Since its inception, Ottawa band HILOTRONS has occupied a peculiar place in the Canadian music scene that has made it almost incomparable to any other act. While dubbed an indie pop band, the group delights in drawing inspiration from seemingly anywhere and making seemingly anything: the group has has tracked silent films, created electro-funk jams, and crafted some of the most precise concept albums in Canada– and no two records are ever the same. Their Sing Song album, recorded with poet David O’Meera, is not so much an album as it is an homage to O’Meera’s work. Before that, the group recorded At Least There’s Commotion, an abrasive concept record built around lead singer Mike Dubue’s borderline personality disorder and its impact on his friends and family. Now, the group is touring Canada with the silent film Carry On, Sergeant, a lost Canadian masterpiece that the group hopes to restore as they work on their next record.
What’s happening with Hilotrons right now?
Mike Dubue: We’re presenting touring a silent film with a live score that we’ve arranged with Ennio Morricone’s music called Carry on Sergeant. Carry on Sergeant is a film from the silent era, 1921, and it’s one the few surviving feature films from the Canadian archives. It’s the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, and the film has a really awesome anti-war sentiment to it, and deals a lot with issues around PTSD and struggles on the battlefield. It’s a really interesting film that’s never really been shown, or studied for that matter, and what information you can find on it is incorrect by our comparisons. You’ll see other sources talk about how it was a really high budget film or that it was “controversial”, but they don’t ever describe it well or talk about why it was controversial. I think the film has been discredited largely. We wanna start bringing the film to different universities and film programs so that people actually take the time to figure out the narratives and the symbolism for themselves.
How did you decide to undergo a project like this?
I’ve been scoring silent films since 2009. Its something I really enjoy doing, I just love the silent age of cinema. I’ve done all the classics—Metropolis, Nosferatu, and a few estranged films like the Adventures of Prince Achmed, as well as all sorts of different Canadian shorts. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and normally I write scores from scratch, but this time around I decided to take the music of Morricone—one of my favourite composers and avant-garde musicians. It was almost the same amount of work to rearrange his music with the four pieces—bass, percussion, keys, and voice—than it was to do it by hand. Last night we played the Regent theatre, and we had this huge Morricone nerd who actually recognized a lot of the music even though it was really underground stuff. We aren’t taking much music from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or other well known Morricone films, although we are borrowing from Fistfull of Dollars. We’re borrowing from the more estranged films…so to answer your question, this film has been easy in the sense that I’ve done this a lot by now.
Carry On Sergeant was also part of a series, right?
No, actually. This is another problem with the situation. In the 50s, there were a series of carry on films that don’t have anything to do with this original film. But the confusion is common because, as I said, there’s little information out there. It also happens that the director from this film is British, so that confuses it further. His name is Bruce Bairnsfather. He wanted to make the movie because he suffered from PTSD—he was in a machine gun brigade and really cast that on the film. It was kinda the Saving Private Ryan of its time. His behavioral patterns end up making him have an affair, which creates this narrative of forbidden love that comes out of those patterns. It’s also quite funny. It’s dark, like, super advanced dark humor that often gets lost in translation. Bruce Bairnsfather’s humor is like Monty Python, but 40 years earlier.
Sounds like it’s one hell of a film. Another thing I wanted to ask about is your Sing Song project you did with David O’Meera. What attracted you to David’s poetry and how did you come to do that kind of project?
David is a really good friend of mine, and I think he’s one of the best writers in this country. I’m not a huge fan of poetry, but something about his work just speaks to me. We’ve also collaborated in other ways—he’s contributed lyrics for our upcoming record—and I worked on a radio play and another silent film with him previously. I fell in love with his last book, so I kinda forced him into it. He came into my house, I stuck him in a closet, I recorded the best performances of his own works, and I built the album around it.
I also heard that David tends bar—is that how you met him?
I met him on the scene more around ten to fifteen years ago. He works at a local pub where a lot of artists and musicians play at, it’s called the Manx Pub. I met him through the bar actually [laughter] and I’m not even a heavy drinker!
On your record before Sing Song, At Least There’s Commotion, you delve into your borderline personality disorder and it really shapes the tone of that piece.
Absolutely. It’s a concept record around someone living with borderline, as well as the perspectives of their lovers friends and family. Pretty much every HILOTRONS record to me, except for maybe the first one, is a conceptual record. When I make a record, I make a concept, and I have to work completely around that concept. Mental health is a huge issue for me. I feel like a survivor. I’ve come out on the other side alive, and it’s a huge subject for me and something that I think is plaguing our country… I’m really disappointed in our country . What happened on Parliament Hill recently wasn’t an act of terrorism, but of a really ill individual who couldn’t find the resources… there’s also the situation with Jian Ghomeshi. His behavior is inexcusable, obviously, but at the same time he’s trapped in those behavioral patterns. I think it’s a time for men to look themselves in the mirror and gain emotional integrity, which is really lacking in the modern male psyche. To me, this is all tied to mental health—I found a great resource center that helped me, and I think I would be dead if I didn’t get the help that I got. The thing we need in this country is that kind of awareness. Male ego just shames us… we’re too scared to get the help we need.
Do you think part of that is also due to stigmatization around the mentally ill?
Yes, but a lot of the stigma is also true, I think. The stigma of mentally ill men being dangerous is really true, as hard as it is for me to say it. That stigma? You just got to fucking own it, because if you don’t deal with your shit, you could become a dangerous person to yourself or people you love. But at the same time, it’s so terrifying.
On a slightly cheerier note: most bands go through a lot of bad names before they settle on one that they like. What is the worst name you’ve ever performed under before you became HILOTRONS?
We basically were HILOTRONS from the beginning—our old guitarist suggested the name, and that was that. For a moment we were called Porch Dweller, which was really because we released an EP called “Porch Dweller” and were nameless at the time. I also had a noise band in my early 20s that was called “Royce, Cedrick, and the Strawberry Vaginas”.
Oh my god. That’s almost impressively bad.
Generally though, I always feel proud to say I’ve never had a truly, truly awful band name aside from that.
My final question for you, Mike: What’s next?
We’re putting out a record next year called To Trip with Terpsichore, once again a concept record. We recorded the whole thing live in the studio, so I would say to its core it’s about 90% live. It’s really raw, and really short. I’m angry at my country, and that’s what the record is essentially about. You gotta dig your teeth into it lyrically to understand where it’s coming from because a lot of it is very metaphorical, but it’s definitely a “I’m pissed at my country” record, which I’ve never done before. It might be the most punk rock thing I’ve ever done.
Keep a track of what HILOTRONS is up to by visiting their website here.