It all came as somewhat of a surprise to me.
I had originally planned to interview Moxy Fruvous since they were going to be in town for a show, touring their new album, “Thornhill”. It was a University gig in a small campus pub called Louis’, and I was hoping that I could catch the guys before or after the show for a quick quid pro quo.
After talking to Jam Entertainment, and their always friendly management assistant, Jude, I was informed that the guys would be far too tired after the ten hour drive down from Pinawa, Manitoba to hang out and do some chatting. They’d probably show up in time enough to do the sound check and get a little R&R before having to go out on stage. Perfectly understandable. But soon after arriving, I was to discover that they did indeed have some free time and were “milling about” between the Green Room (conveniently located in the International Students meeting room) and the establishment itself downstairs.
To say I wasn’t prepared is an understatement. I had no reason to be. I was there to enjoy the show. Do some milling of my own. I was told very plainly not to be prepared.
Despite this, I gathered together ten questions to go in with. If I couldn’t come up with anything really interesting, a least I’d have ten answers. Multiply that by four band members and you’ve got a decent sized interview, am I right?
Armed with my notepad, a tape recorder and my ten questions, I went upstairs and discovered Mike Ford alone in the Green Room. Everyone else was either walking around or watching the opening act downstairs. We arranged to have a very informal interview, with the intent of catching whoever happened to be in the room at the time for some question and answer time.
Meanwhile...: Let’s start with the new album.
Mike Ford: Mm-hmm.
MW...: I noticed that it was a much more straightforward album, musically. You didn’t go for some of the more overtly humorous songs like you have on past albums.
MF: Right. And overtly other things. Like, “You Will Go To The Moon” had two distinctly Moroccan/Middle Eastern songs on it. There’s no real drum loop kind of stuff on it, which “You Will Go To The Moon” also had. There’s no a cappella. You know we’ve done humorous a cappella as well as stuff like “The Gulf War Song” and things. We’ve done smorgasbord before.
“Bargainville”, our first album, and “You Will Go To The Moon”, our third studio album, are both very smorgasbord. They ‘ve got a bit of everything that we do and it’s made things, for us, different than a lot of other bands. I mean, it’s hard for the industry to categorise [us], and as well as being a pop group - a sort of, four-part harmony based pop group - we also do political satire, sort of theatrical stuff...we do a wide variety of things. Not to mention all the improvising on stage which comes through on our live album, “Live Noise”.
We did want to make one that was, like we did with our second album, “Wood”, a little more cohesive, and although we’re still writing all those different kinds of songs - we’ve got some protest material, we’ve got some humorous material, light so cappella as we like to call it - we’ve still got all of that, we just want to put it on something else. We’ll have other subsequent releases that feature that stuff a bit more. And we were all writing a lot of songs that seemed to fit this four-piece band mode well, so we picked a grab-bag out of that and we feel what we were after - and I think we accomplished this somewhat - is making an album that is more cohesive, more like a... In fact, we brought in Don Dixon, an amazing producer. He produced the first three R.E.M. albums, The Smithereens and stuff like that. And he saw his challenge as being to make us sound less like a sort of multi-faceted project with four songwriters, and more like a band with four lead singers. And I think it comes across.
When we first sat down with the album, when it was done we sat back in the studio and five songs in it was flowing really smoothly for us. It wasn’t jarring back and forth and we went, “Holy shit!”. Those four songs - it’s not the same order we have right now - but those four songs each have a different lead singer. So, we think we accomplished it with that. It’s not so much of a smorgasbord.
MW...: So, it wasn’t so much a conscious effort saying, “Hey, let’s get more serious here”, as it was an outgrowth of what you guys just happened to be writing at the time?
MF: Yeah, that and, not so much getting away from it as just deciding where to put it. And some of the satirical stuff we write now for NPR (National Public Radio) in the States regularly contributing songs about this issue or that. They’re very time sensitive. They’re about a specific thing.
So, it was a bit of that as well, but it was how we were feeling. And the album cover theme sums it up for us, in our minds. It’s this stereo in your brother’s friends basement and you’re fifteen. Thornhill was the town we grew up in, you know? That’s how we felt making the album. We made it at the Tragically Hip’s studio outside of Kingston which is this 1860s stone house that they converted into a live-in studio and it’s quite exciting. And you just live the album when you’re making the album. Somebody might be working on a guitar solo at three in the morning and you went to bed at one in the morning. You hear the solo. And it’s like that for everything. And then you get up first thing in the morning, you go down for your coffee and everything’s on. Everything’s ready to go.
And it was like being a teen. Like your first taste of discovery. Your first taste of the outside world, for us and a lot of people, came through records, you know?
MW...: I’ve read some reviews in various papers in Canada and the U.S. that seem to be treating “Thornhill” as, if you have a breakthrough album, this album will be the breakthrough album.
MF: Well, the only thing worse than - well there’s nothing worse than, really - industry people saying stuff like that, is media people saying it. But I take that back because the journalists have nothing to prove. They can say whatever they want, but with the industry people you’re actually marrying incomes.
So, there’s no predicting that kind of stuff. You really can’t, at least in our position, set out [with], “Now we’re going to do this, and this album’s going to do that.” It just doesn’t happen and industry people try and tell you they know what’s going on. We’ve been at it long enough that we just don’t pay much credence to that, but we are doing Conan O’Brien on October 12th, and the shows in the States are all sold out and they’re in larger venues now.
MW...: I actually saw quite a few favourable reviews in the American press.
MF: It’s going really well. Mostly the North East is where we concentrate - places like Philly, New York City, Upstate New York, and D.C. are incredibly strange spots for us. But now Chicago’s starting to blossom and down on the West Coast, where we finally went for the first time, it was great. So all that’s going real well.
At this point, Dave “Tobey” Tobey comes in to check on the bands water supply, making sure they have all the liquids they can handle for the upcoming performance. Mike mentions that, “more [water] wouldn’t hurt.” Water’s a good thing. The final prognosis is that things are well in hand although Tobes, as they call him, goes off in search of more water anyway.
Mike’s attention then turns back to me as he starts up again...
MF: But, getting someone like Don Dixon, he’s very talented in the studio. He’s been around the block. So yeah, there is more radio friendly stuff on the album, [it’s] more fleshed out, whereas in the past we would go, “Bah! This is how we do it. This is how it sounds.” And good friends would go, “You know, if only you’d just tweak that, you would get on the radio more.” But of course, they don’t know, because you don’t know.
But, having Don was a great way to put across our ideas in a more fleshed out sonically full manner, which is important.
MW...: You mentioned your friends telling you to tweak your stuff to get more radio play, and it reminds me of a question I once asked someone about their definition of success, and whether or not they were still looking for that one big break they’d need to rocket them into the big leagues. And they said they stopped worrying about that “big break” because it only made them stressed out and set them up for disappointment, and they didn’t define their success that way anyway. Considering your cult-like status here and abroad, how do you feel about that statement?
MF: That’s a very, very good way to put it. We’re not wealthy, but we have a good living doing our own music, and a lot of it, different music. Stuff that doesn’t get played on the radio. We march to our own drummer...
The door has opened and Dave Matheson walks into the room. Apparently, he was downstairs watching the show. Mike introduces us and tells Dave to “feel free to dive in” at any time. Dave says nothing but takes a seat opposite to and across the room from Mike.
MF: So, to be able to make that living, playing your own music is pretty neat and you can’t go around going, “Oh, if only that big hit would come,” and all that stuff. Because the business is the way it is and you can’t predict anything and you will be promised things that will never happen, blah, blah, blah. It’s better just to do it because you like it, or love it, and yeah, success can be measured in a lot of different ways. For sure.
MW...: Does that attitude have a lot to do with your fans? I remember reading something that one of you had said about the fans don’t pick your stuff up because of the one hit they heard on the radio. They pick it up because they buy you guys as a package, and most of the time, are in it for the long haul.
MF: Pretty much. I mean, that’s our experience, and because we’ve seen the other half when in ‘93 we had “Bargainville” and had a couple of songs getting lots and lots of radio play or video play, and being the taste of the month. So people would come in that way, which is the way a lot of people go to see bands. Because, “Oh, this is the buzz act right now. I know this one song.” Whereas the way we’ve garnered an audience is through this slow, slow, build. A grassroots word of mouth. And the kind of people that brings out, are very much the kind of people who want to know everything. Who want to hear the most obscure stuff. They’re there for that. They’re there for the whole vibe of the band, they’re not just there because they’re waiting for that one song. And that’s really cool. That’s definitely a measure of success that is overlooked.
MW...: And it builds a nice, strong foundation as well.
MF: Yeah, we’ve experienced the other one. That, “Thank you!”
Dave Matheson: [laughs] And I think that “Thank you” is more common in pop music these days. It’s a turnover business. You get your hit and you are out of there a lot of times.
MW...: We talked earlier a little about your political satire and I was wondering how much of that is a part of Moxy Fruvous as a band, and how much of that is doing it because the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) asked you to one day?
MF: Actually, it was us doing it first. It was part of what the band did with the improvisation things. And it gets nurtured along by things like the CBC requests, and now the NPR requests for this song or that song. But it always comes out. Even on a record like this, “Thornhill”, where we’re sounding more like a pop band there’s a song like “Downsizing” which is very much about the whole corporate structure change that’s happened in the past few years, and “Splatter, Splatter” is sort of a comment on the entertainment moraise (sic) of the day. And “My Poor Generation”, “Earthquakes”...they’re not boy meets girl songs. They’re very much looking at society and saying things, hopefully, in a new way.
So, it’s very much a part of us. It comes out sometimes in very didactic ways with a specific song about the Harris government (speaking of Mike Harris, the Premiere of Ontario who Moxy Fruvous spotlighted in their song, “Big Fish” on “The B Album - mw...), or in more subtle ways.
MW...: I think the majority of the songs you just listed were on the second side of the album, or the second half of the disc, I guess. Was that a conscious thing?
DM: No, much more it was about musical flow.
MF: It certainly wasn’t about lyrics.
The second song, “Sad Girl”, is about heroin chic. How it was so cool, and probably still is, to look emaciated and drugged out and stuff in ads. It’s something we’ve noticed as a band because we’ve had some pretty cheerful stuff. We went through that whole era of grunge and stuff where it was really cool to be really depressed and look really weird.
MW...: Well, “Sad Girl” is actually a beautiful segue into my next question, which is how do you guys feel about the comparisons that are being made in the press? I’ve read that this album is Beatles-esque, or that track is McCartney-esque.
DM: It’s kind of undeniable that we’re influenced by The Beatles and other bands. The latter half. We weren’t listening to The Beatles when they were around, but they had a huge influence on us. So yeah, that stuff is just innately part of our musical growth, our musical upbringing. But as far as on the album, I think there are snatches of things that sound almost Radiohead-esque. And we’ve spent the last five or six summers at folk festivals, playing a folk festival almost every other week. So a lot of the music you here are those kinds of things. Great music. Folk doesn’t really sum it up.
MF: The other music.
DM: Exactly. Stuff that doesn’t have promotional budgets but is really honest music which is a wonderful thing in itself. It’s there but people don’t know it’s there. They don’t know that there’s any quality music beyond their radio dial.
And that comes through on something like “Earthquakes”.
MF: “Hate Letters” has kind of a backwoods Steely Dan.
DM: That’s right, yeah.
MF: Steely Dan through...
DM: ...the gaze of Lauryn Hill’s press agent. [laughs]
MF: [laughs] It’s funny, you know, you mentioned McCartney-esque and someone wrote in a thing that “Half As Much” has a undeniably Lennon-esque chorus. What’s the chorus in “Half As Much”?
MF: And then yesterday, somebody on the phone said [about] “When She Talks” , “Ah, he does that total Harrison lead.”
MF: The funny thing is, Dave, I don’t think you could play a George Harrison lead if someone asked.
DM: I don’t have a George Harrison lead. [laughs]
MF: Yeah. So, I think a bit of the Beatles stuff, it’s very honest. It’s worn on our sleeve. But we also can’t avoid it in some ways as well, because we’re a band where the harmonies are really important and we’ve got four lead singers and four songwriters. Just that alone tips it in that direction. I can only name four groups like that. There aren’t many groups who have that, and three of them are Canadian. [laughs] Sloan, the Rheostatics...The Beatles and Moxy Fruvous.
MF: It’s kind of a yoke we wear. [laughs]
DM: It’s true though. You think of any American big star bands who have more than the “lead guy” with the appropriate hair, and “the band” who are more or less interchangeable...
MF: And Wilco, I always thought it was the other guy with the ringlets. “Oh, that’s Jeff Tweedy. Look at that Jeff Tweedy. He doesn’t mind getting a little chubby. Lead guy and he doesn’t mind...Oh that’s Jeff Tweedy.”
MW...: How do you guys feel about the Fruheads?
DM: Blessed. Yeah, it’s pretty nice to have a group of people that are so into you that they travel as much as they do and pay to see the show again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again. Very lucky.
MF: It’ll never not be surprising. It’s always surprising when [you] see people lined up really early for a show, or four nights in a row in four different American cities across the border. There was a few people last night in Pinawa from Washington D.C.. I’d seen them in Winnipeg, and then in Pinawa, I was going...
DM: Colorado. Katrin was there.
MF: Oh yeah, her too. It’s always surprising, though.
MW...: Do you think that has a lot to do with your live show?
DM: I think it does because we try to bring a little anti-star to the thing to a degree. And in that sense, have fun as four people would do who’ve known each other as long as we have. Try to make each other laugh. And I think that the crowd taps into something that’s special about that, that’s unique about that.
You know, you see bands going up and there’s a kind of, “We are the band. We are going to knock you out. You’re going to wish you were us.”
MF: I try to do that but it doesn’t work. [laughs]
DM: And with us, it’s more about simply being ourselves because we do have a lot of fun together. And if we do have fun, people will see that and hopefully get into it.
MW...: Entertain yourselves first and the people will catch on to that vibe.
MF: Oh yeah. With all the touring we do we have to have fun or else it would just be, “What the hell.” But it’s also a bit of the thing like the band Phish in that we make every show different. Not incredibly different, but definitely different. So, there comes to be a thing amongst the people who see us a lot [that] they can say to each other, “Well, I saw this and then that, and then he said this and it was really fucking wild,” and we may never do it that way again. On another night, do something quite different. So that lends to the seeing several nights in a row, whereas if you were seeing a band that was much more, “that’s the set list for the tour and they do it,” they don’t say much. You probably wouldn’t go to as many shows because you’ve seen it. But I think if you go to three Fruvous shows in a row you get quite a variety of stuff.
DM: Pop music with jazz banter. [laughs]
MF: [laughs] The Sam Sheppard use of the word jazz.
MW...: How do you guys feel overall about the new album, “Thornhill”, compared to your other albums? Is it like comparing children?
DM: Not really. “Thornhill” has something that, I think, we all live a little bit easier with than on our other albums. It has a sound that is probably due in part to the fact that we hired a really good producer. It has a cohesion, it sounds like a record. Not to say that the other ones don’t sound like records, but this one’s just a little more ‘pro’ sounding.
If you compare them, especially taking something like “The B Album”, it was very low-budget.
DM: Lo-Fi. Low budget. You put it next to this one and yeah, there’s something that’s probably going to be palatable a little longer. That’s what we’re hoping.
MW...: I sort of saw it as a throwback, of sorts, to your second studio album, “Wood”. It felt denser.
MF: Yeah, we’re much more confident than when “Wood” came out. But I’d say, it’s not my favourite album...
MW...: Don’t say that your next album will be your favourite album.
MF: [Mike breaks into his best poncy British pop star accent] “Hey man, my favourite is the next one. There’s nooo album as good as the next, man. If we can just get those fucking Mongolian bells, it’s going to be a reeeal gasser.”
Ummm, I think I like the previous studio album, “You Will Go To The Moon” the best because it comes out swinging a lot. Every song’s like, “Whoo, whoa!”. It’s got that smorgasbord I was telling you about. You can’t necessarily listen to it in one fell swoop, and also, it’s the first album where I really like the opening songs. All the other albums I kind of...it’s later in the album that I go, “Okay, this is more to my liking.” This album it’s from the start, all the way through, I love it. Curtain to curtain.
During Mike’s favourite album dialogue, Jian has entered the room from his nocturnal wanderings (I think he was downstairs listening to the opening band as well, to be honest). Introductions were made and, since the opportunity had presented itself, I grabbed the chance to put the same question to him.
MW...: So, how do you feel about the new album compared to other albums?
Jian Ghomeshi: Other albums by us?
JG: I feel like it’s an album I’m really proud of because it’s very...I think it has great pop songs on it, great playing on it, [and] great production on it. It’s a loose concept that I really dig but it’s very real. It’s not a hectic record. It’s not a record that attempts to be anything but to live up to the songs. Four guys playing together in a room. It’s not exactly Lo-Fi, and I just think we’re, as a band, better.
It’s not as pristine as some of our records - which actually pisses some people off. Some people like a lot of our singing and stuff, and we didn’t go for that on this record. I like that.
MW...: Well, when you’re doing the a cappella stuff you sort of have to be a little more careful with that.
JG: Yeah, a bit more of an imperative than when you’re playing to backgrounds. That’s true. It’s a good point.
You know, having said that, a lot of the a cappella/really acoustic kind of four-part stuff on the live album, I really like that because it has a few more warts. Our first album was so much, “We have to get it all perfect”. We were all kind of perfectionists musically.
MW...: Do you guys have time for one more question before you guys have to go out?
MW...: A lot of bands say that they’ve got their live show down. They started off playing live in clubs and bars and stuff like that, and they couldn’t be more comfortable with their live show, but they feel like their studio stuff needs work. They have yet to master their studio sound.
Do you guys feel that way? Because I’ve heard so many good things about your live show. Everybody seems to say, “Oh, you have not experienced Moxy Fruvous until you’ve seen them live!”.
DM: Yeah, I think that’s all true, actually. I think that the studio thing is still a work in progress, although I think with this album we feel a lot more comfortable with us in the studio.
It’s interesting though, the live show has always been our forte and we do have it down, but I would say in a different kind of way. It remains a challenge in the sense that one of the goals that we set for ourselves is to keep changing the live show from night to night and making it always a creative, musical challenge to us. And that’s something that we promise to people.
Not wanting to keep the guys any longer (Murray is still absent), we decide to shut the interview down until after the show. I’ve been invited back to get some responses on the show, and to get a few minutes with anybody that was missed. I’m sure to catch Murray then.
To be continued in Part Two of our EXCLUSIVE interview with Moxy Fruvous