"I dont know how much it exists as an actual place on a map anymore," Mike Ford recalls of the town he grew up in. "I know that there is a member of parliament for Thornhill right now, so its certainly some sort of political district. But we grew up there, it's a suburb of Toronto, immediately north of metropolitan Toronto and in a lot of ways it was a bedroom community. Most everyone who lived there worked in Toronto. And it was where we all came together. And I guess Thornhill to me...the album cover sums it up a lot for us."
The album in question is Thornhill, the latest release from Canadian quartet Moxy Fruvous. The album was released in the States on August 10th and across the border on the 26th to an eagerly waiting contingent of Fruvous fans. The new album, named for the town in Ontario where the four members of the band spent their formidable years, relies less on the a cappella, satirical style Moxy Fruvous is often associated with, and more on the emotional output that seems to come with remembering one's childhood.
"Our vision of Thornhill for this album," Ford explains, "Is that time when youre 15, lets say, 16, 17...and your friends brother just got a new stereo and your friend calls you: 'Come on over man, youve gotta come over, we fixed up a cool room in the basement!' And you come over and you go down in the basement and, 'Wow, this is great!' And of course, it's before CDs for us, and you put on that cassette that youve been listening to over and over, and it's all stretched and bandaged seven times, and its that Japanese import of Revolver... its just defining experiences, defining moments in your life and its incredible. Its bonding and joy and opening to the world that goes on through these black discs, through these records and tapes and stuff, and its kind of like your first reaching out and taking in, on your own, of all this creativity and messages coming from these musicians that you adore, or debate about for hours ... and then you start your first little band and its all that kind of vibe that we really felt when we made this album. And some of the sounds hearken back to some of our favorite stuff that we listened to back then."
The album cover, for those who haven't gotten around to buying it, depicts an old-school stereo, complete with record player and (gasp!) non-digital tuner, in what appears to be the aforementioned fixed-up basement. The obvious comparisons can be drawn between the idea of the band's growing up in Thornhill and the band's newfound "maturity" evident in this album. Had one attempted to describe Moxy Fruvous before, they may have come up with something akin to "goofy-alterna-folk-a cappella-pop" or for the relatively unimaginative, "a cross between Barenaked Ladies and They Might Be Giants." However, after even a cursory listen to Thornhill it becomes apparent that Moxy Fruvous did something that many people did not expect: They got serious.
In response to a suggestion that the new record appears to have been purposely made to seem more classifiable, Mike revealed, "We said early on in the project - lets not...do the stuff at the further ends of the spectrum in what we do. In other words, on this album, there won't be world beat kind of sounds, far-off kind of sounds, from different sort of nations. And we also said 'Okay, lets not put an a cappella or extremely goofy song.' Let's sort of trim those edges off and focus on the center. And so that was a concerted effort in terms of a smooth - almost like a movie - from one end to the other, as opposed to jumping from here to here to here."
But Ford is quick to point out that Fruvous has never been the strictly humorous band that they have gotten the reputation of being. "I mean, if you played Wood, which is...just about our favorite, there's nothing funny on that...We have an instance of going even sort of darker and more serious in our career. And there's not a lot of up-tempo in that album either, it's just sort of its own field." Of course, Fruvous hasn't lost their sense of humor completely. As promised on the liner notes, there will indeed be an upcoming 'C Album.'
"Were always writing that kind of stuff," Mike explains, "And we felt it would really break the mood of Thornhill, so the C Album would really be a perfect place for that...Were not exactly sure when its coming out, but were already starting to go 'Hmmm, I think that songs a good candidate.' It shouldnt be too long."
The more "mature" tone of 'Thornhill' might just have something to do with Don Dixon, the producer-musician who helped put out records by The Smithereens, Matthew Sweet, and REM. Fruvous, who have always been a band with their "hands on the dials" in the control room, got a chance to relax a bit this time around.
"Weve built up a lot of experience in the studio and ironically we felt that this was the time to go with someone we could look up to and who could sort of be a fifth member of the band, in terms of just a set of ears and all that good stuff...It wasn't the kind of thing where its his project. And that's something weve never wanted, just to hire a producer who comes in and puts their trademark stamp on it. It was just to have someone who we respected, who was estimably capable, and fun to be around. It meant we could leave the room when we wanted to. Its always been the four of us sitting in the booth, or the control room and worrying about stuff. It meant we just worried less, and that was really good. He would take our input - wed each tell him what were looking for, and then wed just sort of debate about it, and hed kind of provide a synthesis, that was the main thing. He saw the band, when he saw us play, as...one band with four lead singers, as opposed to four separate songwriters who sort of come and try to squeeze their stuff into a Fruvous package. And our first listen back at the studio to the completed album ... we really felt that. We listened to four songs and each song had a different singer right off the bat, and it was like - this is all one band. So it really helped to bring all the disperate elements of Fruvous together, into a cohesive, coherent package."
Adding to what Ford describes as "the top of the top" in terms of their recording experiences, was the studio in which the band put Thornhill together. A 19th century construct purchased and converted to a recording studio by the Tragically Hip; The Bathhouse in Kingston, Ontario seemed the perfect place for completing their latest project.
"It's completely amazing," Ford gushes, "Theres rooms downstairs where the recording is done and then you just kind of drift into the kitchen and you drift upstairs and there's all these bedrooms to stay in and a room with a pool table so its just a fantastic place. That really helped the whole experience. You wake up, you just kind of wander downstairs and everythings on, all the amps are on and ready to go. It was great."
Newcomers to the spectacle that is a live Fruvous show may be surprised with the amount of instrument switching that occurs on stage. Working on an album in the studio however, makes switching up less necessary, but unlike many bands still a regular occurrence.
"Jian was the drummer for the whole album, and Murray was the bass player for the whole album. But there still is trading, in and around that. Everyone in the band plays a bit of guitar. Me and Dave play a lot of guitar on the album, but the other guys will play a bit. Maybe Dave did play bass on this album, I'm not too sure. But we all play a little keyboards and percussion and stuff like that, so it doesn't mix up as much as the live, because the main thing is, in the studio, you can get around that. If a guy is going to drum and sing, then we'll just mike it so that can happen. And we'll make sure it works, because you have a lot of options. Live, its just time for the next song, you can't re-set everything up so that this is going to work this way or that way. And it's also pretty fun live to move around a bit, you know? "Hey, I'm over here now!" It makes it a more enjoyable evening for the band."
Despite the occasional switching of instruments, The solidity of Thornhill comes across brilliantly, the orchestrations straying from their last studio album, You Will Go To The Moon.
"You Will Go To The Moon is, I would say, more focused on instrumentals." Ford maintains, "We go into songs like Sahara and Gotta Get a Message to You and Medicine Show and such. And were even playing a lot more stuff, were not only doing sort of the rock-band combo, or folk-rock band, on a number of the songs. Weve also got songs which have got Middle Eastern percussion and drum loops and things like that. But I guess the difference is on this album, were playing a little bit better - its two years later, so we tour a lot. That seems to continually gel the band as a sort of working musical playing unit. So, were very proud of that, so that comes across. And from song to song, it stays more or less the same sounding bunch of instruments. So it really sounds like one band, whereas You Will Go To The Moon, while it is very instrumental, is all over the universe."
With the album completed, a video for their first single ('I Will Hold On') shot, record sales topping those of any of their previous albums, and a scheduled appearence on 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien,' Thornhill might be the ticket to Fruvous' ultimate success. But for a band that seems to pride themselves on working on grassroots levels and not being an 'MTV type' how do they measure their success?
"Its very personal in some ways, and in ways that anyone can understand - I mean, in terms of not being profit oriented, I mean, it all depends ... it depends on what your bottom line is. Because, when we started out as a band, it was just, we would meet on the street and busk. We would street perform every Friday night through the summer for a few years, so that was basically all the band was. You know, we made a little pizza and beer money, basically. And now were older I mean, we're touring like crazy, and we would like to make it so that we're a little bit more in control of our destinies."
Mike gets quiet for a moment, and continues: "Success has a lot to do with getting the sounds out that you hear inside, that you know you can do, being the band you know you can be. This has been a really important thing for us, because weve grown. You know, we made it back in '93, we kind of exploded in Canada, when we were first starting out and it was really fast. Really big, really fast, and it was kind of too much, it wasnt really appropriate. People were coming just to see one song, just because they know the video and stuff like that and werent into the whole package. And we weren't quite ready either, we hadnt gelled as a band, as a writing collective, we had a lot of bugs to work out, and these are things we feel have really grown over the years of touring and writing and recording, and just growing as guys. Then what you want to do, is you want to be able to capture that, you want to be able to say "Here look, we can do that. We can go on stage and be the sounds of our dreams." You know - what weve always wanted to be. We can make a record and it can be really what we want to sound like. And until you start feeling that, theres a real yearning and theres a bit of a hole. And we feel quite good about the live show now. Were really proud, and we can be proud of the records, were really proud of Thornhill...so thats an incredible sense of success, in that way."
Having found personal success, what does the future hold for Moxy Fruvous? "No tellin'." Ford says with conviction. "I couldnt have told you five years ago, certainly cant right now. No idea. I have a wonderful, beautiful wife, a wonderful soul-mate, and a step-daughter, and thats the foremost thing on my mind."
But enough about the future, because after all, Thornhill is a portal to the past, of sorts. Any devoted Fruhead can tell you the story of four high-school and college pals whose careers began as street performers on the streets of Toronto, and who quickly became fixtures in the Canadian indie rock scene. This sudden explosion came as a surprise, mostly to the band themselves.
"[This was] never ever a goal for me. Never in my life did I ever see it that way. I used to play personally, in the corner little pub and stuff, up there singing the golden hits on the acoustic so that people would have music to throw up to. Thats always fun and interesting and I was always in little bands and things like that. At times, I personally have been interested in seeing myself as someone who wrote musical theatre. And myself and Jian specifically, have been involved a lot in musical theatre. But no, there was always a lot of different things on my mind, and I think that does make me different then the other guys. We all have different pursuits and have had a lot of different pursuits in the past, but I would have to single myself out and say this is a big surprise, doing this."
Expected or not, there was just something about that Fruvous band that people seemed to dig.
"Perhaps that really quick notoriety in Canada made us think we had something. And we always felt we had something, we knew each other from years back, we all did different projects on our own. Sometimes one of the guys would write a musical with one of the other guys, or two guys would do a sort of funk-pop band, or two guys would do an acoustic sort of duo. All kinds of cross pollination was going on. So when we joined as a foursome and said Lets try something out,' right away we could see that we wanted to be, and we knew we could be something, in a large part, different, then what was going on. Especially then, when grunge and such was just coming into full swing we knew we could be different.
"In meeting with some initial success and then coming down to the states and starting sort of all over again, being completely unknown, it does take a certain strong belief...at any time in the past four or five years, we could have gone, "This is a lot of work, and theres not really a lot of people at our gigs, were certainly not playing, selling anything, and were certainly not on the radio or anything." But it was just a belief that we had something that was important and was different and slowly getting this really neat response from people, which has blossomed into quite a lovely cult. Its a gratifying thing."
Fruvous has spawned an incredible following; many devoted Fruheads travel hundreds of miles several times a month to see live shows. The band's fan-compiled website, www.fruvous.com, is one of the most comprehensive on the web today. Its companion site, www.fruhead.com, is the epicenter for anything fan related one could possibly think of - from interactive message boards, to road-tripping plans, to bootleg tape trading information. In addition, web pages for the band members are springing up as well. The ongoing "war" between the left and right sides of the stage (Murray's People and Dave's People, respectively) is hotter then ever, as evidenced by pages like www.waytogomurray.com and www.mypoorgeneration.com.
Of their expansive fan base, Mike says: "Ive never not been surprised with the amount of people who will see a show after show after show in the period of a week. It's impossible to take for granted and it's inspiring, and it makes us go the extra mile."
To those who have never seen Fruvous before, the question still remains...What is it with these guys?
"I guess it has to be in the difference." Mike speculates. "Theres a lot of groups you can see that are trying to sound the same or end up sounding the same. This is basically the things that end up sort of making it to the Top 40, a lot of stuff like that. And we stand out from that, we are very strongly focused on the four-part harmony and melody and this is something I dont think people can get enough of, especially the singing. You dont get that everywhere, and it's a joyous noise. And also, the extent to which its important to us to connect to the audience. Were not just going "Hello Cleveland," and reading our setlists, and pumping them out, because we want to make the road touring interesting for us. Every show feels different, and we try to mix up the setlist and dip into different places of our repertoire as much as we can, and we try to connect to people and what is happening in that town, in some small way. And sometimes with the improvs it gets to be an electric, eclectic kind of thing thats there in the moment and really happening. Its not a song of the album, its live and its a one time only kind of thing. Theres all kinds of songs we come up with on stage, or songlets, or skits and things, that well never see again. Theyre gone after we do it, but...its worth it just doing it that one time."
The live show is certainly one of Moxy Fruvous main selling points; its nearly impossible to dislike a band that can delve into impomtu songs about anything from telephone services to killer fungus to tequila. The jokes, the silliness, as well as the political commentary and heartfelt love songs all come from the same place: four guys who may spend the majority of their time in a van, but whose hearts seem to be stuck back home. "It just never leaves us," Mike says, summing up his feelings on Thornhill. "It just felt like it was really there for this recording."