by Steven Batten
What’s up am I on chat line?/My name is Sal and Capricorn is my sign/I like “Star Trek” and Brad Pitt/ I watch Kung-Fu B movies and shave my armpits…
So goes the opening salvo of “Psychic Man,” the introductory track on Artificial Joy Club’s impressive Interscope debut, MELT. And now that you’ve met Sal, the “chick singer,” as she puts it, for the Ottawa quintet, we can commence discussing why MELT may just be the best album you haven’t heard this year.
You might remember Artificial Joy Club from their disturbingly alluring summer single, “Sick and Beautiful,” which briefly flirted with regular airplay. Or, perhaps you caught their second-stage set at this summer’s Lollapalooza at Blossom. If your memory is especially sharp, you may even remember them from one of their previous visits to Cleveland, when they were known as Sal’s Birdland. In any case, there’s plenty more to the story, so we’ll dispense with the formalities and get down to business.
We’ve already learned some of Sal’s likes, though she fails to mention in song her particular disdain for the freezing rain and snowthat assails her as she phones from Ottawa, awaiting the start of a new tour that will bring the band— Sal, guitarist/keyboardist Leslie Howe, bassist Tim Dupont, drummer Andrew Lemarche, and guitarist Michael Goyette— back to Cleveland for another visit. With performances at Wilbert’s and the Euclid Tavern already under their collective belts, they’ll add Peabody’s DownUnder to their growing resume this Thursday, December 18.
In the meantime, she’s got little choice, but to sit back and chill. That’ll be easier said than done, however. Still hyped from their summer Lolla run, Artificial Joy Club are itching to get back on the road. Especially Dupont, who’s freshly recovered from a broken arm that had temporarily sidelined the band.
“[Lollapalooza] was fun. We had a great time,” enthuses Sal — Louise Reny to her old friends back home — an easygoing and talkative soul whose honest and off-center lyrics give MELT much of its bite.
“It wasn’t the coolest lineup in the world, but I enjoyed it cause I really like Tool. And I got to watch them every single day for free!”
It was an unexpected bonus for artificial Joy Club following a long and circuitous path to their current scenerio.
Having finished touring in support of their previos effort as Sal’s Birdland, 1994’s NUDE PHOTOS INSIDE, the band set about writting a follow-up for then-label Discovery Records. Hoping to get away from their everyday responsibilities in Ottawa, the songwritting axis of Sal, Howe, and Dupont packed their bags and headed to Los Angeles to write the songs that would become MELT. Eventually.
“We decided, ‘Let’s just go there for a whole month and just concentrate on writing songs, instead of staying here for six months trying to work between everyone’s schedules,” Sal recalls. “So that’s what we did, and we wrote basically the whole album while we were there.”
Having finished recording in Ottawa, everything seemed to be set for album number two. Or so they thought.
“We delivered the album to Discovery, and they hated it,” Sal offers empathically. “They said, ‘You know, it’s a little weak, and we don’t hear any hits.’
“I just thought, OK, fine, whatever. I don’t agree with you,” she says. “Normally, sombody would say that to me and I’d probably say, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right’ and think about writting other songs, but I was convinced with this album. I was really proud of it, so I was kind of insulted.”
The band asked for and was granted, its release from the Discovery deal. Then, album in hand, it was time to go shopping. Label shopping, that is.
“We got interest right away,” Sal notes. “We were free and clear, and were being wined and dined by all these great record companies. We chose Interscope, and here we are.”
Writting in L.A., Sal says, didn’t necessarily play into the songwritting on MELT, an edgy mix of vibrant mood swings and intoxicating soundscapes. “I’m never really inspired by where I am,” she says. “We were really stuck up in our room. We didn’t take advantage of being in L.A. We weren’t even listening to the radio there. We could have been in a room up in Alaska.
“It was just a question of finding a neutral place,” she adds. “We didn’t spend a lot of nights looking at the sunset over Hollywood Boulevard.”
In any case, the result was as solid a batch of tunes as any this year.
“We’ve been writting songs for a long time,” Sal says, “and some of the songs on this album are some of the best songs we’ve written, for sure.
“The Sal’s Birdland album was more of a whining kind of album, and, to me, this is more of a funnier album,” she says. “It’s a little bit more up, for sure. Both albums have a lot of sarcasm, but I think the first album was a lot angrier. But then the whole Alanis Morissette thing happened, and it was, ‘We don’t want to hear about girls being angry anymore.’ And who can blame you.”
The “Alanis Morissette thing” she refers to goes a little deeper for Sal and Artificial Joy Club than you might expect. Sal and Howe were mentors of sorts for the budding superstar as she was making the transisition from the teen star of her first two albums to the hurricane of emotion that unleashed JAGGED LITTLE PILL on an unsuspecting alternative rock world.
“I’ve known her since she was 12,” Sal says of her former protege. “I was always in a band and she wasn’t. She wanted to be a singer, and we helped her out. I helped her get a record deal and wrote songs for her first two albums. One of the songs I wrote actually got her a record deal.”
The friendship continued as Morissette experimented with the sound of PILL and Joy Club sharpened their edge for MELT.
“Then she got famous,” Sal adds, “and we haven’t heard from her since. She won’t return my phone calls, and it’s really depressing. The worst part is when people think that I copied her. It rips my heart out.
“Everybody in Ottawa knows,” she adds. “In fact, people are pretty cruel about it. ‘She stole from you’ and ‘She’s such a bitch’ and blah, blah, blah. I’m like whatever. We always sounded the same. You can’t make your voice sound like somebody else’s. It was a weird kind of coincidence that our voices had the same tone.
Outside of their hometown, it’s been harder to convince the skeptics.
“It bugs me because, yeah, we do sound alike, but obviously everybody’s going to think that I sound like her no,” Sal laments. “I’m not stupid. It doesn’t matter who came first. She’s a huge star, and I happen to sound like her. So it’s kind of to my disadvantage now.”
Sal admits to taking some pleasure in the pressure that awaits Morissette as she readies her next album. But it’s all in good fun, she insists.
“I have faith in her,” Sal offers sincerely. “I really think she’s going to be the next Madonna. I think she’s going to have a really long career.”
And that’s exactly what Sal’s hoping for with her own band.
“We’re touring untill Christmas,” she says of their immediate itinerary. “And in January, our album comes out in Eupore, so that’ll be good. We’re supposed to go over there for a while.
A tour with red hot Smash Mouth is in the works, and a video for new single “Skywriting” is due in January.
For now, Sal says, she’s happy to be able to stay busy doing what she loves. She’s optimistic that larger success is just around the corner.
“I love playing,” she says. “I love being in a band, you know. Being rich isn’t everything…. I think we have a great album and I’m really proud of it.”
Besides, she adds, “We’re having fun.” And that’s what really matters.
“We had a great summer, and some of the gigs we played were just unbelievable.” Sal relates. “It sort of fulfills some of your dreams. We’ve played in front of 20,000 people at some shows, and it was like, ‘Wow this is pretty cool. This is what I’ve always wanted to do.’ They weren’t all there to see us, but it’s still a pretty cool feeling. So I’m happy.”
Except for the snow, that is.