FEMME GENERATION CD release with the DIABLEROS , LULLABYE ARKESTRA and CODE PIE at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Saturday (February 18). $7. 416-598-4753, www.femmegeneration.com.
I'm on the second floor of a grand but dilapidated Annex manor, where four dishevelled dudes and one grinning cardboard robot are sprawled on beanbag chairs and shabby couches.
Arcane instruments a 70s organ, a beat-up 12-string are shoved in corners, and soundtracks compete down Victorian corridors. (In here it's shambling 60s psych rock, two rooms down Belle & Sebastian's twee jangle.)
As the members of frenetic local indie rock crew Femme Generation finish each other's sentences and snort over inside jokes, I get the sense I'm crashing a planning session held by latter-day musical musketeers.
To hear Femme Generation singer/guitarist Bernard Kadosh tell it, the MO behind the band and their fantastic new LP, Brothers And Sisters, Alone We Explode (Permafrost) comes pretty close to "One for all and all for one."
"A lot of this album has to do with camaraderie," he says, trying to describe the process of recording the follow-up to 2004's lauded Circle Gets The Square EP in an abandoned barn near Shelburne, Ontario, this past summer. "Not that there's a specific concept behind it, but the overarching feel is kind of faux nationalist: four guys in a bunker trying to start their own society, not aiming for utopia that would be Republic of Safety but maybe attempting to create a new Canada up north."
"We were completely isolated in this rural area," continues keyboardist and co-founder Aaron Hutchings. "You'd open the big barn doors and all you'd see was forest and river."
Bassist John Rivera jumps in. "It really felt like the bomb had hit and nothing was left. And we had to stay tight together. It was a weird psychological thing."
Sound a bit Lord Of The Flies? Happily, no pig's blood was spilt. The most communing the valiant Femmes did with nature happened when an unexpected choir of bats chimed in during the recording of the hazy, piano-driven ballad China White that brings Brothers And Sisters to a gentle close.
For all their playful dude-camaraderie, Femme Generation aren't your typical boy band. They may play off the iconography of macho togetherness the front page of their website welcomes visitors with a photo of soldiers in front of a shack and laugh hysterically over fart jokes.
But you notice details that suggest a softer side: the robot, lovingly crafted for the DIY video for the Femmes' new track, Automaton Love Song, sports a huge glowing heart; Kadosh's beverage offers are for tea, not beer (orange pekoe with a squeeze of lemon). Most telling: the bathroom is spotless.
Then there's their odd choice of name. Drummer Paul Filippelli thought he was joining a lesbian punk band when he answered the ad Kadosh and Hutchings had posted in a used record store.
"The story of the name is something that should be left to..." Kadosh trails off. "Oh, okay. One time, Aaron and I were on tour with our old band, Bitter Fall. We were sharing a room, and there was some drinking and Aaron and I got a little bit comfortable. Things progressed to the next level... and let's just say we explored our femininity together."
"We became gynecologically aware," quips Hutchings. "We went through a lot of other band names that ended up being song titles. We wanted something that would be striking and, uh, raise questions we wouldn't want to answer."
Watching Kadosh and Hutchings banter, it's hard to tell which parts of the story are fact and which are fiction, but you've kinda got to love 20-something fellas who allude to Brokeback fantasies.
Even their music messes up the angular, spiky sleekness of cool, boy-styled post-punk with a bonanza of unpredictable softer-edged forms. Brothers and Sisters kicks off with a group bellow of "Hey-o, can you gimme some mo'?" then gallops through wheezing organs, skittering guitars and jazz-inflected percussion; a track later, Kadosh rips off Chubby Checker's Let's Twist Again over an electro buzz reminiscent of Chicks on Speed, then eases into the whispery, loping Cure-with-melodica of The Good Life '77. And that's just Side A subtitled We're In To Win!
Flip over the album at least in your mind, and Side B (These Are The Good Times) finds heartfelt falsetto ballads and tons of organ.
"We group- ed the songs between the more, I dunno, "modernish' songs and the ones that are Old World influenced," offers Kadosh, who cites everything from Kurt Weill to 50s surf rock to Esquivel as jumping-off points for the album. "We never had a manifesto, but for this album in particular we tried to reach past the typical punk/indie rock influences that informed us in the beginning."
It could've been dicey (indie rock meets Threepenny Opera?), especially since the raw, urgent sound Femme Generation established on their debut EP garnered them a torrent of wholly unanticipated buzz. Kadosh and Hutchings started playing around with new band ideas after Bitter Fall folded in 2002; when they made Circle Gets The Square back in 2004, Rivera had been in the band barely two weeks, and songs were changing from take to take during the process.
But their fusion of post-punk and fuzzy shoegaze riffs took the Femmes from unknowns who played overlooked shows at Rancho to one of the city's most promising new bands.
They credit producer Dave MacKinnon (FemBots) "the Phil Spector of Toronto, without the gun" who agreed to record the EP on a shoestring budget.
"One vocal technique involved feeding one mic to an amp that we set up in the washroom. Then we miked the washroom," explains Kadosh. "After mixing, it gave this cool echoey David Bowie effect. But we started calling it the Stinky Vocal Track, cuz whenever Dave had to go in and adjust the mics, he'd lose it. And Dave's a pretty laid-back guy, but when he had to go into that room it was all fire and brimstone."
Luckily, MacKinnon was kind or foolish enough to lend the band his oddball expertise again for Brothers And Sisters. The result is a totally thrilling stylistic fusion.
Best of all, there's substance to the songs. Mixed in with the shout-along punk rallying cries and sweet nothings, Kadosh who claims Beatrix Potter is his chief literary influence weaves acid lines like "Since I was eight, my mother told me, "Smash the State,'" and imagines scenes set in Munich and on the Plains of Abraham.
"I never feel that comfortable about going up and preaching," he says slowly, "cuz I'm a middle-class kid from a relatively privileged home, and there's not much I can offer in terms of social change. I'm more interested in storytelling and people developing their own opinions. I never want to tell people what they should think."
Strangely enough, though Kadosh's songwriting references everything from Hitler to childhood lessons in communism, there's something distinctly Toronto about Femme Generation's sound. They belong to a vibrant, still relatively underrated group of bands like the Diableros, Spitfires & Mayflowers, the Airfields and even Republic of Safety that are establishing a certain brand of multivalent arty melodic rock that bristles with originality.
"It's a period of no fear in Toronto," muses Filippelli. "You can do whatever you want. We're not talking about incredibly technical prog rock; more of a recklessness without being self-indulgent."
Kadosh sees it as more of a focus on songwriting that's not about instant gratification or blind pastiche.
"Like, the Arcade Fire have these moments that are just like sugar. Everyone latches on to the moment with them your heart is surging, you're swaying arm-in-arm. Like, if Lars von Trier made a movie for people to dance to, it could be the Arcade Fire. You can appreciate it for what it is, but once other bands start photocopying that and other bands photocopy that and other bands photocopy that..."
Well, then you get the Britrock law of diminishing returns, where Radiohead begets Coldplay begets Keane... and there's no need for another Keane.
Right now, though, it seems exactly the right time for a Femme Generation.