Jian Ghomeshi acknowledges that it's a familiar story. "You can probably think of a couple of examples of Canadian bands who've gone bigger in the U.S.," the drummer/singer for Moxy Fruvous says wryly.
Yes, like the Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Fruvous made a significant splash with an upbeat, acoustic debut CD in 1993 (Hugo's note: actually 1992, but anyway), only to suddenly have their eclectic satirical style scorned by a '90s onslaught of grunge ennui.
So they made a break for the border.
"We started in the States four or five years ago and we've been pretty much going, going, going non-stop ever since," Ghomeshi says.
"But you can't cross the 49th parallel and all of a sudden there's an audience there."
When the four Fru-lads started forging a path across the U.S., band members had to spend their nights on the road crashed out on people's couches. Now, just one month after the band played to a packed house of appreciative 'Fru-heads' on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Ghomeshi is doing an interview from the comfort of a hotel room (the Hyatt, no less) in Rochester, New York. However, that doesn't mean they've become big-time rock and roll superstars. Far from it.
"We're not and incredibly commercial-type group," he says. "A lot of the way people know us . . . has been through grassroots live shows, word of mouth, the Internet, alternative radio and that type of thing."
Moxy Fruvous makes a stop in Ottawa for a two-night stretch at Zaphod's 2 on Bank Street with opening act Tory Cassis.
Their latest release -- an uncharacteristically restrained collection of Beatle-esque opo tunes -- is dubbed Thornhill, named after the suburb north of Toronto where all four band members first met as teenagers. "The time we met was the coming of age for us musically."
Which is appropriate, since this album marks another coming of age for the quartet, mainly their parting ways with Warner Canada for indie label True North Records.
The debut release with True North marks a slight shift in style as well.
"Thornhill is not as much of a departure as some people conceive it to be," Ghomeshi says. "In Canada a lot of people got to know us very quickly for being irreverent yucksters, so full-blown pop songs come across as a real change. But its very much consistent with one side of what we've always done." True to their busker roots, satire has also been a significant element to previous Fruvous work and continues to be so in Thornhill with songs like Earthquakes, My Poor Generation and even the quasi-obsessive tone of their first single I Will Hold On.
However, this time the cutting barbs rest comfortably immersed in the lyrics rather than being wacked over the listeners' heads with in-your-face musical styles. "The instrumentation is a little more traditional for this one," Ghomeshi says. "We wanted to make a record that sounded a bit more cohesive." Enter Don Dixon, who has produced albums for REM and the Smithereens. "One thing that he did was draw all of our different writing styles and songs into a record that, from beginning to end, does sound like one band," he says. "Don also helped mitigate some of our perfectionism."
The group's American fortunes have been buoyed by the proliferation of Fru-heads, an enthusiastic culture of fans who congregate on the Internet and follow the band's live shows across the country. (Hugo's note: try continent) Ghomeshi sees the Fru-heads as a result of their grassroots approach to the U.S. "It's sort of teh same formula as Ani Difranco, or Phish or Dave Matthews uses -- play, have a mailing list and Web site and if you're good enough, the audience will grow." (Hugo's note -- these three things existed before their mass attempt to penetrate in the US... interesting they credit their success on them in the states, but don't use the same things to speak to their Cdn success)
Besides sheer bloody-minded persistence, Ghomeshi also credits their success to the work they put into their live performances, where entertaining the audience is the top priority.
"We just lived through a decade where the main tenets of popular music were writing suicidal songs and shoe-gazing," he says.
There's no room for such gloominess at a Fruvous show.
"Everything we do on stage is improv and can lead to crazy jams and a whole new song that we create." It doesn't always work, he says. "But sometuimes its magical and in a musical culture where a lot of stuff out there is so over-produced, people really appreciate the sponteneity."
Moxy Fruvous performs with opener Tory Cassis at 9 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at Zaphod Beeblebrox 2, 363 Bank St. Tickets $12 advance, $15 at the door. 594-3355