Paint Robb Johannes Interview with Freddie Mojallal of Toronto is Awesome

Toronto is Awesome: Scene and Heard, Volume #5: Paint

by Freddie Mojallal
July 27, 2010

I had a chance to sit and chat with Robb Johannes of the Toronto rock outfit, Paint. Known for their infectiously energetic live performances and shoegaze-pop hooks, this local band is working hard playing shows around the city. Drawing influences from Britpop and New Wave, Paint's sound is dynamic and pop-focused. We talk about the new video, favourite things about Toronto, and staying true to what you believe in.

Tell me about your new video for "She Leaves." Were did the idea come from?

I first met the director, John Du, about 3 years ago. I had a bit part in one his films called Banana Boys. We've been fans of each other ever since, and he wrote me while we were on our last tour saying he bought the new record and had been listening to it a lot. "She Leaves" resonated most for him in a visual sense, and he came up with the concept of a vixen who goes around seducing men, tying them up, and stealing their wallets. I knew the perfect person to play the role of the girl (Lily Pontieri) because she can do that camp, pinup-style flirty girl so naturally. The song deals with some pretty heavy subject matter, so it's nice to juxtapose it with an almost 1950s-style caper video. It shows our sense of humour. Because we do have one.

So you've decided to make a video for every album on your current album "Where We Are Today" for your video album project. Tell me more about it.

The "Video Album Project" is a pretty ambitious undertaking. Radiohead inspired it they attempted it with OK Computer but didn't see it through to the end. We're on a much smaller scale, which in many ways makes it entirely more possible. Video has become a much more accessible format now with YouTube, budget DV cameras, and an abundance of public domain footage (for example, "End of the Reel" and "In Disguise" were both done entirely with stock footage, the latter based on the 1936 cult classic Reefer Madness). Purists may argue the open landscape for anyone to upload videos is watering down its artistic merit as a format, and I tend to agree. But we're also making the best of a more accessible outlet that we as a band can be directly involved with. Four videos are done now, one is complete an in queue, and more will follow. We'll probably be releasing one every month or two months. It's a good way to stay relevant and active in between touring cycles.

We're all about positive stories here at Toronto is Awesome. Last winter you won a court case regarding postering in the city. What positive outcome did you achieve from that?

Paint, along with the management of C'est What?, affirmed the right, as granted to all Canadians under s.2(b) of the
Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to put up posters, on the grounds that blanket bans on postering with unreasonable limitation infringe freedom of expression. The City, under Rob Ford, fined C'est What? for posters that were put up promoting a month-long residency we did last February. The whole thing was frivolous, but there were some pretty key principles that hit on some basic democratic issues that we felt were important to defend. The Supreme Court upheld the right to poster as a means of communicating ideas in Ramsden v. Peterborough, as well as some significant cases in Montreal and Halifax. The case law was unequivocally on our side, and Ford's "anti-graffiti" campaign, which he continues to try and enforce, aren't able to stand up to a Supreme Court decision. So rather than roll over and pay the fine, we did our research, built a case, went to court, and had all charges thrown out. The local music community, including bands, promoters, bookers, and press, really got behind us in our fight, and coming out victorious was definitely a means of celebration. It was a cred-builder for sure, and allowed us, as a band of educated people (myself with an extensive background in political activism and social justice work), to remind everyone that it's okay to have an opinion, to back it up with history and facts, and to use art as a means of social expression. It's an age-old concept, but we live in a very conservative time. It's a dangerous position to take, but someone has to do it, otherwise the art form and culture will die.

Toronto has a sustainable means of transportation such as walking, cycling and public transit. How do you get around the city?

Despite what a lot of Torontonians may say, coming from Vancouver, I don't have any beefs with the TTC! Twenty-four hours a day I can get anywhere I need. Walking comes with the territory being a dog owner as well. You never know who you may run into or what you may see when you walk around Toronto. It's beautiful.

What's your favourite thing about living in Toronto?

The music scene and nightlife, the dog-friendly culture, my amazing circles of friends, the accessibility of public transit, and the general attractiveness of people. Toronto is an extremely diverse city, with so many cultural pockets, it's a very beautiful and enriching environment. There's never a dull moment, and there's an embedded sense of excitement, passion, and a desire to be effective and to make a difference amongst people who live here. That's rare in a country like Canada, which has a reputation for being very nonchalant and laid back.

Are you (Robb) the main songwriter? What's your songwriting process?

I write all the lyrics for the most part, that's what I really bring to the table. Musically-speaking, it's a collaborative process. Every song is different: some are brought in complete with all parts written by one person; some start with one basic melody or chord progression and we get together in a room and build it into something; some are different entirely. There's no formula. My primary role, aside from lyrics, is arranging and editing. I can always point out when a verse is too long, or a bridge is too short, or if needs to get to the chorus sooner. There's a pop sensibility there that keeps everything in check, and knowing when a song is honest and direct is one of my strengths.

Any pre-show rituals?

I have a fairly complex routine that's developed over years of touring and performance. Our live show is very high-energy, it's really like preparing for a workout. I eat 3 hours before we go on stage so I'm fully digested, take a combination of herbal lozenges and drink a very specialized loose-leaf tea that a herbalist designed for me. I can't tell you what's in it. I do a 30-minute vocal warmup routine that I got from Spencer Welch, who was my voice coach in Vancouver, and then I usually sing a few songs and do some full-body stretching. So by the time we walk on stage, I've pretty much done a 3-hour ritual and the adrenaline is flowing. When you're sometimes playing 27 nights out of 30, you have to take care of your instrument, which in my case is my voice, and your entire physical being affects it. We also have a silly thing as a band where right before we walk on stage we come up with a "phrase" for the night, which is usually just a few words, something we can yell into each other's ears in off-moments, to keep us laughing, focused, and inspired. Stupid things, like "Make it rain," or "Kill everyone," or "Might a well jump." We never put much thought into it, it's just the first thing that comes to anyone's mind and they'll just blurt it out. Usually they're best to not be repeated.

Do you have a go-to track that you listen to when you want to get pumped up? Any guilty pleasures that people may not have guessed?

Depends on what I'm getting pumped up for; a show, a night out, a workout. It varies. Before a show I'll bust out "When You Were Young" by The Killers a lot, and the album Rock n' Roll by Ryan Adams is a great adrenaline record. "Trans-Europa Express" by Kraftwerk helps build a consistent, hypnotic groove. Side A of My War by Black Flag also gets me fired up, and so does The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers. Would those count as guilty pleasures because they come from artists who actually sell records? I don't think I have any guilty pleasures, whatever that means; music that's honest moves me. It's really that simple.We walk on stage to "Life in Technicolour" by Coldplay, which in theory could make us less cool, but it captures the spirit of that moment for us, and gets the live set started properly. It works, and the vibe and energy gets absorbed by us and shared back and forth with the audience. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a most ridiculously large record collection, and am quite the encyclopedia of rock n' roll. There's a song for every occasion, and music is the friend that won't judge you and will entirely change your mood when you get get happy, angry, sad, or turned on. Buying records and playing in bands was my music education, and having a strong sense of history, cultural movements, and aesthetics is very important when it comes to music. It breeds classic ideas.

What's next for the band?

The record-release-promote-tour-repeat schedule can get a little routine at times, so we're trying to throw in some different approaches with this record, and why not since the industry is in such disarray right now and no one knows where it's headed; traditional cycles of promotion are constantly changing and being invented. So we've been tossing the idea around moving forward of releasing one single at a time with video accompaniment, and eventually putting it all together as a "record." The complete physical album, preferably on vinyl, is something that despite popular spin, many, many people are still very enthusiastic about (myself included). So that will never go away, and we don't want to just abandon it because some people are saying it's obsolete. We feel it's important to exercise a degree of independence and critical thought, to not cater to whatever so-called "trends" are happening, and do what we feel is right, and what we as fans of music would like to see. You really just need to trust your guts in this business these days, maybe more so than ever. Build it and they will come in a sense.

The original text of this article can be found at Toronto is Awesome.