Every article you read about Toronto's The Hidden Cameras starts with something about the homosexuality in singer/songwriter Joel Gibb's lyrics. There are also quite a lot of complex issues about connection to one's body and the symbolic nature of language, but since he's a guy singing about guys, for some reason, that's where everyone's attention goes.
"There's a real lack of expression of that--it's been hidden," explained Gibb. "You don't have a lot of love songs where there's a guy singing about a guy. You have a lot of heartbreak songs that are generic, that don't talk about a gender, perhaps, from a male perspective. ... You don't get a real specific sense of what it's all about or what it comes from. I just think that those are things that are just so untapped. As a songwriter, you want to try to open up things and sing about things that mean something to you and that need to be said."
On past records, Gibb's lyrics were often very upfront--on 2001's Ecce Homo, there's "High Upon the Church Grounds," where "the drugs get dealt and the cocks get felt," and on "The Man That I Am With My Man," from 2003's The Smell of Our Own, "He stands over me and I can hardly see that he is peeing on my shoulders and knees"--but this year's Awoo (Arts and Crafts) is much more subtle. Awoo opens up things through orchestral pop and lyrics that are ambiguous enough to be poetic, and still direct enough to shake up the standard boy/girl love-song dynamic. At times, The Hidden Cameras are even somewhat religious, which is why their music has been described as "gay church folk music."
"A lot of the times, if I'm singing about 'he,' you don't even know who I'm talking about," said Gibb. "I could be talking about a father or God or a boyfriend, and that's intentional. Part of the songwriting is not about finding answers and reconciling things; it's about shaking things up and asking questions."
The questions Gibb's songs raise on Awoo have more to do with how the lack of love can lead to separation from one's body than anything else. "Looking down at myself from above, I can see that my shadow is stalking," sings Gibb on "She's Gone," and on "Learning the Lie," Gibb cries, "Stolen by you, I am so easily led."
When someone else is controlling your body, who's to say they can't control your mind as well? For The Hidden Cameras, being connected and being in control of your own body is the key to being open-minded, happy and free. To be yourself, you need other people: "As he looks up, you see yourself in his face," Gibb croons on "Fee Fie." "There is no other way to feel or to be."
Even when Gibb began thinking about what kind of band he wanted to have back when he was a student studying semiotics, these ideas were important.
"I took lots of different classes in university, all in the humanities," said Gibb. "It all ended up being under the umbrella of semiotics. ... The head of semiotics was an anarchist, and he basically said anything was semiotics, so I constructed my own major out of the courses I wanted to take. I think that's informed my songwriting and my approach to the band and my approach to the visual art that I do: the symbolic meaning, reducing things to (their) iconic features."
This helps explain the story behind the word "awoo": "It's a nice sound to sing for me, but it also doesn't have a literal meaning in any language," explained Gibb. "Some of the lyrics on the record talk about the limitations of language, so if you break free from that, you can make up your own words and your own meanings. Music itself is beyond language; it's universal in that everybody can connect. You don't have to be an English speaker or from any specific background to respond to a beat or to a melody."
"I always wanted (the band) to be engaging with the audience and with each other," said Gibb, who remembers going to indie rock shows when he was younger and being somewhat disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm from the audience. "A lot of the shows (were) kind of downers," Gibb recalled. "You really like the music, and you want to kind of dance, but nobody dances or seems to really get into it. I think you just need a little bit encouragement, and people will cut loose."
At their live shows, "Sometimes, we'll ask people to play tambourine with us, or sometimes, we'll have some sort of coordinated stuff. ... I don't want to give it away," said Gibb.
"Every year, it just makes more sense to have a band called The Hidden Cameras, because that's what our culture is coming down to," said Gibb. "(It's) coming down to surveillance and detachment from the body, and paranoia, almost--distrust of the powers around, the government and the banks and all these institutions having more and more control and power over people's bodies through their mind."
The way to combat that, suggested Gibb, is by "getting more connected to your body."
You dance and you sing along to songs like "Lollipop" ("In a sugar rush, our bodies drop, oh our bodies drop, when the rhythm stops"). Through songs that aren't afraid to be openly gay, and songs that show the strangeness of being detached from one's own body, what The Hidden Cameras are really doing is encouraging connection--with yourself and with other people.