The Pursuit of Happiness

by Richard Flohil, Canadian Composer, April 1987

Moe Berg is getting used to being interviewed. He and the bass player of his group, Johnny Sinclair, tuck into their Chinese food on Spadina Avenue, and contemplate the rosy future of The Pursuit of Happiness.

TPOH, as it is informally known, consists of Berg, who writes all the band's songs, sings lead vocals, and plays guitar, Sinclair, drummer Dave Gilby and two backup singers, Tam and Tasha Amabile. And, Berg and Sinclair insist, their story proves worthwhile the nonetheless unhappy truism that is held by many apprehensive musicians from Western Canada: To make it, you have to go to Toronto.

"Oh, it's not been bad - it's been wonderful," Berg tells you. A veteran of a raft of Edmonton bands (Modern Minds, Troc '59 and FaceCrime among them), Berg finally packed up and moved to Toronto. "It seemed, simply enough, that there were far more places to play." Dave Gilby, who had played with Berg in some of the earlier bands, followed him - and Sinclair came from Saskatoon, while the sisters, who had fronted a band back home called Dash and the Dots, descended on Toronto from Winnipeg.

The Pursuit of Happiness has not looked back. In the two years since Berg arrived in Toronto, the band has come together, rehearsed dozens of the leader's idiosyncratic tunes, made a startlingly effective video of one of the songs (I'm An Adult Now), released an independent single of the same tune and persuaded WEA of Canada to distribute it, had feature articles in practically every publication based in Toronto (from the Toronto Star to Rock Express), and has played in practically every venue in town, not to mention practically every college and high school within driving distance of the city.

For all that, everyone still has day jobs, with Berg and Sinclair working in a book company warehouse: "We take these boxes of books, unpack them, and then we put them in other boxes and ship them out again."

Part of the initial appeal of the band - and the marvelous nickels-and-dime video which was made by a filmmaker friend ("he had this film left over," Berg explains) - is Berg's appearance. And while it may seem trite to stress the point, it is a fact that TPOH's leader is tall, slim, has straight blond shoulder length hair, high cheekbones, and giant pink-red rimmed glasses of the sort that female executives wear when they're power dressing to make an impression.

"Oh, sure, some people think I look like a woman," Berg laughs, "though it's been a while since I've been called a faggot. Last time that happened it came from a truck driver at Portage and Main in Winnipeg."

While on a superficial level, Berg's personal style attracts immediate interest, what has helped the band more than anything is the video of I'm An Adult Now. Filmed on Toronto's Queen Street West, the video features the band as well as a motley assortment of intriguing locals, trendies, passers-by, drunks, street buskers and a hilariously disinterested small boy who ends the video by dropping a coin in Berg's guitar case.

MuchMusic has played the video for almost six months now and sales of the single have boomed. At the time of writing, the song was appearing on charts across the country, from pop stations to college and progressive stations which clued into the tune when it was first released.

Berg isn't surprised by the song's success, but he is a little nervous about being considered a one- hit wonder. "Actually," he says between mouthfuls of almond chicken and rice, "I don't think it's anything like the best song we've got. We could have done videos on any one of a dozen tunes, and I'm not even sure why we picked that one."

As for Sinclair, himself a songwriter, Berg's songwriting is what drew him into their collaboration. "This band was put together to use Moe's material. I believe in it - I think he's an astonishing writer; he sees things very clearly, and knows how to present what he sees in a simple, straightforward way."

Berg himself takes his writing seriously, but - like many songwriters - finds it hard to articulate the process he takes to produce his music. "I know what I want to have happening musically," he says. "I like a hard-edged sound, but I like a sweet pop feel."

His own slashing guitar work provides the edge, while the sisters' backup singing adds the sweetness. Combined with his tongue-in-cheek lyrics and deadpan delivery, Berg's group have created a unique sound - and there is little doubt that by the time this is bring read, a contract with a major company will have been settled. WEA has an option, as part of the deal for distributing the single, and was in the process of hammering a deal together, preferably one with guaranteed American release.

Meanwhile, The Pursuit of Happiness seems to be coming close to a situation in which its goal is in sight. And Berg, grinning, offers a warm welcome to fellow Westerners. "Jump in to Toronto," he says, "the water's fine!"

Previous Feature Features Index En Francais