DIANA at the Great Hall (1087 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, September 26), 8 pm. $10. TW. See listing.
Being in a buzz band in 2013 provides many novel opportunities, but for DIANA singer Carmen Elle, just getting into the venues is a thrill.
"Oh my god, I love being of age," the 24-year-old explains over the phone from the back of the band's 1999 Chevy Blazer somewhere between Atlanta and Chapel Hill. "It still hasn't worn off that I can get into all these clubs, because it's only been three and a half years since I could. Every time someone asks for my driver's licence I'm like, ‘Here you go! Read it and weep, suckers!'"
The triumph in her voice speaks to the Annex-raised musician's endurance. Circa 2003, she could be spotted sitting outside Sneaky Dee's while her riot grrrl band the Whoremoans loaded in the gear. Security would escort the teenage guitarist inside come set time, and she immediately left when it was over.
"You'd see me wearing only underwear with ‘cunt' silkscreened on the ass, running back and forth while the frontwoman, Brescia, sang so hard she gave herself a nosebleed, which happened often," Elle says of a typical gig.
So, although she is nearly a decade younger than DIANA keyboardist/saxophonist Joseph Shabason, 31, drummer Kieran Adams, 33, and guitarist Paul Mathew, 33, she's been gigging for just as long.
DIANA was born after Toronto indie players Shabason and Adams's previous band, Everything All the Time, broke up over constant scheduling conflicts. Although that band ceased to exist, their grant money for recording didn't, so they refocused their energy on music that allowed them to express their own vulnerabilities and ideas after years spent as sidemen in other acts.
"It was the first time I can truly say we did something that was our own without thinking about our influences," says Shabason, adding that the grant money afforded them the luxury of recording with complete creative freedom. "We could just do things we were jazzed about, and that made it feel more special. What people ended up taking away was the sense that we did something that was enjoyable for us."
By the time Shabason and Adams were looking for a singer to complete a collection of gauzy synth-pop songs they'd recorded with co-producer Roger Leavens last year, Elle had grown into a serious shredder for garage rock duo Army Girls.
When the guys invited her to sing on the album, they also asked her to play guitar, but she refused. "I thought it would look better aesthetically to just sing," she insists.
And last year, the world outside Toronto's music scene started taking notice when two tracks, Born Again and Perpetual Surrender, began making the rounds online.
Initially conceived as a studio project, the group received so much attention that it pushed them to start performing live. Deals with labels Paper Bag and Jagjaguwar followed, and in August their debut full-length, Perpetual Surrender, came out to nice reviews. A tour is under way.
The new-found musical freedom DIANA provided him was most important to Shabason, who grew up playing saxophone alongside a jazz musician father. Stan Shabason had put music on hold for his family, and therefore pushed Joseph hard as a child. After graduating from the University of Toronto's jazz program - where Adams and Mathew were classmates - Shabason rebelled against his classical training by playing pop sax solos for acts like War on Drugs and Destroyer, among others.
"My father's eternal struggle is balancing creativity and financial responsibility," he says. "For the first while, it was hard for him to wrap his head around the idea of my making a career out of music and being okay with not making as much money as he did."
When he and Adams recruited Elle, they were looking for a technically skilled singer who projected the kind of intangible emotion that is highly valued in the pop world. And that's what they got: with her cool, unadorned delivery, she infused their material's lovelorn longing with the right amount of mystery.
"The focus is so much on toughness or an I-don't-give-a-fuckness," Adams - who came of age drumming for rock bands in St. John's, Newfoundland - says of the indie rock world. "We decided in making this album to reconnect with our nerdier side. Let's not be afraid to put a dense rhythm in there or a saxophone or guitar solo or have a song that's just instrumental."
Striking the right balance between personal expression and relatable emotion was also key in their songwriting. Adams wrote Born Again about his small-town gay friends who fled to Toronto after high school, but its romantic swells and theme of rebirth resonate widely - exactly what the band wanted.
Another group favourite is the Shabason-penned ballad New House, a blunt ultimatum to an elusive lover. "It's so exposed and vulnerable, and yet I don't know exactly what's going on," says Mathew. "There is a real mystery and darkness to it."
Adapting the album's layers-upon-layers of bass synths, drum machines, overdubs and vocal effects for the stage has forced DIANA to evolve even further. In August 2012 they recruited Mathew - who played in the Hidden Cameras and with Adams in the improv jazz group Exitman - to flesh out the live show.
Onstage, DIANA have started ruffling the album's smooth sound with rough textures, giving Shabason a chance to explore his skronkier side as a sax player. Set opener Foreign Installation begins with a big, droney wash, delayed and distorted sax and wild drumming. They've started playing a cover of the wistful Roxy Music classic More Than This, a clear aesthetic inspiration for Perpetual Surrender.
Now that the buzz is subsiding, the band has relaxed into a rhythm; the Chevy Blazer is now a bubble of bandspeak and inside jokes within inside jokes. "I feel less pressure to create an image that is mysterious, and I'm trying to relate more to each audience," Elle says.
Both Elle and Mathew will take on larger creative roles when DIANA reconvene to write and record their next album, but they're not yet sure how their onstage energy will translate in the studio.
"It's definitely a bit of a feat trying to pull it off some nights," says Adams. "We're probably 15 shows into this tour, but it doesn't feel like this is a little bit too easy or a little bit too boring. We're all on our toes, which is nice."
2. THE DIRTY NIL
These Hamilton-via-Dundas loud-rockers first caught our attention with their Summer Mixtape series, including July's four-song Vol. 2, which featured high-octane versions of songs by the Misfits, Iggy Pop, Guided by Voices and Merle Haggard. (It's downloadable on their Bandcamp for just one more week.) Since then, the trio's played the Uproar Fest with Alice in Chains and opened for Mudhoney at Lee's Palace. Live is the best way to take 'em, so be sure to catch them when they're back from their Brooklyn show with Crystal Antlers.
3. JESSY LANZA
Yet another electro-leaning musician to emerge from the Hamilton scene, Jessy Lanza is getting as much (if not more) buzz across the pond in London.
Lanza's debut album, Pull My Hair Back, came out September 10. Her groovy R&B vocals over electronic flourishes nod to her production collab with fellow Steeltown native Jeremy Greenspan of electronic duo Junior Boys. After a double showing at this weekend's Pop Montreal, Lanza plays the Garrison on November 2.
If you're not already familiar with them, let the video to Pup's new song, Reservoir, be your introduction to the punk quartet. In it, some freak, gruesome, hazards-of-live-performance injuries befall them; it's both one of the funniest and grossest videos we've seen this year.
The band, who recently changed their name from Topanga, have opened for Tokyo Police Club and Fucked Up, are currently on the road with Hollerado and are set to release their debut album October 8. Catch them at their Sneaky Dee's record release party on October 17. Bring body armour.
5. KC ROBERTS & THE LIVE REVOLUTION
Parkdale Funk 2: Sides is a reintroduction of sorts to the seven-piece funk band based in T.O.'s west end. If the first three albums (including Parkdale Funk 1) didn't make you take notice, this extremely ambitious work definitely will. A long-held double-album concept, a two-month crowd-funding initiative and 40 guest musicians including D-Sisive and Airplane Boys added up to a double LP and, finally, a release date (October 15). Even more impressive for the band that combines the old (jazz, rock) so seamlessly with the new (hip-hop, electronic) is their sweaty live show. Coming soon to a 'hood near you.
We've been raving about Weaves since NXNE, and now even SPIN is catching on. The magazine premiered the four-piece's new song, Take A Dip, on its website Monday, September 23. Get this: it's only the third song the Jasmyn Burke- and Morgan Waters-led experimental sludge-pop project has ever released (and second on local label Buzz Records). Imagine the heads that'll explode once they've finally unleashed a full-length album on the world. Catch them at Pop Montreal this weekend and CMJ in New York City in mid-October.
7. ELECTRIC YOUTH
If the rumours are true, this Toronto-based duo has recently been signed to a record label. (We await the official announcement in a couple of weeks.)
You may know the band from the Drive soundtrack (they wrote and performed the song A Real Hero), but of late Bronwyn Griffin and Austin Garrick (a couple) have been hard at work finishing their first album.
Electric Youth's look has a bright pastel 80s vibrancy, and so does their synthy electro-pop. They'll tour next year in support of the album. Dare you not to dance.
8. WOLF J MCFARLANE
When you see Wolf J McFarlane live, you can't help but notice: his energy is as infectious as his meticulously crafted songs. Moments might be the best example: a seamless fusion of R&B, hip-hop and drum 'n' bass. Few people can rap and sing so well that they compromise neither, and his eight-track album, Live Your Life, released in August, seamlessly blends genres without seeming forced, evoking Thundercat, Shabazz Palaces and Craig David while maintaining its own unique flavour. But don't take our word for it. Catch him Sunday (September 29) at Measure.
9. BLAKE CARRINGTON
October is a big month for Blake Carrington. First the emcee performs at Atlanta's A3C hip-hop festival. (Other boldface names include ?uestlove, Talib Kweli and ScHoolboy Q.) Then his album, Failure, drops October 31, with production by Ric Notes and Junia T as well as collaborations with Kardinal Offishall and Raz Fresco. After honing his performance skills at NXNE, SXSW and, most recently, Manifesto, Carrington takes his show on the road: a college tour - Million Dollar Failure - is set for the new year.
Google searches reveal little about Hormoans except that they're a Toronto grungy punk three-piece with hardcore tendencies. But we know for sure that the full-length album, Millar, that came across our desks sans press release has electrifying energy, throat-scraping menace and Descendents-like melodic bratitude. We also know they have an EP tentatively titled Made Of Bone coming in late January. Catch the band at Creatures Creating (882 Dundas West) on Saturday (September 28) as part of Creatures Collective's Let There Be Art two-day event.
JULIA LECONTE and CARLA GILLIS