by Teresa Bolter, Beat, August 28, 1996
Most people would probably remember THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS' big single from 1989 I'm An Adult Now. Fast forward to 1996 - the current single is Kalendar, Where's The Bone their album, and the perennially popular Canadian five-piece are busy touring Australia for the third time.
"It's a reference to the lack of penis more than anything. I guess you could put an 'r' on the end of it if you wanted," says the Pursuit of Happiness' guitarist Kris Abbott of their fourth album's title. She's referring specifically to the lyrical 'lack of penis' in Where's The Bone's thirteen songs, written by The Pursuit Of Happiness' main visionary, vocalist and guitarist Moe Berg. "On the first two records Moe had explored a very sexual process in his writing. Everything was about relationships and a heavy emphasis on sex. This record doesn't have that."
The Toronto-based five piece, which Abbott joined in 1987, have carved a successful niche for themselves in the North American markets based around Moe Berg's power pop melodies, insightful and human lyrics, his nasally voice, and Kris Abbott's lushly perfect harmonies. Since they first appeared on the international scene with the single I'm An Adult Now and the album Love Junk TPOH have toured Australia twice (in 1990), changed labels and gained a fifth member (backing vocalist Rachel Oldfield).
Abbott says TPOH began with the definitive purpose that it be purely a vehicle for Moe Berg's songs, so the essential development of the band is driven by Berg's directives and whims. She describes their sound as "pretty much straight ahead rock" (definitely an over-simplification) and says that even though she does write her own material it's understood by everyone that this is Berg's baby. "It's just not on the cards for anyone to walk up to Moe and say 'I've got this song, can we try it?' That's just not what The Pursuit of Happiness is about. That's the relationship that I started with and you can't really change the rules. I've learned a lot from being in the band and working with Moe though, and I really honestly respect him as a songwriter."
Where's The Bone continues and develops the TPOH sound which Abbott concedes is "fairly unique to the band". Now onto their fourth album (actually released a year ago in Canada), Moe Berg is still coming up with plenty of strong melodies and arranges harmonies for Abbott and Oldfield to enhance their impact.
Berg's songs have always verged on the 'slice-of-life' genre of songwriting. Abbott says he's interested in dynamics within relationships - romantic, sexual and beyond - and can evoke a vivid situation with one just one well constructed phrase. And as Abbott has said Where's The Bone breaks the mould, with Berg expanding on his lyrical obsessions for the first time.
While there's still a good dose of relationship/romantic songs, such as the musically buoyant but ultimately poignant "Young and In Love" ('his hair was like Evan's/ it was love at first sight'), Berg has turned his attentions towards other topics. The Australian single Kalendar, for example, was inspired by interactions between people observed in a coffee shop around the corner from Berg's home. White Man is sung from an ignorant white trash point of view, while Gretzky Rocks is an homage to a Canadian ice-hockey hero. "He decided it was time to open up, to basically sit in a chair and open up to whatever inspiration happened to cross his path."
While sitting in that chair a television crossed his path, and Berg found himself morbidly fascinated by the plethora of loathsome 'talk shows' such as Oprah (there are at least twenty in North America). The unpleasant, voyeuristic experience inspired No Reason - 'there's no reason/you don't have to spill your guts in front of everyone/there's no reason to be so indiscrete... ' "In North America the tv daytime talk-show thing is completely over the top. It's just ridiculous. Everybody is having their fifteen minutes of fame and ratting on their family members," says the disgusted Abbott.
Where's The Bone is the sound of a band comfortable with each other and certain of who they are as a unit. After the excitement of their breakthrough single, the Pursuit of Happiness found themselves on a major record label doing the big business thing for the next six years. Now signed to an independent label with major distribution in Canada, the band's career is on a much smaller scale, but Abbott says they're more comfortable with the 'artist oriented' label situation they have created for themselves. "None of us have ever had a job. We make music and really like what we do," she says.
Although they're very serious about their careers, Abbott stresses the importance of the enjoyment factor. "I'm really tired of music not being fun. The reason I play is because I'm one of the misfits of the world and playing music is a way to escape. Everybody in the Pursuit of Happiness is like that," she says possibly reflecting on the meaning behind the band's name. "For the hour and a half in the day that you're playing, that's the only time in the day that truly nothing can touch you. You go and have a good time playing and all the other bullshit around you never comes in the world at that time. That's one of the great things about the Pursuit of Happiness, and that's the reason the band has been a band for this long."
Amongst "the other bullshit" they have to deal with is competing in the music industry of the neighbouring United States. Although Toronto lies very close to the United States border, for the Pursuit Of Happiness (and most other Canadian bands) in cultural terms it may as well be on the other side of the world. While TPOH can shift more than the required units and secure gigs every week in Canada, cities such as Buffalo (a mere 125 kilometres away) or Detroit (300 kilometres) are different propositions.
For TPOH, Toronto's live scene is large enough to support them, with plenty of venues available and other bands to share bills with. Abbott says the band's popularity in Canada is such that they're more or less self-sufficient, with each album selling enough to enable them to record the next. She says however, that the pressure is always there to 'make it' in the United States. As with Australian (and British) bands, once the home country is conquered, America is next. "I think that especially living in Canada, you have some sort of notion that you're not valid unless you're approved by the States. But I really could care less now. The Pursuit Of Happiness is very fortunate to still have pockets of success in different areas of the States. We don't have mass success in the States, but we're still able to go down there and do respectable shows in different cities."
They also do 'respectably' in Australia, a country they like to call the "Canada of the south". When they return to home from their third Australian tour, the Pursuit of Happiness will be releasing and promoting the already-recorded follow up to Where's The Bone. "Someone asked me if it was going to be hard going down and playing an album in Australia that we've already promoted in Canada," says Abbott. "It was like 'are we bored with it?' I'm not bored with playing the songs that were on our first record yet," she laughs.
The Pursuit of Happiness will be appearing at the Evelyn Hotel, Fitzroy on Friday August 30 and Saturday August 31, with support Nitocris. Where's The Bone is available now through TWA Records.
©1995, 1996 Beat Magazine