One day, someone will write a book about all the bands that did not quite make it. They will travel the world, from Rio to Austin to Irkutsk, and ask the people: “What was your greatest band that never was?” The author will collect stories, testimonies, oral histories of the indie-rockers, folk-singers and go-go crews that exploded listeners’ hearts right open—and then called it quits. The tale of all the groups that only live on in legend.
In the ten years since I started going to shows, I have known maybe three bands that were “legendary” in this sense—music to murmur about ‘round bonfires. The first is a cheat, an iteration of a band that still exists. And yet: Montreal’s Arcade Fire, ca. early 2003, yes okay “back in the good old days,” but really just at a time when the band had some different members, different maps, a different way of singing. With this two-drummer line-up Arcade Fire released a self-titled EP, but that record does not communicate what the band then had.
Later there were Uncle John & Whitelock, a Glasgow group that peaked with a three-day tour of New York City and then split in late 2006. Uncle John & Whitelock played the devil’s country blues, a slow brimstone Johnny Cash. They released one album, which isn’t very good. All of Scotland seemed to be at their farewell gig.
And so we come to Sister Suvi. Formed? I don’t know when. Toured? Not sure. They released two short EPs and one album earlier this year, which is very good but still just a debut—a brass and gold and silver foreshadowing. I saw them play only four times.
Sister Suvi were (still I want to say ‘are’) Nico Dann, Merrill Garbus and Patrick Gregoire. Dann is a resident of Toronto, six hours away from here. Garbus, from Vermont, lived in Montreal but had to pretend she did not, each time telling border-guards that she was visiting. Gregoire lives around the corner. The three members of Sister Suvi all sang, rarely in monophonic wallop but often in a demented three-part doo-wop. Dann played drums, nimbly, busily, full of drumstick-clicks and ra-ta-tat. On electric guitar and bass, Gregoire plied the sloppy virtuosity of Pavement or the Unicorns, his lead vocals sung in slack syrupy baritone. Garbus also took lead vocals, lullabying as a soprano or hollering as a tenor. She played ukulele, loudly, like it was a Telecaster. Sometimes she spoke-sang (fiercely, angrily), loosing elastic sort-of-raps over Gregoire’s filigree of guitar. And sometimes they all just threw back their heads and giggled.
Sister Suvi played their final show at Montreal’s Club Balattou on October 2, 2009. The concert began at about 1:15 am. Balattou is long and narrow, the stage along one side. There are lots of mirrors and built-in tables. With anything more than fifteen people, you have to crowd the stage. We crowded.
The music of Sister Suvi is relentlessly striving, blushing, golden indie rock—that you can dance to. It is hard to write about. There is fun, hope, yearning and also consternation. It is not the enforced PARTY TIME soma of certain other “fun” indie bands. Their songs are not prescriptive; instead they are catalysts for joy, triumph, sex or revenge. I hear Deerhoof, the Fall, the Silver Jews, Outkast, Daniel Johnston, Pinback, Spoon, R. Kelly, Mclusky, Grizzly Bear, Gil Scott-Heron, the Velvet Underground and Frog Eyes. But also traces of dub, reggae, chorale, and that time I drove with friends through cornfields, yelling the lyrics to Weezer’s “El Scorcho.” Sometimes Sister Suvi are stupid, Garbus singing: “I felt your buzz in my tushy / when I sat where it was cushy / oh you made my heart all mushy / but when I touched you you were squishy.” It’s the stuff of college funk bands, coffee-shop hip-hop; but then the song swerves, hard left, and it’s raspberry guitar-pop, like the Kinks at their beachiest. Each time a song seems like it is going to end, it does not: instead it turns itself inside-out, opens another wing, sprouts a new flower. These tunes turn on dimes, flick them silver into the air.
The crowd at Sister Suvi’s final show, plucked by bass-lines and shaken by electric ukulele, caught every dime the trio tossed. Not all of us knew what we were getting into. Those hard-left swerves brought wide smiles of surprise; as choruses bloomed, there were actual gasps. For this final show, Sister Suvi played two new songs—intricate, beautiful, written at their last rehearsal. I guess they couldn’t help themselves. We danced. We lurched. Gregoire took off his shirt. Garbus began to cry. We felt ourselves picked up and set down. We thought: how can this be the last time?
It was the last time because Garbus is moving to Oakland, CA, investing her energies in a project called Tune-Yards. Gregoire, who has also played with Islands, is completing his own solo album. And away in Toronto, Dann is a busy jazz sideman. So, so, so, amicably and just like that, they decide to play “The Lot” and “Desolation” and “Longlegs” for the last time. They play them so well we want them to play them twice. Ringing out the finale of Now I Am Champion‘s title track, the audience sparkling in sweat, notes rebounding ’til infinity on Balattou’s mirrors, all of us agree with the band’s lyrics. Sister Suvi are champion. They retire undefeated.
For more from Sean, visit