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Tall Poppy Interview: Joel Gibb

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Kincardine-born, Mississauga-bred, Toronto-based, and Berlin-bound, Joel Gibb is the musical and managerial head of The Hidden Cameras, the fantastic and always well-populated music collective whose members have included Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy), Reg Vermue (Gentlemen Reg), Laura Barrett, Maggie MacDonald (Republic of Safety), Dave Meslin (founder of the Toronto Public Space Committee), Bob Wiseman, Steve Kado (founder of Blocks Recording Club, member of Barcelona Pavilion and Ninja High School), Ohad Benchetrit (Do Make Say Think), Don Kerr (The Rheostatics), and many, many others.
The Cameras earned their reputation in Toronto for their exuberant (and very gay) live shows, and solidified that reputation with records like their brilliant (and very gay) The Smell of Our Own, all of it with Gibb at the helm––”One Nation Under A Fag,” as Exclaim! once put it. Recently, however, the band has started both a physical and musical move: Gibb, now thirty, spends a good amount of his time living in Berlin rather than in Toronto, while the band has started to transition away from the spectacle that once defined them, both live and on their latest record, Awoo.
Gibb, back in Toronto for December to record the next album, met with Torontoist just before Christmas at a café on Bloor near Ossington to talk about the band, its music, Berlin, and how amazingly shitty mainstream culture and Mississauga (and Hazel McCallion) are.


Torontoist: Do you have a title for the next album?
Joel Gibb: No, no. I don’t even know what it’s gonna be––I’m just working on material. It’s a different way of working through music. But…I know what the first song’s going to be [and] I know what the last song’s going to be. So I already have a general concept since I know what those things are, but I don’t even want to think about what it would be called till I have a lot of material finished, and it’s mixed.
You told Eye that this album would have the darkest content you’ve ever written [one song, Gibb told Sarah Liss, is "a lot darker than anything we’ve done"], and it seemed like Awoo had moments of that too. Is there a movement towards that?
Yeah. There’s a lot of dark songs. But…each song is different, so I don’t really want to generalize, because each song is so different…
It seems like some of the older stuff can be characterized by being really jubilant, like “Smells Like Happiness.”
Yeah, that naivety is kind of worn, I would say.
So you’re not really interested in that kind of presentation?
I am, but I’m interested in many different forms…I think the new record will be more diverse. I’m interested in trying to do something more than [that].
A lot of [Hidden Cameras] songs tend to take different forms––there are 7″ [records] that have different versions, and EPs that have different versions, and albums that have different versions. When you finish an album, are the songs on it finished? For example, “Smells like Happiness” is [sometimes] different live, like in that La Blogoteque show
Well, there’s no rule about things like that, you know? I think live versions should be kind of different.
Do you ever feel done with the material?
I mean, done in the fact that I don’t want to listen to it anymore…
So that’s about it…
Depends. I think you have different relationships to different songs, and if you are playing a song live and somehow it evolves, or the live band at the time has a really good interpretation of it, it’s always nice; it’s not like playing a record over and over. Once you’re playing the song live, it’s always sort of fresh.
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Do you think a live show is a way to expand on the material? Work with it, give you a chance to rework some of it, and just play around with it once it’s already put down on a record?
Yeah, a song live can be completely different. I don’t even realize half the time when the songs are different. Cause the live thing is different…when you record a song, you can think a little bit more creatively or conceptually about how it connects to other songs on the record, but in a live show, it’s completely different because you’re mixing it with all these other songs and you’re wanting a live effect. So maybe the songs could be longer or shorter or have an extra chorus or sped up. We speed everything up when we play live a lot because we get too excited. Sometimes we should slow down.
Do you think that you’ve toned down the material, both live and on the album, recently? There’s less songs about, like, water sports
I wouldn’t call that toning it down. I didn’t intentionally tone anything up to tone it down. I’m just doing what I do. [Laughs.] I’m not thinking about our new record like, “Oh, am I toning it down more?” I don’t really care about that. It’s not really my focus.
It’s certainly an angle that people come at the band with, though––like, here’s this gay band. Do you think that’s an unfair thing to place on [the Hidden Cameras]?
I don’t care. As long as people write about it, I’m just so happy people write about it. I don’t really care. I mean, I just try not to read it. But I don’t care. I just think it’s great that people can just take whatever interpretation they want to take from it, you know? It’s important to be truthful in your art, so that’s all I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to up anything.
But do you think being labelled as [overtly sexual] could potentially hurt with––I don’t want to say “mainstream” audiences––but…
Good, I fucking hate mainstream. Who wants to appeal to mainstream audiences? It should be the other way around. We shouldn’t cater to mainstream audiences. I don’t like being asked that, because then it makes me feel like, “Oh, what am I doing wrong? I shouldn’t be doing what I do.” I don’t try to think about that. I think about making unique and important and authentic art. How can I think about a mainstream audience?
gibb_mainstream.gifI think the reason why that question comes up is because everyone has in their mind the idea that people just want success…
Who wants that kind of success? [Laughs.] It’s never good. I think success is having an audience, having people who want to talk to you about your art, that’s success. I hate mainstream.
But “Umbrella” [Rihanna's song, which the band played a spectacular cover of a few days before this interview at their AIDS benefit concert] is good…
Before, in the 60s, mainstream was cool, right? I mean, “Umbrella” is a good song, but every other song on radio is just a copy of some other song. Songwriting is copying––why don’t you just write a new song? Mainstream culture has just been degraded.
But there are bands that mainstream has just barely embraced––and it’s hard to generalize about mainstream culture––but someone like Feist, or Arcade Fire, where they’re still on the periphery and they still have these fans and they’re still making good music…
There’s little glimmers of hope…but I wouldn’t consider that mainstream.
You spend a lot of time in Germany. What place is more like home to you?
Both [Toronto and Berlin], I guess. I’m still home here, but I’m sort of forging a new experience in Berlin.
What are some of the differences that have really hit you between Germany and Toronto?
Like what, culturally?
Anything, really…
Experientially? Well, I’m not from Berlin. I’m a complete stranger. That’s the biggest thing.
Is that a big draw, the idea of going somewhere new?
That’s great! [Laughs.]
I like that, I like learning––I like learning new things, learning a new language. I feel like you can get stuck in a rut. It’s not that Toronto is anything, it’s more just that Berlin is so exciting and new, and I can focus more on important things like art, things like that, rather than getting caught up with other things here.
Like what other things?
You know, it’s my home town….
And everything that goes along with that…
Yeah…. Well, Berlin is getting to be very familiar too, and so I bump into people on the street, but I feel like I know everybody here. Which is nice, but… [Shrugs.]
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Photo of the Mississauga/Brampton border by sevennine from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Are you totally glad to be rid of [Mississauga]? [The band's title track from its 2004 album contains lines like "Mississauga people / carry the weight of common evil / and go about their lives with a whisper and a whine about Mississauga Goddam."]
I don’t know if you can ever be rid of where you’re from. I’m not rid of it. Mississauga could be any place, you know? But Mississauga is, I think, a very good example of what’s wrong with our society, from the fascist ruler––Hazel McCallion, who’s been the same mayor for thirty years; it’s like, where’s the democracy there, you know?––to things like the infrastructure, the suburban sprawl, there’s very little quality public transportation, or any kind of public space, or any community. It’s a really good example of that. And then my high school, Meadowvale––apparently they were the first school, I think in the world, to have television sets in every classroom that they would put commercials on. It’s sick! That’s sick––corporate sponsorship. Companies would be, “Oh, we’ll pay for these computers if you let us put these TV screens and pump commercials… “It’s just endless, endless lists of how awful Mississauga is. And apparently it’s a really rich city, but at what cost? What cost?
I need to write a more positive, idyllic song about Kincardine, because that’s where I was born….It’s just a quaint little town with a lighthouse and a beach.
gibb_mississauga.gifIn terms of the band, is there a significant benefit to having it be more of a collective where you’re the centre––if that’s a fair way to paint the band––as opposed to having, like, six firm people who always go together and play live together and record together?
I like the fact that every person [like Maggie McDonald, Mez, etc.] has their own unique relationship to the band, putting in what they can put in, and I think that’s great. I don’t really want what you’ve suggested––six people who are always going to be doing things together. I think it should be organic. There’s so many factors in planning a tour.
It’s easier for you, then, to go play in Germany for several months with a different bunch of people playing with the band…
It’s always different––every tour we’ve ever done has always been different––and of course there are solid people, but [there are] always slight variations. Even on a tour, each show can be different.
Like [one of our percussionists] who plays on Mississauga Goddam lives in Frankfurt, and he’s a classical percussionist, so he played in Frankfurt, Munich…scattered gigs throughout the years. And that’s great that he can come in when we’re around his area and play. Or…in Vancouver, we can always round up a choir….and we just did a show in St. John’s, and we had a choir for that…. And there was a choir in Munich. And so it’s just great that, over the years, you can form relationships with people in the city and actually have a kind of show that’s local as well as very unique.
Does a structure like that lend itself to a lot of creative control for you?
[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s my creative baby, you know? It works perfectly because it allows me to shape everything, and also allows many people to share in what I’m organizing.
Have any labels limited that [creative control]? Have you ever felt pushed or constricted by any labels you’ve been on?
No, no, not like that.
So you can finish [an album], send it off to the label, and say: “This is it, and this is the order we want it in.”
Yeah––our first record on Rough Trade. They wanted to mix it differently, but I just sort of said no. And they were fine with that. But it would’ve been cool to hear what they would have wanted. [Laughs.] I just make the music for myself.
Mississauga Goddam was mixed to sound a certain way. It doesn’t sound like modern music, it doesn’t sound like commercial radio music. For that, it was an expensive record––many, many tracks, very complicated––but in the end it sounds like it should be coming out of a little mono speaker. I don’t think that concept really jives with all that commercial [stuff].
Awoo has a different sound to it…. Where songs like “Ban Marriage” or “I Want Another Enema” or all those songs sound like, you’re right, [they're] coming out of a tiny speaker, Awoo sounds––for example, I’m thinking of the beat in “The Waning Moon”––really, really crisp.
Yeah, there’s no reverb [on that beat]. We put tons of reverb on everything, and it makes it sound really muddy and dense and there’s none on that. That’s always good to do. I kind of really like reverb [Laughs.], so it’s nice to turn it off sometimes.
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Were you making music before [you met Maggie MacDonald and Steve Kado at the University of Toronto in 1999 and 2000]?
Just by myself.
Under the name Hidden Cameras?
No, I was like, I knew I wanted to be doing something with music, but I hadn’t ever really performed or even given my songs to people. People didn’t even know I was musical at all, so I had to surprise people and be like, “Oh, I actually make music!” So I played it for Maggie in the car to test the waters out, because I never had any experience with music.
[The Smell of our Own] was the first official record with a band. Ecce Homo was just my four-track recordings that I made before I had an actual band. And they represent two different strains, because I’ve released other things that have been more four track-y.
[When you come back to Toronto,] will there be a show, or several?
Maybe! I want to do a film, record more. Yeah, I’ll probably do a show.
What’s the film?
A video…it’s hard to describe, but it’s for a song called “In the Na.” And we’re gonna shoot it in a farmer’s field and have office furniture and have some strange dancing and interaction with the furniture. [Laughs.]
A lot of the people have passed through The Hidden Cameras at some point. What do you see the role of [the band] in Toronto, even as it moves away and becomes more of an international band while staying local?
I think it’s great that The Hidden Cameras can be a band where people meet each other, and where people exchange ideas other than musical ones. I like that people move, [that] people are free to move in and out. It’s more than just a band in that sense. I’m happy that it’s like that, and everybody else is happy with that as well.
All photos by David Topping unless otherwise credited.

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