“It’s not really background music,” says Ryan Slemko referring to his quartet’s new album, Vintage Red. “It’s something that has to be listened to.”
Slemko is the vocalist for Fidgital, a local, independent electro-funk band comprised of producer Keith Gillard, bassist Brian “Rex” Barry and drummer Craig “Burdman” Burdes. Together, they tweak the dials of musical innovation to new heights, with bold moves into jazz, electronica, funk and shimmering pop.
Since the group’s formation in 1999, they’ve released four albums, two EPs and a 12-inch. Every release since 2001 has charted nationally. Their latest release will undoubtedly buoy them to greater heights of recognition and Slemko looks every bit the up-and-coming rock star.
His boyish good looks and casually sophisticated ensemble of an overpriced blazer on a ratty X-Men T-shirt momentarily capture the passing glances of diners at his favourite Japanese restaurant.
As he takes his seat, he catches me scrutinizing his carefully tended beard which would rival that of any Victorian gentleman. “I managed to find my moustache wax just in time for the interview,” he confides. “Facial hair is so much fun!”
Although Slemko is the only gay member of the group, the other members have worked hard to produce a gay-themed album.
“I’m the lyricist,” Slemko explains. “[The other band members] give me free reign over the lyrics.”
Besides, he notes, the album’s theme, dealing with the myriad of emotions surrounding HIV, is a topic very close to Gillard who lost one of his best friends to AIDS. “Keith is involved in the gay community. He’s affected by this horrible disease as much as we all are.
“This album is completely gay-themed,” Slemko continues, though he soon admits: “I guess I’m guilty in the same way as George Michael in the way I construct my lyrics, insofar as they are deliberately devoid of gender reference so the song could really be about anyone-gay or straight. If you listen to the lyrics really closely though, you can tell it’s gay-themed.”
I ask him why he shies away from direct gay references. “Our audience is not 100 percent gay,” replies Slemko. “I would like for everyone to be able to identify with the songs. I’m not shying away from being homosexual.”
For anyone who takes the time to sit down and really listen to it, Vintage Red is packed with surprises.
“Everyone, I think, assumes it’s another bunch of pop songs,” says Slemko. But it’s far more than that.
“It’s a story about a guy who is in love and is horribly betrayed,” he explains. “He thinks he may have contracted a terrible disease-you can guess which one.”
The album’s story is based on the real-life events of one of Slemko’s best friends, who lived with HIV for more than 15 years.
“He was checked into St Paul’s because of a brain infection. I thought he had dementia. I watched him turn into a skeleton for the next few months.
“The Dr Peter Centre was amazing,” he notes, “because they took such amazing care of my friend when he was recovering. That centre deserves every ounce of support we can give it as individuals and as a community.
“The album is just as much about trust and responsibility as it is about coming to terms with potentially contracting a serious life altering or threatening disease,” Slemko continues. “The situation as described by the narrative is overtly dramatic, but the reality is that as active gay men, we are by default confronted by these issues, whether we think we’re being safe or not.
“We can choose to ignore them or to live in fear of them or, better, we can do our best to accept them and get on with our lives in a sane and responsible way.”
Vintage Red is meticulously structured into three separate acts, each comprised of three or four songs. The acts are distinguished from each other by short transitional songs which serve as intermissions. Each section has a distinct theme that colours the mood of the songs within.
“We wanted to try our hand at a story,” says Slemko. “I think all of our tracks stand out on their own but when you listen to it from beginning to end, in context, the listener can get that much more out of it.”
Vintage Red is a bustling symphony of sublime instrumentals that meld seamlessly with Slemko’s versatile vocals, which might be described as a cross between George Michael and Jamiroquai. The sounds are all over the map from funk, big band, rock, pop, electronica, and so forth. No instrument or beat sequence is spared.
Despite the unabashed blending of all these sounds, the album is extremely tight and cohesive; when this is combined with a multitude of beats you have the trademark Fidgital sound.
“We’ve always tried to take a bunch of sounds and merge them together in harmony,” says Slemko. “We’ve purposely gone and made sure the beats are consistently shifting. We find it interesting and it’s something that’s defined our sound as Fidgital.”
The first three tracks deal with the exhilaration and anticipation around attraction and desire. The second act is an awakening of sorts, tackling themes of shock, blame and despair.
The song Ground Zero, which kicks off the second act, is an abrupt departure from the exhilarating groove of the first songs. It’s a stark, melancholy ballad about the “night after” laced with torment and regret.
The final act focuses on facing and confronting reality. Open Season is a war chant of sorts, in which the protagonist dares to question and ultimately confront that unseen force that pulls all the strings.
The CD’s production is matched by the immense care put into its liner, which includes not only lyrics but a comprehensive listing of each song containing all the instruments used in the track. Each song is accompanied by a vivid painting by queer artist Kierston Vande Kraats, most of which depict members of the band amidst suspiciously human animals.
“If you like sex, especially gay sex, you’ll probably like this album a great deal,” says Slemko as he finishes the last of his miso soup. “It’s really, really gay.”