NXNE 2009: The Decidedly Sixties Retro Space-Pop of Hopeful Monster

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[Photos/Matthew Filipowich]

Jason Ball, the man behind the lush sixties-pop throwback project, Hopeful Monster, has just put more sugar in his coffee than I ever thought was possible. Has he recently spliced his DNA with that of a fly and I’m Geena Davis? It strikes me that this would be a perfect opportunity to compare the man’s obviously sweet tooth to his cavity-inducing melodies, but that seems like it might be a little too on the nose, so I’ll resign myself to indirectly making that correlation by writing that I’m not going to make it.

Regardless, the rich orchestral arrangements, sticky-sweet harmonies and luxuriantly infectious melodies of Hopeful Monster are worth mentioning immediately and vigorously. While viewing Ball’s NXNE set at the NOW Magazine offices – featuring the man alternating between electric piano and guitar accompanied only by two string players – I leaned over to a buddy of mine and said “This guy likes Pet Sounds more than anyone else I’ve ever seen.” Hence, it only makes sense that our interview/photo-shoot with Mr. Ball saw myself and SB Photo Editor Matthew Filipowich braving a tremendous deluge on the way to Sunnyside Beach where we were naturally disposed to have some shots of the Prime Monster out on the water. After getting sufficiently pummeled by the ferocious rain, we took shelter in the semi-indoor café where I witnessed the soft-spoken and eccentric Nova Scotia native fill his sugar with a little bit of coffee.

Ball has released two albums under the Hopeful Monster banner, his 2002 self-titled debut and its follow-up, 2008’s Metatasking, both of which abundantly exhibit the songwriter’s meticulous ear for complex, sophisticated arrangements, as well as his finely-tuned pop sensibility with the first album favoring the former and vice versa. Hopeful Monster's albums are graceful and charming reappropriations of the orchestral chamber-pop of the 1960s that is so often imitated and so often bastardized; each manages to stand on its own with Ball’s scrupulous songwriting and opulently fragile tenor at the forefront of these ripe pop songs.

Ball is in the process of writing and planning his third LP, an undertaking that he described to me at length. “I’m trying to plan my next recording a little differently,” he says, “The first one was non-stop [recording] for six months, eighteen hours a day between me and my friend who were each making a record. We were just recording non-stop and then the second one was hours here, hours there, some in Toronto, some in Halifax, some in Montreal, picking away at it. So the next one I’m going to do a lot of demoing and then record it. I heard Spiritualized did a record like this: they went to Abbey Road and they did it in like a month, but they had spent over a year working out everything in advance. I’ve never done that, but that’s what I want to do for my next record.

“The difference I would say that characterizes the two existing records is a little bit scale, and a little bit epic, or era. The first one is more sixties, although there’s some modern kind of stuff in there too, but decidedly sixties retro space-pop. For the second one I was trying to write songs that were more formatted in the standard way, to reach more people. On the next one I want to do a sort of stylistic return to the first record… probably more strings, harps, horns, real orchestral instruments; more acoustic guitars, but with less layers and more live kind of arrangements.

“You would never hear a band actually play what’s on my records because they’re basically me playing everything – well, not everything, but they’re organized in a way that would never happen organically. I want to do my demoing for the next record in a way that it gives me a pretty finished demo and scores to give to musicians to try to record it live. Well, everything but a lot of it live. My other records are sort of arrangement-heavy and performance-casual, so I want this one to be less like that…more live, more feel, less distance and less polish.”

It became very clear to me over the course of our conversation – with Matt the photographer looking onward slightly uncomfortably – that we were in the presence of something very close to a prodigy. As Ball discussed in great detail his songwriting process and musical beginnings, the affable and nonchalant Monster’s vast knowledge of the slight workings of music and sound, as well as his obviously obsessive attention to detail painted a portrait of a pop composer of rare talent.

He seemed to become very excited and animated when the conversation led in the direction of music theory and he attributes much of his fascination to his father whose enthusiasm for mathematics and the mechanics of music he taught to a young Jason in Nova Scotia. Ball seems to be most at home deliberating complex chords and navigating intricate arrangements, a flair which is, as mentioned, tempered by an equally powerful love for pop.

“I sort of can’t help being a control freak partly because the way I write songs, there isn’t a lot of room for… if you write songs that only have three notes, you can add a couple extra notes and it sounds fine, it sounds great actually, but if you’re already writing with seventh chords and diminished chords and other complicated chords, there are fewer spaces for other notes to fit in. It’s really hard to play my songs without knowing them, I guess.

“I’m really arcane about it [songwriting],” he explains, “I use an acoustic guitar or piano and I almost always have music long before any lyrics are finished. I look for what sort of images the music evokes in me and what it makes me think of and I like to find a story within that to set to music. I’m pretty fast at writing music. In fact I should probably get a job with an ad company and import their banal songs about tampons.

“The lyrics take me forever, it takes me sometimes months or years to get songs finished. I try to be complete about it. I used to be unapologetically on my own schedule but now I’m trying to integrate myself into a business model. If you don’t put out records, you can’t sell records and you can’t put out records if you don’t finish records. If the premise is good, you can allow for a little bit of informed mishap…”

Having bounced back and forth between the East Coast and Toronto several times, Ball and his journalist wife are now settled in Toronto’s West End with their three-year-old daughter. “I like to let my daughter watch me do things that I need to do, in terms of practicing so that’s she’s actually become a good singer for her age. She can remember a lot of words and her pitch is… not right, but she’s aware of it as a thing. I like to be there for her to watch because if she ever does decide to be a musician she’ll have seen what you have to do to be good, I guess. And also she’ll have seen, I don’t know how many times I’ve had to tell her, ‘I have to write this email’ or ‘I have to make this phone call.’”

Of course, holding a concert at the NOW Magazine offices on Church Street was an interesting choice for NXNE, but it does make sense given that both of the acts that performed that Saturday, Hopeful Monster and Jane’s Party were only added to the festival ticket at the very last minute. Nevertheless, this unusually appropriate pairing, one group a throwback to the Beach Boys, the other to the Beatles, proved to be one of the highlights (with a decidedly sparse crowd) of a festival that I found didn’t really pick up until around three AM on Friday night. It was this last minute booking that led to Hopeful Monster’s unusual three-piece stage setup that, as mentioned, consisted of Jason accompanied solely by two string players.

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“By Divine Right was playing at exactly the same time, so Jose [Contreras] couldn’t play and the drummer that I’ve been working with is in Nova Scotia for the summer. I find that bands can only play so many times in a town, if they’re doing the same thing every time, people aren’t going to come see them more than a couple times a year. The other thing is that I don’t like to ask my bands to play for free - I’m willing to do it, but at the same time, the people that I’m playing with are really good, they play in other bands and they’re writing their own music and selling it the way I am and I want to pay them. So if I have to play a little club with ten people, then everybody’s going to make five bucks; I’d rather play with three people and give everyone cab fare and dinner.

“This was the second time we’d done that [stage setup]. I think what I would do next time is make our own wardrobe of fantastical magician outfits or something. Something to add drama. It was maybe a little clinical with me in a white shirt on a digital piano and two guys – well, a guy and a girl – playing scores.”

Now if only he’d brought his magician outfit for when we shot him on that dinosaur in Sunnyside Park.

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