I am riding in the back of a van being ferried from Montréal’s airport to my hotel along with three French booking agents and a Finnish man who sounds like a Pentecostal Sean Connery. Like most airport to city journeys, the drive is pretty uneventful—a mass of industrialized areas and low class housing, deserted wastelands and dangerous dark alleys. But unlike American cities that call out to you like a siren, their big shiny boxes beckoning you inwards from afar, Montréal, like European cities, creeps up on you (even more so when you get stuck in a combination of construction work and rush hour traffic). Sure, it has skyscrapers, but for this drive they are discreet and hidden—much like the best sections of the city.
Montréal may sit a mere 37 miles north of the American border and, for me, a short 90-minute flight from Philadelphia, yet the former Canadian capital really is a world away. Signs and instructions come in French and English. And while there is a definite language barrier, it’s one that goes up and down with relative ease. My French is rudimentary and starts and stops with pleasantries and the ordering of beverages, but most French-speaking people in Montréal can speak better-enunciated English than myself and will regularly rescue me from conversational miscues throughout my visit.
M for Montréal - Leonard Cohen Eats There
(20 Nov 2008: Montréal, Canada)
Ahead of me lays three-days and 24 bands. During this time I will see groups play typically unfashionable genres of music with unabashed glee. I will also see four bands on the same bill utilize the same plea for a participatory audience handclap and the audience members, the very same ones for each band, will approach each call with a fevered, almost religious, response. I will also see a slew of Canadians in cowboy hats (a large crew of Calgary Stampeders supporters are in town for the country’s big football final), the inside of a bar called Korova bedecked with more moose heads than Sarah Palin’s house, and a grand, panoramic view of the city from the top of Mount Royal.
“This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window…”
A day after my arrival, I find myself standing in the Museum of Contemporary Art located in Montréal’s Place des Arts—a brutalist grey brick building that sits on rue Sainte-Catherine opposite a restaurant called Eggspectation—watching a video installation by conceptual artist Dan Graham that compares rock and roll with religion. Using Patti Smith’s infamous “rock is religion” trope as a jumping off point, Graham explores the similarities between the two, drawing parallels between the fanaticism found in both. It’s a sound thesis, especially for a church and venue-filled city such as Montréal. Nicknamed the “City of Saints,” Montréal has always been known for its places of worship, yet lately it’s the city’s musical exports that have been receiving all the heavenly praise. Back in 1881, Mark Twain wrote that you couldn’t throw a brick in Montréal without breaking a church window. Over a hundred years later, you can’t throw a drumstick into a crowd without hitting a musician.
Graham’s footage is part of a larger exhibit titled Sympathy for the Devil, which explores the relationship between art and music over the past 40 years. The exhibit is split into six geographic categories—New York, the United Kingdom, Continental Europe, America’s Mid West, America’s West Coast, and, oh, yeah, the Rest of the World. This is what Montréal is up against: A rock and roll exhibit featuring, as far as I can tell, no local examples and just one Canadian, Neil Young (who most people think is American anyway). Yet, aside from Leonard Cohen, Montréal—and I might anger people here—has very little musical history. Sure, lots of artists have called the city home, but unlike Manchester and New York in the early ‘80s, or San Francisco and London in the ‘60s, it hasn’t been defined by longevity or heritage.
Despite this historic hurdle, Montréal has made a name for itself as a current musical hotbed and M for Montréal, a three-day event aimed at exporting local bands to international markets, is attempting to capitalize on this. They are doing so by inviting festival promoters, advertising agents, and members of the media from around the world (tactfully called “tastemakers”) to a well-oiled musical bacchanal complete with drink-filled schmoozing sessions, group dinners, and city tours. The organizers, it seems, don’t just want us to listen to the bands, but also understand the city and the region that births them.
In many ways M for Montréal is a lot like any normal music festival—long nights coupled with early wake up calls culminating in sleep-deprived delegates. Yet the early morning escapades aren’t to rush out and catch a band’s noontime showcase as you would at say SXSW, instead they are to play a bingo-fied version of breakfast blind date (each delegate attending was given a number that was then pulled out of a hat and you had to speak for five minutes to whoever you were paired with), attend industry panels, or climb on a yellow Canadian school bus for a city tour. And, like the city itself, there’s diversity, not only to our escapades, but also to the music on display—an eclecticism that seems to permeate every pore of everyone living here.
Started in 2006 by Englishman Martin Elbourne—a booker for Glastonbury—and Montréal resident Sebastien Nasra—a wiry, excitable fellow with constant coating of Homer Simpson-style stubble—M for Montréal has grown exponentially since its inception. As well as becoming a touring force (the last two SXSW’s have featured an M for Montréal showcase) the festival’s crew also curates a series of monthly “mini-M’s” at Quai des Brumes, a small, wood-paneled bar on the hip, restaurant-lined rue Saint-Denis.
This year, the festival has expanded its catchment area to include Toronto and the greater Quebecois region. It is an apt move. According to Google, Montréal’s music scene apparently peaked three years ago. Every time I search for some semblance or overview of the city’s musical background, I am transported back to 2005; the year that most feature-length articles declaring the scene as “happening” were published. Surprisingly, despite Montréal’s overtly Francophone status—over 60% of the population speaks French as their first language—it’s the Anglophone bands that dominate these articles, bands with decidedly English overtones (the Arcade Fire’s Springsteen-isms, Wolf Parade’s Modest Mouse infused indie-rock, and The Dears’ take on Britpop). But while a quick Google search might imply that the scene has plateaued, M for Montréal is evidence that the city is a musical petri dish still capable of culturing musicians on a regular basis. And while cities don’t create “scenes”, they can foster them. This is especially true of Montréal, as cheap rents, government incentives, and the cold winters all combine to keep the city artistically fertile.
It wasn’t always this way though. Back in the 1940s, Montréal was apparently a bleak place for artists, with a frustrating Catholic Church and a corrupt government making it difficult for anyone to sustain a creative life. This all began to change in 1948 when local artist, Paul-Emile Borduas called for a “resplendent anarchy” and (influenced by Andre Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto) composed his own anti-religion and anti-establishment manifesto entitled Le Refus Global. Translated as Total Refusal, this movement led to a meeting of similar minds and the nucleus of an artistic and creative community that would help Montréal grow into what it has become today.
Walking around the main part of town, though, it’s obvious that the city is still evolving. Construction work can be seen on nearly every street corner as the City of Saints tries to cover up its seedy underbelly (religion may reign supreme, yet for every church, there’s a handful of strip clubs). Propositioned as the most telling change is the controversial gentrification and redevelopment of the city’s Latin Quarter, otherwise known as Quartier des Spectacles. Envisioned as a cultural center for events and festivals, the area will benefit from several new buildings and additions that will spruce up the area, replacing peep shows in the process.
This revitalization, according to Montréal’s mayor, Gerald Tremblay, will help the city “hoist itself to the very first ranks of cities in the world of culture,” yet, on paper and in person, Montréal is already a cultural destination. Aside from M for Montréal (the up and coming newborn pup), the city also hosts Pop Montréal (an annual music festival featuring over 400 acts), the Montréal International Jazz Festival (which attracts over 2 million visitors), and Just for Laughs (the largest comedy festival in the world).
It is the latter of these three cultural giants that plays host to the first two nights (Thursday and Friday) of M for Montréal. Located conveniently across the road from my hotel—the minimalistic, boutique-y Opus—Just for Laughs (a venue named after the comedy festival it is famous for), is filled to capacity each night as members of the public join the 60 or so delegates in attendance. We are shepherded expertly, via PA announcements, between the venue’s two main rooms, meaning we don’t miss a thing. It’s a seamless operation with perhaps ten minutes between bands on alternating stages. Over the course of the first two nights we see 13 acts that range in style and talent, but a common denominator is passion, desire, and a thorough belief in what they are doing, even if some groups leave a nasty residue in my taste-making mouth.
The rest of the festival takes place at a variety of venues. We see an impromptu showcase in the small, upstairs room of a bar called St. Sulpice as part of an M for Martini schmoozing session. Saturday afternoon’s showcase takes place at the venerable Les Foufounes Électriques, an imposing mass of metal and wood that played host to Nirvana’s first ever Montréal performance, while the festival’s closing show—which features more established acts—takes place at Métropolis. Of all the venues, Métropolis, with its plush balconies and ornate and intricate molding, is the most majestic. (It’s also the only venue I see with Champagne on its menu listed next to the beer.) Built as a skating rink in 1884, the venue suffered several fires and housed theatre productions, movies, and porn, before becoming a concert venue in 1997. Its 2,300-person capacity is filled to the brim to close out the festival, highlighting how far M for Montréal has progressed in three short years.