Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Rock’n’roll: Dance Yourself To Death

Toronto's fun-loving punk-pop trio

BASEMENT RECORDINGS. Susan Gale, Jen Markowitz and Nina Martinez of the band Dance Yourself To Death have built early success on a strong musical foundation. Credit: (Paula Wilson)

In the high-tech heart of Toronto’s Harris Institute, Dance Yourself To Death is busy flexing some studio muscle, thanks to a student recording project that’s got the band experimenting with three new tracks.

While Nina Martinez, in the isolation booth, perfects a guitar solo, Susan Gale (drummer and backup vocals) and Jen Markowitz (bass and lead singer), volley ideas from the control room. In between takes Gale announces that her father — who religiously Googles his daughter’s band —just called with an update: “We’re number two on CIUT’s Top 30 chart!”

In fact, Dance Yourself To Death’s self-titled four-track EP, which launches Fri, Feb 23 at Ciao Edie Roxx, has consistently been swallowing top 10 spots on the University of Toronto radio station’s Top 30 for several weeks now (it’s available on Amazon.ca and Myspace.com/danceyourselftodeath).

The EP garnered the trio a prom band cameo in the recent film It’s A Girl Boy Thing by Rocket Pictures (the production company belonging to Elton John and David Furnish) and a spot on the film’s soundtrack — alongside Ozzy Osbourne, Black Eyed Peas and Sir Elton, himself.

Recorded in Martinez’s basement back in October 2005 (mixing and pressing had to wait until last year), the EP was produced under a shoestring budget and a lot of pressure — Rocket Pictures required a demo or no dice.

“I had an apartment on Robert St,” says Martinez. “I’d cleaned out the basement and salvaged the room, put down some old carpet, some risers and set up a rehearsal space. With technology now, you can just set up your computer and some microphones and turn anything into a studio.”

“We worked with Matt Davis, a student at the time, who was interested in trying some producing,” adds Markowitz. “He brought over his computer and some monitors and we just sat in the basement for a couple days. I think we spent $100. And it ended up turning out really well — better than just a bare-bones example of our songs.”

Elton John agreed.

It was director Nick Hurran who initially tabled Dance Yourself To Death; he’d caught the band’s fevered live show in August at the Drake. At the time, Markowitz was gigging as Hurran’s assistant. The band members freaked out when they learned they got the film gig. Soon they were on-set — oddly enough, at the very Hamilton high school attended by Markowitz’s mother — faking their way through the moody rhythmic swell of “Living Funeral” while celluloid-worthy prom drama unfolded in the high school gymnasium.

The ladies then headlined the film’s wrap party at the Spoke Club, better known as David Furnish’s birthday party. Despite Elton’s absence, the show was wild.

“It was fun because it was a really rowdy show,” says Markowitz. “Everybody was loaded. I cut my hand really badly on Nina’s guitar but I didn’t know until afterward when I saw pictures and there was blood. It was way more rockin’ than I am in real life.”

The band has earned bragging rights, for sure, especially given that their first show was only staged in May 2005 at Rock Your Tits Off, a fundraiser for the Tranny Wish Foundation.

Martinez and Markowitz joined forces in December 2004 after meeting through a mutual friend. Both were looking for some rock ‘n’ roll action. Martinez’s critically acclaimed project Blue Raincoats was slowing down and Markowitz, a filmmaker, was itching to indulge her rock fantasies. “I’ve always been into music,” says Markowitz. “But my parents had, literally, three albums. Chick Corea was one of them. In grade nine, I bought an acoustic guitar from a girl at school for $10. I carried it home in a garbage bag. At 15, I spent $250 — my life savings at the time — on an electric guitar. But I’d never actually gone through with finding people to play with. I felt weird, like I was this grown-up person wanting to get into a band. Within three seconds of meeting Nina, though, I knew our concepts matched. And I remember she said, ‘I will be your band, and I will make it happen.'”

The pair began brandishing their instruments, found an interim drummer, and took things onstage just a couple months later. Right place, right time: The gig yielded Gale, who was also performing that night. In May 2005, Dance Yourself To Death officially launched itself.

“The three of us are a really good match,” says Markowitz. “We’re really getting a sense of each others’ strengths in a serious way and we’re absolutely turning to each other for those things.”

Gale, who’s also a painter with a string of sold-out shows, began her 10-year affair with piano at eight, picked up guitar at 11, and drums at 13. She engaged in a lengthy singer/songwriter run that nailed a prestigious gig at the East Coast Music Awards and generated two LPs. She was also the drummer with Queen Size SHAG. “I was lucky,” she says. “Even though my parents didn’t have extra cash, they were really supportive. They bought me drums, a guitar. But the piano lessons were a fight — I hated them, I’d bawl. But it’s what’s given me my skills.”

“We’re all musicians and we’re all songwriters, so we work like a collective,” says Martinez, who teaches music lessons and was recently hired as tour support for The Cliks. “It’s not just about playing an instrument, it’s about writing a great song.

“Because we’re really working for a song, we don’t mind constructive criticism from each other. We leave our egos at the door. All of our hearts are completely invested in every single note.”

Martinez, a music school dropout, boasts an impressive repertoire. She’s adept at the bass, mandolin, banjo and piano, has gigged and toured with numerous outfits and really knows her chops, from classic and jazz, metal and rock to country and experimental. “One Christmas, I was given a guitar and some lessons. When my parents couldn’t afford the lessons anymore, I walked into a music store and said, ‘What can I do for lessons?’ They gave me a stack of flyers and said, ‘Deliver these flyers and we’ll give you some.’ I ended up working at a vintage guitar store in exchange for lessons for about three years. I was around a lot of guitars and rock guys, and I just played. I’ve met [ZZ Top’s] Billy Gibbons and Rick Nielson [of Cheap Trick]. I’ve played old guitars signed by Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“Music is my passion. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to learn and grow, and I’m just going to keep working at it and do whatever I can to learn more. It’s one of those things, just part of who you are, so you just do it.

With the Harris Institute recording project slated to wrap shortly, what’s next? The trio’s aiming for an LP and have fingers crossed on some grant funding applications. “We’re focussed on the full-length,” says Markowitz. “If these [Harris] tracks end up being strong, hopefully we can use them to obtain some sort of label interest.”

In the meantime, Dance Yourself To Death will continue making the brawny, bluesy, hook-laden punk-pop magic that the Alice Cooper-inspired moniker suggests (it’s a song from Cooper’s 1980 album Flush The Fashion). Gale, in fact, recently spotted Cooper strolling past the coffee shop where she works. He was clad in white Pumas, buying for a computer for his girlfriend. “We wanted a really great name,” says Martinez, “and Dance Yourself To Death really captures the spirit of what we want to create — rock ‘n’ roll and fun!”