Prozzäk Still Partying Like It’s 1999!

Ah, 1999, a time when the world's population –now exceeding six billion– was hurtling towards the terrifying, heated and unstoppable end called Y2K. Just kidding, everything was totally fine but it was the year we got MySpace, Napster and Jar Jar Binks. Bruce Willis was seeing dead people, Neo was seeing the Matrix and Mr. Nearly First Gentleman of the United States was seeing a nation he had to apologize to for a certain stained dress he never wanted to see again.

1999 was also the year two little Canadian cartoon characters named Simon and Milo captured the hearts of a country by lamenting about how much it sucked to be them.  The characters were all over Much Music and, at their peak, perhaps could have had the most depressingly beautiful Saturday morning cartoon ever. Alas, we got The Secret Files of the Spy Dogs.

Simon and Milo, otherwise known as Prozzäk, otherwise known as Jay Levine and James Bryan McCollum, otherwise part of the Philosopher Kings, had just released Hot Show a few months before and the album was now climbing up the charts to an eventual Triple Platinum certification.  Not bad for a group that started out as one of those jokes you initially had to be in on to get but somehow goes viral and loved by the masses. Think of Simon and Milo as 1999’s version of Grumpy Cat without the fur or scowl. Actually, probably best you don’t think of them like that.

“Prozzäk was James and I riffing, drawing on our influences, making fun pop and expressing some real feelings lyrically,” Levine (Simon), tells Ottawa Life in the midst of the groups Forever 1999 tour.

McCollum (Milo) provides a bit more detail by relating that the group started “as a therapy session after a fist fight in Montreal" and that  they "got signed when our A & R heard a song we were pitching for Ace of Base.”

Yeah, “All That She Wants” / “I Saw the Sign” Ace of Base. Right from the start, nothing about Prozzäk has been predictable or typical, but, as the duo says, it’s always been a lot of fun.

The two reunited for what could have been a one off show at the Atomic Lollipop Festival in Toronto back in July of 2015 but the show sparked a new single leading to the Forever 1999 album released in January. Though the sound has matured with the passing of time, the nostalgia is still there and the characters are now looking for love in the social media age where one can simply swipe for a shot at romance.   

How do two cartoons pull off a live show? Well, you kind of have to see it to believe it but let’s just say Levine and McCollum work as a far more animated deadmau5 or Daft Punk.

A day before their show at Algonquin Commons Theatre, Levine and McCollum look back with Ottawa Life on their debut, their current tour and fill us in on just what Simon and Milo have been up to during their down time.

Ottawa Life: So, here we are going into a sort of nostalgic tour for a band that kind of started on a lark, right, when you two wrote “Europa” outside of The Philosopher Kings. How do you reflect upon the origins of the group now and developing those alternate personas?

Levine (Simon): For me, Simon was an excuse to express whatever feelings I had about love and heartache as an artist. Using a character allowed me to be even more honest about my cynicism regarding finding a soul mate and being frustrated in a band where I really wasn’t feeling the music or my place in it. Also, Prozzäk was a musical rebellion against the very high-brow and most often failed attempts at creating “intellectually” based music by the Philosopher Kings.

Hot Show was a huge release here. Given your other work at the time, did the success of the Prozzäk project catch you off guard at all and how did that dictate things musically for you both moving into the new millennium?

Jay: Yes I was shocked at its success when it first happened. Although I was so immersed in the day to day working with Sony and James on every possible innovative idea that I don’t think I noticed what the impact was. Attending our own show in the audience when Simon and Milo appeared on a giant screen that opened for Destiny’s Child at Kingswood was pretty damn cool though.

What went into the design of the animated characters Simon and Milo and how much input did you two have in that process?

Jay: We worked with a great illustrator name Scott Harder. I told him that Simon needs to be equally eager and sad and he should have no neck so he could constantly be floating to the beat of the music. That was a little harder to achieve than I realized but ideally Simon should have a constantly floating head moving from side to side when music is playing.

James: We came up with the names and general idea of the characters, and then worked with a brilliant illustrator, Scott Harder. Unfortunately he passed away before Hotshow was released, so he never got to see the animated videos and the impact of the characters on our fans.

Would you say the characters are at all reflective of your own personalities?

Jay: For me 100% . Milo was a comical hyper version of some personality clashes that James and I had at the time. Milo is not cynical, always eating right in a healthy way.. Where as Simon had a very strict yet unhealthy relationship with food. James had normal healthy attempts at relationships until he found “the one” and Jay had a vast series of debaucherous and slightly dangerous attempts at self affirmation followed by let downs and self loathing. (which equally unhealthy females find super hot-thankfully)

You’ve been called a “cartoon band” or “cartoon pop stars”. How did you feel about being given that moniker and did you feel people may have focused a little too much on the characters and not the music behind them?

Jay: I’m grateful for any recognition of art that I’ve created. I can’t know what aspects will affect people or not but it’s a privilege to have been heard/seen in any way in this life as a creative person.

James: We are an animated pop band, but perhaps that distracted some people from hearing the level of musicianship and songwriting Jay and I put into our music. Believe me, Aqua didn’t have a guitar solo like on "Sucks To Be You"! But really, Prozzäk is about Simon and Milo, and that should be the most important thing.

So, how did the reunion come about?

Jay: An article in Vice mag about us sparked a Toronto promoter of Atomic Lolipop to offer us a gig at that event. We were shocked to find four-thousand people crammed into the venue dressed like the characters and singing all the words. Amazing!

You guys played your first show in many years there. Was there any nerves going in on how the show would translate after so much time off stage?

Jay: I was terrified. All of the feels. I’m having more fun with it now!

Obviously you were missed as that show sold out quick. How did the reception there fuel not only the want to continue with more shows but, now, a new album?

Jay: Talking to the fans and learning the impact we had after all this time really inspired me and James to get in a room together and hammer out another album. I think we made something worth checking out this time.

What would you say Simon and Milo were doing during their time away from the spotlight?

Jay: Simon was on a very long spiritual journey. He finally found some peace among the The Puroik tribe of Arunachal Pradesh in the Indian Himalayas when one day in a nearby village that had internet, a passing youth showed him the Tinder app. Unfortunately he began a steady decline back into his old love addicted self and moved back to Toronto where he has been in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous for years and continues to be hopeless and alone.

James: Milo spent a lot of time in hot yoga classes, and refining his flamenco guitar in the hills of Andalusia.

Dance music has evolved much since the late ‘90s where here we are with EDM and Dubstep. How do you feel Prozzäk would have fit in had you started the band today?

James: Things have actually come around full circle, where dance music has been in the mainstream again. But we’ve always been a little left of centre and in today’s radio climate, that’s still the case.

You kicked things off with a great new single last year. How did “Forever 1999” come together? Gotta’ love the throwback in that title!

James: We were just blown away by the response to our reunion show, and that enthusiasm made it easy to get together and write again. And once Jay and I sat in a room, the songs came really naturally, like they always have with Prozzäk. This was the first time we made an album so that we could perform it for our fans though.

How do you feel the biz has changed since 1999?

James: Apple and Spotify are the gatekeepers today that record labels once were. In 1999, we also had huge support from Muchmusic and that platform has been replaced by Youtube. Shrinking revenue in the industry has led to more fear and less risk taking in general. But we kind of sit outside the norm in our parallel animated pop universe and hope our fans, old and new will find us there.

The characters, of course, don’t age, but how do you feel Milo and Simon adapt into these modern times of social media and political turmoil?

James: For every step forward for Simon with social media (connecting with fans), there’s two backwards (trying to navigate dating on Tinder). So not much change there. I do feel our message of inclusivity, acceptance and above all, love, is needed in today’s backwards political climate and a song like “Be As” is just as relevant today as it was back then.

What can not only your old audience but, also, new people coming at your music now expect from the band’s new work and coming stage shows?

James:  At this point, we appreciate what Prozzäk is to us and to our fans so the music can evolve but doesn’t abandon the sound that made us who we are. As for the show, it’s all about the fans bringing as much creativity and fun to the experience as we do to the stage. We expect cosplay, loud sing alongs and a damn good time together.