The Suits XL
Samuel Loubier-Demers: Guitar, Lead Vocals
Yohann Gosselin: Guitar, Vocals
Olivier Roy de Belleval: Lyricist
Another day, another deadline. I’m meeting The Suits XL this evening at their swank Quebec City hangout Le Boudoir Lounge. The hard part is memorizing their mile-long names: Samuel Loubier-Demers, Félix-Antoine Berubé, Olivier Roy de … something or other. Otherwise, it’s been a breeze listening to their debut opus, a one-way melodic trip to pleasantville titled Quarter-Life Crisis. I’ve googled co-producers The Berman Brothers and learned that the German duo have had the midas touch with Cher, Hanson, even the Baha Men (“Who Let the Dogs Out,” no less). I know that sound engineer Rob Heaney is a key player with Le Cirque du Soleil. Now I’m at the point where the choruses of “Low” and lead single “Play” have leeched into my brain and I can’t hit the mental stop button.
The Suits XL defy easy categorization. One minute I’m thinking the Cars, the next it’s the Cure minus Robert Smith, then No Doubt, then any number of ‘80s electro-pop acts. Ultimately I realize they sound like nobody but themselves. There’s a cohesion here that can’t be missed. Amidst the byzantine arrangements, a group personality emerges – sophisticated and sincere, moody yet playful, a little retro while still being totally contemporary.
I grab a cab. The heavy rain leaves me soaked in the dozen paces it takes to reach the Boudoir’s front door. I’m greeted by a blonde-haired guy with blue eyes who I recognize from the promo shots. Introducing himself as Samuel, he takes my dripping coat and says, “Don’t worry bro, we’re over by the fireplace. We’ll have you as dry in less time than it takes to say double scotch on the rocks.”
The first thing I notice about The Suits XL are the women with them. Stunning. Stylish. Classy. It’s an appropriate scene for an unabashedly commercial pop act who claim they’re here for fun, not to save the world. Several of the men are wearing ties in what I imagine is a wry statement on the band’s name. But with no suit jackets in sight they look more like a ska/new wave act dressed by Diesel.
They tell me they’re in their mid-to-late twenties. They hooked up at the turn of the century, though they’ve been musicians since their early teens. “Like so many other bands, we’ve played all sorts of dead-end places, and recorded demo after demo after demo,” says Samuel. With that, he turns silent, clearly indicating that past is past and the Suits XL aren’t too interested in dwelling in it.
“Our time is now.” announces Olivier. “We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. We’ve had some airplay in Quebec and English Canada. We’re played New York City. But there’s such a world of difference between who we were and what we’ve become. I mean, we used to be called Sunny Side Up and lean towards punk rock …”
Punk rock? Interesting, but not totally surprising. Their music definitely rocks, but then again it’s blatantly pop. So what happened here? “We started messing around with electronics, which is good because that’s what I do,” explains Felix, the cheeky, talkative one who puts the final shine on the band’s sound. “The truth is this change of direction was inevitable and natural. The Suits XL is a group thing. We’re friends, first and foremost. I’m a psychiatrist. Sam spent the last few years as an investigator. Oli’s a translator. Keeping things democratic is hugely important to us.”
Mention Quarter-Life Crisis and the fireworks go off. The Suits XL are excited about it. So excited, in fact, that they all start talking simultaneously, blurting out anecdotes and laughing at inside jokes. It seems that after years of pleading for attention from an indifferent record industry, the band finally found committed believers at Vancouver’s 604 Records. “It took a while to convince them – three years actually - but it was worth it,” says a beaming Sam. “We had other offers, but we felt this company was ready to let us evolve on our terms. It’s rare to find a solid level of trust in this business.”
Recording in the band’s historic hometown, a city filled with distractions and not exactly a music business mecca, was a risky move. “We basically had to build our own studio. We rented a neat sounding room and filled it with tons of gear. Still the Bermans had to bring in their own ProTools.” Ah yes, Christian and Frank Berman, professionally known as the Berman Brothers. Big-time, chart-certified pop/dance producers originally from Hamburg, Germany and based in New York City for the last decade. Their walls are papered with 80 gold and platinum discs. They won a 2001 Grammy for “Who Let The Dogs Out.”
Arriving in wintry Quebec in January, 2005, the Bermans quickly and efficiently cut half the album. “It was a real sign of open-mindedness on their part to come to a city we love and want to support,” says Oli. “You have to understand we’re talking about guys who were wearing more money on them than I’d spent on my wardrobe in five years. But they were total gentlemen and made us feel comfortable in no time.”
The five Berman-produced tracks are led by “Play,” a blast of sunshine marked by buoyant synth riffs, vocal harmonies and that hook-riddled chorus. The brief sample of an anonymous Arabic singer was a late substitute for one by Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, who it turned out was singing holy text from the Koran. “We’re not interested in being controversial just for the sake of it,” says Yohann Gosselin, the band’s plainspoken centre of gravity. Instead the emphasis remains on the single’s “live for today” message, which is matched by a video shot in the idyllic Cuban town of Trinidad. “The Cubans have it pretty hard because of the embargo, but they’re always smiling, always playing music. They bite into life,” says Oli.
Among other initiatives, the Bermans dropped a voice-over from the Apollo 11 moon mission into “Space Odyssey,” about an ultimate long-distance relationship with a woman bound for Mars. They helmed a re-recording of “Low,” which had scored airplay for Sunny Side Up in Quebec. And they encouraged the band to cut one francophone track, “Le Plaisir,” as a signal that English isn’t the global pop scene’s only international language.
The Suits XL felt confident enough to tackle the remainder of Quarter-Life Crisis themselves. They worked closely with engineer Rob Heaney, a Juno Award nominee for Le Cirque du Soleil album Alegria. “He’s a quirky guy, a bit like an alchemist, but also a friend and a father figure with his slippers and all those herbal teas,” reveals Sam. The collaboration generated album opener “Big Fat Comeback,” a critique of pop culture’s nostalgic rearview obsessions, and such album highlights as the title track and “Downloading” (about the anarchic possibilities of the Internet, not a pro or con statement on file sharing).
As the evening wears on and the Boudoir fills with clubbers, I close with a question about the band’s name. “Calling ourselves The Suits XL is plain cynical,” says Oli. “We’re not in the major leagues, but we’ve already had our share of business problems with ‘suits.’ At one point we were pretty bitter, so we turned to irony for solace.” Adds Felix: “We thought it made sense to make fun of the industry by pretending that the choices we make are dictated by flowcharts and shareholder interests.”
Okay, irony. These guys think they’re funny, huh? I put their wit to the test by asking the eternal job-interview closer. “So where do you guys see yourselves in five years?” It’s probably just my imagination, but the Boudoir seems to go quiet for a moment. The Suits XL share amused glances, wry grins on their faces. Finally Sam provides an answer.
“We see ourselves doing this for a long, long time,” he says, totally deadpan, the smile replaced by an intent gleam in his eye. “We’re aiming for an annual growth rate of 15 percent and an eventual merger with General Motors. But the cover of Rolling Stone would be nice for starters.”