SOUND SEEKERS: Hilotrons’ Mike Dubue on his borderline personality disorder, the new album, and the Kelp Records dispute
Scene & Heard

SOUND SEEKERS: Hilotrons’ Mike Dubue on his borderline personality disorder, the new album, and the Kelp Records dispute

Sound Seekers by Fateema Sayani is published weekly at Read Fateema Sayani’s culture column in Ottawa Magazine and follow her on Twitter @fateemasayani

Mike Dubue sits at the piano. Photo by Rémi Thériault.

After many years and three albums of dancing around the subject, Mike Dubue, the front man for the band Hilotrons has released a new album that more openly discusses his complicated head space.

The album is called At Least There’s Commotion! It comes out on 180-gram vinyl, CD, and digitally February 5 on Kelp Records.

Over 11 tracks, Dubue, 35, relays difficulties of head and heart, delivered in that syncopated, manic, Talking Heads-style familiar from previous Hilotrons albums.

Other tracks on the album are more sullen and crooning. That contrast is best displayed on tracks six and seven, titled “She Knows My Condition (Part 1)” and “She Knows My Condition (Part 2).” Part one is five minutes of longing and lamenting with brief pop interludes. He sings: “I know something about living in my own prison. I try to keep up above the water with you.” Part two is hyperbolic. It starts with a scream, and then bursts into a minute-and-a-half of operatic pop about said condition.

The musical ups and downs are just one tool of telling for this concept album about borderline personality disorder (BPD).

“It’s all about certain situations that families, friends, and lovers have to engage with when dealing with borderline personality disorder,” Dubue says.

The Mayo Clinic describes BPD as a mental health disorder that “generates significant emotional instability.” It leads to anger, impulsiveness, and frequent mood swings, the hospital staff says, in addition to an inability to stop self-destructive behaviour.

“Of all the mental health issues, borderline is something that can be cured, so to speak,” Dubue says. “It’s really unlearning negative behaviour and patterns and making changes. It’s a difficult thing to diagnose and a really difficult thing to deal with.”

Dubue says all the talk of madness coincided with the start of the album. “About two years ago when I started writing the first song on the record, I hit my threshold with my craziness. Since then, it’s been one giant leap to get better about my life,” he says, noting that the songwriting “coincided with real therapy.” “I was at a step in my life where I thought I was really going to kill myself. It was more than a cry for attention.”

Cries, urgency, and emergencies were through lines on a number of Hilotrons songs from the band’s back catalogue: Happymatic (2008), Bella Simone(2006) and a self-titled EP in 2003. With this album, Dubue has been speaking more directly about the contents of his noggin’.

Mike Dubue at the keyboards at the listening party at Shopify. He played four tracks from the Hilotrons' latest album. Photo by Ming Wu -

So, why speak about it now?

Dubue says the blanket approach to mental health issues in the media is far too broad to account for the complexities. It’s spoken about in black and white terms. “People are so quick to talk about mental illness, instead of identifying what we already know,” he says, qualifying that while he has informed opinions on the subject, he’s “no doctor.” “I only know what my own problems are. I’ve read books, and I have a therapist, and I deal with my own shit and that’s the best I know.”

Going forward, Dubue says he’s trying not to get “caught up in my own bullshit.” He and his girlfriend, Erin Flynn, station manager at CHUO FM, gave notice on their apartment and are hoping to head to Montreal, where Dubue can pursue gigs in film score composition, another passion of his. He’s hoping to revive the Hilotrons with a new set up as well.

The band played a farewell show last October, but it wasn’t the end of the band entirely, rather it was the end of the original lineup (Philip Shaw Bova, Damian Sawka, Mike Shultz, and Paul Hogan). Dubue says he will keep the name Hilotrons and continue to perform as a solo artist with a varying cast of guest artists, including experimental-electro guy Adam Saikaley.

“We have deconstructed the tunes,” Saikaley says. “We’ve talked about what is essential to have in each song and what we can play around with. It’s almost like a game of chess. Mike wants me to throw things at him in a live setting that he wouldn’t expect, and I have to be able to follow whatever direction he wants to take the set.”

It’s an idea that started to develop when Dubue played an improvised set at Saikaley’s Experimental Music series at Pressed Café last spring.

Over the years, Dubue has collaborated with a number of Ottawa and area musicians and many of them appear on this new album including Jeremy Fisher, Lynn Miles, and Sacha Gabriel. Dubue covered the song “Emergency” by Ottawa band Yellow Jacket Avenger and Dubue co-wrote the song “The Halifax Commotion” with YJA’s Geoffrey Pye.

The release of this new album marks the end of an association with Kelp Records, after the relationship between the label and Dubue soured last year.

Dubue plans to buy out the run of records from label owner Jon Bartlett, so he can sell them stage-side at shows. Dubue says he’s trying to get past the rift, but remains angry about being left out of decisions about the album’s promotion and a lack of communication. “I wanted control and he wanted control,” Dubue says. “If somebody wants to control any aspect of my art, yeah, I’m going to be pretty fucking difficult.” Dubue offers that Bartlett is “good at his job” and says that the entire conflict is silly and embarrassing. “He’s not this giant record label and I’m not a giant band and it shouldn’t be happening. I really feel cutting me off the way he did and not dealing with it is shooting himself in the foot if he wants a successful record,” Dubue says.

Bartlett wouldn’t respond to questions about the issue, but said, “We are putting out the album on Kelp and [doing] all the label stuff we can to promote the album. It is one of the best albums ever made in Ottawa, and we want people to know about it.”

The crowd at the Hilotrons listening party at Shopify. Mike Dubue told them sternly to stop talking while he was performing. People clapped in solidarity with Dubue.

Bartlett and Dubue confer through Flynn who acts as band manager. They’ve had success with the promo machine thus far. The song “Runaway Heart” debuted on Q on January 22, with host Jian Ghomeshi describing it as sounding “a little Tom Petty.” A series of videos for the songs, created by film outfit Southern Souls, has been bouncing around the internet and Kelp Records hosted a listening party for a packed guest-list only gathering of trendies at the Shopify employee lounge on York Street last night. Dubue played a few tunes for the crowd, but took issue with the label calling the show a record release, since he’s hosting a record release party at the Black Sheep Inn on Sunday.

Before the event, he took to Facebook to rant that:

1) “My event is better because it involves performing music from the new HILOTRONS record and new material… only a small ingredient requested of an album launch: a full live set of music.”

2) “The Mayor of Ottawa is not invited to The Blacksheep Inn event… but this is only because I am human.” (A reference to the official nature of the guest-list only event).

Dubue later apologized for angry outburst on Facebook, but maintains that the actual album launch is the show that’s open to the public at the Black Sheep Inn on Sunday.

“It’s taken more energy to be upset, so I’ve stopped being upset,” Dubue says. “I don’t care anymore. I’m going to have fun and do my thing. I’m going to release other records this year independently.

“I like the romantic idea of having a career gigging,” he says. “I can show up, there will be people there — not a ridiculous amount of people — just enough people that I can make a living doing that. That’s all I would want out of it. If I had high expectations, it would be that.”

The Hilotrons record release with Boyhood takes place Sunday at the Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield, 4 p.m., $10 advance.

Hilotrons frontman Michael Dubue will be spinning records at the Manx Pub on Elgin Street Monday night.