North By Northeast NOW showcase
Featuring SYLVIE 9 pm, JOSH MARTINEZ 10 pm, THE MOST SERENE REPUBLIC 11 pm, HOLY FUCK midnight and THE OLD SOUL 1 am, at the Reverb (651 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, June 9). $10 or free with NXNE wristband (see page 45). 416-504-0744, www.nxne.com. Rating: NNNNN
You can tell the hyperactive kids in the Most Serene Republic are new to the music biz game.
Goofy, gangly and grinning like sixth-graders on the last day of school before summer vacation, they show up for our scheduled meeting in Queen's Park bearing a fully loaded picnic basket packed with hummus, pitas and a steaming pot of Tetley tea.
Frontman Adrian Jewett sets out his grandma's china cups and saucers while keyboardist and musical braintrust Ryan Lenssen tinkers with his iPod so we can hear the syncopated pulse of Mingus as a soundtrack.
As a crowning touch, drummer Adam Nimmo whips out a bag of lilacs and sprinkles them around us on the grass.
"It's our first big interview, so we had to celebrate," Jewett jokes, laughing nervously. "The next journalist, they're only gonna get, like, McDonald's."
One-half of the Milton-based effervescent indie pop crew (guitarist Nick Greaves, bassist Andrew McArthur and singer/guitarist Emma Ditchburn round out the band), the three boys seem flabbergasted that they're suddenly in the spotlight.
But that's what happens when you become the first non-family member signed to Broken Social Scene's famed - and famously tight-knit - Arts & Crafts label.
"It's absolutely ridiculous," says Lenssen. "It still feels ridiculous, and I'm sure it'll feel ridiculous a year from now. At the beginning of this year we were listening to, like, the Broken Social Scene album; it was blowing our minds, and all the artists were a complete mystery to us.
"There's nothing more beautiful than being asked to join a family like that."
Listen to Most Serene Republic's shimmering, haphazard sonic assault and you know why the Arts & Crafts cats welcomed them with open arms. Their music is packed with winsome stream-of-consciousness vocals, sudden squalls of feedback-heavy guitars, convoluted rhythms and seemingly unstructured songs that abruptly morph from fuzzy Death Cab mope rock to Brubeck-inspired jazz-pop, or build and build toward a precarious breaking point before teetering back to solid ground in the nick of time.
They sound like kids who decided to start a band after playing the shit out of You Forgot It In People when they were teenagers.
Lenssen and Jewett originally bonded over music cuz they felt alienated in high school.
"What first brought us together was Moby's Play," explains Jewett. "Basically, we'd talk on the phone and just cry over the last track. Uh, I mean, we'd watch football together and eat pork rinds over the phone," he adds with a macho grunt.
Then Radiohead's Kid A dropped when they were in grade 10. They claim it blew their minds.
"Ryan was blown away," recalls Jewett, who tells stories with the manic, digressive chutzpah of the drama student he was till the band got signed. "I was like, 'What the hell is going on? There's no chorus! All the keyboard lines are the same, and there's no buildup or breakdowns. '"
Lenssen took up that anti-pop approach to pop music as one of the founding principles of his songwriting process. After graduation, he quit the emo band he was playing in - "Hey, everyone has that phase," he grumbles - and started working on songs for what would become the Most Serene Republic. At first, it was a solo thing. Then he invited Jewett to sing on a few tracks.
It takes them almost an hour to narrate the history of the band's evolution, complete with digressions about girls turning purple at Radiohead shows, pool parties and a mythical indie rock East Coast-West Coast rivalry.
All you really have to know is that they accumulated more members, recorded some EPs and changed their name. Bummed about arts funding cutbacks, Lenssen wanted to pay homage to the Most Serene Republic of Venice, where during the Renaissance the arts were upheld as a nearly sacred pursuit. By last November, they'd finished their first full-length album, Underwater Cinematographer (Sunday League), a remastered version of which Arts & Crafts is planning to re-release on June 28.
The same unjaded glee that leads the boys to throw spoons at each other and hoot at randy squirrels during our interview comes across onstage when Jewett launches into his nerdy lounge lizard routine or when percussion powerhouse Nimmo pulls off a particularly impressive drum riff.
In a sea of drama queens and kings, it's refreshing, but don't think the Most Serene kids are lightweights. Ask Lenssen about his songwriting technique and he'll launch into a treatise on Dave Brubeck, why he thinks 4/4 time signatures might lead to a new Puritan takeover, and how he based an Underwater Cinematographer track on the structure of wine tasting.
Or ask Jewett about the ideology behind their lyrics.
"Words can't do sunsets justice - you have to be there for yourself."
Lenssen picks up the discussion. "Instead of listening to a band talk about their experiences with love and that sort of thing - like, going to California, say - we'd rather have you go do those things while we're playing in the background."
Judging from the potential avalanche of hype, a year from now they might not even have time to sit down for tea in the park with each other, let alone me. They could be snorting lines off showgirls' bare arses and asking for pink toilet paper in their riders.
And because they're the first relative outsiders signed to the sainted A&C label, a lot of cynics will be only too happy to watch them stumble. Judging from early mumbles in the blogosphere, the backlash may already have begun before the Republic's flag has flown.
But for now it just seems like the nerdy underdogs are finishing on top.
"We were at Lee's recently and Kevin Drew puts a 1,000-yen note in my hand," recalls Nimmo. "He said, 'This represents all the good people in your life, all the loving things in your life, all the major changes that are gonna happen to you over the next year, and you going to Japan. '"
"That's the best reward out of this whole thing," sighs Lenssen, "seeing the world. I was a traveller as a kid, and I haven't been able to do it since school, but now we get to do it again. I can't wait."