The guitar plays softly as a group of people, flashlights in hand, clear through the tall brush. The Toronto skyline juts out from behind the water. Glockenspiels and synthesizers join in as Joel Gibb leads the pack into a forest, where they’re joined by a band of musicians wearing wolf masks—one of the few welcome wolf references in music this year—and beady glowing eyes. Everyone dances in pagan joy under a crescent moon.
This is not part of some cultish Friday-night ritual—it’s the first video and the title track from The Hidden Cameras’ new CD Awoo, songs from which the “loose collective” will play at Stage Nine on Saturday night. The video was shot on Toronto Island, and recorded at Don Kerr’s Gas Station Studio, also on the island. The studio is a favourite of Ron Sexsmith, Gord Downie and Rheostatics.
“I think it’s really good to record somewhere that’s inspiring and comfortable,” says Gibb, on the phone from Erlangen, Germany, one of the last stops on a month-long European tour. “The first record we drove all the way to London, Ontario, at Magoffin’s studio. But it’s right on a main thoroughfare, so it’s in a completely different environment. Mississauga Goddam was recorded in downtown Toronto. Recording on the island was the most comfortable environment. You can finish a vocal take and then jump in the lake.”
Geographically, Toronto Island is filled with all of the same juxtapositions as a Hidden Cameras album. It’s an urban island, where year-round residents ride bicycles along meandering trails and around colourful shacks, eclipsed by the CN Tower in the distance. Gibb’s songwriting moves along the same paths—melodically the songs on this album are mildly reminiscent of REM pop gems, but the lyrics delve into bruised bodies and acting brave in the face of love and loss. While there’s little talk of enemas or swallowing pee on this album, unlike the glorious Mississauga Goddam, there’s still the same sense of ceremony and life force.
Gibb says regardless of lyrical content, his songwriting is guided naturally. “I have a specific musical instinct, a specific musical style. And then there’s a whole literary style and a semantic style. Those two don’t necessarily need to be mirror images of one another, by the fact that they can oppose one another and create something new.”
Awoo’s repeated use of pleasing words and sounds—awoo, fee fie, lollipop—follows some classic pop lyric structures: The Beatles’s “Eggman” went “koo-koo-ka-choo” and Little Richard busted out with “Tutti Frutti, all over rootie.” Ironically, for Gibb, sounds without meaning actually give this album its meaning.
“The root of songwriting for me is melody. You’re singing melodies and they become words, and then sometimes you harness real specific meaning out of these songs. But with this record, there was less of an impetus to do that,” he explains. “ is just a sound; there’s no meaning to it in any specific language. The songs on the record relate to the theme of glorifying nonsense and talking about language being alive.”
It’s a language that lives across borders and oceans. Gibb says travelling across Europe has been a great but tiring tour.
Unlike other collectives, The Hidden Cameras is completely Gibb’s baby—he’s maestro and mastermind. Sounds can grow or scale back, depending on who’s playing. Over time, Camera club members have included Reg Vermue (Gentleman Reg), Maggie MacDonald (Republic of Safety) and Owen Pallett (Polaris Prize-winner Final Fantasy, in Halifax on November 18). There are eight players on this tour; in Europe the band included several Viennese musicians Gibb met in Austria last June.
Cameras concerts are their own magical entity, as anyone who was at the Pop Explosion show at St. Matthew’s Church two years ago can attest. Pews were abandoned for dancing in the aisles, with a masked Gibb on the pulpit, and Maggie MacDonald on keyboards whipping everyone into a frenzy. Stage Nine isn’t exactly a holy place and this album abandons much of the band’s trademark religious iconography, but you’re always welcome into the cult of The Hidden Cameras.
The Hidden Cameras w/ Spiral Beach, November 11 at Stage Nine, 1567 Grafton, 10pm, $12adv/$15door, 444-7800.