Guitarist and comic-book artist Julian Lawrence takes on a wistful expression as he recalls his band’s 1996 live tribute to Mike Nesmith’s Tantamount to Treason album. “That was a great show,” he says. “And the costume that Robert wore was amazing. It was a nudie Nudie. A see-through plastic cowboy outfit with a peacock sewn on the front.”
Nesmith is the former Monkee and full-time under-appreciated genius. The band is July Fourth Toilet. And the man in the obscene suit is singer Robert Dayton, Lawrence’s partner in all things Toilet since the group first began working through its obscure and profane pop-cultural obsessions in ’94.
Lawrence and Dayton have joined the Straight for a coffee at the Continental on Commercial Drive. With them is multi-instrumentalist Mark Gabriel, another long-standing member of a collective whose ever-revolving door has welcomed alumni from Pink Mountaintops, Superconductor, Slow, and any number of Vancouver’s brightest, best, and weirdest.
In its time, the Toilet has trudged drunkenly through seven-hour sets, “channelled the universe” in a performance called the “Cosmic Metharthasis” (“People were just completely dumbstruck,” Gabriel recalls), paid tribute to Bob Dylan’s worst album (Dylan), mounted a production based on a bizarre K-tel kid’s record called Rock Fantasy, and performed highlights from the career of Paul Williams while the diminutive ’70s star actually looked on with delight from the sidelines. (Thrusting the mike in his face, Dayton even got Williams to join in the bridge of “Dangerous Business” from the Ishtar soundtrack.)
Sadly, space prevents us from covering many of the often baffling, generally brilliant, and always cheerfully reckless stunts the Toilet has dreamed up in the past 14 years. The mandate here is to discuss its second album, called (deep breath) July Fourth Toilet Presents: Balls Boogie Featuring: Me and Bobby McGee Plus!: Kentucky Whore and Many Others.
So how did the group choose to follow the “warm pop” (Dayton’s words) of the Toilet’s 2002 debut, Something for Everyone?
“Well,” the singer explains, “most second albums are disappointing, so I figured, let’s make the most amazing disappointing second album ever.”
Not content with just striving for “amazing disappointing”, the Toilet then attached a high-concept rider to Balls Boogie, loosely basing it on a slab of vinyl from the plaid mists of Canadian history called Up, Up, and Away by the Generation Gap.
“The album opens with a half-hearted cover of a popular song [“Me and Bobby McGee”], and then it’s nothing but originals,” Dayton says, explaining his budget-label inspiration. Having dutifully furnished Side 1 of Balls Boogie with its quota of hard-rockin’ Toilet compositions, the flip side required “emotive, expressive, exploratory visions in sound,” as Dayton puts it. “And you have to end it with a lush, warm ballad about a little baby.
“There were other constraints,” he continues. “The hard-rock tracks had to have G-funk-style keyboards.”
That last obstacle goes unexplained as the three members turn their attention to the strangely alluring take on “Me and Bobby McGee” that opens Balls Boogie.
“I never particularly liked that song,” Dayton sniffs.
“It ended up being about eight minutes long,” adds Lawrence, “so we edited out the choruses and made it better.”
Dayton shrugs and says: “We didn’t write it anyway, so who cares?”
Other Side 1 highlights include “Kentucky Whore”, a possibly sincere if bent attempt at Black Oak Arkansas–style southern boogie glam, and “Stoned on You”, which is like a genetically recessive cousin of Brownsville Station’s “Lightnin’ Bar Blues”.
Side 2 features soundscapes like “Mars-Rocket-Moon”, which are creepily effective enough to sound like the uncommissioned soundtrack to Morgellons syndrome. Dayton’s vocals throughout remain perilously flat whenever he dips beneath his preferred, operatic–Klaus Nomi range. The results are as perverse and often silly as they are impressive, which raises the question of whether Balls Boogie is a big joke. Dayton bridles.
“If you look at the cover, you’ll see I don’t look very healthy,” he begins, with a slightly threatening expression. “This photo was taken three years ago. I was really at the depths of my drinking, and when these songs were being written, it’s like I knew it was coming to a head. I admit that I have a laugh when I write some of these lyrics, but a joke? Oh, sure, yeah, my whole cycle of abuse and dark times is one big joke.”
Point taken. But Dayton isn’t done.
“A joke?” he continues. “There are numerous jokes, jokes upon jokes, and then there’s jokes that are so sharp they’ll slice your fuckin’ neck right down to the bone marrow. How’s that for some jokes?”
Lawrence and Gabriel both find the exchange highly amusing, while Dayton’s smile is broad if inscrutable. It’s a real-life dose of the unsettling ambiguity that marks Balls Boogie. Relief finally comes when attention is steered to an upcoming, eight-hour performance at the Vancouver Art Gallery for the FUSE “Go CRAZY! All Night!” event, and whether Dayton’s impending move to Toronto will finally bring an end to the Toilet’s magnificently deranged enterprise.
“No,” he promises, adding that planning has begun for the next album, Race War. “I’ll stop when I’m dead, and then I’ll still want July Fourth Toilet to keep going.”
“The Toilet is overflowing,” says Lawrence with a smile.
That’s no joke.
July Fourth Toilet plays at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Friday (June 27) and Pub 340 next Friday (July 4).