The Vancouver duo of Jean Smith and David Lester, together known as Mecca Normal, could never be accused of being one-dimensional or static. In the world of starmaking corporate rock, Mecca Normal have always been challenging and disruptive of preconceptions and boundaries. Quite frankly, they don't play by the rules.
Over a career spanning better than 10 years, the pair has followed their own path making what actually can be described as alternative music without fear of the phrase sounding either generic or hyperbolic. Call it anarchist-punk, original riot grrrl or performance art -- Smith and Lester continue to bang their own drum.
What is surprising is the recognition that the mainstream press have bestowed upon them. But even as Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and the L.A. Times sing the band's praises, Mecca Normal has never strayed from their roots. Though even with the press and the fact that they're the only Canadians signed to prominent American indie label, Matador, the duo are not widely known even in their hometown.
For those unfamiliar with the group, take Patti Smith accompanied by a singular guitarist as a initial reference point. Like her namesake, lyricist/vocalist Jean Smith verges on dark poetic license. Consider this from "Medieval Man," off their latest Matador disc, Who Shot Elvis?: "When the candle flares/in a draftless room/I can only assume/it's the gasoline on your breath." Not typical radio fodder. And Mecca Normal couldn't care less.
"We get played on the huge North American college network and that's good enough," says the musical linchpin of the duo, guitarist David Lester. "I don't think we've ever talked about how much airplay we get. People have the option of catching us on the dial. If we were sandwiched between Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, that would be interesting, but also high rotation would be irritating. Mecca Normal played once an hour? I would turn it off myself."
Considerably more melodic than previous outings, Who Shot Elvis? still holds true to the duo's philosophy that less is better. Initially breaking from tradition, the album's tracks were completed with backing by a drummer. But, as Smith says, "We both decided that we didn't need percussion on every song. So we had to backtrack and remove all the drums from the tape, which took a long time."
Although drummer Charles Quintana (who also plays with Joan Osbourne) entered the fray to record on a handful of tracks, there are no plans for the duo to expand. "We knew Charlie was in the neighborhood and he came highly recommended, so we gave it another spin." (Resident busker at the Commercial Drive liquor store, Duane Crone, the cowboy in the photos, plays some guest acoustic guitar on the album, as well.)
On the past few albums, whenever a song had space for a drummer, frequent touring companion and Who Shot Elvis? producer Peter Jefferies would handle the chores. (Jefferies and Smith also collaborate under the guise of 2 Foot Flame, and released the CD Ultra Drowning on Matador this past April.) Yet, due to immigration constraints, Jefferies, a native of New Zealand, recently had to return to his own country. "We were about to go into the studio and, for the usual reasons that a person can't stay out of his own country for too long, he had to return. It was basically just timing."
While music is a large part of their lives, Smith and Lester continue to explore other avenues of creative expression. Lester has, for the past twenty years been involved in graphic design. From album cover artwork to designing over fifty book jackets, he works in a variety of mediums including a one-off book publishing stint for Smith's first novel. Smith has just finished her second novel, The Ghosts of Understanding, to be released by Arsenal Pulp Press in the spring. "A novel can be unmanageable. With a song, it's only maybe three minutes long, which makes it mentally containable within the space of the brain. But the book has become so all-consuming that sometimes I lose the trail of the record's release and then remember that we have that out there too."
With their fingers in so many pies, it would be reasonable to assume that some aspect of their careers may fall by the wayside simply due to burnout. "I don't think our music will suffer," states Lester. "It's an ongoing thing, for better or worse. As far as I'm concerned, it's a life sentence. It can be difficult trying to make ends meet; We don't own houses and we don't own lots of things, but we do have a semblance of freedom that many people don't have in their jobs."
"There is a cultural landscape that Jean and I both want to continue to explore. I don't think we have ran out of ideas yet. Maybe in ten or twenty years. Maybe. But we're still focused and determined to keep our creativity intact. It's a great challenge to keep the intensity up."
Mecca Normal will appear at the Brickyard on November 8th, with Celestial Magenta, before heading off on a month-long tour through the north-east U.S. and the west coast.
Our special thanks to Annie and Marilyn at Perry's Old Time Portraits in Gastown for their assistance with the costumed photo for this story.
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