Long-standing local five-piece Mean Red Spiders have been trying to write a classic pop single for years, the kind that'll stick in your head and have you humming it while you wash the dishes. Problem is, everything they touch turns to fuzzed-out shoe-gazer music, trippy swirls of guitar noise that are more My-Bloody-Valentine-style patterned aural wallpaper than My-Sharona-style catchy hook-packed pop songs.
Their new record, Still Life Fast Moving (Teenage USA), which they'll launch November 16 at the Rivoli, is 100-per-cent Mean Red Spiders. It's full of atmospheric dreamscapes that gently permeate your consciousness. They have been perfecting their signature spacey sonic assault since 1993, when guitar slinger Greg Chambers formed the band with guitarist and record store co-worker Dave Humphreys and a few pals. Breathy vocalist Lisa Nighswander soon took over bass duties, and the band went through a bunch of drummers (including Christiana's Paul Boddum) before current heavy- hitter Adam Rosen signed on in 1995.
When they had a hard time translating their expansive live sound in the recording studio while recording their first full-length disc, 1998's Places You Call Home, the Spiders recruited keyboardist/effects genius Minesh Mandoda.
Places garnered them international critical attention, a spot in the CMJ Top 200 chart and a solid (if cultishly underground) fan base, which they've been building ever since. Still Life Fast Moving is their first recording without founding member Humphreys, who was replaced by Interstellar's Rob Boak after 2000's Starsandsons.
"Dave really wanted to go in a different musical direction," offers Nighswander, sipping beer in the front window of a Queen West pub. "He was thinking that crazy chaos like the Boredoms was where it was at, whereas we were always trying to push melody. Also, my singing is kinda quiet, and he had this really loud guitar, which he wouldn't turn down."
"We were suffering live with Dave," admits Chambers, "unable to pull off what we wanted to do onstage. When we said goodbye to him, we didn't have auditions for his spot in the band; we just decided to call Rob, whom we saw as a real kindred soul.
"It was a pivotal moment. We either had to become so esoteric in what we were trying to do or stick to the confines of making songs and albums, as opposed to defining a sound."
Still Life Fast Moving is admirably cohesive and poppier than any of their work to date, without the aggressive assault that Humphreys brought to the band. The kinder, gentler approach works in the Spiders' favour. Nighswander's vocals drift into the foreground, and clever details -- a bossa beat here, a cranked-up surf riff there -- give the tunes individual personalities.
Still, the Spiders insist that they remain fully committed to their shoe-gazer roots. I wonder if that's what's keeping them off most people's radar. The sun has sorta set on the dream pop landscape. Sure, Toronto used to be shoe-gaze central -- Italy's Losing Today zine highlighted the T-dot as a North American hub and sponsored an eponymous Losing Today ethereal-rock fest.
But bands like My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. -- names that usually get tossed around in a discussion of Mean Red Spiders' influences -- have long since put away their effects pedals and called it a quits. Right now cool is neo-garage, revamped retro-rock like the Strokes and the Hives. So are the Spiders really making music that's relevant today?
"No," Chambers boldly declares, wondering if he's put his foot in his mouth. "But it's all revisionism any way you look at it, anyway. The whole garage thing is revisionism -- it's been done by the Stooges and so many other people. Every cycle you go through isn't new. Still, shoe-gaze rock is huge in the U.S. There's an entire following down there, record labels that service it, Internet sites, chat rooms. Here in Toronto it's kind of like nobody cares about it.
"The Canadian music industry is like a dime store. It's just cheap goods, in imitation of something else, supported by the government -- the CRTC and FACTOR and all those things are sort of propping up this false industry."email@example.com
MEAN RED SPIDERS with Deep Dark United and Johnny Dowd at Tequila Lounge (794 Bathurst), Friday (October 4). $8. 416-968-2001.