“I feel the same way about disco as I do about herpes.”
—Hunter S. Thompson
The first time I meet Neil Rankin, he’s urinating outside of a house near Dundas and Ossington, having his photo taken. It’s four in the morning in early June of 2008, and this is the unofficial “after party” for Toronto disco-revivalists Foxfire’s (formerly Foxfire Forest) show at Wrongbar. Alongside a hundred drunk concert-goers (including Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew), I observed a then 22-year-old Neil, clad in ski goggles, an eye patch, and black bondage gear, slithering over backup singer/ex-flame Hannah Krapivinsky, bellowing in his dramatic, lounge-singer vibrato: “Annnndddd my name is Raël!”
I don’t know Neil personally, but I’ve already seen him shirtless, tongue-kissing random strangers, and lamenting his on-again-off-again relationship with Ghost Is Dancing pianist Leslie Davies. Now I’m observing him stream a clean flow of urine across a chain-link fence, hand cocked on skinny hip, posing for a photo. Zipping up his tight leather pants, Neil gallops across the side street, dodging an errant bicyclist as a black cat zips by. “Pick it up!” photographer Norman Wong instructs. Neil scoops the mewing stray into his arms. “Fuck!” he screams, dropping the cat on the ground. “He scratched me!” With a broad sway of his arms that recalls Buster Keaton, Neil pratfalls to the ground and starts doing pushups.
Normally I would never get invited to a party like this—full of good looking American Apparel employees and mustachioed bassists procuring PBR tall boys from a bespeckled Justin Peroff. But being with the band, as I will soon learn, is a secret backstage pass. You walk taller, prouder, and have access to better drugs and hotter sex partners. You don’t have to make plans, because the band makes them for you. Though they doth protest, this is probably why people become roadies, and this is probably why rock journalists sweat out the low pay and uncertain future. You are with the band. And when you are with the band, you exist.
At this point in time though, Foxfire only has a terse, robotic missive streaming on their MySpace page instead of real songs, and there’s no recorded album to speak of. They have amassed buzz and a sizeable following through sheer will, with accolades from Broken Social Scene founder Brendan Canning (who thanks the band on his solo album, Something For All Of Us…), and Rosedale Heights Collegiate classmates Spiral Beach, whose guitarist Airick Woodhead has missed only two of Foxfire’s hometown performances. “I always knew Neil would start a band,” says Woodhead, “I just thought it would be sooner.”
Observing them for the first time at Wrongbar, I’m struck by Foxfire’s keen sense of disco chic. The stage is littered with seven bandmates dressed in black S&M gear, as Neil pelvic thrusts to the viscous bass lines. Redheaded back up singer Hannah does Donna Summer as Valerie Bertinelli, exclaiming backstage in her smoky Valleygirl speech: “Yah, I’m so excited for this show, it’s going to be so rad. We have a smoke machine. Neil—where the fuck is the smoke machine?”
My chicken scratch reads: “There are seven members onstage, and that is a lot. I hope those are not real leather pants.”
“Q: Who does this guy think he is? A: He thinks he’s Neil Rankin.”
The saga of Foxfire begins in the strange transit hub of Main and Danforth; a neighborhood Neil deems “the cusp of Toronto.” A recent high school graduate, Rankin was eager to put his theatrical singing style to use, after playing Dr. Frank N. Furter in a Rosedale production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Recruiting guitarist/Swedish model Anna Edwards from across the street, the two met for folksy jam sessions in their parent’s basements, but it didn’t match the James Brown image in Neil’s mind.
“I basically had the idea of putting together a full-fledged band, three backup singers, and a horn section,” says Neil, chugging down beers in January at Kensington Market bar Ronnie’s Local 67. “That was my vision—get the backup singers, break out the horn section, and it ended up being two backup singers and a drummer. And then I just didn’t know where to go from there.”
Neil had struck up an acquaintance with Hannah while touring her around Rosedale as a Grade 8 student. Forced to travel the Deep South together as part of Rosedale’s music program (Hannah recorded demos at the infamous Sun Records, while Neil laid down a cover of Bowie’s “Young Americans”), the two were poised to date until Neil’s “unspeakable act” (threatening suicide) killed their almost-romance.
“I just got drunk and acted like a fool—what else is new for me?” reveals Neil. “But I think she didn’t really know I had that in me. But high school, as much as people are always like, ‘it’s hard’—it is hard. Somebody’s always watching you and judging you, and you’ve got to try to be yourself—but you don’t even know who you are yet. So Hannah and I needed to give each other space, figure ourselves out a little more, and then we were able to come back together. And when we were friends again, it felt like we were really friends.”
Recalls Hannah, “Neil wanted to be friends again, and when Neil wants to be friends…he really won’t just leave you alone.”
Reunited for good, Neil recruited the classically-trained Hannah to serve as his backup singer. As additional eye candy, he also asked Ryerson dance student Monica Bettson—Hannah’s best friend and Neil’s new GF. While Neil would date Monica for the next two years, Hannah wins the ex-match by math alone. Three of Foxfire’s current lineup are ex-boyfriends: there’s Neil, drummer Sean Dunal (who Hannah dated for a year during a stint in Toronto’s big band), and guitarist Alex Ralph—her first boyfriend and paramour of three years. According to Hannah, Alex used to crash on her couch and eat breakfast with her family the next morning, as Hannah’s mom braided their hair in time for school.
“Maybe it should feel weird, but it doesn’t feel weird,” says Hannah. “I think because each of them were such a big part of my life when I was dating them, it was never ‘this is my ex-boyfriend,’ it’s just Alex, or Sean, or Neil.” Aside from their driving basslines, Foxfire has little in common with Fleetwood Mac, though Neil admits to a certain temptation—one Norman Wong witnessed as Neil and Hannah made out on tour in Niagara Falls.
Says Neil, “There are days where both of us are more into each other than we should be as friends, but I think that it’s inevitable. Especially with close friends, you see things that you really like about that person, and maybe one day they walk in and you say, ‘Hey, wow, she looks amazing today,’ or ‘You look great and I really… wanna kiss your face.’ And then other days, just like in any work, it’s like ’I can’t stand you, you’re irritating me so much.’”
“But it never gets awkward. It never gets to the point where like, I feel threatened or anything. [I know] that we can be friends, and still have this [flirtation]. But I don’t know if there’s anything serious there anymore.”
After adding trumpet player Andre Lowy (a former member of ska outfit Makeshift Heroes) and bassist Joe Elaschuk to the mix, the former Foxfire Forest (named after the bioluminescence process, not the Internet server) recorded a self-produced LP and proceeded to play the Drake, Whippersnapper Gallery, and Sneaky Dee’s as nine-person power pop. Though their debut album shows glimpses of Foxfire’s disco leanings with the crass “Such A Quandary, Dirty Laundry,” the remaining tracks meld brusque Strokes guitar riffs with emulsified brass and saxophone solos—a triumphant, schlocky mess. But is incongruity the best way to set Toronto’s indie scene on fire? Not according to NOW reviewer Joshua Errett. In a critique of the band’s 2007 CMW showcase at the Dakota Tavern, Errett writes:
“With the he-she back-and-forth plus horns/keys and more than five people onstage, Foxfire are but a glam version of Stars. And just like Stars, there’s an overly theatrical male vocalist who, despite all his prancing about on and off stage, can’t steal the star from his band’s very capable female vocalist.”
It’s my first gig with the band and we are on our way to…Peterborough? As the streetcar pulls up to Foxfire’s Queen and Portland practice space, we’re already embroiled in a crisis. In preparation for their appearance at coffee shop The Spill, Foxfire has decided to perform clad all in gold. While guitarist Alex will end up in a woman’s dress, this has required drummer Sean to spray paint his tapered jeans, leading to a glittering permanent outline of pants on the studio landing. “The landlord already hates us,” says Sean, “this could put us over the edge.” I laugh at the absurdity of the situation, but stop when a dark cloud reaches Sean’s baby-soft face. “No, seriously, I am really worried about this. We could lose, like everything.”
Recruited through a Craigslist open casting call after the firing of drummer Isaac Anthony, Sean has the declarative charm of a sleepy six-year-old. With a vast mane of thick blonde coils, he’s the hipster version of Animal—pounding his skins with the manic concentration of an international student cramming for the SATs. He is sweet and preternaturally laid back, prone to removing his pants in public with the proud urgency of a toddler touching his own genitals. “My life’s not that great—but I like it,” says Sean, when I ask him about living at home with his parents in Toronto’s West End and working American Apparel’s stock room. He pauses, deep in thought. “I want to buy some alcohol tonight—I like, need it.”
Also in tow is Hannah’s father Arkady, who chauffeurs half of Foxfire in his beat-up sedan. Together we watch as Hannah poses sensually in a gold lamé halter and hot pants for Norman’s camera outside a kitschy Chinese restaurant, as onlookers slow their steps down Peterborough’s main drag. “Do you think your daughter’s an exhibitionist?” I ask him. “Uh…yes,” he answers diplomatically. “But she’s a talented one.”
An hour before show time, Foxfire cruises through a small gallery opening across the street, stealing skewers of fresh fruit, clad in glittering spandex en route to a perpetual photo shoot. “They’re the next big thing in Toronto,” assures Norman to a head scratching, middle-aged couple. “No—we are the big thing in Toronto,” pronounces Sean. It’s a rock star movie moment, as is the show that follows it. With thunderstorms lighting up the windows of the sparse, tin-roofed coffee shop, concertgoers frolic in the rain as Hannah and Neil jump into the crowd, shaking off raindrops to tracks like “Black Light, Dick Fight,” “Skyrocket,” and “Dancing In The Drunk.” In fact, Peterborough is so much fun that Norman, Sean, Neil, Alex, and I spend the night—climbing the rooftop of the art gallery, shotgunning beers, and dancing to Daft Punk remixes with the locals—eventually crawling into bed in The Spill’s makeshift upstairs apartment for bands. The air is scented with fried American cheese (Alex got hungry) as I curl up next to Alex and Neil in sheets that probably haven’t been washed since the Carter administration. Laughing ourselves to sleep with the kind of mania that only comes with staying up all night in 90-degree heat, Neil and I lie next to each other, nearly spooning—although in retrospect, it’s probably more of a spork.
About two weeks later at a 4 a.m. house party on Bathurst Street, I run into Brendan Canning—the group’s de facto mentor. During the slow start to his solo album Something For All Of Us…, Canning overheard Foxfire playing in the back room of the Cameron House in the summer of 2007. The band’s music reinvigorated his sense that music could be fun.
“There’s no real grand story about it,” says Canning in a later phone interview. “I just really dug them and all their antics and matching outfits. They have this real sense of exuberance, and that goes a long way. I mean their tunes are hilarious, like ‘Black Light Dick Fight,’ or ‘Checking RSP.’”
But if a band wants to be taken seriously, can’t such gimmickry be a liability?
“Well, Kraftwerk had a gimmick, and so did Devo,” Canning reminds me. “That song on [Foxfire’s] MySpace page? It’s not so bad. In fact, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
Canvas Media publicist Brendan Bourke thinks differently. The promoter for Feist, Billy Talent, and the Constantines, Bourke moved from New York to Toronto to start up local label Arts & Crafts, and feels that Foxfire “has the look and the sound to go far.”
“In this business, many talented musicians have gone nowhere, and many untalented ones have risen to the top. Foxfire can follow in the footsteps of a Scissor Sisters, or an Of Montreal. I think the next step for them is first and foremost getting some material recorded that they are happy to share with the public. Self-release a single or an EP, something the band can take to online and select print press to start to garner reviews, for booking agents across Canada and the U.S., and to be able to sell at performances. They can shop this material to record labels around the world, should they decide to take this route, or apply for a grant from the Canadian government should they want to record and self-release a full-length.”
“Success is based entirely on the band. How badly they want [it] and what they will do to obtain [it]. It will be hard work. This is a very image-forward band. You are not going to attend a Foxfire show and not remember what they look like, or sound like. This is a major plus. [But] the minus is that some might find it a shtick.”
Foxfire’s image-driven consciousness is something even the band members can’t escape from. After all, they didn’t really get big until they published their photos on Facebook.
“I get like three friend requests a day because of Norman’s photos,” says Hannah. “I feel like there’s this whole other version of me up on Facebook, one that isn’t really me at all.” But as a singer bringing disco back, isn’t there pressure to live up to an image that’s already been created for you?
“I started drinking because going onstage is really scary. You drink because it makes you feel less nervous, and you can have more fun that way, and it’s easier than not drinking…plus, when you play a show you get a lot of free drink tickets anyway,” says Hannah. “But I don’t want to be drinking every night. I know people think I’m like this wild, crazy partier—I’m sure that there’s tons of rumours about me, I know people are talking about me behind my back. But at this point in my life, I just want to feel like my life is balanced—I can go to school [after a brief stint at Sheridan’s musical theatre program, Hannah has re-enrolled at U of T for life science], I can work at the Queen Mother, I’ve got the band. I just want to be as happy as possible.”
Bassist Joe is more candid about Hannah’s transformation:
“When Hannah started being in this band, she wasn’t exposed to a lot of things—and she just went crazy for a while. She had never drank before, she didn’t do cool stuff, or listen to cool music—and she just overcompensated all the time, the way I did when I was 17.”
“From the time that I knew her, Hannah basically went from being young, naïve, and straight laced, to an aggressive social climber, drug addict, and alcoholic hipster.”
It’s now mid-July and Foxfire is hitting the road to play shows in Montreal and Ottawa. Along for the ride is photographer Norman, myself, and a documentary crew comprised of three Ryerson film graduates—a full media team for a band who currently don’t even have songs on their MySpace page.
As we pull into downtown Montreal, Hercules and Love Affair blaring on the stereo, I wonder what expectations the band has for this brief, two-gig excursion—which even now, as they search an available depanneur for booze and cigarettes, is feeling more like a vacation. We spend our first night in Montréal dancing at Vinyl, a tiny Saint Laurent hole in the wall, smoking on the stoop outside, confirming our attendance at the next evening’s house parties. Montreal in the summertime has a palpable energy, flush with the effervescence of youth. Everywhere you look, young people are smoking, drinking on the street, urinating on Sainte Catherine, making out intensely, and puking to a soundtrack of police sirens and techno music. It’s really beautiful.
But when we arrive for a sound check for Sunday’s show, the venue has been unexpectedly changed and the promoter thinks he can get away with paying Foxfire $100 (a fee which, divided by seven, is little over $14 a person). Though the price is eventually haggled up to the band’s usual $300, it sets a damper on the sparsely attended performance. Though Neil ends up rebuffing Land Of Talk’s Liz Powell (“I didn’t know it was her! Shit!”), but when Foxfire takes stage, they play like they have nothing to lose.
Blasting Motown from Fucked Up guitarist Ben Cook’s ‘70s Volkswagen van, our makeshift entourage congregates in the backstreets of Saint Dominique and Guilbault for an impromptu dance party. We blast “ABC” and “Dancing In The Street,” cheering on the cop cars and taxis forced to stop in our reverie, as Hannah squeegees the cars with a device pilfered from the nearby gas station. “This is life—and it’s happening as we live it!” cheers one wasted fan recruited for the party. Arm in arm with the band, singing along to Martha & The Vandellas—I couldn’t agree more.
But things go less smoothly in the nation’s capital. Forced to play an open-mic night at Hitchhiker’s Guide-themed bar Zaphod Beeblebrox, Foxfire performs to literally three people who, at the very least, contend they’re pretty good. Sitting in an empty parking lot late on Monday evening, Joe, Hannah, and Sean pop some Adderall as the band decides to crash in Hull. As we drive down a street of motels and strip clubs, it seems like anything could happen next. Instead, Sean and Hannah climb into bed like two exhausted children, half muttering to themselves as the effects of the drugs kick in. Mixed with a sizeable amount of alcohol and anti-depressant meds, the Adderall has a darker effect on Joe. “I feel so fucked up, I am so fucked up, I need a cigarette,” he mutters, staggering around the parking lot until the motel security is called.
From his days with hHead, Brendan Canning made an acquaintance of Joe’s father, Ron “The Captain” Elaschuk, who managed vintage store 909 on Dundas West. “Joe’s complicated,” said Canning in July. “I mean, he played a show the night his father died.”
Arguably Foxfire’s biggest supporter, Ron died last summer of an unexpected stroke, paralyzed for a week in Toronto Western Hospital (Joe’s parents are divorced, and he’s bounced around downtown ever since he was six years old. At age 16, Joe’s stepfather, reportedly abusive, also passed away). “My dad always wanted me to do my own thing,” says Joe over beers at Parkdale bar The Rhino. “He used to come to every show, even back when the band really sucked. The night we were playing Wavelength [at Sneaky Dee’s] for the first time, he was put into Toronto Western Hospital just down the street. So I thought to myself that I’d just do the show, and play extra hard for him. It took my mind off things at a time when there wasn’t anything that I could do. If I had skipped the show, I would’ve been upset about that as well.”
Adds Neil: “When Joe played that show the night [his dad] was admitted to the hospital, he didn’t tell anyone what was going on. He was just like, ‘Look I have some stuff going on, and I need to talk to you.’ And I didn’t know what to expect. Joe’s one to joke…but that was one of the first times that I really saw him being serious and really needing to talk.”
“The thing about Joe that I don’t think anybody else sees, or gets, is that he’s putting a lot of himself on the line, all the time. But I don’t think it’s very easy for people to see that because he’s isn’t obvious about it, as like, me—who’ll have breakdowns in the middle of rehearsal. I wear my heart on my sleeve, you know? But I think he could learn from me, that sometimes it’s okay to be that guy who needs help. He plays his cards so close to his chest.”
In late December, a breathless Norman calls me to deliver the following news: “Foxfire are breaking up.” Two days earlier, I had caught them at Wrongbar, debuting arena-rock standout “Dangerous Hearts,” a Journey-ish departure from their usual fare. Though Joe hadn’t told the band, the show at Wrongbar was to be his last.
“It was just classic band shit, seven people arguing about stuff that isn’t important,” says Joe. “I was just done with it, and it was getting to a point where it was becoming a negative thing.”
“I’m not trying to be a dictator…but seven people who don’t agree is not a democracy. There were problems with commitment, people showing up late to rehearsal, and leaving early. And I am not a quitter—I don’t want to give up something that has potential. But the way the music business is today, if you’re not on point with your shit, then you just have hangers-on. And I’m not in a band for the sake of being in a band.”
After a climactic discussion at their practice space, Foxfire agreed that they weren’t quite ready to throw in the towel, putting Joe in charge of the band’s rehearsals, bookings, and their future. “We said some really brutal things to each other,” says Hannah, “but I think in the long run, it was really…cathartic. It’s good to know where you stand with people, especially when they’re your [best] friends.”
“I know Joe was ready to move on but I don’t know, we all realized that it’s worth fighting for,” says Neil. “We’ve gotten this far and been writing what we think is the best music we’ve ever written recently. It felt easier just to give it up. But then it’s harder to start over, right? And I don’t know if any of us are ready to do that yet.”
“Now I want to take this to the furthest point before we walk away from it. Now, we’re just ready to play again as a band,” says Neil, reciting the band’s goals: to land on the cover of NOW Magazine and open for Broken Social Scene.
At Joe’s urging, Neil has written a new song, entitled “Love Is Not Enough.”
“I don’t know…just sometimes love is not enough. Not enough—for me. I’m not a one-man, or a one-woman guy. And I don’t fall into monogamy very easily, and it often feels forced when I do. But really, I am a serial monogamist—it’s just that sometimes that I’m a serial monogamist for like, three days, or one night…“ admits Neil.
“So I think this band is like being in a relationship. I mean it’s wanting ultimately the same things, which is to take this as far as we can and make the best music possible, but we all have pretty different ideas of how to do that. Recently we referred to it as a seven-person marriage, and we’re partly staying together for the kids, you know? And those are the songs we love so much, that we want to see develop—and we want to have more, we want to have more kids. So we’re willing to work through our shit, we’ll sleep in separate beds if we have to, and we’ll even…”
“Go into counselling?” I ask.
Neil Rankin: “It’s a seven-person marriage and we’re partly staying together for the kids”