He may not relish it, and it probably runs contrary to the master plan, but David Usher has star appeal -- big, shiny, in-your-face, don't-even-bother-trying-to-deny-it star appeal.
Of course, he'll deny it, with an uneasy shrug, if pressed on the point. The lead singer, lyricist and co-songwriter with white-hot Montreal via Vancouver via Kingston rockers Moist is a team player all the way. And he's too entrenched in that peculiar fraternity of band life to be disillusioned by the perceived importance of any one member.
There's almost no doubt that in pensive moments -- or during those infamous kinetic live shows when the planets align just so, things take flight and Moist hovers in the stratosphere with the best bands going -- Usher thinks of himself as no more and no less than one-fifth of a highly tuned, successful musical consortium. He's right, because Moist is a band that together writes and executes crackling, vivid, ridiculously accessible songs that push the adrenaline needle so far into the proverbial red that the glass breaks. Two listens, baby, and you're toast.
While there's arguably a contingent of fans who'd gladly huddle at the threshold of any venue anywhere just to watch Usher be Usher, it's certain that Moist would not be where they are right now -- setting a record, along with tourmates I Mother Earth, as the only act to sell out multiple nights, months in advance, in the three-year history of the 2,000-capacity Warehouse -- without each other.
Usher without Moist would be a singer without a dramatic, complex backdrop worthy of his emotion-drenched voice. Moist without Usher would be a band without a face -- a face so commanding that upon first seeing it on video, and despite the group's independent status at the time, MuchMusic cranked out their clips day and night, helping to push them into the hit zone.
It helps that Moist approaches the medium not with disdain but with the hope of achieving art.
The precedent is unbroken with the group's fierce, sensual and utterly dynamic new release, Creature. What'll happen next is anyone's guess, but with these odds, all bets are on.
Smoothing the hard-knocks lessons of hundreds of live shows into a sleek, organic amalgamation of mood swings, aural colours and intricate rhythmic patterns, Usher, guitarist Mark Makoway, bassist Jeff Pearce, drummer Paul Wilcox and keyboardist Kevin Young recast the mould set by their breakthrough CD, Silver.
They've added unexpected bursts of trumpet and cello while dancing with themes that, like Bugs Bunny cartoons, amuse the kids on one level while spinning the heads of more savvy listeners reading between the lines.
But that doesn't mean they've already peaked. The Moist found on Creature is the same exciting beast that caused near-riots on tour in Thailand, where Silver sold gold (25,000 copies), nicely complementing their triple-platinum (300,000-and-counting copies) status in Canada.
"Believe me," chirps Makoway with a grin, "success in Thailand comes with its own fringe benefits. It's too far to go to and not spend a few days down in the islands." Maudlin sigh. "It's the way it has to work."
Speaking in a downtown Toronto hotel room, Usher and Makoway exude Zen-like calm marbled with wickedly self-deprecating humour. "Our sarcasm always comes across as being stupid," cracks Makoway needlessly. But seriously, given the opportunity, did they ask Neil Young what he thought of their record, since he invited them on tour last October?
"We talked to him, but not about our record. I certainly wasn't going to bring that up," Usher says incredulously. "So Neil," mocks Makoway, shifting into hoser-speak with disturbing aptitude, "Do ya really like our music? What's yer favourite song there, Neil?"
Point taken. Discussion of Creature -- recorded following the band's en masse move from Vancouver to Montreal, during a critical crossroads when they were burned out on Silver but more U.S. touring beckoned -- brings things back in focus.
"We started to get stale on the road," says Makoway, firing up a smoke. "This bluesy thing was hanging over the band. It was like, 'Oh man, not another city.' We knew it was time to get off the road. You have to keep a balance between the touring, writing, recording and video-making in order to keep everything fresh.
"And a lot had happened. When we came off the road, none of us had apartments and hadn't had apartments for three or four years. We had no sense of personal space. Nobody had even simple things like a TV or a couch. We needed to find that personal space, which we now have in Montreal.
"But whenever you move to a new place," the guitarist continues, "particularly an exciting place, you're energized. Suddenly it's Friday night and you've got a whole new city to explore."
The members of Moist weren't the only ones energized by the move. Quebec fans, whose only previous access to the group was through concerts and TV, suddenly had members of the country's fastest-rising (and cutest?) quintet on their doorstep. More precisely, they ended up on Usher's doorstep -- fans presumably cut from the same cloth as those clogging the Internet, dissecting Moist's lyrics and, according to Makoway, in one instance ignominiously musing on "how beautiful it would be if Mark and David got married."
"In Montreal there's starting to be a lot of that following-around stuff," Usher says quietly. "Like people following me around and dropping stuff off at the house." Makoway breaks the tension by bellowing, "It's time to live at the top of a high-security building."
"Yeah," Usher says with a smirk. "Time to move."
Indeed, Makoway and Usher concede that a chunk of their fan base is made up of exuberant teens, the kind who wedge themselves into the studios of a local radio station during every Moist visit, on one occasion seizing promotional boxes of Kraft Dinner to spell out the band's name on the floor in a touching show of prepubescent reverence.
They also know that fans are fans and records sold are records sold. Besides, Makoway and Usher are far too gracious to dismiss anyone who genuinely digs their music, or to qualify what type of fan is most meaningful.
"Everyone has a place at our shows, everyone is welcome," says Usher earnestly, although it's clear he's been over this before. "We're not denying it, but we're also not going to make any apologies for the fact that there are a lot of different types of people who like our music. It's great. We don't want to discourage anyone from liking our music or liking our band. That's not really the point, and we don't want to be elitist."
"And we've had a couple of interesting experiences," allows Makoway. "We did this in-store, -- this in-mall performance, I guess you could call it -- in Calgary once. They'd set it up expecting 500 people to show at this record store and, like, 2,000 people turned up. Things got a bit out of hand.
"It's fun and exciting in a way. It's like, 'Wow, we're really doing well!' But by the same token, it's scary when you and the security and a few police officers are making a dash for a secure area in the mall...."
"...With 2,000 people chasing us," recalls Usher, his lips moving robotically beneath a thousand-yard stare.
"We feel that the music we're making speaks for itself," adds Makoway. "I don't think we're writing throwaway, garbage pop music. That's not what this band is about. We put a lot of time and effort and focus into the actual craft of songwriting. The other thing just kind of comes with the turf."