Joel Gibb: The Hidden Cameras

by Joanna Orland

The Hidden Cameras are a musical collective fronted by the exuberant Joel Gibb. The band originally hail from Toronto, but as Joel has moved to Berlin in recent years, the group can often feature a more vast selection of members. They’ve worked with the Who’s Who of the Canadian music scene, including Owen Pallett, Gentleman Reg, members of Arcade Fire and pretty much everyone modernly relevant.

The band are known for their very energetic and unique live performances as much as they are for the music itself. I’m fortunate enough to have seen their live show in Hoxton after the interview and they did not fail to seriously impress. So far, my favourite gig of 2010!

While on tour in Europe to promote their latest release Origin:Orphan, I got a chance to sit down with the multi-talented Joel at Hoxton Bar & Kitchen to discuss his music, his art and my indulgent questions about what it was like to be on the Shortbus soundtrack.

It was hard nailing down Joel for the chat, due to no fault of his own. With sound check running late, a photo shoot to do, food to consume, and general pre-gig stress, I’m grateful I got any time with him at all. And as you can tell from the band’s recordings and shows, Joel is not a man who does anything half-heartedly. When I got to sit down with him, he gave me his full attention and about forty minutes of his time. What a generous man! And an interesting one as well….

As the band often play their live gigs in atypical venues such as galleries and churches, I was curious as to how Joel felt about the venue setting and if his venue choices are as important to The Hidden Cameras concept as the music itself.

“It can be. I mean when you’re on a long 40 day tour obviously you just do the venues that are planned out, but we did manage to play St. Leonard’s Shoreditch church for the second time last week and it’s always fun to play an interesting venue.”

As the band has a rotating roster of musicians, Joel views the band as both a solo project and as a band effort.

“Cuz I do write the songs, and I produce the music, and I’m the musical director, but at the same time it’s totally a band.… I think both things and I think that that’s sort of an interesting aspect of the band is that it’s both.”

While the band can be a collective effort, Joel is key in the band’s musical creation. He is not only the frontman, lead singer, and guitarist, but Joel is a very talented multi-instrumentalist and producer as he’s proven over the past nine years by producing all of The Hidden Cameras albums to date, as well as playing most instruments on the recordings.

“I try to play the drums, cuz that’s my only time to play the drums. When you’re renting studio time, hey, that’s one of my only times to rock out on the drums. So, You know, it’s just fun. For me it’s fun…. “

With the rotating roster, and many of the band members being in multiple other bands, would there be any members that are considered to be the CORE members of The Hidden Cameras?

“Well the original core members are all doing their Masters, so we have new people that are core members so that concept really doesn’t really apply in a way…….That’s the thing with The Hidden Cameras….You might see the same characters again appear later. And so it’s a nice community of musicians. You know, like the two bass players are friends, the two keyboard players are you know, friends. It’s like we’re all in it together… .The thing is I always work with very interesting new people with their own music, their own art, their own things that they do, so it’s a very ….. it’s just a very cool vibe.”

While the formative years of The Hidden Cameras were spent with Joel in the Toronto community, he’s now spent the past few years based in Berlin. He claims the move was due to finding a “larger dating pool” of “tall tall men” in Berlin, but I’m sure the art scene in Berlin had a small something to do with him uprooting his life.

“Toronto’s more like Canadian community-based kind of thing. It’s very friendly and whatever. Berlin’s more like international….. Berlin’s just bigger and it’s not so community-based. I mean it is, but there are so many different communities…”

While finding a wider art community in Berlin, Joel sees Toronto as his muse and does most, if not all, of his musical writing and producing in the city.

“I feel like my Muse is Toronto in a weird way. … But I’m more satisfied in Berlin……Last year I was back for about half of the year recording, filming things, working… Basically I go to Toronto and I’m working, and I’m busy, and then I go to Berlin and I sleep, and I go out, and chill out, and you know… Berlin is like lazy. People are lazy there. Nobody has any money, nobody works. I would say it’s just sort of poor, and sexy and lazy.”

Back in 2002, Joel used the term “gay church folk music” to describe the concept of The Hidden Cameras. To this day, in every write up of The Hidden Cameras, there is reference to this genre classification. Obviously with a lot of lyrics making blatant homosexual references, part of what the band is about is homosexuality and expression. But the media does tend to emphasize the non-hetero constituent of the band’s make up.

“I wrote that on a flyer for our second show… you know what I mean, just like to get people’s attention. And it did aptly describe the concept in 2002, but that’s all people want to talk about still nine years later… I think the media just needs some gay content. You know, there’s not an honest or adequate expression of queer rage I guess you would call it, ‘queer rage’. No one else is gonna do it, I’ll do it.. But that’s not all what I’m about.“

As mentioned, Joel doesn’t necessarily use his lyrics and music as a political agenda, but occasionally it can be thrust upon him. For Joel, each song serves its own purpose.

“ I feel like each song is a different thing, you know what I mean? You’re not going to do the same song every time. You can’t sum up my songs and say it’s all political, you can’t sum it up and say it’s all apolitical…. It’s like each song is different and I approach each song as it’s own thing. That’s sort of why it’s called Origin:Orphan…. Each song is like an orphan that came out of nowhere – a Bastard.”

Being as articulate and well-educated as he is, when asked how he conceived the name The Hidden Cameras, the answer was meaningful, not just a frivolous “it sounded cool” kind of answer you’d get from most of today’s indie bands. The idea for the name came while Joel was simultaneously reading a photography book and a book about the rise of the prison system.

“ … The prisoner is lit in a way that they can’t see who’s watching them, so it’s a kind of mental control. So hidden cameras, electronic surveillance, is sort of the next evolution of that concept of controlling people’s minds without spending that much money or without having to do much work or without having to employ too many people because it’s just the IDEA of being watched that can control people, not the actual act of being watched.”

I summed up in the usual fashion…

One word to describe The Hidden Cameras?

“(No hesitation) HOT!”

To hear more of my interview with Joel, play the audio below… You may even get to hear me go all fangirl about his contribution to the Shortbus soundtrack!

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