There’s a country singer, a goth screamer, a sensitive singer-songwriter, a disco producer and a pop star competing for attention in Joel Gibb’s head. But The Hidden Cameras frontman, who cornered the market on “gay folk church music”’ in the early noughties, can only act one or two out at a given time.
“I actually don’t write songs that much anymore,” he says. “I have so many song ideas and songs that I still need to finish writing and record that I just don’t try. I feel like once I’ve put out a few more records with this backlog of songs, then my brain will have enough room to make more songs. There are only so many songs you can keep in your head.”
To illustrate his point, he opens iTunes on his laptop and clicks on an unreleased recording of the song “Gay Goth Scene” featuring an extended (and terrifying) vocal freakout by cult Canadian rock icon Mary Margaret O’Hara. “I’m making a goth record and a country record at the same time,” he says. “I’ve pretty much mixed half of this country record, which could come out in two years.”
It’s a sleepy, overcast Saturday in August, typical of the summer just past: It threatens to rain, it eventually drizzles, it stops and then starts again. Gibb is seated in the driver’s seat of his mother’s car just off Church St, where he has been searching for a new pair of sweatpants for his boyfriend in Berlin, the city he’s called home for nearly four years.
The pants are a birthday gift that will please Gibb as much as if not more than his boyfriend because they will replace an unacceptably tattered old pair. When asked what he has in mind, his response is as vague as it is vivid: “Something that doesn’t make me want to throw up.”
He’s returned to Toronto for a few weeks to spend some face time with his label Arts & Crafts, take press photos, finalize the album’s design and sort out details around the release of The Hidden Cameras’ fourth album, Origin:Orphan. It’s all very mechanical and Gibb is itching to get back to Berlin for a few weeks before a 32-date North American tour overtakes his life in the fall.
The Hidden Cameras is at once a solitary endeavour and a highly social one. The band began nine years ago, the brainchild of Gibb, who writes and produces all the music and designs all the album art himself.
They are best known for their legendary stage shows which feature a small army of self-taught and session musicians surrounded by scantily clad go-go dancers and felt banners bearing homo-fied religious iconography, skulls, shit and daggers.
Nowadays, Gibb writes in Berlin and the eight-odd musicians (not including the choir) who make up the live band generally have no idea what they will be playing until he turns up in Toronto and convenes rehearsal.
The 11 tracks on Origin:Orphan are a mix of new stylistic adventures and familiar sounds. Upbeat indie pop anthems exist alongside solemn orchestral ballads, a few weirdo disco beats and the odd flirtation with psychic drone. He wrote two dancey tracks, “Do I Belong” and “Underage,” with a keyboard he bought at secondhand store Chez Thrift in Bolton, Ontario. The beats were programmed by producer friends in Berlin.
“The process of making the music in Berlin was freeing,” he says. “You’re just free there with a keyboard and you can experiment a little bit more.”
Through all the experimentation, Gibb’s melodies remain spot-on catchy and there are plenty of songs that will have longtime fans bobbing wildly at shows. What’s different is the darker lyrical tone. It’s often sad and wistful, even during the most upbeat of songs. Gibb’s songwriting is more refined and slightly less reliant on bodily fluids as metaphor.
Though he refuses to hang a concept on the album, he chose “Origin:Orphan,” a song about alienation, for the title track because it best captures this darker feeling.
“That’s the glory of music, you know?” he says. “Certain truths are not necessarily cheery things but music can be. My enjoyment with writing songs is the contrast that you can create or the contrast that exists between words and music.”
Take “The Little Bit,” a brassy call-and-response number in which the baritone members in The Hidden Cameras choir comment on Gibb’s rhetorical relationship woes: “Am I to blame for the advent of pain, dear?/ A little bit of amity a little bit of lust/ I’ll suck the venom from your skin but you won’t let me in/ A little bit of spittle and a little bit of blood.”
The song is Dave Meslin’s favourite off the new album. Meslin, or Mez, has been involved with The Hidden Cameras since their first show at now-defunct Queen West gallery West Wing in 2000. He worked the projector at the band’s infamous Bread and Shit Show at the Metro porn theatre in 2001 and then started out in the band as a drummer.
While many of the musicians who have played on stage in The Hidden Cameras over the years hailed from either the indie rock or queer art scene, Meslin is a grassroots community activist, the cofounder of Spacing magazine, a self-taught musician and a straight guy. “He’s basically a very unique member because he kind of knows every song on every instrument,” says Gibb.
Meslin draws a direct parallel between his political work and Gibb’s approach to music. “We’re colleagues in different spheres,” he says. “My political work tries to stay really positive and engage people who wouldn’t normally be engaged by doing it a different way.”
Along with Maggie MacDonald and viola player Lief Mosbaugh, Meslin is one of the oldest band members. What’s interesting about many of the new members is they’re originally from outside Toronto. They’re fans of the band from across Canada that contacted Gibb to offer their musical services.
Trumpet player Shaun Brodie was living in Vancouver in 2003 when he emailed Gibb and offered to play during a gig at Richard’s on Richards. “I was like holy shit, this is my dream,” Gibb says of receiving the email. “This is what I’ve always wanted people to do after hearing the band.” Brodie has since toured with the Cameras to Germany and now plays guitar.
In 2006 drummer John Power boarded a bus from Toronto to London, Ontario and introduced himself at the merch table. Bass player Jon Hynes joined the choir during a gig in St John’s and keyboard/organ/glockenspiel player Laura Barrett is an ex-choir member.
Though Meslin says he’s secretly hoping their ringleader will move back one day, the social dynamic Gibb has discovered in both Toronto and Berlin seems to suit his creativity and the duality in the band perfectly.
“In Berlin there’s a sense of anonymity that just doesn’t exist in Toronto,” says Gibb. “It takes years to meet enough people. I feel like in Toronto, if you have no plans then just one day you can walk down the street and find your own adventure with people that you know.”