shall we put this song on the album? It's about a guy in the media right now, or it's about an issue right now, but four years down the road will it still stand up to play?'"
"With the b album it was very liberating. We said 'Let's put out an album of just that stuff and call it that.' It's songs from the last five years. It's got some brand new ones on, but there's stuff on there where we say 'This is when the gambling debate happened in 1992', and so you can hear it. Whereas Wood is something that we're very proud of in terms of an album that'll have a lot of shelf life, we hope. You can put it on twenty years from now. We're working on our third album and we put this out in between."
Mike: "We're starting to write now. We've got a handful of songs, some of them recorded. And we're going to keep on doing that in bits and pieces, and once we've finished this spate of touring, November, December and on, we'll be nailing the tracks down."
And Mike has a concluding message for FR readers, too. "As most of you out there know, commercial radio - at least in the English-speaking world - is shite, it's pretty horrible. Folk Festivals and folk gatherings and folk labels are just a great, great way to get music out there and share music that doesn't conform to those crap, narrow standards of commercial radio, so we're very proud to be insinuated in that."
And we're very happy you got yourselves insinuated too, chaps.