The Many Dualities of Malajube

By: Andrea Grassi

The Many Dualities of Malajube
Photo: Stephanie Cloutier

Apr. 6, 2009 – Toronto, Canada

Wednesday, 5:30pm, El Mocambo, Toronto: CTV can kiss my ass.

The low-key lead singer and songwriter of Montreal's Malajube, Julien Mineau, prefers an interview with Olympia Blue (my ice blue mini tape) to the strategic lighting, comfy couch and cheesy host of a televised interview. On Wednesday afternoon, up on the second floor of the El Mo – a disastrous array of scuff marks, cigarette butts and the dank smell of flowering beer – Mineau joins me on a black leather couch remedied by duct tape to discuss the group's third album, Labyrinthes (the follow-up to 2006's breakout Trompe-l'Oeil).

The band – composed of Mineau and three other members, his brother Francis on drums, Mathieu Cournoyer on bass and Thomas Augustin on keyboards – know what they want, and have a good head on the industry. Indie lovers were delighted when they decided to withdraw from any major label deals and stay with the Montreal-based Dare to Care Records. "We had a really good experience there," remarks Mineau on their fidelity. "We have a lot of creative freedom." Who needs to a big signing these days anyway?

But there's more that accounts for their success than a cool head and focus. The boys have media appeal. They are warriors of the two Canadian solitudes, gatekeepers, wizards from the North – even though most of their fans have no idea what they're singing about without the aid of translation because they sing solely in French. No traditional folk music, no poutine, no ice hockey. This is their hitch. Still they've managed to permeate culture and become successful in the US, the UK and Japan. The media love to talk about it. In fact, the English vs. French thing – "Will you ever write in English?" "Why don't you write in English?" – is all the band ever gets to talk about in interviews.

On this stormed leather couch, I keep an honest approach. Mineau smiles at me from within his army green, fur-trimmed jacket hood. He is burrowing in the fabric, not rudely trying to distance himself from Olympia Blue, but happily bundled, like a child dressed for a snowball fight. He is happy to answer my questions, but not afraid to hide the fact that interviews aren't his bag. Booming comes from Radio Radio's sound check – French rappers from New Brunswick who will be opening for Malajube tonight – and I have to ask Mineau to speak up. I wonder how such a quiet man can make a living on a sound. But this is just one of the very many dualities of Malajube.

Of the dreaded French vs. English question, I go meta and ask: Do you ever wish 2006 didn't happen the way it did? That is, do you wish you could escape the microscopic focus on your French Canadian roots? Mineau smiles and takes the question with an inward suck of air, not haughty but a familiar gesture, with a long "aha." I can tell he is amused by my side step, a roundabout way of acknowledging that old hat, a question they could probably name "Steve" because of their frequent meetings.

"It makes me happy, but it also makes me sad. Our lives were changed for sure by this," answers Mineau. "We got to make our music our day job." The boys have always remarked that the French lyricism was an obvious decision. "French is just what we feel most confident singing in," says Mineau. "[Singing in English] is not something we don't want to do, it's just not what we are doing."

It's hard to imagine a band who can stay true to themselves nowadays. Refreshingly unmarred, Mineau & Co. have amazingly kept from melting in the limelight. In keeping with their camera-shyness, the band values the recording process and the studio's freedom far above touring, and took three years to return to the scene with Labyrinthes. "It took a long time, but we just wanted to focus on what we had. We didn't really think about time or anyone else," Mineau explains.

The sound check downstairs is making Olympia Blue buzz and Mineau inaudible. We suggest descending the cement stairs and returning to the bustle of a 5:45pm Spadina Avenue. Mineau takes a single cigarette out of his jacket pocket; I don't even see him light it before he is huffing it in the cold.

As I mentioned, Malajube is a band of dualities – camera focused but camera shy; a Francophone band heavily criticized in France; loved for an upbeat sound but with lyrics laden with dark meaning and metaphor. I ask Mineau to tell me how non-French listeners get the music if they can't understand it. (Yes, in the end even I had to bring up Steve.) He tells me the music speaks for itself, and because it isn't traditionally centred on Montreal and the French language, it's "universal." Besides, Mineau writes in metaphor, so even if you understand French, you're still once removed from his interpretation. With a band so engrossed in the topic of languages, it's nice to know that their moniker as a single word, malajube, means nothing.

In contrast, the third record, Labyrinthes, is exactly what it says it is – a constantly changing landscape, and an arrayed mix deemed by Mineau as "strange." As in all of Malajube's records, there is a dark undertone – an ebb and flow if you will – with an unforgiving or mellifluous layer. It's also a religious investigation dealing with Catholicism. "We have that darkness, yes, but it is something that just comes out of our music," says Mineau. "The body is a major focus of the music." The first song, "Ursuline", has been likened to mood-inducing Radiohead, and their first video for the single "Porté disparu", directed by David Valiquette, is a haunting masterpiece.

Within all these complexities, it seems that the honesty and iron-fixed passion of the band is where success is rooted. "Trying to stay true is important," says Mineau. "I suppose that is why good things have happened." Take note, climbing bands.

Video: "Porté disparu" by Malajube

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