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Parlez-vous indie?

Malajube In 1988, Mitsou’s “Bye-Bye Mon Cowboy” raised more than a few eyebrows in English Canada. But since the pouting starlet herself started singing in English, little of Quebec’s Francophone pop — apart from a smattering of Roch Voisine and a few throwaway lines from the late, lamented Bran Van 3000 — has crossed the province’s border.

On the surface, Malajube wouldn’t seem like the likeliest candidates to follow in Mitsou’s bootsteps: their name is a nonsense word (combining “maladie” and “jujube”); they sing surreal lyrics whose meanings aren’t necessarily clear even to them; they adorn their discs with disquietingly odd drawings, and they make music which, while often insanely catchy, sometimes seems — well, insane.

“We do whatever crazy [thing] we want with what we can do,” acknowledges Julien Mineau, who sings, writes lyrics, and plays guitar and such studio instruments as the “intergalactic gun” — “It’s always spontaneous.”

Their inspired unpredictability has helped the Montreal-based quintet strike a chord with music critics across Canada, who shortlisted their second album, Trompe- L’oeil, for this year’s Polaris Music Prize. As well, an excerpt from their song “Montréal -40ºC” soundtracks a commercial for the prize’s sponsor, Rogers Wireless; it shows four fresh-faced university students on a road trip through weather so hot they have to douse themselves with water at every opportunity. Granted the excerpt features just a tiny bit of the chorus where Mineau sings “Pa-da, pa-da, pa-da-pa-da,” which isn’t technically French at all, but the cheery musical phrase can serve as a Trojan horse, opening the gate for Malajube’s more esoteric oeuvre.

“In Quebec,” says Mineau, over the phone from his Montreal home, “some people are pissed off at us because we rented one of our songs, but it was [used] to sell music on cell phones. Bands are really poor, and they do a lot of jobs. They’re going to die young because they have that kind of life, so they should make money. People think you’re rich, but that’s not the case. I’m in the poorest neighbourhood of Montreal … When somebody offers you [money] for doing nothing, it’s kind of hard to say no.”

It’s not as if Julien, his drummer cousin Francis Mineau, bassist Mathieu Cournoyer, keyboardist Thomas Augustin and guitarist/keyboardist Renaud Bastien have been lazing around lately — constant touring in Quebec, Ontario (where they’ve opened for Sam Roberts), and Europe has taken its toll. Mineau recounts how a month or so ago, the band was “going downhill” because of the pressure of playing every day and adapting to a peripatetic lifestyle. Apparently, though, they’re in a happy place now, helped by some stress-reducing tactics where the language barrier, ironically, comes in handy.

“Sometimes I just change the lyrics and say stupid stuff in French, just for fun and to make the other guys laugh,” admits Mineau. Non-francophone audiences, he figures, “don’t even understand anyway, so I can say, ‘Blah blah blah — We had a good meal, but the venue sucks.’ It’s rare that a band can do that. … I can say to the boy in front of me that I want to kiss him, and he doesn’t know.”

Mineau may be kidding about the kissing part (he’s happily involved with girlfriend Virginie Parr, who designs the band’s packaging and web site with him), but he stresses that audiences can enjoy Malajube’s stop-start, quiet/loud, anthemic prog-power pop no matter what the lyrical content. Before their debut, 2005’s Compte Complet, he sang in English with what he describes as “a bad accent — it’s not me, I guess.” He was encouraged to use his native tongue by members of Montreal’s Anglophone music scene, which, with bands like The Dears and The Arcade Fire, has received the lion’s share of the city’s musical press. Singing in French felt more natural for Mineau, and besides, as he notes, “Malajube is really focused on music that at least tries to be more new than just a ‘zing-zing’ song with good lyrics.”

Over recent years, Mineau says, “with other French bands, it’s either mainstream, cheesy stuff like Mitsou or punk rock and hardcore.” But Malajube’s emergence has helped open doors for bands like super-arty trash-pop trio Les Georges Leningrad and upbeat rock sextet Les Breastfeeders. By not catering to the Anglophone mainstream, these bands are garnering respect from fans who prefer alternatives to the bottleneck culture encouraged by commercial radio and TV.

From here, Malajube, armed with an independent record deal (with Dare to Care, also home to Les Georges) that gives them total creative control, could go anywhere musically, and are aiming to go just about everywhere personally, starting with their first-ever Western Canadian shows next month and then hitting the States in 2007.

It seems even American media have caught wind of the Polaris Prize. While Malajube didn’t win (that honour went to Final Fantasy’s He Poos Clouds), the curiosity factor of their nomination has paid dividends. And since they’re busy conquering Canada, America shouldn’t be far behind. After all, as Mineau is proud to note, “Our style of music is a melting pot of everything you can like.”

— Originally published in The National Post, Nov. 23, 2006


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