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JOYFULTALK’s 'Muuixx' Was Made With the Random Stuff He Saw Laying Around

"I still get bullshit questions like, ‘what are your inspirations?’ And it’s like, whatever, man, look up at the sky? You’re alive, too!"


Jay Crocker. Photo courtesy of JOYFULTALK

“It’s not completely by design that we can play some weird-ass industrial drugged-out after party and then a classical music festival the next weekend,” says Jay Crocker, the mastermind behind the electronic-based project JOYFULTALK, “It just kind of worked out that way.”

This July, Crocker released JOYFULTALK’s debut full-length, Muuixx. It’s the most recent example of instrumental ingenuity in Canadian music without question. From his home in south-west Nova Scotia, Crocker describes the 14 modified “weirdo” instruments he custom-made to use on the album, like The Comb Over, The Pink Dolphin and The Cheadle. “Like, Don Cheadle?” I ask. “Yeah. Exactly,” he replies, “There’s also a plastic guitar, a three-stringed banjo that I use with a bow, a home-made drum machine, a tiny six-stringed guitar that I treat like a rhythm section, to mimic violas and cellos, a suitcase of Walkmans and some other stuff.”

Crocker scored all 14 instruments, and the song's rhythms and harmonies, before he even recorded anything. He used his own Planetary Music System, and invented scoring methodology that’s a circular rather than linear form of arrangement and notation. Then he played most of the parts start to finish, where possible, rather than loop or sample the pieces. Honestly, this process sounds insanely intricate, and mostly theoretical. But still, Muuixx is a hypnotic composition that offers surface enjoyment (“Throw it on at a party or whatever,” he shrugs) or tonal complexities and challenges for the careful listener. It’s mobile, groovy, intense and original.

To create Muuixx, Crocker relied on his experience as a musician in hometown of Calgary. Performing since he was 15, and with training in jazz, he’s a well-practiced improvisational player. It's now the principle when playing with artists like Jon McKiel and Cousins: “We just go bananas in those bands now. We need freedom. I realized this in Calgary. In 2005, my friend Chris Dadge started this series Bug Incision and we were always just improvising. I need that in performance,” he says.

At the same time, he was doing a “shitload” of composing for a 10-piece band while playing with many other acts across Alberta, touring the continent with avant-garde and blues ensembles and performing with more consumable pop-oriented bands like the 2010 Polaris Prize-nominated outfit, Ghostkeeper.

“Playing with bands like that was really sweet. I was also doing my own singing-folky stuff too,” he says, “But the whole structure of singer-songwriter, or whatever the fuck you wanna call it — it’s all been done. I started to feel like a total corn dog.” When Calgary’s rapid economic boom began overwhelming him, he moved his wife, kids, and big dog Django to the tiny village of Crousetown, Nova Scotia, a sparsely populated, economically depressed region.

In the forest, far from urbanity, he began working on Muuixx: “It wouldn’t have happened anywhere else,” he says. For about two years, broke and struggling with depression and newfound isolation, Crocker put the album together using whatever resources were available. Things like kid’s toys, old pedals and self-esteem tapes from thrift stores. His custom-made instruments became his players, and he describes “Muuixx” as the trance-like state of this super dark but creative period.

“With anything, you can skim the surface or you can dive in,” Crocker says, “These sounds aren’t normal sounds for those instruments. I mean, I was into really early German electronic music, like Cluster, Harmonia, really early Kraftwerk, and like, synths, arpeggiation, modified flutes and shit. That was the jumping off point.”

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Towards the end of recording, Crocker started hanging out with Will Vandermuelen, also new to the community and an instrument designer. They performed improv electronic sets at local festivals until Crocker’s friend Dicey Parks (Lab Coast) relocated from Calgary. With that, JOYFULTALK had the technical ability to perform live.

“I just couldn’t bring everything around with me for live shows, it’s too fucked. So I had to figure out how the fuck I was going to make everything work, there were too many variables. I had to totally simplify everything and have a good foundation for live playing. Then with Dicey and Will, it was just like, Yeah this is it.”

“Dicey plays samples that are hooked to my system, he’s got a drum machine, Will’s got his own gear,” Crocker says, “Compared to most electronic music, this is actually played live, we're actually playing. It’s not just a backing system. Will and Dicey are able to help me play the songs or color them the right way and get the right feeling. And the songs aren’t always the same as on the record, but I never want to do the same thing twice. For me, it’s always a fresh conversation.”

Dialogue is an important part of JOYFULTALK. There’s several layers of communication between the scored instruments and within the live performances. “To me, it’s also pretty happy music at times,” says Crocker, “You know me. I’m not a super serious person. I like weird kinds of fun. I mean, the name of the game is just make some shit and see what happens. It’s not intended to be highbrow but this record has been opening up really challenging conversations. I still get bullshit questions like, ‘what are your inspirations?’ And it’s like, whatever, man, look up at the sky? You’re alive, too! But I do think maybe I’m on the right track.”

Crocker recently received another arts grant to develop his Planetary Music System, based on gear-sets, and which is similar in originality to the scores of Johannes Kepler, a 16th-century polymath who composed the harmony of the planets using astronomical data. Like Kepler, Crocker shares a sense of time as continuous movement. You can hear this throughout Muuixx, and it’s what makes it appealing to almost every audience, from an experimental art festival to a stringed orchestra.

“But I’m not trying to be super fucking existentialist about it,” he says. He just imposes challenges on himself that he can overcome: that's the mother of invention.

“I think that’s my whole jam in life, like why did I leave the richest city in Canada to come to the poorest place in the country? There’s beauty in challenging yourself and the world that’s moving around you, and you can tell when an artist stops struggling," he says, "I think that’s when their music starts sucking, frankly.”

Creating a challenge takes Crocker’s work beyond novelty and into true originality. The sounds on Muuixx push between technical imitations of nature, like raindrops, wind, waves crashing, to more precise electronic noises and experiments, all while powerfully building and dropping moods in unison. It’s a pretty moving record.

Over the next few months, JOYFULTALK will play several Ontario festivals, Pop Montreal and the Halifax Pop Explosion. Basically if you want to get your mind fucking blown, you should probably check out JOYFULTALK. Drugs might help. “You gotta keep exploring and digging and going deeper,” he says, “There is no end.”

Adria Young is a writer based in Halifax. She is on Twitter.