Mark Laver (left), Pete Johnston, Ali Berkok, Jamie Drake and Mike Smith naturally herd into a defensive stance for photos.
MUSKOX performing as part of NO SHAME with the MANDIBLES and GABE LEVINE at Tiger Bar (414 College), tonight (Thursday, October 2), 9 pm. Pwyc. 416-710-2453. muskoxhq.net.
Among the more intriguing music marketing enigmas to hit Toronto is the annual appearance on Soundscapes' shelves of mysterious mini-CDs housed in matchbook-like packages emblazoned with the image of a hairy horned beast: the mark of Muskox.
"A lot of people seem puzzled because it's such an odd-looking object to come across in a store filled with CDs," says Muskox banjo player Mike Smith, who doubles as a Soundscapes staffer.
"It all started as a fun project to try something a bit different from the conventional CD release. But it's disappointing when people say, ‘It really looks interesting and I'd like to buy it, but I don't have a CD player.' Unfortunately, 3-inch discs don't fit in the drive slots of most laptops, so I kinda shot myself in the foot. I guess we'll try 10-inch vinyl next."
The first of Muskox's three tiny EPs I picked up turned out to be 2007's Fever Dream, and I was immediately taken by the instrumentation. The completely random assortment of banjo, double bass, saxophone, harmonium and Fender Rhodes sounded perfectly sensible within Smith's carefully considered arrangements. After hearing 2006's Caveman Caveman Crystal Skulls, you don't need a road map to know these Muskox hombres have heard some early Town and Country and maybe even a bit of John Fahey.
"The first time I heard the sort of music I was hearing in my head was at a Town and Country show in 2003. Their concept of ‘backporch minimalism' sounded appealing, so I went to see them and they blew me away. From then on I was hooked on the harmonium. Three years later, I got a call from Matt Dunn to put something together for Bummer In The Summer. I contacted my best friends from U of T and told them the sound I was looking for involved banjo, harmonium and some basic percussion - that's how Muskox began."
In the past two years, there have been a few Muskox sightings at local music venues, but most of the group's time together has been spent rehearsing and recording. From the progress demonstrated by their most recent release, the Gallantries EP, the strategy has clearly worked to their benefit.
It's hardly shocking that, with stellar material like The Wren, which could pass for a lost Mulatu Astatke classic from the golden era of Ethiogroove, Gallantries is the fastest selling Muskox disc to date.
"After doing the first two EPs, the idea for the third was to try to write seven shorter minimalist texture pieces based on different baroque dance suite movements. Then there was a change in the group that led me to rework the pieces, but I still wasn't happy with a few of them.
"Of the four that loosely corresponded to the four essential movements - allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue - I expanded two of them, the courante and the gigue (Foot Locker and The Wren, respectively, on the disc), by adding a middle section and a recap at the end for both. Consequently, I wound up with music that's completely different from what I originally intended, but I'm very pleased with the way everything turned out."