Ted Leo + Pharmacists
Outspoken, poignant and exciting: It’s no wonder Ted Leo is one of the most revered figures in the indie underground. The Washington, DC-based musician and his Pharmacists deal in vibrant indie rock that mixes punk, folk and hardcore with protest lyrics. With several acclaimed records under their belts, including The Tyranny of Distance (2001) and last year’s excellent Shake the Streets, Leo and his Pharmacists have been playing countless shows since they formed in 1999.
Leo got his start on the famed ’80s New York hardcore scene, eventually moving to DC in 1990. There he switched musical gears and formed the cult favourite mod-punk band Chisel well before Jet and the Datsuns achieved success with the genre.
Chisel fizzled in 1997 after two critically acclaimed albums, but maybe that was for the best as Leo picked up the pieces, brought on a couple of Pharmacists and started making the best music of his career.
Many know Leo for his openly political lyrics and appearances at protests, including a performance at the recent Operation Ceasefire protest at the Washington Monument that drew over 300,000 people on September 24. The band joined other politically minded acts such as Steve Earle, Le Tigre and the Thievery Corporation. Not surprising then, that many critics compare Leo’s lyrics to fellow political activist/musician Billy Bragg.
Shake the Streets tackles the issues of an ineffective president, detainees without any rights, war and a culture of firearms. Although it may sound like Leo’s music would be too heavy for the average music fan to follow, he underpins his witty and incisive words with some of the most unique guitar playing in alternative rock and a big dose of melody. It will surely be a sight to see when Leo and the Pharmacists make their headlining appearance at the Pop Explosion before an audience that most likely will appreciate the band’s social views as much as its energetic music. —Johnston Farrow
October 13 at the Marquee Club w/North of America, Chad VanGaalen and The Hot Springs, 9pm, and october 14 at the Pavilion with North of America, Femme Generation and sharp Like Knives, 6:30pm.
At last year’s Halifax Pop Explosion, the hot heavy rock act to burn into town was The Illuminati. This year, it’s Priestess, a four-piece from Montreal who share more than headbanging philosophies with the Toronto power trio.
“We’re the only two bands in the world using Richtone amps,” says Mikey Heppner, 24, on guitar and lead vocals. “They’re made by a guy here in Montreal.”
The Illuminati and Priestess have a history together beyond the guitar amps. The two bands played Pop Montreal a couple of weeks ago. Due to the hype Priestess has been riding in their hometown, The Illuminati opened for them, but in November, the two bands will go on the road across Canada, the Toronto band headlining their well-trodden path. Heppner is OK with the arrangement.
“It’s a perfect pair,” he says. “We really like what they do—they’re inspiring.”
Heppner is quick to point out that Priestess, despite a name that practically screams some substrata of gothic death noise, isn’t what he’d even call metal. Priestess is heavy rock.
“Some people have compared us to Queens of the Stone Age,” he admits with maybe a little pride. “But we sort of look up to Led Zeppelin and AC/DC more than Soundgarden or The Melvins. We have all those influences—heavy, but very riffy and melodic.”
Heppner’s reluctance to define his band by terms associated with a harder sound made for some anxious moments opening for Motorhead earlier this year.
“There were a lot of young people at the Motorhead show. Because we’re not so metal we were a little worried.” Turns out the band had a blast, and the tour was great, especially the final stop. “Halifax was the last night. It was fuckin’ awesome,” he says. “I can’t wait to play there again.”
The debut Priestess album drops this month, and the band will have a stack with them at the show. The album is just going to naturally build as we tour,” says Heppner. “We’ll carve it out and play, play, play.” —Carsten Knox
October 13 at The Attic w/Ghosts of a Modern Man and Sons of Butcher, 11pm.
The World Provider
The World Provider’s not-so-hidden agenda is crystal clear when he’s told there’s a healthy roots rock scene in Halifax: “Tell them I’m going to plant some new roots.”
The World Provider is the nom d’etage of Malcolm Fraser, a 31-year-old Montrealer and former cronie of art-rock performers Peaches, Feist and Chilly Gonzales. Fraser shares with his old buddies a distaste for the self-effacing indie-rock vibe, the anti-performance aesthetic. He reacts against it with his theatrical, glam bent.
“The kind of thing I’m doing, if I can say without self-aggrandizement, is futuristic musical entertainment,” he says. “It’s performance art mixed with Broadway. I play keyboards and sing. It’s a classic WP solo show, tried and true, road-tested song and dance act. To describe it verbally would not do it justice.”
Fraser has been playing music since he was a child; he attended choir school and was a singer in his local church. His music career included a stint with punk band Permanent Stains, which still gets together from time to time. The World Provider has been his thing since 1999, but it hasn’t always been an easy sell in Canada.
“There’s a fair amount of disbelief. Sometimes people aren’t ready to take a chance. I’ve had the privilege of having a lot of great collaborators but they had to go elsewhere to be successful,” he says, presumably meaning Peaches and Feist, who both went to Europe to find broader commercial and cultural acceptance. Fraser does feel, however, a sense of musical community in Canada and internationally. “In every town there’s some synth weirdo entertainer.”
When pushed to talk more about his musical philosophy, Fraser says he tries not to intellectualize it, leaving that work to the music journos who spin such hype for a living.
“I’m just here to provide the entertainment.”
October 14 at Stage Nine w/Japanther, Gilbert Switzer and Special Noise, 10pm.
If life were a carnival, Hawksley Workman would be the ringmaster. Known widely for his eccentric on-stage persona, this singer-songwriter tames his inner lions by creating eclectic pop tunes. Lately he’s been touring Australia and recording a new album.
“I suppose it’s sort of a secret,” says Workman. “I dragged my studio from up north into my Toronto apartment. I slept under the mixing console, insulated the room where I sleep for drums and loud things, I had some faith and visions. It came on fast; I recorded the album in about eight days.”
His last album, Lover/Fighter (2003), was a whiskey-soaked declaration of hope. The concept of the record was based on the nature of duality, the struggle of balance. Workman still walks this tightrope.
“Duality is my constant confusion,” he says. “I figure what has me these days is my hope to emerge from these earthly concerns designed to create anger and sadness, which would appear as modern addictions. I’d like to leave booze behind, feel things as they are again.”
Even with this existential clatter flooding his mind, Workman remains in tune and inspired by the everyday.
“Humankind is silly and beautiful,” he says. “Corrupt and loving, destitute and hopeful, lost and found. It’s these conundrums that keep me writing.”
Workman has held postal codes from rural Ontario to Paris. He’s officially a tenant of the universe. “Home is all over,” he says. “I lived in the desert this past winter and I realized I can make anywhere home with little struggle, a product of living out of a suitcase for so many years I guess.”
In addition to his well-travelled boots, he has an extensive trunk stuffed with talents. His debut For Him and the Girls was coy and quirky, followed up by the provocative Last Night We Were the Delicious Wolves. In between the release of Wolves and Lover/Fighter he recorded Almost a Full Moon, a Christmas-themed collection. But music isn’t the only means to soak up his language—he recently released Hawksley Burns For Isadora, a poetry anthology accompanied with paintings by his mother.
“Finding the time these days for other projects is a real trick,” he says. “It seems there is more to blur my vision than there used to be. I’d like to paint, maybe ride my bicycle. I reckon a tour by bicycle may be in the near future.”
October 14 at the Marquee Club w/In-Flight Safety, Fembots and Shawn Hewitt, 9:30pm.
Seth Smith’s plaintive tones and skewed view on people, places, animals and objects binds together the music of Dog Day, a quartet with fellow Burdocks guitarist Nancy Urich and half of the Hold, Casey Spidle (drums) and Crystal Thili (keys).
“We all take music seriously and pretend that we are animals,” Smith explains from Quebec City, where the band has stopped on a tour taking them from Halifax to southern Ontario and back. “Instincts tend to control what comes out as art. If I start pretending then I lose touch with that primal source and then I become confused as to who I am.”
Smith’s frail, sometimes sleepy, vocal style on Dog Day’s Thank You EP may make him sound a little removed from everyday reality. But this is not the case. Smith’s collaged imagery, thoughtful word choice and characters have much to say about people you know, often those lost souls you worry most about.
Smith answers playfully when asked how he creates these little pop gems without sounding like he’s assuming a pose: “I dress up in my dead grandfather’s jacket and drink Scotch. That seems to help. I have a limited vocabulary and don’t speak English very well.” (You can see pictures of Smith onstage in a suit jacket and buttoned-up dress shirt, a la Martin Tielli of the Rheostatics or actor Crispin Glover, so maybe….)
Smith may claim powerlessness with the language, but in fact you’ll hear someone in command, using simplicity to great effect. Maybe he picked up from certain authors? “I find reading frustrating. I can’t get through a page without getting distracted by visions.”
The music matches Smith’s lyrical visions, notably Thili’s moody, analogue keys. Spidle plays drums with a much lighter touch than his hardcore work in the Hold. Just like in Burdocks, Urich plays a key role, setting a nimble pace and playing with a present, light touch on guitar and through vocal harmonies.
Right down to the cover design, a silk-screened engagement ring and diamond pattern, by Yo Rodeo! (Smith’s design partnership with Paul Hammond of Sharp Like Knives), this album boasts plenty of strange and provocative inspiration. The cover “was inspired by a guy I stayed with who lived in a box. He told me my head was shaped like a diamond. It seemed honest at the time.”
October 14 at the Khyber club w/Malcolm Bauld and Great Plains, 9:30pm.
Haligonians should expect little banter when Royal Wood, the admittedly “not too suave” but handsome 27-year-old, hits the stage this Saturday. Instead, be ready for melodic cabaret pop-songs of the finest quality, performed by the male counterpart to local chanteuse Jill Barber, whom Wood considers a friend from the Toronto singer-songwriter circuit.
“I find that I’m incredibly comfortable during the songs, but between songs I don’t know what to say,” Wood says. “And I myself, when I go to shows, prefer it that way. I like to hear song after song.”
Wood started playing piano at age four and later switched back and forth to guitar. He settled on the piano as his songwriting instrument of choice, but still plays both in his live show. He cites a wide range of styles as influences—from early musicals, Gershwin, Sinatra, to modern acts such as Antony and the Johnsons, Sufjan Stevens and The Arcade Fire.
Those influences are on full display in his latest release. Last year’s acclaimed Tall Tales is a collection of layered odes to love and the loss of innocence released by the high-profile label MapleMusic. The full sound is underpinned by Wood’s rich baritone that some have compared to the voices of Rufus Wainwright and Ron Sexsmith.
Wood’s currently in the studio self-producing a follow-up with several guest musicians he’s met in the tight-knit Toronto music scene, including Friday night HPX headliner Hawksley Workman. He promises to play some new material at his Khyber Club show.
“It helps in that when it’s that close, you can call in a lot of favours and a lot of favours are offered,” Wood says about his hometown. “I mean, some incredible musicians are playing on this record for next to nothing. It’s not like I have this huge budget. And they’re doing it because they love music and they want to be a part of it.”
October 15 at the Khyber Club w/ David Trenaman and A Northern Chorus, 10pm.
The members of Halifax hip-hop crew Alpha Flight refuse to pigeonhole themselves to any set influence, so they scour the sounds of the globe, looking for anything and everything to incorporate into their distinct style. But Russian folk music?
“We all put our money together into a big pot, buy some borscht and we dance around and listen to Russian music,” jokes Darren Pyper, AKA MC Ghettosocks. “We listen to all sorts of stuff. The basis of hip-hop music is appropriating other music and having a general love for other music. It’s keeping fresh, listening to other stuff and exploring sounds and avenues.”
Named after the Canadian superhero team, Alpha Flight— including DJs Kevin Bryden (AKA Y-Rush) and Ian Baker (AKA Jabba the Cutt) as well as MC Jared Devine (AKA Mr. Bix)—formed in 2003. But it wasn’t until founding member Kyle McMullen (AKA Aziz the Traveler) died from injuries sustained in a bike accident in 2004 that the group started to take their craft seriously.
“When he passed on it was a big time awakening for me,” says Pyper at a local coffee shop. “It was like the code of the samurai—I wanted to be super disciplined and get things accomplished because I think that’s what he was always striving for and wanted to do.”
Alpha Flight began a weekly Wednesday residence called Droppin’ Science at the Khyber Club, once home to the prestigious slot held by Halifax hip-hop veterans Skratch Bastid and DJ Gordski. The quartet also released their debut album Battle Royale last January and Battle Royale Instrumental earlier this month.
“A lot of people are enjoying what we’re doing, we’re putting on a lot of shows and we’re having a lot of people and guests out to shows,” Bryden says. “With the Khyber Wednesdays, we’re facilitating a night where everybody in hip-hop can come together. We’re doing well.”
After that, there are plans for a solo release for Ghettosocks, possible mix-tape releases for both DJs, and more shows including the second-annual New Year’s Eve Duplex party at the Khyber building. And perhaps tapping into the lucrative Russian demographic isn’t completely out of the question.
“We’ll put out a remix album of Russian folk music’s greatest hits and storm the Russian market with McDonald’s (as a sponsor),” Pyper says, laughing. “We’ll be in a Russian McDonald’s signing autographs one day.”
October 15 at Hell’s Kitchen w/Recyclone, Anonamyss and EMC, 9:30pm.
A Northern Chorus
Those with a heavy heart or prone to bouts of unexplainable crying might want to avoid the Khyber on Saturday evening. The Hamilton, Ontario, slow-core five-piece A Northern Chorus specializes in crescendo-building, tug-at-the-heartstrings music reminiscent of Sigur Rós, Low and Mogwai.
“Every kind of music that you hear and enjoy, I guess in some way influences what you create,” says guitarist/vocalist Stu Livingstone. “At the time (we formed), we were really into bands like Spiritualized, Slowdive, things like that. I think we’ve come away from that a little bit and more so into the post-rock feel.”
The group has been making strides in the US market on the Sonic Unyon label, heavily touring the eastern seaboard and landing in publications such as the Washington Post. Much of that success is due to the release of Bitter Hands Resign last April, a gorgeously lush tome of layered melancholy with lyrics that centre on the struggle between optimism and pessimism.
“Winterize,” the last song on Bitter Hands Resign, tackles the suicide of Elliott Smith. (The much-missed singer-songwriter performed at the Khyber in one of the first editions of the Pop Explosion.) “When I heard about his death, it really impacted me,” Livingstone says. “I’ve been such a huge fan for years and I felt the need to express that in one of our albums. It’s commentary on his depression, where he’d be coming from and why he’d do something like that.”
The Halifax show features a unique line-up as newly appointed A Northern Chorus drummer Steve Hesselink is still learning his parts and won’t make the trip. To fill the gap, the group invited former member Erin Aurich to play violin, creating a mini-string section along with cellist Alex McMaster.
“This show is going to be a little stripped down with almost no rhythm because we won’t have a drummer,” Livingstone says. “This one will be a little more intimate with the two strings. It’ll be more orchestral sounding.”
Sniff…sniff…pass the Kleenex, please.
October 15 at Sam the Record Man w/Shelter with Thieves, 3:30pm, and the Khyber Club w/Royal Wood and david trenaman, 10pm.