THE UNICORNS with the Besnard Lakes and the I Spies at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Friday (November 7). $10. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
From the outside, the unicorns seem like your stereotypical sissy-boy indie rock band. With a bubble-letters-'n'-rainbows aesthetic that could be cribbed from an 80s teenybopper's puffy-painted sweatshirt, goofy lo-fi jangle tunes and a penchant for recorder hooks, the Montreal duo-turned-trio strike me as the last people who'd start a riot.
So how to explain the brawl that went down a mere month ago when the band played a magazine launch party at the Vatikan? Vocalist/keyboardist Nick "Niel" Diamonds lost his beans and assaulted an audience member with a mike stand.
That's some intense Altamont-style shit, dude. But it only happened cuz the scrawny musicians have such thin skins, explains Unicorn Alden Ginger.
"We were playing onstage and nobody gave a shit. We're pretty sensitive guys, and Nick was taking it pretty seriously," Ginger recalls over the phone after a relatively tame gig out in Halifax. "Something triggered his anger, and he trashed a bunch of stuff. I watched and kept playing, because I wasn't bolstered enough to take part in the fight. Apparently, one of the audience members required some stitches, which is unfortunate.
"Maybe our music does have kind of a weird, emotional edge to it that borders on schizophrenia. There's some dementia in there. I just hope it doesn't turn into a Nirvana-type thing."
Don't think the mayhem was a one-off deal . The Unicorns have a knack for provoking their audience. Last time I caught 'em, at Montreal's Jupiter Room in May, an insanely drunk fan climbed up on a table and started screeching about Kurt Cobain being alive.
I blame the ghosts. Check out the fabulously varied slices of playfully experimental, layered, quirky pop on the Unicorns' new Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? (Alien8) disc and you'll discover about a quarter of the tracks are devoted to denizens of the afterlife, from Tuff Ghost to Ghost Mountain. That's not including the songs that deal directly with death or the ones about bodily ailments.
I assumed the ghostly obsession was more of a campy Scooby-Doo deal until Ginger set the record straight. The Unicorns (who recently added drummer Jaime Thompson to their core lineup) take invisible spirits quite seriously.
"I've seen ghosts," Ginger confesses. "I used to live in this creaky old house in Courtenay, BC, that contained a ghost dog and a ghost girl. When I say 'seen,' I mean experienced rather than a visual manifestation - sounds, stuff moving, doors slamming shut, some candles being lit. Crazy scratching sounds from upstairs. You know the kind of sound a dog makes with its nails when it's running around on a linoleum floor? That kind of sound, but more focused on one area."
He also insists that their fascination with the occult and mortality isn't some kind of weird death wish thing, which is a relief.
But the exchange makes me realize I've been reading jaded hipster irony into the Unicorns' tunes. You'd figure a track like Child Star, with its call-and-response plea from a former prodigy past the peak of his career, was written as a piss-take on Danny Bonaduce and his ilk, right?
Nope, says Ginger. In fact, Child Star was inspired by sympathetic pity for lapsed actor Corey Haim.
"Corey was going to act in a movie Nick was making, and it turned into a really sad situation in which Corey was trying to get more money for what he was doing and didn't follow through with their agreement and generally was a big jerk. I feel for Corey - it must be pretty terrible to be in that position with his career.
"I take this very, very seriously, actually. I don't think irony's dead, but it needs to go lie down and take a nap for a bit."