THE BARMITZVAH BROTHERS as part of Wavelength 200 with the FEMBOTS , I CAN PUT MY ARM BACK ON, YOU CAN'T , ULTRA MAGNUS and DJ GREG DAVIS at Dovercourt House (805 Dovercourt, north of Bloor), Friday (February 13). Pwyc. www.wavelengthtoronto.com Rating: NNNNN
If you're ever at a Barmitzvah Brothers show and see a weird bearded older dude with wild hair, sporting a suit jacket over an old hockey shirt, lurking around the club with a video camera, don't call the cops. He isn't just some weirdo who gets his rocks off taping the teenage kidlets onstage and scoping the hot chicks in the crowd. Meet Crazy Ray, the Barmitzvah Brothers' equivalent of a soccer dad.
"He never showed any interest in indie rock or music or anything until I was in a band," marvels lead Brother Jenny Mitchell over falafels at the Free Times Café, where she used to go to hear the beloved klezmer music that inspired her band's name.
"He used to pay me so he wouldn't have to show up at school functions. He'd say, 'Here's the money I'd pay for the evening, and you can have it if I don't have to come.'
"My dad essentially drank his way through university and used to be a fairly closed-minded right-wing businessman who owned his own business. Now he's on 20hz, the local indie scene message board, posting messages about indie rock. And every time we play with a band he hasn't heard of he spends all night on the Internet looking them up!"
Crazy Ray is more than just an overzealous fan. His thrift store has played a crucial role in defining the Barmitzvah Brothers' idiosyncratic sound. It's where Mitchell asked Geordie Gordon to join her band, originally just an amateur basement-duo-turned-trio whipped together for a high school talent show called the Gaelic Gig. Gordon later invited old family friend John Jemeson Merritt along for the ride.
The store is also where the threesome, backed by "evil-looking" duo the Lethargians (Mitchell's step-sister Caitlin and their pal Sylvie), dig up the wheezing organs, tinny omnichords and a slew of oddball percussion instruments they use to crank out their delightfully shaky pop, which spans a mishmash of genres from country folk to sighing indie ballads to electro-polkas to the turbo-charged nu-klezmer Mitchell holds so dear.
Parental support is key for the teen trio from Guelph, since two-thirds of the Brothers (no, they're not related, they're not all boys, and none of them is Jewish) still have to ask permission to play shows in the Big Smoke on a school night.
Mitchell's obviously an experienced interviewee, but minutes after we sit down, Merritt (at 16, the youngest Brother) whips out an old-school handheld Bricks video game, which he plays for the remainder of the interview, only occasionally looking up to see what we're talking about. Typical adolescent boydom.
Of all the band members, Gordon and Merritt have the strongest musical pedigrees, as the spawn of Canuck roots folk icons James Gordon and Scott Merritt, respectively. But that doesn't make the Brothers virtuosos. The vocals on Mr. Bones' Walk-In Closet, their well-received debut for local art label Weewerk, can be deadpan and flat. The scratchy violin parts on a heartfelt ballad like Mercury sound more like early Suzuki class than Midori, and their matter-of-fact lyrics, chronicling detailed observations of mundane daily life, have no poetic pretensions.
The band's charm lies in the unaffected whimsy of their songwriting, a reflection of their approach to being a band in general.
"When we made a CD, we didn't even send it to magazines to be reviewed, and we didn't tell newspapers about it," says Mitchell. "I've always liked the fact that everything we've achieved came out of nowhere."
It's this laissez-faire aesthetic and attitude that sometimes gets the Brothers written off as just a cutesy novelty band. In fact, that subject sparked a recent vicious argument between jaded hipsters on the 20hz.ca message board.
"We're a novelty in that our attitude's always been pretty carefree." says Mitchell. "We've always been about joking and playing as many silly songs as serious songs."
Of course, with gimmicky junk-shop instrumentation (Caitlin sometimes plays a hockey stick with chains) and nudge-nudge, wink-wink tunes - like the song Show Promoter Dan, inspired by a run-in with the hapless Toronto rock-club-promoter-cum-train-wreck, which has become a cult fave amongst musicians and critics in this city and prompted Dan Burke to write a rebuttal - you wonder about the Barmitzvah Brothers' longevity... or whether they'll even be able to break out of the insular local scene.
Mitchell says she couldn't care less.
"Look at what we've done as a band already! I have at least five years left before I need a whole failed band in order to be at the same level as most people. I could be a 40-year-old woman right now and look back on this and appreciate how good my band was. It's easy to imagine we'll fade out at any moment and be some weird band in the background. That's how Toronto goes, how indie rock goes: you get really big, and then everyone ignores you.
"I think our band is hard to hate for really typical reasons. If you hate our music, you hate our music, and that's fine. But there's nothing about us that's so straightforward or extreme or specific that people can become cool by dissing it. In our case, unless people decide they hate bands that are young, there's nothing to say. We haven't come to a point where the cool indie rock people can easily write us off."
Riding the Wave
For four years, local indie rock pwyc night Wavelength has served as a great grassroots opportunity for up-and-coming outfits like the Barmitzvah Brothers to test their mettle. Some of the names on the roster for this week's four-day rockstravaganza - Jim Guthrie, the Fembots, Controller.controller - already get big-time buzz. Here are some lesser-known talents to check out.
Les Mouches tonight (Thursday, February 12) at the Music Gallery (197 John)
Led by violin-wielding Hidden Camera Owen Pallett , this Toront0-based three-piece spins delicate indie "panic folk" tunes with a seamy, morbid underbelly. The tracks on their Blood Orgy!!! EP, recently released by the blocks recording club, show off Pallett's sweet, barely there sissy vocals and the frenetic free jazz percussion of From Fiction drummer
Rob Gordon . Live, Les Mouches' soft-loud schizophrenia and penchant for improvisation might just lead to group hugs or manic mayhem.
Sea Snakes Sunday (February 15) at Sneaky Dee's (431 College)
The closest thing you'll find to a T-dot indie supergroup, this delicate melancholic pop ensemble includes members of I Am Robot and Proud, the Fembots, Rockets Red Glare, Blake and Burn Rome in a Dream. Their tunes are atmospheric, ethereal creepers that sorta sound like they're bubbling up from underwater.
Ninja High School Sunday (February 15) at Sneaky Dee's (431 College)
Once upon a time, suburban weed Matt Collins crashed a birthday party with Wavelength co-founder Johnny Dovercourt and ended up starting a slacker-rock band called Currently in These United States. Currently are no longer around, but Collins has gone back to his rec-room roots with his new project, defiantly lo-fi goof-hop dance party Ninja High School. Collins rhymes about how NHS is "gonna rock you" over tinny Casio riffs 'n' beats and cranked-up distortion. It's like those guys who watched Wild Style back in the 80s and got pumped cuz they wore sweatbands and could do the moonwalk. Awesome.