It’s technically possible that there is another noise-gospel band somewhere in the world, but in all probability Joyful Joyful is unique. A product of the artier end of the Peterborough music scene but now Toronto-based, they are a duo: Cormac Culkeen, who grew up in Peterborough, and Dave Grenon, who lived here for a few years while attending Trent University.
Cormac has played in numerous bands, most notably the much-mourned Tin Vespers, a texturally exquisite acoustic quintet that brought classical instrumentation to folk structures in service of an idiosyncratic song cycle about a fictional Victorian-era inventor. Dave played in Hello Babies, an oddball power trio, sometimes silly and sometimes sinister, that operated on a spectrum between outsider music and free jazz.
Joyful Joyful arose out of a long-simmering musical collaboration and a shared love of noise, but reflects both of their individual backgrounds as well. “We don’t fit easily into a genre,” Cormac says, “We get put in as the strange element in all kinds of bills.”
1. Growing up in Peterborough, how did you first get into music?
I started getting into music at all-ages shows at the Gordon Best in late 90s/ early oughts. There were live all-ages shows there two times a week, plus the rainbow dances. I used to go in Grade 8 and 9 and see punk and hardcore bands, plus some more established bands like the Diplomats. So it was really local stuff that got me into music, which is pretty cool.
When the Spill opened, I was 17 and in high school, and I started going to live shows there. It was more of a coffeehouse then. James Kent had his regular show, and I was definitely up for some crooning piano music! I played a lot of shows at the Spill when I was first getting started. My first band – not counting high school metal bands, which never made it out of the basement, thankfully—was Gin and Sparrow, a duo with Renée Deschenes.
2. Gin and Sparrow was a duo and so is Joyful Joyful, but you also played in Candle Cave Ensemble, one of the quintessentially large Peterborough bands. How is a small band different from a large band?
Yeah, I played in Candle Cave Ensemble and the Bear Trees, both of which were really big. Tin Vespers was the only band I was in that had an almost reasonable number of people!
In a big band I’ve been a vocalist, singing somebody else’s songs. It’s one of the most freeing things. You’re part of that cast of thousands, you show up, you hit the notes, and have a good time. With big bands I’ve been as much of a fan of the band as part of it, which doesn’t happen as much with smaller bands.
In the smaller bands I was writing the music. I don’t write well without collaborating, though. I need a strong collaborator to bounce ideas off of.
3. How does the creative process with Dave work in Joyful Joyful? Do you write together?
We’ve been making music about ten years, mostly through Trent Radio. We both had noise shows, we would guest on each other’s shows, do stuff together. We learned how to improvise together. The writing process starts off with a lot of improvisation—drones, textures. Once there’s a bed there to play with, the song comes together quickly.
Once we get it down, it’s locked. There’s very little improvisation in our live performances. Having them rehearsed so all the elements are there puts parameters around the chaotic elements of it.
4. Tin Vespers is one of those ex-bands that a lot of people still love and still talk about. What do you think of that?
Whenever I’m in Peterborough, people will talk to me about Tin Vespers. We only put out that one EP. People will tell me how it was a meaningful project. It’s very moving. It was a very moving band to be in. All of us really lived in those songs, so it’s a beautiful thing that those things have stayed.
5. Do you still think of yourselves as a Peterborough band?
Dave lived in Peterborough when Joyful Joyful was starting, so we were a Peterborough-Toronto band. I’ve lived in Toronto for five years now. Then Dave moved to Toronto as well, we have to say we’re from Toronto, but I don’t want to! The local scene in Peterborough is so important to me. So many of my music connections are in Peterborough or the Peterborough diaspora. Whenever we play in Peterborough, it feels like a hometown show.
Joyful Joyful play with ELMS on July 8 at Catalina’s, and then return to play the Sadleir House parking lot as part of the Golden Bus tour on July 27.
Cover photo from “Live off the floor: Joyful Joyful ‘Sebaldus'” by Joyful Joyful and FILMkelly.