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Toronto’s Germaphobes make sophisti-pop magic

November 27, 2015

The charming pop group unveil a vivid video from their Magic Eye EP.

Toronto’s Germaphobes are the sonic embodiment of the tragically ludicrous and the ludicrously tragic. Like when a clown dies. The campy sophisti-pop quartet is led by Neil Rankin and Paul Erlichman, stalwarts of the local scene with mugs you might recognize from their former band Gay or a complex web of solo guises, side-projects, and sideman gigs (see an attempted untangling in the interview below). The seemingly sleepless Rankin also co-helms the fantastic Feast in the East live music/food series, which celebrated its 50th event this summer.

With the deft touch of keyboardist/vocalist Lisa Carson and drummer Aaron Mariash, Germaphobes are now dishing out their debut Magic Eye EP on the equally stalwart Pleasence Records. In only five tunes, it showcases the breadth of the Rankin and Erlichman songbook, shifting from zippy jangle-pop to moodier moments chockablock with hooks. Though they shrug off claims of retromania, the G-Phobes have earned comparisons from Godley & Creme to Orange Juice to the Talking Heads, all of whom share a theatrical quality you don’t see much in watering holes these days.

Give your eyeballs a workout with the vivid video for “Magic Eye” from visual artists Diana Lynn VanderMeulen and Julia Dickens below. Its animated splashes of colour look like a wonky prom under the sea. Then read on for a chat with Rankin and Erlichman flashing back to their first collaboration (a rock opera, ‘natch), proving their outsized ambitions from the start.

How did the two of you meet and start making music together? Were they synchronous events?

Paul: We met in grade 9 as two nerdy teenagers with uncool musical taste. It was the height of the rap-metal era and neither of us were particularly into that.

Neil: I tried because I really wanted to be cool. After giving it a college try on the Limp Bizkit/Korn front, I gave in and embraced my love of Weird Al. We didn’t start making music together until after high school when Paul was going to university in Montreal. He came back for a summer and we did a really silly project called Gentleman Villain. We wrote it together and enlisted a bunch of other people like our friend Dorian Wolf who was in Spiral Beach.

Paul: It was basically a rock opera [laughs]. We performed it once on Neil’s birthday at the old Smiling Buddha.

Oh wow. Can you give me a brief synopsis?

Paul: The idea was formed when we were in a bar one night and wrestling was on. The closed captioning was talking about “this gentleman villain” and we both agreed that was a great title. From there it developed into a story about a man going through an existential crisis. His love interest was trying to turn him into a nice guy. It didn’t really have a point, like a lot of our projects, and was probably the first instance of us biting off more than we can chew.

Neil: We also covered The Kinks’ “Act Nice and Gentle.”

How did Gentleman Villain lead to Gay?

Neil: When Paul moved back to Toronto I told him I had an idea for a really stupid band. Paul, being the yes man that he is, said “sign me up!”

Paul: I hadn’t been playing music seriously in Montreal, so I was excited about starting something. We were figuring out how to write songs, and I had never sung live before.

Neil: I learned how to play bass while the band was getting started and Paul was very patient with me.

How long was that band together?

Paul: Between our first and last show, it was just over five years.

Neil: We put out three records and two tapes, and there’s still half an album we recorded with Max Turnbull that’s pretty much done. It hasn’t seen the light of day, but some parts of songs filtered into Germaphobes.

You’ve both branched off with some solo guises too. Can you talk about the different itches those scratched, and what eventually brought you two back together?

Paul: I started performing as Elrichman towards the latter days of Gay. Although that band had four different guys writing songs, it definitely had a sound. I wanted to do something more reflective of my love of old men playing 12-string guitars. Like Bert Jansch, John Fahey, and William Tyler, who’s really only old in spirit. I also wanted to have a quieter vibe.

Neil: Gay actually scratched an itch that I was missing with my previous band Foxfire. I would liken it to being in a long term relationship. Once that ended I discovered I could do all of these other things, and didn’t just have to sing anymore. First I tried some New Positions [laughs]. That joke might actually be why I gave it that name. I started the project by myself and was later joined by my friend Jude [HSY]. It’s mainly improvised and very noisy, which helped me flex some different muscles.

That’s another obscure Pleasence release.

Neil: It’s big in Japan, no word of a lie. Apparently we sold 10 tapes over there. Slime was another solo project, and basically just an extension of me learning how to play saxophone. Then I went back to my frontman singing roots with Body Butter, which allows me to move and get down with the crowd. That started as a duo with my guitarist friend Chris Evans and now I’m doing it solo as Burt Sugar.

Paul: You really need to create a flowchart for all of this. We’ve both worked separately with Sean Dunal [Sexy Merlin] as well. Neil and him played together as Wet Dreams, and we played together as Sean Paul.

Neil: This started happening concurrently with the recording of the Gay/Sexy Merlin split, and Sean and I also played together in a band called White Suede.

Phew! How did this all lead to the formation of Germaphobes?

Neil: It was definitely sparked by Gay ending. The four of us had a sitdown in the park at a softball game and said our pieces about what was working and what wasn’t. We all felt a bit distant from each other because Cam was off teaching at Princeton. Then we came up with the idea of reforming as a different band because we loved spending time together.

Paul: I think we were all tired of the project that was Gay and wanted to start fresh. After a couple of months of that discussion, Neil and I realized that we were more into following through with it and had to set off as a duo if we wanted to make something happen.

You’ve been compared to Godley and Creme. Does that make Gay Toronto’s 10cc?

Neil: That’s pretty good! Does that make one of the other members Graham Gouldman?

Paul: Germaphobes isn’t in a totally different universe than Gay. It’s still upbeat guitar music, but we’re doing slightly new things. Part of that comes from the personnel, but there’s also the way we present ourselves… this might sound pretentious… with a level of professionalism that maybe we weren’t focused on before.

Gay was kind of a raucous party band while Germaphobes seems a bit more tightly wound. I think the Godley and Creme comparison also makes sense because you’re musically all over the place, sometimes changing genres within a single song.

Paul: The hard and fast rule is that every song needs a reggae section.

Gay had some pretty fantastically theatrical music videos with a lot of onscreen acting and mugging. That hasn’t changed with Germaphobes, as you’re now releasing your third video, all of which feature the two of you prominently. Is it safe to say that you guys are fans of the stage and screen?

Neil: We also bonded in drama class. Both of us enjoy getting into characters and having fun with it.

Paul: Neil is a more natural performer, and playing together has brought that out in me too. We’ve done so many shows together at this point that it all feels natural and we know how to play off each other.

How did the “Magic Eye” video come together?

Neil: We met with Diana Lynn VanderMeulen and asked her if she’d be willing to lend her services. We wanted to have a complete package with the new tape, a music video, and some band photos to feel unified. She was very into it. We’ve always tried to work with local visual artists whose work we really appreciate. There are so many people who are so talented and I can’t draw to save my life.

Paul: Diana’s art comes from a similar spirit as ours. We’re a playful band. If we had deep and moody artwork it might not match up.

Neil: Julia Dickens also took a leading role on this video and she’s going to do the cover art for our LP.

Paul: We’ve been pretty lucky with the artists we’ve worked with so far. The show we did at Summerworks also gave us chance to collaborate with some people we might not have otherwise. We’re kind of maximalists. There are a lot of bands who spend a lot of time honing their craft into something particular. Part of us wants to do that more too, but since we’ve only been a band for a year so far, we’re still doing some exploring.

You call yourselves maximalists, but would you also consider your music retro worshipping?

Paul: Everything written about us has mentioned ’60s and ’70s touchstones, but I wouldn’t say we worship that. Some of our favourite releases have come out in the last 10 or 15 years.

Neil: People often talk to us about influences they hear in our music, and it’s funny when I think about what I was actually intending. If I hear a band like Parquet Courts do something interesting and try to write a song in that style, they’ll say “I really like that Talking Heads-y song.” If I’m trying to write something with a New Fries vibe, they’ll say “I really like that Talking Heads-y song.” Maybe that’s just inherent?

Paul: At this point everything is going to be referencing something that came before. Nobody lives in a bubble.

Except for maybe Man Made Hill.

Paul: Because we’re making what I’ll call again upbeat guitar music, it’s very easy to hear references from the past. I would certainly never be offended if someone compared us to an artist we admire from the ’70s, but we try not to wear that on our sleeves.

I think there is something very unique about the way you two write songs and perform together. There’s a campiness that I don’t see in many other current bands.

Neil: Someone compared us to the B-52s the other night. She said we didn’t sound like them but had their spirit.

Paul: When you’re in a moment, it can be hard to understand how an artist or a piece of music can stand alone. The context it’s created in is the exact same context as the moment you’re living in. Neil has a song that’s sort of about the internet and how we exist with and without it in the current era. That couldn’t have existed beyond five or 10 years ago. When nerdy 14-year-olds are rolling through cassette racks at future music stores, they’ll find that and think ‘Wow, that’s kind of dated but it sounds cool.”

You think they’ll still be cassettes at future music stores?

Paul: I’m bluffing, I can’t see the future!

What else can you tell me about the Magic Eye EP? Song topics, sonic goals, etc.?

Neil: We just tried to make the best recordings we could. It came from the same session as the album, so we recorded 14 songs and split them among the two releases in a way that made sense. It’s pretty thematically scattered, but that’s always the way we are.

Paul: Every song is its own island. I feel like our songwriting influences are rubbing off on each other. Neil’s songs used to be more personal and mine used to be vague and expansive. Now that’s switched a bit, but we also both write songs that don’t make sense.

Where is Michael Ondaatje’s world?

Neil: That song title was just me goofing me one day. Paul told me he had a song about Michael Ondaatje without a title. I said “Let’s play that one ‘Michael Ondaatje’s World’” and it just stuck.

Is it a riff on Wayne’s World?

Neil: I was actually think of Bobby’s World [laughs]. It’s an imaginary world that Michael Ondaatje has in his own life. Forgive me if this is not what the song’s about, but this is my take. He goes about his daily life in the way we perceive Michael Ondaatje, but he’s also creating vast worlds in his own head while riding on his trike like Bobby.

Paul: That might be better than the actual meaning. Forgive me if this sounds really poncey, but it’s really about the relationship between art and commerce. That was literally the worst thing I could say. Scrap that! There are just so many artists in this city, and I feel their relationship to money is very secretive. With all the people we know who make art or music, barely anyone talks about how much money they have. That actually feels like a rare and nice thing in our society.

I think people usually avoid talking about money until they do, and then it can become a problem.

Paul: I don’t know if that’s really what the song is about either. I was just reading Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero and loved the way how it was a fantastical, romantic book that ended with him thanking ‘jet fuel.’ It made me stop and say “wait, what?” and brought me back to reality.

Is that what your music does too – creates a fantastical world that brings you back to reality at the end?

Neil: That makes me think of something I was told a long time ago: There needs to be a punchline in a song. I think it was meant metaphorically, like a hook or something that brought the listener in, but I took it literally. My songs are a really long set-up for a really bad dad joke.

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