The Hidden Cameras’ sixth album, AGE, is a bit of a departure for the renowned Toronto musical provocateurs. Rather than gathering the troops—who include Gentleman Reg, Maggie MacDonald, Laura Barrett, Don Kerr and Owen Pallett, among other local luminaries—and recording some new songs together, bandleader and songwriter Joel Gibb (pictured top left) took a different approach. Gibb, who’s been dividing his time between Toronto and Berlin for several years, raided his vault of songs, going back to some of his earliest efforts, and recorded them one at a time, here and there in Toronto and Europe. “I spent so long working on it over the years,” he says. “It was this little pet project, this album I’ve wanted to make ever since I started writing songs.”
Full of dark, melancholy, minor-key songs (another departure from the Cameras’ joyous, exuberant “gay church folk music”), heavy on keyboards and even featuring a dub song, AGE ended up being the 37-year-old Gibb’s coming-of-age album, addressing the angst and horrors of his adolescence. The devastating video for the single Gay Goth Scene, directed by Kai Stanicke, illustrates that theme with a stark, painful story about teenage homophobic bullying. The song, which features a spine-chilling vocal by Mary Margaret O’Hara—“I asked her to channel the devil,” Gibb explains—is more than a decade old, but it didn’t find a place on a Hidden Cameras album until now, though it’s been a fixture of the band’s live set. “It was recorded at [producer] Ohad Benchitrit’s house in maybe 2003,” Gibb recalls. “We played it at the Gay Goth show in 2002 at that goth club on Queen, the Vatikan. Somehow we made a set that was dark with our early material, and it worked.
We always put Gay Goth Scene into the set, especially on Halloween. It kind of fit into a Hidden Cameras show, but I don’t know how it would have fit on any other album.
“And I started recording Skin and Leather with Don Kerr when we were doing [the 2006 album] Awoo. To me, those two songs are companion pieces. I kind of pooled all my minor-key songs in the back recesses of my mind, and it’s like now they all match. They’re almost all in F minor. It’s like my songwriting through a minor lens.” Still, a Hidden Cameras concert will always be infectiously joyful. “My songwriting is not depressing-sounding,” Gibb says, “though I may feel depressed sometimes.”
It’s way too easy to call AGE the product of Gibb’s dark Berlin period, like those of David Bowie and Iggy Pop—particularly since a lot of the writing and recording was done here in Toronto. “I write more songs here, I can’t explain why,” he says. “I think it’s something about where you come from, you know? The thing I like about Toronto is that there’s such a healthy, supportive arts scene across the disciplines. I don’t think Berlin has a community so much. It’s a lot of techno people who work by themselves. I don’t know a single guitar player there.”
Gibb calls the album “completely mixed up” when it comes to where and when it was created. “The music for Carpe Jugular, the clubby one, was done by Graham Peel, this Scottish guy,” he says. “That was my first co-write. I wrote the lyrics and sang that in Berlin. It kind of deconstructs the politics of the dance floor. But Ordinary Over You was done with James Bunton here, just down the street.
“Berlin is a dark place, I have to say. There’s a gay club scene, but it’s not a happy one. It is a place where lost souls congregate, and it’s got an eerie quality.”
The city has also served as a creative hub for Canadian expatriate musicians like Chilly Gonzales and Peaches, both of whom have given Gibb support. “The first time I went to Berlin, I stayed in Chilly’s apartment for a couple of weeks,” he recalls. “I met this fiery Norwegian opera director who was the impetus for me to move there, but that ended quickly. But Peaches has always been a steadfast buddy.” And Gonzales played piano on one of AGE’s standout tracks, Year of the Spawn.
“He’s so good,” says Gibb. “I told him to channel the devil as well. He heard the song once and recorded it in like five minutes.”
Now, Gibb acknowledges that he’s symbolically letting go of his adolescence by releasing these songs. “I think I’m growing up, finally,” he says with a rueful smile. Which means he’s now free to make a complete about-face and release—wait for it—a country album. It’s all written and recorded and needs just a few finishing touches. “I wrote so many songs between 2000 and 2006, I’m just catching up right now,” he explains. “I don’t need to write another song. I have this record and a record which is country-influenced and very, very sweet. There are a lot of songs, and a lot of covers. There’s a Tim Hardin cover, and a song by Wade Hemsworth, a Quebec folk singer from the ’50s. And a Hidden Cameras song from [2001’s] Ecce Homo, He Is the Boss of Me. Ecce Homo was all four-track demos, and I’ve re-recorded each song in the studio. The only one that was never re-recorded was He Is the Boss of Me, so it’s finally going to make its way onto a record.
The album is going to have pedal steel and strings and banjo—all the stuff I love.” Plus Mary Margaret O’Hara, apparently channeling a “church boy” this time.
After clearing the vaults with those two albums, Gibb says he then wants to make one the old-fashioned way. “I want to get a band and rehearse and then go make a record somewhere, record it classic style. I really miss the old process we had on the first and second records, which was getting everyone together, recording it in one place, mixing it with the same person and it’s done.”
In the meantime, the Hidden Cameras are playing a show on June 8 as part of the Luminato Festival. Gibb says MacDonald and Barrett will be there, as well as regulars Alysha Haugen, who’s also in By Divine Right, Jon Hynes and John Power, plus a horn section. “It’s a great group, it really is,” he says. But the set list will have to be adjusted to suit the crowd. “It’s a free afternoon gig, so it’s got to be family-friendly and fun and entertaining and all that.”
Hidden Cameras. Luminato Festival. June 8. luminatofestival.com.