It’s all about the journey: Vancouver’s Armstrong Jr tests the waters of his soul in his first musical exploration, Come Show Your Face, released last month.
Armstrong Jr doesn’t look like the pale, sombre figure depicted on his album cover. In person, he is well tanned and sports a Mohawk, a scrappy beard and a leather wrist cuff as he lounges around, comfortably shirtless.
Gesturing fluidly as he talks, he places his right hand on his chest and begins to explain his tattoos: “courage of spirit” on his left pec, “wisdom of thought” on the nape of his neck and “energy of body” on his calf. He laughs easily and openly while discussing his first album released last month, Come Show Your Face.
The 10 tracks on Come Show Your Face are culled from an array of more than 70 songs Armstrong Jr crafted over the last two years in his home studio. By “home studio,” I mean a Power Mac with a mic, keyboard and multiple monitors, just two feet from his bed, “where the magic happens,” he laughs.
His recording project and its marketing have so far been funded completely from his own pocket. Even with limited resources, this summer he performed at Celebrities Nightclub, Jupiter CafÇ, Rapture 7, and smaller venues around Vancouver. He was also featured in a video screened at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, performed on the main stage at Toronto’s Pride celebration, and sold over 500 copies of his CD in the first two weeks of its release.
All this while working his day job as a credit granter for a large bank.
“This CD is a conversation with me and others who happen to be gay,” he explains. “I talk about what I know. It’s nice to hear songs about [gay] relationships, and not just as plot devices,” he adds.
Come Show Your Face “is about self-discovery,” he continues. “Not to say that I lived a superficial life before this, but I didn’t know I was good at anything before I started doing this.”
The finished product is an urban narrative that moves through stages of self-realization, partying and regret, seduction and loss. It doesn’t shy away from the sexual.
The first three tracks move quickly through a story. Beginning with the coy “Ride with Me” (and its revelation that “16 was the age I woke up and realized/that I might like to do more than just hang with the guys”), Armstrong Jr quickly confides that “I Like It,” before swinging into the sexual syncopation of heavy breathing on the title track.
The native Torontonian still remembers coming out to his friend Jen while they belted out Alanis Morissette songs in a typical moment of shared teen angst. It wasn’t long before he began experimenting with his friend Will. “It felt safe and it felt good.”
Today, the budding singer (whose real name is Sean Gregor) says he owes his stage name to his step-dad, whose last name is Armstrong. “He’s one of my biggest supporters. He taught me how to make the right decisions. There wasn’t much choice but to honour him in some way.”
His mom cried when she saw him on the Toronto main stage this summer; his step-dad, an old disco queen himself, was particularly taken with the song “Never Ending Discotheque.”
“A misprint on my driver’s licence made me 25 at the age of 16,” Armstrong Jr, now 27, smiles. “I kind of became addicted to partying. You know the opening scene in Studio 54, where you can see the stars in his eyes? That was me. And boys with boys holding hands was just awe-inspiring.”
Gaining access to the clubs early fuelled the second stage of his coming out process. Until then, a room full of boys touching boys “was something that had only existed in my mind, or late night on Showcase [for] a fleeting moment. Then I saw it in real life and thought, ‘Oh my god, this is real. Okay, I’m here, I’ve arrived.”
Fans of Armstrong Jr’s sound will be familiar with the post-punk dance metal from the likes of Death From Above 1979 and last year’s synth-pop club hit Chromeo. Between stretches of smooth bass his sound gets gritty and hints at the dirty.
“I really approach [songwriting] organically and holistically,” he says, explaining that the track, the words and the melody tend to come to him all at once, particularly when he’s walking down the street.
The whole thing is “an exercise in rhythm,” he continues, playing with his multitrack. “I started off with these two beats here, very simple sounds…
“Let’s jump forward to the meat of this,” he declares and advances to the middle of the track, dropping a full-bodied, danceable electro sound that he made in only a day.
“I call the genre electroscopic: electro, disco, pop and hip hop,” he says. “The rap or hip hop aspect is between spoken word and hip hop. I’m just experimenting with sound.”
Each song on the album plays with the electro genre enough to keep a contemporary fan interested in its build-up and fill-out, while shying away from the monotonous style of club techno.
“I like contrast in music. There’s a very definitive bridge,” he says. “Nonstop chorus doesn’t really go anywhere.”
Though his CD is liberally sprinkled with vocoder, a sound effect that makes his voice sound digitized, his natural voice is really quite pleasant. He sings to himself during our interview as he runs around the house, taking stairs by twos.
“I’m deaf in my right ear. Completely deaf,” he confides. “In Grade 4, I dove into a pool and I got a cyst. They had to remove the eardrum. I can hear harmonies and where I fit in just a little bit more.”
Of all the tracks on his new CD, he says “Ride With Me” is closest to his heart. “I like the trueness” of it, he says. He even got tears in his eyes while recording the bridge. “It’s an invitation to come and understand me, respect me for who I am.
“That’s why I led the whole CD off with this song,” he adds, saying this is where he’s starting off as a queer artist.
Come Show Your Face concludes with “Your Story,” a solemn reflection on death.
“A lot of people in my life died back in Toronto ranging from family members to friends and acquaintances,” he says. “I looked at all of their lives and I thought some of them didn’t go anywhere and some of them lived their lives to the fullest.”
For Armstrong Jr, exploration is the key to living his own life to the fullest. You know that quote about doing something everyday that scares you, he asks. It’s all about growth and exploration. “There’s so much in this world that I want to do.