The distinction between independent success and mainstream superstardom isn't defined by a fine line so much as by an immense chasm. There have been a few bands to bridge this gulf, but most end up as one-hit wonders. The rest are briefly adored by the public, then given backhanded compliments about how "their older stuff was amazing" while their new releases are passed over in favour of the inevitable greatest hits album.
Enter Matthew Barber, Ontario's latest offering to the pitiless world of major label hopes and minor label cred. His 2003 debut on Paperbag Records provided the latter. A sharp collection of mostly melancholy roots rock, Means and Ends built a steady buzz in the Toronto scene, culminating with Barber taking the cover of Now magazine.
Mainstream superstardom may be a bit trickier, but Barber is on his way.
Warner is already distributing his new EP, The Story of Your Life, to consistently positive reviews. Your very own Gauntlet described it as "simultaneously radio and music snob-friendly" and the Calgary Sun claims Barber "seems destined to be the next big thing on the Canadian pop scene."
All that positive press can only lead to good things, right?
"You kind of need some mainstream interest before you can actually start playing fun, big rock shows, which I would say is still a goal," Barber acknowledges. "We've still got a long way to go. We're still just playing in the clubs and sometimes only 50 people show up. But then, every now and then you get one where a lot of people show up, and you just wish it could be like that every night."
Trouble is, whenever mainstream fans come calling, the indie crowd tends to disown an artist. "Sell-out" is practically a mating call for these people. Barber is well aware of this fickleness, but it doesn't seem to scare him.
"I know that a lot of the people in the indie crowd generally have better taste in music," he laughs. "I mean, they generally have bigger music collections and actually know some of the history. So if you can be appreciated by that crowd, it says that you've pulled your weight in the tradition in enough of a way that people are going to give you respect.
"But it's nice to be appreciated by a more mainstream crowd too, because it lets you play to more people. It's so much more fun to play to a couple hundred people than 50 people, and would probably be even more fun to play to 1,000 people."
Tradition is definitely important to Barber. The singer--who got his start playing open mic shows in the Kingston area--has been listening to classic rock since grade school. Tracking down the bands that inspired his personal favourites was an essential part of his listening experience, even if a lot of current bands don't share that sentiment.
"From my personal preferences, I think it's very important," Barber admits. "But I wouldn't lord that over another band if they had influences from just the last two years. I think they could still potentially make really cool music.
"For me, I'm just a music fan. And as a fan, I think you want to explore the bands that were the precursors. If there were some bands in the early '90s that you were really into, chances are they were listening to the bands in the late '80s, and they were listening to bands in the '70s. It's fun to follow the chain and trace it back a little bit further, but I don't think you have to be a good band."
The opportunity for success is definitely there. Last year's surprising rise of Sam Roberts opened the door for historically-conscious Canadian rock. Toronto bands like Broken Social Scene and Barber's personal favourites, The Constantines, are gaining ground in the United States and beyond.
So does Barber see a Can-Con revolution on the way?
"It's hard for me to compare it to any other time, because this is really the only time I've been a working Canadian musician, but it seems like as good a time as any," he shrugs. "The opportunities are there for anyone who gets a bit of a break and goes with it and works hard. I've been pretty impressed with the steps I've managed to take in about a year of playing live."
With Warner's backing and a bit of luck, Barber is primed for the mainstream. Thankful as he is for his current fans, Barber's eager to play to an ever-larger audience. He's managed to build a steady buzz on the strength of his music alone.