I Believe in the Good of Indiepop: An Interview with the Hidden Cameras

Throughout the years, Canada’s The Hidden Cameras have been pigeonholed with the label “gay church music,” which tends to overlook some of the catchy intelligence underlying the songs, both musically and lyrically. Lead singer-songwriter Joel Gibb has consistently developed danceworthy songs while having a hand in directing some of the band’s videos as well. The Hidden Cameras live show often inspires costumed fans, creating a party atmosphere for both band and audience. The actual number of musicians performing in the group tends to vary between performances from half a dozen to twice that much, and it’s not unusual for audience members to get on stage or for band members to join their fans in the festival below.

Their engaging live presence has definitely won the Hidden Cameras quite a few fans in both Canada and abroad this past decade but it helps that their indie-pop songs have the strength to elevate the crowd in the first place. Through different labels and multiple tours the Cameras have remained steadfast in their ability to use their playing to the fullest, both in their recorded output and on stage.

With the release of their fifth studio album, Origin: Orphan, the Hidden Cameras branch into epic territory with opening track, “Ratify the New,” and continue on with more eminently listenable pop gems. PopMatters recently sat down with frontman Joel Gibb to discuss everything from socialized medicine to his love of Stereolab.

I wanted to start off by telling you how, though I’ve seen the band live a couple of times now, I remember this one blissful moment in 2003 when I went to see Belle and Sebastian at the Congress Theater. I had no idea who The Hidden Cameras were and I was stunned and amazed with your performance. It was even better than some Flaming Lips shows. The band had everyone in costume and you seemed so into it, making Belle and Sebastian’s performance boring in relation to your live show. What has been your favorite experience performing as a band?

I like it when groups of friends come wearing costumes and masks. I always know it’s going to be a good show when people come prepared. That happened in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (PEI) when people came dressed up as animals with snouts and in Spain people came wearing paper bag masks. Growing up, I never understood why people weren’t dancing at indie shows. It’s not techno music but it has a beat.

Congratulations on your first international release for Arts & Crafts, home to so many great bands such as Broken Social Scene, Stars, and The Dears. Have you enjoyed your experience thus far and was there any particular reason to switch from Rough Trade?

Well, we’re managed by them too now, which is new. I think it’s important to have a Toronto based thing. We’ve had a manager from New York and that didn’t really work out. I really enjoy spending time in Berlin as well but I spend more than six months of the year on Canadian soil so it’s better to have it based there.

How was it working with Louis-Philippe Eno on the “Death of a Tune” video? Did you take part at all in some of his creation of the animated figures of the band?

When he first had the concept, he had wanted to use more images from the past records and I encouraged him to use images inspired by lyrics from this record’s songs. He just sort of did it himself, though. We were on tour when he did it and we only had one meet-up in Montréal. That turned out to be the best video, though.

You’ve had some experience directing a few of the band’s videos yourself. How was that experience? Are there any other directors you admire?

I’m going to try to do another one. It was a great experience. I’m the evil alter ego of “In the NA” [the black hooded creature in the beginning]. I like Guy Maddin — he’s brilliant! I was just in Winnipeg and I just said, “Winnipeg! Winnipeg! Winnipeg!” to the audience and they all knew what I meant. I have a friend at the Berlin film festival so I watched a lot of films that played there. My favorite movie at the Berlin film festival last year was a movie called The Yes Men Save the World.

Your songs have always been very catchy. It’s an interesting choice to have such easy to sing melodies paired with lyrics that are sometimes political and even explicit. Was it an intentional decision to have lyrics that can be challenging and thought provoking with such musically pleasing accompaniment?

I did well in school but not in terms of music. I just did my own thing. It’s both conscious and unconscious. I definitely had a strong melodic sense. There are some musicians and lyricists where their music is all about the lyrics but I didn’t necessarily need to like lyrics to enjoy the music. When I started writing songs and thinking about what a song should be about, I didn’t want to just write nothing so that’s what it was, basically. I was in university so when I was supposed to be writing essays, I was four-tracking songs. I just write from my own experience, though, and my only training would be to hear from other songwriters what they do, and they just do what they know. I think you should write what you know and be honest. I wouldn’t say any of the new stuff is really political. I am not against writing political songs but I’m not going to sit down and try to write political songs. I never try to write a song, like you know, sit down and think “I’m going to write a song today.” I don’t go to song writing conferences. What kind of song could you write with a total stranger? To me, if I write a song or if I think of a melody or song idea, it comes easily. I hear it all.

You hear the lyrics and the music combined all at once?

Well, that’s great when it happens but not always. Mostly, it’s just the melodic hook and if the hook is good enough it will just stick around in your brain and when you sing it to yourself long enough, sometimes you get words. A song like “Ban Marriage”, for instance, was just in the news in Canada while “Steal All you Can, MF-” came from an art history class when we were looking at Greek graffiti and there was something that translated to that. I liked the context but people thought of it as more, I guess, explicit. I didn’t mean for it to be that way but it just came out.

Its definitely true Canada is a little more progressive in terms of things like gay marriage and socialized medicine.

Canada can be really conservative, too. For example, Amy Goodman being detained in Vancouver and scrutinized. We’re not meeting the Kyoto agreements. We slaughter a large amount of marine animals on Earth sanctioned by our government. But with Canadians, Socialism is not a dirty word. It just means “people”. It’s like, how is that bad? To me, Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) and our health system are two of the saving graces of Canada. When we went to D.C. there was actually an anti-health care group because they were voting for the bill. Do people really want to shop across state lines? I can go into a health clinic and they’ll see me. My friend has cancer and he got a helicopter the day that they saw it and was operated on that day. This is Canada and he’s an artist and if he lived in the states he wouldn’t have had health care. All these people here, don’t they have friends and family who are artists and do independent work? Not everyone works for some company that has health care but there are so many people that don’t have it in the States. There are no crazy lineups when it’s life or death in Canada. My friend’s only job right now is getting better. We don’t even think about it there, even the conservatives. They wouldn’t want to take that away because it’s been proven to everybody and we all like it. If you want private health care or dental care you can get it but with your job you can get dental and optical care. But the basics are there for everybody. The life expectancy is higher and the whole country is healthier and we pay less than America does because we’ve all invested it all.

Have you done your end of the decade list for records?

I had to do one for Under the Radar but if I could do one for the ‘90s it would be better because I was so into music but this decade has been more about me making music. I used to make lists and organize my CDs but now I don’t pay as much attention. I have fond memories of listening to Stereolab. I saw them in the ‘90s when Mary Hansen was still alive and I had a zine. I helped them carry their Moogs in the rain. They were the nicest band. You know when you meet someone and you worry about meeting them and not wanting to hear the music again afterwards? With them, they were just so nice. I liked them when they were really into Neu and it was focused on the female vocals. I really liked the albums Peng! Switched On, Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements and Mars Audiac Quintet.

What kinds of things do you like to do when you’re not creating music or touring?

Well, when I do have an extended amount of free time and enough space, I try to make art both for an art show and the band, writing and organizing the films. I like to party and hang out. In Berlin, it’s just crazy. It’s insane.

Are there any new projects or side projects that you’d like to talk about?I’ll be singing backup for Feist at the Olympics for a cultural event attached to it. I think Ron Sexsmith is playing too. He came and played piano on my other record that might come out in a couple of years. It’s some rootsy material I’ve been working on for four years. I’m trying to get different guests on it. I don’t want to talk too much about it and give it away. And, I recorded with Margaret O’Hara, who recorded one of the most brilliant records of all time in 1988 — Miss America. Buy Miss America on vinyl if you can find it. I got her to sing on one song that will probably be a b-side and she also sings on this Goth song I did. She does freestyle.

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