St. Giles Cripplegate Church is a centuries old building surrounded by the beautiful atrocity that is the Barbican. It is a Saturday afternoon, hardly any shops or bars are open – we are in one of those hateful yuppie areas of London that close on weekends – and I am waiting in the cold for Joel Gibb, the man behind The Hidden Cameras. I get talking to Janine, who is sharing piano duties with Bernard Butler tonight, a member of The Hidden Cameras for the second time only, the revolving cast of guest musicians being a feature on the Hidden Cameras’ trips abroad. It turns out that she has self-released over 40 albums of experimental electronica. Does she like The Hidden Cameras?
“They’re good, not the kind of thing I do, but it has certainly been interesting. To be honest I don’t know anything about them.”
When Joel arrived, I helped them to set-up, becoming the nearest thing they had to a sound engineer, making sure that, unlike the Rough Trade 25th anniversary show, one could actually hear the strings. As they soundchecked a perfunctory ‘The Man that I am with My Man,’ I take in my surroundings, noting on the church walls a place to write asking God to make an intercession. One for Gaynor “because we fear the worst”; for Mother “she is ill in hospittle” (sic); for Galina “she works hard to pay her husband’s gambling debts.” Vulgar, yet poignant. Statues of Milton, Cromwell, Bunyan and Defoe add gravitas and history to the occasion. The soundcheck is turning into a rehearsal (the regular Hidden Cameras musicians are all back in Toronto) with Gibb directing his musicians with the directness of someone who knows exactly what he wants. I get into conversation with a churchgoer who is passing through:
“Are they a Christian band?” he says.
“In a way,” I reply.
He didn’t enquire further, but if he had done I would have qualified my answer by expanding the definition of Christian to incorporate musings on gay marriage and the punning use of Christian tropes (although never glibly) like “damaged by the rod” and “bowels of hell” on ‘Breathe on it.’ Gibb is Christian in the similar way that Nietzsche is Christian (indeed, The Hidden Cameras early four-track demos album is called, again punning, Ecce Homo): they are both very much conscious of the inescapable influence of Christianity on Western culture.
However, the main reason the Hidden Cameras play in Churches and other unconventional venues is not to desecrate, but because other venues are tainted with impurities that get in the way of the music, like cigarette smoke, drunkenness and age-restrictions. And what The Hidden Cameras do has a fundamental purity, made all the more apparent in relation to the present scuzzy indie scene.
Towards the end of the soundcheck Bernard Butler arrives. I use the opportunity to shake his talented hand. He looks at me quizzically and says:
“Are you a friend of Joel’s from Toronto?”
“Oh, ahem, no. I’m just here to interview him for The Mind’s Construction.” The implication was that I might have been Joel’s boyfriend.
Do a Google search on Joel Gibb and you’ll find lots of interviews he has granted e-zines similar to The Mind’s Construction, mini-features that act as advertisements for the strange charms of the Hidden Cameras. (You will also find an interview for a fanzine that a teenaged Gibb conducted with Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, more of which later.) One suspects that Gibb feels obliged to speak to these aspiring and perspiring writers, he did, after all, run his own ‘zine, The Bitch (“Mainly on Riot Grrrl bands”). And has even gone so far as to write a song about his experiences (‘Fear of ‘Zine Failure’). Indeed, when I drunkenly buttonholed him after their set at the Rough Trade gig, I told him how I feared that my ‘zine was going to fail unless I got an interview with him. Unfortunately, this was before I had read the previous interviews he had done.
In the other interviews, without exception, Joel was asked almost solely about playing gay-music or musical gayness: music, gay, music, gay, ad nauseum. There are two reasons why one shouldn’t do this: firstly, music is one of the least interesting topics to discuss with a musician, it’s like asking a parent about their child: they can’t be objective. And being gay? The physicality of the Hidden Cameras’ lyrics is such an intensely personal thing, that there is little point attempting to make it political (except on the overtly political ‘Ban Marriage’). I asked Joel after the Rough Trade gig how political he was, and he said:
“Everything a person does is political, it is unavoidable, but I’m not going out there to make a political statement.”
One sensed that Gibb is frustrated with being pigeonholed as making gay music. It is getting in the way of the songs; and to be probed on lyrics that may be sexually explicit (once you’ve followed the allusions), but are also tender and poetic, must feel intrusive. Their forthcoming album, Mississauga Goddam (tonight’s gig showcased many of the new songs), will apparently be “more romantic,” they are doing more collaborations with a Toronto dance company, all of which will distract from – or add to – what they presently doing. Which is?
The cover of The Smell of our Own is framed by male buttocks and opens with a paean to golden showers and dreams of men: it is gay music. But it is also gay music in the sense of being effervescently joyous. Gibb’s nasal croon is low in the mix, allowing strings and organ to perform an integral role rarely seen in indie-pop music. Thunderous timpani and ditty drum machines augment the wilful oddity of ‘Ban Marriage.’ Unlike Belle and Sebastian, to whom they have often been compared, the music doesn’t feel contrived, forced or self-conscious. The understated guitar riffs get under the skin, charming even the most cynical with their beauty.
For all the allure of the album though, it has been their live shows that have given the Hidden Cameras an air of mystique. They have had the lyrics projected on walls; they play gigs in unconventional venues; they utilise dancers who are dressed outlandishly (or not dressed in much at all); all of which adds to the impression of strangeness. We expected much. However, at the Rough Trade night they were awful. Assisted by an inaudible string quartet and an ineffective Bernard Butler on guitar, Joel Gibb’s tinny, clangy electric guitar was too loud, shredding his smooth songs to pieces. Wearing an ugly green check shirt and drearily running through the songs, Gibb seemed divorced from proceedings, unhappy with being where he was.
Why, I ask, should this be? The answer can be found in an interview, one that Joel Gibb conducted with Johnny Greenwood from 1995, asking questions like:
“What was teen life like for you?”
“Did you ever envision yourself as a rock star when you were younger?”
“Who do you think is funnier, Dawn French or Jennifer Saunders?”
And “Where’s the mystery?”
This last question is the key, I think, to explaining Joel Gibb’s frustration: the mystery is there all right, but people insist on reducing it to the basest of cliches. As he said in response to my end of year question – How have you changed in 2003? – “I think I grew up a lot this year but also became disillusioned with the world a bit too, oh well.” As an interviewee he was taciturn, but direct.
What do you think about couples snogging to your music?
“They don’t really get it, do they?”
Your lyrics are filled with references to Christianity . . .
Well, let’s just say that I had a religious upbringing.
But you’re not religious?
“No. I think if you start considering yourself an atheist you are part of the same thing. You become just as obsessed.”
One of things which one notices most about Hidden Cameras is the division between form and content . . .
“Well I write the music first, then hum on top of that. The lyrics are written separately to the music.”
This last point is revealing, for The Hidden Cameras play innersleeve pop; music that requires the listener to have the lyrics booklet in front of them as it plays; if, that is, they want the full effect. Both at St. Giles and on the album, the lyrics were muffled and inaudible, sounding nothing more than sounds without intrinsic meaning, just another part of their melodic pop. If the lyrics weren’t terribly good, this would be understandable; but they are good, very good. Take the exquisite metaphors on ‘Animals of Prey’:
We fall down in pairs,
moles locked in a blind stare
Your pearly mouth, it cracks a smile
without a sound, the blind lead blind
We the animals of prey have become cannibals untamed
under the stars the moles go far into the earth like a sinking stone
Endless analysis and admiration could be expended on Gibb’s lyrics. The word “Morrissey” is often bandied around without justification, but Gibb deserves to be mentioned in the same company, if only for the fact that his lyrics having a similarly intuitive, inspired quality. It is just a pity we can’t hear them articulated, one feels it would take them to a new level.
As it was, the atmosphere in the church was that of muted reverence, if not passive acceptance. Last song, ‘Golden Streams’, didn’t evoke even the flicker of a smile, when it should, because so joyous and original. The admiration felt false. The call for an encore (from a crowd desperate to hear ‘Ban Marriage’) was met with a song they’d already played earlier (‘Smells like Happiness’). Hopefully, the next time they play in London they will be able to bring the full band and a few dancers.
The next album, Mississauga Goddam (referring brilliantly to Nina Simone’s stark anti-segregation song Mississippi Goddam), is about a place I have been told is full of “concrete highways, a suburban non-entity . . . very flat, very dull, and without a horizon” – the very opposite, in fact, of The Hidden Cameras.