SPIRAL BEACH with TOKYO POLICE CLUB and HEXES AND OHS at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Saturday (December 2). $10. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
Forget about the beast with two backs. Spiral Beach are like a beast with four heads.
For all the hype about commie-style collectives shaking up the Canadian indie scene, you can pick out clear leaders in pretty much every pseudo-communal Canuck rock operation. Broken Social Scene's got Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning. Win Butler and Régine Chassagne start Arcade Fire. Even supergroup the New Pornographers is obviously Carl "A. C." Newman's baby.
But with Spiral Beach, the whole point of the manic Toronto art-rock quartet is to let each one of its precocious members share the glory of the spotlight.
"Do we try to hold each other back?" drummer Daniel Woodhead scoffs. "There's no head-butting, but it's kind of a competition cuz we all want to have the focus on us individually. So, yeah, we're trying to steal the spotlight."
Okay, maybe "share" was the wrong word.
Wanna know what a typical Spiral Beach show looks like? Picture flashing red siren lights, cardboard cut-out cartoon thought bubbles proclaiming the band's name, and the flailing appendages of all-ages audience members obscuring the stage.
Now imagine all that being overshadowed by singer/guitarist Airick Woodhead (Daniel's younger brother) stuttering nonsensical lyrics in a charmingly nasal yelp while collapsing to the ground. As he hits the floor, singer/keyboardist Maddy Wilde jumps in with serpentine harmonies and the go-go dancing synth moves of a 21st-century Kate Pierson.
Suddenly, you're watching the dishevelled 'fro of mop-topped bassist Dorian Thornton as he careens toward centre stage, then a cymbal crash yanks your focus to Daniel's windmilling arms as he confidently holds court behind his bandmates.
The band is founded on chaos that constantly threatens to send it over the edge. And though Daniel insists all four members are "totally mellow" kids in real life, even casual chatter with Spiral Beach can feel like a dog-and-pony show.
Right now they're in Alabama, huddled around a shitty speakerphone they've purchased to try to conduct a collective conversation. Ask how their inaugural American tour (with the Hidden Cameras) is going and it's like you've ignited a string of firecrackers.
"People don't realize how ridiculous touring is," begins Daniel.
"It's great, but it's our first time on tour, so maybe we'll get bored eventually," Airick exclaims. "The food situation has been really amazing. We've got an iron, and we've been making a lot of sandwiches with it. I mean, we got an iron because instead of having premade T-shirts at our shows we brought iron-on transfers so people can choose one and make their own T-shirts. So we've been making sandwiches on the iron, and we also got a kettle ."
Thornton interjects, "We make a lot of tea because we're all sick. The sandwiches have been really good, and the sore throats have been bad."
"Oh! And salmonella is bad, too," shouts Airick as the other three moan. "We tried buying prepackaged sandwich meat. It was a really bad idea."
"Since we're in Alabama, we're gonna get alligator tail tonight," Daniel calmly offers. "I'm excited. Last night we were at another place and ate boiled peanuts, and the menu said they were straight from the trailer park!"
Wilde quietly steps in. "They tasted like peanut butter but not."
You can't help but adore them, but you also kinda want to shake them and make them focus.
That same lack of linear logic applies to Spiral Beach's songwriting. Their tunes are bipolar, swerving from ska-type syncopation and vintage keyboard bursts to sudden breakdowns of psychedelic guitar, from delicate new wave art pop to heavy stoner sludge.
As for the words, the term "non sequitur" comes to mind.
"The next album will have better lyrics," writer Daniel sheepishly admits, semi-apologizing for the weird poetry on Spiral Beach's independent debut LP (originally released last year). "I don't really write story kinds of lyrics, though maybe a couple of new songs have characters and stuff. But there's no formula."
He insists their writing process, like everything about Spiral Beach, is simply organic. But the more you talk to the band, the more you get a sense that their particular brand of nonsensical, genre-defying, fractured circus pop is a conscious reaction to the folk scene in which three-quarters of the band were raised.
Airick and Daniel are the offspring of Montreal-bred contemporary folkie David Woodhead, whose CV includes sessions with Loreena McKennitt, Stan Rogers and Garnet Rogers, while Wilde's mom is Nancy White, who calls herself Canada's queen of the topical song.
"For me and Airick, music was just what our dad did as a job," says Daniel. "We didn't listen to anything until we were probably around 12. At first it was just anything on the radio or MuchMusic. But we found out about old underground stuff pretty quickly, like stuff that was underground-popular about 30 years ago."
"Folk music just seemed so mundane, so safe," adds Airick. "I didn't like it, and I still don't. It was louder stuff, like Sum 41, that got me into music. I mean, my dad had some effect. When he bought Björk's Vespertine, it changed me back in the other direction."
"I remember seeing a movie called The Year Punk Broke On TV, about Sonic Youth and Nirvana," Daniel continues. "I loved it, the messiness of it. When you watch the crowd at a Nirvana show in 1991, it's crazy. These days it feels like people are too self-absorbed to show they're into a band."
The foursome, none of whom is old enough to hang out at the clubs they're playing in the States, exude a kind of cockiness that makes it easy to understand why Spiral Beach polarize people's opinions.
"There's not much middle ground," Airick admits. "People don't like us because they think Canadian indie music is overdone, because we're not totally straightforward, especially groove-wise, or because we're too young."
In the three and a half years since the Woodhead brothers founded the band, that youth card's been played excessively. Reviewers barely older than the kids onstage have suggested that liking Spiral Beach when you're over the age of 20 feels "creepy."
It's a flawed assessment. As Airick points out, the Beatles were 17 when they started out.
There are two things that seem to trip people up when it comes to Spiral Beach: the fact that all four members, regardless of age, have an astounding amount of natural talent that comes through, even in their wobbliest performances and shakiest songs; and the fact that their shows, at least locally, attract a younger-than-usual crowd.
The latter phenomenon may be due in part to a slowly building trend toward more alternative and all-ages shows in Toronto, a movement that's gained momentum in recent years with the help of all-ages promoters like Eric Warner and ALL CAPS.
And happily, in the case of Spiral Beach's audiences, that particular demographic gives off a crazed energy (Thornton attributes it to "pre-drinking, since those people can't buy alcohol at our shows") that fuels the band.
You just hope Spiral Beach keep connecting with experienced advisers to help them focus before burning out too soon. They have the ambition and ability to explode big, and an unselfconscious spark that makes you want to covet the band as your own personal diamond-in-the-rough discovery.
Selections from Sprial Beach's self-titled album