A Pioneer’s Spread Legacy: An Interview with the Hidden Cameras
Upon the release of their latest pop tour de force, Origin: Orphan, PopMatters sits down with Hidden Cameras frontman Joel Gibb to discuss everything from the clubbing of seals in Canada to the inspiration of Franz Schubert.
The Hidden Cameras’ latest pop tour de force, Origin: Orphan, goes down so smoothly one could easily forget that frontman Joel Gibb was, not so long ago, a cultural revolutionary. When Gibb’s band The Hidden Cameras released The Smell of Our Own in 2003, no one had revealed the sordid ins-and-outs of young gay men’s unbridled sex lives quite like Gibb. Gibb’s trick was to wrap it all up in a gorgeous, melodic pop bow, so that voyeuristic lyrics depicting golden showers, toe-sucking, and fingering foreign dirty holes in the dark, might stay hidden or go unnoticed on the indie pop landscape.
Other art forms have had their gay-pride pioneers. Photography had Robert Mapplethorpe; film had John Waters; literature had Gore Vidal; and canvas painting and public murals had Keith Haring. But even as some pop musicians were out and proud, their output tended towards the asexual to ensure they’d find widespread appeal and mainstream success. Elton John and George Michael, for instance, sang chart-topping hits and poignant ballads that appealed to lovers everywhere, regardless of gender. The closet doors of recent decades have swung wider to make room for queer pop virtuosos like Rufus Wainwright, Stephen Merritt, Antony, and Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear. But while all of these men share Gibb’s penchant for the haunting, swoon-worthy, and operatic, none have ventured into Gibb’s territory of raw and explicit lyrical content.
Gibb is often lumped in with these contemporaries because his melodies are by turns pretty and orchestral, and his mood can be so playfully light that one might not even notice the evocative lyrics. With the Hidden Cameras, there has always been a recognizable discrepancy between the lyrics and the music, which serves to elevate the sum of its parts to a higher art form altogether. Some might like the music just for the music; others might be drawn specifically to the shock-and-awe of the lyrics, and the band’s fans spread out across a kaleidoscopic spectrum of appreciation.
When the Hidden Cameras released The Smell of Our Own, all those penetrations and blush-worthy bodily liquids solidified the band’s still-fervent fan base, while simultaneously alienating more conservative consumers, thus relegating themselves to permanent “cult” status, something Gibb himself has actively fostered. The band’s elaborately staged live shows often begin with the dozen band members in cloaks and hoods at a crossroads cathedral of Wiccan, Druid, and Christian ideologies, before inevitably devolving into raucous, ecstatic dance-party sing-alongs, replete with shirtless b-boys and go-go dancers. Gibb himself branded the Cameras’ oeuvre as “gay folk church music” on the band’s very first show flyer, a label which has stuck throughout their near decade-long career.
Of course, Gibb has matured as a person and as an artist, as has the corps of increasingly tight musicians with whom he surrounds himself in the Hidden Cameras. As he’s done so, the theatrics and bacchanalian lyrics have been toned down to better make room for monogamy and new facets of romantic love, which in Gibb’s hands are no less poignant or hard-hitting. New tracks “He Falls to Me” and “Colour of A Man” are quite possibly the most soulful back-to-back love songs on any record to be released this year. Yet, in fits and starts, you can hear Gibb pining for those youth-soaked days of reckless abandon. On “Underage,” Gibb sings, “Let’s do it like we’re underage” and, “You grew out of everything that you could ever be,” even as the underlying music charts new directions with synthesizers and distorted vocal effects not previously heard in Gibb’s music.
Hopefully by the time gay marriage is as common as any other, Gibb’s politics and sexuality might fall away from the discussion, and he will be recognized for what he is above all else – a pop master. But in a time when a group of people is still being denied equal rights simply because of who they choose to commit themselves to, we have Gibb’s music to remind us that love is a universal construct we all need, regardless of who that love is between. Or forget the lesson - hit play, tap your foot, shake your hips, and ban marriage altogether. Gibb will be happy either way.
On tour in North America supporting Origin: Orphan, Gibb recently sat down with PopMatters at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
How was the Halloween show in Montreal?
That was a lot of fun.
Do anything special?
We had costumes. And everybody else [in the audience] was in costumes. Everyone got really drunk. It was amazing how crazy it got after the show. I thought our show was crazy, but it was nothing compared to the party afterwards, to the point somebody dumped their G-and-T [gin-and-tonic] on [bassist] John’s [Hynes’] amp. So one of our guitars doesn’t work because this party was so good.
I’d like to talk to you about the new record, Origin: Orphan, which was released at the end of September. I know you’ve been living in Berlin for a while…
Splitting your time between…
Okay. Gotcha. Not living there though?
Was the album recorded in Berlin, Canada, or a mix of the two?
A mix of the two, but mostly it was recorded in Toronto.
In terms of musicians, does this album contain a cast of characters similar to past albums?
Was it harder to organize these recording sessions, given that you’d been spending time in Berlin and many of the players live in Canada?
The recording sessions were spread out over so many years. “Colour of A Man” and “He Falls To Me” were recorded at the tail end of the  Awoo sessions on Toronto Island, but they were finally mixed just this past January.
“Colour of A Man” and “He Falls To Me” are actually my current two favorites on the new record, along with “Underage.” Was “Underage” recorded along with the other two?
“Underage” was the newest one – all done in Berlin, except the horns which were recorded in Canada. That was common with a lot of the songs on the new record. There was a lot of back and forth – recording in one place; overdubbing in another. Our violin player lives in London so we did all of his parts in London.
To me, “Underage” felt like a throwback to The Smell of Our Own. Was making that song a nostalgia trip for you?
I don’t think of that song as nostalgic at all. I mean it’s about nostalgia, but it’s not a throwback to… um… what do you mean?
For a listener, it evokes nostalgia, so I was curious if it felt that way for you.
Maybe. I feel like it’s the most unique song because it’s not organic. It’s totally programmed. It’s all artificial - all synthesizers. Even my vocals are put through this weird treatment, so for me it’s actually something new.
Last week, I was playing the last track, “Silence Can Be A Headline,” for my wife, and she remarked how it reminded her of a 1950’s prom song.
Yeah that provides the vibe, but I always associate it with this specific song by [18th century Austrian composer Franz] Schubert. But I guess Schubert is where the folks writing those 50’s ballads were getting their inspiration perhaps.
Which Schubert song?
“Nacht und Träume.” “Night and Dreams.” But all Schubert’s songs have lots of piano and are generally like pop songs or pop ballads.
The music video you directed for the new album’s first single, “In The NA,” was an elaborate undertaking with serious production values. What was the biggest challenge that shoot presented?
The heat! That day was one of the hottest days of the summer, and the shoot was very physical. In a way it was the opposite of the “Awoo” video, when it was freezing cold and at night. This way, it was hot and sunny and tortuous. Wearing these office clothes and running through fields in the blistering hot sun. But that’s the whole point of art, you know? You can’t show up and just lay about in a Jacuzzi with people in bikinis all day long. You’ve got to do something.
Any chance I can get you to reveal what “The NA” is?
It’s a variable. It doesn’t mean anything. Well, it means everything. And it means nothing. It can mean anything to you. It’s like “x,” “y,” or “z.” You could go through the song and put what you want in it, and it could mean something else. It’s playing with the idea of meaning, and interpretation as well. So for me to tell you what it is would defeat the purpose of the song. I must admit though that I like that so many people are wondering what it is and talking about it. Some people are convinced it stands for “Non-Applicable.” They say they “heard that’s what it stands for,” so that’s what it stands for. But I never said that! I like “North America,” especially when we’re touring North America. [laughter] It’s the “In The NA Tour” because, you know, we’re “in the NA.”
I guess you’ll need to find a new meaning when you take this tour overseas.
People are saying “Narcotics Anonymous.” Or they’re saying it as in getting your “M.A.” and “B.A.” which are part of the lyrics [“free from any MA or BA”]. So this is your own personal degree of “NA”, your “N.A.,” that you structure yourself and that only applies to you. And that’s what the song is too. “NA” can be my own creative force. Or my own identity, my creative identity that is. So it’s not like “MA” or “BA” or “x” or “y” or “zed.”
You appear in Matt Wolf’s documentary film, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. How did that come to pass?
I got to know Arthur’s music because we were on Rough Trade, and they were putting out his stuff. And Jens Lenkman, who we’d been touring with, had started covering his songs a couple years before Matt started making the film. Jens organized an Arthur Russell tribute concert in Stockholm. So I just started learning a bunch of his songs, and right after the Stockholm thing, I came and played a solo gig at Joe’s Pub in New York. That’s where Matt recorded that performance, because he wanted some extra footage for his film. And I was happy to play that song. It’s kind of fun to perform a specific person’s catalog of songs and really get familiar with the material.
What is it about Arthur’s music and his aesthetic that resonates with you?
I like that he has no boundaries to define what he is or what he does. That’s my primary appreciation. He made so many types of records and really followed his own beat.
In the film, Ernie Brooks, Arthur’s collaborator in the group The Flying Hearts, says that what he appreciated most about Arthur was his relentless pursuit of the transcendent beauty of the pop song. And I see that in your songwriting as well – this pursuit of the perfect pop song. What would you consider to be your favorite, or the best song, that you’ve written to date?
I can’t answer that question. It’s like a mother choosing between her babies. I don’t release a song unless I think it’s a great, perfect song - for me at least. The song that I like, and that I’m happy with, and that I would put on and play had I not made it. But I can’t pinpoint a specific song… hopefully it’s a song that I’ve yet to write!
In May you released an ad in conjunction with PETA called, “Canada’s Club Scene Sucks,” protesting the controversial Canadian seal hunt. You even performed a protest song in front of the Ontario Legislative Building. Did you get a reaction from any of the government officials who were passing by?
The Tamils were protesting because it was the same time as the big Tamil massacre in Sri Lanka. And the PETA people asked them to cool down for five minutes so that we could do my song and do a quick unveiling of the ad, and then we ended up just joining the Tamils in their protest of the massacre.
Do you sense that there has been progress made in the fight against the seal hunt?
No. It seems like every week you hear another horrible story that’s connected to the seal hunt. For instance, I read a month ago that Canada is now allowing in all these very questionable cat and dog furs from Asia, because they don’t want to seem like hypocrites about the seal hunt. So not only are we [Canadians] responsible for the largest massacre of marine mammals on earth, but to ensure we don’t look like hypocrites we are basically going to allow any kind of fur products into our country. And then, when the EU banned seal product imports in May, our Parliament spent time talking about how we should be making our Olympic outfits [for the upcoming Vancouver Winter Games] out of seal fur. But that of course is absurd, because the Olympics are an apolitical organization, and they’re not going to take a side. And yet our politicians are wasting time in Parliament talking about this. But getting involved has made me see how conservative Canada really is. You’re not even allowed to speak out against the seal hunt. You’re finished, politically, if you do. If you take a stand against the seal hunt in politics, then you can’t be in politics. It’s like McCarthyism. And it’s not just about animals. It’s an attitude – a certain attitude that Canadians have about our resources and “not joining” the world in things. We’re the worst when it comes to adhering to the Kyoto [Protocol] Targets [on greenhouse gas emissions]. So I don’t get it – Canada gets this great image, but I don’t know for what. We don’t deserve it.
Do you think it has to do with the fact that Canada has such a conservative Prime Minister in Stephen Harper? He almost feels like a George W. Bush clone in some ways.
Oh gosh I hope we can get rid of him soon.
As someone who travels a lot and spends time overseas in Berlin and elsewhere, do you feel the perception of the U.S. has changed since Obama took office?
Oh yeah! I was actually at the speech he gave at the Tiegarten in Berlin shortly before he won the nomination. There was an insane amount of people. He just represents something. A symbol for “anything but Bush!”
It’s just nice to have someone in office who is smarter than me.
Oh, that was a long eight years. Oh, God. The band’s whole career happened during the Bush era. We started in 2000. It’s funny to chart history that way.
In late 2007, Sunday Gallery on the Lower East Side of New York City had an exhibition of your visual art, and I know you do all the artwork for your albums. Are you still doing a lot of visual art these days?
I am on tour now, so not really. Hopefully after this year is over. You need a large space with lots of tables where you can make a big mess. At least for me, I can’t just turn it on and off.
Between visual art and directing videos, you’ve also done some acting. Do you ever feel a pull towards another artistic medium, and away from music?
I guess music is my primary thing, but I have crazy fantasies of just leaving it all behind and doing something completely different.
And what would that be?
I don’t know. Any suggestions are welcome.
Okay Joel, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to finish our chat with my cliché desert island questions. You’re on a desert island, and you can take with you only one book, one album, and one film. Let’s start with the book.
Well it would be one I’ve never read, right? [laughter] What’s the fun of picking a book you’ve already read?! It would be a book I haven’t read, and a really long one. “The History of the World?” I’m sure there’s a book like that, right? And for the album too, can I get a boxed set?
You’d be surprised how many people ask that question.
A Motown boxed set would be good. Or a mix CD.
Well, you’re on a desert island. A porn maybe? No. No, no, no…
…that might get old after a while.
Yeah that would get really old. Oh, I know. Dodgeball. We watched that film everyday when we were on tour three years ago. Every single day on the tour bus. That and Team America: World Police – the one with the marionettes.
There’s a great puppet sex scene in that.
There you go. There’s your porn. What you need is a good, long, well-acted, dramatic film, but with a very raunchy sex scene.