In 1999, the recording industry was riding high. With record revenues, labels were willing to throw cash at just about anything – including a cartoon band from Toronto fronted by a neckless sadsack and a buff Austrian guitarist.
Prozzäk's dancey debut album, Hot Show, went triple platinum in Canada. MuchMusic gave endless play to its two big singles, Sucks to Be You and Strange Disease, imprinting them on the minds of millions. They earned four Juno Award nominations, falling behind only Alanis Morissette. The band might have looked like a gimmick – it was a gimmick – but in the music industry's greatest year, it was one of Canada's biggest breakthroughs.
And the industry, and Prozzäk, faded away. As file sharing shattered the music business's CD-centric foundation, the band released another single and album to much less fanfare, then quietly dissolved. The party was over for both.
On Saturday, the band reunites on stage for the first time in 15 years at a Toronto convention that celebrates nostalgia for the precise era that cemented their infamy. In the interim, it turns out it didn't suck to be Prozzäk. While the music industry never recovered from the Internet's scourge, the real-life minds behind the characters Simon and Milo turned their knack for infectious pop songs into second careers as songwriters and producers. Gimmick or not, the story of Jay Levine and James Bryan teaches a valuable lesson: Even when you're behind a cartoon mask, good pop speaks volumes.
"My whole career," Levine says, "is based on the fact that I had that win with Prozzäk."
The reunion will take place at Atomic Lollipop, an interactive fan convention at the Ontario Science Centre that embraces pop culture from unconventional perspectives. Nostalgia, particularly for the nineties, is the glue that holds it together – there's also a nineties cartoon burlesque show, an Elijah Wood DJ set and a Hello Kitty-Samurai Pizza Cats erotic fan-fiction competition.
"If you were growing up before the Internet, there was a much smaller pool of entertainment for everyone to experience," says Elliot Coombe, one of the convention's co-ordinators. "People ended up having shared common experiences. Everyone saw videos on MuchMusic."
As a cartoon band, Prozzäk thrived in this Much-made monoculture. The timing couldn't have been more perfect; the station soon traded videos for lifestyle programming, and the arrival of Gorillaz in 2001 made other cartoon bands look as if they were aping their style. "Everyone looked for new and interesting ways to take advantage of the video era," Levine says.
The band's brief history began around 1998, when Levine and Bryan, then members of the Philosopher Kings, got into a fist fight the night before a MusiquePlus show in Montreal. They can't remember what spurred it, but Levine remembers being cocky and probably egging it on. To settle their differences, they tried writing together for the first time. The sessions produced Europa, a euro-pop song built on the pair's mutual interest in British music, with Levine singing in a British accent he'd often used for impressions to pass time on tour. Soon the two were spending endless hours at the back of the Philosopher Kings bus writing.
The songs were the opposite of the music they played in their usual band: joyous, jokey, upbeat pop, instead of serious, jazzy R&B. They called themselves Prozzäk, Bryan says, because the songs were "a musical anti-depressant." Bryan and Levine took the songs to Sony, who signed them to its Epic imprint. Because of the accent Levine used, presenting the band as themselves wouldn't have worked – so they pitched a cartoon. Sony, the pair says, bought in without hesitation. Levine became Simon, the lovelorn wanderer; Bryan became Milo, his guitar-playing sidekick with a vague Austrian accent. "I'm terrible at impressions," Bryan says, "so the only one I could half-do is a fake Arnold Schwarzenegger."
Sony put out Hot Show in 1998, and by the next year, on the strength of the videos for Sucks to Be You and Strange Disease, Prozzäk was a phenomenon. Behind the cartoon veil, the songs were profoundly earnest. The euro-pop appropriation came from an honest place and Levine's lyrics were deeply personal. "All the stuff about not being able to find a girl sounds funny, but was actually very true for me," he says. (Since then, he adds, his love life has been great.)
At the same time, global record sales slowed down and music videos stopped being lucrative; Enthusiasm for Prozzäk dwindled as quickly as it exploded. The band's 2000 followup, Saturday People, only went gold, despite the strength of lead single www.nevergetoveryou. To the public eye, the band then effectively disappeared, save for a barely promoted third record, Cruel Cruel World, released in 2005. "Simon and Milo wanted to retire," Bryan says. "Simon had a bit of a breakdown getting lost in central Asia. Milo wanted to focus on his health-supplement business."
But by then, Bryan and Levine had spun off their success. As Prozzäk blew up, they decided to apply their creative chemistry to write for others. They formed a production company, Lefthook Entertainment – named after the punch that brought them together – and started penning songs for the likes of B4-4 (says Bryan: "Who else could have come up with Get Down?") and both wrote and produced for Fefe Dobson. Life on the road with the Philosopher Kings was fine when they were in their 20s, but Prozzäk gave Bryan and Levine second acts as songwriters and producers. "You can talk about a one-hit wonder, but we've been in the business 20 years, and at this point, we can really appreciate how great it is to get a hit," Bryan says.
After a few projects, he and Levine went separate ways. Bryan moved to London, working in a studio complex alongside the likes of Max Martin and Paul Epworth, and has worked with artists including Nelly Furtado and the Backstreet Boys. Levine moved to New York, and then Los Angeles, where he develops artists, writes and produces.
After a Vice interview last year brought them back into the spotlight, Atomic Lollipop reached out with a reunion offer. They bit. When Bryan visited Los Angeles last month and began practising with Levine for the reunion, it was the first time they'd seen each other in a decade. Life after Prozzäk had kept them busy.
The band only ever did one proper tour, in 2000, augmented by a historic Junos appearance where they performed on giant podium versions of their cartoon heads. Those heads disappeared some time in the past 15 years, and while Bryan has issued a public call to find them, Atomic Lollipop has promised replicas for Saturday's concert.
At a festival dominated by nostalgia, Prozzäk will be the centrepiece. Now that YouTube dominates media, resuscitating the music video, a cartoon band no longer seems like an absurd proposition. The band's success, though, can be chalked up to more than just format, Levine says.
"Now that I've been living in the U.S. for 12 years, I think there's a very a profound, but subtle, difference in the Canadian sense of humour. … Gorillaz were super-cool, cooler than us, but Simon had this honest, sad, thing, and it was unique," Levine says. "And I'd like to think we wrote some good songs."
Prozzäk performs Saturday at 10 p.m. on the Atomic Lollipop main stage at the Ontario Science Centre. atomiclollipop.com.