Photo courtesy of Sara Johnston
by Yasmine Shemesh
James Di Salvio thought he was making an instrumental trip-hop record and that would be it. He never imagined those late-night jam sessions at the dawn of the ’90s, which opened their arms to Montreal’s artistic community, would become Glee, Bran Van 3000‘s seminal debut album with Di Salvio as conductor of a sprawling bohemian band.
Di Salvio started spinning records in his mid-teens — his father was Montreal nightlife legend Bobby Di Salvio, who opened the Nuit Magique and Di Salvio’s nightclubs — and developed a deep respect for hip-hop, particularly inspired by its use of sampling. Later, he was working at a music video production company, Propaganda Films, and doing remixes for Audiogram artists like Jean Leloup. When the independent Quebec label made Di Salvio Head of A&R, he — hungry for an opportunity to perfect his craft — signed himself.
By 1997, “Drinking in L.A.,” BV3’s cosmic first single with its textured, soulful melody, dreamy harmonies and knockout chorus from Stéphane Moraille, was everywhere: spinning in Discmans, on heavy MuchMusic rotation, climbing radio charts across the country and on the iconic compilation Big Shiny Tunes 2. Glee was released in Canada on April 15 of that year and a bidding war ensued among international labels after Di Salvio handed Moby a white-label cassette of it at South by Southwest.
Just as “Drinking in L.A.” became one of the most iconic songs of the ’90s, the entire record captured the cultural zeitgeist in a singular way. An intoxicating musical bouillabaisse combining everything from hip-hop and alternative rock to disco and country, Glee is impossible to pin down and yet deliciously cohesive. The songs are made out of stories and music exchanged by collaborators including Moraille, E.P. Bergen, Sara Johnston, Steve “Liquid” Hawley, Jayne Hill, Haig Vartzbedian, Gary McKenzie, Nick Hynes and Rob Joanisse, each bringing their own unique perspective and together toeing a youthful tension between angst and hope.
There’s the twangy slacker anthem “Couch Surfer.” “Rainshine,” which bridges thrashing guitar with reggae and searches for light in darkness. “Forest,” a trip lamenting the government with a French verse, grinding riff and haunting chorus: “It’s not my fault that you lost your way / Your insanity will prevail.” “Everywhere,” showcasing Hill’s airy vocals over twitchy electronics and gentle acoustic strums. “Afrodiziak,” a gritty hip-hop track featuring supergroup Gravediggaz.
Glee‘s colourful palette also offers insight into Montreal’s music scene in the early ’90s — characterized by a growing intersection of Anglo and Francophone culture, an economic recession, and the fertile creative ground of Mile End where BV3 and Godspeed You! Black Emperor were neighbours — and highlights what really drove the collective: a pure love for music and the magic that happens when human beings connect over it.
With the success of artists like Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, electronic music hit its mainstream stride in the ’90s. The timing was ripe for an album like Glee, something that celebrated experimentation and expression and wasn’t trying to be anything but itself. Twenty-five years later, Glee still feels as fresh as ever — and timeless in its optimism and playful innovation.
Glee was released on April 15, 1997. For the album’s 25th anniversary, Exclaim! caught up with James Di Salvio to dig deep into the music and stories that made Glee, how the members of Bran Van 3000 inspired each other, and why “Rainshine” is his favourite song.
What was the electronic music scene in Montreal like in the early ’90s, and how did it inspire you creatively?
It was a great time, because English and French Montreal were coming together like I’ve never seen, and it was right on [Boulevard] Saint-Laurent. Di Salvio’s would play a little more soul, hip-hop stuff, and Business, across the street, would be techno, and people would go back and forth.
I started doing more filmmaking, going to L.A., and I’d come back and spin at my brother’s club [Yoda Den]. I had been a punk and more of a mod, growing up with little subcultures, and then b-boy culture just really hit it on the head for me as a lover of beats and hustling and entrepreneurialism and art and New York City at the time. And so Yoda Den was really where Bran Van happened. I would spin my beats and mix them in with Cypress [Hill], and Sara [Johnston] was working at the bar beside me. We started jamming and that’s how a lot of it came about.
Everything from Rakim to Nas to the Wu[-Tang Clan] really made us want to do this. But it really took people we later ended up touring with, like Massive Attack, to give me the confidence to keep going on the mic. I mean, [founding Massive Attack member Robert] 3D [Del Naja], just his colour of [being] this weird Italian guy from Bristol doing it; I’m like, well, I’m a weird Italian guy from Montreal — I can do it too.
Glee has this wonderfully eclectic palette, in which you can also really hear the sounds of the times, like alternative rock, hip-hop, country, techno — genres that each had defining moments in the ’90s. Can you tell me more about that?
Sara and I loved the Pixies and Radiohead and Nirvana, but we wanted to take a little bit of the shoegazing out of the grunge thing and put a bit of Las Vegas and disco [into it]. Grunge was getting a little much for us, because we were in clubs and you need a groove, you know — and it was great, I mean, I loved all of it, Soundgarden and all that. But we wanted to put a little disco in the shows.
Glee was a culmination of all that sample culture, DJ culture. In terms of sound, around then there was this whole reassessment of the masters, which were Johnny Cash and Lou Reed. I wasn’t conscious of it, but it was a lot of a love affair with the Velvet Underground, trying to electrify whatever all that represented, which had no rules. It was community.
What was the songwriting process like for Glee?
I’d think, “Oh, that was one magical night in the studio.” I got some breaks down, some basslines, met some of the coolest rockers in Montreal, jammed, and it became this beautiful thing. A few years later, there were a few others, and then E.P. [Bergen] came along and we did “Johnny Go” [for Jean Leloup].
I came back from New York, [E.P.] suggested I just get back to the hood and take a break. And it was probably a good move, because it became those rare moments in time: real people off the street just came in and you think you’re making a hotel lobby groovy martini track and all of a sudden you’re singing about gun-running in Louisiana or whatever. That’s just because somebody would come along and give you a riff to the beat that you put up — make some cassoulet and talk about things [with] people from all over the country.
The [Mile End] neighbourhood was great. And then it turns out that whole time Godspeed You! Black Emperor was right next door. I would see them every morning at this cafe and it’d be funny, like, “You’re doing the heaviest, most mountainous stuff with Godspeed and I’m making an album called Glee. But we’re neighbours,” you know?
Lyrically, Glee explores themes like trying to make sense of one’s place in the world, pushing back against authority, finding freedom in creativity. What did the songs represent about your views of the world or what was going on in your lives?
I think there were two dichotomies going on then, growing up. I guess the essence of growing up will always be the same, but back then, especially with the recession in Montreal and where we were from, I was in club culture and a lot of gangster headspace. You’re listening to a lot of 2Pac, there’s a little revolution going on in hip-hop. I think I was obsessed with trying to do Glee-funk — it’s not quite G-funk, but it’s in there if you look for it.
There were just the codes of growing up and also this amazing hope. We were so in love with everything. We loved Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison, we loved Curtis [Mayfield] and we loved Frank Sinatra. We just loved it all. There was no beef with anybody, you know? I guess I could say maybe we didn’t feel hair metal, but then we did “Cum On Feel the Noize.” You have things like “Problems,” which are angry. There’s little moments of anger in there, “Carry On,” things like that. But that’s part of what being in your 20s in the ’90s was about, all that stuff. So, where does it come from? A lot of what comes in you’re hearing Liquid or Steffy, that’s from them, it’s their words. As the years grew on, it really became a big collaboration.
How did you inspire and push each other?
Every one of those people are very, very funny. There’s just a sense of humour. And even though not everybody’s tastes lined up, everybody’s taste for something great lined up. E.P. [will put on] the best Kraftwerk record you’ve ever heard. I’ll put on Curtis [Mayfield]. Gary will put on [Frank] Zappa. Jayne and her love for great songmanship, such a Canadian songbird. And they let me work as a DJ-director. There was that thing that I saw in other big bands, where they just went nuts fighting about everything — and I pushed it too far, like some directors, many times — but there was this RZA kind of understanding, which really helped get things moving fast. So, I would say it was a sense of humour, a massive love of music, and a massive love of the healing power of music — which, in our 20s, was not conscious, but we just knew we were dealing with something that was really cool.
Speaking of RZA, “Afrodiziak” features Gravediggaz. How did you connect with them and come to collaborate on the song?
I think it was Mike D [of the Beastie Boys] who helped put that up. And [Too] Poetic was one of the first to mentor us and guide us, come with us on the road and really go deep. Rest in peace, Poetic — one of the sweetest, sweetest, most beautiful people I’ve ever known.
“Afrodiziak” was done before meeting Poetic, and we just gave it to [Gravediggaz] to try a remix or maybe beef up the cake or something. But then we ended up going to the Wu-Tang studios in New York. That was amazing. It was just so, so different, it was so gully, it was so Batman, so different than the kind of Calabasas sheen on hip-hop today. It was great, and it was a movement. And how can you explain a friendship? You know, “You wanna come with us on the road?” “Yeah, let’s do it.” Family. [He] came back and spent a summer in Montreal producing Liquid.
I remember doing the Roxy with Poetic [in Los Angeles], and it was our big coming out to [the rock radio station] KROQ, ’cause [“Drinking in L.A.”] was a hit, the tune was working with people, and KROQ had just played it. Around that week, they were getting a lot of calls about what that so-called quote-unquote Black music was doing on KROQ, because of Steffy doing the chorus and stuff. And then when Poetic and a few people came out [on stage], a lot of people from KROQ left. So we were too Black for white radio and too white for Black radio.
We make rainbow music. It doesn’t fit in black and white.
Stéphane on that chorus is out of this world. What was your first reaction to hearing her sing it?
We had done “Afrodiziak,” so I had already seen her power. We just really clicked as people and as friends. E.P. had introduced us. I remember that night in the studio — it was one of the rare cases we weren’t in my living room or Haig’s living room. It was just me and Rod Shearer, the engineer and mixer, and we just looked at each other and [said], “Well, that’s bloody powerful.” And [Stéphane] had just come back from L.A. as Shauna Davis [her electronic music project], and she had gotten the rough L.A. serve, so she had something to say about L.A. — and, just, “Hell-A, Hell-A.”
I remember, that night, there was a big VJ that I loved — I was all starstruck — and she had just come from the Chemical Brothers at Métropolis. And we had just finished mixing most of the record, it was almost done, and she’s like, “Who are these guys?” And Rod’s like, “This is BV3,” and [she] goes, “If they’re rock ‘n’ roll, throw it away because rock ‘n’ roll is dead! I just came from the Chemical Brothers, if these guys don’t have beats, they’re dead!” And Rod goes, “As a matter of fact, they do.” And then we played “L.A.” and she went, like, “Yeah, well.” That was a good moment.
There’s the story of how “Drinking in L.A.” was inspired by you waking up on a lawn in Hollywood after a night of drinking, but there are so many brilliant elements at play in that song. How did it come to be?
There’s another guy in the family, he’s kind of an unsung hero. Maybe this could give him his props. E.P. and I had met a guy called Nervous Duane Larson, and he was an American gypsy who fell in love with a Quebecois girl and had come through that summer. We met Duane playing in a bar, and then he came by and got what we were doing. So a lot of those guitars, like the “Supermodel” guitar, the “Couch Surfer” guitar, the “Drinking in L.A.” guitar, that’s Nervous Duane.
I guess we were all tripping on Johnny Cash at the time and Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, and he was like, “Far out, man.” I think he might have even come up with the term “couch surfer.” He was like, “I’m doing the couch surf, man, yeah.” He brought out a bit of that south-of-the-border fun. And then, “L.A.,” he had just found a guitar in a dumpster and kind of fixed the pickups and stuff, and, like, “Hey Bran Man, you got to hear this one, baby.” And then he just came with, gshhh.
And I didn’t even realize that “I woke up again this morning with the sun in my eyes,” it was a blues standard at that point. Over the years, I kept hearing, “Woke up this morning, sun in my eyes.” Like, I’ve been hearing that forever, but I didn’t know that was that [when I wrote it]. Bran Van is full of those things. It’s full of cosmic punchlines that you just autopilot and then later on you’re like, “Oh yeah, I meant to do that!”
What do you remember about filming the “Drinking in L.A.” music video?
You know all those colours and everything? All the floor, all the background, all this kind of rainbow checkered thing that was a theme in the video? We were so broke, the apartment looked like such crap, that I thought of this idea of going down to [Groupe] CIL and everybody pretends they’re working for a big design company and gets, like, 500-1000 swatches of carpet and colour swatches. So we just created this rainbow effect with free sample swatches, ’cause there was no budget for art direction. And then [someone] had come up with the idea of the orange suits, which later became a shtick. I had no idea that they were the Correctional [Service of Canada] suits. If I had known that, I don’t know. But, yeah, it was just all local stuff like that. I remember no budget, us being crafty with it, and making things happen just by everybody having such a good time.
Glee has this interesting element of being a kind of love letter to Canadian culture. There are references to Catherine O’Hara and Thunder Bay on “Supermodel,” you shout out Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum on “Drinking in L.A.” — little things you wouldn’t really get unless you were Canadian. Was that intentional or just inherent?
I think it was a bit inherent, because it would have been fronting to say “All my people in the Bronx,” you know? “The NDG, misguided,” [a lyrical reference to the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood in the song “Ceci N’est Pas Une Chanson”], that was tongue-in-cheek. I’m realizing now only a Montrealer would say that! It’s like three [degrees] of Leonard [Cohen]. But I think it just came from the heart. I was just really playing the Montreal mirror. I was telling [people] I was making a folk record, because that’s what it was to me. A folk record, a Canadian folk record.
When you listen to Glee now, what stands out?
The friendship. The amount of friendship, the amount of celebration. Love.
What’s your favourite song?
I realized “Rainshine” has been this leitmotif. I didn’t realize we had a leitmotif, but “Problems,” “Rainshine,” and it comes back on [2010’s] The Garden, “Stillness.” “Stillness” is a variation of “Rainshine.” And I guess “Rainshine” is that thing I’m talking about: the friendship, the bien et mal, the good and the bad, the rainbow in the patch of oil on the dirty ground. That’s what that period was all about: believing in the rainbow in that dirty world. It was an industrial time.