Full Circle

by Paul Myers, Impact, September 1995

(contributed by Chris Edwards)

It's been eight long years since The Pursuit of Happiness burst into the nation's living rooms with their independent video for "I'm An Adult Now." That single, released at a time when only bands with the words "Glass" and "Tiger" in their name were having hits, was the forerunner of the do-it-yourself indie success stories of the Barenaked Ladies and countless others. And it's been seven years since they teamed up with hero Todd Rundgren for their major label debut, Love Junk. Soon after Rundgren produced its sequel, One Sided Story, two band members split and their A&R champion Mike Bone left Chrysalis Records. TPOH regrouped and toured and soon met up with Bone, who signed them to their second major label deal, this time with Mercury Records.

But the corporate world moved slowly. US producer Ed Stasium (Living Colour, Smithereens), who likes to take his time to get things "perfect," did just that. When The Downward Road finally came out two years later than expected, things had changed at Mercury and Bone was again gone. Despite success with a Bruce McDonald-directed video for "Cigarette Dangles," The Downward Road proved a prophetic title, and TPOH was soon at the fork in the road.

Rumours of the band's demise were whispered, and some were confused by the fact that singer/ guitarist Moe Berg, along with drummer Dave Gilby and bassist Brad Barker, had become increasingly visible as Monteforte, a kitschy joke band whose repertoire included covers of such "guilty treasures" as "What a Feeling (Theme From Flashdance)" and "Heartbeat (It's a Love Beat)." Meanwhile, rhythm guitarist Kris Abbott could be seen rocking out behind Sara Craig. So it seemed almost surprising this May when TPOH made a cameo appearance in the Odds' "Eat My Brain" video and unveiled their own new single "Gretzky Rocks." Their new album, Where's the Bone?, is on the independent Iron Music label, run by Toronto producer Aubrey Winfield.

So the headline would appear to read "TPOH Are Back!" But Abbott is quick to point out that they "never stopped being a band."

"Teresa Roncon reported on Much that we'd broken up," says Gilby. "It's like, why don't you check with us first?"

While Berg is clearly the frontman and leader, it seems TPOH is more like a democracy than most people would assume. "It's always been like that," agrees Berg. "The only thing that's not a democracy is that I write all the songs. Other than that, in a lot of ways these guys have more of a say than I do. Anyone who's ever left this band has left voluntarily."

According to Berg, the long wait before releasing The Downward Road influenced the band's decision to go for a quickly recorded indie release this time. "From the time of saying, 'Let's do a deal with Mercury Records' to the release of that record was like two years," he says. "With Iron Music, Aubrey said, 'Here's the deal. You're going in the studio the day after and the record's gonna come out right now,'" adds Barker. "He doesn't have a bunch of other bands, so it's perfect."

Where's the Bone was co-produced by Winfield and Berg. "We didn't have the massive recording budget like on our last few records," Moe explains, "and I thought it was time that I just kinda went in and did it. In effect, I was sort of co-producing and arranging the records all along. A lot of what producers have offered us in the past have been getting sounds and advising on which songs to record. Todd wouldn't tell someone what to do; he'd tell me something was wrong and to go off and rework it. That was pretty valuable. I learned tons about writing and production, because he forced me to think a certain way.

"The philosophy we had going in was that we were gonna make [Where's the Bone] immediate and live-sounding. We've probably said that every time, but the idea was not to be precious. It's the difference between making a record and recording a record. Making a record you do everything to make a sound perfect. This way everyone plays and whatever you get you get. Which is how records were made in the old days.

"I've always felt that we spent way too much money and time on our records. I think if we were with a big label with a bigger budget we probably would have made essentially the same kind of record - just trying to be as excited as possible, and trying to capture that excitement on the grooves."

"Working with Ed Stasium on Downward Road, we cut, like, 10 takes of the drum parts for each song, and he'd patch them together to make one 'perfect' take," says Gilby. "It sounds great, but it's not one performance. It's patched together."

However, Moe still does exhaustive eight-track demos by himself. "I don't think the song is completely written until I've heard how everything sounds," he explains. "I sort of write and arrange them and play and song everything on tape. I write on guitar, and with guitar I always like to hear bass and drums. Plus backup vocals are a crucial part of my songwriting style."

"They're our keyboards," Dave points out.

"We have a certain kind of sound in our backing vocals," says Kris. "We don't sing with vibrato, and it's always straight chord-like harmonies. It's Moe's design."

"But Todd really helped us define that style back on Love Junk," Moe adds.

The band managed to get the "Gretzky Rocks" single out within a couple of weeks of recording it, but it seems more like something the Rheostatics or Stompin' Tom would do. "When we finished The Downward Road, I realized that I'd made the definitive statement, at least in my own mind, about the stuff I'd been writing about," explains Moe. "I had a hard time trying to find some new subject matter. So I relieved myself of any lyrical imperatives and said, 'I'm just gonna write about anything that might make an interesting song.' Part of the inspiration would be someone like Jonathan Richman, who just writes about anything, a lot more effectively than some people who write about 'important' subjects. In many ways it still bears some of our trademarks, and that will probably make it not successful! Someone who works for some Gretzky-related company said they would love to get behind the song if only it didn't have that line 'Everyone hated Peter and Janet/ For trading the best player on the planet.'"

The Canadian musical landscape has changed a fair bit since TPOH first emerged in the late '80's. Says Abbott: "When I joined TPOH the Canadian scene had no room for alternative sounds, and nobody was signing anything that wasn't a sure thing."

"When we put out our indie single, it was unheard of," says Berg. "It was the same year that the Cowboy Junkies had their big success. Now everyone does that, which is great. That's a big improvement."

"We were at the Casbys that year and Eight Seconds was the big band," says Gilby. "The Box, The Parachute Club, Sons of Freedom, 54.40 and even The Hip were around."

"There's certainly a lot more bands on the road these days, with or without a record out, indie or major," says Barker. "Years ago we'd go to some town and be the only thing happening. Now there's like five bands in town."

Although they were thrilled to be in the Odds video, the band members resist the idea of being in a loop or clique with other bands, preferring to be an entity unto themselves. "I think what's unique about us is that we play Rock Music without the Rock Attitude," says Brad.

"Brad's right, and that's one of the things that may have been a problem for us," acknowledges Moe. "I mean, maybe if we had a different attitude we'd be more successful...temporarily. Theoretically, if you're an artist, you should be playing by your own rules. I don't want to play by someone else's rules; that's not why I started doing this. The reason I play music is that I get to express myself. We're not going to put something on just to appease a certain segment of the audience or to be cool with a certain social group."

"We don't want to be part of any club that would have us as a member," says Brad.

Copyright 1995 Roll Magazines Inc.


Previous Feature Features Index Next Feature