Larry Graves and I spoke just after the band’s van had rolled into Sault Ste Marie on its way to Thunder Bay, a nine-hour drive from Toronto.
“We’re only a fraction of the way to the Yukon,” Parks said, sounding tired over his cell phone.
Before Mr. Something Something arrives to play the Dawson City Music Festival they have gigs in Thunder Bay, and Saskatoon, as well as three days at the Atlin Arts and Music Festival.
Graves (on drums and percussion), John MacLean (tenor sax, clarinet and flute) and Johan Hultqvist (vocals) are the core of the group, which fluctuates in composition depending on the commitments that members of the “extended family” of eleven other musicians may have.
On this tour the lineup includes Chris Gale (tenor sax), Tom Juhas (guitar) and David Chan (bass).
The name is a play on the title of a song by Fela Kuti, the Nigerian godfather of Afrobeat, called “Mr. Follow Follow”, with lyrics that poked fun at the lockstep, unthinking mentality of the Nigerian military.
That would be a great name for a tribute band, but Graves explains it didn’t work out that way.
“We never actually played a single tune of Fela’s, but we liked the redundancy in the name. So the joke became that we would keep the “Mr.” and then we would think of something … something, something … whatever.”
Graves says that he and MacLean have cultivated an interest in world music generally, and West African music in particular, over the last 20 years, and repetition is a big part of those cultures.
“Then it kinda stuck and it took on this persona of being music for any person, because our audience is so diverse.
“It’s worked for us,” Graves said, while admitting that it does make logo designs, album covers and T-shirts a little difficult.
While the band’s sound is a good-time fusion of Afrobeat and jazz (Graves co-writes all the music) the lyrics (mostly by MacLean and Hultqvist) are hardly what you would expect to find from a party band.
“I don’t think we have a single love song in all these years.”
The songs sound a lot like responses to current events, world problems, and personal tragedies.
“I feel very fortunate to be working with these guys because the band is very well informed,” Graves tells me.
“The individuals in the band spend a lot of time trying to keep up with current issues of everything from politics to environmental issues … to things that are happening – that effect us in our culture and every day life.
“We’re trying to make a difference with the music, rather than making music that’s just fun to dance to. We’re trying to make an impact and maybe get people to consider some of these issues that are a little bit more difficult to talk about. Maybe a lot of songwriters don’t want to approach them.”
“The irony (is) that we’re making feel-good music, but yet we’re sometimes touching on topics that maybe aren’t escapist in nature; they’re a bit burdening.”
Grave says the band has a very interactive, high-energy show, a claim certainly verified by online videos, which aims to make people feel good and think at the same time.
“Our front man (Johan Hultqvist) is very good at including people and making people feel comfortable. I think people then are a little bit more likely to be open to talk about some of these hard topics.”
Hard topics: a girl dies because her boyfriend’s lips contained some peanut butter residue (“Only the Maker”); “They built each other a bridge so they could travel to war” (“The Antidote”); “Tight was the windpipe, tight but you cannot close your eyes against the gas” (“Make Your Mind”); “People seem to disappear – suddenly they’re gone” (“Why Why Why”).
Tough topics, but the music itself is very listenable. The combination of horns, percussion guitars and vocals that sometimes echo solo Sting, sometimes Paul Simon in his later period, telling tales that are far from teen angst and silly love songs.
“It’s not being preached at them, but it’s being offered as just a different way of thinking.”
You will often hear Hultqvist end a set with this message, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world and maybe the next time we get together the world is gonna look different.”