Existential Angst Party explores joy of angst

Unexpected combination of disparate musical forces is no laughing matter

An opera singer, a software designer, a jazz bassist, and a punk-rock guitarist walk into a room-it sounds like the setup for an elaborate joke, except that this quartet is no laughing matter. Existential Angst Party, the brainchild of former Vancouver Opera Chorus member Viviane Houle, is both a bizarre combination of forces and an entirely natural convocation of peers. The band is also a particularly vivid example of the way in which local musicians are willing to ignore genre boundaries -and, given that bassist Clyde Reed is old enough to have fathered his three colleagues, a rare but heartening example of intergenerational music?-making. But it's probably not what Houle, the band's focal point, lyricist, and de facto leader, had in mind when she enrolled in a Vancouver Community College music program seven years ago, thereby setting in motion an evolutionary process even Charles Darwin couldn't have foreseen.

"I actually went back to school to do jazz," says the Alberta-born singer, who holds a master's degree in social work. "That's what I thought I was going to focus on, but then I met [Vancouver Bach Choir music director] Bruce Pullan-he just happened to be teaching for the two years I was there-and ended up beginning to explore that corner of my voice."

She was apparently a natural, for within a couple of years she'd landed the aforementioned Vancouver Opera gig. But her musical journey had only just begun.

"At the same time," she explains, "I remember seeing Kate Hammett-Vaughan sing at the Western Front, and she was making all these weird sounds. No melody, no song, hardly, and it was quite intriguing. I'd never heard anything like that, but through her openness and generosity she led me to the NOW Workshop, so I ended up studying improvisation at the same time that I was at VCC, studying classical voice with Bruce."

Through NOW she met Reed, whose deep bass pulse underpins the Existential Angst Party sound. "I love his playing," says Houle. "I love how he's just such a powerhouse on the bass, and he really understands the voice." She also met software designer, violist, and electronic composer Stefan Smulovitz, who recently became her husband as well as band partner. And former SNFU guitarist-turned-UBC music student Brent Belke entered her orbit when he enlisted to help Smulovitz craft an improvised score for the Aki Kaurismí¤ki film The Match Factory Girl.

"I didn't know his background as a punk guitarist; I'd never even heard of SNFU," she confesses. "But I fell in love with his beautiful, melodic playing. I just thought that it was gorgeous, and we really connected through that. Later on, I found out that he can make all these amazing punk-rock sounds, and I thought that would be interesting in this context. I knew it would be very different if we'd brought a jazz player in; it would have had a completely different feel."

It's possible to view Existential Angst Party as a kind of lab experiment, but Houle says that she didn't consciously set out to build a musical Frankenstein's monster. "It was more about working with people that I wanted to hang out with a lot," she notes. "I also loved everyone's playing, and thought we'd make good music together. That's the most important place to start, I think."

Nonetheless, the suture lines are sometimes audible on Existential Angst Party's self-titled debut, which the ensemble will celebrate with a CD-release bash at the Western Front on Sunday (November 20). The disc inhabits several different areas simultaneously: Reed's swinging bass lines occasionally push against Smulovitz's electronic loops; the punk element that Belke brings is more often used as a background irritant than a structural element; and Houle often belies her own band's name with lyrics that are surprisingly tender. The recording suffers from an overall sameness of pace, and not all of the five improvisations that are scattered among its seven songs are compelling, but for a date that was recorded in less than two days, Existential Angst Party is an impressive beginning.

Houle graciously credits coproducer Jesse Zubot for keeping the band focused. "What an amazing guy!" she enthuses. "I feel so lucky that we got to work with him. He just has these flashes of genius, and it really changed the direction of a lot of stuff. He'd have these ideas that were just fantastic."

Anybody who's been lucky enough to work with Zubot in the studio knows just how true that is. Still, it's the chemistry between Houle, Smulovitz, Reed, and Belke that makes Existential Angst Party unique; these four obviously have more collaborating to do.

Houle agrees. "When I put this group together, I really didn't know where it was going to go," she says. "But so far it's been really great-and it's been really fun, too."