Joel Gibb

Interview by
Alex Needham
Photography by
Viviane Sassen


Joel Gibb is the 28-year-old songwriter and lead singer with the Toronto-based, 13-piece band The Hidden Cameras. They make incredible, rollicking choral pop music about subjects like piss sex, poppers and cum, and have performed in churches, a porn cinema and an old people’s home. I met Joel on his first visit to London, where he played a solo acoustic gig at an arts café in Shoreditch. His song ‘Golden Streams’ received an unexpectedly rapturous response.

Alex: I like your T-shirt.
Joel: It’s this band The Fifth Column. They got Single of the Week in the NME, in 1992. They’re from Toronto, they’re a girl band, and they had a bunch of singles out on K Records. One of them drew this. You know Tom of Finland? She does it, but she does it lesbian style.
Is the Toronto scene quite fertile, then?
Hmmm…I know more about the art scene. It’s very much a community, which is good. The music scene is not so community based.
Did the band meet at an art project?
My friends booked me to play their art gallery for a show that they were doing called Miracle. It was a religious-themed group art show and there was a party. I was asked to play at the party, so I asked a bunch of friends to play with me. Some people in the band are artists, but they’re mostly just musicians. Some of them are activists.
What kind of activists?
What politics?
Let’s see… our good friend Mez, who’s our political guru, he organises stuff like car-free days, like when you close down all the streets, stuff like that. Leftist things.
What’s been your best performance to date?
How do you define best?
The one you enjoyed the most.
Um, oh, I guess the one we did recently because there were so many people and such a great atmosphere.
Was that the one in the church a couple of Saturdays ago? Did you have go-go dancers?
We had one. He had three costume changes, so it was very classy. He had an animal one because it was the Animals of Prey show, so he had furry underwear, and he has a huge one with feathers and chains and fur and stuff, and then he has more classic ones like a balaclava made out of pieces of socks and a jockstrap.
I thought there were two go-go dancers. Is one of them part time?
We actually have all sorts of go-go dancers. Sometimes we have, like, 30; sometimes we have one. It just depends on who’s around. But the main one is my best friend, Paul. He’s a painter.
How do the audience tend to react?
In Toronto everyone’s used to us, so they’re really into it, but then we played New York and people liked it, but they were still taking it all in.
Is it quite confrontational, then?
I try not to be. I’m not interested in shoving it down the throats of people who wouldn’t be into it in the first place. We’ve only had one show where we had a hostile reaction, which was an engineering graduate class at this really upscale university where they had no idea who we were. Our go-go dancer was a girl and she didn’t have the nice, trim, slim body that they all adore, and people were telling her to put her clothes on. People didn’t like us, they all stood progressively further away from us and then a bunch of drunk girls in prom dresses came onstage and were grabbing my ass and grabbing the microphone…they were really fucking drunk though. And it was fun at the time, just ‘cause we’d never played to an audience like that, but that wouldn’t be our mandate, to confront people.
A lot of your lyrics are quite confrontational, like ‘Ban Marriage’.
Well, that’s totally the extreme. It’s just a reaction to seeing gays trying to marry in the media and being disillusioned by that idea and not really identifying with it, even though I’m gay. It doesn’t seem like a worthwhile cause. I don’t equate being able to marry with human rights. The whole concept of marriage should be disbanded instead of trying to emulate some institution that might not have much of a place in society right now. The whole concept of people who don’t fall in love getting economically penalised in a way because they can’t get married…how lame is that? And the culture of coupledom — the whole concept of giving up your identity for somebody else and becoming half a person in a way…I’m not against coupledom; I’m a pretty traditional guy anyways, but at the same time, you have to evaluate things, that’s all.
What about the line ‘there is splendour in the harshness of bum’
That lyric is a fictional quote from God. God comes and interrupts this wedding between two men and talks about the hypocrisy of it and is putting the case for, well… (sings) ‘That there is splendour in the harshness of bum / that consummation makes a grumble and the sound that I have learned / called: Ban marriage’. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. People are afraid of their asses; it’s like they don’t exist.
Gay marriage does kind of desexualise homosexuality, does it?
Exactly. These couples who get in front of cameras and try to make it all legitimate… they’re cleaning up the things about being gay that are actually cool, which is the fact that it kind of makes people uncomfortable, because it forces straight people to think about sex or whatever, even to think about sex that’s foreign to them, like ‘Whoa, that’s so scary’. And so it totally cleans it up; it makes them like these little sort of really straight-acting, clean puppets. And to me, that’s scary, you know? I don’t want that to represent me. They’re wearing their khaki pants and their nice dress shirt, and there’s no real…it’s like they don’t have sex, they just peck each other on the lips.
It’s not what the drag queens rioted for at Stonewall, is it?
Exactly. The Hidden Cameras is this pre-Stonewall thing. I get excited about that whole idea of what it meant to be gay in the sixties and how it was really actually revolutionary and dangerous and important. Now it just seems like capitalism has legitimised it because there’s a whole demographic to sell products to, and so it’s sort of sad that the whole political meaning is lost amidst the commodification of ‘gay’. Like you know the show Will and Grace? It’s like that. He’s not even gay, first of all. He doesn’t seem gay, and he never has sex. It’s the most unthreatening thing and everything about that character is compromised. And that takes away the unique and special thing about being gay, which is that you don’t have to be sanitized or whatever.
A lot of the imagery you use in your lyrics is quite nostalgic and seventies-oriented — poppers, leather, Tom of Finland…
It kind of romanticises that.
Is it just the aesthetic you’re drawn to, or is it a reflection of what you’re into sexually?
I don’t know — I’m pretty open minded, but I wouldn’t say I have a specific fetish. And I definitely don’t like poppers.
Is it the smell or the effect?
The smell.
Sweaty socks.
Is that what it smells like? It’s just disgusting. It’s OK, I guess — it just gives you a headache. But I have friends who really like it — they’ll masturbate by themselves with poppers, spill it all over their futon…
…and then set themselves on fire…
Yeah, they have a post-masturbation cigarette and the whole room goes up in flames. That’d be a romantic idea. Burning up through self-abuse.
Do you go to leather bars?
I don’t go to gay bars in Toronto, but I go to gay bars in other cities because it’s real interesting to see what the whole scene is like.
Are you on the pull, or have you got a boyfriend?
Oh no. I’m very single.
Are the rest of the band gay? Is there intermingling?
Not for me. Some of the band do that but not me. About half the band is gay, and half the band is straight.
So it doesn’t degenerate into an orgy backstage.
No. Sadly no. That would be nice, but it wouldn’t work because you have to work with these people and I have to be really responsible and stuff.
You’re like the harsh dictator of it all, aren’t you?
A bit. I’m nice though, but I direct everything. It’s a strain, but I really like every aspect of having a band — the music, the visuals, the ideas, the themes…
Can you tell me about some of the art you’ve done for the songs?
I like the dagger crucifix with the cock at one end. I try to reduce things to simple drawings — little symbols. They’re all images from flyers — most shows have a theme where you introduce a new song and there’s some sort of performative aspect to it, like when we did the Animals of Prey show, the flyer was a swan and moles. I made a felt banner of a swan and moles, and then during the song we died like moles.


Do you have a name for each different show, then? Obviously there was the Bread and Shit show. What other shows have there been?
The Skulls show, the Disease show, the Blindness show, the Holy Charity of the Hidden Cameras show, which was the penis or dagger…we did a B-Boy show in New York. We played a show called B-Boy which fetishises the idea of a b-boy and relates it as a symbol of the American mentality. Like a b-boy is like George Bush — a really masculine…I don’t know. I can’t describe it without sounding really mean.
Go on, be mean.
No. ‘Cause they’re kind of hot too — it’s this weird contrast, right? They would beat you up, but they’re really hot, so it’s this weird fetish, I guess.
Is that the type you go for, then?
No. Well, I wouldn’t be against it. I don’t think I have a type.
You’ve got two songs about piss sex on the album.
The first song Golden Streams is not about piss sex, but there is a reference to pee, so pee is used as a metaphor. It’s a bodily fluid, it’s a taboo… The whole album is about the body and how we’re afraid of it and disconnected from it. So if I’m talking about pee in this innocent way, that’s kind of the concept. So that’s Golden Streams, and there is a reference in The Man That I Am with My Man about peeing on a lover in the shower before you dry off. That’s just trying to describe a real tender moment of intimacy, like a really vulnerable position. It’s supposed to be used poetically; it’s not trying to be explicit, but at the same time I’m not going to flower up the language and be really abstract and vague, because I don’t like being vague, lyrically that is. There’s also another reference to piss in another song called Music Is My Boyfriend. It’s talking about music in this bodily way. You talk about fucking music…not fucking music, but ‘he swallowed my pee’. That’s just consuming something totally. Actually there are four songs about pee. I played the other one last night — it goes ‘the truth that may be told as we piss in rows’. It’s just one line.
Just a glancing reference.
Yes. It’s about camaraderie through peeing together. You know when you drink lots of beer and you end up peeing together somewhere? It’s got nothing to do with pee; it’s more about union or whatever.
That warm feeling.
You’re going to get fined £80 soon if you do it here.
No way. That’s awful.
There’ll be no more nipping down a dark alley after the pub.
But what if you really, really, really have to go?
I suppose if you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. But now you risk getting fined 80 quid. Do people assume you’re into — or are you indeed into — golden showers?
Some people I guess think that. I’m not into it — I’m not against it. I’m not scared of it. I’m not scared of anything like that, but it’s not my fetish.
Have you ever done it?
Yeah, a little bit. Nothing too big, but yeah. I’ve tried lots of things. Have you?
I can’t say I have. There is a club where you can go though.
Really? Is it a leather bar?
Yes, in King’s Cross. Streams of Pleasure, it’s called. In fact, that sounds like one of your songs.
That could be the fifth song.
Why are you called The Hidden Cameras?
It’s a vague reference to the concept of the panopticon. It’s this architectural concept that was developed in France in the 1800s, where they would build prisons so that the prisoners would be illuminated in such a way that they couldn’t see who was watching them. There would be a tower in the middle of this donut-shaped prison, and the guards could watch whoever they would want whenever they would want, and the prisoners would not be able to know if they were being watched, so the concept is that you can control people’s bodies through their minds.
I was thinking that that was quite a sexy image as well, that kind of voyeurism. It’s like the hidden camera porn websites on the net.
I like the fact that it has all those sorts of connotations. It’s kind of sexy in a way. It’s kind of scary too. It sums up some of the themes in the music — scary things and sexy things and dark things.
As someone from a religious background, do you get a frisson from singing about sex in a church?
Do I get a what?
A frisson.
What’s that?
An enjoyable breaking of taboos. A thrill, basically.
Um, it would be a lie if I said no, but it’s not the main purpose. We’re just recontextualising it.
Were you brought up to believe that homosexuality is evil?
Indirectly. Not by my parents, but I went to certain Christian camps and it was never preached, but it was a fundamentalist environment. The environment I grew up in wasn’t fundamentalist in that way, but I went to a really fundamentalist camp. Women weren’t even allowed to speak! I would be talking to these girls and I’d be, like, ‘Ladies, I can’t believe you guys are cool with this. Your idiot brothers are allowed to talk and you’re not?’ And they don’t even think about it! It’s like…I was so not used to that because it wasn’t the Christian environment I was used to. It was extreme, so it put me off.
How old were you?
Pretty old — 14 or 15. But it was fun too, I don’t know. You could do your own thing.
Did you know you were gay at that point?
Yes and no. I kind of didn’t think about it. You definitely couldn’t think about it in that environment. There was no way to access those desires there, even though you’re at the age where you should be doing things.
There was no sexy moment of transgression there, then? If half the camp weren’t allowed to speak, then that’s an advantage right there.
Oh, that’s good. Silence. Mum’s the word. It’s a great idea, with hindsight. How I would do things differently…
Did you used to frequent the porn theatre that you played in, in Toronto?
It’s a straight porn theatre. But I’ve seen a film there, and I went in there to check out the space. There’s a glory-hole in the bathroom. I’d never seen a real glory-hole before.
Was it in use, this glory-hole?
I’m surprised that was the first one you’d ever seen.
I think there was one at school. You’ve seen a lot?
Yeah, not that I go cottaging.
Cottaging? What’s that?
It’s when you go to public toilets to have sex.
There’s a specific word for cruising for sex in bathrooms?
What’s it called in the States?
Well, that’s a more general term.
At the University of Toronto there are all these places where guys just sit in the stalls. There’s always somebody sitting in there, doing things. And sometimes they close certain bathrooms and just lock them for weeks on end, because it’s such a problem. It’s funny. I really found it interesting, like I would stay at the urinal until something interesting happened, but nothing did. I didn’t give the right codes, I guess.

Originally published in BUTT 8