Azari & III’s Dinamo Azari (left), Starving Yet Full, Fritz Helder, Alphonse Alixander Lanza III
AZARI & III at Wrongbar (1279 Queen West), Saturday (August 27). $10. 416-516-8677. See listing.
You won't be able to buy Azari & III's self-titled debut album in North America until later this fall, but already the Toronto house group has made a major impact overseas.
NME gushes that the disc sets the standard against which all other house music albums will be judged this year. The mag describes it melodramatically as "the soundtrack to dancing like your life depends on it in 2011."
The BBC calls it "one of the finest electronic pop records you're likely to hear in 2011."
Reading between the lines, there's a sense of surprise that this band could have come out of the quiet, polite city of Toronto. But the truth is that Azari & III couldn't have come from anywhere else. As much as we're known for meat-and-potatoes rock and beardy indie pop, to anyone who grew up following muffled bass through the back alleys of T.O. looking for a warehouse party, it makes perfect sense.
No one has ever been able to pin down Toronto's dance music sound. It's essentially an amalgam of the dynamics coming out of the rest of the world. Credit geography for the fact that the early club vibes from Chicago, Detroit and NYC all found support here, and our cultural links to the UK made us a fertile breeding ground for any exciting new sounds coming from Europe. Combining techno, disco, new wave, funk, pop and house into one band is just an honest reflection of the diversity we take for granted here.
"There's definitely a meeting point here, and Toronto artists find a way to create our own sound out of that," agrees Christian Farley (aka Dinamo Azari) between sips of beer on a brief break from endless touring.
"Isn't it funny, though, that we're singing about an after-hours scene that doesn't really exist here any more? But we're keeping it alive in myth now," muses Alphonse Alixander Lanza III amid the din of friends flowing through his Parkdale home. There always seems to be a low-level party surrounding them.
Lanza's dismissal of the current hometown club community is a touch harsh, but it's true that the huge late-night playground that seduced him and Farley into the dance world back in the 90s is largely gone.
Given the crossover in their musical histories, it's strange that they didn't meet until DJing together at a 2007 Boxing Day party. They'd long travelled in similar circles and were both obsessed with integrating live musicians into electronic music. At one point, they were both hiring the same crew of Cuban jazz players.
Once they finally connected, they began spending every free moment banging out tunes together.
Lanza's engineering expertise and large collection of vintage gear proved the perfect foil for Farley's fearless approach to songwriting. They battle and argue like brothers, but that intensity just seems to feed back into the music they make together.
As band vocalist Fritz Helder puts it, "Everyone in the band thinks that he's the one in control, but no one is, and that's what makes it work."
While the group is named after the two of them (the "III" is pronounced "Third"), the faces of the band are the two vocalists, Helder and Starving Yet Full (aka Cedric Gasaida).
The splintering of dance music over the last 20 years has made the urban black, gay roots of the genre a distant memory. Azari & III's undeniable fierceness, however, recalls the time when hedonism was a type of protest and parties were a proud celebration of new freedoms.
To some, the openly gay-straight alliance of Azari & III might seem odd, but in one of the queerest cities on earth, it fits right in.
The other very Toronto aspect of the band? Neither vocalist is originally from Toronto. When I first met Helder about a decade ago, he'd just moved to town from the snowy Yukon and was flyering outside the El Mocambo for a party wearing a mini-skirt and combat boots. For him, there was definitely was no culture shock moving to the big city.
"I'd been waiting to get here my whole life. I think my shoulders just dropped the moment I got off the bus," Helder remembers.
He ended up starting the electro-pop band Fritz Helder and the Phantoms (in an early version of which Farley contributed beats) as well as becoming one of Nelly Furtado's stage dancers, which made him the most experienced member of the group when it came to touring and playing big stages.
Gasaida's path to Toronto was a bit less direct. He arrived in Canada about 10 years ago after growing up in Burundi and Rwanda. Unfortunately, just as the group started getting booked around the world, he lost his passport and papers and entered into a prolonged citizenship limbo that forced Lanza and Farley to go out on the road initially as a DJ duo rather than the full live act. (Their Saturday Wrongbar gig will be a DJ gig; Toronto has to wait until the disc comes out in North America to get a proper record release party and live show.)
Despite the problems posed by Gasaida's immigration status, he became the band's star. His soaring falsetto evokes legendary house music vocalists of the past, and he has a rare natural charisma. His idiosyncratic fashion sense and graceful movements command attention when he enters a room, let alone a festival stage. It's a bit of a shock to learn that he has the least musical experience of anyone in the band and was only vaguely familiar with dance music until recently.
"I didn't know any of that stuff. People would talk about house music in interviews and I'd just go quiet."
"Basically, my musical background was the one day a week that I could watch one single program in English. Everything else was zouk and Western African music. We didn't even listen to the radio."
The similarity between his style and classic dance icons like Robert Owens didn't come completely out of thin air. Like his predecessors, he got his gospel chops the good old-fashioned way - in church.
"When I first came to Toronto, I met a girl who was braiding one of my friends in my building, and she was humming. I started singing with her and she said I should come to a Baptist church with her."
Lanza spotted Gasaida's talent a few years ago when the now-defunct Toronto production duo Mansion brought Gasaida into his studio to lay down some vocals on one of their tracks. Wasting no time - forget Canadian politeness - he solicited the singer's number while the session was going on and basically stole him away to lay down some takes on the skeleton of a track that would become their breakthrough hit, Hungry For The Power.
I remember when they played me an early version of the anthem at Lanza's studio one night in early 2008. While I loved it, I had my doubts that something that sounded so much like classic Chicago house would go very far in the 21st century.
Lanza, on the other hand, had an intuition that trends were about to start cycling through sounds from that era, and that the band's sensibility could fit smoothly between the brash electro-house bangers of the bloghouse scene and the tripped-out space disco sounds at the other end of the spectrum.
"Having been involved since the early 90s, Christian and I knew dance culture well enough to sense that things would come back to our arena and our knowledge base."
The rest of the world wasn't so sure. Lanza says the labels didn't start listening until buzz started developing online- a story that's all too common these days.
"We sent it to everybody we knew, but at first no one responded. Finally, Parallels made us their top friend on MySpace, and the 20 Jazz Funk Greats blog found us by checking them out and wrote up a wicked post about us. I didn't realize how many people read that site, but all of a sudden everyone we'd sent material to six months before started calling us back."
Farley, for his part, acts like he always knew things would work out.
"I never had any doubts."