January 11, 2007 : The Basement Tapes - Eye Weekly
THE BASEMENT TAPES
Ohbijou pay a two-disc, 36-artist salute to a house that's become more than just a home
BY STUART BERMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID WALDMAN
FRIENDS IN BELLWOODS
Out of This Park/Sonic Unyon
CD release show featuring Ohbijou, Sebastien Grainger, The Paramedics (featuring Bry Webb), The D'Urbervilles, DJs from Germans. Fri, Jan 12, 9pm. The Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick. $10. Canned food donations will be collected for the Daily Bread Food Bank.
Our homes are the places where our private lives are supposed be concealed. And yet, from countless home-reno TV shows to webcam porn to those people who put up their elaborate Christmas-light displays a few months too early, we're a culture becoming increasingly prone to reverse-voyeurism, seeking approval in a stranger's gaze.
Casey Mecija - singer for local indie-pop sextet Ohbijou - is a firm believer in an open-door policy, but hers is less about an opportunistic need to be liked than a small-town-bred belief that front doors should always be unlocked for neighbours to drop by randomly. Since moving into her Bellwoods Avenue home in the summer of 2005, Mecija and sister/bandmate Jenny have transformed their basement into both a makeshift rehearsal/recording studio (where Ohbijou laid down songs for their elegantly elegiac 2006 debut, Swift Feet for Troubling Times) and, on six occasions, a concert venue, where numerous friends and strangers have congregated to experience their favourite indie-rock acts in extremely intimate quarters.
"There's always a fear in opening up your house to people, but I just do it blindly," Mecija explains while sharing nachos with Ohbijou drummer James Bunton at a nearby diner. "We had a fundraising show for my dog Appleby's hip replacement and Bry [Webb of the Constantines] played the basement, and we had a camera downstairs projecting the show into the living room upstairs. It was packed all the way down to the basement, with about 150 people. I might get anxious beforehand, but when the show's actually happening, I'm just like, 'Wow, this is so cool.' I can deal with the stink and the aftermath later."
But even when it wasn't hosting concerts, the Bellwoods house was still challenging local noise ordinances - this past summer, Ohbijou began curating a new compilation of friends and peers by inviting several former party guests to record a new song in the house's basement, or donate an already completed track. But what began with a few solicitations soon snowballed into a two-disc, 36-artist collection titled Friends in Bellwoods, a nod to both the musical network that formed around the house, as well as to the project's charitable intents: given that the homeless on Queen West almost outnumber the hipsters, proceeds from the album's sales will go toward the Daily Bread Food Bank.
"Everything has its moment," Mecija says. "The Bellwoods house is something that's happening right now, but it won't always be like that. So it's nice to have this marker of a really, really nice time in all our lives, and have everyone be so eager to participate."
Much like Ohbijou's own album, many Friends in Bellwoods contributions betray a don't-wake-the-neighbours reserve intrinsic to much home recording, but Bunton claims the quietude had more to do with comfort than discretion.
"To write a song in the Rehearsal Factory is a lot different than working on parts in a quiet space that we can call our own, especially when we can go upstairs to take a break and sit on the couch with Appleby," he says. "It makes a difference to be able to work at our own pace, at our own volume, and in an environment that we socialize and relax in anyway.
"People would come in and record, and then at the end of the day, there'd be a bunch of other people at the house and they'd end up singing or playing instruments on the track. Like [Peterborough songwriter] Jonas Bonnetta came in with just a guitar and vocal line and ended up with a whole band playing on it. Kim English, who lives in the house with Casey and Jenny, is on the album, and she hadn't played any shows or sung on a song before…
"She just made up a song and sang it," Mecija adds. "And you can hear my dog on some of the tracks - he'd jump off the couch upstairs and you'd hear it through the floorboards."
If Mecija and Bunton's recollections make Friends in Bellwoods sound overly off-the-cuff and amateurish, the remarkably cohesive and high-quality results prove otherwise. Friends in Bellwoods feels like something much more substantial than a tribute to a mere house - the tracklist serves as an impressive document of an amazingly fertile five-year period in indie-music communities that span the 401 from Montreal to London.
The album's contributors range from musicians who've gone on to respectively tour arenas with David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails (Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara and ex-Death From Above 1979 drummer Sebastien Grainger) to people laying their very first song to tape (the aforementioned Ms English). There are current Toronto scene mainstays (The Meligrove Band) and next-generation insurgents (We're Marching On), as well as acknowledgment of the great influence that Toronto's queer art-scene has had on a local DIY culture (Kids on TV).
And most notably, there's great evidence that the "moment" Mecija speaks of goes beyond Toronto; you could even argue that Toronto's prevailing communal ethos was imported from smaller satellite cities like Guelph (whose early-'00s basement-show scene spawned Friends in Bellwoods participants Bry Webb and Gentleman Reg) and Brantford (whose tireless all-ages advocate and civic champion Tim Ford closes out the first disc). "People who live in a big city create small cities inside of it," Mecija says.
And at the epicentre of all this history and activity is Ohbijou: not just as the project's social convener, but as a band poised for even greater things. As the past half decade has illustrated, bands with the sort of mounting local acclaim Ohbijou are currently enjoying are usually not long for this town, with international record deals and tour offers a seeming inevitablity. But for now, Mecija and James would rather be at home folding their own cardboard record sleeves than mulling over dotted lines and fine print.
Says Mecija, "When we look at people like Sebastien or Jeremy Gara, we haven't had the same experience in music as they have; they're on a different playing field than us. But the fact that we can just email them and be like 'Hey bro, we got your track' is really humbling and heartwarming.
"We're not quick to sign anything. It'll probably change in some ways, but it's really nice the way we've been doing it right now. Though we have had some really surreal moments. We had an amazing experience playing at V Fest, meeting someone like [The Flaming Lips'] Wayne Coyne, who's so humble and so excited. That's how I want to be in music. I want to go to his house for dinner!"
WE ARE! YOUR FRIENDS!
Some of Friends in Bellwoods' many highlights:
SEBASTIEN GRAINGER, "Young Mothers" To paraphrase his former band's debut album: you're a woman, he's Elliott Smith.
BRY WEBB, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin" Since he crooned "St. You" on the first Constantines' album, we've been waiting for Webb to unleash his acoustic troubadour album. We're still waiting… but until that day comes, dig this unplugged overhaul of this Velvets classic.
BAHAI CASSETTE, "SNIT... yada" I hear Allman Brothers country licks, plastic cowbell and military marches for special-needs children. You may hear early Sebadoh/Ween bong-hit bedroom rock. And we're both wrong. Or right.
WE'RE MARCHING ON, "Shithead Kids" Like Peter, Bjorn & John's "Young Folks," this song proves that whistling is the new grunge.
TUSKS, "Mothers Vs Sons" Smoooooth circa-'75 pop harmonies (from former members of Kepler and Rockets Red Glare, no less) that prove indie-rock is really the new yacht rock. SB