Last van to fantasyland
by Rupert Bottenberg
in Montreal Mirror, 5 octobre 2001
Bran Van 3000's James Di Salvio lives in a realm of enchantment--and you live here, too.
"A lot of people have a pretension to fantasy," says Bran Van 3000's James Di Salvio, utterly without pretension. "I do. I like to live in fantasy. I like to make music, I like to make beats, I like to make Black Sabbath drum & bass with a qawwali singer from Pakistan. That's a lot of fantasy going on."
In fantasy terms, Di Salvio's a brave and clever adventurer from the fair towne of Montreal who, with his rag-tag troupe of sidekicks and comrades in arms, has infiltrated the forbidden castle of the insidious Lord Maynstreeme. After mesmerizing the dark Lord into a fitful slumber with the mysterious Dance of the Profits, Di Salvio finds himself at the control of the very machine with which Maynstreeme has been hypnotizing and enslaving the masses.
"These might be famous last words," says Di Salvio, back here in Mont-reality, "but I think I'm really gonna have fun with this big mechanism, with its big pods and dials and knobs. Every once in a while, I'm gonna get electro-shock treatment, but that's okay. I'm expecting it."
The infernal contraption is of course the big-time, major-label, multinational music machine, the one primed to catapult BV3's new album Discosis into the Soundscan stratosphere come May 29. This, of course, after the johnny-come-lately hit status of "Drinking in L.A.," off their debut Glee. The music equivalent of a surprise-success mid-season replacement sitcom, I'm guessing, but a nice setup for the Discosis follow-through, anyway.
Already the tubes are starting to glow and hum, as the album's first single "Astounded," the last recording to feature the involvement of the late, lamented Curtis Mayfield, gets the gears lubed.
Whereas many musicians regard this machine as either a necessary if soul-draining evil, demanding absolute submission, or an unnecessary evil to be avoided and even undermined, Di Salvio recognizes the existence of a third option. Get in there, take the beast by the horns and make it your bitch (though the sweet-natured and boyish Di Salvio might not put it so harshly).
"If I wanted to do pop the easy way, I'd have N'Sync and Ricky Martin on the album, not Badar Ali Khan and Momus. There's a part of me, though, that loves the notion of pop so much that I want to go another round and fuck with it, play with it and come out on the other end."
But where's the Carvel Ice Cream number?
At the other end of stage one, recording and releasing the album, Di Salvio can look back and know that it pays to play, provided you've got a few strong cards in your hand. Those cards, in this case, were found in the offices of the Beastie Boys' label Grand Royal, which BV3 call home.
"Let's use the Beastie Boys' Rolodex to get to some of these dudes who I love," states Di Salvio of his modus operandi for collecting the elements of BV3's patchwork pop. "There's a theme to it, too. They're all pioneers of the old-school."
Okay, that obviously includes Mayfield. Too ill at the time Di Salvio contacted him to actually record something new, he slipped the Bran Man a DAT of a beautiful, unused accapella which would become the basis of "Astounded," a big, housey soul sweep punctuated with sharp string jabs that segues into a NuYorican Latin jam. Astounding is right.
Then there's hip hop's Big Daddy Kane and French remix pioneer Dimitri From Paris, both unequivocally old-school in their respective milieus, on the super-funny and cool title track.
On the back-to-back "Go Shopping" and "More Shopping," the raw verbal grind of O.G. dancehall figure Eek-A-Mouse crossfades into the eloquent sleaze of Momus, a precursor to the neo-retro pervo-chic so in vogue these days.
Then there's world-beat champ Youssou N'dour on two tracks, the call-and-response of "Montreal" and its echo, "Senegal." Oh, and Ric Ocasek of the Cars behind the wheel of the mixing board for a stretch.
Now here's where Di Salvio plays the fantasy card for real. Discosis sports a tastefully lurid (does that work?!) pencil drawing by the legendary Boris Vallejo, master of proto-D&D warrior babes 'n' studs whose muscles gleam as brightly as the swords and battleaxes they wield. Suffice it to say that Di Salvio isn't the only "van" artist inspired by the man.
"Boris Vallejo, with Frank Frazetta, is one of the pioneers of fantasy art. I spoke with him, and he's going to be feeding us. I'm so psyched, man! Boris, dude! He's going to feed us, similar to how Roger Dean fed Yes. Glee's cover was in fact budget Boris--I did it down at Superock. I was trying to aim for Boris, except I couldn't call him, just like I couldn't call Curtis. It's amazing what the Beasties can do, that they can help out that way. They're like a little mafia, a B-boy mafia."
How the Van was planned
Glee also proves a budget prototype for Discosis in that it introduced us to Di Salvio's vision of another way to build a musical entity. Neither tired old band setup nor studio-hermit one-man-show particularly interested him. Though he does handle various instruments with reasonable proficiency, by his own frank admission, he's no Satriani. "When people ask what I play, I feel comfortable answering that I play the concept.
"If I was obsessed with songwriting, you'd have an album by a singer/songwriter. If I was obsessed with only the beat, you'd have a really good beat voyage. But I'm obsessed with the three-dimensional concept."
In his fantasy-fuelled quest to fashion his own "ultimate mix tape," Di Salvio transposed the structure he'd acquired during his days as a video director (and some little pensées picked up as a DJ).
"I've been really lucky, having come from DJing first and then a film background, where people get it--'Okay, you're making your movie. What do you need me to do?' I don't think Eek-A-Mouse would have ever found himself dueting with this sensitive, '80s-cold-wave Scottish poetry--and vice versa for Momus. But then both come in and respect the Bran Van song, say, 'Yeah, man, let's go with it.' In that way, people have let me go as a director, saying. 'Okay, where do you want me to stand?' Not power-tripping, just respect for each other."
For Glee, BV3 was a loose confederation of local luminaries, centered around something of a "band" that has since tightened to simply Di Salvio with Jayne Hill and Sara Johnston, who co-write with him. And sing prettier than he does too, although he still kicks it on the slaphappy rap--dig the business about Kermit the Frog flippin' the bird on "Montreal." Like, what?
The revolving door in and out of Bran Van Land was installed at the start (a recent study suggests that as much as half of Montreal played on Glee), only now, it leads back to Senegal, Jamaica, Pakistan, Paris, sunny Scotland and charming NYC.
"I can't help but define Bran Van with that whole documentary analogy," he says. "I use Bran Van to travel the world, to make this documentary and then go home and edit it. I use the machine, their budget, to trip."
Distilling the concept to its essence, he states that "the album is the document, and the making is the documentary," which still doesn't clarify when the wacky out-take blooper tape is due.
The bunny, the deer and the wolf
If Di Salvio must resort to abstractions to define the BV3 creative process, pigeonholers will have to define their sound with compound words so unwieldy they'd choke a German. Loosening the bolts of the machine even further, Di Salvio points out that the road's open for the Bran Van to drive as erratically as it wants. He's even prone to "look, Ma, no hands!" displays. And he's not big on the glamour trip, the Di-Salvio-centric photo-op routine, even if it means the covers of tasteful and edifying publications.
"No, this is about the deer and the bunny," he says, alluding to the poo-poo-sniffing friends of the forest which are on their way to being the BV3 equivalent of the Stones' lips 'n' tongue.
"The deer and the bunny gotta send a message that this is always going to change, it's just a forum to trip. When you go see Robert Lepage," he says, citing Montreal theatre's favourite son, "one year he's doing Cocteau, then Tectonic Plates another year, then a one-man show that's really quite funny followed by Hiroshima. You let him go, you let him completely switch up the palette--why the hell can't you let a band do that?"
Catching his own semantic stumble, he adds, "Not a band, but, like, a project. That's the kind of message I want."
He himself got the message in part from one Mr. Jean Leloup, for whom he directed videos back in the day. It can be argued that Leloup, who peeps in on Discosis to deliver a little number he should probably be arrested for, single-handedly redeemed Québécois pop at the time.
"Jean is the gatekeeper," says Di Salvio. "Back in the day, like 1990, it was all really underground. I think Jean was one of the first people here to say, 'Hey, let's start having fun with the machine.'" Besides, an album as Montreal in its essence needs at least one solid hometown guest.
C'est ma ville
And what exactly is that essence? There's a reason they call it je ne sais quoi. Compare Kid Koala, godspeed!, Ramasutra, Dears, Cryptopsy and Freeworm, and see where that gets you. "Whatever the Montreal sound is, that's up to time, but I know we have our own attitude going on and that's almost cooler to have than a sound. A real Montreal attitude going on.
"This city is run on a backbeat of romantic, poetic energy. There, I can feel very confident in my statement, because I truly believe that. We have a backbeat of ethereal energy that we all understand. I'm sorry, but I can't go to many cities and go to a video shoot like we experienced last night, speak to people, complete strangers, fans, dancers and whatever, and just look at them and think, 'We're speaking a whole lotta love here.' I don't give a shit if you're the Queen of Sheba and I just ate my lunch from a Pizza Hut garbage dumpster. We do not care! We are truly a city that runs on romantic hierarchy and poetic beauty. In North America, I don't think we're the only ones, but we're the only ones who do it our way.
"We get off work around seven, eight and we hit the streets and dance. 'The Answer,'" he states, pointing to a politically-charged, last-minute addition to the track listing on Discosis, "is the glue for the theme of the record, and hopefully the show and all that. It gets George W. Bush and the NRA and everything out of the system, but then it trances out and the answer is a dancer. Only in Montreal do we know that as a truth."
Discosis is in stores May 29
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