First Blüe Oyster Cult. Then Motley Crüe. It's been a while since we in Rock & Roll's fifth estate have had to come to terms with the umlaut, those two beady little eyes that peer over the top of the u, like punctuation's version of Kilroy. Blüe. The Crüe. And now, the Frü.
If you ask Moxy Früvous about the umlaut, you have posed a riddle of almost Sphinx-like proportion, likely to get just as circuitous an answer. "Why the umlaut?" pales in comparison to "What the hell is a Moxy Früvous?" and, more importantly, "Why are people following it all over North America?"
Their name has become such an obsession with journalists the band has instituted a policy of smart-assed misdirection. I avoid the subject of the name and the umlaut altogether when speaking with guitarist Mike Ford from the band's Toronto home base. But then it hits me, I am now the only journalist in North America without my own personal version of the origin of the name. Well, I'll just have to wing one.
Uh ... Moxy Früvous is the name of the Icelandic nightclub where the cod-powered glockenspiel was developed, and the umlaut fulfills an obscure codicil in a crazy uncle's will so the boys can inherit a million dollars. (That's either really good, or I watched altogether too many Monkees episodes as a kid.)
The remaining question is the big one: "Why are people following Moxy Früvous around to the extent the band has unveiled a frequent concertgoer promotion known as FrüMiles?" The answer varies by history and geography, according to Ford.
"We get a lot of nomads," says Ford, preparing to embark on the next leg of their tour to promote their just-released concert album, Live Noise (Bottom Line). "In Canada, in 1992 and '93 and '94, the band was just starting out. Our song list was very short. It was like, 'We're now going to play The Album.' We got known in Canada very quickly for 'Stuck in the '90s' and 'King of Spain,' and these songs got a lot of play. They come out because they want to hear those two songs. We found we got a big response because they'd seen us on TV that day.
"Our growth in the States, from '94 on, has been much more word of mouth, no hype, very little press until just recently, very little airplay and certainly no videos. Which is great, because what we get is this great crowd that comes for the whole Früvous experience. We're a hard band to pigeonhole, so they come and want to hear the ballads, the rocking, the twisted stuff, the political satire, the theatrical stuff. As a matter of fact, the more obscure Früvous nugget you throw at them, the more excited they get."
In eight years, Moxy Früvous has accrued a lot of obscure nuggets. They began in 1990 as an A Cappella street performance outfit, where the quartet (guitarist Ford, guitarist David Matheson, bassist Murray Foster, and drummer Jian Ghomeshi) perfected gorgeous four-part harmonies. The following year, Canada's national broadcasting system, CBC Radio, commissioned them to write topical tunes about events of the week. That had two concrete results: The band became proficient at writing good material quickly (each CBC song was generally conceived and recorded within three days), and at the end six months, they had over 30 songs that had been heard by the entire country.
When they started touring, their audience was waiting to buy tickets. Their 1992 eponymous cassette was certified gold and remained in the top spot on Canada's indie charts for nearly a year. Their shows were standing room only. For their major label debut, Moxy signed with Warner Canada, with total creative freedom. Their first full-length album, Bargainville, went platinum and earned the band a Juno nomination for Group of the Year.
Oddly enough, Ford recalls this period as one of the band's most turbulent. Fame, cash and legitimacy came so quickly that Moxy Früvous was forced to deal with conflicting feelings about their sudden rise. "At the time, it was 'Wooo hooo!,' says Ford. "But gradually, we started to come off stage going, 'So, are we shit? Are we any good?' You definitely got the feeling you were just getting cheers because of the hype. Because they'd seen you that day on TV. We were selling out across the country, but we didn't know who the hell we were, or if we were any good."
The band's crucible took the form of tours in the eastern U.S. and England, where they opened at the lower end of bills, and got back to their street performing days. It was then Moxy Früvous made the transition from being, as Ford describes it, "a project that went too well, too soon," to a band.
Since then, Moxy Früvous has released four albums: the critically acclaimed Wood in 1995, the quirky B Album EP in 1996, their 1997 American debut You Will Go to the Moon, and this year's Live Noise. The album has a Cheap Trick at Budokan ambiance surrounding it, as the band bowed to pressure to release a live album based on the huge numbers of live shows being bootlegged and distributed within the Frühead network. The similarities don't end there. "I'm totally serious, it was going to be Live at Budokan," Ford says of the album's proposed title. "Then the copyright goons came pounding at our door."
Much like the Grateful Dead and Phish, bands they are compared to regularly, Moxy Früvous has a liberal policy on taping live shows. That worked to their advantage when compiling Live Noise, as several moments that worked well on stage occurred at gigs not officially recorded for inclusion on the album.
"We taped the shows seriously, 24 tracks, in New York, Philly, and Buffalo, and culled the album from that," Ford says. "There's a couple things on the record that we got because of the bootlegging: 'The Lowest Highest Point' from Providence, R.I., and the 'Kasparov vs. Deep Blue' chat at MIT. In both cases, those were not among the six shows we recorded. We sent the word out to our faithful bootleggers and said, 'Send us your favorite bits, because we know you've got them on DAT.' So we chose a few, and they get their names on the album."
The obsessive Früvous fan base has recently resulted in several interesting by-products. Fans assembled the first annual Frühead Convention in Toronto this past February. One of the festival's organizers administers the band's Web site (www.fruvous.com). And finally, in an effort to reward the literally hundreds of fans who travel all over to see Moxy Früvous live, the band developed the FrüMiles Program, a sort of frequent-flier system offering special Früvous items for point redemption.
American and Canadian Früheads are both slavish. Ford recalled the first time the band realized that their Canadian fan base was unique in its dedication. "We showed up in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, which I cannot describe how out of the way it is," he says. "It is really, really out there. We get there, and it's been murder for us to get there in our tour bus from the last gig, which was Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. And out in the parking lot is a carload of fans from Toronto. They just drove non-stop, like 23 hours driving, if you're lucky, if the weather's on your side. And it's like, 'Hello, what are you doing here?' And now one of them works for us."
Pondering the nature of the Früheads, and the power of their network, Mike Ford offers one last observation, or maybe it's a warning. "They'll read this article before you write it."
MOXY FRüVOUS perform at Ripley's Alive on Tuesday.