THE FEMBOTSwith ANDRE ETHIER , the SINGING SAW SHADOW SHOW and more, at the Royal Cinema (606 College), Saturday (December 3), doors 7 pm, all ages. $12. www.fembots.net.
Brian Poirier and Dave Mackinnon just can't give up the ghosts.
The Toronto duo - together, the central heart, soul and brains of rattletrap roots-rock outfit the FemBots - have been champions of the forgotten and singers of the unsung since they started the band as a home-recording project over half a decade ago.
With 2003's awesome Small Town Murder Scene, they imagined fictional wastelands haunted by the spirits of cowpokes, spinning songs based on the tumbleweed iconography of spaghetti western flicks and country song ghost towns.
Now, with their new The City (Paper Bag) album, Poirer and MacKinnon unearth the ghosts of Toronto past, transforming the city's paved-over history into a remarkable classic song cycle.
"One of the things that bugs me about Toronto is that the only part of our history that seems to survive is the history of rich people - the Eatons and Rosedale and all that stuff," says MacKinnon, a tall, matter-of-fact greyhound of a guy who's like the Bob Odenkirk to pal Poirier's quieter, rounder David Cross. "But some of the city's defining moments aren't necessarily the most pleasant aspects of it."
After quietly spending over a decade as local musicians just under most people's radar, by unearthing the skeletons in Toronto's closet, the 'Bots have scored an unexpected coup: their collection of painstakingly detailed, unpretentious tunes about lost head shops on Yonge, asphalt flowers in construction site gravel and anti-Semitic riots at Christie Pits in the 30s has connected with people across the country.
More than just a breakout, it stands to be not just one of the year's best Canadian discs, but one of the best albums of 2005, period.
Inspired by their impassioned documentation, I've asked the FemBots to take me on a tour of some of the city's hidden gems. That's why on the last unseasonably sunny day of the year, I'm standing outside the Royal Cinema on College while Poirier and MacKinnon scare up the old spirits.
From the outside, the Royal's unassuming: there's a guy sweeping crap off the sidewalk, and the facade's first three letters are burnt out.
But two weeks from now, for one night, the joint will trade its second-run repertoire for fantastic live music, readings and city-centric art films when the 'Bots mount their ambitious You Are Here project. Building on The City's tales of their disappearing (and disappeared) hometown, they've dubbed the artistic extravaganza "a multimedia love song to Toronto."
Had history gone a different way, MacKinnon tells me, the Royal might've been just another forgotten landmark in a FemBots tune. Before Little Italy, it screened German and Yiddish films for the 'hood's Jewish crowd in the 20s and 30s. A few decades back, it was slated to be razed and replaced by a massive Green P parking lot. Then the community - and the Festival chain - rallied to preserve the building.
"Once you live in a place long enough and get to know the neighbourhood, you find all sorts of weird little things that seem strangely out of place," says MacKinnon, who's lived on College for the past 12 years.
He leads me down a side street and points at a tiny cottage, squished in the alley between two swanky buildings. "This is a farmhouse from way back when this area was a farm. It's one of my favourite things."
Since their first show opening for Merrill "Peaches" Nisker's old earnest folk outfit Mermaid Café at the Cabana Room (now the Backpackers' Hostel at King and Spadina, the two note, gesturing south) through the Dark Age of live music in the mid-90s when "people only cared about DJs" to the original loopy junk-shop incarnation of the FemBots, the two have managed to survive, playing music that doesn't give a fuck about current trends.
Their first album, Mucho Cuidado, which originally came out independently in 2000 (and has since been reissued by Paper Bag), found the former members of 90s Queen West CFNY contenders Dig Circus unleashing their thrift-store aesthetic - the pair obsessed over rescuing arcane ephemera from the junkyard and jerry-rigging objects that were never meant to make music into bizarre instruments - and composing stoner-friendly audio collages assembled from a lo-fi artillery of Goodwill purchases in MacKinnon's garage studio just off College.
In what's since become a cornerstone of the FemBots' history, the studio was funded by the cash they made when a UK band snapped up one of their cast-off tunes.
"As much as a club could be a home base for a band, that was the place where we really started up," sighs MacKinnon as we pass the dormant shell of what once was Ted's Wrecking Yard. "We played pretty much a show every night," adds Poirier, "and I lived right across the street, above the Vespa dealership."
When they first met as uptown punk kids in piano class at a Mississauga high school, all they cared about was escaping. They hung out at a pal's black-painted hellhole at Queen and Jarvis after drinking dirt-cheap pints at the Rex, "one of the only places you could get into easily and get booze underage," says MacKinnon.
"And all the head shops on Yonge Street," Poirier continues. "I miss that now that they've neutered Yonge. It used to be fabulously scummy."
A laundry list of the spectres that haunt Toronto's cleaned-up aorta follows: the Uptown Theatre. The Silver Rail ("one of the first bars in the city to serve cocktails!"). The Colonial Tavern ("one of the hubs of the local jazz scene in its day").
The City's most moving moment occurs when the FemBots map out the Toronto they remember. The title track, a wistful duet with a subdued Krista "Lederhosen Lucil" Muir, travels down the 401 to a pre-makeover Yonge.
Though they've lived downtown for over a decade, the FemBots still write songs that capture the magical allure the city holds for a Brampton teenager dying to get his first black eye from a Doc Marten at a False Prophets/NoMeansNo show (as Poirier did back when Healey's was the seedy Slither Club).
"That wouldn't happen today," Poirier laughs, "cuz all punk rock bands now, they have to have tons of harmonies and have to look really good. You'd think there would be more of the traditional Reagan-era punk bands emerging with George W. Bush in power. They'd have so much material."
"The city isn't down-and-out enough," MacKinnon interjects. "The only punk music being generated is by disaffected rich kids, which isn't the same. Though there's always Bunchofuckingoofs - they'll be around forever."
By now we've wandered down Augusta, said a silent good riddance to Nike's ill-fated Presto Club - MacKinnon remembers when, during the garbage strike, angry anti-corporate types piled heaps of stinking Market garbage in front of the youth-targeted venue - and settled beside the Kensington Market bass, a lamp-post outfitted with in-tune steel strings and painted frets that's one of Toronto's more recent hidden gems. It also looks like early FemBots gear.
As we wind up the tour, MacKinnon and Poirier make plans to meet up back at the Royal. They're still working out the details of their ambitious collaborative performance, which, it turns out, is itself a tribute to a lost moment in Toronto musical history.
"There used to be shows where there'd be, like, a Mississauga skate-punk band right next to a country band and then an accordion-playing 12-year-old kid," MacKinnon muses. "Now people playing one style of music don't necessarily associate with people who play a different style of music. It's kind of a drag."
Instead of just bitching about it, the FemBots are hoping to revive the ghosts of stuff they miss - kinda like what they've done with The City.
"There's always been really good music in Toronto, but there was a long time when the pinnacle of your creative aspirations would be to play Guelph, and maybe Montreal if you were lucky."
"It was also a time when people were singing songs about where you were coming from," says Poirier, "and writing about Toronto seemed ridiculous."
Sometimes, even they have to admit, change can be pretty awesome.