On Viens avec moi, a rock opera where prog-rock, magic mushrooms, and Lucien Francoeur all converge, Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire poke fun at the fragile and/or disproportionate egos that are a-dime-a-dozen in the music ecosystem.  

In 2003, Wilfred LeBouthillier was crowned the winner of the first edition of Québec televised music competition Star Académie. Last week, Serge Brideau, the hirsute teddy bear of a man and leader of Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire, had dinner with the second-most-famous artist to sing “La ballade de Jean Batailleur.” “He’s among the first people to have heard the album, because I wanted him to understand I wasn’t trying to insult him,” says singer Brideau about his fellow artist, with whom he shared classes at W.-Arthur-Losier high school in Tracadie, New Brunswick.

But why would LeBouthillier be insulted by Viens avec moi? Because the rock opera tells the stories of a fictional version of Brideau – an ever-emerging artist hero who, slowly but surely, gives in to his ego and to cocaine – and of Kevin, a cutie-pie whose ultimate goal is to showcase his vocal chords on TV on Sunday nights. One can see that Wilfred and Kevin seem to be one and the same, with the exception that, as far as anyone knows, Wilfred is not a magic mushroom aficionado (more on that later).

At a time when basically everyone has taken to dissing any artist who participates in a music-competition reality TV show, along come Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire, with their over-80-minutes-long, authentic, carnival of a rock opera. But what does selling one’s soul mean, in an era where everyone sells their image at a discount price on social media?

“The irony of it all is that I had never really watched La Voix [the Québec franchise of The Voice TV singing competition] before,” says Brideau on  the phone from his manager’s house on the banks of the Petitcodiac River. “I forced myself to do it, because I wanted to absorb the show’s philosophy, and see what the millions of people who watch that show every week like about it. It’s fascinating how every time someone belts out a note, people go nuts. That’s not singing to me. You sing because there are words that move you. It’s not a body-building competition.”

The grotesque caricature proposed by Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire – a mixed bag of prog-rock, theatre, and pop song parody – would be rather unoriginal, if the band didn’t also mock the underground and its tendency to glorify its own downtrodden-ness. This side is incarnated by Serge, who comes to disappear in an abyss of self-glorification and endless intoxication. “You know, I’m not judging anyone, especially those who do go on La Voix,” says Brideau. “I know everyone is in survival mode in the music world. Everybody takes a different road to get to the same point, which is making a living from music. Saying ‘I have integrity’ is all fine and dandy, but if you’re still living at your parents, or off of your girlfriend, it’s not worth much.”

On the Art of Not Trying Very Hard

“Sometimes, things happen when you aren’t really trying… Life is fucked up that way, you know?,” Kevin is told, in the dressing room at Centre Bell, by a Lucien Francoeur- turned-prophet, before he turns the young artist on to the sinuous but revealing road of psychedelic drugs that will, ultimately, allow him to break free of his format prison.

Says Brideau, “We were opening for Aut’Chose, and Lucien really said that to me while talking about the success of “Rap à Billy.” ‘Look here, Serge, I worked my ass off on my songs since the ’70s, for nothing, then I wrote ‘Rap à Billy’ in ten minutes on the corner of a table, and that’s what put me on the map.’”

And while drugs drag one of Viens avec moi’s characters towards the proverbial rock-bottom, they also allow sweet little songbird Kevin to broaden his horizons. “Psychedelics, mushrooms and LSD might make you see things you’d rather not see,” says Brideau. “Whereas amphetamines, cocaine, those are drugs that make you forget, and imbue you with a confidence that’s not always warranted. Both types of drugs play an important role in the story, because the guy who micro-doses ‘shrooms has an awakening, while the guy who does coke self-destructs.”

Even though he doesn’t (thankfully) go to the same extremes as his alter ego in the story, Brideau does admit to a certain fatigue when it comes to the never-ending road to success. So why continue? “Because I like being on stage with the boys,” he says. “I often think about the “Blues du businessman,” and it could be me, a 50-year-old ambulance driver, strumming his guitar at a party, drunk and pathetic. I would’ve missed out on this life.”

Serge’s double undergoes a redemption right out of a gossip rag, when, ultimately, he’s gobbled up by the infernal machine of the talent show Pousse ta note (Push Your Note), where he ends up as a judge. He then sings a hymn to temperance called “Obstacle émotionnel” (“Emotional Obstacle”), a hilarious song, whose lyrics seem to have been composed by a Roger Tabra emulator, and whose music sounds like it was composed by a Michel Pagliaro at the end of his rope.

So, everyone has their price? “Yes!” says Brideau. “Musicians who end up coaching on La Voix have their price. I have no idea how much money they make, but they certainly don’t do it out of passion for that show. They grow old and their priorities change. It’s perfectly normal to make decisions like that when you spent years doing something that doesn’t pay much and you realize you’re growing old. Far be it from me to judge that. It’s easy for me to say that I can’t be bought: I’ve never been offered something that forced me to consider it, even for a moment. And you know what, I’d love it if La Voix invited Les Hôtesses on. But it would have to be live! That would be my only condition. I’d go for a smaller fee, as long as it’s live.” Does anyone have Stéphane Laporte’s phone number?

Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire will open for Galaxie during the Francos on June 14, and they’ll present their rock opera on November 1st during Coup de cœur francophone.