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Strange Disease: an oral history of Prozzäk

Jon Dekel

Before hologram Tupac stormed Coachella, and Gorillaz made it cool; before the Canrock revolution faded away, and the country’s music industrial complex couldn’t afford to take risks — there was Prozzäk.

A so-weird-it-couldn’t-possibly-be-true-but-it-is cartoon duo born out of a middling R&B act that went triple platinum in Canada, played stadiums, opened for Destiny’s Child and turned down its own Disney TV series before disappearing with little fanfare, only to return a decade later to sold-out shows. Below is their story, told by the men behind the characters, in their own words.

Cast of characters:

  • Jay Levine: singer; voice of Simon.
  • James McCollum: guitarist; voice of Milo
  • Jarvis Church: singer of the Philosopher Kings

Like all bizarre tales, Prozzäk has an equally mythical and absurd origin story. As the bassist and guitarist of successful pop-soul group the Philosopher Kings, Jay Levine and James McCollum spent the majority of the early to mid-'90s trying to make a living as a serious pop-minded act in Canada’s gruelling music scene. But, by 1998, Levine in particular had grown tired of the routine and was looking for a way out. One night, the evening before the band was due to perform for Montreal music television station MusiquePlus, Levine’s constant cynicism got under the skin of the taller, huskier McCollum.

Jay Levine: Me and James were the guys in the band that fought the most. We had this bizarre relationship where we didn't understand each other's humour. That night things got crazy. Punches were thrown, hearts were broken.

Jarvis Church: I don't remember that moment. I do remember when Jay punched James in the face and knocked him out. Jay said something, I don't remember what, and James wasn't having it and they went outside and he punched him out. They literally stepped outside, it was one of those deals.

James McCollum: The fight wasn't really about anything. He just knows how to get under my skin.

Levine: My humour is very —

McCollum: Cutting. You did not know when to stop.

Levine: I was not happy in the band so I had harsh humour. It wasn't directed at anyone but I was kind of a dick.

McCollum: Passive-aggressive.

Levine: The next day we had to play on Musique Plus and I had stitches and James' hand had a bruise on it.

McCollum: We had a band meeting and we're like, "OK, how're we going to work this out?" And so, as cheesy as it sounds, we said we're gonna try writing a song.

Levine: James and I had very different musical influences and tastes than everyone else in that band and we connected on that musically. We were into Manchester stuff, the Smiths and things like that, whereas the rest of the guys in the band were much more jazz-oriented so we connected to write some pop songs and doing what we really wanted to do.

McCollum: The first song was a pitch for Ace of Bass. We can't deny that. That ended up becoming our song "Europa."

Levine: That song was great because it proved we could write something simple and understandable and not —

McCollum: Too serious

Levine: Jazzy. The other thing was I had this silly impression of an aging British rock star that I used to do on the tour bus all the time.

McCollum: Which cracked us up for hours.

Levine: It was super dirty and disgusting. Simon isn't that guy exactly, but he started off pretty crazy and I had a major cynical humour about finding love. Mike Roth, our A&R guy at Sony, heard me do it in the studio once and was like, "You should do a project with that voice!" So the next time we went on tour he really enabled us to get some recording gear and we wrote the whole Hot Show album in the back of the Philosopher Kings tour bus.

Levine: We decided to make it a cartoon band and that was sort of radical for Sony and everyone at the time. It was right before the Gorillaz did it. We did it first.

McCollum: But they did it well.

Levine: It was the beginning of the internet so everyone was like, "Let's do something that's a little disruptive." We presented it to Sony like, "This is going to be a cartoon band." And they were all like, "Really?!" and everyone's wheels started turning. They all got behind it [eventually]. Those early videos were pretty expensive to make.

McCollum: A friend of Jay's, Scott Harder, helped draw the initial characters and then we worked with the head of Sony’s video department, who was this wiz kid in his early 20s. There was a whole team between Toronto, L.A. and South Korea that created all that animation.

Levine: We had the whole label behind us. We would go there every day and we'd work with the video people and the marketing people. It was a very special time. I don't know if that happens anymore.

In forming their characters, Levine and McCollum created hyper versions of their personalities and physicalities.

Levine: Even though it's presented with some sarcasm, Simon is an excuse for me to be super honest.

McCollum: He needed a sidekick to help balance his mood and so we came up with Milo. A hyper-version of who I wanted to be: a super-buff Austrian guy who's all healthy and supportive of Simon.

In November 1998, Prozzäk’s debut album, Hot Show, was released and the pair was introduced to the world through a series of animated short films specially tailored for the music video generation. Hot Show’s anime-inspired plot played out like an emo, science-fiction Blues Brothers: Simon and Milo were old rivals that were brought together by a Great Unseen Voice with the mission of finding true love through music.

The scheme worked and, seemingly overnight, Prozzäk overtook Philosopher Kings in popularity. For the duo — who were still in the band — the sudden success and anonymity made for confusing, anxious times with their longtime bedfellows.

Levine: The first time Prozzäk hit the charts we were in a Regina parking lot sleeping in the tour bus. We got a call from our manager being like, "You guys are number 11 on the Billboard charts!" We were like, "What the hell is a Billboard chart?" In Philosopher Kings we'd never heard of it.

Church: It wasn't a secret that they were doing Prozzäk. We all knew about it. We weren't weird about it at all, we were weird about other stuff.

McCollum: I don't think the rest of the band knew what to think. Definitely by the time it came out people got really jealous.

Church: Tension? No not really. Not everybody in the band is a fan of the music Prozzäk does, and that's just an age thing. Prozzäk was specifically done for younger kids, and it was kinda tongue-in-cheek. We were very serious, we were all about deep, serious music. Everybody respected the project and respected the success they had with it.

Levine: We were definitely concerned about not being too gloat-y with the rest of the band.

Church: Prozzäk sold way more than Philosopher Kings ever did. They were three-times platinum on their biggest album; we were one-times platinum. It's just a different kind of thing, it was more intense. Our thing was a little bit more ... it wasn't as gimmicky. The good news is they still play our music on the radio 20 years later. That's one of the pros of going down that road.

Levine: People in the band had things going on: Gerland [Church] and Brian [West] were working on Nelly Furtado, John had a solo project he was excited about.

Related: An oral history of the night Nelly Furtado was discovered

McCollum: On my end the Philosopher Kings always had a five-year success plan. If we didn't have global domination within five years we'd give it up because we all wanted to do all these other projects anyway. I think Prozzäk blew up towards the end of that and it kind of sped up the process.

Levine: I was never happy musically in [Philosopher Kings]. I was always wanting to get out of that. I loved the guys but it wasn't musically what I wanted to do so [when Prozzäk became successful] I jumped ship first and pretty easily.

Church: I remember just a lot of excitement, especially for Jay. He was a little bit frustrated in his role as bass player in the Philosopher Kings and wanted something more centre. Prozzäk gave him that so he was really excited about it. And we were happy 'cause he was happy.

Backed by the financial and marketing might of Sony, Prozzäk’s videos came in heavy rotation on MuchMusic, which drove sales of Hot Show to triple-platinum status — a rare occurrence for a Canadian band, real or animated.

McCollum: It just blew up. It was quite surreal. We'd been busting our asses for years in the van and finally tour bus. But because the videos were always on MuchMusic, and that's what everyone was watching at the time, that just made a huge impact. I didn't really appreciate it until we finally went on tour for the second album and put together this massive arena, Kiss-style show. For the first album we did do a couple raves but we weren't onstage. We created a video show with the cartoon characters and we actually opened up for Destiny's Child at Canada's Wonderland.

Levine: We were in the audience watching our own show. No one knew it was us, which was so weird.

McCollum: It felt like being the Wizard of Oz, which was kinda cool.

Levine: I didn't want to perform. It wasn't my thing. At the time I was the bass player in the Philosopher Kings, I didn't really like going out onstage so much so I thought it was great. But then it got so big that it would have been insane not to do it.

McCollum: I also love playing so I may have been pushing it.

Riding high on Hot Show’s success, the duo used a real studio — and all the requisite trickeries — to record its followup. Released in 2000, Saturday People featured the hit “www.nevergetoveryou,” but the rise of the internet led to a sales downturn across the board, and the album only went gold.

McCollum: We did it at Sony, where they had an in-house studio and a rehearsal room. We were there constantly. I have to say, looking back, we did have that second album pressure.

Levine: In retrospect it did really well.

McCollum: I remember making it, we took on the role of producers more, wanting to put 100 tracks on a song.

Levine: The sophomore dilemma: wait, why did this first thing work and let's try to figure out the reason why I did. We didn't think about anything with the first album, we were just being creative. With the second one, we tried to write for our fans so we wrote about raves and stuff. Although we still managed to have four or five songs on there that are super genuine to me.

Despite diminishing sales, live demand for the group remained and they set about touring Canadian arenas, playing inside large figures of their characters.

Levine: It was a lot about getting over shyness. The lyrics go super fast in Prozzäk songs. You have to be on and synced with the screen. If a regular band messes up a lyric, probably no one's going to notice and they can just keep going but I literally have to match the cartoon. It was pretty nerve-wracking for me. And we were playing the Saddledome!

McCollum: The first band I loved was Kiss so I always dreamed of doing something epic. We finally got to use lasers and pyro and we had these massive heads of Simon and Milo built out of super heavy-duty foam. They were extremely expensive and very heavy. Since then we've come up with a better design.

Levine: There were so many nerves that it's hard to pause and appreciate that. I'm having more fun with the tours now. It's not about getting to the hits, it's about those kids who were 15 back then and now are in their mid-30s. Turns out we meant something to them, which we didn't realize 'til about two years ago.

The tour culminated in an infamous performance at the 2000 Juno Awards, where the band was nominated for its second album of the year award.

Levine: It was fun. That's a surreal memory. I barely remember being onstage. I've seen footage of it and I remember after. Though I do seem to remember that Alanis Morissette and the Backsteet Boys were in the front row.

With Saturday People out in Canada, the group turned its attention to its bigger southern neighbour.

McCollum: We developed a Prozzäk TV show with Disney at some point. It didn't work out. They wanted us to make it for eight-year-olds.

Levine: We got signed to Hollywood Records in the States, which is an offshoot of Disney, and they wanted to put Saturday People and Hot Show into one album and then put out a TV show. Then they were like, "You can't say it sucks to be you" and I'm like, "Well that's our hit song!"

McCollum: It was a lesson learned.

Levine: In retrospect I would have said it's insane. They thought cartoon equals six-year-olds but "Strange Disease" and "Sucks to be You" are not for six-year-olds. That's why it worked in Canada but they didn't get that. It's the classic thing that would happen when Disney steps in.

The group put out a third album, Cruel Cruel World, in 2005. Released on indie label MapleMusic, it featured a bleaker sound and design.

Levine: We developed Fefe Dobson and she had a hit in the U.S so I moved to New York and started really getting into the indie stuff there.

McCollum: The Strokes were big at that time and we both were loving that kind of stuff so we thought, if we're going to do another Prozzäk record we wanted it to sound a little different. I really like the album but we second-guessed the character design. We thought we better update it because it's the new millennium but we realized you can't really mess with characters that people love. That's something we've learned since.

Levine: Though I still like a lot of stuff on that album. It was a super honest piece of work.
The cover of Prozzak's 2005 album, Cruel Cruel World.
McCollum: Also, by that time, MuchMusic wasn't as supportive or important and that was our first indie record so we didn't have as much muscle as we did on the first albums.

Levine: And we knew that but we had something to say creatively.

McCollum: Ever since I was a kid I wanted to make music in London. Jay had already left and we were already working in different cities so I figured this was my chance for that adventure. As I knew at some point I'd have to do it so I ended up doing a lot of writing and recording with a guy there called Martin Terefe, who does a lot of acoustic pop acts: Jesse J, Jason Mraz, James Blunt.

McCollum: We never officially broke up, we were just doing other stuff.

In the subsequent decade, Prozzäk became a musical footnote for a generation transitioning to life in a new millennium, and the members wrote it off as a fun — if surreal — moment in their respective careers. But with time comes nostalgia, and with nostalgia comes nostalgia articles. In late 2014, a reporter from Vice called the duo up for one such piece.

Levine: Nick Laughter wrote this piece in Vice about Prozzäk and from that there was a festival in Toronto called Atomic Lollipop and they wanted to hire us. James told me about it and I wasn't really sure. I was worried no one was going to show up.

McCollum: It was such a cool festival: a mix of ComiCon and DJs. So if we were going to do a comeback I thought that would be the perfect opportunity.

Levine: 4,000 people showed up. Literally all the clichés happened: the fire marshal came in and told us to stop.

McCollum: We got inspired.
Levine: People dressed like the characters. Girls and boys cosplaying, telling us that we inspired them to not do something stupid at 15 or that we were the reason they came out of the closet. I started to believe that we did something meaningful to some people.

McCollum: We were like, OK, we gotta start making music again. So we started bouncing around ideas back and forth and now we have a whole album that we love called Forever 1999.

McCollum: Looking back, I think of Prozzäk as one of the best musical experiences I ever had. You never know which things are going to blow up. I appreciate it on a whole other level now.

Forever 1999 is out March 31. Pre-order it here.