By the time Vancouver's Copyright released its third album, The Hidden World, in 2001, singer Thomas Anselmi was done.
"Being on a major label," he tells the Straight over espresso at a Gastown coffee shop, "what you do is you spend a lot of time working on this album, which is like a labour of love, and it takes all of your effort to make it as great as possible, and then at the end a bunch of hacks paste the image on top of it, you know?"
After another sip of his double shot, he finishes: "And that was very, very unpleasant, and disheartening to me to endure."
For those who followed the mercurial group's progress, Copyright was a constant source of fascination. Having emerged from the broken glass of Slow—a band still considered by many to be among Vancouver's greatest ever—its debut album (under the name Circle C) was buried by Geffen before anybody had the chance to hear it. That was thanks to a mutual and by all accounts biblically proportioned hostility between the band and the label. Bad marketing sunk Copyright's subsequent two records for BMG. In either case, nobody seemed to know quite what to make of Copyright, which was straining to fashion itself into anything but a conventional rock band.
Not too long after dissolving the act, Anselmi relocated to Berlin and then Los Angeles with his partner, Laure-Elaine Cí´té, where he jealously secured complete artistic control over his next project, MIRROR. Over the next three years, Anselmi marshalled an enormous roster of contributors to help design and record the expansive project, hoping to assemble something where "meaning is created in the relationship between the music, the visual presentation, the performance, and the words." The results lie somewhere between multimedia performance art, theatre, and willfully perverse French pop as conjured by David Lynch, all in the service of what MIRROR's bio describes as "postmodern psychosexual cabaret".
"Is that a bit much?" asks Anselmi, with a chuckle.
Sure, but it's also accurate, and suitably florid for a debut album as striking as the one MIRROR eventually got around to releasing this October. The eponymous album's naí¯ve melodies are married to a fin-du-monde attitude of stylish decadence over a handful of synth-based pop songs.
Anselmi takes the lead on two numbers, but leaves most of the other tracks to his collaborators.
"One of the frustrations of being a rock singer is that you're the narrator," he explains. "Berlin by Lou Reed is one of my favourite albums of all time, but I always felt like it had a certain limitation, theatrically, because it's sung by a man who's telling the story from beginning to end, and theatre is not that."
Invoking another of MIRROR's abiding influences, Anselmi adds, "Serge Gainsbourg's real genius is that he used singers in a very cinematic, iconic way. And he always had another agenda going on that sometimes the singer wasn't even aware of."
Anselmi's cast of voices includes Frances Lawson, who was 12 years old when she duetted with her father, artist Ronan Boyle, on MIRROR's "World of Darkness". The song bears some resemblance to the work Angelo Badalamenti did with Julee Cruise, while Cí´té's breathily innocent vocal renders "From No One With Love" into a sad-erotic Eurovision Song Contest winner from an alternate 1965. But it's the single "Nostalgia" that has captured the most attention so far.
Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan is responsible for giving the piano-led ballad its towering melancholy. "I think he sang it as a love song, but I think he was also aware of the other aspect of the song," Anselmi says, "where it's less about the end of a love affair and more about the end of everything."
Also on board for a monologue in the extraordinary "City Lights" is Joe Dallesandro, the man who frequently embodied tragic—and usually naked—beauty in Andy Warhol's movies.
"I got his number and I phoned him up," Anselmi explains with a laugh. "And he was like, ”˜Well, yeah, you can come over,' and we hit it off."
He feels that Dallesandro's presence helps to crystallize MIRROR's thematic thrust. "I think as a male, it's possible for us to feel a special empathy for Joe Dallesandro as a sexual icon. We don't notice it as much when we're watching a female being objectified in that same way, and I think MIRROR really explores objectification and image-making."
Anselmi promises that MIRROR's live show—there have been five performances so far—brings much of this subtext to the surface, through its mixture of performance and live video mixing. With a smirk, Anselmi describes it as "kind of like a sad variety show". He's aiming for New Year's Eve to trundle the enormous enterprise out once again, but until then, there's the business of selling the part of MIRROR that comes in a digipak. And business, evidently, is very good.
"I put out three major-label records," he says, with a shake of his head, "and I've got more money in my bank account from record sales in the past 10 days than in my previous entire career, which I've never made a penny on." He's also particularly pleased with the markets that have responded best to MIRROR.
"Germany, Poland, France. So far I think there's a couple in Canada, but that's okay," he shrugs. "I could get into going to Europe rather than Edmonton."