Rockers who Roll
The Movers and Shakers: Mr. Something Something
Story and photo by Dana Lacey
dandyhorse magazine, Summer 2009 issue
You might have heard a little something about Mr. Something Something. For the past year the Toronto band has made headlines as heralds of sustainable music: last September they performed the first Canadian concert powered entirely by bicycle, and have done dozens since.
They borrowed the idea from last year’s Earth Day celebrations in Israel where a 10,000-strong audience at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv enjoyed a concert
powered by dozens of volunteers pedalling onstage next to the performers. The concept fit nicely with the band’s activist spirit. (And their bike addiction: percussionist Larry Graves lugs his drum kit to local gigs in a tiny cart attached to his bike.) The setup — known as SoundCycle — is simple, lightweight and portable. The rear wheel is locked into a bike stand designed to convert energy into electricity, which is stored in a battery. After recruiting some volunteer pedallers, all the band has to do is plug in their amps and play. This mobility makes it easy to perform guerrilla concerts: the Kensington brunch crowd enjoyed one such show during Bike Month, playing several songs to a growing crowd before a bylaw officer shut them down.
The Juno-nominated band recently released Shine Your Face, their fourth album, and have performed over 500 shows across North America.They are composed of founding members Graves and John MacLean (tenor sax, clarinet, flute), Liam Smith (bass), Paul MacDougall (guitar), lead singer Johan Hultqvist and a revolving ensemble of horn players, percussionists and dancers. Their music evades labels. Long dancey beats interlock with the rhythms of guitar, percussion, shakers, horns and Hultqvist’s energetic vocals. They are heavily influenced by Nigerian/American Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, and as a result the music industry tends to stick them in the “World Music” category, much to Hultqvist’s chagrin. “That’s such a silly Eurocentric term,” he says, the equivalent of calling a movie a “foreign” film. “It’s totally useless in describing what the music is about.” He prefers to call their sound “groove-oriented.” In this spirit, the band’s vague and somewhat suggestive moniker was born.
The band is no stranger to musical activism. In 2007 they performed a series of shows that ditched electricity-slurping bars in favour of organic farms and co-ops, but found them expensive to produce since they lacked PA infrastructure. “SoundCycle is great because all we need is people to bring their bikes,” Hultqvist says, “We can play a show in the middle of a corn field or a beach or even on a mountain, if we can get up there.”
Hultqvist hopes the bike-powered show will serve as a reminder of things we take for granted. “We don’t usually see the true cost of energy or electricity,” he says. It’s no secret that music can foster change and bring people together so it just makes sense to pair it with bicycles, a symbol of self-propelled community. To heighten the experience, Hultqvist wants to see the whole audience moving while they perform. (The born-again dancer admits he used to need a few cocktails to get his hips shaking, but now he calls himself a dance floor activist.)
“The dance floor is not really any different from society at large,” he says, “The same mechanics apply: at the beginning of the night, all it takes is that one brave soul to start dancing on an empty floor. They can change the entire atmosphere in the room — and the entire course of an evening— by being generous with their energy.” That energy in turn inspires the SoundCycle cyclists to continue pedalling, which keeps the music pumping. After a while, it’s hard not to think of the bikes as instruments.
There are signs people are coming around. On Car Free Day last September the band bought three parking spots on Queen West, set up the bike stands and started to play. “The cops were totally digging it,” Hultqvist says, “They didn’t intervene, not even when people got out of their cars and started to dance.” Indeed, a bike-powered show offers a little something something for everyone.