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A Film Noir Disco Fantasy

Photo Olia Eichenbaum

Photo Olia Eichenbaum

Fame and fortune sounds just fine to Jef Barbara, he’s just not in a rush to get there.

He just spent five days in Austin to play South by Southwest, including the annual GayBiGayGay show alongside Cakes da Killa and Mykki Blanco, and the POP Montreal showcase. But rubbing shoulders with the industry’s kingmakers isn’t quite his style.

“I tend to not really enjoy going to parties and trying to schmooze with the right people […] it’s not my thing,” Barbara said a day after returning home to Montreal. “I spent a great deal of time eating tacos and enjoying the weather.”

The festival is known both for packed venues with fans eager to lap up the hype and empty rooms—but this year’s SXSW sported some questionably huge acts, like Lady Gaga and Jay Z, alongside the unknowns.

“I’d rather not force things too much, but of course should I be given the opportunity to play for Samsung and get paid a million dollars, I’m not stupid,” Jef laughed. Jay Z’s partnership with the tech company gave festival-goers a chance to see him and Kanye West play if they had the right phone.

But a festival like Austin’s indie music mecca, where similar bands are often grouped together, does show how unclassifiable his music really is. From new wave riffs to sequin-laced synths—to the odd Pink Floyd-like guitar explosion—it all revolves around Jef’s voice, hanging in anticipation off each sparse vocal phrase.


“I won’t fit in with the R&B crowd, nor will I fit into the synth-pop wavey crowd, nor do we fit into the traditionally rock ‘n roll, indie rock crowd,” he says. “Everything’s sort of in the mix, there’s further layers of identity that are put on top, such as my queer identity, that make up who Jef Barbara is.”

Jef has returned to Montreal just in time for a show at La Sala Rossa, celebrating the 15th anniversary of Archive Montreal, who put on the annual Expozine festival, and to raise money for their Distroboto project—local art vending machines in various Plateau spots for over a decade.

His second LP, Soft to the Touch, came out last fall on Club Roll Records, its 14 songs tied together more by its synthy aura than its sound.

Grainy, glammed-up music videos place Jef in front of the camera striking poses, surrounded by a lush fantasy world where everyone is easy and the drinks are free.

He has a background in theatre, but acting is something he could never fully commit to.

“As an actor you’re always subjected to somebody else’s view of you, you have to correspond to one’s idea to what a character should look like and what they should sound like and who they should be,” he said.

“As a singer, you’re not only your own actor but you’re your own director. Creating my musical universe was the easiest way for me to express myself in a holistic way.”

Jef Barbara is both a performer and performance, in a sensory bath of film noir and fluorescent light. But it’s getting harder for him to separate Jef the persona from Jef the person.

“It’s become rather confusing because a big part of the Jef Barbara character was inspired by inherent characteristics that I already had,” he says.

“It is composition, but it’s based on elements that are already part of my personality that I just decided to exploit, and to a certain extent to caricature. I don’t know if it’s a character anymore. I’m a bit confused.”

Jef Barbara (Archive Montreal anniversary w/ Pyongyang + Tony Ezzy) // March 22 // La Sala Rossa (4848 St. Laurent Blvd.) // 9 p.m. // $12

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The Against Me! We’ve Been Waiting For

againstme

Transgender Dysphoria Blues is both a return to form and the record Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace needed to make. It’s the first release for Gainesville’s former folk punks since she publicly came out as transgender. Jumping into the mainstream with their last two records, Against Me!’s fanbase became increasingly weary of following them into the spotlight. Now ditching the major label and with reinvigorated songwriting, this is the record that will win the diehards back.

“We can’t control the medium / We can’t control the context / The presentation” opened New Wave, their 2007 debut on Warner-owned Sire Records, which got the band to no. 11 on the Billboard rock charts. It felt like a betrayal. The revolution was over, and they had chosen fame and fortune over dumpster diving and throwing bricks through Starbucks windows. Being an Against Me! Fan was losing its meaning.

The record’s second single, “Stop,” was a pro-and-cons list of signing with a major label, and the love song with Tegan Quin just seemed like hollow pandering to indie pop fans. It was just too damn pretty for those who fell for this band over its outcast anthems, the ones who were screaming along to lines like “We rock, because it’s us against them / We found our own reasons to sing.”

With New Wave we were left with Laura, then known as Tom Gabel, lamenting a new dilemma none of us could relate to. “It could be me on the T.V. In your living room / It could be me jet-setting with my band across the world,” reeked of hypocrisy for a band whose first LP defiantly demanded a band “That would travel one million miles / And ask for nothing but a plate of food and a place to rest.” They had screamed out ballads lamenting the plight of the working class. The earnestness, the raw emotion that came through even once the acoustic guitars started fading from their repertoire was being replaced by a shallow desire to “make it.”

New Wave, and its Sire follow-up White Crosses, were produced by Butch Vig—the man behind the board for Nevermind and the latest Green Day record. Vig wore down Against Me!’s rough edges, and the product was crisp and clean, ready for the radio—pretty much everything a long-time Against Me! fan would despise. But it cleaned them up enough to do an arena tour with the Foo Fighters.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues leaves all this pop sheen behind, the songwriting finally again feeling like more than a series of scrutinized singles. It was recorded in a Florida studio Laura built herself, and the resulting force reveals the punk band they seemed to be stifling since 2003’s As the Eternal Cowboy. Her politics embedded into songs about death and identity, it’s this sense of rebirth that Transgender Dysphoria Blues really captures. Lyrics like “You’ve got no cunt in your strut / You’ve got no hips to shake / And you know it’s obvious / But we can’t choose how we’re made” bring us closer to Laura than perhaps we’ve ever been before. It’s what makes this record the best thing they’ve put out in over a decade.

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The Radical’s Playbook

boots

Photo by Scott Hess

With an immaculate afro and razor-sharp sideburns, Boots Riley looks like a Black Panther frozen in time, or a long-lost member of Sly and the Family Stone. But the lifelong activist and musician’s politics are only looking forward, ever searching for the path to revolution.

His music is best known from his Oakland-based hip-hop group The Coup, which has been active since the early ‘90s, and more recent work with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello in the Street Sweeper Social Club.

From the MTV crowd to the underground rap show, Boots does it all. After all, he got into music to reach out to as many people as possible.

“Some of what’s informing the revolutionary aesthetic is a punk aesthetic. A punk aesthetic has to do with being rebellious against any number of people, but a punk aesthetic is not one with the aim of creating a revolution of touching the people that are not yet won over,” said Riley.

“This is not about being underground, this is about being above ground. That’s what drives my whole artistic being; it’s what drives who I am.”

Growing up with a father who belonged to the radical communist Union Labor Party, Riley had early insight into class struggles and a distaste for the current economic system. No matter the topic of his rhymes, he says that class dynamics are always present.

“If you don’t have a class analysis [in protest music] that says this world is run by the exploitation of the working class’ labour by the ruling class, then you’re going to come up with all this other mystical shit of why things are fucked up,” said Riley.

“And what you’re going to have is something angry and frustrating.”

He criticizes protest art that only looks inward, saying that you can change inside all you want—but that you’ll only get angrier when the world doesn’t follow suit.

This perspective, he says, comes more from his experience as an organizer than being a musician. What Riley preaches instead is optimism, and he says that his message is one that helps people realize their economic power.

“The problems and possibilities are the same in almost every demographic of people in the world. One is they wish the world was different. Two is most of us think we have no power to affect change in the world. I don’t think that students are more optimistic than most people,” said Riley, who speaks at campuses multiple times a year.

“I think sometimes they are in a material position where they have less to risk than someone who has to feed five kids. But I think they still suffer from the same pessimism.”

He says people need to be reminded that they can change things, not just that things are bad—that people just need to see that there exists winnable battles over material change such as wages, housing and education.

“Often we are told the system is evil, which it is, but in this conspiracy sort of way where there are five people in a room that control the world and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Riley. “I think that optimism grows when there’s a movement, when people are fighting for material things together.”

Riley was a prominent face of Occupy Oakland, where he’s lived most his life. It’s this lack of constructive mentality that led the movement to break down.

“Nobody was meeting and saying, ‘How do we work with people and talk about these ideas?’” said Riley. “Some of that I can relate to an anarchist [perspective], trying to develop someone politically is tantamount to being an imperialist.”

But that idea leaves groups only organizing with people who already agree with you, he says, creating “affinity groups” instead of community groups.

“The unfortunate thing is that the new folks come in with the possibility of becoming more radicalized, but a lot of them were just shunned and went home,” said Riley.

“I think organizers have a duty to know a lot of people. To be friendly, to make conversation wherever you are and to not have most of your friends be other organizers. If most of your friends are organizers, you’re not going to grow.”

He argues that no successful social movement was made by creating a new group of people, that organizing has to be where you work, where you study—that it needs to be more than something extra-curricular.

“If you consider yourself radical that means you want to build a revolutionary movement, and building a revolutionary movement can’t be made by forging an insular culture,” he said.

//

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Hardcore Heresy

The biggest difference between a black metal record and the latest from anthemic anti-Christian punk band Crusades is that only one compels you to sing along.

Perhaps You Deliver This Judgment With Greater Fear Than I Receive it, released last November, is a rallying cry for secular thought and a damnation of Catholic oligarchy—with its lyrics tracing back to the 16th century.

The record revolves around the writing of philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was executed in 1600 for refusing to denounce his theory that the Sun was just another star in an infinite universe. Every song title is a loose translation of Bruno’s Latin texts, and the record’s name was Bruno’s response to his death sentence.

“Bruno’s story actually came to me as a result of a lengthy obsession with Roman Polanski’s film The Ninth Gate and Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel The Club Dumas,” says Dave Williams, guitarist and singer of the Ottawa-based four-piece.

The Ninth Gate, based on Pérez-Reverte’s novel, centres around a fictional book by Aristide Torchia derived from a text by Satan himself. Torchia’s character is thought to be based on Bruno.

It’s the philosopher’s solemn, hooded face on the cover of Perhaps You Deliver…, an image taken from his dark, imposing statue in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, where he was burned at the stake for heresy.

The atmosphere set by the record is the heaviest thing about it—a combination of the record’s theme, its cold, raw production and Williams’ almost academic approach to composition.

“I’m only really interested in writing single, cohesive pieces, both lyrically and musically,” says Williams, who has a degree in musicology from Carleton University.

“Creating a mood, an atmosphere, it needs room to ebb and flow, to breathe. Until we start writing 20-minute-plus songs, it’ll continue to take a full record to make that happen the way we want it to.”

The record is almost deceptively heavy; it’s easy to get caught in the vocal melody before realizing the underlying intensity—furious, metal leads and crushing, shape-shifting rhythm.

As they hone their sound, it continues to move beyond the more straightforward melodic punk heard on their first LP, 2011’s The Sun is Down and the Night is Riding in, be it the hymn-like vocal phrasing of “The Transport of Intrepid Souls” or the ‘80s metal shining through the second half of “The Art of Memory.”

It’s a product of the band branching out of their collective comfort zone.

“As we’ve grown closer as musicians and friends, we’ve gotten more comfortable with bringing our individual influences to the table and working to incorporate them into our sound,” says Williams, which for him meant pulling more from hardcore and metal.

The album was recorded, mixed and mastered in Ottawa by Mike Bond, who also worked the board for 2012’s Parables EP. There’s nothing pretty about Bond’s production style. It sounds the way punk should—dirty, booming and huge—while crafting an array of metal guitar tones.

“We grew up playing music with Mike, and as such, we share many sonic touchstones that I’ve asked him to strive for,” says Williams. “Whether it’s Cave In-esque tones or Barrit-style cleans, Mike knows exactly what I mean and that goes a long way toward achieving a specific vision.”

Crusades is a band all about composition. They have wives, “real” jobs and Williams is a father, but they’re already planning to work on their follow-up LP this summer, and aim to go on an East Coast U.S. tour in the fall.

They’re also now backed by Gainesville-based No Idea Records—a dream come true for Williams.

“No Idea has been my favourite label for many, many years, and to now call it home is surreal, humbling and crazy,” he says.

The feeling is mutual. No Idea signed Crusades after the label’s publicist, Tony Weinbender, was blown away by their set at The Fest, the annual punk festival in Florida he organizes.

And while this record is an immediately engaging performance of furious punk rock, the intent is far beyond just that.

“The hope is that, by combining an intense atmosphere, a passionate message and memorable songwriting, what’s being shouted back at us will have more behind it than just volume and melody,” says Williams. “It’ll have something that people can connect to, with lyrical and musical complexities that reveal themselves a little more with each listen.

“‘Whoas’ and ‘heys’ have their time and place—but doesn’t everyone prefer to sweatily scream something that just might give them chills as well?”

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Welcome the Partycrashers

It’s been a long six years, but A Wilhelm Scream’s new LP is out, and on their terms.

Partycrasher is packed with punk rock anthems and playing that raises the bar in the genre. It’s worth the wait—recorded and funded by the band and released on Gainesville’s No Idea Records.

The record’s been out for two weeks now, making its debut at The Fest in Florida, which bassist Brian Robinson played while touring with Streetlight Manifesto—who just finished a year of shows before going on hiatus.

“It was a very fast four days of my life. I literally got off stage with Streetlight, went straight to the airport and flew to Tampa for pre-Fest. I picked up my four string for the first time—and it felt so weird,” said Robinson.

“But one song into the Wilhelm set and I was back in that mode.”

Filling in on bass for Streetlight Manifesto is not an easy feat. Their signature ska/punk sound rivals the intensity of A Wilhelm Scream—a four-piece horn section is featured in place of distorted guitar leads.

It also meant rocking a five-string and an electric upright—an instrument Robinson hadn’t touched in five years and had “about a night and a day to figure it out.”

With Robinson’s chops and the fact that the two bands have a history as tour mates, the sub-in makes sense. A Wilhelm Scream’s decidedly DIY work method may also come from knowing Streetlight’s situation. The ska staple’s battle with Victory Records ended with the band not being legally able to release their last record.

Partycrasher is a furious album well worth the wait—the production value leaps and bounds ahead of their 2009 self-titled EP, also recorded by guitarists Trevor J. Reilly and Mike Supina in Reilly’s parent’s house in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

“We renovated the shit out of it before recording Partycrasher,” said Robinson.

“We wanted the record to sound on par with something out of the Blasting Room. We started without any label support, so we were basically touring to fund the gear to make the record sound the best it could.

“Why it took so long is because we didn’t make money. We had to go on the road as much as possible. It was too long, there won’t be such a long gap now that we know we can make such a great-sounding record with the gear that we have,” he continued.

A Wilhelm Scream’s last LP Career Suicide came out in 2007, towards the end of Robinson’s first year with the band, and the band’s lineup has been constant since 2008, with the addition of Supina.

The only pre-Supina track on Partycrasher is “Gut Sick Companion,” which Robinson says was made infinitely better with Supina’s riffage.

Partycrasher flips from sing-along choruses to heavy shredding—album-opener “Boat Builders” is something of a pop-punk primer before things get heavier later on.

Robinson says it’s a trend that’s bound to continue with the band getting older.

“We’re not as angry as we used to be. We’re still pretty angry, but we’re not as angry,” he laughs.

“We always get grouped in as melodic hardcore. I would say Career Suicide was pretty hardcore, and Partycrasher is more melodic.”

Now on tour supporting the new record, they’re already thinking ahead to the next one.

“There is a song called ‘Partycrasher’ that didn’t go on the record. And that’s the first step into the next record,” said Robinson, adding that the band will start developing the new LP next year.

With their own studio, a killer new album and love of touring the world, all the hard work is paying off.

“The guys in my band have become absolutely the best friends I’ve ever had,” said Robinson.

“We still get along as well as when I first joined the band, which is a good thing.”

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Post (Yoga) Punk

Once the yoga session was over at The Plant, things got a little loud. We shot the guys in Kurvi Tasch in the north Mile End space ahead of their POP Montreal show.

“Collaboration is the main thing. There was a lick that we worked off of and then a chorus came after that,” said singer and guitarist Alex Nicol of their song “Dead End.”

It’s the band’s usual way of doing things, layering their parts together to form a new song.

They’ve been playing together since the fall of 2011, born in a basement in Villeray that was a short-lived rehearsal space once it became clear they were too loud.

It’s when Nicol, along with bassist Mike Heinermann and drummer Oliver Finlay all lived together in that space that the band was really formed.

“It was really more out of convenience that we started playing together,” jokes Finlay.

Kurvi Tasch is no soft-spoken folk band. Furious drums, heavily effected guitar and lead bass lines drive their almost-new wave sound. In their performance at The Plant, Nicol’s voice gave a slight Morrissey impression, floating on top of the chords in drawn out tones.

In the next few months they’re playing shows on the East Coast of Canada and New York, and they’ve already been out to Alberta earlier this year for the Sled Island Music and Arts Festival.

“Everything’s sporadic, everything’s a demo. What we need is to put out a record,” said Nicol. “We just have to learn how to record ourselves, and that’s huge for our band in the next six months.”

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Viet Cong Out of Cowtown

There’s nothing like a 50-show tour to put a new band through its paces.

Viet Cong has rattled and clanged through half of the tour supporting Victoria shoegazers Freak Heat Waves, taking them through the United States and across Canada and back. It’s a daunting proposition for a band less than a year old, but Viet Cong isn’t exactly made up of a bunch of fresh-faced kids.

The band has the rhythm section of Women, the now-defunct post-punk prodigies that were a staple of Calgary’s music scene.

“The idea is to jump into it. It’s hard to feel like you’re doing anything when you’re stuck in Calgary playing the same venue over and over again. We needed to get out of there,” said Viet Cong singer and bassist Matt Flegel.

Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace are joined by guitarists Scott Munroe, who Flegel had played with in the Chad VanGaalen band, and Daniel Christiansen, previously from a Black Sabbath cover band. After extensive touring the strain started to show in Flegel and Wallace’s old band—a well-documented brawl at a Victoria show in October 2010 marked their last onstage appearance. Guitarist Christopher Reimer passed away in his sleep 16 months later.

In Viet Cong, Flegel and Munroe take main songwriting duties, their sound ranging from fuzz-laden drone to straight pop. Their self-titled cassette surfaced online a few weeks ago as a collection of mismatched home recordings, leaving impressions of the punk and shoegaze their old projects are known for.

But for Flegel those songs were just the orphans of the Viet Cong sessions, and the band is currently sitting on a cohesive debut record—they just need to decide who they’re going to put out the album with.

The new material also adds more synths and drum machines beats into the mix.

“We’ve been bringing that into the fold as the tour goes along,” said Flegel. “This is very much testing the waters.

“Monty is playing synth on almost all of it, it’s becoming more of a lead instrument.”

“There’s a different generation in Calgary making the best music. I feel that we’re old,” said Flegel. Everyone in Viet Cong is around 30 years old, but Flegel says all the best music in Calgary is coming from the 20-somethings.

“It seems like it’s getting better culturally in Calgary in general. It hasn’t always been that way, it’s been a kind of bleak place as far as culture for a while,” he said.

But for those who do stay, bands like Women, and now Viet Cong, show that it’s possible to make it as a band in Cowtown.

“The young dudes probably look up to us, but they don’t know how much we respect them already,” said Flegel.

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