Bend Sinister gets supremely raw
The last time Bend Sinister staged an album-release party—at the Rio Theatre in 2008, for Stories of Brothers, Tales of Lovers—it was a pretty big deal.
“I brought in staging and lights and a massive PA system, and I set up three pianos, and I had three backup girl singers and a string section of four people playing with us, and other guest players,” reports frontman Dan Moxon, on the line from the home he and his girlfriend have just bought in Vancouver’s Kensington–Cedar Cottage neighbourhood. “It was a massive, theatre-style performance—and, to date, it was one of the proudest things I’ve ever done.”
Bend Sinister’s really big show was an apt way to launch Stories of Brothers, Tales of Lovers, the East Van four-piece’s third, and most elaborately produced, long-player. But when the group launches its fourth, Small Fame, at Venue tonight (July 19), don’t expect film, fireworks, or fancy string arrangements. This time out, it’s a bare-bones undertaking, in keeping with the mood of the new disc.
“With this album, it’s more like four dudes rocking out as hard as they can,” says Moxon. “So I’m not going to push the limits. I just wanted to find a place that has really good sound and decent lighting and let the band speak for itself.”
It’s a good move, given that it’s time for Bend Sinister to clarify its public image. So far, the quartet has been called everything from prog to pop—and understandably so, as its singer, keyboardist, and chief songwriter explains.
“Our first record, The Warped Pane in 2005, was kind of deemed super prog-rock, and it was pretty heavy,” says Moxon. “And then we kind of went through a poppier phase in our music. The records after that were a little bit more produced. Now this is throwing back to being a bit more rock ’n’ roll. We were never a really crazy-heavy band, but I would say this album is as rock as we get.”
It’s not that Bend Sinister—named for Vladimir Nabokov’s 1947 novel, not the 1986 LP from U.K. postpunk icons the Fall—has entirely abandoned hyphenation. Moxon’s soulful vocals on Small Fame have already provoked online comparisons to Hall & Oates, which should serve the group well in the contemporary yacht-rock sweepstakes.
“I have a huge appreciation for, like, feminine singers like Nina Simone and Janis Joplin and things like that,” Moxon reveals. “I don’t necessarily try to do anything like that, but through influences that I have and whatnot, I just try to be true and a bit more sincere. So maybe that comes out with a bit of R&B soulfulness.
“I don’t know if that sounds tacky,” he adds, “but I don’t think it’s anything intentional. It’s just how it comes across.”
Nonetheless, by the time Moxon and company have sailed through the tuneful, piano-based affirmations of Small Fame’s first side to reach the organ-driven rockers of its second half, it’s clear that this band has more to do with the brute force of a cigarette boat than the elegant lines of a yacht.
Part of that has to do with accommodating the turbocharged V-12 engine that is drummer Jason Dana. “He basically hits the drums harder than anybody I’ve ever seen, and he has the biggest drum kit I’ve ever seen,” says Moxon. “You know, he just sets the bar. Sometimes I want to be ‘Man, just bring it down a bit. Let’s just, like, be mellow and relax.’ But it’s always just John Bonham: over-the-top and crushing. So that sets the tone, and we have to match that energy.”
With jazz-trained guitarist Joseph Blood bringing the Brian May and bassist Matt Rhode adding a firm if comparatively self-effacing foundation, Bend Sinister has certainly earned its growing Canadian reputation. Which, naturally, means that it’s time for the group to leave this country and head stateside—with, Moxon reveals, a little help from its newly hired radio plugger.
“We’re not quite as radio-friendly as a Nickelback-style modern rock band, and we’re not easy-listening either, so AAA [Adult Album Alternative] is where we fit in the radio spectrum,” he says. “There’s only a few [AAA stations] in Canada but there’s hundreds and hundreds of them in the U.S. And now that we’ve got a radio person down there, he’s got songs simmering on at least eight major stations, so that gives us the push that we finally need to say ‘Let’s try and go down to the U.S.’
“It’s one of those brutal things where you have to keep starting from scratch, playing shows to 20, 30 people and building your way up, but at the same time I just look at it from the perspective that it’s kind of exciting to drive around and see places you haven’t seen before. We’ve driven the Trans-Canada a thousand times, and it’ll be nice just to drive through the U.S. and check out all those places.”
And if those touring plans don’t entirely work out, Moxon will be happy enough to return to the small fame Bend Sinister has already earned in its homeland.
“I’ve been doing music long enough that I have no expectations,” he says. “If people want to hear us and things happen, I’m more than happy for it. But otherwise, I just do what I do, and I’ll keep making music.”