Guitar, keyboard, bass and drums ring out in basic rock style on the FemBot’s latest release Calling Out. But there’s something discordant jangling and bouncing underneath, perforating the classic folk-rock tinny casing.
The secret layer is the junkstruments—instruments fashioned out of scrap parts and garbage by experimental artist Iner Souster, which the FemBots have adopted as part of their instrumental inventory. A friend of the FemBots from high school, Souster’s pieces make use of scrap metals, found objects and garbage and actually do make musical, if strange, sounds.
The initial premise for Calling Out was to record all the songs using these art project junkstruments, continuing on the band’s idiosyncratic penchant to use unlikely objects to make music, just as their debut Mucho Cuidado turned heads in the Toronto indie scene with its quirkily strategic incorporation of power tools and toys. In preparing Calling Out, FemBots and former-Weakerthans travelling musicians, Dave MacKinnon and Brian Poirier found the junkstruments inspiring—forcing them to stretch their songwriting skills—and the temperamental nature of the instruments also proved a challenge to record. “You have to approach them as their own things and approach them with no preconceived notions,” MacKinnon said.
“We couldn’t write with them the same way we had written songs in the past. It really frees you up to improvise until you end up with a song coming together.” But despite the fruitfulness of stepping outside their comfort zone, the FemBots went back to the drawing board when they found they couldn’t keep the instruments in tune and consistent. Instead they took the material they had accumulated over the past three years, looped the junky clicks and rattles and set them as pervasive underlying percussive tracks to a five-piece traditional rock album. Indeed, the vocals on “God Keep Our Hands Clean” wail out like a scratchy prayer or a plea from a sober Neil Young, as jarringly melodic clicks and jangles jump along to the steady drive of the electric guitar.
“Even doing [the traditional rock sound] you end up starting from a different place; you’re working to pre-existing rhythms. The genesis of the songs was there before we started putting the real instruments over top of it,” MacKinnon said.
In that way, the album is still a departure from 2005’s The City, which MacKinnon described as a more direct singer-songwriter style album focusing on the stories behind the songs. Calling Out, he admits, is a straight-up rock and roll album. But it carries with it a tinge of eccentricity.
“The junkstruments give it an undercurrent of weirdness that’s not on the other records,” MacKinnon said.
“I don’t think there’s any two records we’ve done that sound like they’ve come from the same place. You’re always hoping to start fresh and go somewhere you haven’t gone before.” Oddly the traditional sound marks new territory for the band just as the junkstruments do as well. This album also signals a couple of other departures. The band amiably parted ways with Toronto label Paper Bag Records and joined on with weewerk as well as expanding the FemBots roster, welcoming in longtime friend Nathan Lawr. Lawr of Nathan Lawr and the Minotaurs often played with the band on tour, so with this record MacKinnon and Poirier brought him into the fold for the recording process.
“It just seemed like a good starting place to bring him in at the beginning when we were writing these songs,” Mackinnon said.
While reaching back and finding some stable rock roots may have worked for this project, MacKinnon, ever itching to take on new ideas and sounds, maintains that he and Poirier still have their sights set on producing an entirely junkstrument-driven album, which may surface further down the road for the feisty FemBots.
FemBots play with The Burning Hell and The Gertrudes at Bar None Friday Apr. 4 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $5.