PICASTRO , the fembots and trains and aeroplanes at Canadia dell'Arte Studio Theatre (186 Munro), Friday (January 25). $7. 416-465-7393.
since the most striking thing about her music is its haunting quality, it's no surprise that for Picastro frontwoman Liz Hysen, atmosphere is everything. Back in Toronto after their tour of the American East Coast was cut short by brutal blizzards, the exhausted Hysen ruefully recounts a recent gig at a too-swank lounge in Brooklyn.
"It was a really weird environment. The place had a reflecting pool, and everyone there was so beautiful. I couldn't believe the place was really for music. I kinda wanted there to be some dirt. Even Björk was there. But she wasn't into the music either."
Obviously. Hysen's not the star-struck type, and that's fortunate. She's probably going to be spending a lot more time in la-la land. After years of local gigs failed to land the Toronto-based band a deal on this side of the border, Picastro finally signed with L.A.'s experimental indie Pehr Records. They launch their debut full-length, Red Your Blues, for the label tomorrow night (Friday, January 25) at the Canadia dell'Arte Studio Theatre.
Picastro's darkly moody, orchestral soundscapes echo everything from the Nico-fronted Velvets and the depressingly stark songs of Smog to Cat Power (to whom they're most frequently compared).
Hysen insists she would've hooked up with a Canadian company, but nobody could figure out where Picastro fit in. They're not poppy enough for Teenage USA nor weird enough for a more experimental avant-garde label. The band fall somewhere to the left of centre.
"I kinda feel out of the loop in Toronto. Don't get me wrong -- I like a lot of the people here and a lot of the labels. But I needed something specific, a certain aesthetic. Pehr specializes in creepy, dark music, and they pay total attention to detail."
Although they cite Bartok and classical composer Toru Takemitsu as influences, the quartet of Hysen, cellist Rachel McBride, drummer Evan Clarke and guitarist Zak Hanna bring minimal classical training to the table. Hysen herself didn't take up the violin until she was almost 20 -- ancient in the context of Kiwanis strings prodigies and Suzuki-trained toddlers.
It's probably because they lack a rigorous formal background that the Picastro players feel so free to experiment. The tunes on Red Your Blues are layered and dense, relying on Gorecki-complex structures and organic sounds to create atmosphere, as opposed to studio wizardry and artificial effects.
Hysen scoffs at sonic manipulation. She's similarly scornful of pop outfits who recruit cellists and violinists as a gimmicky way of plucking listeners' heartstrings.
"Everyone's trying to use string musicians these days, but a lot of people are doing it badly. One guy who reviewed us made some comment about how the cello wasn't used for maudlin purposes, like he was shocked. Whatever. John Cage did it way before we did.
"People have been spoiled by Godspeed You Black Emperor. I think instruments should be played based on the sounds the instruments make. You have to listen to them and see what you can do, not rely on effects."