They ain’t nothing but a pop band.
We can distinctly remember the first time we heard Hooded Fang. It hit just right. Second record Tosta Mista spoke instinctively to the pop sentiment bubbling within us. The Montreal-based band, led by twin lyricists, bassist/vocalist April Aliermo and guitarist/vocalist Daniel Lee, alongside drummer D. Alex Meeks and guitarist Lane Halley, had forged a pitch-perfect indie pop distillation of jangly 60s garage-surf, and we wanted in.
Having fallen hard for Tosta Mista, we delved further into the band’s past, discovering that they’d released a debut record called Album back in 2010, though only in Canada on their own Daps Records. The record, which found itself on the longlist for the esteemed 2011 Polaris Prize, wasn’t what we were expecting. Built around classicist indie pop tendencies, the then seven-strong band utilised ascending horns to offer a sense of the grandiose, alongside songcraft akin to Belle and Sebastian and female/male vocal interplay reminiscent of The Moldy Peaches. It was great – but it wasn’t the Hooded Fang we’d just discovered.
“We were a totally different band back then, we had a different focus” says Dan. “That first record was just supposed to be a pop record, which it turned out to be, but we don’t really associate with it anymore. We don’t play any of it, it’s just so old, we like to do new stuff. It was the first record we ever made, we’d just started playing music then. Our tastes just changed.”
Eschewing that sound, Hooded Fang moved forwards by looking backwards. Shedding three members and becoming a tighter, more dynamic group, their new approach was less about care and arrangement, more about the raw energy of 60s garage. ‘Garage’, however, isn’t a tag Dan feels particularly comfortable with. “I don’t mind it” he says, “I love garage music, don’t get me wrong, but I definitely wouldn’t call us a garage band, not by any means. We’re just a pop band.” A frequent feature of the conversation is a clash between our clunky, tuneless British ‘garridge’ pronunciation against his effortlessly smooth North American ‘gararge’. “I would feel stupid calling us a garage band because there are a lot of people who are way more true to that than we are. We just play rock and roll and pop music, we’re not purists or anything.”
Garage or not, there’s an undeniably surfy swing, an uplifting 60s sparkle and a lightness of touch spread across Tosta Mista. Yet much of the press surrounding its release focused on two factors: firstly that, despite its surface gleam, the album was thematically built around an inter-band break up between Dan and April, and secondly, its diminutive length. Dan is reluctant to discuss the former, seemingly keen to dismiss it as an unimportant detail that journalists chose to focus on as a point of difference. For someone who just wants to make pop music, it was a strange and uncomfortable process to see him and his bandmate’s personal lives discussed so openly, the lyrics (such as opening track Clap’s “I see you up on the stage but I still know that you’re deranged, when you take off your clothes you still act like an icy hoe” refrain) pored over.
“Truthfully, I’m not very comfortable with it” he sighs. “I wish it’d never gotten out there, it’s not something I wanted to become public. We’ve written tons of songs over the years in various projects, we write a lot of songs together or even about each other, we’re really close friends.” The second factor is perhaps more perverse still. Clocking in at just under 23 minutes, seven proper tracks with three interludes, it’s an enjoyably breezy and self-contained listen.
“I’m not against short records” states Dan, “I don’t see why that would be a big deal to anyone. I remember one of the first reviews of that record, some guy was really trashing it.” He laughs. “It was really hilarious, he was like ‘this record sucks, blah blah … and, it’s under half an hour’. I was like, if you hate it so much, why do you care if it’s short?! If I go and see a band, unless they’re an amazing band, I wouldn’t want them to play for more than 20 or 30 minutes … if they’re really, really good, maybe 45 minutes!”
While some criticised Tosta Mista for its brevity, third record Gravez adds another eight or so minutes onto the running length, tipping it nine seconds over the 30 minute mark. But anyone who focuses on this album’s length, rather than its quality, is getting their priorities in a twist. There’s a swampier, more haunting quality to Gravez, though it’s still riddled with hooks solid enough to hang a rain-drenched coat on. Though Dan resists the tag, this collection of live takes and tweaked demos has a roughness that innately relates it to a crackly garage 7”. From lead single Graves’ ever-so-slightly lagging bass rattle (‘that’s a take!’), to Wasteland, where the occasional dead note in the exposed guitar topline is left for posterity (‘that’s a take!’), there’s no studio polish or artifice here, and the entire record feels alive, honest and vital.
This is endearing because of the quality of the songs, their sense of distant, clean and immaculate melody. Perhaps the best of the lot, Trasher unfurls with guitar, bass, guitar, drums, vocals very palpably mingling one at a time in your ears; it’s perhaps the simplest possible way to write a song, yet the bareness of each instrument’s choice of four notes becomes something timelessly brilliant.
Between the making of these two Hooded Fang records, Dan and April were busy crafting another album under a different moniker – Phèdre. Collaborating in part with fellow Montrealean Airick Woodhead, known to most as Doldrums, the only ground it shares with Hooded Fang is that you’ll find yourself humming its melodies in the shower, along with a lo-fi aesthetic. Led by warped electronic beats, slippery synth chops and quirky bleeps, it’s a compelling and slab of dreamy hip-pop, not so dissimilar to the sounds crafted by London deconstructionist duo Hype Williams, albeit if they made insanely catchy, light-hearted pop songs. “It was really fun to make” says Dan. “April and I were living in an attic, it was summer, we drank a lot of wine and made a record in, like, a week. Airick came in towards the end of the process. After our last tour April and I escaped to Berlin for a month and made another Phèdre record, which will be coming out this year.”
A little digging into Dan’s background reveals this wasn’t quite such an unlikely turn. “Before I started playing music I was a hip-hop producer, so making beats was kind of my thing” he states, much to our surprise. “Hip-hop, jungle, all that kind of stuff.” He even speaks fondly of the vibrant 90s Toronto electronic scene. “We used to have a big drum and bass and jungle scene, the big DJs from the UK would be out here every weekend, it was pretty nuts. We had some great parties.” It’s now consigned to the past though. “I haven’t really kept up on drum n bass, it all started to sound the same to me, when it got to the point of (does a generic Andy C style D’n’B beat and bassline), I guess around ‘99, it all just got boring, everyone seemed to be making the same song.”
As Dan and April have proved, with Hooded Fang and their other creative ventures, making the same song is never something they’re likely to resort to. Whatever the project, their very simple ethos is to keep things interesting under the broad umbrella of pop.
“I like pop music” Dan states. “Listening to it or making it, I use pop music to escape a lot of stupid shit in life. Who knows why we’re here on Earth? The goal is just to try to make life a little bit better, either for yourself or for the people around you, or the next generations or whatever. So basically pop music is how I deal with …” he stalls, unsure where he’s going with this. “… that kind of shit. That’s it.”
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Gravez is out now via Full Time Hobby.
Words: Geraint Davies