The Hidden Cameras’ Joel Gibb Is Still A Boy Of Melody
In 2003, Toronto jangle-pop collective The Hidden Cameras invented a new genre: “gay folk church music.” Two decades later, there still is no better way to describe the Hidden Cameras. Fronted by bandleader Joel Gibb, the Hidden Cameras were many things — terribly catchy for one, a Toronto talent incubator for another (early members included Reg Vermue aka Gentleman Reg, Owen Pallett, Laura Barrett, Don Kerr, the Phonemes’ Magali Meagher, Arcade Fire cellist Mike Olsen, and Maggie MacDonald) — but they will always be best known for writing and performing unapologetically queer chamber-pop anthems about male bodies and genitalia, the scent of sweat, saliva, ejaculate, and, perhaps most memorably, erotic peeing.
Though they were certainly descriptive, Gibbs’ songs were an open embrace of everything he had been taught to reject as a kid growing up in the Christian Baptist Missionary church. Across albums like 2001’s Ecce Homo, 2003’s The Smell Of Our Own, 2004’s Mississauga Goddam, and 2006’s Awoo (among others), the Hidden Cameras did their own kind of missionary work, spreading the gospel of self- and same-sex love as they launched charismatic performances with stage dancers and cheerleaders in unlikely venues such as churches, dance bars, art museums, and even a working porn cinema.
Now residing in Berlin, Gibb is currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Cameras’ sophomore album, The Smell Of Our Own, which featured songs like the cinematic ballad “Golden Streams,” “Boys Of Melody,” “Ban Marriage,” and the extremely Magnetic Fields-sounding “The Man That I Am With My Man.” The deluxe reissue, out April 14 via Rough Trade, features a separate disc of bonus demos, B-sides, and live session recordings. Also, for the first time, the Cameras’ wild debut CBC TV performance of “Ban Marriage” – featuring a masked go-go dancer in a crop top and tighty whities – is on YouTube.
There’s also lots more never-before-scene footage, which Gibb discovered while going through his personal archives, and a Hidden Cameras documentary, Music Is My Boyfriend, which premiered in November at the Doc ‘n’ Roll Festival and chronicles the band’s early days in Toronto.
Ahead of The Smell Of Our Own reissue, Gibb Zoomed in from Berlin to revisit some Hidden Cameras memories. He also helped unpack the phrase “gay folk church music” and updated us on a potential Cameras techno/house/electro pop record he recorded in Germany.
You’ve traveled back and forth between Europe and Canada over the years — how long have you been living in Berlin at this point?
JOEL GIBB: I started putting roots after Awoo [came out] in 2006. By the time that record was finished, I was in Berlin. Then [I went] back and forth quite a bit – because when you’re touring all the time, especially back in the day, you’re just never anywhere long enough. So it made sense to have a place in Europe. It wasn’t the case that I had fallen in love with the city necessarily, but I do love it in certain ways.
I’ve heard Berlin described as an easier city in general for artists to be artists. I don’t know if that’s still the case – I’m probably still operating from a 2000s/2010s mindset.
GIBB: I would say so, yeah. Since rent is so much cheaper here than in New York or London, it does give you more time to work on your art. But the housing, there’s no apartments anymore here. [But] I think it’s everywhere.
Other than the 20-year anniversary of The Smell Of Our Own, was there anything particular that prompted the idea to revisit this album? How did you go select which demos and B-sides would be featured on the reissue?
GIBB: During the pandemic, I was reviewing old material and forgot about this documentary [Music Is My Boyfriend] that was made. So it ran concurrently with looking at that [and] looking at the album. It was coming up as a 20-year anniversary, and I thought, “Why not look at the record again?” I was always in touch with people at Rough Trade, and they loved the idea of doing some reissues. I like that they’re looking at the history of Rough Trade.
The bonus disc idea — I knew that there were different recordings that could really create a companion piece. And as a record fan myself, I would love to see the album on one disc and then alternate versions to create a slight mirror image of the record. I always liked that idea. So it was sort of as a music fan, I wanted to put together an interesting side C and D.
What did you think when you unearthed the Cameras’ debut TV performance of “Ban Marriage”?
GIBB: I knew it existed because we did it live on CBC, and I had a VHS copy. The recording wasn’t very good; it fit with the studio version. It was this video that [looked like it] could have been [made] 20 years before. But it was my first time ever performing on TV. It was hard to take at the time, but now as I look at it, it’s got a very cool thing about it, especially the marimba and the xylophone player. I’d never seen a band like that with so many people and with the dancer.
I’m more proud of it rather than maybe embarrassed. At the time, I had just written the song, and the reason why I’m staring down [in the video] is that I hadn’t memorized the lyrics yet and I was making sure that I got all the lyrics right. I was so nervous being in the studio and there were so many cameras, but now that I think of it, I see it as cute and funny.
I’m glad it’s finally on our YouTube channel. It’s got a nerdcore thing going on.
As far as documenting that time in your life, is there any particular reason why we’re just now seeing that footage, other than the pandemic? What was the intention for that footage at the time?
GIBB: Because Rough Trade wanted [us to]. They led with the “Ban Marriage” single, but at the time, I did not have the capabilities to make a video, and they were really wanting to put the single out ASAP. And I was making a “Golden Streams” video, but that wasn’t really a single.
As an artist, I was a bit conflicted, and I didn’t have the team together to apply for a grant, [but] I finally got that together. But as a band leader, I only had so much time. I wish that there was more of me to have produced a very cool video because, of course, I had an idea for a video, which could easily have been in a church and at a wedding. It could have been anything.
When you think about performing around early-aughts Toronto and releasing The Smell Of Our Own, what stands out about that time?
GIBB: If you’ve been to Toronto, [then you know] the Drake Hotel. It’s been running now for 20 years. There’s a venue downstairs where lots of great bands play. Broken Social Scene and Hidden Cameras played before they even finished the basement — we played the space to inaugurate the basement. And I’ve been talking to the drummer of Broken Social Scene and all the various members of the Cameras, no one knows the day [we played there], no one has the answer.
I’ve been really trying to find these weird dates that are not there. I asked Maggie [MacDonald] from the band, who has a really good memory, and my ex-boyfriend actually had a lot of the dates, most of the dates that I’d forgotten in his diary. But that’s that one show that I believe was in November. I think it was January, 2003. But Maggie thinks it’s November, 2002, and the drummer thinks it’s 2001. It’s completely wrong.
Do you recall the industry response to opening an album with a song about sexual peeing?
GIBB: Rough Trade liked it. And the British press really got into that as well. Yeah, it met with enthusiasm.
That’s awesome. Going back to “Ban Marriage” for a moment — legend has it that that the song is a pushback to marriage equality — that the queer community should not want to join in an outdated institution. Obviously, US law has changed since then, and now we do have marriage equality in every state. How would you frame your view around the song’s message today?
GIBB: I’m not sure how serious I was even at the time about the song and the song title. It’s more of a joke, but it does tongue-in-cheek comment on that. And that was in the news at the time, especially in Canada. And it was just more to raise a question, rather than, “Oh, these are my political views.” It’s a protest song, but it’s also an anti-protest song. It calls into question both sides, I guess. “Call the whole thing off” kind of idea. It is in a way against gays trying to be straight or something.
Right, as a person who has experienced divorce and thinks marriage can be weaponized as social propaganda, I understand the “both sides” perspective. But that is my privilege to say so — I didn’t have to fight for the option to get married.
GIBB: Somebody’s trying to… What country was it? It’s a country that’s trying to pass friendship marriage so that you can have those types of benefits with a friend. It was in Germany. It was on the Deutsche Welle News. I don’t want to do that though.
Interesting. You just have to be really sure that you want to be connected to even just a friend in that way, because friendships change. And money can really screw up a friendship? But this is just my initial response, I’ll have to read up on this.
How did you all conceptualize the Hidden Cameras show experience? You had dancers, cheerleaders, a choir – you would perform in churches and anywhere you could. How did you develop the spectacle element?
GIBB: I guess, because so many shows you see were boring as a young person, and I always imagined being on stage or wanting to be asked to play tambourine in a band or to be their hype person. What would it be like to be asked by a band to dance in their underwear? Or wouldn’t that be cool if someone asked me or if someone was even asked? Wouldn’t it be nice to be asked to join a choir for a one-off show down the street?”
And it was a way of including friends, and new friends, and friends of friends, and people from the art community, and people from the experimental film community. And putting non-musicians on stage was, for me, kind of fun. It was fun to mix people up and just to create an energy where you don’t know what’s even going to happen. Yeah, it was just a fun experiment.
Mattias Rosenberg in the band is Jewish. He somehow asked me to play a Jewish old folks home with him. And he’s like, “Yeah, instead of ‘High Upon The Church Grounds,’ we can do ‘High Upon The Shul Grounds.'”
How did that go?
GIBB: At first, some of them hated it, some of them liked it. But then, the ones that hated it ended up liking it. And a lot of them were confused. I think some of them actually were Alzheimer’s or… That was definitely the most unique gig, for sure.
What was your own relationship with religion like growing up? How did it shape the music and your doing these subversive church performances?
GIBB: Yeah, so in the [Music Is My Boyfriend] trailer, that’s Paul P. saying that he’s a painter who’s widely exhibited. He was in the Whitney Biennial, and he was the original go-go dancer. We met in Sunday school at around eight or nine. So we grew up in the same church, and then both of our parents also worked for the satellite mission board, I guess you’d call it, which is Christian Baptist Missionaries.
So we were raised in a Christian Missionary Baptist cult, basically. I mean, what more are you going to call it? We went to church on Sunday and that was the satellite church to the main mission board, but the mission board was the original old-school organization. And this other church that we went to was a new church that was being created for the new location of this Baptist missionary board.
I assume at some point, if you call it a “cult,” you realized that the church wouldn’t be OK with the way you wanted to express your art and sexuality? What did that look like when you were a younger adult?
GIBB: Well, Paul and I… We enjoyed learning about music, basically. We had each other as friends in this church. So we would turn Sunday school into analyzing the Cure, or bring in whatever cassettes and just changing the subject. I was never really indoctrinated. I was just more interested in music. Music was the escape, I guess. Not Christian music. Jesus And Mary Chain, the Cure, these bands meant a lot when we were in high school and Sunday school.
Is it fair to say that things started to change for you and your personal life when you left home?
GIBB: Exactly. I went to University Of Toronto, and that’s where most of the people in that “Ban Marriage” video… Owen [Pallett] was from U of T, although I didn’t meet him until after having graduated. Half the band there are U of T alum.
The band basically was my semiotics Master’s course. By the end of my years at university, I was majoring in semiotics. I changed it so that I could just study whatever I wanted. The band really was [my master’s] thesis. That’s what the first two records are. I wrote all the songs at the end of university, and then that first year out in the real world starting the band, that’s what it was. It’s like sink or swim. “Are you going to get a job? What are you going to do?”
Many of the Smell Of Our Own lyrics are extremely physical and descriptive around subjects like bodies and human sensuality. How did it come about that you’re writing songs about erotic peeing? Even The Smell Of Our Own is a visceral title.
GIBB: I think the whole theme was related to the religious theme. Religion, growing up, they want to disconnect you to your body. Sex doesn’t exist. The body doesn’t exist. The only body that exists is God, the bread is the body, the body you need to know about is Jesus.
To me, that was the natural thing to do — to make everything about the body. Also loving yourself, loving your body, and trusting. Just making it all about that. And taking all of the religious symbols and flipping them on their heads, flipping the stories, flipping the roles, and making it something that I could get into.
Did you receive fan feedback where people told you how your music and this album made them feel more comfortable with their bodies?
GIBB: Yeah, definitely. I don’t remember any specific anecdotes, but I do remember just the feeling of those shows in Toronto. In the church where everybody’s dancing around and the lyrics are being projected, sometimes two projections, two on both sides. Sometimes I did the lyrics.
It is creating a new service, and it was really nice to see many euphoric faces and experiences. Getting everybody to stand up, having them sit down like a church service and then telling them to stand up for this song, and now there’s dance moves. The whole [thing] is completely not what you would expect. It’s about freeing your body.
Like [b-side] “Fear O Zine Failure,” which leads the bonus disc, that song in particular lays it all out. It’s the whole manifesto. It’s the whole project in a way. It’s [about] fear in failure. It just takes you through. “Breathe On It” was another one where we did dance moves and then we would always end with “High Upon The Church Grounds.” We would use the real pipe organs, or the organists would have to go find their way up to the rafters. Yeah, it was just wild. We used everything.
The way you describe shows’ physicality reminds me of what happens to serious churchgoers when they speak in tongues.
GIBB: “High Upon The Church Grounds” is supposed to be a extended droney thing where everybody’s chanting. It’s supposed to have that speaking-in-tongues thing. I’m sort of speaking in tongues in a way. I’m trying to sound like a drone. When I’m singing, I’m trying to sound like I’m turning into a Moog or something.
But yeah, it’s a little bit speaking in tongues. I am doing a kind of weird singing. “High Upon The Church Grounds” was actually a B-side to “I Believe In The Good Of Life,” which is on Mississauga Goddam, but it fits too. Somehow I had the decision of, ‘let’s just keep the song from the The Smell Of Our Own on the bonus disc, even though “High Upon” should really could have gone on the bonus disc. But I want to make a whole extended version of Mississauga Goddam. I’m hoping to do another reissue of that record and put the studio version of “High Upon The Church Grounds” on it.
Hidden Cameras actually released a country-adjacent album in 2016 called Home On Native Land. I saw in an interview promoting that record that you’d been considering dropping a techno/house record as Hidden Cameras? Is that still in the works? Do you feel at this point that Hidden Cameras has become genreless, given your fluid approach in recent years?
GIBB: Yeah, I think with the first Hidden Cameras [album], I started by creating a genre, somehow. “Gay folk church music,” it really is a genre. There’s a certain type of guitar strumming and drumming and tambourine and the pipe organ and the choir. So that I did start looking at genre in that way of, “What would a goth record be like for the Hidden Cameras? Or what would a country record look like?”
And yes, I have recorded a techno-house record in Munich, actually. It tries to connect Berlin and Munich a bit. It was written in Berlin and recorded in Munich and mixed a bit in Berlin and Munich. And it tries to touch upon all of my favorite things about techno and house, or more house and electro pop. So I hope to put that out soon after this reissue business.
The Hidden Cameras’ The Smell Of Our Own – 20th Anniversary Edition is out 4/14 via Rough Trade.