Often described as a Vancouver supergroup, the Gay must have felt like just that the night of its live debut. The big event took place at the now-defunct Ms. T's, and it went better than anyone in the five-piece could have hoped. Rather than pull opening duty for an established draw, the Gay made the decision to headline its first time out.
"It's still one of my most favourite shows to think about," says the Gay bassist Coco Culbertson, lounging in the swank confines of the Renaissance Vancouver Harbourside Hotel on West Hastings Street. As seaplanes land in the distance in Coal Harbour, she's knocking back martinis with her bandmate and drummer Keith Parry. "I really feel that we did everything right: we booked the night, rented a PA, and filled the club. It wasn't Weather Report, but there were some beautiful, sloppy moments."
Parry laughs--something he does often--and then asks incredulously, "Did you just say 'Weather Report'?" Culbertson quickly shoots back with: "Well, I was going to say Steely Dan, but I'm not plugging those sons of bitches anymore."
The Gay was hardly a well-oiled rock 'n' roll machine when it set up its coming-out party.
"We didn't really start to jell until Coco booked that first show for us," Parry says. "That gave us about two months to get ready. During that time we started hanging out more. The Gay become more than a band--we started having activity days. They usually involved things like playing squash, racquetball, hiking, hot-tubbing. You'd see the chubby guy at the rec centre with three girls in bikinis. Everyone would be like, 'Who's that bearded bastard with the babes?' "
A lot of Vancouverites have been asking themselves that question since the Gay first splashed onto the scene in 2002. If packed early shows announced the group as one to watch, then last year's fiercely original debut disc, You Know the Rules, left no doubt the attention was warranted.
Thankfully, you don't hear much Weather Report or Steely Dan on the record, which was one of the standouts of the year, local or otherwise. In fact, coming up with any sort of valid comparison is a challenge, largely because--Weird Al Yankovic aside--you don't hear the accordion much in pop music.
As noted, the Gay is indeed something of a supergroup. Culbertson, who handpicked the players, is a music-scene veteran who spent years working and touring as a hired gun for everyone from Bif Naked to John Bottomley. In 2001, her other half, New Pornographers drummer Kurt Dahle, suggested she might get more satisfaction out of forming her own band.
First to sign on was accordionist Maija Martin of Tennessee Twin, in which Culbertson sometimes pounds the drums. From there the bassist contacted guitarist Tobey Black, most famous for having done time with Neko Case in the scrappy punkabilly outfit Maow. Piano player Sara Lapsley (since replaced by Ida Nilsen) of Vancouver Nights was next onboard. And then Culbertson discovered she had a problem.
"I went for lunch with a friend who said, 'Coco's trying to put together a girl band but she can't find a girl drummer who doesn't suck,' " says Parry, formerly of Vancouver noise-core legends Superconductor and currently the owner of Scratch Records. "Then, a day later, Coco called me and asked if I'd be interested in joining. I had reservations--I'm generally a happier person when I'm playing music, but I wasn't interested in playing with people who want to 'make it' in the music industry."
Coco pipes in: "He just wanted to play with girls that wanted to make it."
Laughing, Parry continues with: "But I found a dream gig--I show up and there are four sexy broads who like drinking red wine as much as I do."
The good times haven't stopped since then, leading both musicians to observe that the best part about being in the Gay is that the band members can't get enough of each other.
"Right from the start, we were all madly in love," Culbertson says. "If this group has anything, it's chemistry."
That's certainly obvious on You Know the Rules, a genuine wonder of craggy and jagged guitars, propulsive accordion, endlessly inventive drumming, and insanely addictive harmonies. The album starts out with the harmony-driven powder keg "Opulent Canine" and winds down 10 songs later with the pastoral pop killer "Fishin' Jim". There's no shortage of winners in between, from the marshmallow-lite lullaby "Cindy Lou" to the rollicking rootsy sing-along "Lonely" to the wonderfully wistful ballad "Fidelity". You Know the Rules was done on the cheap, but despite that, lo-fi hasn't sounded this awesome since the glory days of Pavement.
"With no budget, we tried to capture a certain spirit and looseness that recordings from the '70s had," Parry says. "That synth line that we wanted to put in, those strings we wanted, and those horns we wanted are, for better or worse, not there."
Culbertson admits she was initially traumatized by the final product. "I always get in trouble for saying this, but the first time I heard the record my heart broke," she says. "I was like, 'Oh my God, is that what we sound like?' I didn't get that we weren't a rock band....To realize that we aren't was, eventually, really refreshing for me....Now I see that I have a record that I'm proud of, that stands up, and that is unique."
That uniqueness is what makes the Gay one of the Vancouver bands to watch. And indeed, the supergroup has ambitions that go far beyond packing rooms the size of Ms. T's.
"As much as we're all very self-critical, I'm excited about the idea we might get to make another record," Culbertson says. "Just the thought of that is so awesome. We want to do our third record before our second, that way we can move right on to the rock opera."