Murray Foster, bass player and vocalist with Moxy Fruvous, was on the line from Philadelphia. "I'm thinking of explaining to Gazette readers that the band is named for a frozen dessert from Finland," the reporter said.
"That's pretty good," Foster replied. "Better yet, why not say we're named for the spoon with which that dessert is eaten."
Clearly, one has to get up pretty early in the morning to outwit one of the Fruvi.
The point of the story is that Moxy Fruvous is whatever you want it to be. Same goes for the band. Some Canadian listeners have pegged MF as a goofy a-cappella act -- the Nylons meet Spike Jones, if you will.
In the States, where Foster and friends have been touring steadily for the last four years, Moxy Fruvous is viewed as an exotic hybrid of pop, Canuck worldbeat -- we'll get to that later -- satire and social commentary. The Mills Brothers meet the Smothers Brothers at a Greenpeace fundraiser, if you will.
The band is touring in support of its new album, Live Noise, recorded live in New York, Philadelphia and Syracuse, N.Y. The disc offers a generous sampling of all things Fruvous: commentary (Michigan Militia), silliness (King of Spain), and straight-ahead covers of songs by artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Talking Heads and the Bee Gees. In between, a sprinkling of off-the-cuff patter on Muppet nakedness, Kasparov vs. Deep Blue and the lowest highest point in the continental U.S.
Like many another crossbred mutt, Moxy Fruvous was whelped on the streets of Toronto, nearly 10 years ago. Four university students got together and began working out vocal arrangements, using albums by the Beatles and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as their guides.
"At first, it was a lark. We thought we'd busk for the summer to earn a bit of money," Foster said. "After a while, we learned to be pretty good buskers. We were making a decent wage and doing three sets every Friday night at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor."
Starting out strictly as an a-cappella act, the band eventually began adding instruments and expanding its repertoire to include rap, funk and rock "Frankly, I think the urge to sing a cappella comes from a pretty goofy place," Foster said. "It isn't very rock'n'roll. You never hear about a-cappella bands trashing hotel rooms."
Like the Barenaked Ladies, Shuffle Demons and Bob Schneider before them, MF put out their own tape, eventually selling more than 50,000 copies. It wasn't long before the big leagues came calling. Their big-label breakthrough came with Bargainville. The album went triple platinum in Canada and spawned the video for King of Spain, a Prince-and-the-Pauper story which features the monarch driving a Zamboni at Maple Leaf Gardens. In all, the band has put out five albums.
In some ways the breakthrough also proved to be a trap.
Suddenly Moxy Fruvous was everywhere and the Canadian media, taking their cue from the trendsetters of Hogtown, began writing the band off as yesterday's news. Some old fans bailed when the group went from alternative to mainstream. The newer ones, hooked by the zany King of Spain video, eventually dismissed the band as a novelty act.
Faced with the choice of sinking or swimming, MF chose to paddle south, launching itself on the rich and varied U.S. club circuit. The gamble paid off. Today, the band has a loyal grass-roots following in the States, fans on college campuses, a home on public radio and spots on folk-festival bills.
Followers, known as Fruheads even maintain an impressive Web site, Fruvous.com, which tracks the band's every move with military precision. "It's pretty clear to us that we wouldn't have a career if we hadn't gone to the States," said Foster. He, like the others, still lives in the Toronto area.
And American audiences view the clearly Canadian outfit, with its references to Robertson Davies, Pierre Berton and gorgeous renditions of tunes by Stan Rogers and Beau Dommage, with the same curious appreciation they might reserve for a South African gumboot band or a quartet of Andean pipers.
"They get about half the references we throw at them, and the rest they treat as exotic color," Foster said.
"In Canada, a lot of people still know us for King of Spain and that's what they want to hear at our shows. In the States, we aren't known through video, or even the radio. People come to see the show and they get to see the entire spectrum."