Although well known in Canada for his left-wing sociopolitical commentary, his biting anti-US and anti-globalization folk-rock/industrial compositions and his work with contemporary circus troupes, Montreal-based singer-songwriter Jerry Snell has built a name for himself in Asia over the past three years for very different reasons
He was first forced to tame his fiery cynicism of authority in 2002, when he was invited to compose the score for the Beijing Modern Dance Company's first joint Canadian-Chinese co-production, BONE. And in recent months he's been busy in Taipei collaborating with Lin Shiu-wei (林秀偉) and her critically acclaimed Tai-Gu Tales Dance Theatre group (太古踏舞團) on a new show entitled Upanishads, which will premier at the Taipei Arts Festival next week.
"I've had to tone it down in Asia because people don't express themselves in the same way as in Canada," said Snell. "Music and lyrics that would be considered [normal] back home would be considered far too expressive here."
Snell cut his teeth in the music business during the hedonistic days of punk rock in 1977-78. It was to be the harsh repetitiveness and abrasive jackhammer basics of the early industrial scene in the late 1970s, however, that would prove to be the turning point in his career.
By drawing stimulus from early hardcore industrial acts like Test Department and Foetus, Snell began to toy with the process of using industrial music as a backdrop for performance art.
In 1980 he co-founded the modern dance-circus troupe Carbone 14 with Gilles Maheu. The group, whose shows blended aspects of multimedia performance with contemporary dance and circus and utilized heavy industrial soundtracks, proved hugely successful.
After 15 years with Carbone and with the group at the pinnacle of its success and about to move into its own studio Snell decided to call it quits. He felt the group "had become too bourgeois" for his left-of-center ideologies.
"We started out as buskers at a time when [contemporary] circus was a relatively unknown concept," he said. "After 15 years of [directing] and writing scores for the group I felt that the concept of what we originally set out to achieve had became too commercial. It had lost its edginess and egos were replacing soul."
Within five years of leaving the group Snell had toured extensively, held workshops throughout Europe and established himself as one of Canada's leading industrial rockers. Back at home he secured a residency with the National Circus School and penned the scores to performances by several of the nation's leading contemporary circus troupes.
While his heavily industrial music based work with the circus troupes meant that Snell was forced to concentrate on the music rather than the lyrical content of his compositions, Snell continued to work on politically motivated material in his own time. And in early 2001 he began exploring more mainstream ways in which to get his anti-capitalist/globalization messages across. The result of Snell's time out from the industrial scene was Cash: The Album.
Released in 2001, Cash is arguably Snell's most politically powerful solo album to date. Coincidentally mixed and recorded on the same day Muslim extremists destroyed the World Trade Center Snell packed his album with Southern blues hooks and riffs, Tom Waits-like whiskey drenched vocals and oodles of anti-US rhetoric.