Sacred Identity
An interview with Joel Gibb

The Hidden Cameras are known for their honesty, disarmingly so, with lyrical subject matter including vivid portrayals of gay sex, watersports and all. Meeting frontman Joel Gibb could be a daunting affair if I were what Kurt Cobain would call a ´highly bigoted Redneck logger type.' Luckily, as far as I know, I'm not. Instead I'm one of the many who's been entranced by the understated, melodic majesty of the band's album, The Smell Of Our Own and so, sitting opposite Joel, we begin by talking about the live shows. Now, as this is their first tour of the U.K., they don't have the resources to finance their traditional live show, instead favouring six key members. But usually, what can you look forward to at a Hidden Cameras show? Well, film, overhead projection, dancers, a handful of string players and, oh yeah, approximately thirteen members. I say it's approximately because, well, it just keeps changing:

'It's not like [our live shows are] the ideal that needs to be shoved up people's throats forever. It's an ever-changing project.'

So it's ever-changing then, but does that mean it's going to keep getting bigger?

'Well, either that or taking people away, doing smaller shows. I mean, we could do it with no dancers. We're not a band that always has to have this dance element. Sometimes in Toronto we play with no dancers, because it's my best friend that does it so if he doesn't want to do it then he doesn't do it. And he doesn't want to come on tour because he has his own art career to deal with. There's never been the intention to create a static show. It's all about process.'

The one thing that's clear is that The Hidden Cameras don't want to become a stagnant group, and so, with Gibb is very much at the centre, it's more like an art project gone mad than a band. And because of this they just radiate this excitement, excitement that permeates into every aspect of their show, from their songs to their merchandise (tapes of random music, bright orange caps with handmade felt images etc.). And it's this all-encompassing excitement that's crucial in creating their joyous spirit:

'Basically we want to create a different mood, because every mood is the same in indie shows. Everyone just stands there and the band stays up the front and plays a few songs. I just want there to be some slight impetus to dance or something, or anything.'

It's such a simple aesthetic, yet seems so leftfield, almost too good to be true. But obviously not everyone will feel the same, so have they encountered any homophobia?

'Not really, not even when we play in churches. Personally I've witnessed my friend getting the shit beaten out of him by straight guys and I had to go to court. That was really shitty. But as a band, no, because you can't really tell that we're gay. Not everybody in the band is gay, first of all, and if the lyrics are not projected, which they usually are to make it really apparent, then you can't tell, and there's no dancers in underwear this tour so it keeps it hidden. And, I mean, I've got 45 year old totally straight guys like, 'Oh my God. Can I have your autograph?' and I don't think they have any idea but they really like the music.'

And that was the cool thing I found about the album because, on the promo copy, there was no artwork so for the first nine tracks it was just cool to listen to and then on the closer, The Man That I Am With My Man, it struck me, 'Oh. They're gay.' I put this to Joel:

'Well that song's designed to be completely overt, even if you just listen a little bit. And if you're drawn to the melody, which happens over the chorus, then you'll be forced to sing something that's homoerotic. It kind of weeds people out.'

I thought it was cool, anyway. But while we're talking about lyrics, do the vivid depictions of homosexual sex ever seem too personal. He's nodding:

'Yeah. I don't care though. Once you write the songs then you try to forget about it a bit. It has been a bit stressful reading what everyone's drawn to writing about the really personal things.'

But that's what The Hidden Cameras is all about; whereas other bands strive to create a bad-ass image, Joel's approach seems to be different, wanting to strip down all the layers of bullshit and find something truly real. There's also a political element to The Hidden Cameras, such as with Ban Marriage's critique of gay weddings.

'The thing about that song is that it's about all sort of things. It's about attacking re-writing the Bible. I mean, can you just change scripture to suit any particular lifestyle or political idea? That disrupts the very idea of having a faith. And it's also attacking straight unions, as well as gays trying to fit into [an] archaic, straight, humbling institution that really needs to be questioned. Instead of wasting your energy trying to legalise [gay] marriage, I think these gay men should be creating a dialogue about what marriage means. We've already established that families don't have to be a man and a woman, it can be anybody, and so why do we penalise people who never fall in love and get married? I mean, people are financially benefited by marriage, so why not turn out of it so that the wealth can be distributed to single mums or single dads or people who don't want to get married?'

You seem to think about religion a lot. Are you a particularly religious person?

'I think about it all the time, but I don't think that makes me religious. I'm pretty much agnostic, and I think anyone with a brain should be agnostic. I mean, I think anyone who's an atheist is a fool, and anyone who's devoted to one religion is a fool too. If you learn anything in school then it's that there's just so much to question, so I respect the tradition, and I can appreciate a lot of things about the church, about Christianity, and the traditions, and the values as ´good.' I mean, there's a whole socialist sub-text to the Bible and Jesus is a great figure, sure, and there's a lot you can take from Christianity, but as far as ascribing to any specific religious view, I don't. But I think it's a really important tradition.'

And with that time's almost up, though there's time to fit in one more question; why are they blindfolded in so many of their press photos?

'Well, when you're blinded, or when you don't have your sense of sight, then your sense of smell is heightened. I think the whole album's about that, especially [in] ´Smells Like Happiness' which is a whole list of smells, and it's also about creating an identity through smells. I mean, the smells in a dirty gay club are the same in all these different cities. It's a unique smell and I just thought blindfolds would be appropriate. Also, it's about The Hidden Cameras, your identity is hidden in a way that's kind of a weapon to try and hide your identity. I mean, your identity is almost like a commodity nowadays, even though it's something that's almost sacred, and it's about keeping that to yourself.'

At which point I reel off a theory that, by wearing blindfolds, it adds anonymity in a confrontational sense that, no matter where the overtly prejudiced types go, then they could be surrounded by, shock horror, gay people.

'Yeah, totally. I think that's a good interpretation. But also it makes an interesting photo. I mean, how can you make an interesting photo of thirteen people? It's really difficult, so I thought it worked well on a visual level.'

And with that we leave possibly the most interesting interview in my short experience, and one of the most interesting bands that should come onto your radar this year, with a beautifully crafted sound that is both uplifting and, crucially, inimitable. So you definitely should let them into your life. The only question is whether you're brave enough.

© 2003 Rich Heap