Doc lets a shit-eating grin get the better of him, and his blue eyes begin to sparkle wickedly. "Take it all, man!" he snickers. He's referring to the free Work Records jackets that the Sony woman is trying to get his and Esthero's respective sizes for. "Take it all, 'cause you never know how much you can charge for it later on! Hahaha!" Cynical? Lui?
Oh well, many a true word said in jest, but it's hard to fault Doc for his apparently bottomless reservoir of mirth -- it seems like there's just nothing he'll take seriously. Already he's moved on to Patrick, local Sony media rep, who's poked his head around the corner to get me to wrap things up, and starts up again:
"Hey! Stop the intimidation tactics, you bastard! Hahaha!"
Part One - Doc
We're at Sony's Vancouver office, and there are two things you should know: the first is that they've a patio. The second is that the stench from Vancouver's decaying Iona Island sewage treatment plant hasn't wafted this far west, and with the sun out for lunch, we'd still have the makings of a truly toxic afternoon if only Patrick could convince me to have a beer. ("Wanna beer? No? How about a tequila? No? You sure? See -- here's the fridge where we keep our beer," etc...)
Toronto's slacker diva of sorts, Esthero, is on the phone to her management in Toronto, so I begin the interview with Doc alone. Doc is the 'other half' of the duo, known collectively as Esthero, which has been making Sony Canada's toes curl in all the most delightful ways, and he's responsible for the instrumental and production side of the equation. He also hails from St. Paul, Minnesota, which is Minneapolis' less-desirable twin sister ("I tell people I'm from St. Paul and everybody goes 'where?', so I say 'Minneapolis' and they go, 'oh, do you know Prince?' See what I mean?"). Doc's musical upbringing centered around two distinct influences there, one of which was the performing arts school he attended. The other, of course, was Minneapolis' 'scene' of the mid-eighties:
"Yeah, well, the first concert I ever went to was Hüsker Dü, that was '83-'84, something like that. And Soul Asylum was really big, y'know, and the Replacements and Babes in Toyland. Then there was this whole other side of things with Prince, Jimmy Jam, Mint Condition, Sounds of Blackness -- it was a big, big R&B town. There was lots of live R&B, and it was cool because I also grew up listening to punk and hip-hop."
"[The performing arts school] was a regular high school, and for three hours a day I'd do music. They had a recording studio and rehearsal spots. You'd be working on things and it would take you half a semester to track one song because the engineers were also students!"
"Really, it was just run by hippies, and it was really, like, do your own thing. They would show you about vocoders and everything -- they had a so-called 'class curriculum,' but it was basically us jamming in a room and the teachers would walk by and say 'hey, that sounds great!' y'know? And we'd spend most of the time smoking weed!"
"The same with video class, man -- that was fuckin' hilarious! I mean this friend of mine had videos that they'd done in class. Every Friday we'd go to lunch and see 'em, and they'd be the most gruesome videos! Wicked videos like Super Hall Monitor, who was this super hard-assed hall monitor. He'd wear this cape and chase people around the halls and then he'd catch someone and they'd end up having a break-off, start break-dancing and shit -- it was totally hilarious! But the teacher of that class would be sittin' there going 'Did I ever tell you about the time I was livin' on a mushroom plantation? Lemme tell you a story: back when I was dodgin' the draft...' Hahaha!"
"Then, on the other hand, there were actual police in the school every day. Once you went in the school, all the doors were magnetically sealed. It was like a prison..."
Darren: "So what exactly is your real name, Doc?"
Doc: "My real name is Big Doc... Cocktapus... hahaha!"
Doc: "Nah, my real name's Martin McKinney..."
Things are on a roll with Doc when Esthero, finished with her phone call, joins us at the point where Doc's story about high school turns to the subject of a couple of shootings that occurred on school property. Doc's levity will still be with us until the end of the interview, but it will also seem a bit laboured. It's almost as if he knows what's about to happen...
The press kit notes that Esthero, the singer, comes from something of a musical family, with her brother Jay playing with Tomorrow the World and her father having played music in the mid-sixties with the band Teak Wood. We also share the same taste in trousers (brown Levi's corduroy bell-bottoms). These two things I know, but where Doc was genial and talkative, Esthero doesn't seem to be forthcoming on very much at all. I try and start the conversation on the subject of her father's band:
Esthero: "Oh, let's not talk about my dad, please..."
Darren: "I just wanted to find out where you're coming from, musically."
Esthero: "Nowhere near where he was coming from."
Darren: "Were you encouraged musically at home?"
Darren: "Was it an active encouragement, or was it more a case of music always being on at home?"
Esthero: "Yeah, there was just an acceptance of... yeah."
Darren: "Where were you at the point you hooked up with Doc?"
Esthero: "Being a slacker... working at a really shitty cafe... pouring coffee."
Doc: "How long did you work there for, anyhow?"
Esthero: "Too long... well, longer than anyone else had ever lasted there, like about eight months."We move on...
Part Three - The Album
The first thing you notice about Breath from Another is the sample from Deliverance that kicks it off... yes, that one...
Put it this way, when you consider the strength of Esthero's debut, along with the new releases by Sloan and Rusty, no other Canadian bands need release anything else for 1998 to be a very good year indeed. Certainly, no other album will provide as good a soundtrack for bending over and squealing like a pig -- Breath from Another is as slinky, sexy and sensual an album as they come. (Double entendre intended, with apologies.)
There aren't many bands that can get all of their influences into one song, let alone a whole album, and have the result sound this homogeneous. Title-track-as-album "Breath from Another" would have worked as well in the phased R&B style it starts off in -- the fact that the chorus turns into an Astruid Gilberto-gone-jungle chorus and the middle eight features rapping by guests Shug and Meesha are the icing on the cake. "That Girl" re-visits the Brand New Heavies sound of the late eighties, all optimistic chord progressions, string sections and muted trumpet; mind, you'd almost miss the juxtaposition of the ominous metal clanking in the background and the "One of these things just doesn't belong here / Hey, lookit that girl / I just don't belong here..." lyric.
Says Doc, "I like to call it a 'salad bowl' concept -- there's all different flavours in there, but they all maintain their own shit -- nothing gets pushed together. That's the cool thing about crossing shit over, if you can maintain the individual identity of the different things and respect them for what they are then it can be really cool."
With that in mind, the songs showcase whatever Doc happens to throw into the bowl at the time, be it flamenco ("Heaven Sent"), ska ("Flipher Overture"), Latin-flavoured disco ("Half a World Away") or adding in a hint of Parisian accordion to the pop / R&B sound of "Lounge." In the meantime, Esthero's voice holds your attention as she begs, borrows and/or steals most of her vocal styles from whatever happens to suit the song. This verse sounds like Beth Gibbons or Sade, that chorus sounds like Astruid Gilberto or Ernestine Anderson with Bjork-like tonal embellishments -- while still sounding like the same person has been singing all along.
Breath From Another is as strong a debut as you're ever likely to hear, and a welcome nail in the coffin of Canada's musical inferiority complex.
Esthero bolts up from the table while I'm discussing the finer points of translating the album to a live environment with Doc.
Esthero: "Can I go blow my nose?"
Esthero (returning a few moments later): "That gives you some insight as per my character and what this business is doing to me -- 'Uh, can I blow my nose? Is that OK?' Actually, I'm kind of frazzled today because there's a boy I wanna see who I might not get to in the next couple of days..."
One would wonder how a guy from Minneapolis, who fell in love with Toronto after winning tickets to a world series game, would team up with a self-confessed shoegazin' slacker... OK, well I would, at least. It's probably the gazillionth time he's had to answer this question, and so once again Doc's levity gets the better of him:
"We hooked up kind of through our publisher and our manager at the time, kind of a friend of hers [Esthero's] and someone who... was... how do I put this?... I'd known him 'cause he was an attorney for somebody that I was doing music with. They were just like 'why don't you try writing with this person or just meet with them.' And what they'd known of my stuff and what they'd known of her was not even close to the realm of what's on the record."
A funny look comes over Doc's face, with an expectant, almost wicked gleam in his eye. He continues, hunched over and almost whispering:
"It wasn't something that was thought up, like, "Ah, there's this...trip-hop girl... who likes... Bjork and My Bloody Valentine... and then there's this mixed kid who's from Minneapolis who's... a closet animal fucker... pppffffff!!!!"
Doc can't conceal his mirth any longer and surrenders to a fit of giggling.
"Ah, I just thought I'd give you some shit to write about about!"
"It's the perfect little story, isn't it?" Esthero adds.
After trying to take the joke further than it needs to be through a laboured discussion between the three of us about what exactly would be Doc's taste in animals (Esthero feels that Doc is a bird man...), I ask as to the reception Breath from Another has been getting so far. Doc answers:
"I mean fuck, everybody's paid to like us. Hahaha! It's Sony money -- blood money!"
Perhaps picking up on the potential for trouble chez Sony that Doc's comments might stir up, Esthero continues with a topic which, at first, appears to be a propos of bugger all:
"I wanna be like Keith Richards, where... well, I've found that even now I've been mis-quoted. I mean, some of the things I've read have just made me cry -- like, people pigeonhole us in the category of 'dark brooding musician and bubble-headed vocalist,' and I think I wanna be like Keith Richards, where... I think it was in R magazine... where he just snapped and started yelling 'print that, motherfucker -- you just try and mis-quote me an' I'll kill you! Put that in your fuckin' lousy magazine!' I wanna be like that!"
Doc returns to the original question, and apparently there's some sore feelings he's got on that topic that he'd like to get out in the open...
"Yeah, well, [the album's] too pop for underground kids, and it's too underground for pop kids. People like it -- the reaction's been great -- but then there's that fucking elitist crowd. Because it's black music -- and it is black music -- if you put little bit of soul behind it, my brothers are like 'oh, it's pop, it's over-produced.' I've heard that, I've friends for whom it's really offending."
"Like, I'm just reaming on one journalist in particular right now. So far what people haven't liked about the record is particularly... well, I'll just say it: it's the black shit on it -- they're dissing black music if they dis my record, and that's because they can't understand how a white girl can have so much soul behind her."
Esthero agrees: "Yeah, quote that!"
Esthero and Doc will be playing at Sonar in Vancouver on Saturday, June 6, 1998. Show time is at 8pm.
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