Vocalist/songwriter Robb Johannes has always had a vision for his band Paint that went beyond simply creating music. He has been passionate in his desire to bombard and immerse audiences in a sensory experience that was inescapably powerful and memorable.
With the new release disPLAY earlier this year, he has accomplished this, while at the same time introducing fans to new Paint material.
“We had all this material since our last album in 2011 and it continued to amass and it was very exciting stuff. We were really inspired by it and it was great to play it live but that was the only outlet where people could hear it for the longest time. We participated in the independent film 11:11 a couple of years ago and we managed to get four new songs in that project but we still had so much new music. And these days it’s hard to find the time and especially the budget to do a proper full studio album so we thought, ‘why don’t we capture the live show with all the new songs.’ Because our live show is something we’re really known for and that’s really where the energy comes across,” he explained.
“And we’re lucky because most indie bands that do live albums usually don’t get to capture the show, so that whole bit of history and documentation is something that often gets lost. How many great bands have we all followed in small clubs and we never really got to have a permanent record of that. So we do put a lot of importance in documenting our show as best we can.
“It was a way to introduce music and get the songs out there that we’re really excited about and it was also for documentation purposes. But we kind of went one step further with the editing of the film. We have a lot of visual elements with video loops making it kind of like U2 and their Zoo TV show where you’re never quite sure where to look at any given time.”
And unlike many indie bands who perhaps can afford to hire one, perhaps two, camera operators, Paint went full tilt incorporating six cameras for the disPLAY shoot.
“We wanted to make a whole production out of it and release a film and album together as a package. Bigger bands usually get three or four nights to try and capture a show, and be able to take bits and pieces from each show, but we only had one and it was pretty stressful because the key was to be able to capture the visuals as well as make sure we got the music track down. It was just a frantic night – it really was a blur to me. I generally tend to remember most things with this band, but a lot of this night’s performance only came back to me when we were reviewing the video and music tracks,” Johannes said.
“And instead of having the cameras sort of detached and at a distance, we brought them right into the action. We actually brought the videos right to the forefront of the editing process and we had this old fashioned television static cutting in so it was kind of like a glorified music video – a multimedia kind of thing. I have watched a lot of concert films over the years and I am sure I haven’t seen one that was done this way before. I think we stumbled upon something that was pretty unique and we’re really proud of that just from a technical and cinematic standpoint as well.”
Since Johannes founded the band in Vancouver 15 years ago, the visual experience has been as important to Paint as the music. The two are inextricable, and in a day and age when new paradigms for experiencing music seem to be cropping up every day, this approach to a career in music seems to be both prescient and necessary.
“The word Paint itself is a reference to visual media. And we have kind of stayed away from the more obvious connotations of that because it sometimes conveys this notion of colour and we actually have been pretty minimalist black and white for a while. But it brings out the fact that there is an important visual experience to what we do. And I think we have learned to use that strength to adapt to the changing nature of the music industry because if you don’t choose to adapt you could perish. The one thing that I believe has always been unique about music as an art form is that it is very multi-sensory. It’s about the total experience and not many other art forms hit all of those different sensors the way music does. And I believe that you don’t really have the opportunity to wait until you’re hugely successful to put on the show that you want to put on,” Johannes explained, adding that the visuals were directed and edited by the talented R. Stephenson Price, while Victoria Wicks produced the audio component.
“You just have to go ahead, take those risks and do it, even if it means a lot of extra work. It’s draining at times but it allows the music to be communicated in such a way that really drives the message home more effectively. When you think about the big concerts that impacted you as a kid, the visuals, the lighting cues, the big screens, the lasers and pyro – there were all part of the show. What’s really excited for me is the fact that we kind of create that illusion on a smaller stage. We’re all part of something greater than what’s happening on stage and it’s an interaction with the audience and the band and the visuals and how they all mesh together to create this 360 degree experience.”
The imagery is a commentary on society’s predilection for distraction and how many have become desensitized to the real human horrors that are happening in the world because they are being delivered through the same media as entertainment, advertising and video games. What Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan said all those years about the media being the message is more true today than it was back in the 1960s when he first wrote about it. And Johannes uses the Paint stage show and music to make his own perceptive commentary on this subject.
“We have visual projections happening and sometimes there’s three or more screens going at once. One of them could have this horrific violent imagery, but on the next screen there’s an image of a beach or a burlesque dancer and you’re distracted and forget about the violence that you just saw. And it’s kind of terrifying to think that our brains can switch that quickly to something so benign from something so powerful and real. I remember being in university and doing critical media studies and bridging that with social activism. All the things we were talking about back then, with everything being compressed down to simplistic sound bites and how everyone has these incredibly short attention spans, it’s actually happening now,” he said.
“It’s a very fascinating place to be and I think having a commentary on that cultural transformation in art is really important. Art has always been an important vehicle to communicate those sorts of messages. I think back to Classical times when artists and philosophers were considered to be integral parts of an advanced culture right alongside scientists and political leaders. And I think that’s sometimes that has gone by the wayside now, but that we really want to bring out into the forefront again.
“We were talking about this the other day in the van and there is so much information out there now and a lot of it is not even true – so much of it is misinformation or satire. Where do you go to believe in anything now? And does that mean we’re actually progressing or are we stuck in this place of relying on archaic philosophies and beliefs that don’t match the world that we live in now? These themes and questions have been around for years, but it’s the way that they’re actually playing themselves out today in real time that is remarkable, and a little frightening.”
At the core of all of Johannes’ and Paint’s artistry is the music, which is sometimes hard to define. Bassist Keiko Gutierrez has called it post-New Wave Brit Pop, while Johannes has different definitions based on his mood.
“It depends on how cheeky I am feeling at the time. Sometimes I say it’s classic rock of the future. I do know there are elements of 1980s New Wave as well as 1990s Brit Pop. But it’s also very anthemic. It’s stadium rock but it doesn’t matter if it’s in a stadium or not. I also sometimes say it’s simply rock and roll but that doesn’t seem to capture enough for people. We’re not heavy, so we’re not a heavy rock band. It’s very melodic and very accessible. A lot of people think of the 1980s when they hear us and a lot of our gear looks particularly retro, including the guitar pedal boards. So I don’t know, we kind of leave it up to others to say what we are,” he said.
Paint has undergone a number of lineup changes since its inception on the west coast in 2001, with the current quintet only becoming solidified with the advent of Gutierrez in 2014. Guitarist Jordan Shepherson and drummer Devin Jannetta joined Johannes in 2012.
“There have been sort of three major lineups. The first was the one that started the band in Vancouver. And then I came to Toronto with their blessing, but I still write songs with those folks from time to time. The lineup that did the album Where Are We Today in 2011 kind of crumbled and it was a matter of bringing people in who would make this feel like a real band, because it didn’t for a few years before that. It was about being very choosy and specific. Devin was playing in a band called Shortwave that I absolutely adored and when they stopped playing for a while, I invited him to join Paint. Jordan was in a band in Ottawa and moved to Toronto where he started playing with a bunch of bands and I thought he was awesome. So I kind of cherry-picked the best musicians from the local scene,” Johannes said.
“We had a two-year period where we didn’t have a permanent bass player because we wanted to be sure that they were going to be part of the family. It’s not just a musical partnership but it’s a life thing too. You travel together, you share space together, you have to be able to co-exist. And Keiko fit right in. This final lineup solidified from playing around and just continuing to play and I think that was why it’s worked out so well. We didn’t hibernate and disappear while we were putting the lineup together. We still went out and played, because that’s a great way to get to know a musician – to see how they communicate on stage.”
The album disPLAY comes packaged with the concert DVD and is available on most digital platforms as well in a more tangible, hard-copy format. Johannes said Paint will be gearing up to tour throughout Ontario and Quebec in the New Year, with new music always in the works.
For more information, visit www.paintband.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org