Here's To Hopeful Monster
Until recently, 2002 seemed destined to be remembered as the year the music died. Many of the hyped critical releases have passed by this reporter with little interest or sympathy. […] Then a little package from Halifax's Hopeful Monster landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago and I'm in love, well, maybe just very very happy and sappy. Multi-instrumentalist Jason Ball with the help of Paul Aucoin has made the best solo pop album since Todd Rundgren's amazing tour-de-force, Something/Anything. The self-titled release skitters through many different styles: pop, new wavey electro-pop ("River Reflective") cool Bacharachian piano-pop ("Daily Electric") and spacey-pop — all this in just the first two songs. Throughout this album I find myself singing along to lyrics like "I want you so bad I damn myself to hell" from "Goldmine" and banging on any surface to "Stars Are Photomagnets" and "Cobra Wings." This is my favourite album of 2002 so far!!
Hopeful Monster’s mastermind Jason Ball plays guitars, keyboards, bass, percussion, mandolin and theremin, but this isn’t a one-man show. Creating what could be described as an “analog orchestra” (also populated with strings and horns), Ball has given this disc a lush and quirky sound. If the theremin signals a clue into Ball’s love of the Beach Boys, then the sweet layered vocals and the sunshine pop vibes make his affection explicit. Separating Ball from the other would-be Wilsonians is his creative use of country elements (particularly Dale Murray’s invaluable pedal steel playing). While “River Reflexive” and “Daily Electric” kick the record off to a bouncy start, the twangy and dreamy “Universal Donor” slows the pace. Instead of writing about surfing and girls, Ball favors rather knotty lyrics (“cast me off this naked bough/ the fruit is rotten”) that make his songs more esoteric than engaging. Its notable that “Goldmine,” which recalls both early Todd Rundgren and Neil Young, stands as the disc’s most emotionally direct track as well as one of its most memorable songs. With one foot in the ‘60s Space Age and the other in a desert sand dune, Ball has created a beguiling sound for his Hopeful Monster.
Where do they come from, these bottomless reserves of melodies that evoke every great Californian pop moment of the past 30 years –whether the Beach Boys or Flying Burrito Brothers or Fleetwood Mac – without mimicking any of them? And why is that their most generous springs are almost all clustered in Nova Scotia, lying in wait for yet another local prodigy to harvest an album’s worth of them and then share them with the world? And why does our country continue to ignore them while, overseas, tongues wax ecstatic?
Last year, Halifax’s the Heavy Blinkers released Better Weather, an evocatively titled masterpiece seemingly broadcast from an alternate universe in which AM Top 40 radio dictates the tenor of life. It remains one of the best classicist Canadian pop record in years, but it has strong competition in this debut from Hopeful Monster, the vehicle for one Jason Ball. Written, performed and produced by Ball at his rural home studio in Seabright, he and a supporting cast of over a dozen have created 11 songs that strive to do justice to a bygone era of pop in which grandeur was requisite, size mattered (think Phil Spector, Pet Sounds).
Hopeful Monster gets down to business immediately, “River Reflexive” letting loose a flurry of horns, harmonies, and Who-like drum flourishes while Ball declares “Someday when the stars are all in line / I’ll make gospel of the cliches.” Perhaps better still is “Daily Electric,” a Theremin-dappled gem that imagines the Banana Splits taking over from Brian Wilson after his late-’60s meltdown, but fronted by the Zombies’ Colin Blundstone. There’s also a clutch of lovely chamber-country ballads; the pedal steel that weaves throughout “Universal Donor” sounds as if it’s been left to fend for itself in the desert, while “Cobra Wings” and “Silver Lining” rise out of their initially disconsolate moods to become widescreen testimonials to joy. Another under-the-radar homespun classic. What will it take to make more people hear the brilliance in our midst?
Canada’s very own Great Lakes would have to be Hopeful Monster. Demand a refund on your latest Sloan record, and get this record! Hopeful Monster is all about the Zombies, Rundgren, Lilys, Love, Wilson and Parsons. You get 60s orchestra pop with lush strings, bubblegum, r&b grooves, and country-tinged songs all within the first few tracks. Hopeful Monster is one man for the most part—Jason Ball—and you can tell he has spent loads of hours in a studio, as this project has the sound of someone who plays, produces, and engineers. It’s full to the very last note, and hard to imagine a better Elephant 6 record not made by those Athens/Denver collective.
"I've got a paid vacation and I'm headin' for the sun..."
Some cats got in touch and say "Hey! We think you might dig our LP!" and of course, I was left mutterin' into my chest and grumblin' "What the hell do you know? Jerknow how many bozos get in touch with lamo indie that sounds like The Liberti... whatthefug... is that Colin Blunstone?!"
Fact is, Hopeful Monster wear their influences on their lapels... and for the most part, they're the kinda influences that make me bubble at the snout. We're talkin' Lovin' Spoonful, Harry Nilsson, The Zombies and newest fave LeckRouleck band, The Junipers. Toytown is calling me back and I jusso happen to own a passport...
Where to start with these guys? Well, before I continue, I'll tell you that they hail from Canada. Of course, Canada is like America, if America was inhabited by nice people and wooden cottages. This may not be strictly true, but hey, who gives. If you wanted facts, you'd be reading some news website. So back to the fiction. Canada is filled with people who look like the cast of Northern Exposure and they all sit around smoking cigarettes and sharing cooking tips. Canada is a lovely place to visit. They even have guns legally and don't bother usin' 'em.
So what's that gotta do with Hopeful Monsters? Well, the prevailing sound of 'Metatasking' is one so laid back that, if you don't mind, could you pop a coaster under your head so you don't get your dreams on the carpet? The LP kicks off with 'Uncivilised' which is piano-led pianner popsike that could easily be on 'Odessey and Oracle', if Emitt Rhodes sat in on the sessions. Dig that! It continues too. From the opener straight into the stupendous 'Air Highway' which has something of John Sebastian about it. No lie. They hit those weird jazz notes through lullaby chords. The kinda songwriting that you ain't seen since when. "Come on darlin', open up your eyes..." swoons around in gorgeous ooooohing backing vox. Man, you'll throw away your guitar and give up.
Closer, 'Perfect Riddle', you start thinkin' of Harry Nilsson, Brian Wilson making his glorious pop on the cusp of Pet Sounds. Not quite Pet Sounds... but imminent. Basically, when this album... this band... are good, they're almost unparallelled. However, this ain't completely a joyous glide toward golden slumbers, nosir. See, the LP is blighted by some 'rockers'... namely, 'Alpha Disco' and 'Humpty Dumpty By The Bag'. Just think of the difference between The Zombies and Argent. When the amps are kicked into overdrive, this band don't work at all. When the low them to hum, then they feel like the best band in the whole world and you can't believe you ain't heard of 'em yet.
Somethin' tells me that they kinda agree. Go to their Myspace page (here) and it's all sunshine psychedelia. The rockin' tracks nixed. That said, it's not worth writing off a band on a coupla songs. Man, these guys are amazing. If they live up to their name (Hopeful Monster is a term used in evolutionary biology to describe an event of systemic mutation, which contributes positively to the production of new major evolutionary groups) they'll only get better. Here's hoping, as the world needs bubblegum psych like this.
Chung Horn Lee interviews Jason Ball
1.What was the first record you owned?
Motley Crue Theatre of Pain
2. How did you come up with the name Hopeful Monster? It’s all mainly just you, isn’t it?
"Hopeful Monster" is a term that archaeologists use to explain gaps if the fossil record. A hopeful monster is the offspring of an animal of one species that is different enough from its parent that it has to be considered a different species. Like if a horse gave birth to a unicorn.
It was just me at first, then my room-mate Paul Aucoin helped me record an album of my songs. Now Paul is busy with other bands (The Sadies, The American Flag) but I have a 6 piece band that plays songs from the album and some new material. Their names are Andy Patil, Damien Moynihan, Dale Murray, Dave Christensen and Greg Fry.
3. You live in rural Nova Scotia. What is it like?
It’s beautiful, I grew up here so I can’t help loving it. My studio is near the ocean in a little valley called “Rocky Holler.” There are trees everywhere except a little marsh between my house and the beach. Mostly the coastline is pretty rocky and wild, I think its romantic. Very quiet too, I find it inspiring, easier to concentrate than in the city.
4. Why did you call your studio Nervous System and what do you use in the studio?
Because I wasn’t very confident about it when I started—but I also like the double meaning: it’s the nerve centre of all my recording projects, so in a way it helps me organize my inklings into gestures.
Basically its computer-based—I use a mac with Pro-Tools, and some other software. I like to use vintage analog pre-amps, amplifiers and effects to give the sounds some grit—digital recording is very clean, some people think its TOO clean, but if you can get good sounds at the input stage, they’ll sound EXACTLY the same during playback.
My friend Brenndan McGuire owns some of the studio’s best gear—he has recorded albums with Sloan, By Divine Right, Sam Roberts and A LOT of other Canadian artists. We use his mixing console, a YAMAHA PM 2000 from the mid-seventies. Parliament and Ted Nugent both recorded albums on it.
5. What’s it like now where you live--are people against the US-Iraqi war?
Opinion is divided, but most of my friends are artists and they tend to be pacifists. Plus they don’t have much to gain from it—many of the supporters of the war are involved in economic machinery that depends on the kind of foreign policy that this war is meant to protect. They lose their jobs when the companies they work for aren’t able to turn resources into profit. Artist don’t make any money anyway, so they have nothing to lose, and they’re used to looking at things with that in mind. Personally, I’m interested in the question of sovereignty versus world government.
6. I have a friend whom I played your record for. He was shocked because he felt that you existed for other people, because your music had touched him so intimately. Your thoughts?
I’m happy to hear your friend felt that way about our music. I think people carry around a lot of references in the back of their minds, they make categories of things they like and don’t like—when they find something that reflects their own preferences, it’s like they “couldn’t have said it better themselves.” I always think I’m too self-absorbed, but I kind of hope that by pursuing my own instincts, I will become part of a community made up of those whose instincts have lead them in the same directions. In the end, its really a big, never-ending conversation between me & you & your friend & Todd Rundgren & all the other artists who have touched each of us in the way your friend describes.
7. "Daily Electric" reminds me so much of the Elephant 6 bands--the baroque arrangements, the vocals, the harmonies. Are you a fan?
I’ve heard some Elf Power I really liked, but to be honest I’m not very familiar with most of the roster. That’s the third comparison though, so I better check it out!
8. How long have you been writing songs and making music?
I started playing piano when I was three or four—picking out melodies, just fooling around. I took some lessons for a few years when I was a teenager, started playing guitar and writing songs when I was about sixteen.
9. How did you get your record released on Brobdingnagian?
My friends’ band the Heavy Blinkers had a couple of records out with the label, so they introduced me to Dennis Stewart (label owner) and we talked about it, made some plans and out it came!
10. Do you have a day-job?
Not really—between producing records at the studio and working as a lighting technician for local film & TV productions, I’m able to dig myself out of debt a couple times a year. Now the record’s been out for almost a year, I’m starting to see some royalty money, and the band makes a little. I’ve never been able to fully get into my music projects unless I have some time and space to let the ideas sprawl—Contract work is better for me in that way, but the income is unpredictable, so it’s a double-edged sword.
11. If you had to give yourself a job reference, what would you say?
Depends on the job, I guess. I hope its one that will let me give them CDs instead of a resume—in that case, I’d give them the hopeful monster CD and the new Heavy Blinkers CD (produced at Nervous System), because they both demonstrate my ability to write and record music that is (I think) both original and accessible.
12. My favorite song on your album is "Universal Donor" .Since you referred to “my own blood would be rejected”, may we assume you know what blood type is a universal donor?
Yeah, again with the double meaning—I’m type O. Now I’m not sure if that’s the right blood type, but it doesn’t really matter if you take it metaphorically—it’s the self-sacrifice that’s the focus of the song. The idea is that we hope to benefit society by suffering all the big & little blows that fate deals us—it costs us, but we pass on wisdom to save others the experience.
13. But seriously, I love the pedal steel and the way the melody wends its way up and up when you sing “….but I missed the cup”.
14. This album sounds like it took some time to record. Would you work differently next time?
Definitely. I had to do it that way because it was my first record (as a producer, anyway…) but the next one will be a lot more stripped down. We’re working on songs now for a recording session in July—we want to get all our ya-yas out while we’re rehearsing and record only the best parts of these brainstorms. This way we do the exploring outside the studio. But there’ll still be plenty of experiments when we record—hopefully more sonic than musical though. I’d like to have a clearer vision of the songs, BEFORE we start tracking.
15. What do you think is holding back the Canadian music scene from taking the world?
There are plenty of Canadians who have made big impressions on the world music scene—Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Shania Twain & lots more—but mostly they have come into world focus through the American music industry. There just isn’t the market potential in Canada to pour the kind of money into a wide variety of artists that the American companies do. But more and more small-scale artists are able to create international opportunities in a grass-roots way: separate licensing for different territories, with each niche label promoting artists to the extent they can afford. In this sense, there may be dozens of people all working independently worldwide to promote a given artist. With email its not hard to create & maintain these connections. It would be nice to have the money to make a massive media blitz, cuz people will buy things if you tell them enough times—but its rewarding in a different, maybe more important way when there are so many people doing the legwork just cuz they love the music.