The Most Serious Fun in The World

Free Candy is the sound of one band trying. Like, really trying.

// Max Telzerow// Max Telzerow

As any solemn Canadian pact should be, this one was hammered out over Tim Hortons coffee. Lyle Bell had a cherry cheese danish; Trevor Anderson tucked into a cruller. And they arrived at an important agreement, one that would change something profound in their relationship to each other, their band, and their art.

They would try. Together. Like, really try. Really, really, really, honest-to-goodness, give-it-all-ya-got, pour-your-heart-and-soul-in-it, actually fucking try.

Doesn’t sound like much? Well, consider this: the whole, fucked-up Mortal Express, the way that somehow, for no good reasons when we’re actually pressed on it, so many of us wind up leading existences that don’t have much to do with what actually matters to us, despite the fact that we all agree that life is fleeting and precious and fragile. Not to disparage the stuff of maintenance and politeness—like changing the cat litter, doing dishes and being kind to people we’re indifferent to—because it’s not about some weird, self-regarding Byronic trip to wring out intensity from every waking moment at the expense of the social contract and being a mensch. It’s not about policing against moments of tedium or obligation or citizenship. But over the last century, as us lucky folks in the West have been increasingly told that we can do anything and be anything our little hearts desire, a lot of us seem to have opted out. Or we “fake try.” The more we want something, the more we hobble ourselves, so we have something to blame if we fall down. Because, if we try really hard and you still don’t get it, who’s the fool then? Especially when the Internet exists, to crap loudly all over our best efforts.

So we don’t start that assignment until the last possible minute, because if it sucks, we can tell ourselves we would have done better with more time. So we don’t practise as much as we know we need to. So we conceal our most earnest feelings in banter. So we get drunk and start bands as a joke.

“It was a drunken dare, essentially,” Bell recalls of the dawn of the Wet Secrets. “Everybody who’s a musician does this, who goes out for a drink. They meet someone, and say, ‘Hey man, we should form a band. And let’s call it ‘Skullfuck 2000′; it’ll be funny!”

(Although Skullfuck 2000 is funny, and absolutely should exist, it does not as of yet. But you can also discern the origins of Bell’s band/alter-ego Whitey Houston in this tale.)

“You know, 99 percent of the time, it’s just a fun joke when you’re drinking with your friends. But we were at Seedy’s when this happened, and I don’t know if we took the show that night—”

Anderson confirms that they did. “We walked over to the bar and we booked it in.”

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“And promptly forgot about it, until a week beforehand, when we saw an ad was in Vue and posters were up, and we were like, ‘Oh my God!'” Bell still sounds horrified, almost nine years later.

Anderson recalls being buttonholed while out for a night on the town. “On the dance floor, Andrea Lefebvre [from the Skinny] yelled at me, ‘Which one of you is it?’, and I said, ‘What?’. And she yelled, ‘There’s an ad in Vue: half Vertical Struts, half Whitey Houston! A new band, the Wet Secrets! Next Saturday! Who is in that band?’. And I went, ‘Oh my God!’, and phoned Lyle.”

They groan out the ‘Oh my Gods!’ together as each of their stories culminate with the phrase. Bell and Anderson are given to relating stories with chunks of dialogue in them, acting out every part as they go along. Both men are sweetly attentive to each other as they talk, and there’s an absence of that kind of compulsive razzing often found in bands of young men. Anderson is, true to his other calling as a film and theatre director, almost supernaturally observant, and perches on his chair in between laying out cookies and coffee. Dressed neatly and conservatively but for extravagantly beautiful shiny patent shoes, Anderson redirects the conversation when it gets derailed, reminds Bell of what he was saying if he blows off course and inserts pertinent or corrective details when he deems it necessary, and urges Bell on. Bell’s a visual artist and designer as well as a musician, and has arrived from his side job as a commercial painter, looking like he was jumped by some clothes at the bottom of his bed as he struggled out the door. They’re affectionate and encouraging with each other, and have a strikingly respectful partnership. Although Bell and Wet Secrets tuba-player Kim Rackel are in a longterm romantic relationship, it’s easy to view the Bell-Anderson pairing as the heart of the band.

“We had one week,” Anderson shakes his head, and looks at Bell.

“And instead of just caving and calling the club and saying, ‘We can’t do the show, we don’t really exist’, we got even more drunk and threw the band together, wrote the songs and recorded them, all in that week.”

That was A Whale of A Cow, 2005’s debut full-length, which was a gritty, shambolic piece of exuberant, demented rock, littered with non-sequitor and potty-mouth lyrics and an unusual musical setup that included a low-down horn section (tuba and trombone) along with bass, drums and keys.

“You weren’t even going to play bass, I will remind you,” Anderson says to Bell, who nods. “At the first rehearsal, the plan was for Kim to play bass, because she was learning bass. She was trying, and she was frustrated, and she was like, ‘Can I just play this on my tuba?’ And you were, ‘If you’re going to play tuba, I’m going to play bass.’ And that was it.”

The Wet Secrets quickly became a fan favourite in Edmonton and Calgary, and garnered national buzz too. The rock was powerful and catchy, and the shows were crazy parties, hedonistic dance-athons led by the Wet Secrets in their vivid marching band uniforms. Fans loved the uniforms, and so did time-pressed music writers, who took to referring to them as a “marching band” despite the fact that if you closed your eyes and listened to their music, that descriptor totally fell apart. This was primal rock with novel instrumentation; nothing oom-pah-pah about it.

“It’s a unifying thing,” Bell says of the outfits. “Its like, onstage, we’re a little gang, unto ourselves.”

“Some people react against the uniforms that way: ‘Why are you dressed up? Is it some kind of jokey, try-hard thing?’ But it indicates effort,” Anderson notes. “We dressed up for you! Dance!”

“Yeah. And I actually find that it’s almost like slipping into a persona, in a way,” Bell adds. “I find it easier to lose myself, get out of my own head, sometimes—”

“Pull that hat right down,” Anderson commands him.

“And those boots,” Bell finishes. “I actually love wearing those big equestrian boots, and when do you get an opportunity to wear those?”

Their follow-up record, 2007’s Rock Fantasy, was more of the same, rock anthems with filthy and funny lyrics, music that stayed just on the right side of novelty. Their popularity grew, especially on the strength of their legendary live shows.Looking back, Anderson and Bell are touched by how much support the band got—high-profile supporters include reclusive genius Chad VanGaalen, Six Shooter label head Shauna de Cartier and CBC radio folk Lana Gay and Grant Lawrence—and a little sheepish about how little they put into it. There are stories of opportunities taken for granted, but both men find it hard to work up much regret.

“It was never meant to be more than a week-long thing,” Anderson explains. “Ever. So, when it kept going because people really liked it, we sort of halfheartedly kept on going with it. But we never really committed to it. It was nobody’s priority. I was still establishing myself as a filmmaker, [Bell] was in Shout Out [Out Out Out], Kim had her [burlesque]. We’d do it once in a while, but it was not go-time on it, ever.”

Bell adds, “It’s not that we sandbagged it back then, but we just didn’t really know any better. We didn’t make a plan. We didn’t quite know what we were doing. It really has taken being in Shout Out and seeing how things get done; things have to be planned out. Up until the second record, it was just seat of the pants, like, ‘Oh, we’ll play some shows.’ Even after that, we were trying, but not … ”

“We weren’t committed to it,” Anderson finishes for him.

“Yeah.”

Undoubtably, some of the security necessary to commit has come from the band lineup solidifying over the past couple years, after a few personnel changes: the addition of the hugely talented multi-instrumentalist Paul Arnusch, of the Faunts and Whitsundays, and the band baby, trombonist Emma Frazier, who has basically grown up from teenagedom to young adulthood during her time in the Secrets.

Another factor is more personal and intangible. Anderson and Bell both recently and independently arrived at similar conclusions about the negative impact hell-raising has had on their artistic practices. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion, watching them together, that this deepened their friendship and allowed them to create better together, as well as apart. They are firmly mid-career artists, and have both had to come to terms with what that big, scary blank space in the middle part of working life means in an industry that doesn’t seem to talk about the middle part much, just hot new things or grizzled veterans, what Anderson calls “lifetime achievement people.”

Free Candy, their new release, is very much a mid-career album and reflects their newfound knowledge and recent growth. You can pretty much see what’s been obsessing them from song titles such as “Maybe We’ll Make A Plan,” “Get Your Shit Together,” “Death of the Party” and “What’s The Fucking Point,” which also has the title “Zenko’s Theme,” named after the late Darren Zenko, writer and beloved fixture on Edmonton’s scene for two decades, whose untimely death shocked so many in the community. You can also hear what’s been obsessing them—the lyrics talk to each other across tracks, as if the whole album were one circuitous, recursive, difficult conversation about what’s really important in life, set amid intricate rock-pop that borrows heavily from a mid ’70s soundscape, recalling Nilsson at his most willful, the more tense and paranoid part of Hall & Oates’ oeuvre, and nods towards the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in a few tracks (“We almost called it Wet Sounds, Bell offers, “We even took photos at a llama farm” owned by Frazier’s relatives). It’s a killer record; a huge leap forward from the grubby, jokey party rock of yore.

Bell points to the side of Free Candy. The spine is spangled with a military line of close-together red stars. Three of them are blue.

“That’s the plan,” Bell states. “We have all of those other ones to go. Five years to get all those stars.”

His face is earnest. Bell means it. The Wet Secrets plan on putting out one record for every one of those stars. There looks to be, at quick count, more than 20. Consummating their commitment means making a plan as well as a pact. And trying means listening to yourself and not the haters, and taking your art seriously even as you’re having fun and being funny.

“Every project I’ve ever been in was formed with the intention of one show,” Bell sighs. “If I’d thought that I was going to be explaining to border guards or my parents about Whitey Houston, or that the band name is Shout Out Out Out Out, like 10 years later, and getting like a blank look—I probably would have pressed for something else. But every project was started with no forethought. If I’m going to be doing stuff at this point, it’s all going to be planned. I want to do this as a career, to be honest.”

It’s an unremarkable statement, except you know it’s coming from someone who has probably never let himself say that, or want that, until very recently.

“I just chalk it up to me being a slow learner,” Bell shrugs. “But maybe it is a generational thing. Total slacker generation. It certainly has taken me a long time to finally realize I gotta really try, gotta get down to business. I don’t really regret all the parties, but I wish I had maybe rolled it back and gotten down to business sooner.”

“I’m glad you waited,” says Anderson, “because now you’re coming at it with such a vengeance.”

Bell nods. “And I am really hungry for it, at this point.”

“We,” Anderson corrects himself. “I shouldn’t say ‘you.’ That’s not in the second person. I’m glad we waited to do this now. There’s more urgency.”

“It’s important to me to have you be on the same page of wanting this as badly as I do,” Bell tells his friend. “It’s sometimes hard, you get these inklings of self-doubt.”

“Lyle has said this to me before: ‘You take all the trophies and throw them away, but you take all the daggers and put them in the display case,'” Anderson relates.

“Yeah. Well, I don’t know what’ll happen,” Bell responds. “But if I don’t have this, it’s depression time. There needs to be more. I don’t understand people who fall out of [art] somehow. ‘I’m not doing it anymore; I’m going to be a chartered accountant.’ There’s no way I could leave this behind. And I think it’s what I do best in life. And I want to continue to explore. When we say we have a plan, that’s part of the plan—how far can we take this if we take it seriously? I know that I’ll always wake up at 2 am with an idea, a melody, a snippet, and I know that I’ll have to scamper down and record. I hope and pray that I always will have that. It’s the creative process that gives me hope—”

Anderson makes a sound like the dinging of a bell, like his bandmate just won the biggest prize in a contest. “That, yes! That.”

Fri, Feb 28 (9 pm)
The Wet Secrets
With the Dudes, Renny Wilson, Gods
Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre, $15

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