French lyrics no barrier to success

This past year, Malajube released two new albums, garnered a Polaris Prize nomination, and scored an award-winning new film.

Malajube solidified their place as one of the most successful francophone bands in English Canada

TORONTO — This past year, Malajube released two new albums, garnered a Polaris Prize nomination, and scored an award-winning new film.

Yep, 2009 was kind to the Montreal band, allowing the psychedelic-tinged indie rockers to solidify their place as one of the most successful francophone bands in English Canada, the United States and the rest of the world.

It’s a nice position to be in, though the band isn’t exactly sure how they got there.

“I’m still wondering how we did that,” bassist Mathieu Cournoyer said. “Maybe our label has been pushing a lot to get out of Quebec and that’s pretty much what we wanted to do, because I don’t think we’d be a good band to be always in Quebec and always playing in front of a French audience.

“I don’t think we’d still be here if we were stuck in Quebec forever.”

But despite the seemingly busy year, Cournoyer said the band’s schedule wasn’t as demanding as it was in the wake of their 2006 breakthrough album, Trompe-l’oeil.

That sophomore record — a wide-eyed wander through various rock flavours, united by ramshackle exuberance and a strong sense of melody — garnered the band’s first Polaris shortlisting and critical praise that extended across borders.

Seizing the opportunity, Malajube toured relentlessly. For Cournoyer, the unforgiving road schedule was ultimately too taxing.

“We were not at home so much,” he said. “I think it was pretty hard for us, because we’re not used to travelling so much. It was hard on our personal lives and our health, maybe. Lots of drinking, not much sleeping.

“This year was a little more easy.”

The band issued the proggy, appropriately titled Labyrinthes in February, followed by Controle — a four-song EP composed of unreleased tunes from the Labyrinthes sessions — in December, available for download on the band’s website or in limited-edition vinyl.

They toured in support of the new material, just not as thoroughly as before — “we didn’t burn out ourselves too much,” said Cournoyer.

Meanwhile, the band found more fans via their soundtrack for The Trotsky, a Canadian film that casts Jay Baruchel ( Tropic Thunder, Knocked Up) as a misfit Montreal 17-year-old who believes he’s the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky.

Cournoyer said the band utilized a bank of riffs and song scribbles to craft a series of short, wordless songs for the film. He said their songs may get an official release if the movie performs well, though “there are some songs that are like 30 seconds, so I don’t know if it would make a great album to listen to.” The film, due for a spring release, was a standout at the Toronto International Film Festival and won the audience award at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Malajube, too, has had success with forays into Japan. “For them, it doesn’t really matter if it’s in French or English, because they don’t understand what it is in English anyways, so that’s good for us,” Cournoyer reasoned.

He hasn’t, however, settled on a theory for the band’s success in the United States.

“It’s pretty bizarre,” he said. “We were playing in Arizona in Tucson, and most people there don’t even know that there are French-speaking people in North America. They were so surprised. They were like: ‘Quebec? Where’s that? You speak French?’”

American critics, who have been kind to the band, seem to treat their French vocals as less an obstacle than a signature.

Chicago webzine Pitchfork once wrote that Malajube “sounded no more francophone than . . . Electric Light Orchestra” and called their lyrics a “point of difference,” while Spin magazine suggested English speakers “make up their own semi-sensical phrases and sing along anyway.”

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