On La Musica Popular de Verdun, Montréal’s Clay and Friends have managed to combine their stage antics with devil-may-care studio experimentation.
At the crossroads of hip-hop, soul, funk, reggae, pop and folk, the band’s EP is remarkably varied. As a matter of fact, its creators fully embrace its eclecticism. “I don’t think anyone will ever say that Clay and Friends is a coherent and homogenous band,” says singer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Clay with a smirk. “I respect people who are able to develop and fine-tune a specific style, like D’Angelo on Voodoo, for example, but that’s not what we’re after.”
To find the guiding thread of what could very easily have become a big mess of influences, the quintet found inspiration in the creative groundswell that gave birth to música popular brasileira, a Brazilian musical genre that was popularized in TV shows during the ’60s. First perceived as the heir to the bossa nova throne, the genre took several twists and turns that, as the years went by, made it more akin to a hybrid musical movement that married traditional and modern, rather than a well-defined genre. “It mixed bossa and samba to funk and pop,” says Clay. “I watched a lot of videos from that era and, I have to say, they are unbelievable musicians, very inspiring. And they inspired me to do a kind of ‘best of’ of our influences: La Musica Popular de Verdun.”
Recorded in the brand new Verdun studio of the band’s beatboxer Adel Kazi, this second official EP (the band considers its 2013 and 2014 releases as mere demos) was created as a reaction to its predecessor, Conformopolis, released two years ago. In hindsight, the now-independent band realized that project was a compromise between its artistic vision and that of its then-label.
“To be totally transparent,” says Clay, “we wanted to regain the confidence of people who listen to our stuff and who, just as we did, couldn’t find any correlation between the Clay and Friends they see in concert and the Clay and Friends whom they heard on that first album. We wanted to be as good as our songs are.”
To do so, the singer-songwriter took advantage of his creative trips abroad to write the core of Clay and Friends’ new songs. Clay – who earns a living as a ghostwriter for several Canadian and American artists (whom he can’t name) – then called his good friends Clément Langlois-Légaré (guitar), Pascal Boisseau (bass), Émile Désilets (keyboards), and his partner in crime since day one, Adel Kazi.
After five years of fine-tuning, the quintet’s modus operandi is well honed. “I take my tunes to Clément and he comes up with crazy arrangements for my very basic three-chord compositions,” says Clay. “Then it’s on to Adel, he’s the chemist, the one who fine-tunes and transmogrifies the sounds. Then it’s on to Émile and Pascal, who bring their organic touch, and a live feel. They played a big role on this EP.”
The band’s fans are the sixth member. Thanks to the audio recordings of some of their shows, the musicians know exactly what songs galvanize their audience. To wit, “OMG,” which came about after a particularly inebriated fan yelled “Oh My God!” during one of the band’s shows in Trois-Rivières, as well as “Going Up The Coast,” where one can hear the crowd singing in unison with Mike Clay.
That song, an endearing travelogue of the band’s tour of 300 shows in two years, has a special meaning for its creator. “It’s the story of our tour, a collection of moments that we lived together,” says Clay. “Nights spent in rental cars, and relationships that ended because of our prolonged absence. It’s a very exhausting way of life, but I’m slowly learning to draw a line. Back in 2016, I was the tour manager of our first European tour. It was totally absurd, like 35 shows in 40 days. I recall playing on a beach in Italy for about 100 people and I was not enjoying the moment at all…
“Now I’m more attuned to the signs that reveal themselves to me when we leave for a long period of time. I exercise, I eat well, I don’t drink every night, and most important of all, I sleep. Some of the guys in the band get away with just two hours of sleep, but not me. I need to break the image I used to have of the invincible artist. The documentary on Avicii really opened my eyes about this. Seriously, his team literally killed him from exhaustion.”
In short, after the record launch at a sold-out Ministère, the band is taking time to breathe. They’ll tour high schools in the spring, and Europe next summer. As for the rest, Clay and his friends are waiting to check the audience response before filling up their day-planners. “I used to be a compulsive player,” he says. “I had this old-school mentality that if we don’t get offered gigs in venues, we’ll just go play in the street, or at a party, it doesn’t matter. Now, we have a booking agency [Rubis Varia] that’s helping re-frame all that. Instead of diluting our value by playing 15 times a month, we’re going to wait for the right opportunities.”