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The What-the-Fuck Aspect (with Maria in the Shower)

April 14, 2011 | by  |  Music

They don’t wear plaid. They don’t play indie-rock. They rarely rehearse. They perform two or three times a week, at everything from Children’s Festivals to house parties to Farmer’s Markets. They’ve been known to busk on Granville Island by day, and then, that same night, pack venues like The Biltmore and The Waldorf. With their over-the-top aesthetic, onstage antics, energetic presence, and  infectiously enjoyable songs in genres ranging from swing, to folk and bluegrass, to samba, “folk cabaret” quartet Maria In The Shower have, for the past five years, managed to inject some much-needed fun back into the city’s music scene. The band – comprised of Martin Reisle, Jack Garton, Todd Biffard, and Brendon Hartley – have, hands-down, the best live show in Vancouver, a show that is as much theatrical as it is musical, and their diverse instrumentation, including accordion, trumpet, upright bass, guitar, and drums (and has included a saw-player, a bicycle wheel, and, on several occasions, a classical orchestra) draws crowds from all over the city.

Photo Credit: Jesse Donaldson

“It’s not uncommon for us to play more than once in the same night,” says Biffard, sitting with Garton and Reisle, and discussing the band’s philosophies over beer and burritos at Bandidas Taqueria. “About once a month, we’ll do two gigs a night. Once, we did three gigs in one day.”

“Sometimes, it feels a little slutty,” Garton says, with a grin. “Sometimes, when we leave an event early, to get to another event, it feels like we’re cheating on the first event. But, most of the time, when we do it, there’s no emotional residue.”
“We’re hardened,” Reisle laughs.
“There is a core principle there,” Biffard explains, “where we believe that we’re better as a band if we don’t rehearse, and play frequently enough that we stay fresh.”

“I think that performing in front of people utilises areas of the brain that can’t actually be rehearsed,” Garton adds. “You could rehearse your face off, but you still can’t practice certain key elements of being in front of an audience. So, keeping those muscles toned and flexed is an important thing.”

But, as they quickly explain, the reason for such a frenetic performance schedule is financial as well as creative.

“It’s all of our jobs,” Reisle explains. “This is how we survive, basically.”

“We also do things like the Santa Claus Party at the Roundhouse, where we’re playing for kids, or the Rally Against Climate-Change,” Biffard continues. “So, we show up at places where people who see us play at The Waldorf would never expect. But, in fact, those little gigs really help fill the pocketbook, and they help us in the ongoing challenge to stay inspired.”

Photo Credit: Jesse Donaldson

The band has a catalogue of over sixty songs, most written by Reisle and Garton, with forty that stay in regular rotation. And, with a body of work that includes songs in virtually every major genre, Garton, Reisle, and Biffard heartily agree that classifying Maria hasn’t always been an easy task.

“The industry wants to streamline [music genres], because it puts it in terms they can sell,” Garton continues. “They’re trying to project what kind of market they can expect, and what kind of returns they can expect. We don’t have that pragmatic of a business approach. We’re more of a crap-shoot[...] We’re not trying to have ‘a sound’. It’s not a melting pot. We serve the personality of each piece as best we can.”

That the band has a commitment to the unconventional is difficult to deny. And, their commitment to the theatrical is equally as evident when looking at their stage show: Garton, decked out in brightly-coloured shirts, ties, jackets, and hats, regularly performs his trumpet solos atop Hartley’s doublebass.  The four of them have, on occasion, performed in full mime makeup. Reisle typically wears a full tuxedo, tailcoat, and bowler hat.

“I want to look as stodgy and 18th-Century as possible,” he grins.
And, as Garton explains, this aspect of their performances has always been a conscious choice.

“You can’t get around the fact that you’re there in front of people,” he notes. “You can either do something about it, or you can’t. And it does have an effect. The modern aesthetic seems to be an anti-aesthetic. In the 2000s, even all the biggest bands are just playing in jeans and t-shirts onstage[...] We said: ‘Oh, my God. We’ve got to go back to circus and vaudeville, because their approach to performance was very much about visual cohesion. There was a concept, and they had a lot of flare to it.”

“You should have been at our meeting,” Biffard groans. “They were disagreeing about specific textiles.”

“Well, I don’t want to look like a chesterfield,” Garton protests. “Brendon does want to look like a chesterfield. But, I want to look like a chessboard. Brendon doesn’t want to look like a chessboard.”

Photo Credit: Jesse Donaldson

Maria in the Shower has been in existence for roughly five years, and, by everyone’s estimation, it  came together entirely of its own accord.

“It wasn’t really very planned at all,” Garton admits. “It just came together.”

After meeting briefly at a poetry reading the year before, Reisle and Garton began performing as a duo at a local coffee shop, for tips. These early performances eventually led to a biweekly gig at Cafe Montmartre, (where the name was suggested by a friend) and the beginning of their collaboration with Biffard, who showed up at the venue one night by chance.

“They didn’t have a plan to make a band,” Biffard says. “They would have just kept playing the two of them if we hadn’t run into each other that night[...] These guys had sort of a co-repertoire, and I found a way to fit into that. And Brendon, he sort of did, too. Having that gig was quite instrumental in us finding our feet.”

However, according to Garton and Reisle, the defining moment in Maria’s early history came during a show performed in the abandoned basement of Garton’s soon-to-be-demolished university home. After unscrewing boards from the windows, lighting the interior with candles (which Garton admits was “a big fire hazard- though, actually not the biggest fire hazard that was going on”), and inviting a number of friends and acquaintances, the pair performed for more than two hours, entertaining their audience, and even, at one point, stopping mid-song to serve tea from a nearby camp-stove.

Photo Credit: Jesse Donaldson

“Our last song of the night,” Garton remembers, “was one where we decided – it was a new song, it was one we’d written just for the show, and we had this chorus where – remember that we’d just led everyone into this random house, and sort of left them there – and we decided to play the last chorus of this song continuously until everyone got so uncomfortable that they left.”

According to Reisle’s recollection, the refrain went on without stopping for more than two hours.

“At first, people were dancing,” Garton remembers. “And then they were laughing. Then, they sort of got confused. Then, they were laughing again, and then people started dispersing throughout the house, and then it just devolved.” He grins. “I felt like that was a pretty definitive moment.”

“It was really something special,” agrees Reisle. “We’ve gotta keep doing this.”

“It was something where we could try crazy, weird stuff out. And, that spirit has continued all the way along.”

“In different degrees, but, yeah. It has different waves of its presence.”

“A lot of what we’ve been doing recently has been trying to curtail a little bit of the ‘What the fuck?’ aspect to it, so that we can turn it into a sustainable career. So that we can continue an element of that ‘What the fuck?’ aspect over a longer period of time.”

Reisle nods.”I think the sustainable What The Fuck is My Favourite.”

Maria in the Shower plays the Rickshaw Theatre on April 16th, as part of the Artswells Fundraiser. Tickets are available at http://www.ambigarts.com/

Their newest album ‘The Hidden Sayings of Maria in the Shower’ is now available for digital download at www.mariaintheshower.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesse Donaldson is a journalist and historian whose work has appeared in VICE, The Tyee, subTerrain, and SadMag. If you think THIS is neat, an expanded "This Day In Vancouver", is now available in book form, in bookstores everywhere, and online at Anvil Press.

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1 Comment


  1. ‘They were disagreeing about specific textiles….’ Awesome.

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