BELL ORCHESTRE with WOODEN STARS and FINAL FANTASY at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Friday (August 5). $8. 416-777-1777, www.rootmeansquare.ca.
Imagine this: you're a member of the biggest buzz band of 2004/2005. You've just experienced the craziest 12 months of your life. You dropped one of the year's best albums and went from playing for handfuls of crankypants hipsters in small clubs to scoring personal invites from David Byrne to entertain thousands at massive outdoor festivals.
How do you spend your summer vacation?
If you're Richard Reed Parry, the Arcade Fire's endearingly gawky bassist/multi-instrumentalist, you decide to release a record with your other band and get back out on the road.
Parry, who's been playing with Montreal chamber rock virtuosos Bell Orchestre since the Arcade Fire was but a twinkle in an expat Texan's eye, says camping trips weren't even an option.
"We couldn't not put out this album," he exclaims over the phone from his Montreal pad. Parry's talking about Bell Orchestre's dreamy new Recording Tape The Colour Of A Light disc, which (through a serendipitous series of events set in motion by the Arcade Fire's lawyer) is being released by Rough Trade. "It was actually recorded at the exact same time as Funeral was, in the same studio with the same people. Right when we were finishing it up, there was total Arcade Fire madness all of a sudden, and it fell on the back burner."
Yeah, I guess you can't really blow off gigs when Bowie's showing up at the door.
Don't think Bell Orchestre's just an Arcade Fire side project, though. It's actually a wonderfully unconventional morphing musical beast that began a few years back when Parry and violinist (and fellow Arcade Fire member) Sarah Neufeld teamed up with Montreal cellist Becky Foon for offbeat orchestral noodlings that found them writing tunes for puppet shows and collaborating with contemporary dancers.
Over time, the form and focus of Bell Orchestre shifted. Foon departed, while drummer Stefan Schneider and French horn player Pietro Amato entered the fold. The group tried writing new scores to be played alongside screenings of archival NFB films and built up a loyal following through their loose-knit jam sessions at cool venues on the Plateau.
"We're totally an Orff band," Parry laughs, referring to the democratic form of musical instruction founded by xylophone-happy Carl Orff, which should be well-known to 80s kids with arty parents.
"We're all musical kids: Sarah was into Suzuki, Pietro played in the Ottawa Youth Orchestra, and I grew up inside Toronto's British folk and kids' folk scenes. My parents were friends with Eric Nagler and Fred Penner. We used to have moments with the contemporary dance stuff where everyone hit xylophones at once in interlocking patterns, à la Steve Reich. It was so Orff."
Rather than rely on collaborative ventures with other artists, Bell Orchestre started concentrating on their own mini-symphonies. He claims their songs are still quite informed by the physicality of dance and the visual sensibility of film.
"It's kinda like sculpture or something. Most of the time, we start with a physical thing and follow that. Or we'll pick a dynamic, like we'll try to write a balls-to-the-wall song and carry that all the way to the end, instead of using conventional dynamic contrasts. The neat thing is that narratives develop after the fact, where we'll have a bunch of fragments we've written that we try to join together in a cohesive way."
Even if you don't quite grasp the abstract theory behind their tunes (Parry graduated from Concordia with a degree in the esoteric field of electro-acoustic sound), the compositions on Recording Tape are lovely to listen to and crazily captivating for classical music snobs and rock aficionados alike.
Their bio describes their sound as "faraway dance music from lovely old jazz films," but Bell Orchestre also master a sense of aural storytelling that reminds me of Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf, with horns hinting at sly creatures peeking out from small caves and strings conjuring barren steppes and forest shadows.
They occupy an odd place: too conventional for the new music oddballs, too forward-thinking for the hardcore classical set, possibly even too abstract for the hook-hungry pop fans itching for the next Arcade Fire release.
While he sometimes worries about where they fit in, Parry says Bell Orchestre's residency at the Banff Centre last February showed him the benefit of not adhering to a particular genre or scene.
"We were black sheep in the middle of classical and jazz folks, an anomaly, but people really got into it. There were concerts every day where someone would perform, like, Shostakovich and then someone would perform Haydn, and they'd put us on at the end cuz we were louder than everyone else.
"We'd play for the classical snobs and elderly locals who came because they were just big fans of the arts, and the response was overwhelming. We got standing ovations from 80-year-olds!"